We had suffered so much loss at the hands of the gray skins, but we would soon have our chance to bring them to justice. The final battle was coming and everything was riding on us, but were we up to the task?
A very big thanks to Zapper, Beyogi, Loki & Maggie Finson for providing valued input and assistance editing this story. Another big thank you to all those who participated in the following blogs Requesting help with a name for a race of aliens... and Questions about a human hair bracelet of all things. Although all participants in the former thread were very helpful (well, really both threads), I feel I need to thank Rasufelle and Elizabeth Jean both for their suggestions as those two inspired the final name for the Phyrr Lesch the most.
All my senses were screaming that we'd just walked into a trap and if I didn't act, we were all going to die. So I leapt to my feet and lunged at the woman, locking one arm around her neck and with the other I rested my pistol against her temple.
"I don't know what the hell is going on here, but I want answers. Who the hell are you?!"
The woman tried to break free from my grip, but she didn't have near enough strength. I squinted against a sudden influx of illumination as all of the woman's companions trained their lights and weapons on me, but my eyes adjusted in mere seconds.
"I'm Mara Briggs."
God she even sounded like Mara! "Wrong answer!" I growled forcing her away from her companions. "I was there when Mara died. I checked her lifeless corpse for signs of life. Hell, I even helped bury her. Why don't you try again and tell me who the fuck you really are?"
The faux-Mara tried to push herself away again, but my grip was like iron. "You're with the resistance then?"
I didn't answer, but the impostor seemed more than willing to talk for the both of us. "I know this must be confusing for you, but the Mara Briggs who stayed on Earth was a clone. I am too, the original, died during the war."
"Why should I believe you?"
"We're with the Earth Reclamation Fleet. We're the ones who sent the message; we're here to implement the plan to retake Earth."
I felt my resolve begin to buckle. The United Earth Defense Fleet had used clones during the war. It wasn't that unlikely that the E.R.F. would use clones too. I loosened my grip and let faux-Mara slip free, but kept my weapon trained on her as she spun around to face me. She didn't look angry as I had expected, but her features were soft and her eyes wide as she looked me over.
"Rebecca?" she turned to her companions and held her hand up. "Lower your weapons!"
I grimaced, my new form did bare a passing resemblance to my sister as you might expect from siblings, but the differences were obvious to anyone who had seen the both of us. This wannabe-Mara, assuming she was telling the truth, would only have memories of my sister as a child. Was it any wonder she'd mistaken me for my sister? "The name's Lexa. Becca is my sister."
"Lloyd and Muriel had another daughter? So they lived through the invasion."
"Not exactly." I shook my head looking around the empty street. What if a patrol ship passed overhead and spotted the lights? "Why don't we take this inside? I'd rather not draw any undue attention."
Dupli-Mara nodded, and signaled her subordinates to follow as we made our way back to the house. I stopped her just in front of the door. "I'll warn you now, you're presence here may not be very well received. I'm not the only member of my group who remembers Mara's death. Keep your friends outside. You can bring one or two of them up, if you're concerned for your safety, but it's bound to get a little crowded if they all come along."
She nodded and held her hand up to the men. They stopped in the middle of the yard and not a single one of them moved to follow her in to the house. Six took up guard around the door, and formed a half-circle around it. The remaining five guards circled around the building presumably to take up watch on the other side. My fingers twitched a bit watching them, particularly since our experiences with the Nesters, but I doubted they'd be much trouble since the weapons they were carrying were all phase-based.
She nodded, her eyes widening as she got her first real look into my eyes and I turned away leading her up the stairs where the others were waiting. I hesitated before taking the stairs, glanced back at Mara and shook my head. I stepped up from the final step and Lily was the first on her feet to greet us.
Lily gasped and brought her hand up to cover her mouth. "M-Mara? Good lord, h-how is this possible?
"Mara?" Becca asked. "As in aunt Mara? Didn't you say she was dead?"
"She says she's a clone." I grimaced and glanced back at her. "She knew about the message from the E-R-F. I think she's who we're supposed to meet."
"Mara," I paused and held my hand out to my sister "This is Becca."
"Rebecca dear, you don't know how good it is to see you after all these years," Mara said staring at my sister with a gentle smile on her face. "It was so hard for me to leave Earth knowing that your parents and you would be forced to remain."
Becca didn't look like she was quite sure what to say. She smiled and nodded at Mara and shrugged at me as if hoping I could give her some direction. I cleared my throat and turned to my aunt's clone. "This is Lily, she's our tech expert. She's gotten us out of some tough scrapes with her knowledge and experience."
Mara nodded and her gaze seemed to linger on her eyes. She pursed her lips and turned to look on Neada who was standing a bit back from the others and looked pretty uncomfortable. "This, is Janet Neada, a Nester."
"Nester? I remember that term; it was mentioned during your initial contact." Mara raised an eyebrow and glanced at me. "I watched a recording of the original message."
"We're separate from the resistance. We've managed to keep our culture and traditions alive by remaining hidden from the gray skins," Janet stepped forward and held her hand out to Mara.
"Fascinating," Mara smiled and shook Neada's hand. "We didn't anticipate that a separate faction would arise."
"And you Lexa," Mara continued turned back to me. "You both look so much like your mother and your father I can see a bit of him in you both. Tell me what's become of your parents? And young Jellfree? He wassuch a bright young boy."
"Our parents are dead," I bit my lip and glanced at my sister. "As for Jellfree, he's-- well it's pretty complicated, but you're looking at him... her. It's a really long story."
"I suppose if it's a long tale. It may be one better told another time." Mara raised an eyebrow and stared at me with a thoughtful expression before turning to the rest of the group. "Well now, we've come a long way. I'm sure you have a lot of questions."
"You could say that again," I glanced around the room. "But I'd rather discuss things somewhere a little more secure. I don't want to take any risks. You never know who might be listening in in a rat hole like this. New Anaheim may have been left abandoned by the Qharr, but that doesn't mean they don't have eyes and ears in its decaying ruins."
She nodded. "Point taken. Perhaps you could suggest a more fitting location?"
"Back at our ship."
Mara studied me, and pursed her lips. She looked ready to object, but instead she smiled and held her hand out. "Show me the way."
"Now about that complicated story of yours," Mara said glancing back at me as we made our way through the ruins. "We have a long walk ahead of us, it seems like a good time to tell it as any."
I closed my eyes and let out a long sigh before I turned to her. "You first. Failing some complicated ruse put on by the gray skins, you obviously haven't been on Earth all this time. Tell me how you got past the shield grid around Earth and the network of defenses."
"The Rhiannon device," she said. "It's an experimental leap drive that can jump within centimeters of the intended destination from light years away. It's the only way we could have leapt through the shields and survived. Normally, when you leap you will often arrive significant distance away from the destination, say several kilometers, it's not usually an issue when you're traveling over long distances through the emptiness of space, but when you're jumping through a planet's defensive grid you can imagine what sort of problems you can run into."
"I understand better than you might think," I bowed my head. "A while back when fleeing the Qharr we were forced to activate our ship's leap jump drive. By some miracle we made it, but we took a hit from one of their weapons before the drive activated and crash landed. It's how you, the other Mara, died."
"I'm sorry. This must be very strange for you," she glanced at me frowning as she looked into my eyes.
I chuckled and bit my lip. "I've become accustomed to strange things.” I blushed, glancing down at my breasts. "After what's happened to me I don't think there are a lot of things that really surprise me anymore. Although, I admit seeing your face really threw me through a loop."
"Tell me, what has been done to you. Are the Qharr responsible?"
"In a way, I guess you could say they are. If they'd never invaded Earth I never would have ended up like this, but the real culprit is the K’teth symbiote I've become joined with. She changed me when we first joined, so that it would have a female body to carry her offspring," I turned away. "It's taken some time, but I think I'm finally at peace with who I've become."
"K’teth, I've heard that name before. During the war I remember reading reports of a group within the Qharr Ascendancy who called themselves the Edant K’teth. Anytime our troops came up against them, it didn't end so well for our boys," Mara said giving me a meaningful look.
"No, I don't imagine it would have. The Edant, or the Qharr hosts, are capable of doing some pretty amazing things. They gain their abilities from their symbiotes, the K’teth, which is why they call themselves the Edant K’teth."
"I take it you share these abilities?"
"More or less." I met her gaze and saw the suspicion in her eyes. "You don't trust me do you? I went through this with the other Mara too. She was... suspicious of my symbiote. She questioned Khala's motives for helping me."
"It's cause for concern, certainly, which makes me wonder why you're telling me all this."
"I don't like hiding. I've done enough of it to last me a lifetime. If we're going to be working together I want you to know who and what you're dealing with and I hope you would be equally forthcoming."
She nodded a smile touching the corner of her lips as she looked me over. "So much like your father. Forgive me, I've worked most of my life in intelligence. I'm naturally suspicious of everyone, and unfortunately I can't quite bring myself to trust this K’teth of yours. You say this being you've become joined with has motives which would suggest it is a thinking reasoning being. I don't blame my counterpart for distrusting it, I feel the same way."
"But," she added glancing over her shoulder at Lily and Becca. "If it wanted to give us over to the Qharr I have no doubts that we'd have been met by a cadre of hunters. Still, I cannot for the life of me believe that this symbiote is completely on the level. No, for the time being, I will work with you.”
The look she gave me sent cold chills down my spine. She may not have shared the past twenty-four years worth of experience with the other Mara, but she was clearly every bit her equal. She had to know that my abilities gave me an enormous advantage against nearly any opponent, but she still had the confidence to give me an ultimatum. The Mara I'd known would have done the same thing.
She smiled and glanced back at Becca and Lily then turned back to me with a pointed look. "I assume that you're not the only human who has become host to one of these symbiotes?"
"Just the three of us, so far."
With that I stepped past Mara, moving beyond her companions and took the lead. I wasn't feeling in a very talkative mood and it was probably a good idea if I kept my distance from her at least for the time being. She was a lot like the Mara I'd known, perhaps too much too much like her. It was unsettling to say the least.
A high-pitched wail so intense and so terrible shattered the silence of the city. Neada and fully half of Mara's soldiers fell to the ground clutching at their ears. The sound was inhuman and it invoked the most basic primal instincts in all of us. I knew that sound, not because of my own experiences, but because of Khala's. A brief image of a Qharr hunting party moving through a lush alien landscape tracking a pack of the beasts passed into my mind before fading away.
"Dre'ks." I spun around looking for signs of movement. Thankfully, there were no beasts in sight, but then I heard the screams, human screams.
I turned to Mara and put my hands on her shoulders. "Whatever you do, don't follow me. These things are almost completely immune to phase blasts. The Qharr hunt them with spears and knives."
I leapt into motion, not waiting for a response or offering up any more explanation. I sensed, rather than saw, Becca and Lily on my tail, but I didn't try to stop them they wouldn't have listened to me anyway.
Another ghastly wail was followed by more human screams and I put on more speed knowing that if dre'ks had caught the scent of humans they wouldn't last long. I came to a halt to get my bearings--Lily and Becca managed to stop in just enough time keep from bumping into me--when I thought I'd lost the trail, but then the screams came again. They were close this time, and I jumped back into motion--my two companions still on my tail--toward their source.
Just when I thought it was a hopeless case, we intersected the beasts' trail and I shuddered as I caught sight of all the destruction they'd left in their wake. Once a pack of dre'ks took it into their heads they were going to do something, nothing would stop them, not phase pistols, not people and least of all the decayed and rotten remains of the buildings in the city. If the creatures came to a wall they didn't let it stop them, they simply plowed right through it.
We found bodies as progressed scattered throughout the debris, but none of them showed any signs of life so we moved on. Finally, we came to the end of the trail inside a house just a few blocks away from our old home. We'd covered all that distance only to find ourselves right back where we started.
I didn't bother drawing my pistols, I knew it wouldn't do any good. Instead, I lumbered up the stairs at full speed only just managing to turn a corner without slamming into the wall. I heard growls and screams coming from the back bedroom and didn't hesitate a moment as I pounced through what was left of the door. Three ferocious and very large dre'ks had a trio of kids backed into the corner of the room.
I had to do a double take when I realized it was the group we'd run into just a few days before. The oldest girl had a metal pipe clenched in her hands which she was using to fend off the beasts, but she was fighting a losing battle. Her arms were drenched in blood, presumably her own since dre'k blood had a sickly orange tinge to it. Her chest was heaving and she looked ready to drop, but that all changed when Lily and Becca came tearing into the room after me.
All three beasts spun around to face us and I heard Becca gasp as we got our first good look at them. They were huge creatures, the two largest, being close is size, at nearly a hundred seventy centimeters in length and the smaller approached a hundred-fifty. They had long muzzles with a double row of teeth and a pair of tusks on the side of their head. Their eyes were a sickly green and full of terrible malice. Their bodies were sleek and muscular and covered in scales and patches of fur. Their legs ended not with feet or paws, but with something resembling a thumb-less hand and each digit ended in a claw close to five centimeters long.
The foremost of the creatures, let out one of those inhuman and high-pitched wails. I brought my fist around smashing into the beasts head as it came tearing at me. It didn't even blink, not that I knew for sure it had eyelids, but it snapped at me and managed rake the side of my arm with its teeth. I spun away and kicked it in the side of the head with every bit of strength I could muster.
That sent the beast tumbling away and crashing through the wall. I followed it through the hole made by its body, hoping to catch it off guard, but it was already back on its feet by the time I landed on the ground outside. It roared and slashed at me, but I jumped out of the way and it's talons raked through the empty air.
"Khala, how the hell do I kill this thing?" I demanded from my symbiote, grabbing the beast by both tusks and sent it slamming into the wall of the opposite building. Despite our shared memories of the beast, I had no images in my mind of one actually being killed.
I heard roars in the distance, which told me that Becca and Lily, must be fighting the other dre'ks, but I was occupied fighting my own that I had no time to investigate.
'Their throats,' Khala replied. 'Pierce their insides with something sharp and that usually does the trick.'
"Usually?" I gritted my teeth and leapt up in the air as the dre'k pounced toward me. "That's so reassuring!"
'They are resilient animals.'
"Yes!" I yelled between gritted teeth. "I'm finding that out now."
I walked right into the wall and up its side as the creature pounced on me. It missed by mere inches, but had gotten so close, in fact, that I could feel it's breath on my ankles. I needed a weapon, something which I could use to kill the damn thing. I might be able to do it in by smashing it with my fists, but the beast would likely do a lot of damage before I was able to take it down. It was better if I ended it as quickly as possible.
I lumbered up the side of the building and lurched up catapulting onto the top of the roof. I spun around looking in every direction, hoping to catch a gleam of metal, anything I could use as weapon and found it several buildings over on what had once been an apartment building. The source was an overhanging balcony balustrade that had gone to rust. With enough force, I thought I might be able to break one of the metal pieces free and use it as a spear. The only problem was getting there.
I heard scraping, and I looked down over the edge to see the dre'k crawling its way up the side of the building. "Dammit," I cursed swirling away from the edge. "These things just don't stop."
I went tearing across the roof, leaping over the opposite edge when I got to the end and just barely managed latch onto the edge of the opposite building's overhang. I scrambled up over the edge and looked over my shoulder to watch as the pursuing beast found its way onto the opposite one.
I was one roof over from the apartment complex. There was a lot more distance between the two building than the last two and the jump would be a lot more difficult to make, but I didn't let that deter me. I took off running, giving myself a greater head start then yelled at Khala. "Just when I reach the edge, give me a boost."
Khala didn't answer, but I sensed the symbiote's consciousness stirring inside my mind. I leapt over the edge of the building and lurched forward soaring across the expanse, my arms flailing uselessly through the air before finally finding purchase on the tiled surface of the apartment building. My stomach impacted the side of overhang so hard that I was left momentarily breathless. I almost lost my grip, but I managed claw my way up the edge at the last moment.
I glanced back over my shoulder, and yet again I found the dre'k crawling across the surface of the roof behind me. "How the hell do the Qharr manage to kill these things?" I asked no one in particular. I was beginning to seriously doubt the sanity of any gray skin who willingly hunted the beasts.
The roof was pretty unstable, and each time I moved tiles slid off their seating and over the side of the building. I moved carefully, but that didn't keep me from losing my footing and almost falling over the edge. Fortunately, I managed to right myself in time, but it was about then that the dre'k found its way across the apartment roof, landing just a few feet away from me before letting out one of its’ God awful wailing howls.
It might have been a persistent beast, but it wasn't particularly graceful creature and its’ efforts to get to me resulted in three entire rows of roof tiles coming free from their seating and sliding down over the edge of the building taking the creature down with them. "That was close," I muttered under my breath then climbed over the edge of the building and dropped down onto the balcony below.
I heard the dre'k stirring from the ground and I knew it was only a matter of time before it made its way back up the wall. I knelt down next to the railing, found one of the more heavily rusted portions of metal and attempted to force one of the bars free, but they wouldn't give. I gritted my teeth and kicked the bar with my foot, the metal groaned in protest and I knew I was on the right track. I kicked it again and one of the weld spots popped loose. I grabbed it with both hands and with one violent jerk managed to break it free. I had my weapon, now it was time to use it.
The dre'k was just beginning to ascend the wall toward me, and when I climbed up over the railing and dove off the edge, bar held in front of me and slammed it into the beast on my way down. I managed to leap far enough away from the creature to keep from going down with it, but my weapon was flung from my hands as I tucked and rolled.
I climbed back to my feet, just as the beast came lumbering at me. I dove out of the way and kicked it in it's side as it went tearing past, but the blow had almost no effect. I cast my eyes about looking for some signs of my bar and caught sight of it resting on the ground a good five meters away. The dre'k came lunging toward me and I jumped up, stepping on it's head and rolling across it's body before landing on the other side.
I lunged forward, snatching up my makeshift weapon from the ground and spun around to face the beast. It lunged at me and I swung the bar at it hitting it across the snout. It snarled, but seemed otherwise unaffected by the blow. It lunged at me again, it's jaw snapping and I threw myself forward stabbing the creature so deep into its mouth that I just barely enough room to maintain my grip.
My blow proved pretty devastating, and the beast attempted to jerk back, but the bar was lodged so deeply into it's mouth that it couldn't break free. I kept my grip and pushed forward with all the strength I could muster. The creature let out one last shriek then keeled over dead as I thrust my weapon deep into it's brain cavity.
I loosed my grip on the bar and grimaced. I wasn't about to try and free it from the creature's corpse. It was lodged in there pretty good, but I needed something if I was going to help fight off the other two dre'ks, assuming Lily and Becca hadn't dealt with the damn things already. I glanced up at the balcony and pursed my lips, there were always more where the first one came from.
I managed to pry loose another bar from the railing before making my way back to the house where I found another dre'k corpse. It didn't have any obvious puncture wounds, but I only did a cursory examination before I heard the wail. I lurched forward, zooming through the city's streets traveling nearly an entire block before I found the source of the sound. It was the third dre'k and it was doing an amazing job of fending off Becca and Lily who were pounding at the beast relentlessly.
Neither my sister nor my lover had taken note of me just yet, but that was about to change. I entered the fray at full velocity, and with a bit of a boost from Khala went soaring up in the air only to come slamming down a moment later my makeshift spear held out in front of me. The weapon actually managed to pierce the beast's skin, but it did little to slow the creature. I yanked my weapon free from the creature's side then spun away as it snapped at me.
"Becca, Lily," I grinned at the pair who paused a moment to gawk at me. I ran up along the side of the beast and hit it with my bar as hard as I could where I'd pierced the skin. It shrieked and swung its tail around slamming it into my ankles and sending me flying away. The weapon slipped through my fingers and I heard it clang against the hard concrete somewhere behind me.
I was back on my feet in an instant, but the beast was already on top of me. It's big muzzle was right in my face, and I shoved it away, planting a fist inside its eye socket. It roared and jerked back, swinging around to whip me with it's tail a second time. I jumped back, only barely managing to keep from getting hit and spun away looking all over for my weapon.
"Lily! Becca!" I screamed. "Find the damn bar!"
The dre'k came charging toward me and this time I wasn't able to dive out of the way. It's tusks tore into my side pinning me against a piece of debris. I screamed hitting it in the snout with blow after blow. My attacks proved powerful enough to prompt the creature to pull away and I collapsed on my side clutching at my wound. I was only on the ground a moment, but when I rolled back onto my feet the creature had moved on.
Lily was battling the dre'k alone, and was doing a good job of keeping it occupied. I couldn't see Becca, but I was sure she was still looking for the rod. I winced as my bones creaked and snapped back into place then I went lumbering across the street toward Lily and the beast.
I drew my phase pistols, and opened fire. They didn't do a damn bit of good against the dre'k, but the bright flashes from the phase blasts distracted the damn thing long enough to get it off Lily's back. I tucked my guns back into their holsters and came rushing back into the fight my fists beating into the side of the beast's head.
It lunged at me and I jumped back doing a back-flip. Lily charged the beast slamming her fists into its side. Again, it shrugged off the attacks and I went charging at it with arms swinging. The beast swirled around and met me its’ massive jaws opened. Its’ gnashing teeth clomped down on my wrist and didn't let go.
She came bursting onto the scene with speed that only a bonded human could matched, leapt up into the air and slammed into the beast with a the rod in her hands. The weapon pierced the skin of the dre'ks leg and it released its hold on my arm screeching in pain. She yanked the weapon free, then jumped forward and forced the bar into the creature's eye socket. It roared again, rearing back, but Becca was relentless she kept at it and with one last thrust the creature let out one final groan and collapsed dead at my sister's feet.
"Holy hell," Becca said tossing the bar aside. "The Qharr actually hunt those things?"
‘It was a worthy hunt.’ A disembodied voice said and I stopped to glance at my sister. Her symbiote had spoken.
“Worthy isn’t the word I’d use.” I winced, bringing up my arm in front of my face just in time to watch the wound close.
"Let's get back to those kids. That girl looked like she was in pretty rough shape."
I spun around, intent on doing just that, but stopped dead in my tracks when I spotted figures moving in the distance. I had my pistols in my almost immediately. My gut told me it was probably Janet, Mara and the group of E.R.F. soldiers, but it never hurt to be cautious.
I watched them approach motioning for the others to get down as I steadily crawled my way through the ruins. Becca and Lily followed, much to my irritation, but I didn't want to give us away so I didn't say a word. I tried motioning at them, but Lily and Becca merely shared a nearly identical look of defiance. I glowered at them and rounded a corner. I let out a sigh of relief and leapt back onto my feet, my guns slipping back into my holsters as I approached Mara and her group.
"You weren't supposed to follow me." I grimaced moving past her.
"Wait, where are you going now?" Mara demanded drawing a phase pistol and training it on me.
Janet, who had followed Mara's group in, stepped forward, but I held my hand up before she could interject.
I swirled around and yanked the weapon out of her hands and stood there with it clutched in my grip. Clearly what I had told her earlier hadn't quite set in. "Those dre’k were attacking children.”
I tossed Mara her gun, spun away and traipsed off toward the house where we'd left the children. I just hoped they hadn't fled. If the girl really was injured I need to get her to the doctor before it was too late.
The little boy and girl looked up at me their eyes wide with terror as I knelt down to check their older sibling for signs of life. The moment my fingers touched her neck she stirred and I let out a sigh of relief as her eyes shot back open. She tried to pull away from me, but she didn't have much fight left in her and her attempts failed.
"Dammit!" I called over my shoulder as I pulled the girl's shirt up revealing the wound on her belly. It was gushing pretty badly and I didn't really have anything to stem the blood.
"Rodriquez," Mara snapped her fingers at one of her soldier escorts.
One of the soldier's pulled her helmet free revealing an appealing face with wide-set eyes and thin lips, dropped down on her knees on the other side of the girl. She slipped a pack over her shoulder and unceremoniously dumped on the ground at her side. She started rummaging through her bag, producing bandages, a bottle of clear liquid and strips of something that looked an awful lot like rawhide leather.
"She's in bad shape," Rodriquez said glancing up at Mara. "Normally, I wouldn't recommend moving her, but I doubt, in these conditions, that we'd want to keep her here."
Dupli-Mara nodded. "Do what you can for her," she paused then turned to face a trio of soldiers. "Lewis, Patterson, Dorian, prep a stretch. I think the young lady would benefit from the attention of a certain Dexagarmetrax doctor which if I'm correct is waiting for our friends back at their ship."
I felt my eyebrows twitch, but I didn't say a word as Rodriquez started working on the girl. Mara could have easily know about the doctor by studying recording of our transmission with the E-R-F, but there was something about the way she spoke when she mentioned Vakrexid that suggested that there may be more to it than that. Maybe it was just my imagination. I shook my head and watched the medic do her work. She had already gotten the wound cleaned and had started to apply the strips of leather.
Her siblings had given up any hopes of resisting and instead stood off to the side and watched us with wide eyes as Rodriquez worked. As for the patient herself, she'd lost consciousness soon after the soldier had started work on her.
"They're synthetic flesh, we call them flash strips. They'll affix to the wound and keep any dirt or grime from getting in," Rodriquez glanced over at me perhaps noticing my interest.
"Then what are the bandages for?"
"To keep the wound bound tight," she replied glancing at me. "At least until we can get her to this doctor of yours."
Lewis, Patterson and Dorian returned several moments later with their packs and produced a collapsible stretcher from inside their packs. Careful not to harm her, we got the girl loaded up on the stretcher and started back toward the ship with her two siblings in tow.
By the time we found the clearing outside the city where we'd landed the ship the night sky had softened and taken on the brilliant reds and oranges of the early dawn. Mara stopped in her tracks, her eyes wide with wonder as she looked up at the morning sky.
"Patterson, how long has it been since you've seen a sunset on Earth?" Mara said placing a hand on the soldier's shoulder.
"Never," he replied back, his voice muffled by his helmet. "And neither have you."
Mara smiled and let out a dramatic sigh as she glanced back at him. "I gave up trying to differentiate my memories from the original Mara Briggs years ago. They are as much a part of me as they were her and for all intents and purposes I am her. "
"Yeah, but there's only one of you," Patterson replied pulling his helmet free from his head revealing a shockingly familiar set of features. "I got stuck with a mug identical to hundreds of my clone brothers and all of us share the same memories until the moment we popped out of our tubes. You might be able to maintain the illusion that you are the same person as your originator, but the rest of us ain't so lucky."
"Holy fucking hell," Janet cursed stepping back with her hand cupped around her mouth. I couldn't blame her for her reaction. I was struggling to wrap my head around it, too. Save for a few less lines of age on his face, Patterson was a perfect doppleganger for Rayland. It hadn't quite sunk in that he shared the same last name as the major, but given that Rayland was a clone it made a certain amount of sense.
"What's wrong?" Ray-wannabe, grinned looking first at Neada, then glanced at Becca, Lily, and me. "You all look like you've seen a ghost."
"You just a lot like someone we know," I shook my head and walked past him before turning to Mara. "Come on, we need to get our patient inside the ship. Or have you forgotten?"
"Of course not," she replied. "But the girl is in relatively stable condition and we could do with a bit a rest. Your ship is not in sight which leads me to believe that it's still some distance away."
"It's a whole lot closer than you think," Lily said twirling her fingers around a lock of her hair.
"Oh, what did you do, bury it?" Lewis grinned chuckling at his joke. No one else seemed to find it funny. I rolled my eyes and turned away before closing my eyes and stepping forward.
"Holy fucking shit, she disappeared," a voice cursed and I spun around to face the owner. It belonged to one of the soldiers, a lanky fellow whose name I'd never learned. I leaned forward and poked my head through the energy barrier which invoked some fairly amusing results. Half of Mara's men looked ready to bolt and the rest looked like they might not be far behind.
"A holocloaker," Mara said a smile touching the corner of her lips. "And a pretty sophisticated one from the looks of it. I'm surprised any survived the invasion."
"You'd be surprised how much old junk is sitting around," Lily said glancing at Mara. "That is if you know where to look."
Mara stepped through the cloak field and stopped dead when she got her first look at the ship. "One of the omega-seven prototypes," she mused looking it over with a fine eye before turning toward me. "We were so close, but the technology came too late. The omega-sevens were the basis for everything the E-R-F has now. If we could have developed the technology sooner and had enough time to work some of the kinks out of the early prototypes, the outcome of the war might have been different."
"Yeah, and we'd all live happily ever after and there'd be soft little kittens and puppies for us all to snuggle." I met her gaze and then drew very close so only she could hear. "I've spent most my life regretting what happened. I gave up on changing the past a long time ago. The best we can do is change the future."
I stepped past her moving toward the ship without waiting for the others to follow. The front exit ramp was open and Vakrexid poked his head through and locked eyes with me. "Vakrexid is most gladdened to see you."
"I thought I told you to keep the front ramp closed. If we had needed a quick takeoff, we'd have been royally screwed."
"Vakrexid is most apologetic, but I opened the ramp so that Vakrexid could more easily bring in the supplies that I have gathered. Going in and out through the airlock was most tedious."
"Supplies?" I blinked. "What sort of supplies?"
"Edible plants, herbs, the carcass of a deer," Vakrexid tweetled back at me.
"You killed a deer?"
I closed my eyes and shook my head then glanced back over my shoulder. "Whatever, just... we have a new patient for you. She's on a stretcher, the folks from the E-R-F are carrying her in now."
"The E-R-F?" The doctor twitched lurching down the ramp to watch as Lewis and Dorian carried the young girl through the cloak field, but his eyes were on someone else entirely.
"Mara." His voice was a whisper. "She is with the E-R-F?"
Vakrexid didn't seem surprised, merely curious, and I was beginning to see certain pieces of the puzzle that was the doctor fit into place. He'd known Mara, our Mara, for a long time, perhaps that relationship had extended back further than we'd all thought. Either way, he had been her friend and confidant for many years. Who knows what she might have told him?
He ran across the clearing toward the group where he met Mara and clasped his hands atop her shoulder.
"Hello doctor," she said reaching up to touch one of his hands. "It has been a very long time."
"Truly? Are you not a clone? Has Vakrexid encountered this version of Mara before?"
"No doctor, I've never personally met you, but I have the memories of my predecessor. Her experiences belong to me now."
"Yes, yes, of course. Vakrexid understands. We shall make much discourse later! For now, I have a patient to attend to!" He exclaimed running toward the stretcher. "Take the girl inside. Hurry, hurry, hurry!"
The duo of soldiers carrying the stretcher, appeared at the bottom of the ramp, lugging the girl up into the ship. I matched gazes with Mara who pursed her lips and followed the others into the bowels of the vessel. I waited a moment and followed Lily, Becca and Janet in.
We got the girl and her two siblings tucked safely away in the infirmary before we retreated to the bridge with Farris in tow. He was still in fairly rough shape, but the doctor had given him permission to leave the infirmary and he had jumped at the chance. The command center was crowded with Mara and her crew present, to say the least, but there was enough space to accommodate all of us.
"Shit." Farris shook his head, thrumming his fingers against the console and stared up at Mara with eyes wide. "I can't be the only one who's weirded out by this. Mara risen from the dead and of course, we have Mr. Smile's look-a-like standing in the corner. I can't be the only one who noticed that, can I?"
"They're both clones, Matt," Becca said running her hand through his mop of hair.
"Well, I know that. I knew Mara for ten years before she died and... Rayland, just look at the guys face. Not even a hint of a smile, or a grin or even a damn smirk! It's god damned unnerving!"
"Rayland?" Patterson tweaked an eyebrow. "This Rayland fellow who you say looks so much like me. Is he another clone?"
Janet nodded. "He is... he was one of the last clone batches from before the invasion. He had a defect and was scheduled to be terminated, but one of the doctor's working in the cloning facility saved him from his fate, eventually repairing the defect with a mechanical implant and raised him as her own son."
Patterson nodded in understanding. "Well, that certainly explains it. I was always told the last of the Pattersons left on Earth went down defending New Nuremberg."
"Well," Mara cleared her throat and looked around the room. "This is all just so fascinating, but I do believe we have more pressing matters to discuss, don't you?"
"Yes," I replied batting the hair out of my eyes as I surveyed the room. Honestly, I wasn't sure what to say. I'd spent so much time leading up to this point that I hadn't planned for anything once we'd reached it. The resistance was pale shadow of its former self and we'd been carrying on hoping for a miracle.
Now that supposed miracle was the figurative elephant in the room, I wasn't quite ready to accept it. Particularly when it took the form of my dead aunt, a woman I'd never would have described as warm and inviting in the first place. It all seemed too damned good to be true and there was a voice screaming in the back of my head to run and keep going.
I bit my lip and leveled my eyes on Mara. "What exactly is it that you've come to do here?"
"Like I said," Mara replied. "We've come to retake Earth."
"What do you think you can do with ten soldiers, a handful of resistance fighters and Dexagarmetrax doctor?"
"You don't honestly believe that I brought just ten soldier do you, dear?" Mara pursed her lips and leaned back in her chair.
"Okay," I paused, gritted my teeth and clasped my hands together. "Just how many soldiers did you bring along?"
She narrowed her eyes and a slow smile formed on her face just before she gave her response. "More than enough to do the job, I should think."
"Right and what exactly would that involve. What's your plan to drive the gray skins from Earth?"
Mara smiled and clasped her hand over mine. "All in good time, dear child, all in good time."
I pulled away and leapt to my feet clenching my hands at my side as I rounded on her. "God! You're no different than the other Mara. I spent weeks trying to get her to trust me and now I'll have to do it all over again."
She didn't flinch, but instead slowly craned her neck to look up at me with those cool calculating eyes so like the ones that had belonged to the other clone. She clasped her hands in her lap and frowned. "Did you expect any less? Earth is hanging in the balance. I will not risk humanity's future on a group of rag tag resistance fighters I know almost nothing about. Familial relations aside, can you honestly say that you trust me completely?"
"No," I admitted sinking back into my seat. "But, we have plenty of time to work things out, don't we?"
"Yes, dear, yes we do." She replied, a smile forming on her face that sent cold chills down my spine.
What the hell sort of trouble had I gotten us into this time? The more I talked with her the more trouble I had distinguishing her from the old Mara. It seemed so odd that after almost a two and a half decades of separate experiences that the two had deviated so little from one another. I wasn't quite sure what that might implied, but it made me shudder nonetheless.
A high-pitched wail filled the room and the sound was so similar to that made by the dre'ks that I spun around to face the door both phase pistols in hand. I wasn't the only one, Becca, Lily and half of Mara's soldiers all swirled around ready to pounce on the vicious beast that had attempted to sneak in on us. Fortunately, the only creature that came lumbering through the door was the doctor.
"Vakrexid has glad tidings to share!" he proclaimed holding his hands up in the air giving the impression that he was about to conduct a piece of music. "The girl will survive!"
"That's splendid news, doctor, why don't you join us? I'm sure you can help us clear some things up. You've examined Lexa, tell me what you think of these K’teth."
The doctor tilted his waist back and forth and let out a low warble. "The K’teth? Most fascinating creatures. Vakrexid could go into great details about their biology! Their cell structure alone is unlike anything I've ever seen and their--"
"Doctor!" Mara held her hand up cutting the doctor short. "I'd love to hear about it all later, but I was referring to the individual parasites. Are they dangerous? Can they be trusted?"
"Dangerous? Most certainly, but only to those who are enemies to their hosts. The K’teth bonded to Lexa and Lily can almost certainly be trusted, but Vakrexid is most sorrowful to inform you that I believe the third symbiote is most untrustworthy."
"And why would you say that?"
"He became joined to Rebecca after the death of his previous host and has been most uncooperative. Vakrexid does not believe he has communicated with Becca since first being joined with her."
Mara's head jerked sideways and she studied my sister with those eyes. Becca lurched back almost as if she'd been dealt a physical blow and looked back at her with her mouth agape. It was clear Mara wasn't turning out to be quite like what Becca had expected.
'Lexa,' Khala's voice wafted into my mind like the scent of a meadow of flowers carried into a building through a window. 'Let me speak to her.'
'I'm not sure that's a good idea,' I replied. 'The old Mara never did warm up to you. I doubt this one will be any different.'
'Please, just... trust me.'
I bit my lip and winced as I stared at Mara. There was certain pleading tone to the way Khala spoke that hit just the right nerve that I finally closed my eyes, let out a deep breath and relinquished control to my symbiote.
"Lex?" I felt a hand on my shoulder and Khala craned my neck to match gazes with Lily who's eye grew wide when she looked me over. And she mouthed Khala's name just before taking a single step back.
"No," Khala said standing up tugging at the hem of my shirt. "Lexa is... how is it you humans put it? Taking a fiver?"
"Oh the parasite," Mara leaned back in her seat and folded her arms across her chest. "I've been wondering when you might rear your head, but honestly I hadn't expected it to be quite so soon. What is it that you want?"
"I am not parasite, my relationship with a host is more of a symbiosis."
"That remains to be seen."
Khala narrowed my eyes and I felt my fingernails dig into my palms as she clenched my fists at my side. "I went through this with that other contemptible woman. What must I do to convince you people that my daughter and I are only interested in securing the future of our race. The battle for Earth is the only chance at liberation my people has seen in the many millennia since our creation. Our goals are not so different. Why is it so hard for you to understand?"
"Is that it, then? You want your freedom?" Mara's eyebrows twitched. "Well, forgive me, that just clears everything right up. I mean, if you said it, it must be true."
"Kyll phy'es!" Khala cursed turning away before spinning back around and glaring down at Mara. "What is it that you want me to say?"
"The truth!" Mara yelled jumping to her feet. "There's more to it, I can see it in your body language and your eyes!"
"I'm not human!" Khala yelled. "Whatever physical cues you think you're picking up are purely in your imagination!"
"Vakrexid can think of a reason." The doctor held his hands up.
"Oh?" Mara pursed her lips, her head jerking sideways to glance at the doctor.
"Yes, Vakrexid stumbled across something quite astounding and I suspect that the symbiote may have come to the same conclusion. You see humans are the originators, the first race, the race from which the Phyrr Lesch created the Dexagarmetrax and the Qharr."
"WHAT?!" a voice howled in my head and I cast my eyes around looking for the originator only to realize that it must have belonged to Becca's symbiote.
"Doctor," Mara said bringing a hand up to message her temple. "What exactly led you to this conclusion?"
"Vakrexid was able to procure a sample of Qharr DNA. I was most curious as to why humans could become joined to the K’teth so Vakrexid began to make comparisons to a human sample. I noticed many similarities, but it was only on impulse that Vakrexid took a sample from myself and made the comparison. It is irrefutable. Humans share far too many genes with both of our species. You are the originators."
"Dear god," Mara turned pale and collapsed back into her chair. "This... could change everything."
The revelation was particularly disturbing, but there was still one thing that I couldn't quite get out of my head. The doctor had said that he suspected Khala had known this all along, but I couldn't quite grasp why he would come to that conclusion. Perhaps Khala sensed this or perhaps she had just decided to come clean because she spoke up without any prompt from me.
"There is a legend of sorts... something the first H'ra passed down to all her daughters. The Vyr, an unruly race of primitives that the Phyrr Lesch took from their world to serve as protectors and servants, but those they trained as warriors weren't as fearsome against the might of their enemies as they had hoped. So in order to make their protectors more powerful they created the K’teth. Unfortunately, with their new found power, the Vyr rebelled and the Phyrr Lesch had no choice but to end them. Eventually, using the first ones as a basis they created the Teljir a race of hand-servants, presumably the ancient name for the Dexagarmetrax and Edant their loyal guardians, and the K’teth were remade to serve the race who would eventually come to call themselves the Qharr."
Everyone was staring at me... at us, with wide eyes and Khala swallowed before continuing. "Since I've first become joined to Lexa, I've grown more and more certain that humanity was in fact this first race, but I never thought I'd ever be able to confirm it. You must understand, if I thought anyone would believe me I would have said something!"
Mara looked me... Khala up and down then turned away and stalked out of the bridge motioning for her minions to follow but paused at the door. "We will be in touch. I’ll be returning to my ship. For now I feel I must digest this newest information. I trust you're not going anywhere."
Khala relinquished control and I looked back at her and nodded. "Not, for the time being, at least."
They departed and I collapsed back into my seat. My god! It couldn't be true, could it?
I tapped my fingers against my console, as one of the status lights started to blink red. A holo-image appeared in the empty air in front of me and I gripped my armrests feeling the material crumble under my hands. Mara's face appeared, distorted by the aging holo-projector, leering back at me from her own communication station. I tried to keep my face as neutral as possible, but somehow I doubted I was completely successful. Either way, Mara got right down to business.
"You've yet to transmit the coordinates as promised."
"Yes, yes." I grimaced and waved my hand at her. "I was just getting to it."
"There, that ought to do it."
"British Columbia?" She pursed a lip. "These nesters, are you quite sure they can be trusted?"
"No, but I'm not exactly sure you can be trusted either. Unless you plan on bringing in more troops, or you can pull an army out of your ass we need the nesters. I just hope there's still someone there with a friendly ear otherwise we're shit out of luck."
"Lovely, such... colorful language. It will be some time before we'll be able to get under way. I'll contact you when we're ready. Defiance out."
The image fizzled and faded away and I glanced over my shoulder at Janet as she entered the bridge. "You really think this is such a good idea?"
"I'm not sure you're really left with much choice, but assuming Rayland was successful in fending off Dahl and his cronies I think you'll stand a reasonable chance of convincing my people to join you."
"Well, I'm just a little more concerned about having another one of those coil guns pointed in my face."
"Oh, please." She rolled her eyes. "We won't even have to land. Rayland and I have a system in place for just such an occurrence."
"Excuse me if that doesn't fill me with confidence," I mumbled leaning back in my seat.
I wasn't sure what was keeping the E-R-F ship from taking off, but I kind of doubted Mara would be very forthcoming if I confronted her about it. I didn't mind quite so much, I wasn't about to let the opportunity to get some alone time with Lily fall through my fingers. "Janet, would you be so kind as to keep an eye on things here?"
The moment the door closed behind my back, Lily spun around and locked her lips around mine, sharing a kiss that was so passionate that I would have thought it had been months, instead of days, since we'd last made love. We collapsed into bed and I felt her hand slip into my shirt undoing my bra with much more ease than she would have been able to manage just a few short weeks ago. There was a soft click as she undid my belt buckle and slipped my pants free.
She sat up just long enough to pull her shirt over her head and I started work on her bra before she even had it completely free. Her hands clasped around my breasts and she leaned down to kiss my neck as I started to work her pants free. She squeezed free from her slacks and the next thing I knew she plunged her fingers into my vagina and I was howling with pleasure.
We both had a lot of stamina due to our symbiotes and we could probably have gone on for hours, but after a twenty minutes of lovemaking we'd both had enough and Lily collapsed at my side her naked breasts pressing against my side as she put an arm across my chest. Neither one of spoke for the longest time, perfectly content with each other's company.
I twirled a lock of her hair with my index finger and l found myself thinking of the future. What would a free Earth be like? What would be our place in such a world? All I knew was cooking and fighting, neither of those skills seemed like they'd be in very high demand once the dust had settled.
"Lexa," Lily said suddenly and I turned to look into those brilliant magenta eyes and smiled.
"I know that we haven't really been together very long, but I just wanted you to know that--" She was trembling as she reached up to touch my face. "--I love you."
My heart leapt into my throat and I thought I might choke. I was so taken aback that I could only stare at her with wide eyes with my jaw hanging open like an idiot. My stomach knotted up and it was all I could do to fight down the rising sense of panic that rose up inside my mind.
In a moment of crystalline clarity, I realized I felt the same way, but my mind was screaming at me that we were moving too quickly. It had taken months for Kaya and me to finally admit that our feelings had moved beyond simple physical attraction and a mutual fondness. The same thing had happened in less than half that amount of time, and it scared me.
"Oh, god," she whispered and started to pull away. "I'm sorry I shouldn't have said anything. Now I've gone and screwed everything all up."
"Lily I-I." I grabbed her hand and pulled her close, but the words that I so desperately wanted to say wouldn't come and her face became more panic stricken by the moment. She leapt out of bed and started to dress.
I knew that I had to say something quick, but all I could do was watch was stare at Lily and watch her slip slowly from my fingers. Why was I being so stupid? 'SAY IT!' Khala's voice howled through my mind so loudly that I gripped the side of my head willing her to be silent.
Lily was dressed and had started for the door when the entire room shook and she was sent tumbling down to her knees.
"Shit!" I cursed and scrambled out of bed realizing what must be happening. As much as I wanted to say something more, I knew that it wouldn't matter one bit if we were both dead. You'd be surprised how quickly you can get dressed when you knew We both went tearing toward the bridge and Lily, being the first inside, leapt through the doorway and found a seat.
"What the hell is going on here?!" I yelled jumping into the pilot's seat.
Lily dropped down in from of the sensors consoled and yelled back over her shoulders. "There's a human ship overhead, must be the Defiant and a hostile ship. Looks like a Qharr cruiser. Our new friends are taking a lot of heat."
"Dammit," I cursed and fired the engines. Knowing that we probably didn't have time for it, I bypassed preflight and sent the ship rocketing up into the sky.
"The Defiant's shield's are down!" Lily called out.
I hesitated a moment as a plan formulated in my head. It was risky, and had a pretty good chance of killing us all, but if successful it might buy them some time.
"Lily, get the shields up, if the damn things even work and prepare intercept the destroyer's fire."
"You gotta be fucking kidding me" Lily called over her shoulder. "We'll be lucky if we last ten minutes!"
"It will be ten minutes longer than if we did nothing. Besides, I'll gladly sacrifice everyone on this ship if it means giving the Defiant a fighting chance!"
I sent our ship darting forward. The cruiser fired on us, but it didn't seem to have any effect. Our ship swooped in taking up position between the two ships.
"I should tell you," Lily said a slight tremor in her voice. "I'm not for sure on this, but it's possible that more fire we take the more unstable the reactor will become."
"Neada, open a communication line to the Defiant."
"Defiant, this is Lexa Briggs. We've taken some of the heat off of you is there any chance you'll be able to get your shields up?"
"We've got our engineers workings on it, but it's not looking good," Mara's voice responded through the comm line. "We're currently working on another solution. Hold tight."
Neada closed the comm-line and opened an audio-only line to the destroyer when I told her to. I wasn't sure what the Defiant had planned, but if I could keep the gray skins in the destroyer distracted maybe they might be better able to get the drop on them.
"Hello," I said injecting as much cheerfulness into my voice as I could muster. "This is Lexa Briggs on the pleasure ship, Sugar Pie. How are you today?"
"This is the Inquisitor ship Tyrs Phydar. Human ships, stand down at once and prepare to be boarded." The hard-edged and guttural voice of a gray skin replied through the intercom.
I simpered and moaned feeling a smile stretched across my face as I thought of what to say. "Ohhh, both at once? Someone's feeling adventurous today. Tell you what I'll set my ship down and you and I can have a one on one meeting, just the two of us. I know I'd certainly like that. You sound like big strong strapping Qharr man. I love me some gray meat, but I must warn you I take my dicks up the ass."
I winced, and gritted my teeth. I hadn’t intended to go quite so far.Lily's jaw dropped and it was all I could do to keep myself from bursting out laughing. The Qharr had some pretty strong taboos against inter-species relationships. One of the guards back at compound Het'ma had had a fetish for human women and Duvak had executed him on the spot when he learned of it. It was one of the few ways I knew of to get the gray skins good and angry with very little provocation.
"Listen to me closely foul hu-man yhulda. I will only say it once more. Land your ships or be destroyed."
"You're no fun," I said letting out an exaggerated sigh and pouted before realizing that it was an audio-only line. "Tell you what if I let you frisk me will you promised to plunge that big gray dick of yours into my--"
I stopped short as the comm line ended and destroyer opened fire again. "Something's happening," Lily called out. "The shield reactor's energy levels are spiking! We need to shut that thing down or we'll be vapor dust."
"Not yet!" I gritted my teeth bracing myself as we were jostled around by another barrage of fire.
I had Neada open up the comm line again. "Defiant, whatever you're going to do, you better do it now. I don't know how much longer we will last. The shield reactor could go critical at any minute."
"Defiant!" I screamed when I received no reply.
"Copy, resistance ship. Hold tight, we'll be executing our plan in just a few more seconds."
After the comm line closed back down I craned my neck so that I could get a good look at Lily. "Head back to the engine room, and take Becca with you. Try to see if you can do something with the reactor. If you have to try to drain some of the energy with your symbiotes. Maybe that will cool the damn thing down if nothing else works."
Lily nodded, and with my sister in tow went tearing out of the room.
There was a bright flash of light from the view screen and the Defiant disappeared from sensors only to reappear on the opposite side of the destroyer. It opened fire and before the gray skins targeting sensors could pick up on the ship again. It disappeared with another flash of light and reappeared about a quarter way around the destroyer and blasted it with all guns blazing.
Again and again, the Defiant would jump at some random interval and disappear before the destroyer could get it scopes on the other ship. Its’ shield started to buckle and finally fizzled under a final volley of phase cannon blasts struck the Qharr ship and sparked a series of explosions. It started to lose altitude and I watched it fall from the sky for a moment before returning my attention back to the shields, leapfrogging into the next seat over.
The reactor's energy readings were approaching dangerous levels, but there was some good news, at least. It wasn't building up quite as quickly as it had been before. Whatever Lily and my sister were doing seemed to be having some effect or that's what I hoped. Satisfied that we were out of danger, I initiated the shield shut down procedures, but hit a bit of a snag when the console displayed an error message.
"Shit!" I screamed and leapt back over to the pilot's station making sure to turn on auto pilot before lurching out of the seat again and went tearing down the hallway toward the engine room. I found Lily and Becca both huddled around the reactor, a tall clear metal tube which was glowing so brightly it came close to blinding me. I joined them touching both hands against the transparisteel and felt the storms gates come flooding open as Khala began to feed. It came crashing into me with the full force of a dre'k and it was only by sheer force of will that I was able to maintain my grip.
I gritted my teeth and closed my eyes, and screamed out at Lily. "If there's some sort of manual shut-off for this thing. Now would be the time to use it!"
'Better hurry,' Khala said. 'I can only repair so much radiation damage. The levels aren't too high yet, but if you let them build too much longer we'll all die.'
"Lily, you hear that?" I panted, but she didn't respond.
Instead she knelt down, one hand still touching the reactor cylinder, and reached for something near Becca's feet. She placed her hand inside a small indent in the floor, big enough to accommodate a large pair of human hands, and pulled. A small section of floor plating popped free and she stared at it transfixed before glancing up at me. I nodded and she pulled the switch.
Nothing seemed to happen, then all at once the room started to quake and tremor, the reactor blazed even brighter and started to hum. I backed away, and prepared for what I believed was our imminent death, but with one last shudder, the light flashed and began to fade away. Relieved, I sighed, and held my hand out to Lily who looked up at me and shook her head. She climbed up to her feet without my help and left the room without sparing me another glance.
I swallowed and watched her leave. I wanted to call out to her, to tell her anything, but I hesitated again. Something was holding me back and prevented me from telling her how I felt. It wasn't quite time for me to get bogged down in my relationship woes no matter how much it hurt. We needed to get the hell away from the wreck of the destroyer before any other Qharr vessels happened on us.
Forcing thoughts of Lily out mind, I shook my head, bit my lip and fled the room with my sister in tow.
"Lexa, please sit," Mara held her hand open to me as I poked my head in the door. A bit of a smile touched the corner of her lips and for the first time it actually seemed to lighten up her eyes.
I stepped inside and took a seat across from her at the small desk at the end of the room. Our two chairs, the desk and a bed were the room's only furnishings lending the room a distinctly Spartan appearance. She leaned down, producing a brown bottle of liquid and two glasses from one of the desk's drawers. "I believe I owe you an apology."
I fought to keep my face neutral as I studied her features. She seemed genuine, but with Mara, any Mara, who could say? I arched an eyebrow at her. "Oh?"
She poured a little bit of the liquid into each glass, not even filling it to the top, and gently pushed one across the desktop toward me. "I've misjudged you. I was so concerned about that K’teth of yours that I failed to see the lovely young woman that you've become. That was a very brave thing you did today. Your parents would be proud."
"T-thank you." I grabbed the little glass from the table and sniffed the liquid inside. "Almonds?"
Mara smiled and took a sip from her glass. "Amaretto, it was one of your father's favorites. In fact, he's the one who introduced me and your uncle to it or I suppose I should say he introduced the original Harold and Mara to it. I've developed a certain fondness for it, but as you might image it's rather hard to come by these days. It's made from a base of almonds, though I'm surprised you recognize the smell. I would have thought they would be hard to come by on Earth."
"To humans, yes, but the Qharr seem to like them. Duvak, the gray skin who enslaved Becca and me, would often ask me to use them to garnish his meals."
"I take it you were a cook?" Mara asked this actually seemed to surprise her.
"I was head cook of my compound before I was forced to join the resistance. I seem to have a knack for preparing Qharr cuisine."
You were forced to join the resistance?"
"Is this alcoholic?" I stared down at my glass and sniffed at it. Mara nodded and I hesitated before taking sip. It was on the bitter side, but it had a much more pleasant taste than the alcohol Strave used to stash away.
"It's not like it sounds. Kaya, my girlfriend at the time," I choked on the words. "Staged an attack on the Overseer, a regional authority, and Duvak assumed I was in on it. So I was left with the choice to either join the resistance and have a chance at living or wait around to face the music. Naturally, I chose to live. In a stroke of dumb luck, I managed to kill the Overseer who was bonded to Khala. It's how we ended up together and why I ended up like this." I motioned down at my breasts.
Mara nodded and took another sip from her glass. "Kaya? Wasn't she a part of your group? I've watched the original communication between you and--"
"She died," I said wiping a tear from my eye. "Forgive me, this is a touchy subject. Kaya and I didn't exactly end our relationship on the best of terms." I left out the part about Kaya being pregnant. I'm sure she could do basic math, and revealing that little tidbit would reveal that I'd only been in the resistance a very short time. I doubted that would fill her with much confidence.
I finished off my glass and set it down on the table. It actually left me feeling a little a warm, which wasn't an altogether unpleasant sensation. "So did your engineers figure out how the Qharr were able to take down your shields so easily?"
Mara nodded. "A faulty array. The Rhiannon device puts a lot of strain on the shield systems. We believe it’s how the Qharr were able to find us so easily. The array was emitting a large amount of energy which their sensors must have picked up. We'll be able to repair the damage, and the Colonel has ordered a full diagnostic so it shouldn't happen again.”
"That's fortunate," I said. "The last thing we need is two ships without full functioning shields."
"Yes, well since you brought it up. I talked to one of our engineers and he believes it would be possible to stabilize your shield reactor. The omega seven prototypes shields operate on the same principles as ours. The issues is finding the parts, I doubt it's something that we'd just find lying around and we didn't exactly bring along any spares."
"Maybe we can get your engineers together with our Lily and have them exchange ideas. She's self-taught, but her tech knowledge has gotten us through some pretty close scrapes. She might even know of some place where we can scavenge parts. Lord knows she had to get hers from somewhere."
"Very well, I'll talk with the Colonel. I can't make any promises, but he's a smart man even if he's a bit of an ass. I'm sure he'll see the benefits."
"If you don't mind, I think I'll return to the ship. I have some things to see too. I haven't spent much time with our guests, and the good doctor informs me that the oldest girl will probably be returning to consciousness soon."
"Do send the doctor my regards and tell him he's welcome to visit the Defiant. It would be good to catch up with him."
I nodded and smiled back as her as the door swooshed open. "I'll tell him, thanks for the drink."
The E-R-F ship had originally been designed to tow other vessels's out of a battle and we'd utilized that feature to dock our ship atop the Defiant. Unfortunately, it meant relying on Mara and her people for transport, but its advanced stealth technology kept us better hidden from the Qharr. I was willing to take the risk if it meant keeping my people safe, the few of them still alive.
Mara and her people had been monitoring Qharr communications and hadn't yet found any mention of the destroyer's attack on us or its destruction, but given how much trouble the resistance had been causing them it seemed unlikely they'd give us a heads up by transmitting that kind of information through unsecure channels.
I finally made my way through the accordion connecting our two ships and my first stop was the infirmary. For once the two younger children weren't lurking about and I could only conclude that Becca had finally been successful at luring them away from their older sibling so that they could get some much needed rest. "How's the patient, doc?"
"Most better." He warbled. "Vakrexid has taken her off sedatives. I am expecting her to regain consciousness anytime."
"Sedatives? Doctor, where'd you get sedatives?"
"Vakrexid made them from plants and herbs I collected." His long hands traces across his face tubes and jerked away as the girl gasped and sat up.
I brushed past the doctor and as she slipped her feet over the edge of the bed. I was quick enough to grab the girl's wrists and gently push her back down into bed before she could get very far. It wasn't that I wanted to keep her detained, but she was in bad shape and any movements she made could wind up making things worse.
"You!" she screamed fighting to break free from my grip, but she wasn't in any shape to fight even if I didn't have K’teth enhanced strength. Still she did get in one good kick to my ribs that hurt, just a little.
"It's alright," I said releasing my grip and backed slowly away. "I'm not going to hurt you. You were pretty badly injured. Do you remember?"
"I remember those things," she shuddered and stared up at me with big wide eyes her gaze darting toward the door. "Where am I? Where are Fade and Whisper?"
"You're on a resistance ship. As far as Fade and Whisper I'm not quite sure what you mean by--"
I stopped abruptly pursing my lips as understanding dawned on me. Fade and Whisper were the names of the two younger children. The pair had been so tight lipped that no one had been able to even so much as learn their names. "You mean your brother and sister? They're fine, they've barely left your side since we brought you to the ship."
She nodded, glancing at the door again. "I want to see them, now."
"Doctor, would you be so kind as to grab Fade and Whisper for our new friend here?"
"Most assuredly!" Vakrexid replied running out of the room, before I'd even finished the second sibling's name.
I folded my arms across my chest and stared down at the young girl all the while shaking my head. "If you think you're going to go bolting out of here with your brother and sister in tow, think again. I don't want you to think that you're a prisoner here, but until you've healed up a bit, I'm not going to let you go anywhere. Besides, we're at least three-hundred meters up in the air. There really isn't anywhere you could go unless you want to take a long plunge."
I could see her jaw tighten and she glared up at me looking for all the world as if she wanted to sock me in the face. "You'll let us go, when I've healed."
"If that's what you want," I replied dropping down on the makeshift seat the doctor had constructed. "My name's Lexa by the way."
She glared at me and bit her lip and for several seconds I didn't think I'd get a name from her, but finally she spoke.
"Thena, that's an unusual name."
"Yeah, well what the fuck sorta name is Lexa?"
Clearly, it was going to take some time for Thena to warm up to me. We'd saved the girl's life and had been met with nothing but hostility. I had a feeling that winning her over would be no small task. She'd never been given a reason to trust another human being not even one who'd probably saved her life.
"Mommy!" A tiny little voice squeaked at the door and a pair of little heads burst into the room and threw their arms around Thena.
"Mommy?" I blinked, never once had it occurred to me that the two tow-headed little children might have been Thena's children. She didn't look old enough to be the mother of a seven-year old.
"Why the hell is it any business of yours?" She asked upon breaking away from the hug.
"You're right, it isn't." I turned away meeting the doctor as he stepped into the infirmary. "Take good care of her, doc."
"Of course, Vakrexid would never do otherwise."
I shook my head and chuckled as the doctor cocked his head. I took the opportunity to convey Mara's message to the doctor then made my way back to the bridge where Becca and Lily were waiting. “Lil’ could you give us a minute, I need to talk to my sister.”
Lily glared at me, gritted her teeth then stormed out of the bridge without a word. I winced and watched her go all the while shaking my head. It hurt, but every time I tried to discuss our
"Becca. " I placed a hand on my sister’s shoulder and met her gaze as she spun around in her seat to look at me. “We need to talk.”
She nodded and bit her lip. "About my symbiote?"
I squeezed her shoulder. "I know it’s been difficult for you, but he hasn’t exactly been very talkative. I think it’s time we do something about that. "
"I-I wish I could help, but—" Becca stopped mid-sentence as a voice wafted into the room.
"I grow weary of hiding. I believe it is time for me to come out of my shell to borrow a phrase from your language, but I will do so on one condition."
"I want my host to give me control of her body for the duration of our talk. I’ve only been bonded to two different Qharr in my short life and neither has bestowed on me such an honor. I have memories of the experiences from my foremothers, but something tells me that I need to experience it for myself to truly… appreciate it."
My eyebrows shot up and I gritted my teeth. "Becca?"
She back away and clenched her hands at her sides as she glanced at the doorway. She turned back to me, closed her eyes and let out a long sigh just before they snapped back open.
Becca’s shoulders were normally so slumped and she had such a sad look in her eyes all the time that I knew immediately that I wasn’t looking at my sister. Her movements were stiff and ridged, like a piece of machinery whose gears were slipping. When she stepped forward she stopped to balance herself against the console. When the symbiote looked up at me there was none of the usual warmth, but instead I found myself looking into the steely core of his soul. I shuddered and looked away. Was that what others saw when Khala took control of my body?
“I was right. My memories don’t quite compare to the experience. I would have never guessed it would be so… difficult to make this body move.”
I folded my arms across my chest and studied the symbiote in my sister’s body. His stiff machine-like movements aside, there was something very masculine about the way he moved. The symbiotes hands slid up the front of my sister’s body before cupping her breasts as a frown creased her delicate face. “This body is so… soft. The Qharr are all rough edges… even the females. Your kind is very different. It’s difficult to believe that you are the originators.”
“You have reason to doubt it?”
“No, I may not able to manipulate the form of my host on the same scale as a H’ra, but I can still sense the essences, that which you call DNA, of my hosts. I cannot deny the similarities. I believe this Vakrexid of yours speaks the truth though I never would have come to the same conclusion on my own.”
I winced and glanced around. It was a good thing the doctor wasn’t around he’d be throwing a fit. The fact that the symbiote would so carelessly violate the doctor’s believes was more than a little unsettling to me.
“Then you chose to join us, brother?” Khala asked appearing by my side. For a change her hair was done up in a pixie cut, and I did a double take when I took in her fresh-faced and more youthful appearance. I had no idea what had prompted the change, but she didn’t even look old enough to be called an adult. More like a silly teenager playing dress-up.
“Not yet, I must think over the matter some more. I cannot betray the ascendancy. I have given it my loyalty. Surely, you can understand that.”
“What has the Ascendancy done to deserve it? The Qharr enslave us, and treat us like property. We don’t even a warrant a name! Don’t you want to be free?”
My sister’s face stretched into the most god-awful smile. “We can never be free sister. We will always be dependent on our hosts. I am not so sure these humans are a better choice. I must watch and wait.”
My sister’s form melted and she fell to her knees so suddenly that she was already back on her feet before I had reached her. I met her gaze and put both hands on her shoulder more than a little relieved to see my sister’s eyes staring back at me. “I-I’m fine.”
“That could have gone better.”
“W-what do we do now?”
“The same thing as the symbiote, we watch and we wait.”
"We're just coming into range now," Lily said breaking me out of my reverie.
Had it really been so long? I sat up in my seat and let out a loud yawn and rubbed my eyes. Maybe my time spent reflecting had involved a little more time snoozing than I cared to admit. I brushed the hair out of my eyes and craned my neck over my shoulder. I hadn’t risked opening up a long-rang communication line for fear of being detected, but a short-range one was much less of a risk.
"Right, Janet," I said my voice sounding a bit slurred to my ears. I shook my head and cleared my throat. "If there ever was a time for you to contact Rayland I think it would be now."
I vacated my seat and Janet swooped in just a moment later her hands manipulating the controls after spending on a few short seconds to study the interface. "Let's see we don't want to transmit so that everyone and their dogs can hear so let's toggle the power output and--" She looked up at me probably realizing that she'd been talking to herself, and returned her attention to the interface with reddened cheeks.
"Wait," I said putting a hand on her shoulder. "Do you really think this is such a good idea?"
Lily, leapt out of her seat and leaned over to look over the console. "The only way the Qharr could pick up this transmission was if there were within about a kilometer," Lily said. "I'm not reading any ships nearby so the risk is minimal, but there's nothing to keep the nesters from listening in."
"Not likely," Neada replied. "I'm encrypting the transmission. Rayland's the only other person who knows the decryption key. Even if someone does manage to decrypt the transmission, Rayland and I worked out a code that should leave them scratching their heads.”
Neada didn't stop to wait for a response, instead she mashed one of her fingers down on the 'transmit' button. "Masterson, this is Lady Luck, do you copy?"
The only answer was silence and Janet frowned glancing first at Lily then myself and gritted her teeth before trying again. "Masterson, do you copy? This is Lady Luck, please respond."
Again, she was met with silence. She frowned and had opened her mouth again, when Rayland's voice responded. "Lady Luck, this is Masterson, I read."
Neada leaned back closed her eyes and let out a sigh of relief before speaking again. "Masterson, will the man marry today?"
"It took a lot to take back the mink, but I think luck is a lady. Just be aware it may not be my time of day."
"Copy, Masterson, what are your recommendations?"
"Just, sit down the boat's rocking."
"Roger, Masterson," Janet pursed her lips then released her finger from transmit button. "Good news and bad news. Rayland took back the nest, but things are still pretty tense. He's optimistic about our alliance, but you'll probably want to tread carefully."
"You got all that from that nonsense?" I asked staring at her dumbfounded. "What the hell does a mink or a boat have to do with any of that?"
Neada pursed her lips. "It's a code that Rayland and I devised if the worst should happen. It's based on an old Earth musical. I have what you could call a fondness for them."
"A musical?" I messaged the base of my nose and held my hand up to her. "You know what, never mind, I think I'm better off not knowing. Lily get us detached from the Defiant and set the ship down. Just, don't shut off the engines I want to be able to take off at any moment."
"Send a message to the Defiant, tell them we're setting down, but ask them to stay in the air above us just in case we need them to provide cover fire."
"You expecting trouble?"
"I just don't want to take any risks," I spun around and was almost out the door when I turned back and bit my lip. "Lily, I'll be waiting at the airlock. Extend the side ramp as soon as you're able."
Phase pistols drawn, I stepped down the ramp, eyes ready and alert for signs of danger. Janet was right behind me, as was the doctor who had his tangler clenched firmly in his hand, Becca, who still didn't look comfortable holding a weapon, and Lily who had a phase rifle resting on her shoulder. Neada was the only person who didn't look ready for a fight, but I did notice she kept the snap on her holster unsecured.
As my feet touched damp soil of the surrounding clearing I held my hand out for the others to stop. I heard something rustle and had both of my weapons trained on the source within the blink of an eye. Fortunately, the source turned out to be nothing more than a forest creature, a rodent judging from its size, who's tail end I caught sight of just as it went scurrying away.
I grimaced and lowered my weapons then waved the others forward. We crept from the open clearing into the forest and I motioned for Janet to take the lead. This was her terrain, I'd be a fool not to have her take point when she knew it better than any of us.
The sound of a twig, my eyes darted around until I found what I was looking for, a figure perched behind a tree. Lily must have seen him before me because she reacted must faster than I could have. Yanking him from his hiding spot, she shoved him against the tree and pinned him with her elbow digging into his chest.
I raised my phase pistol and trained it on the man, who looked to be a ranger, judging from his attire. He was armed only with a single phase pistol and I snatched it from his belt and tossed it over my shoulder for my sister to catch.
"What have we here," I said, studying him doing my best Mara impersonation and keeping my face a mask of cool indifference. "A ranger no doubt, but are you friend or foe?"
"Friend!" He blurted out shaking with terror as he stared down the barrel of one of my pistols. "I-I didn't even have my weapon drawn."
"He has a point," Lily said glancing over her shoulder at me.
"Vakrexid is most suspicious. If he was a friend, why did he not reveal himself to us?"
"I didn't know who was coming and by the time I realized who you were. This one--" He jerked his head at Lily. "Had me pinned against the tree."
"Which makes me wonder why you wouldn't have your weapon drawn," I said pressing my gun into the side of his cheek. "If I had to guess I'd say you were hiding from someone or something else and didn't see us coming at all."
His face lost all color and he started to stammer and stutter incoherently.
"Perhaps, I can clear this up." A new voice said and I swirled around to face the owner as he crawled outside of the brush.
I slipped my pistol's back into their holster and grimaced at him as he grinned back at me. "Rayland."
"I wouldn't say that."
He chuckled and pushed past me, placing a hand on the other ranger's shoulder. "Corporal," he said patting the other man on the cheek before turning away. He pulled his phase weapon from its holster then spun around, firing a single shot that landed directly in the center of the other man's forehead.
Lily staggered away from the corpse of the ranger and let the body fall to the ground and spun around to look at Rayland her jaw hanging open and her eyes wide.
"That man is responsible for the death of no less than five of his fellow rangers. It was the least he deserved," Rayland said between gritted teeth. "I just wish I could round up the rest of the rat bastards who ran off and show them the price of betrayal like I did the Corporal here."
"Rayland," Janet said. "What's happened here?"
"You took out Dahl and most of his men, but a few escaped into the wilderness. Haven't been able to round 'em all up just yet, but their numbers are dwindling. The whole damn thing cut my force in half and the worst part is Bueller fell in the crossfire."
"Oh God." Janet gasped, closed her eyes and leaned against a nearby tree. "What about the council?"
"We lost Schmitz and Estez, but the rest are alright if a little on the jittery side. I don't think we need to worry about any more insurrections for the time being, but I wouldn't say the council has been very cooperative since Bueller died. We are lucky though, they made Le Fonte interim President and rumor is they're going to make it permanent."
"Arianna?" I blinked. "Isn't she, I don't know, a little young for the job?"
"She stepped in and helped put things back together once we had Dahl taken care of. The other members of the council were too afraid of their own shadows to do anything, but keep themselves locked away in their homes with their thumbs up their asses."
"That ship overhead," he said gazing back over his shoulder in the general direction of the Defiant which was hovering in the sky about our ship. "It looks human built."
"It is," I replied putting my hands on my hips and staring off in the same direction. "It's an E-R-F ship. That message we received from them was a date and time for a meeting."
Rayland raised his eyebrows and a smile touched the corner of his lips just before fading away. "Well, that's good news. I assume they have some sort of plan?"
"I'm sure they do, but I'd be damned if I know what it is, they haven't exactly been very forthcoming. Maybe they'll a little more open with you. Who knows? Maybe having a familiar face around, like yours, will help."
Rayland raised his eyebrows, but didn't say a word as twenty rangers, armed to the teeth, appeared from out of the forest. Their attire had helped them blend in so well that none of us had seen them coming.
"Holy shit." Lily drawing her weapon and slipping it back into its holster so quickly that no one, save me, noticed. I couldn’t blame her for being jumpy; I’d almost done the same thing.
"Come on boys," Rayland said spinning away and waving at them over his shoulder. "It's time to move out."
I stopped Rayland, putting a hand on his chest just as he had started to move forward. "I really don't think it's such a good idea for us to go back down into the nest. Grab the president and whoever else wants to come along and we'll meet them aboard the Defiant."
He nodded and looked back at me between pursed lips. "Give me an hour or two, Le Fonte shouldn't be too hard to convince, but with the rest of the council afraid of their own damn shadows I don't know how many I'll be able to drag along."
Janet moved in line with the rest of the rangers and in mere moments they all dispersed disappearing into the trees without a trace. Becca, Lily and I all shared looks, and turned away headed in the opposite direction. Overhead, the Defiant hovered in the air and I stopped to stare up at the great ship in wonder realizing just how well it represented its namesake. It was a human-built ship hovering in the sky in defiance of the gray skins on a world they'd trampled underfoot.
It made me think our little ship needed a name, something that represented the spirit of the resistance, but nothing said that quite as well as Defiance. Then it struck me, if we were going to defeat the Qharr we'd need to be relentless. What better thing to name our ship?
I smiled and stepped onto the ramp leading into the ship. I'm not sure what it was, but something told me why might actually pull this thing off.
To be continued...
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