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Harvester 7

Harvester 7

The introduction to the “Rise of the Kressa” Trilogy

 

Andy Lang

 

 

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Copyright

Layout Copyright © 2015 by PMO Publishing. Published 2015 by PMO Publishing. eBook design by PMO Publishing. Cover art by Andy Lang.

This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the authors imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without the authors permission.

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Chapter 1

For over seven hundred and fifty years the harvesters had been voyaging into deep space, but each journey was becoming longer and more dangerous because suitable planets were getting fewer and more difficult for the scouts to discover. Terrillia was a dying planet and nothing could be done to prevent the inevitable.

Only in the central archives could be found records of how the world had once been, but the beautiful liquid methane oceans had long been depleted, now barren and featureless deserts, the lush crystalline forests were long gone and all other forms of life had been hunted and harvested beyond the point of extinction. Only the Territes remained on their desolate world.

Maulik entered Harvester Command, he hadn’t been summoned there, he simply wanted to check out the coordinates for the next mission. Command had a habit of keeping even the most senior pilots in the dark, which meant that crew morale was low and discontent rife, each mission was further into hostile sectors, each mission further than implied, three months estimated usually meant six to nine months actual.

He didn’t mind the distance or duration and actually relished the longer missions, they satisfied his urge for exploration. For over seventy years he had been applying to get a scout pilots licence, there was the real action and adventure, true there was also the risk but it paled when compared to the sights he would see, the new worlds, the new sensations, the responsibility. If he attained the coveted exploration licence he would be free to wander where his adventurous spirit took him, he would set his own coordinates, the days of schedules and pre-plotted courses and quotas would be gone, he would have the fate of his species continuation in his hands.

He had responsibility of course, he was master of a two hundred million ton Harvester, Harvester 7. That was two hundred million tons unloaded, on the return trip the gross weight would be almost triple, his job was vital to the survival of his people, but he just couldn’t escape the feeling that he should be out there finding food, not simply harvesting and transporting.

“So where are you sending me next?” his mind connected with the central commander, Commander Trulek didn’t move, his head nodded slightly as he sent his reply.

“Come on, you know the protocol, I can’t give you that information until you have left dock and are waiting at the jump gate.”

Maulik smiled, “And you know how curious I always am, come on, just a hint, I’m the only pilot you have who doesn’t care how far, or how long.”

“You just want me to lose my commission!” Trulek gave a mental grin before continuing, “Far my friend, farther than you have been before, almost uncharted space.”

Maulik began to question but was cut short by the mental block as Trulek’s mind closed to him.

“So I guess that’s all I’m getting then?”

The commander turned and made eye contact for the first time.

“That’s all, but I can say that this trip was made for you, success might just get you a scout licence.”

With a blink of his mirrored eyes the connection was cut and Maulik understood that the conversation was over, but he didn’t complain, that was more information than he had ever managed to glean before and the suggestion that completion could earn him an upgraded licence fed his dreams.

***

Each short visit to the planet’s surface left Maulik feeling depressed and saddened, what his people had done to their home sickened him but that had been three generations before his hatching, the billions of Territes were now forced to live inside protective shields. The once perfect methane atmosphere had been almost completely depleted leaving only a toxic mix of oxygen, hydrogen and nitrogen. His ancestors had a great deal to answer for, their abuse of the planet had allowed a violently poisonous layer of ozone to form around the planet blocking vital radiation and destroying all life below a level 6 classification.

Territes were of course level 8, they were the superior beings, top of the food chain. Level 8 was clearly defined, as were levels 1 to 4, L1 covered bacteria and single celled organisms through to L4 which encompassed sentient beings, considered sentient because although they displayed a low level of intelligence they understood threat, they had fight or flight instincts, it had even been rumoured that they may even be able to sense pain.

Those classifications were clear cut and beyond debate or dispute, but then came levels 5 and 6.

L5 displayed social activity and interaction beyond herding instincts and the urge to reproduce, Level 6 was a very grey area, it covered a multitude of possibilities. L6 life forms displayed problem solving abilities, in some cases they could almost be considered as civilizations, practising construction, performing complex interactions.

L6 had stimulated heated debate in the Senate, many were campaigning against the harvesting of L6 organisms on distant worlds but shortages on Terrillia had swung the vote, L6 harvesting would continue.

In an effort to clarify and end the constant debate L6 had been classified as organisms that had not developed to the point of interstellar travel, this ruling was decreed final and the debate died a slow death. The protests dwindled to zero as hard facts were laid out to the populous.

L6 harvesting… or starvation and extra restrictions on reproduction.

The official statement had been sufficient to silence all but a handful of hardened activists, the status quo was maintained and all scouts and harvester masters had their orders, for the good of Terrillia the harvest would continue.

***

For Maulik the debate was moot, he had no real feelings or opinions on the subject, he followed orders and the rules, the decisions fell to the scouts and the Senate, each new world discovered was studied and mapped, they were thorough, harvesting was only approved after months of careful planning and discussion.

As he waited for the next transport from the city centre out to the docking port where his harvester awaited orders to depart his mind wandered to the ultimatum presented to the population, hunger wasn’t an issue for him, as a harvester master he was used to an abundance of food, and his food was usually fresh, his command crew had their choice before the harvested protein was processed and dried for the long trip home, it never tasted quite the same after reconstitution and for many he was the subject of great envy.

Reproduction was no issue either, he had no immediate interest in continuing his genetic line, his samples were stored safely in the genobank, if his existence was suddenly terminated he was assured by his rank that within weeks he would be cloned and almost ready to hatch again, all his clone would be missing would be his most recent memories and age.

“I must remember to download my memories before I leave,” he reminded himself, thus ensuring his new self would be conscious of everything current happening in his life. Quite why many Territes wanted to have their clones in existence while they still lived was a mystery to him, and not just one clone, many wanted two or three, such vanity and indulgence. They used the old ways as an excuse, but the old ways had gone forever and the days of actual breeding were a distant memory.

Possibly the dangerous ozone had done his race a favour, there lingered no longer the risk of genetic imperfection. When it was discovered that fertility rates had dropped to virtually zero the scientists had stepped in and taken cloning to the next level.

Continuation of the species it had been called, but Maulik had other ideas, he had toyed with the concept that maybe the Senate had been behind the mass infertility. Atmospheric degradation had led to a dramatic rise in genetic abnormalities, younglings hatched with brown skin rather than the natural silver, hatchlings began to emerge with more fingers and toes, sometimes as many as five on either hand and foot, and the eyes formed without the protective mirrored membrane, disgusting to behold, no reflection just an exposed pupil.

Suddenly the hatching stopped, Ozone is to blame, was the official line. Maulik didn’t doubt that the noxious gas had played it’s part but the sudden planet wide sterility seemed just a little too convenient, but who was he to question the actions of the Senate, they had the interests of his people at heart and sometimes the masses benefited from a little forced guidance.

The transport arrived and he placed the two fingers of his left hand on the console, a bright green laser scanned his imprint and he was prompted for a destination. Maintaining his finger contact he pictured Harvester 7 in his mind and with the slightest electrical whir the pod slipped away floating just above the ground as it whisked him towards his waiting ship.

With minutes to spare he allowed his mind to wander again, cloning had been an excellent solution he decided, why not continue his line with a perfect copy of himself? The copy being even better in many ways, when he had given his sample at the genobank he had been scanned for any imperfections, of course none had been found but if by chance an error had been detected corrections would be made at a genetic level ensuring his next self would be closer to perfection. Cloning had also arrested the rampant reproductive urges of his people, which he had to admit when he watched archive footage had been completely out of control in the bad old days, now continuation had become reserved for the most valued members of society, and for almost five hundred years the population had remained steady at around twenty eight billion. It was a manageable number in the eyes of the Senate, a number that could be maintained with current harvester numbers, yet he had heard rumours that things were beginning to get tight. Every suitable system within three months FTL travel was now stripped bare, a century before he remembered how as a fresh recruit he had witnessed selective harvesting, levels 1 to 4 were processed but not in such numbers that damaged the ecosystem of the host world, a world that was left then for years to re-populate. But greed and lazy harvester masters had contributed to their current dilemma, too idle to harvest several worlds on each trip they had avoided the weeks and months of travel and filled their holds with the life of entire planets leaving them dead and desolate. Their reward was always bonus credits for speedy turnarounds, too late came the scouts reports, the damage had been done and now only deep space offered the supplies of protein so desperately needed on Terrillia.

Maulik studied the desolation outside the transport pod window as he was carried beyond the city shields and out into the wastelands that surrounded Terrus Major Space Port, he found it difficult to imagine how the landscape had once looked, Terrus Major had once been surrounded by a vast methane lake teeming with life, now all that remained was barren space dotted with rippling pools of water, the liquid had begun to form as the oxygen and hydrogen levels had risen. Water, a very dangerous fluid and one of the main reasons very few ever ventured beyond the protective shields, even wearing silicon safety skin it had a habit of finding its way through the seams and burned deep into the flesh, he shuddered at the thought and tried to focus on the mission ahead. Shortening his vision he concentrated on his own reflection in the glass, he was in the prime of life, his smooth sliver skin glowed with health and his slender physique clearly displayed his status. As with all high status citizens he had no muscle mass and his long arms were suitably thin, his was a life of button pushing, a life lived within his quick mind, he would never suffer the indignity of manual labour. He had a fair number of “manuals” as they were named under his command but he only witnessed them on his periodic tours of the ship, they were confined to the vast holds, out of sight, out of mind.

Only one blemish he noted, the dark grey scar that ran above his right eye. An old accident from his early days in a skirmish with the Watu. He had been a junior officer then, a gunnery officer. He remembered the day well, the Watu, the only threat to Territe supremacy had launched a sneak attack and a plasma cannon under his command had misfired and the resulting explosion had flung shrapnel in all directions, many of his gunners had perished as they shielded him from the full blast, he had escaped with only a deep wound above his eye. Of course the damage and blemish could easily be repaired but he quite liked his old war wound, in a world where everyone was identical he enjoyed the feeling of being a little different, and when needed, his clone would hatch perfect with all of his memories intact, he could look pretty next time.

He ran one of his slender fingers across the grey scar, he had actually been lucky, just a little lower and he doubted his mirror membrane could have protected his eye, now that would have been expensive to replace.

The Watu, he thought to himself, a savage and primitive species, classified as L7 so sadly no harvesting was permitted on their world, The Senate should rule an exception, he chuckled, the galaxy wouldn’t miss their marauding.

Maulik had never actually seen a live Watu and he didn’t particularly want to, the pictures that he had seen were enough, short and stocky brown skinned creatures, and covered with a strange growth often referred to as “hair,” he wondered how they managed to clean themselves, his own smooth skin shed dirt naturally but he often cleansed himself with a warm methane shower, but covered with that strange growth he knew deep down that the Watu had to be a filthy race. The fact that they used verbal communication held them firmly at L7.

True, Territes had made sounds in their early evolution but telepathy had developed almost before recorded history and over the millennia the need for vocal chords had diminished leaving his race mute, not that verbal communication was ever required, they could read the intentions of their enemies and converse directly with the mind, if the mind was developed sufficiently to cope with the input. Another strange idiosyncrasy of the Watu was the custom of wearing the skins of lesser animals, he had been told it was a mark of dominance, but he saw it as only a confirmation of their bestial and primitive status.

Are they really a threat? he questioned himself as the pod slid through the Port shields and altered course directly towards his ship, Doubtful, he concluded, they had FTL drives but they lacked sophistication, their shielding often proved poor and unreliable and their weapons systems generally ineffective against the might of the Terrillian fleet. Maulik often wondered if the technology possessed by the Watu had been stolen, he couldn’t see them designing anything advanced, maybe they had stumbled upon a derelict ship and through more luck than judgement had managed to figure out the systems and operation, with that knowledge they could reproduce but not improve, the fact that their technology had not advanced over the century or so that he had faced them only added weight to his theory.

“No, they are no threat,” he announced with confidence as the pod sealed itself against the main entrance port on the command level of Harvester 7.

Chapter 2

“Did you miss me boy?” he directed into the minuscule mind of the Sarovian lizard that he kept as a pet in his quarters, the blue reptile raised and rattled its scales as waves of violet light pulsed through the skin below as it showed its excitement at Maulik’s return, seconds later it was scuttling between his thin silver legs all the time rattling its scales and pulsating. Sometimes Maulik wished he could converse with the creature but try as he might he couldn’t ever raise more than a croaking and hissing, the mind was receptive to a point, but would never be able to reply.

“Never mind boy,” he thought while he stroked the scales flat and tickled the glowing stomach as the lizard writhed in ecstasy, “We would probably only argue if you could answer me back,” he chuckled.

“Are you hungry boy?”

The hiss and chattering answered him clearly, that was one thing he could understand, “Of course you are… you’re always hungry,” he grinned before selecting a sliver of flesh from the refrigeration unit and tossing it into the waiting maw.

Patting his pet farewell Maulik headed for the bridge, it was still over an hour before Harvester 7 was scheduled to depart but he wanted to get his diagnostics checked again, deep inside he knew that the trip would be long, very long and he wanted every system in perfect working order.

“Lieutenant Relik,” he called as he strode onto the wide bridge, Relik stood to attention and the flick of his mirrored eyes indicated that he was open to direct and private mind contact, Maulik nodded and established the link.

“Re-run all diagnostics, every system, I want this bucket in perfect working order before we leave.”

Relik smiled, “I’ve already run them twice, I guessed we were in for a long one when I saw the provisions manifest, at least six months worth.” Maulik nodded, Relik was a smart officer and with another fifty or sixty years of experience would probably make a fine harvester master.

“Any idea where we’re going this time?”

Maulik grinned, “You know as much as I do, you know the protocol.”

Relik nodded as Master Maulik cut the link, and returned to his diagnostics. With the computer systems around the ship sending their reports he had a few moments to study the inbound manifest again, the stream of data on the screen reflected in his mirrored eyes, suddenly he paused the flow and studied an entry, Classified blinked on his display arousing his curiosity,

“Well that’s not normal.” he announced as he tried to access the files.

“What’s not normal?” asked Maulik, “Is there a problem?” He hoped not, a failing system now could delay departure for days, the jump gates required huge amounts of energy to hurl two hundred million tons of harvester to light speed and would take many hours to recharge, and by that time 7 would have missed its departure slot

“No problem with the ship,” replied Relik, “It’s fully functional, it’s just we have some classified cargo coming on-board and I can’t get into the files, the decryption is the highest level… Military level.” he announced but on a private link directly to his master and commander.

“Work on it,” replied Maulik, “But don’t set off any alarms, what hold is it coming into?”

“It’s not coming into the hold,” announced a confused Relik, “Well some of the consignment is going to Hold 32, but the rest… well, the rest is coming here! it’s coming to the bridge?”

“Keep working on that decryption.” urged Maulik, maybe he hadn’t gleaned even a fraction of the information about the mission from Commander Trulek, only personnel could be coming onto his bridge, but why the secrecy, 7 wasn’t a transport, command knew that, who was he going to be carrying?

“Maulik!” cried the startled lieutenant, “Sorry Sir, Master Maulik.” Relik corrected himself, “I still can’t get into the file but Hold 32 is now full.”

“Full.” exclaimed Maulik, “Impossible!”

“I know Sir… but it’s still full.”

Placing his fingers on the glowing communication pad Maulik attempted to contact Harvester Command.

Trulek responded, “Before you ask, yes I know your hold is full, Maulik, this is beyond my control and certainly beyond yours, and before you ask, no, I can’t tell you anything, just continue prep as normal, you will be briefed directly once you have made the jump.”

“Directly?” he questioned, this was not standard procedure, no master jumped before he received his full briefing.

“Don’t question me, just accept that you will receive your mission parameters after the jump has been initiated.”

“Understood.” replied a slightly confused master.

“And Maulik, may the Gods be with you.”

Commander Trulek severed the connection.

“This is between us,” he signalled Relik and received a nod, “So when do we expect our bridge guest, or guests?”

“Unknown,” answered Relik as he scanned the data stream, “Currently on accommodation level 3, but I’m locked out of surveillance.”

This is why There’s discord in the fleet, he told himself as he became confident that the military were behind all the secrecy. Harvesters were under the jurisdiction of the Senate, not the military, he didn’t need to see a Colonial uniform to know that the defence boys were behind it all, military level encryption had confirmed that theory for him.

“You have the con,” he instructed Relik, “I’m going to inspect Hold 32.”

“And our guests? What if they come to the bridge while you’re away?”

Maulik turned and grinned, “Then lock them out until I get back, two can play that game.”

***

Two hundred million tons of harvester equalled a vast ship and the trip to Hold 32 would have taken hours on foot but Maulik hopped into a grav-lift and was soon hurtling down seventy six decks, right into the bowels of the beast. As master he knew his ship inside out but Hold 32 had never needed his inspection before, all he knew was that it was just one of fifty on the lowermost deck, all identical, nothing out of the ordinary, except today he had a million tons of classified cargo… and that was out of the ordinary!

Colonial Marines, he congratulated himself as he stepped from the lift and was faced by a wall of grey and green camouflage uniforms.

Of all his race only the military wore any form of clothing, their uniforms were simply protection, woven from a synthesised silicon that was impervious to all known energy weapons they were no better than the Watu in Maulik’s mind, grey and green symbols of dominance.

“Hey guys,” he signalled, “What’s happening here?”

“Move along.” came the reply, “This is a restricted area.”

“Really?” replied Maulik as he flashed his credentials.

The marines straightened and signalled apologies, “Sorry Master, you should have let us know before, but again I’m sorry, you still can’t pass this point.”

“I’ll go anywhere I want on my ship.” flared Maulik, but the marines weren’t playing games as he heard the faint hum of plasma rifles charging,

“Hey, don’t get excited.” he laughed masking his nerves, “I’m just on a routine pre-flight inspection, no big deal.”

“Everything will be explained once we’ve made the jump” assured the Colonial Squad Leader, “And Master, I’m sure you will be needed on the bridge very soon.” Maulik nodded as he heard the sound of docking clamps releasing, soon 7 would be in free space and manoeuvring to the jump gate. He gave an overly stiff salute loaded with sarcasm before stepping back into the grav-lift. His day was definitely not going as planned.

***

“This is Colonel Balak.” announced Relik as he stepped back onto the bridge.

“What happened to locking the doors?” he signalled privately.

“I have complete authority over access on this ship at the moment,” cut in Balak, “And while I am on board there will be no attempts at private links.”

Maulik stared in disbelief, “How did you access our link?” all he caught in reply was a thin grin.

“That’s classified.” replied the colonel.

“OK, so what’s all this about?” Maulik demanded not trying to hide the irritation in his thoughts as Balak pointed to the gold crescent on his arm, indicating his rank.

Maulik gave a mental shrug of dismissal, “So what Colonel, I’m not military, that mark means nothing to me, and you appear to be a guest on my ship so I suggest you start explaining what you are doing here, and why my Hold 32 is crammed to the roof with the Gods know what?”

“Classified.” came the stiff reply.

Maulik turned to his bridge crew and announced, “I wonder if this guy ever gets tired of that word?”

“How long before we jump?” demanded the Colonel refusing to rise to Maulik’s comment.

“we’re on the five minute countdown now.” replied Relik.

“Then your questions will all be answered in six minutes time.” replied the Colonel with a grin, “And now Harvester Master Maulik, if you don’t mind you will accompany me to the accommodation level where you will receive a private mission briefing.”

As they stepped onto the grav-lift the Colonel relaxed and requested a private link.

“I thought this was not allowed.” scoffed Maulik as he accepted.

“I’m not the enemy,” replied the Colonel, “Just trust me that it will all become clear very soon, and I’m truly sorry that you couldn’t be briefed before now. But trust me, in a few minutes time you will understand why all the secrecy.” Maulik wasn’t convinced or pacified but masked the thoughts and merely shrugged non-committally.

Red lights pulsed as they stepped from the lift, “Thirty second countdown.” indicated Maulik, “Then you can start talking, oh, and Colonel, I suggest you hang onto that rail… right about… Now!” he chuckled as Balak lost his footing as the inertial dampeners kicked in to offset the massive acceleration to light speed.

“Thanks for the heads-up.” glowered Balak as he staggered back to his feet.

“Hey, it’s the very least I could do, you guys have given me just as much warning.”

“As I have already told you, I’m not the enemy, perhaps you will begin to understand soon and maybe we can get on a better footing.”

Doubtful replied Maulik but blocked the comment, “So… we’ve officially jumped, start talking!”

“First I want you to meet another guest.” replied the Colonel and swiftly transmitted the code to open the accommodation deck, the hatch swished open and a guard of marines saluted smartly as they walked through to the large suite reserved for meetings and special guests.

“Master Maulik, I would like you to meet Vice Chancellor Go’an of the Watu High Council.”

Maulik felt his skin crawl which constricted his respiration pores catching his breath for a moment.

“A Watu… here on my ship?” his response was private and directed at the Colonel, but his expression to the Watu Vice Chancellor remained neutral.

Go’an was exactly as the pictures he had seen. Primitive. Thick with hair and the smell was sickening, he barely reached Maulik’s waist but under the coating of thick brown hair a heavily muscled physique rippled, his shoulders were broad and looked solid, even more solid than the strongest “manual” he had aboard. Maulik tried to avoid eye contact but couldn’t help himself glancing, the Watu had no membrane, just yellow orbs with rapidly expanding and contracting black pupils, he felt that those strange eyes were burning deep into his flesh. The face was hairless and the skin creased and dark brown, it reminded Maulik of harvested flesh that was only part dried, that also wrinkled and creased in a similar fashion. Around his short and wide neck he wore a heavy chain of office and in one meaty five fingered hand he held a ceremonial staff of polished black bone with what looked like a horned serpents head glaring at him with flaming red gem stone eyes.

It was true what he had heard, the Watu did wear the skins of lower animals, the cloak draped across the broad shoulders had come from some heavy black haired creature and his lower body was wrapped in a similar heavy skin.

“Again… a Watu on my ship?” he signalled the Colonel, “I think there is a lot of explaining to do here!”

“Vice Chancellor Go’an is also a telepath.” indicated Balak, as the stocky Watu grinned displaying a full set of dagger-like teeth.

“Master Maulik, it is an honour to be a guest aboard your fine ship.” the Watu replied and bowed low.

“You will have to excuse my initial reaction,” replied a stunned Maulik, “I really didn’t expect to meet a member of the Watu High Council today.”

Go’an chuckled, “Well covered. But what you meant to say is you expected to fight the Watu today, but not to entertain one as your guest.” he held up his misshapen hand to stop Maulik’s reply.

“Our peoples have been enemies for centuries, but soon we will be allies, if the Gods permit, come Master Maulik, sit with me and the Colonel and we can satisfy all of those questions that are crowding your mind.”

In a dream of confusion Maulik joined Balak and Go’an at the highly polished conference table and listened as Go’an explained his peoples history and hopes for the future.

“Our races share a common ancestry.” he announced and grinned at Maulik’s look of disbelief.

“Impossible,” he declared, “How could that be true, just look at us, how could two species be more different?”

“Environment, circumstances,” replied Go’an, “I didn’t want to believe it myself when I first learned the truth, how could a proud warrior race such as the Watu share genetics with you silver skinned hairless creatures,” he chuckled again, “No offence intended but we find you as offensive to look at as you no doubt find us, but that does not change the fact that genetically our races are almost identical.”

“OK, let’s say that maybe I’m open minded enough to accept what you’re saying, but where is the proof, how did you discover the link?”

“Ah, now that goes back before my time, a long way back. Many centuries ago we had a visitor, a fugitive, we found him crashed on our southern continent, his ship was only slightly damaged and he was in stasis, in a cryo-tube, my unenlightened ancestors simply wanted to eat him but as the feast was being prepared he awoke and spoke directly to their minds, it saved his life.”

Go’an chuckled, “He told us many things, things that are now considered legend and myth, yet those tales he told held truths, inescapable truths.” Go’an fixed his yellow pulsating eyes on Maulik and strengthened their link, “Our telepathic ability is much stronger than yours, I could tear your mind to pieces now if I so wished, you Terrillians have always considered yourselves superior to us, but you might be surprised.” he relaxed the contact and Maulik massaged above his scar. “That was not intended as intimidation or a threat,” announced Go’an, “I simply wish to alter your perception of my race, we are not the animals you believe us to be, in fact, according to your classification, I would say we are easily Level 9, but I am wandering from the current topic, Master Maulik, have you never wondered why the creatures in each system that you harvest are all so similar, their planets are light years apart yet there is usually a genetic link?”

“Coincidence, maybe the original organic source split between different planets as each solar system was born, maybe the Gods themselves truly created life that way… who knows for sure?” he shrugged.

“I know for sure,” replied Go’an with certainty, “The fugitive on our planet was escaping a race that we have never encountered… yet. They are responsible, he told us their name but it is too painful for telepaths to utter, so we only refer to them as the Reapers.”

“You are seriously expecting me to buy this?” snapped Maulik before grasping his head as his mirror membranes fluttered rapidly.

“That is their proper name, and that hurt me almost as much as it hurt you, do not test my patience Master Maulik, if you are truly enlightened you will listen to me and drive the doubts away that I see lurking in the depths of your mind… and, as a matter of interest, you also smell very bad to me… Now if I have your attention again, I will continue, the Reapers are what you would call farmers, they seed the galaxies with their livestock. Yes Maulik, both you and I are their food source,” he smiled exposing the sharp teeth, “The harvesters may soon be harvested themselves, don’t you find that rather ironic?”

“How do you know this for sure?” asked the Colonel,

“We have always called the writings our scriptures,” replied the Watu, “Yet the learned amongst us know that those scriptures were written by the fugitive, they foretell of a time when the Gods will return to Watuma, many believe this will be a time of great celebration, I know it will be a time of devastation, the galactic farmers will return to harvest their fields, it will be the end of our civilizations, both mine, and yours.”

“When?” asked Maulik, as Go’an smiled.

“According to our calculations any time within the next twenty years, any time, perhaps even today or tomorrow, that is why I have called this truce between our peoples, we can stand together, or fall alone.”

Maulik nodded, “It makes sense yet I also sense that the High Council doesn’t agree with you, or why the clandestine meeting aboard my ship, and the hold full of marines and drones?”

Go’an bared his teeth and his eyes flashed, “You see Colonel, I was right, you doubted me but young Maulik here is worth ten of your marines, he obviously beat your advanced encryption… congratulations,” he remarked, “It is true that the High Council is not completely on my side, many are stubbornly following the Chancellor in his fanatical belief that the Gods are returning.”

“So we are going to help you take one step up the political ladder “Vice” Chancellor?” grinned Maulik, “Because this could also simply be your way of seizing power, maybe the Gods truly are returning and you just want to be the leader that meets them!”

“That may look like a possibility,” he admitted, “But look into my mind, if you find even the slightest deception I will willingly leave your ship and we can resume hostilities.” and at that he opened his mind and invited a link. Maulik didn’t need the connection, he already sensed the truth, and the truth scared him.

“So why do you need Harvester 7, surely it would have been easier to just arrive with a battle cruiser?”

“Stealth, my young friend,” replied Go’an, “You will simply cut out of FTL on the outer edge of the Watuma system and plead mechanical failures, my people will send out a few star-fighters to harass you but no-one will turn a hair that a harvester is stalled on the edge of our territory.”

“And when your people are asleep the marines boost you to power, very neat.”

“Crudely put… but basically true,” admitted Go’an, “But I prefer to believe that a stealth attack will reduce the lives lost, on both sides, the Watu are not toothless!” he bit the air aggressively before laughing, “We have a more advanced fleet that you could ever imagine, stealth will save us from war, we cut off the serpents head quickly and surgically, the High Council will follow me when the Chancellor is gone, of that I have no doubt.”

“Then I guess it’s almost time for you to be getting ready,” replied Maulik as he connected his mind with the navigation computer, “We arrive in just over three hours. I just have one question, why did you need us, why not use your own military?”

“A good question,” grinned Go’an, “We have a very strict chain of command and the military will only respond on the direct orders of the Chancellor, no-one else, that is why he must be silenced quickly and effectively before any order can be given, I could not rely on my own military to support me as Vice, but as Chancellor I will have complete control over them.”

“So if we do it quickly, everyone is happy, but mess it up and we are at war?”

Go’an nodded.

“Wonderful.” sighed Maulik, “And my poor 7 is stuck in the middle, I hope your guys are good Colonel.”

***

Maulik left his guests discussing strategy and returned to the bridge, his mind buzzing with questions and concerns.

“Relik, join me in my ready room… now.” he signalled without pausing, he needed a trusted opinion and Relik was the closest to a friend that he had, he needed to share his recent information, he wanted to judge Relik’s reactions.

“Sit.” he instructed and requested a private link. With interest he followed the subconscious reactions as he transferred his data from the meeting with Go’an, fear, disbelief and finally excitement blossomed in Relik’s mind.

“Suggestions?” he asked.

“Strengthen our defences,” was the immediate reply, “Personally, if I can speak freely?” Relik paused for a moment before continuing as Maulik nodded, “I would look at the worst case, if they fail we have a whole planets worth of star-fighters looking for a target, and 7 certainly isn’t a star-fighter, sure we can outrun them… given time, but we don’t have acceleration, we will take a lot of pounding before we can build the speed to escape.”

“Agreed,” replied Maulik, “Plot an escape vector into the navcom, have it ready on my word… The Colonial Marines can start their war if they want, but my priorities are to my ship and my crew, if anything thing goes wrong I won’t hesitate to get us out of here.”

Relik nodded, before asking tentatively “Should I get extra gunnery crews on standby?”

Maulik paused for a second, “Yes, but make it a look like a drill, call it readiness training… there is no need to alarm anyone just yet.”

Relik stood and began to leave before turning to his Master, “Do you agree with what’s happening?”

he received a mental shrug, “This is bigger than me,” Maulik admitted, “I can’t say I agree, but I can’t say I’m totally against it, if nothing else is achieved at least the Watu should stop constantly shooting at us.”

“Are they really as disgusting as they look in the pictures?” Relik grinned.

“Far worse,” laughed Maulik, “But when you meet Go’an, clear your mind, he is an exceptionally gifted telepath.”

Chapter 3

“Are your calculations to drop out of FTL on the edge of Watu space complete?” asked Colonel Balak as he stepped onto the bridge and approached Maulik.

“Yes, and my crew are ready,” he nodded, “Are your people ready?”

“Colonial Marines are always ready.” Balak repeated the recruiting slogan which didn’t impress the bridge crew who had now all been fully briefed.

“None of us want to enlist Colonel,” replied Maulik with an edge of sarcasm, “A simple yes would have been enough.”

“We will be ready to launch as soon as you get us into the optimum orbit.” acknowledged Balak.

For a split second Maulik sensed concern before it was masked in the Colonels mind, “Is there something that you forgot to tell me?” he asked as he witnessed the rapid shimmer on Balak’s mirrored membrane, a sure sign of nerves.

"This mission has only a 63% chance of success... according to the simulations." he admitted privately, raising Maulik's concerns to a higher level.

“Just perfect.” Maulik sighed, “OK Relik, get your extra gunnery crews on standby, it looks like this isn’t a drill anymore.”

***

Harvester 7 dropped below light speed exactly as plotted and within moments was drifting in a high orbit of Watuma, immediately they began running a false diagnostics routine ready for the inevitable scans that would follow when the Watu had scrambled their planetary defence forces. The fake diagnostic would show that the computers were searching for an FTL Drive error which would back up their communicated explanation when pressed for a reason why they were floating in Watu territory.

“Here they come.” signalled Relik.

“Doesn’t look like they were sleeping.” replied Maulik ensuring his thoughts reached the Colonel.

“we’re being scanned.”

“We have no argument with you,” replied Maulik to the hostile communication from the lead ship in Watuma’s planetary defence squadron, “All we want to do is fix our drive in peace and then be back on our way.”

A delay of static followed.

“They finished scanning us.” signalled Relik.

“You have one hour.” the Watu replied before acquiring a weapons lock on 7.

“Hey, hold your fire,” replied Maulik with some urgency, “We don’t want any trouble, just give us that hour and we’ll be out of your space… OK?”

“One hour and counting.” replied the Watu and released the weapons threat.

“Posturing.” announced Maulik with a sigh of relief as the alarms on his console blinked out. “OK Colonel, you’ve got one hour,” he signalled Balak, “Make it count, these guys are really aggressive today.”

***

Hold 32 was a hive of activity as the marines raced to their respective transports squad by squad, and drones fired their engines preparing to form an automated escort down to the surface. In a temporary command centre tech officers established remote links with the drones, live video from the auto fighters streamed directly into their minds, these were cutting edge weapons, devastating, powerful and controlled by thought alone, each remote pilot knew his duty, each was experienced and each knew that his remote fighter was not expendable, losing a drone was a punishable offence.

Colonel Balak placed his two fingers on his command console and instantly the fresh updates flooded his mind, and with incredible mental agility he sorted the priority from the routine, updates flashed behind his mirror membranes and he began the countdown to launch.

“Stealth.” he commanded and watched his small fleet shimmer and fade to invisibility, with a satisfied nod he looked around the now seemingly empty hold.

“Drone Squadron 1, maintain a defensive perimeter around Harvester 7, Squadrons 2, 3 and 4, escort the transports, Squadron 5 maintain low orbit and prepare to act as rear guard.”

Confirmation flashes entered his mind as the drones relayed their understanding.

“Operation Reaper is a go,” he announced, “And may the Gods go with you.”

***

Maulik and his bridge crew never saw the invasion fleet depart, only the military had sensors tuned to the narrow frequency that cycled constantly to avoid detection, Balak watched the departure with a sense of pride, they were his finest, he just hoped he wasn’t throwing their lives away, his only consolation, a security in the knowledge that the cloning facilities were on standby to duplicate any of his lost officers, true it would be many years before the clones had grown sufficiently to resume active duty but it was a comfort to know they would not be lost forever. Go’an waited nervously, baring his teeth and gripping his bone staff tight, he had so much riding on the outcome of the assault, within an hour he would either be the new undisputed Chancellor of the Watu High Council, or a hunted traitor.

He let his mind wander, planning, plotting, there would be changes after he had seized power, his opponents on the council would regret their staunch support of Chancellor Lu’ta, senile creatures, only secure under the protection of their supreme benefactor, his majority, the weak minded who followed only policy and the old ways. Oh yes, he would make some dramatic changes, his would be a decisive and militarised reign. He was tired of following the elderly head of state, his ideas were ancient and timid, he refused to recognise the Reaper threat preferring to believe the priests. These are invaders, not Gods, Go’an for one was not going to open his arms to them and meekly submit to annihilation, he had plans, he would build a federation, a league of allies, the Territes were on-board, other races would join as the threat became revealed.

A Galactic Empire. He began to salivate at the prospect and shrouded his thoughts still further, Emperor Go’an, it sounded good in his ear, his calculating mind continued to plot and dream, he was secure, none of the Territes standing so close to him even began to approach the level of telepathic ability to broach his mental shielding, he envisioned his new empire, all races subservient to his will.

Within one hour his dreams would begin to flourish, or be dashed into oblivion, the bone staff felt heavy in his hand as he studied the carved reptilian boss, the red jewelled eyes burned with the same passion he felt in his heart, the “Watuma Viper,” an apt name that he would take upon himself, cold, calculating and deadly.

***

“All transports in position, just awaiting your final go Sir.”

“Now for the moment of truth.” sighed Balak as he nodded and flashed the authorisation, “This is the point of no return.” he admitted to himself and said a silent prayer to the Gods.

***

Major Karn was to lead the first team into the Watu High Council, his orders; silence the Chancellor at all costs. He didn’t relish doing the Vice Chancellors dirty work but who was he to question orders.

This feels like a suicide mission, he admitted to himself not allowing his dark thoughts to spread through his eager squad, it had been taken as an honour by most of his troops when they had been ordered to download their memories for storage, so few of them had added together the evidence and reached the same total as himself, they were being preserved because command didn’t seriously expect them to return. His continuation should have been a comfort but Karn quite liked his current life and didn’t relish the thought of the intense growing pains experienced by all hatchlings.

“Better than total elimination.” he sighed as the transport ramp dropped and he led his squad out of the invisible craft and into the choking Watamu atmosphere.

“It stinks like piss.” voiced a marine at his rear.

“Silence,” he snapped, “Mask your mind marine, you know the drill.” Secretly he agreed, the atmosphere was rank with the stench of the Watu. Suddenly the ground at his feet sizzled and churned violently as a plasma pulse discharged, a rapid un-aimed shot from the steps leading up to the citadel where the High Council were assembled.

“Execute.” he snapped, and his squad leaped into action. All around him the whir of pulse rifles cycling and charging, the quiet discharge split seconds before the devastating explosion as bolts of stored plasma energy flared inside their targets vaporising the impact area completely and tearing apart the structure of the surrounding tissue, these were weapons designed to kill only, there would be no survivors, no wounded when his squad attacked.

Quickly Karn and his team secured the main steps but found the Citadel doors sealed.

“We lost the element of surprise,” he signalled back to command, “Things are going to get very hot here, very soon. Requesting missile strike on these coordinates.” he rushed forward and slapped a small beacon on the sealed entrance before signalling the location.

“Heads down boys.” he shouted above the babble of conversation in his head.

“Strike authorised in 3… 2…1.” the countdown gave him just enough time to duck behind a solid pillar as the sleek warhead tracked down onto his beacon, with a blinding flash the locked doors evaporated leaving a gaping void in the Citadel’s grand façade.

“Do me proud boys.” he screamed as he raced through the gaping hole his team pressing hard behind. This is what the years of training had been for, Karn had years of combat experience but most of his team were young, highly trained but lacking in experience. He connected with them as he continued to run, giving words of encouragement to those who needed, laughing with his more seasoned troops, issuing his orders whilst simultaneously picking his targets.

Resistance was stiff and with a feeling of intense pain he felt three of his troops blink suddenly from his mind, their deaths violently severing his connections.

“This is taking too long,” he signalled, “Spread out and draw their fire, I’m targeting the Chancellor.” a jolt of pain told him his first lieutenant had just dropped and with a wild fury building inside he charged up another set of narrower steps and fired his rifle at point blank range into the chest of the Watu security officer that blocked his path into the High Council Chamber, the flashback from the energy discharge scorched his skin but he ignored the pain and burst inside, his weapon at high port seeking his intended victim.

But the chamber was empty.

***

“Incoming.” called the gunnery sergeant aboard Harvester 7.

“Acknowledged.” signalled Maulik and authorised defensive counter measures, “Take down anything that slips past the drones, but don’t waste our energy firing wildly, I want to keep plenty of juice in reserve for the drives.”

He had a thin line to walk, even with the reactor pushed beyond optimal efficiency Maulik was mindful of the fine balance between defence and retreat. 7 wasn’t a battle cruiser and her weapons were designed to ward off skirmishers and pirates, 7 could easily handle a small scale attack of three or four fighters in deep space but planetary defence forces were another game altogether, he couldn’t risk depleting his energy reserves in a prolonged battle.

"I will not risk my ship Colonel," he called over the background chatter that he was allowing into his mind, "When my reserves hit 70% we jump... and that's not open to discussion."

“You’ll jump when I say jump.” snapped back Balak, Maulik fired back a reply that made the Colonels membranes vibrate but he was too distracted to be drawn into a debate over ultimate authority, his invasion was not going well and he had just received some very disturbing news from Major Karn.

“Where can he be Go’an?” he turned to face the Vice Chancellor and saw the shock clearly written across the brown and wrinkled face.

“Silence.” Go’an ordered as he extended his mind and probed the Citadel, “Where are you hiding my old friend?” he questioned as he searched for the Chancellors unique signature.

The deck beneath his feet shuddered as a warhead exploded against the ventral shields but he was not distracted from his search, his efforts were concentrated solely on locating the Chancellor, the ship shuddered again more violently with a second missile strike, the harvester appeared to be weakening he understood, but concern never entered his mind, if he couldn’t locate his target death on a doomed Terrillian ship was preferable to the fate that awaited all traitors.

***

“Reserves at 91%,” confirmed Relik, “Suggest we consider jumping at 80%,” he added, “This fire is too heavy, better we leave a little bit in reserve, we could take several more hits like that last one before we can accelerate out of missile range.”

“Agreed,” replied Maulik as he studied the data. His shields were eating ten times the amount of energy with each impact than his banks of pulse cannons were. “Gunnery Sergeant, fire at will.” he signalled, “Stop those missiles getting through.” A combined volley rocked the ship gently as Gunnery Sergeant Te’al flexed 7’s defensive muscles and several incoming missiles blinked off the view screen.

“Good shooting Te’al.” signalled Maulik with a grin. He remembered his old days stood beside his charged weapons feeling that his hands were tied by the officers in command, “Let him do his job.” he decided as he kept a watchful eye on the energy reserves, now down to 89%.

“Give me some good news Colonel!” he reached out to Balak but found a mind in confusion.

"Not now." came a hurried reply, and Maulik sensed the despair in Balak’s words. He glanced again at his console, 87%, dropping to 86% as his cannons discharged again erasing another two missile signatures.

“Get ready with that course.” he nodded to Relik before noticing a steady finger hovering over the drive console.

“Only on my mark.” he warned, again the harvester rocked gently; 85%.

“Hold your station.” barked Go’an as he cut through all other conversation and pierced Maulik’s mind, “I know what you are thinking but we are not leaving until this is finished.”

Maulik struggled to cut the connection, but the Watu proved too strong. “I will not risk my ship and crew, we jump at 80%.” he replied defiantly.

“You will not move until I say.” shot back the reply with such force that Maulik dropped to his knees clutching his head, “I warned you before that I could tear your feeble mind to pieces… don’t make me prove it.”

“83%.” warned Relik as a star-fighter slipped through the depleted squadron of drones and strafed the bridge shields with bright green lasers generating a multicoloured ripple effect across the normally invisible barrier.

“Hold position,” cried Maulik as he regained his feet, “Engineering, push the reactors, give me more power.”

“The reactor is already at 130%.” replied the chief engineer.

“What’s the maximum?” Maulik already knew the answer but wanted confirmation.

“Very short burst… 140%, maybe 150%.”

“Give me 150 now, and hold it until I say… no arguments, just do as I say.” Maulik switched his display from tactical to engineering and watched the output rising.

“Reserves climbing,” cried Relik, “84%, 85%.”

“Hold it at that chief.” Maulik signalled as the output reached 144%, it was another balancing act, a trade off, power output versus core temperature, his display was nudging critical, his reactors were close to overload but he knew 7 was tough, “Just a little more.” he begged his systems.

“88%… 90%.” called Relik, the relief clear in his thoughts.

“Gunnery Sergeant, pick your targets carefully again, make every shot count.”

Te’al sighed, and felt his hands being tied once more, “Confirmed.” he replied and returned to his targeting display, his fun was over, now back to work.

***

“Please advise.” signalled Karn. If his objective had been to seize the High Council Chambers, the very heart of Watuma’s government, then his mission would have been declared a complete success, yet he was stood in the middle of an utter failure. Half of his squad were dead, the remaining half were laying down suppressing fire at the chambers entrance, and he was stood in the centre of the speakers platform wrapped in bewilderment.

Go’an cut in, barking an order, “Take two squad members and exit the chambers through the large arch at the rear.”

“Colonel?” Karn questioned. He took his orders from the established chain of command, not hairy off-worlders.

“Do as he says.” replied a weary Balak. Colonel Balak sensed the end looming, his superiors didn’t take defeat well and he could feel his commission rapidly slipping away, this wasn’t a defeat, it was an unmitigated disaster and no-one would overlook how hard he had pushed to make it happen despite the poor chance of success in simulations, handing over command to the Watu couldn’t make his fall any harder.

“Confirmed.” replied Karn and signalled for volunteers.

“You will find the High Council collected in an anteroom at the end of the corridor, they are hiding.” chuckled Go’an as he finally broke through the wall of telepathic blocks that were directed at him, “Old and weak,” he grinned as their fear filtered into his mind, “Finally Watuma will have the warrior leader it deserves.”

“Place a beacon on the door and retreat.” he instructed before taking mental control of the closest drone, frying the mind of the tech officer in command in the process as he brought the weapon online and fired onto the beacon’s clear signal.

“Five seconds,” he relayed to Karn before laughing, “I would start running now Major.”

In those dying seconds of the missiles guided flight Go’an reached out his mind and if it had been visible to the naked eye an observer would have witnessed a screw rapidly rotate as the warheads gain was increased to beyond critical. “Sorry Major… too late.” chuckled Go’an as the entire Citadel was vaporised in a fraction of a second.

Balak turned slowly towards the Watu, “You could have given him a few seconds more.” he stated, the accusation hovering between them unspoken.

“I am thorough in everything that I do, feel relieved that I do not wish to continue any tidying here.”

“Congratulations… Chancellor.” he replied as he understood that Go’an had just erased his own failings and his commission was probably safe. Go’an had dragged victory from the jaws of defeat, and Balak knew deep inside he had just witnessed the rise of a dictator.

***

“They are withdrawing.” cried Relik as he watched the advance of several hundred star-fighters stall on his screen, their weapons locks blinked out one by one, slowly at first but gathering pace until 7’s computers detected no hostile intent.

“Status?” signalled Maulik down to Hold 32, Balak began to reply but Go’an crushed his connection and formed a direct link.

“You can congratulate me now Master Maulik.” he laughed.

“So you made the final step up then.” he replied.

“If you wish to put it that way, then yes, I am now in a position to lead a united people against the Reapers.”

“I’m happy for you.” replied Maulik with insincerity clear in his thoughts.

Chancellor Go’an grinned, “You are lucky that I respect you…”

“Or you would rip my feeble mind to pieces… you already told me.”

Go’an chuckled again, “Friends in high places are good to have Master Maulik, and you can consider me as such, you have a strong mind, and a stronger will, I respect those qualities.”

“I’m honoured.” replied Maulik this time attempting a degree of sincerity to mask his distaste, “So what are your plans now… Chancellor?”

“Why to go home and pick up the pieces of course.” smiled Go’an, “To comfort my people in their hour of need. I no longer require your services today, so within the next few hours you will be free to resume your course.”

“And your people?” he questioned Balak.

“A battle cruiser is due to drop out of FTL shortly.” he replied, “We have our lift home.”

“Then my part in this is truly finished?” his question echoes against a wall of silence.

“Hey, come clean with me, I’m done… right?”

“Not quite I’m afraid,” grinned Go’an, “There is just one more small task that I would like you to perform.”

***

“You should feel truly honoured that I selected you.”

“Yeah, now that’s something that puzzles me.” replied Maulik to Go’an’s statement as they sat in his ready room, “How did I happen to get that lucky?”

“I am beginning to find your attitude a little tiresome.” admitted the new Chancellor, “I do not wish to inflate your already high opinion of yourself, but you have abilities above the accepted norm for your race.”

“Nice of you to notice,” Maulik joked, “But can’t we just get to the point, my meters running, lots of food to harvest, hungry stomachs to fill back home.”

“You will have plenty of time to complete your precious harvest.” rebuked Go’an with a flash of temper that he quickly subdued. “The job I have for you will not take more than three days and you can accomplish that task as the harvest is in progress.”

“What have you got to say on this subject Colonel?”

Balak glanced up, “It will guarantee the scouts licence you have been applying for, I have that confirmation on the highest authority.”

Maulik nodded, now it was getting interesting. He was actually quite open to Go’an’s job, he just didn’t want the Watu to know his willingness.

“So what is it I have to do?”

Go’an smiled as he probed deeper into the mind and discovered the excitement lurking in the deepest darkest corner. “You will act as an emissary for a new federation that is forming, you will carry a message and my offer of friendship to a race of beings beyond Terrillian knowledge, you will make first contact on behalf of your people.”

“Not first contact for yours though.” he guessed producing a grin as the Watu bared his teeth.

“No, we have had contact before.”

“And am I right when I guess that contact didn’t go so well?”

“You see things that remain hidden for most of your race,” smiled Go’an, “Our history is filled with conflict, that is why I want you to negotiate a truce, and a summit conference.”

“I’m not trained as a negotiator,” complained Maulik, “Surely there are more suitable candidates than me?”

“More suitable diplomats… yes,” conceded Go’an, “But they do not have your mental strength, you alone have the capacity to receive my instructions from such range.”

“Hey thanks,” laughed Maulik, “I’m only useful as the mouth of Go’an… now that does elevate my feelings of self worth.”

“You joke, but this is a mission that may be critical to the survival of our worlds, both of our worlds, now the only question is Master Maulik, do you comply with my request willingly, or do you have to be encouraged?” Go’an leaned across the table and stared at Maulik’s impassive expression, his yellow eyes flaring, “The choice is yours.”

A wide smile spread exposing teeth, Maulik noticed for the first time the fine serration that ran down each edge, teeth designed by evolution for shearing flesh, the Watu were carnivores and obviously not above taking a bite from living and running meat.

“I can see inside you Master Maulik, so stop being difficult and just admit the prospect excites you. He is more than willing.” Go’an turned to the Colonel, “Time for me to leave, I have a people to console, I will leave you to introduce “Scout” Maulik to his new ship. Do not worry Maulik, we have a connection now, you will never be alone again, please remember that, if you need my guidance just call me… I assure you I will hear.”

Chapter 4

At first Go’an had filled Maulik with feelings of trepidation, it had been a disconcerting feeling to know the Watu Chancellor could access his mind at will but two months into the voyage and not having been mentally violated, (to the best of his knowledge) he began to relax. His time was filled with ships duties, which were few, automated systems took most of the work leaving him free time to explore the potential of his new ship, an advanced scout ship that sat proudly in Hold 32.

To Maulik’s discerning eye it was beautiful, the lines were in perfect proportion, in the empty void of space aerodynamics were unnecessary, without atmosphere to hinder or create drag and friction a square box was all that was required for FTL travel, yet style oozed from the sleek lines. In Terrillian society it was not a custom to name inanimate objects, ships were numbered not named. But his Watu scout ship bore a designation, Kressa, a predatory animal on Watuma, famed for its speed and agility during the hunt. A name he somehow found fitting and couldn’t wait for the first scheduled halt for diagnostics and maintenance. “Only two weeks.” He smiled as he ran his fingers along the glossy hull, as smooth as glass and black as deep space, “Just two more weeks and I can find out just how fast and agile a Kressa truly is.”

Often he had slipped into the twin seat cockpit and settled into the pilots seat. His first experience had been unnerving as the seat had become molten and wrapped around his body moulding itself to his contours before regaining integrity and creating a comfortable cocoon.

“Impressive.” he had thought.

“Thank you Scout Maulik.” Kressa had replied making him jump.

“You are programmed to respond?” he questioned cautiously wondering if he was part of a prank set up by the more mischievous members of his crew, after two months in space boredom was starting to set in, now was the time to be prepared for the practical jokers.

“I have a learning processor.” replied the Kressa, “I respond and learn Scout Maulik.”

“OK,” he grinned, “Your first lesson Kressa, drop the Scout, just call me Maulik.”

“Confirmed Maulik.” came the reply.

“Now Kressa, tell me exactly what you’re capable of?”

“Would you like me to upload my tech manuals again… Maulik?” replied the ship.

Maulik burst out laughing, “I’ve got a talking ship with attitude… Kressa, we’re going to get along just fine.”

Flipping quickly through the schematics and statistics for Kressa Maulik realised how wrong he had been in his confident assumption that the Watu were technologically backward, “They are far ahead of us,” he conceded reluctantly, “But why are their drones so antiquated and easy to shoot down?” the answer struck him suddenly.

“Misinformation… of course.” he grinned, “Everyone one overlooks the Watu because we believe they are primitive, they pose no threat so we just ignore them.”

“That’s actually very clever.”

“I’m happy you think so.” Go’an entered his mind unexpectedly, forcibly, the sensation uncomfortable ,and Maulik grasped the edge of his console to steady himself as his head spun and sight blurred.

“Hey… Chancellor, a little advance warning in future please,” he signalled back as his vision began to clear, “It’s rude to just break in like that.”

“Acknowledged,” replied the Watu, “In future I will get my secretary to make an appointment.”

Maulik ignored the sarcasm and continued, “What can I do for you Chancellor?”

“Nothing at the moment, just think of this as a friendly courtesy call and a gentle reminder that our link is still strong.”

“Oh it’s strong,” he agreed, “Are there any more surprises lurking in the Kressa ship I should know about before I try a test flight?”

Go’an chuckled, “don’t concern yourself, the Kressa has been programmed to take your frailties into account, you will come to no harm.”

“Very reassuring.” replied Maulik but found himself alone, Go’an had gone.

***

“Computer,” he asked as he placed his fingers on the glowing console, “Search data banks for all information on the Diurians?”

“Searching.” The information lists streaked inside his membranes as the central computer referenced and cross referenced producing a total of three files.

“Computer, is that all?” he queried.

“Search complete.” flashed on his screen.

“Folk law and rumours.” he sighed as he read the only information available to him about the warrior race he was due to meet in a few short months, “It would have been good to know a little bit about these guys.” then he had a thought, “Hey Go’an, you asleep?” he called out testing the promise made.

“What can I do for you?” came an instant reply.

“So not asleep,” he grinned, “Can you transfer any data you’ve got on the Diurians, I fancy a little light bedtime reading and our library isn’t that good.”

“Kressa has all of the information you need, just ask her.”

“Her?” Maulik replied with a laugh, “Giving the ship a designation I can almost understand, but assigning a gender… that’s just crazy.”

“But of course she has a gender, she is female, can you not differentiate between the sexes?”

“Of course I can, but that is just a machine.”

Go’an chuckled, “Go and interface with her Maulik, Kressa will contact me when your link is established.”

Shaking his head Maulik hopped onto the grav-lift and descended. He could play Go’an’s game for a while, “A female ship.” he laughed as he entered Hold 32 and strode up the ramp into the deceptively spacious interior of Kressa.

“OK lady, let’s talk.” he laughed as he lowered himself into the molten seat and waited a second for it to mould, “If you are female it would explain the attitude.” he grinned.

“What attitude are you referring to Maulik?” questioned the ship.

“Forget it.” he laughed, “Just a little joke… so how do I interface with you?”

“Place your finger on the blue pad to establish the link.”

As Maulik touched the softly glowing pad he felt a surge of nervous energy and emotion with an almost feral quality, he sensed aggression, not aimed at him but pent up like a coiled spring waiting to explode.

“Kressa?” he asked cautiously.

“Yes Maulik, I can hear you, and feel you.” The voice almost purred and definitely had a feminine quality, “What is it that you wish to know?”

“What are you?”

“I am Kressa.”

“I know that is your designation, but what are you Kressa?”

“I am a hybrid,” she replied, “Part mechanical, part organic.”

“How is that even possible?” Maulik asked in wonder. He didn’t doubt her words, he only marvelled at the technology, “Do you Eat? Breathe? Sleep? Feel?”

“So many questions Maulik.” she replied, “I do not eat in the traditional sense, but I process compounds into a fuel that is used to maintain my organic systems, so in a way, yes I eat, we share the atmosphere within my outer skin, so yes I breathe. I have no need for sleep but I do relax my mind when I regenerate. You ask if I feel? That is a very vague question Maulik… Are you asking about the physical sensation or the emotional sensation?”

“Both I guess.” answered Maulik as he questioned his sanity, was he really talking to, and listening to a machine?

“I feel no pain, but I do register damage sustained, so no is the answer to the first part of your question.”

“And emotionally?” he shook his head, this couldn’t be real!

“I sense that you doubt me Maulik.” she stated, “I must be a very new experience for such a primitive being as yourself, but I can assure you that I am very real, and very alive… and yes I experience emotions, do you want to know what emotions I feel Maulik?”

Maulik sensed her passion and regretted his earlier doubts.

“I feel loneliness and frustration, yes Maulik, frustration, I was bred for speed, to hunt, to kill my prey, but I find myself locked inside this shell, and this shell is locked inside this ship of yours, and I am lonely Maulik, I am alone, for two months I have had only myself and my thoughts for company.”

“I didn’t know.” he stammered, “If I had known you would not have been alone, I would have talked to you, just as we are now.”

“Good, you have finally linked.” laughed Go’an as he cut into their conversation, “She is quite a feat of engineering for a Level 7 species isn’t she.” he chuckled.

“Do you ever tire of making that point, yes, I admit, the Watu are more advanced than us, but you have a lot to learn about compassion, why didn’t you tell me Kressa was alive? She is distressed and I could have prevented that if I had known sooner.”

“That is your fault,” snapped Go’an, “If you had taken the time to read the tech sheets you would have been fully aware of her status and needs.”

A feeling of guilt enveloped Maulik as he admitted he had been putting off the study until a later date, “I’m sorry Kressa, he is correct, I should have read your data sheets, can you forgive me?” He sensed a warmth and the strange purring again.

“I think we will work well together,” she sighed, “Yes I forgive you Maulik.”

“Very touching,” added Go’an with a hint of condescension in his voice, “Kressa, display all data on the Diurians for Scout Maulik. Maybe now he appreciates the need to study his mission more thoroughly.” And with that last word he severed the connection.

“I really am sorry Kressa… I mean that you have been all alone down here.”

“Can you teach me what you know about the Diurians, in a few months we will be meeting them together, it’s important we both understand what we are going to face.”

“Do you want visual or verbal data.” she asked.

“I think verbal will be good.” he smiled, “That is if you don’t mind reading to me.” the soft purring returned and she began to speak.

***

Over the following days Maulik spent most of his time with Kressa, they talked for hours as he learned her moods. His greatest surprise was to find that the ship was deeply emotional.

“Before we linked properly, why didn’t you tell me about yourself… I mean your needs and solitude?” He asked one late afternoon.

“My programming did not permit such contact,” she admitted, “Although I am partly organic, and as you now know have feelings, until the link was established safety protocols were in place that prevented me from responding beyond simple replies.”

“The organic part of you?” he struggled to find the right words to phrase his question, “How much of you is organic, which parts of you? I’m sure I didn’t ask that right, but I’m curious.”

“My brain Maulik, my brain is all that is required for this ship.”

“This ship,” she paused, “Me… I exist without my natural body, this ship has become my body… and my prison.” she tailed off quietly.

“I feel for you.” he replied with honesty, he had been reading up on Kressa’s specs, “But if it isn’t a difficult subject…?”

Kressa anticipated his question, “My brain was transplanted when I was a cub, my old body died, my new mechanical body keeps me alive.”

“I did read about that, but what I don’t understand… is why?”

Kressa chuckled, “Take me outside this ship and you will begin to understand. My mind is faster than any computer, my instincts are sharper than any Watu, or Terrillian,” she giggled, “I am a wild and savage creature.”

“You should not label yourself as savage,” he rebuked her, “You are sensitive.”

“Programming.” she replied, “While I am at rest and perceive no threat my mind is controlled, I am docile and polite… but send me into action and the protocols are lifted, my true nature emerges… Maulik, I am savage and violent and fearless, and I will warn you now, if we run into danger you will not be able to control me… so don’t even try, just rely on me to keep us both safe while I destroy our enemy.”

“That sounds reassuring and also a little frightening,” he laughed, “Do you have any picture of your natural form?”

The image that was flashed into his mind was both beautiful and awe inspiring. Kressa in her natural state was clearly a predator, her body was lithe and feline, elegant and built for speed with long graceful legs and supple tail for balance. She reminded him of L4 life forms that he had harvested, and the though gave him pause, she was identical to a species that he had witnessed stalking and running down L3 prey, that creature had been a pale blue that blended with its surrounding perfectly, Kressa was vivid red with vertical brown and gold bars that tapered as they travelled down her slender legs.

“You are beautiful.” he grinned and felt her deep purring.

“Thank you Maulik, I was once.”

“And you still are,” he chuckled, “The body you have now is very different, but it is also beautiful. Just three more days.” he reassured her, “And then we will take a look outside… and you can show me just how fast and agile you are.”

***

“It’s called scheduled maintenance for a reason.” laughed Relik as his Master considered dropping out of FTL early.

“Yeah, I know.” sighed Maulik as he fought the desire to take his new found friend out into open space. He had begun to consider Kressa as a friend, she interacted with him with awareness and a consciousness. She was alive, and despite being mainly mechanical he couldn’t remove the image of the sleek red feline with razor claws and teeth, she was a living breathing being, not hardware, and he had the right to develop a friendship with her, despite the looks of dismay he caught from his bridge crew.

“You don’t know her the way I do,” he had tried to explain to Relik, “She is alive, she is emotional, funny and serious at the same time… oh why am I explaining it to you?” he sighed as he caught the glimmer of pity in the back of his friends mind.

“It’s a scout ship.” he replied with a shake of the head, “Very advanced, I agree, but still just a ship.”

“Just a ship.” laughed Maulik but didn’t push the issue, his crew couldn’t understand the bond that was growing between Kressa and himself.

“From what I have learned about the Diurians I’m relieved I have her with me,” he thought, because the history between the Watu and the Diurians was troubled to say the least and he was certain that his welcome would not be warm. “I just hope she’s as good as she claims to be.”

***

“It is vital to my mission for the Federation to practice with Kressa.” he had told Relik in defence of his eagerness to rush down to Hold 32 the second 7 had come to a standstill in high orbit of a giant, but dead planet. “Dead because of the harvesters” he reminded himself, he remembered the same planet teeming with life only ninety years before. There had been nothing above L3, but the now barren world had been in its infancy, who knew where evolution would have taken those humble organisms?

“Sad, but not my main concern today.” he grinned as he stepped off the grav-lift and fought the urge to run.

Jumping into the seat he placed his finger automatically on the bright blue touch panel and instantly felt Kressa’s excitement.

“Ready when you are.” he laughed as the seat quickly solidified cushioning him securely.

“I will be as soon as you open the Hold doors.” she laughed in return. A rapid blink and shimmer on his mirror membrane, and the doors slid open with a rush of atmosphere and deep metallic clanging, the shields flickered across the growing opening and arrested the rush of vital methane that was venting into space.

“What do I do?” he questioned and heard a deep and throaty purr.

“Nothing.” she sighed, “Just hang on tight.” The interior cockpit lighting dimmed as the reactor in the rear began to hum as it built power. Suddenly Maulik understood why the seat moulded so completely around his body as Kressa shot forward through the still opening doors and in a split second jinked a 90° turn that crushed him into the cushioning and made his head spin.

“By the Gods.” he exclaimed in awe.

“You’ve not seen anything yet.” she purred and with a burst of acceleration that crammed him down further into his seat and blurred his vision she leapt instantly past the speed of light.

“Where shall we go?” the delight clear in her voice.

“Anywhere you want.” he grinned as his body settled into the acceleration. Suddenly a star chart appeared in his mind.

“Pick one.” she offered.

“Do we have enough fuel?” he asked with concern, he recognised the chart and all of the systems were many hours distant.

“I make my own,” she laughed, “So don’t worry about that, now choose your star.”

Maulik selected at random and braced himself, Kressa was having fun after being idle for so long, she had also determined to show him her full capabilities and he knew the ride was going to be interesting.

“OK, that’s good,” she signalled, “Now prepare yourself for the ride of a lifetime.” and as the words entered his mind she accelerated.

That was a moment in his life that Maulik would never forget, he also understood that he would never let Kressa go, he wasn’t sure if Go’an would want her back after the mission or not, but at that moment he knew he wouldn’t let her go regardless of the consequences.

“She is your ship now.” answered Go’an as he entered Maulik’s mind uninvited.

“Do I ever have a thought that you don’t monitor?” he snapped feeling more violated that usual.

“I do give you some privacy… occasionally,” chuckled the Chancellor, “But that was a question that I thought I should answer directly. For some strange reason which I admit I do not fully understand this Kressa unit appears to have developed a very deep bond with you, sometimes it happens that way, and in such cases it is best not to break that bond, it is distressing for both ship and pilot.”

For the first time since their introduction Maulik felt a genuine gratitude towards the Chancellor.

“You do not have to thank me, thank Kressa.” replied Go’an as he picked up Maulik’s emotion, “look after her, and she will look after you.”

“Where next?” purred Kressa as she decelerated and hung in the gravity of a small moon.

“You can’t be serious,” gasped Maulik as he stared through the front screen at the green and blue globe that filled his sight, “It can’t be?”

The throaty purring returned and he felt a wave of pride welling up from within the living ship around him, “It would have taken your harvester three hours to arrive,” she chuckled, “It took me six minutes… I told you I was fast.”

Maulik’s stunned silence spoke volumes.

“Well, I shall take that as a compliment,” she teased, “look at that asteroid,” she guided his vision, “Now you see it,” she laughed, “And now you don’t.”

Maulik barely felt the pulse as Kressa fired, yet the charge was so strong that the small asteroid disintegrated before his eyes leaving little more than a cloud of dust.

“Did you enjoy that?” he chuckled as he struggled to comprehend the power she possessed.

“Not as much as I would have if it had been moving,” she laughed, “I feel like hunting.”

“Well what do you suggest?” he replied, relishing the thought of experiencing her abilities matched against a live prey.

“I don’t think it is a good idea to go looking for a fight,” she laughed, “Just let me play for a while so that I can burn off some of this frustration, I have a feeling when we meet the Diurians I will get plenty of opportunities to hunt and fight.”

Maulik smiled inside, for weeks he had felt a growing concern over the upcoming contact, yet sat inside Kressa he felt protected and invincible.

“Play Kressa,” he laughed, “This is your time… have fun.”

***

Over the six weeks that followed Maulik noticed a subtle change in Kressa, she purred more, her purring reminded him of the scale rattling that his lizard displayed, it was a joy the creature felt to see him, it was then that he fully understood that the brain of Kressa was animal, an L4 animal, the same level as his pet, it was the computer that boosted her intelligence and understanding, yet deep down she was an affectionate animal that drew comfort from his attentions and company.

“How good are your shields?” He questioned one day as they approached the first harvesting planet.

“Adequate,” she replied dismissively, “With my agility and instincts I really don’t need them,” she explained, “They actually cloud my judgement a little so I don’t raise them unless I have to.”

“I wouldn’t want to think you put yourself in any danger.” he stated.

“I will never risk your safety.” she replied instantly.

“That’s not what I was thinking, my concern is for you, not me.”

“I know Maulik,” she replied quietly, “I just find it surprising that you are worried for my safety, I am after all only a ship, there are hundreds more exactly like me on Watuma.”

“That is where you are wrong,” he flashed her a grin, “To me you are much more than just a ship… you are my friend.”

Maulik felt a welling emotion inside Kressa that shook him, the word friend had affected her deeply, and with a sense of urgency he changed the subject.

“Do you have any data for planet X7997?” A rapid stream appeared but Kressa remained silent. “We arrive tomorrow and I want to know about the atmosphere, will it be dangerous for you to enter?”

Quickly she analysed the data stream, “Maybe a small risk of hull ionisation,” she stated, “But with shields on minimum that can be prevented.”

“Good,” he replied with enthusiasm, “Because I want to take a trip down there and watch the harvester drones in action, I also want to make a survey. I want to see for myself how the ecosystem has recovered since the last harvesting fifty years ago.”

“I will enjoy that,” she purred, and clung to the word friend.

***

“How is the ionisation?” Maulik requested a status report as they burst into the thick lower atmosphere.

“Zero,” she chuckled, “But I feel like I’m looking through frosted glass.”

“Seriously?”

“Don’t worry.” she chuckled again, “I’m joking, I can see perfectly well.”

“I can see my Kressa is developing a sense of humour.” he grinned, and felt the purring return.

“Now let’s start on the largest southern continent, there are five drones working there, let’s check on their progress.”

It took less than a minute for Kressa to pick up the activity and they hovered above the action. Two of the small remote drones were working a grid pattern across a dry yellow brown savannah. As they passed below Maulik felt the vibration from the shock waves directed at the planet’s surface, shock waves that stunned or killed selective life in their path ready for the collectors that followed close behind.

The drones were nothing more than modified pulse cannons but rather than fire plasma they fired sound, it was a good system that worked well regardless of the world that they visited, all of the selected life forms were rendered unconscious or killed, and felt no pain.

The collectors on the other hand were a work of art, state of the art. They housed banks of bio-filters and processors, super computers that constantly evaluated the classification level of the raw protein below lying either dead or stunned, the computers were selective, all life from L2 and above was harvested, yet L1 life was never killed and only partially collected, L1 was the least appealing protein source but that was irrelevant, the continuation of the ecosystem balanced on those tiny bacteria. Maulik knew that total harvesting of L1 spelt death to the planet, those micro-organisms were the building blocks for all life, take them away completely and the food chain crumbled, vegetation perished, higher life forms starved, loss of L1 signalled the beginning of the end.

“Move in closer to the collectors.” he asked and Kressa dropped almost the surface to give him the best view. Transport beams flickered across the bellies as the computers identified each creature, both above and below the surface, the bodies beamed directly into chilled storage in the vast holds.

It was an efficient system and the fully automated craft would work around the clock stripping 20% or 30% of the continent before moving on to the next target zone.

“we’ve seen the dead, now let’s witness the living,” he exclaimed, “Northern continent, Sector 8 please.”

Two minutes later Maulik stared in disbelief at a wasteland, not one blade of vegetation was in evidence.

“Scan for life please Kressa.” he asked with a sinking feeling.

“Sorry Maulik… 0.0%”

“The lazy fools.” he shouted, “You never harvest everything… please extend your scan and let me know where life signs begin again.”

A second later Kressa replied, “There is no life in the northern hemisphere.”

“Yeah, I had a feeling you were going to say that.” he replied with a heavy heart, “Relik.” he signalled 7, “Withdraw the drones and harvesters, we’re moving on.”

“Please repeat.” came back a confused reply.

“The northern hemisphere is stripped, dead, we can’t continue the harvest.”

“Understood, recalling now,” it wasn’t the first time Relik had received the order, but it still sickened him.

“Come on Kressa… take me back please” he asked dejectedly, greed had closed another planet to harvesting for many hundreds of years, if it managed to recover at all, but in addition to the pointless destruction Maulik knew that his trip would now be that much longer as he would have to detour to another planet to ensure he met his full quota. “How many extra months?” he asked himself.

“You could always make up some of the difference on the new world that is approved for harvesting.” suggested Kressa as they burst through the upper atmosphere and back into the vacuum of space.

“How do you know about that?” he questioned.

“7’s computer told me” she replied innocently, “I had to talk to someone while I was stuck in that hold” she laughed.

“So you weren’t that lonely” he chuckled.

“Have you tried to joke with a computer” she replied, “I was lonely for conversation without logic and endless algorithms.”

“OK, so what do you suggest?”

"Well," she purred, "If the data is correct, the planet has an infestation of L6 life forms, far more than is realistically sustainable, if you harvest just 3,265% above quota you will meet your target and negate the need to harvest elsewhere."

“Outstanding,” he declared, “I wonder if it really is that over-run, we might just be helping the ecosystem recover by pushing the quota.”

"You don't need to justify yourself," she chuckled, "The last harvester here went 100% over quota, I don't think three and a quarter percent is going to make you a galactic criminal."

“I like your logic.” he grinned.

“Relik,” he called, “Drop a quarantine beacon, let’s make sure no other crew harvests here again,” “And get us ready for FTL, we leave the second the collectors are back on board.”

***

“26,000 tons.” announced Relik and Maulik’s heart sank as he hoped that his actions hadn’t started the planets gradual slide towards death.

“Master,” commented Relik formally as he caught the thoughts of guilt, “I doubt very much if we have done any lasting damage, the southern continents are flourishing and with time the north will recolonise, yes it will take a very long time but that planet is far from dead, your conscience should be clear, it is the previous Master that has to pay… and,” he grinned, “At least we have fresh meat on the menu tonight.”

“Thank you for explaining the positives to me.” laughed Maulik shaking off his darkening mood, “Something fresh will make a very pleasant change.”

***

Maulik placed his fingers gently on the surface of the meat and savoured the flavour, this was a treat. For months the ships diet had consisted of reconstituted proteins, and re-cons were just not worth tasting. With any reconstituted meal flavour was a secondary issue, a quick dab of the finger to confirm the meat was safe and then it would be quickly slipped into the digestion pouch, “feeding the body not the mind” was the expression used, it was fuel and nothing more.

But at their evening meal a chorus of happy groans resounded as fingers pressed and receptors stored the memory for the duration of digestion, a feeling of satisfaction hovered in the air, and in the minds of all present.

Maulik slipped the last sliver into his pouch and sighed. Decorum had started the trend for the digestion pouch and as a Territe reached a higher status a genetic alteration could be requested, Maulik had once witnessed his “manuals” at their daily meal and the sight of their inverted stomachs protruding from their distended belly’s rapidly dissolving the reconstituted meat had disgusted him, some cultural modifications were welcome he decided and thanked his former self for going to the expense of preparing him for polite society.

His thoughts were shattered by an urgent and shrill alarm.

“Report;” he signalled to the bridge.

“Weapons lock.” replied the duty officer, “Multiple unknowns.”

“Shields up.” he declared and raced ahead of the rest of the off duty bridge crew, many of them running clutching the remains of their meal.

“Have you identified them yet?” he called as he stepped onto the bridge and felt the shudder of an impact on the port ventral shields.

“Negative, the computer can’t identify them,” suddenly a thought entered his mind, “Feed the data down to Kressa” and without another word he raced to the grav-lift.

“Relik” he called as he reached the lowest deck, “Maintain shields and increase speed.”

“I know them,” she confirmed the second he placed his finger on the touch pad, “They are called the Su’al.”

“Are they a serious threat?” he asked quickly.

“On their own, no, but they are pack hunters, usually they scout in three’s, when they discover a target two will pursue and the other will signal the rest of the fleet, a fleet can number in the hundreds… then they become a very serious threat, they will bombard your shields and drain your energy until you are powerless to resist.”

“We can out run them.” replied Maulik with confidence.

Kressa disagreed, “They are a primitive race, but their ships are fast… much faster than 7… let me out Maulik,” she pleaded, “We have to neutralise the scout that has gone to signal the fleet, facing that many combined, I’m not sure even I can handle them all.”

“Relik… assemble the gunnery crews and drop out of FTL, all available power to be diverted to the shields, Kressa and I will handle this, she will send you all the tactical data on the Su’al she has now, prepare a defence strategy in case we don’t make it back.”

“Understood,” replied Relik, “And may the Gods be with you… both of you.” he added privately making Maulik smile, he was beginning to accept Kressa for what she actually was, rather than what he perceived she was.

FTL disengaged,” she growled, “Get the hold doors open Maulik,” he felt her tension and for the first time he felt raw primal aggression, “Quickly.” she urged.

The ship rocked violently as a missile jinked through the gunnery fire and was absorbed by the shields extracting a heavy price on the reserves, Kressa growled again and Maulik heard her reactor straining under her impatience for the slowly sliding Hold doors, “That’s enough.” she cried and shot through the opening with just fractions to spare on either side.

“Hunt down the ship heading for the fleet.” Maulik ordered.

“Leave me alone,” she growled assertively in reply, “I know what I’m doing.”

Maulik sat in stunned silence for a moment before attempting to reply, “Do not interfere.” she warned him as she bore down on the lead fighter firing a rapid pulse before sliding sideways to avoid the debris of her first kill.

“Yesssssss.” she roared and scorched onto the tail of the remaining fighter as it tried to run.

“Fight me coward.” she screamed, and with a gut wrenching swoop she unloaded another pulse of energy at point blank range, accelerating through the explosion before it could reach her unshielded hull. “Now I feel alive,” she purred with satisfaction as she plotted an intercept course with the remaining fighter, “Hang on Maulik,” she chuckled before lurching forward in pursuit, “Thirty seconds.” she forecast and rapidly scanned ahead. “Oh my” she chuckled, “He has found some friends.”

“What?” cried Maulik who felt like nothing more than a passenger.

“Six,” she growled, “With three more on the way, only a small pack… such a pity. Now watch what I can really do.” she laughed as Maulik felt her building power.

For less than a minute Maulik clung to his seat in awe at Kressa’s combat prowess, hitting the two lead fighters with a stunning blast of energy she tore past and turned 180° before the Su’al pilots knew what was happening to them, Maulik could only sense from her elation that two more had been vaporised as she dropped onto their tail, his vision blurred by the G forces he fought to keep his meal down, the remaining two fighters streaked apart obviously hoping that she would chase the other allowing a small window for escape, but she was too fast, she pounced on the first with a ferocious turn of speed and with a gentle and carefully aimed pulse she disabled the craft leaving it’s reactor venting plasma into space before instantly turning to destroy his partner who was tearing away at three times the speed of light.

With fascination Maulik witnessed her toy with the disabled fighter, it’s weapons fully functional but it’s engines dead she played offering him a clear shot before leaping away from the energy pulses, Maulik recalled a documentary he had watched many years before when he had been little more than a hatchling, he pictured now how the savage feline from a distant planet had teased and tormented a small rodent type creature, attack and retreat, the cat permitted a small escape before catching the terrified creature again to repeat the process.

“Yessss.” she growled as she finished her sport in a ball of flames before turning to face the three late arrivals.

“This is what I was born for,” she purred as she casually destroyed the lead craft before hovering static inviting attack, “Come and get me boys,” she purred before dodging a missile and sending the second craft to oblivion, “Only one left.” she complained and Maulik sensed her disappointment.

“These creatures are no challenge,” she sulked before screaming down on the fighter that was urgently attempting to escape her fury, “Goodbye.” she whispered and a split second later flames erupted and debris flew.

“Not much of a challenge,” she purred, “But fun.” she added with a little giggle.

Maulik sat in awed silence, his heart racing. “Kressa, you are truly amazing,” he finally managed to collect his scattered thoughts and address her, “Incredible.”

“I told you I was savage,” she chuckled, “I also warned you that you would have no control, I am sorry I disregarded your command.”

“The Watu were worried it was a design fault in the early days of our development,” she chuckled, “That is until they saw what we could do when our instincts were awoken. But I am calm now Maulik, shall we return?”

“Yes… yes, please, but slowly, I am not sure if my meal can stay down much longer.” he added, only half joking.

“My long range scans show nothing,” Kressa confirmed as she slipped back into Hold 32 and powered down her reactors, “There is no more threat.”

“They must have picked us up when we left the planet.” commented Maulik,

“No, I don’t think so,” she replied, “I would have detected them, more likely that they picked up 7’s ion trail and followed it like hounds, but we are clear now.”

“Don’t thank me,” she warned as his thoughts were revealed, “I was doing what I was designed to do, I should be thanking you for trusting me and letting me have fun. Now I am contented.” she purred deeply.

***

The disastrous attempted raid by the Su’al haunted Maulik’s dreams but it wasn’t the efficiency of Kressa’s attack, it was the obvious delight she took in destroying her enemy, he woke with a thin sheen of sweat glistening on his smooth skin.

“The Watu are a very dangerous ally” he suddenly realised, “With a fleet of ships like Kressa who could stand against them?… and Kressa already said there are hundreds of others just like her on Watuma,” he knew full well that Go’an was probably eavesdropping on his thoughts but it was unavoidable, “I can’t prevent moments of realisation.” he thought in an attempt at justification, but his world remained silent, maybe Go’an wasn’t listening, or maybe it was just too difficult a realisation for him to confront? Maulik attempted to clear his mind, how would Go’an take such a sudden understanding?

Without any clear idea in his mind and with sleep proving evasive Maulik strolled to the grav-lift, he could spend a little time with Kressa, she didn’t sleep.

As he touched the shining blue panel he was hit by a wave of static.

“You must not think about such things.” she told him with an urgency he found disturbing.

“You know what I was thinking about?”

“Of course,” she replied “We have a bond, but it is dangerous to understand too much.”

“Can he hear us now?”

Kressa purred, “Not now, I have raised my shields, nothing can penetrate.”

“So we can talk freely?”

“For the moment,” she replied, “But don’t forget, whatever we discuss now… the thoughts will linger, he will still be able to extract them from your mind.”

“Perfect” Maulik sighed, “We can talk in confidence but my mind will still give me away.”

“I am sorry Maulik” she replied, “That is a fact of life.”

“Just tell me one thing… do you have any knowledge of Go’an’s plans for the future?”

“No” she replied instantly, “And please don’t concern yourself over something that is beyond your control, just concentrate on the mission because once it is finished we can explore the galaxy together, as a Terrillian Scout and his ship, nothing else will matter.”

Maulik sensed she knew a great deal more than she would admit but didn’t push any further, “Perhaps some things are best not to know.” he sighed and bid his friend good night.

***

The planet below them was small compared to their usual harvesting grounds but instantly Maulik saw the bio scans he understood Kressa’s comment implying an infestation.

“L6’s are out of control down there” he signalled Relik who was also studying the life sign readings on his own screen.

“I’ve never seen activity like it before,” he declared in wonder, “The first scouts arrived only two hundred years ago, but just look at the readings now!”

Maulik grinned, “I think this will be a shorter trip than anticipated, based on this new data we can harvest a full quota here.”

Maulik had been concerned about the extra 3.265% that Kressa had calculated, but that had been based on historical data, now he saw a planet groaning under the strain of a species out of control.

“How long will the ecosystem take to recover if we remove all of the L6 organisms?” Relik bent over his console and instructed the computer to build a projection.

“If we harvest them all, the planet should recover within one hundred and fifty years, that one species is responsible for all of the imbalances.”

“Suggestions?”

Relik smiled, “We could keep a sample flock in stasis for re-introduction in the future, if we re-seed in one hundred years with maybe ten thousand or so, the planet will have recovered sufficiently, from that point we should undertake selective harvesting on a regular basis to keep the population under control and at manageable levels.”

“My thoughts exactly.” Maulik concurred, it was his duty as Harvester Master to address any abnormalities on planets within his control, he wasn’t going to eradicate the species, simply remove it while the planets natural systems returned to stability.

“Have engineering calibrate the drones and collectors to concentrate only on the L6’s, and find out which harvesters are closest to our location,” he glanced again at the raw data feed, “We will need help with this.”

Over the following twenty four hours 7 buzzed with activity as holds were cleaned and prepared for the bounty about to arrive, Maulik and Kressa performed surveillance of the planet sampling the atmosphere and transmitting the data back to engineering, Hold 33 was being prepared as a holding pen for the sample livestock so the planets noxious atmosphere would have to be reproduced for the trip home.

“These creatures would actually flourish in the wastelands of Terrillia,” he concluded as they flashed over vast areas of corrosive water, “The atmospheric mix is very similar, higher levels of methane are being emitted here than home, but the difference is not significant.”

“How does it feel to play the role of the Gods?” teased Kressa, “One mind having control over the fate of an entire species?”

“I prefer not to think of it that way,” he grinned, “I like to think that I am addressing a problem, I am allowing the planet to recover, and anyway, they are only L6’s.”

“And I’m only an L4.” she replied trying to mask the hurt she was feeling.

“Now you’re talking crazy,” he chuckled back, “You are beyond any level I know of, you’re on a level all of your own.”

Kressa dipped lower over the wide expanse of water just moments from skimming the surface. “Back to the land” she called as she tore over the coastline, her wake tearing away the strange green vegetation and driving a wide scorched furrow deep into the ground, moments later she was out over open grassland. “This is the sort of place I would call home… in my natural state,” she added wistfully, “Open country, plenty of space to run and hunt… and look at all the prey.” she growled as vast herds of strange bovine like creatures scattered across the wide plains, “They almost make me feel hungry.” she laughed.

“Are these the L6’s?”

“No,” she replied, “There is nothing here above L4, these are prey animals.”

“let’s track down the L6’s,” Maulik encouraged her, “I want to see what could cause such devastation.”

Kressa extended her scans, “There are not the concentrations in this region, hold on,” she laughed and shot away north, “There are high concentrations a few minutes to the north.”

Maulik saw a wide expanse of wasteland ahead, devoid even of the troublesome pools that had developed at home.

“I think this is a perfect example of why we need to remove this species,”

Kressa scanned, “Life signs are very limited,” she agreed, “Almost zero, but just ahead you will be shocked, there are millions of them.”

“We are above one of the northern continents now,” she declared and slowed down until they were almost hovering silently over a very high concentration, “My scans show that below is one of many colonies of the creatures, they must have a social structure, the density is incredible, they are almost like insects.”

“All L6?”

“Almost,” she replied running complex calculations, “L1 levels are high, but that is to be expected, Levels 2 to 4 are in evidence but not in any significant numbers, mainly L6, I believe these creatures must live mainly in colonies.”

“Well that will be advantageous to the harvest,” agreed Maulik, “I like colonies, it makes my life much simpler.”

“They are scattered everywhere, in small pockets as well as these main concentrations.”

“That, is not my problem,” laughed Maulik, “I will capture a breeding herd and then harvest until my holds are full, the remaining stocks can be handled by other crews.”

“Two more harvesters are due within eight weeks,” Kressa confirmed, “With two more to arrive shortly after.”

“We will be long gone by then my friend,” he laughed, “Now let’s go home, I have a harvest to plan, and then we have a mission to complete.”

Chapter 5

Chancellor Go’an took no political prisoners as he cleared the old High Council and began his new appointments, most believed that it was no coincidence that his staunchest supporters had not been in session at the time of the attack because they soon arose from the still smouldering ashes of the Citadel and took prominent positions of power.

Those that dared opposed the new Chancellor disappeared and an entire race held their breath, few doubted that the old ways were about to disappear as completely as the opposition and rumour was rife.

“People of Watuma,” Go’an had openly wept during former Chancellor Lu’ta’s eulogy,

“People of Watuma” he continued, “Today is a sad day for our planet and colonies, we are laying to rest the finest peacetime leader since our history began,” he paused and studied the silent faces sampling thoughts, anticipation hung in the air, mixed with fear and hatred.

“But we are no-longer at peace.” he shouted suddenly making those closest to the podium jump and clutch their heads, Go’an was communicating on two levels, verbally and telepathically, everyone would receive his message and vision for the future.

“War is upon us, our enemy approaches, we do not know if it will be today, or tomorrow, or next year, or twenty years from now… but do not doubt, they are coming, and they bring death. They are not benign Gods as you have been led to believe, they are predators, conquerors, they come to kill not bless,” he paused again and tasted the reactions, it was still early to form an opinion so he continued his rhetoric,

“Well I will not lie down for them,” he channelled his formidable power into the statement and absolute silence followed, all minds were now open to his suggestions, he smiled a slow and cruel smile, “I will not submit, and neither will my High Council,” he chuckled as he caught small comments about his use of the word my not the, he was laying the basis for a new style of government and he was happy that his hints were being picked up.

“I have been your humble servant for many years as Vice Chancellor, and as a servant of the people I have always held the welfare and sovereignty of the Watu close to my heart, I have increased the size of our military, I have developed weaponry that will be used to protect our wives, our children, our homes… our planet.”

“The threat is real, the enemy knocks at our door, I will not welcome them in and bow down before them, the people of Watuma bow to no enemy,” he shook his bone staff and felt the alignment of millions of minds, billions of minds, minds rallying to a common cause, “We stand united as a people… or we fall divided.”

“I will tolerate No division,” the sentence thundered around the planet carried by every satellite, and a world cheered as one voice. Go’an smiled, he had their full attention, he had made it clear that he was the High Council, he was the ultimate authority on Watuma, and most importantly he would tolerate no opposition to his absolute rule.

Raising his hands he signalled for quiet before he continued.

“People of Watuma, I serve you still as your Chancellor, every action that I take from this day forward will be for the betterment and security of our world, this I swear before you all in the name of the true Gods.”

Theatrically Go’an reached towards the sky and prayed out loud, imploring the blessings of the Gods, begging for strength and wisdom, shaking his staff and swearing to protect his people as they were his witness, he felt the hatred diminish slowly being replaced with a patriotic fervour.

“I am not here to campaign,” he finished, almost a whisper but clear as crystal, “I am here to say farewell to a friend, I pray that you will show me the same support that you showed him during the dark days that lie ahead of us. Bless the Watu.”

The ovation was expected and Go’an could barely stand, the mental energy that he had expended to influence an entire race had been staggering, but influence them he had, and he was now undisputed Chancellor of a united people.

***

“Assist me.” he ordered the new Vice Chancellor who walked at his side as they descended the steps from the podium, Go’an felt his knees begin to tremble, the concentration required for his first planet wide address had drained his strength.

“Fine words Brother,” answered Vice Chancellor Na’ta as he grasped the offered arm and added his support, “Father would be proud of you if he were still with us.”

“I am exhausted brother,” admitted Go’an, “But the crowds must not see me weak, I must always be strong in their minds.”

“This is a fleeting weakness,” comforted Na’ta, “It will soon pass, you have such strength, I could not have extended that much influence over so many.”

Go’an shook his head, “You are still young, your own power will develop in time, have patience, your time will come.”

Go’an searched his mind for the contact with his Terrillian far out in deep space but could only find a buzz of static interference, he concentrated again without success, “I am more exhausted than I first imagined.” he told himself but it mattered little, after resting he would try again, Master Maulik would be in safe hands with the Kressa unit, the Terrillian was still many weeks away from his meeting with the Diurians, so much hinged on his missions success but Go’an had plenty of work to do getting his own house in order before the negotiations could begin.

Go’an ran over the growing list of potential allies he wanted in his new Federation, the Terrillians were already part, the Diurian’s would soon follow, he hoped, they would be powerful friends to have, if he could smooth away the distrust that had clouded their relations for centuries. The Su’al were another possibility if he could convince them to cease their constant in-fighting and territorial squabbles, their territories would mean nothing in the end he smiled, when he had stripped away all of the borders. His mind drifted to other plans.

“I am going to the institute,” he announced, “I can rest on the transport.”

“Do you want me to join you?” questioned Na’ta.

“You are Vice Chancellor now,” snapped Go’an, “You represent me when I am away from the Citadel… sometimes I worry about you brother,” Go’an sighed, “Just oversee the clearance work, I want my new Council Chambers built within the month, that should keep you busy.”

The institute had been Go’an’s brainchild when he came into office and was dedicated to bio-mechanical research, a subject that had always fascinated him. Until the formation of the institute organic integration had been a fantasy but Go’an had drawn together a group of dreamers and chemists, engineers and biologists and set them to work with unlimited funding and facilities that were the envy of established scientists across the planet. His detractors had called it a crazy dream sponsored by a deluded war monger, their voices had slowly disappeared, those that couldn’t be bought had all met with untimely accidents which only served to fuel Go’an’s reputation for ruthlessness.

It was inside the institute that the Kressa project had been conceived, his team had shown some advances as they integrated the higher functions of several species of reptiles into mechanical skins, the results were promising but very limited in application. It had been Go’an himself who had suggested work should begin with a more aggressive species and the short-list of suitable indigenous predators had been whittled down until only the sleek and agile Kressa remained.

The Kressa project had been a success, but the feral mind proved erratic and unpredictable so a series of protocols were established. Under normal circumstances the programming maintained stability as it smoothed away the wild impulses and boosted the intellect until a level of understanding and reasoning could be established, yet a flaw hid within the coding, under stress the complex program collapsed as the creatures natural instincts gained dominance. The designers saw a failure, Go’an saw only opportunity, suddenly he possessed a thinking weapon that delighted in the chase, that revelled in the kill. He ordered further development to cease, he had what he wanted, docile and pliable in peacetime, yet vicious and unstoppable in action.

The male Kressa became the gender of choice, they were far more stable and predictable, they possessed aggression in abundance but were much easier to control, the females displayed a high level of irrationality, almost displaying emotions, true they were the better hunters and killers, but they simply weren’t reliable enough to consider mass production. An order was issued that ceased female production leaving only the original prototypes in existence, the few female Kressa units became novelty items and of little military value.

Go’an relaxed his mind as the transport carried him deep into the rugged highlands that surrounded his research institute and smiled as he thought of the Territes delight in his unreliable Kressa unit, the gift had been so small a sacrifice to make when he considered the potential benefits, and if negotiations failed, what had he lost? A silver skinned freak and an emotional prototype.

“The Kressa is fast and agile,” he began to think of options for future development, “Now I must find something for my land invasion forces,” he ran through a list of suitable life forms for potential integration, “I need something armoured and stubborn, something big and aggressive.” his head began to ache reminding him of the massive drain he had suffered only hours before.

“Why am I worrying about this?” he rebuked himself, “I can leave that to the biologists, that’s what I pay them for.”

***

Even in his depleted condition Go’an sensed instantly that his scientists were hiding something from him as he stepped through the main entrance and into the institutes wide and bright reception area, he felt their evasion and discomfort, he sensed secrets and concerns, concerns that bordered on fear.

“Tell me.” he demanded as he forced eye contact with the director.

“It is nothing to worry about Chancellor.” replied the nervous head of the facility.

“I find that difficult to believe” Go’an replied as he forced his way into the mind that stood before him.

“Why was I not informed?” he glared as he forced the director to his knees.

“We didn’t think we should worry you,” came a pained reply, “We are working on a fix right now.”

Go’an felt his own concerns rising, he was basing his entire domination plan on the Kressa units, it had not been by accident that they had remained a closely guarded secret for so many years… now their reliability could be in doubt.

His plan had always been to unleash their ferocity on any race that failed to comply with his broader plans for the Federation. Accept his authority or suffer the might of his Kressa fleet. “And they have begun to over-ride the safety protocols?”

The director nodded, “It is not happening throughout the entire fleet, but the fact that it is happening at all is a concern, but please don’t worry Chancellor, we have a team of software experts working on the code and inserting new safeguards, given a little time we can fix this.”

“You have three months, not one day more” warned Go’an, “After that I want a functioning and reliable fleet at my disposal… do not disappoint me Director, it would be very unwise.”

Chapter 6

Maulik sat in his seat in Kressa’s cockpit and they discussed the mission ahead of them. “How long will it take us to get there?” he asked.

“No more than eight hours,” she replied, “We could be there much quicker, but I don’t want to over work my reactor, we don’t know what the reception will be like yet, and I don’t think it will be wise for us to arrive when I’m not operating at full capacity.”

Maulik nodded, “You know I’m just a passenger, you could probably do all of this without me.” he laughed.

“I cannot function without you,” she replied instantly, “It’s a safety protocol, I cannot operate without a pilot, so we are both equally important.”

“That’s comforting to know,” he chuckled, “I was beginning to feel very obsolete. So, eight hours, that should give me enough time to think of something to say when we arrive.” he joked.

“Unnecessary,” cut in Go’an, “I will tell you what to say, do not concern yourself with that issue.”

“Nice of you to join us Chancellor.” sighed Maulik, Go’an was beginning to irritate with his constant interruptions to daily life, “Any chance you will cut the link when this job is over?” he asked hopefully.

“I may consider it,” laughed Go’an, “But then again, I may find more uses for you, there are other worlds.”

“With respect, find someone else,” replied Maulik with feeling, “I really would like my mind back, no disrespect intended, but you are really starting to annoy me now.”

“Despite the knowledge of what I could do to you, even at this range, you are still defiant, I like that independence of spirit, I respect you Master Maulik, when you return we must sit down and talk properly, maybe you can be convinced to work for me more willingly, you would find the benefits and rewards… attractive. But that is a matter for future discussion, right now we have more pressing issues to attend to, have you made your preparations for the journey?”

“Yeah, mostly,” he replied wondering why Go’an always insisted he repeat what he already knew, “I was just discussing that with Kressa.”

“Good, the Kressa unit already has my initial salutation to transmit as you approach Diurian space, do not cross the neutral zone until you have received confirmation from their central command that your embassy has been accepted, it may take some time, so display patience Master Maulik, there is a certain … pace to Diurian thinking, you must not rush them.”

“The mistake that you made on first contact?”

Maulik sensed a hesitancy, “You people rushed in didn’t you?”

“Let us just say we failed to adhere to protocol.” admitted Go’an but masked the true details of their first contact.

It had been many years before, in a time of upheaval and shortage on Watuma, a time of flux and great uncertainty. The primitive perception of the Watu had been justified at that time, they lagged behind more advanced races by a considerable margin and their ecosystem was on the point of collapse. For centuries they had monitored the decline of Terrillia, their closest galactic neighbour but failed to learn from the mistakes. Their salvation would be in technology decided the High Council and encouraged acquisition by any means, beg, borrow or steal. So it came to pass that a marauding squadron of Watumian fighters had stumbled upon a fresh ion trail heading into uncharted space and the enterprising leader had followed the scent to a lightly armed freighter. Such ships were a tempting target in the search for alternative technologies but the decision to pursue as the bulky ship engaged it’s FTL drives would prove to be disastrous. Crossing into Diurian territory uninvited and with obvious hostile intent had sparked a conflict between the two worlds that had simmered for centuries.

Go’an knew that his current strategy had limited chance of success, but with the total commitment that he had to mounting a united stand against the Reapers, the benefits of a potential alliance far out-weighed the repercussions, the loss of a Terrillian, a flawed Kressa and a continuation of an already established conflict. His downside was minimal.

“The Kressa has received full instructions and coordinates, she has been briefed on the protocols for this initial contact, you will simply be delivering my message and invitation, just try to keep your sarcasm to a minimum if you are forced to communicate without my guidance,” added Go’an, “Good luck, and may your Gods go with you.”

***

The moment for departure finally arrived but Maulik had delayed to oversee the placement of the first harvester drones, they would be acting as a defence mechanism during this selective harvest as the L6’s, although backward and under-developed, could potentially have rudimentary defence mechanisms of their own. Maulik considered the large colonies of aggressive ants he had seen defending themselves on Planet K559 on his last harvest, they were only L2 but displayed a fierce sense of self preservation, the larger soldiers, spreading their wings and attacking the collectors with powerful jaws and strong jets of acid had wreaked considerable damage before they could be subdued. The L6’s on this remote world were only a fraction of the size of the aggressive and determined ants, but their more advanced level of development threatened the potential for defence or retaliation. As Harvester Master it was Maulik’s duty to ensure the harvesting was handled efficiently with minimal damage sustained to his valuable equipment.

Kressa dropped back into the corrosive atmosphere and followed the lead drones down, back on 7 Maulik had sat with his team and selected a continent that straddled both northern and southern hemispheres, two huge blocks of land that were joined by a the narrowest of connections.

“This is the logical start point,” he had insisted ignoring the advice that other regions displayed higher concentrations, “Agreed, other regions look more viable, however, we will work towards the recovery of this planet first, consider the selected target area, the northern section is teeming with L6’s, and large areas are severely damaged, so total harvesting will comfortably fill our holds on this trip, but it is the southern section that interests me most, this area appears the least damaged, so for me it a priority to clear this section first, call it conservation.”

“Densities are very low.” said a junior officer.

“True,” agreed Maulik, “But consider this, spend a few extra days clearing this section, or we stick to our original quota and spend an additional three months travelling to the next harvest-able world?”

With that thought in mind all debate ended, the whole crew could expect generous bonuses for delivering full quota ahead of schedule so a few extra days, a week at the most, spent satisfying their Masters conservation plan didn’t seem unreasonable.

***

“Much more ozone in this region,” announced Kressa as she modified her shields to compensate for the higher concentrations of the corrosive gas, “Most of the L6’s are concentrated around the coastal regions, there are areas with quite high levels.”

Engineering had configured the collectors to filter out all life below L6 and Maulik watched with interest as the massive ships worked a pattern over the largest colony, edging closer they saw the life forms scatter as the beams flickered and transported.

“Just like the ants,” laughed Maulik, “But I don’t see any defence yet, surely such an invasive species has offensive capabilities?”

Moments later his curiosity was satisfied as small fighters swarmed into view.

“Scan their capabilities Kressa,” he asked as the insect like defenders raced around the collectors firing what looked like tiny metal darts that flared ineffectually on the flanks of the heavy collectors.

“Minimal threat” announced Kressa, “They are a form of rudimentary attack ship, no reactors, no FTL capability, capable of inflicting only minimal damage, more an annoyance than a threat.”

Maulik signalled back to 7. “Relik, there is no offensive threat to our equipment down here, program the drones to eliminate the small fighters, and proceed with the harvest as planned, I will be back in three or four days.”

“Understood,” replied his second in command, “May the Gods go with you.” he added as Kressa burst out into clean clear space and lined up on her calculated course.

Their destination known, but the welcome; uncertain.

***

As they reached cruising speed Kressa released her tight grip around Maulik by relaxing the rigidity of his seat. “We have eight hours now” she purred, “Time to relax before the confrontation and hostility.”

“You don’t have much faith in this mission, do you?” Question or statement, Kressa could take it how it best suited her, fearless as she was, and brimming with self confidence, Maulik could feel the concern in her mind.

“I think it is a waste of our time,” she agreed finally, “I feel that there is too much bad blood between the Watu and Diurians to ever contemplate a collaboration, but that is only my opinion.”

Maulik eased himself out of the seat and strolled back to the compact relaxation area. Kressa was well equipped for a craft of her size. She was only slightly larger than a star-fighter but the genius of design allowed all of the basic facilities needed for a scout on deep space exploration, helping himself to a small sachet of reconstituted meat he sank down beside a video terminal and requested a re-run of the Diurian data stream.

“Pause,” he ordered the on-board computer as an image flashed onto the screen. “Enlarge and enhance, twenty five percent,” the image grew and clarified, it was an artist’s impression of a Diurian military officer, an image unchanged for hundreds of years and based on the testimony of the only survivor of that first hasty territorial incursion.

“And what are you hiding under that exoskeleton?” he mused. The image depicted armour, dark and sleek, functional and outwardly aggressive looking. “I guess these guys really want to look the part” he laughed, “But they have to be soft to need all that armour.”

“Don’t be deceived,” broke in Kressa, “For some races armour is simply uniform, a status symbol, or ceremonial, many use it but don’t need it, I’m afraid not enough is known about the Diurians to be able to establish their natural form, but it would be an error on your part to under estimate them.”

“Point taken,” laughed Maulik, “But I didn’t plan to under estimate anyone, I was just thinking out loud. This is a very old picture, what is the most recent data on their capabilities?”

“The most recent dates back over one hundred years.” replied Kressa.

“So really, we have no idea what to expect when we arrive, they could have a fleet of craft just like you by now!”

“True,” she replied, “Exciting isn’t it.”

Maulik slipped the unwrapped sachet into his pouch and turned off the display, there appeared very little point in studying the outdated data further, he would soon discover if the Diurians had changed or advanced since the last encounter, “Maybe after a hundred years without contact their tempers have cooled,” he chuckled, “But I guess I won’t be that lucky.”

After five hours of uneventful travel Kressa announced that they were about to leave known space from a Terrillian perspective. “This is as far as your people have ever been, you are now in uncharted space, congratulations Maulik, you are now an explorer.” she laughed.

“Well at least I’ve fulfilled one ambition,” he joked in reply, “Not exactly how I had pictured it, but I’ve joined the scout club… finally, I just wish it was on a mission for my own people.”

“But it is for the benefit of your people,” cut in Go’an, “It is for the benefit of all races in the galaxy, you should feel honoured.”

“Yeah, honoured to be the first idiot to offer himself as a gunnery practice target to the Diurian fleet, I’m underwhelmed by the privilege.” replied Maulik, he had been expecting Go’an to interrupt him so the comment from the invasive Watu came as no surprise. “I guess in about three hours we will all know if this was a good idea or not, but if they start shooting, Kressa and I are out of there so fast… do you get what I mean, much as I like you Chancellor I have no intention of dying for you, if it can be avoided.”

“Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that,” laughed Go’an, “But I have a feeling that they will be in the mood to chat when they have heard my salutation, like the Watu they are a strong race, but they are not strong enough to face the Reapers alone, we need each other, they will see that when they have studied the data you will present.”

“Yeah well, we will soon discover if you are correct.”

“Maulik, we have company.” called Kressa.

Jumping up he rushed forward and dropped into his seat.

“Where? Who?”

“Off to our left, two Diurian star-fighters.”

“An escort?” he wondered.

“Unknown, they are scanning us and maintaining a parallel course.”

“Probably ordered to escort us in,” he guessed as he scanned distorted space through the left view port.

“Possibly,” replied Kressa, “But their weapons are hot and locked… so hang on, I may need to get us out of here quickly, I won’t be able to give you much warning.”

“If they have allowed themselves to be detected and not opened fire it can be taken as a very good sign,” added Go’an who had been monitoring the conversation, “Usually they fire first and then scan the debris.”

“Hey, thanks for letting me know that in advance,” exclaimed Maulik, “It’s always good to know you don’t keep anything from me.”

“You are welcome,” replied Go’an, “You can start transmitting the salutation message now, all frequencies.”

“Weapons are still hot, but they released the lock.” reported Kressa and Maulik felt a small wave of relief wash over him, the step down in threat level was a good sign anywhere in the galaxy and he allowed himself to breathe again.

“Moving away now,” she added after a few moments, “They have taken up flanking positions, I believe that they are now an escort, weapons threat minimal.” she paused for a moment, “I have interfaced with the lead fighters computer and received coordinates, confirming acceptance now.”

“Congratulations Chancellor, I guess that means your meeting is on.” Signalled Maulik but received no reply.

“I raised shields when they locked on,” explained Kressa, “But allowed them to scan, they were probably confused they couldn’t find any weapons system,” she purred, “They feel secure now that we are unarmed.”

“You can block a weapons scan?” he asked in shock, a scan would usually reveal every system on a ship no matter how well shielded.

“I take their data and filter out what I don’t want seen,” she laughed, “A lady needs some privacy… I’m about to lower shields in a moment as a show of trust, so get prepared for Chancellor Go’an, I’m sure he will be contacting you again very soon.” Maulik appreciated the warning and tried to clear his mind.

Kressa decelerated as they entered the upper atmosphere and her sensors gathered data quickly.

“High levels of methane, traces of oxygen, argon, nitrogen, ozone is minimal, a little like your planet used to be,” she teased, “Before your people ruined it!”

“Long before my time,” sighed Maulik, “So you can’t hold me responsible.” he looked out of the side window and could see their escort clearly, the Diurian fighter looked menacing and advanced.

“I don’t see any plasma exhaust?” he mused.

“Anti Matter drive,” revealed Kressa, “Quite a feat of engineering really, but not very practical, we can scoop plasma from space, but they will have to manufacture their anti matter, expensive and very unstable.”

“Agreed,” he replied, “But imagine the power if it is channelled efficiently.”

“I’m still faster,” laughed Kressa, “Let’s just hope I don’t have to prove it, I’m handing control over to their landing computer now, so we can both relax for a few moments.”

“When you go outside to meet them, keep our link open, I will monitor your thoughts, if it is not going well and you are in danger I will know instantly… and I will come and find you.”

“Kressa, that is the most reassuring thing I have ever heard,” he answered as he understood he trusted the wild cat trapped inside a mechanical body more than any other being he had ever known, “But won’t you be under the control of the landing computer?”

A deep rumble entered his mind, “If you can’t control me when I am stimulated, what chance has a computer, don’t you worry about me, if you need me, I will be there.”

Seconds later they were guided down onto a landing pad and with no more sound than a gentle sigh Kressa dropped her side ramp and allowed the thick methane gases to enter, Maulik breathed deeply.

“So this is how Terrillia used to be,” the gas tasted pure and unsullied. “So fresh,” he sighed, “This has never been recycled, it tastes so pure. Well wish me luck.” he joked nervously as he stood at the top of the ramp and studied the reception committee approaching, five matching exoskeletons, sleek, smooth mottled grey and black, by the ease of their movement it looked light yet he was sure, light or not, the armour would be very effective.

“Go’an?” he questioned and was confused by the silence, “Just typical,” he sighed, “When I don’t want him around I can’t keep him out, but now I really need him online… he’s sleeping.”

The five Diurians paused before the obvious leader stepped forward.

“Master Maulik of Terrillia, Welcome.”

With surprise Maulik didn’t feel the small translation device that had been surgically implanted as a hatchling react, it was an expensive but very useful implant and vital for a Harvester Master, yet it had not engaged.

“You speak Terrillian?” he questioned.

“On the contrary,” replied the exoskeleton, “You speak very good Diurian,”

“We share a common language?” he replied not trying to mask the surprise in his voice.

“You will find that we share a great deal more than just language,” came the reply and the Diurian reached up to his neck and pressed a small pad that illuminated briefly moments before there issued a sharp hiss as the controlled atmosphere inside the armour equalised with the pressure outside, gently he lifted the helmet gradually exposing shining smooth silver skin.

Maulik gasped, it was like looking into a mirror, the face that stared back at him was Terrillian, the only difference was the lack of a scar above his eye.

“My name is Ka’lan… and I think you will have guessed by now, we are probably distant cousins.”

Chapter 7

Ka’lan led a confused Maulik across the landing pad and into a waiting transport.

“It is only a short ride to my offices,” he announced as he sat opposite his Terrillian guest, “I am head of Diurian Intelligence, it is my responsibility to monitor all issues that could affect our security.”

Maulik nodded, “It’s good to meet you, and I don’t know how much you know about my mission here but I am not really acting on behalf of the Terrillian Senate.”

“We know all about that Watumian rogue,” laughed Ka’lan, “The only reason we agreed to an audience was because he informed us he was sending you, we have long discussed if it was time to reveal ourselves to the people of Terrillia, news of your mission swung the vote.”

“So you are aware of the threat?”

Ka’lan nodded, “Very aware… you see a planet that has been preparing for the final conflict for over one thousand years, and now the time is almost upon us.”

“I’ve lost contact with Chancellor Go’an for some reason but I know he wants to propose an alliance with you, with all of the advanced races in this, and surrounding galaxies, so we can present a united defence against the Reapers when they arrive.”

“The Reapers!” chuckled Ka’lan, “Quite an apt name for them, we simply refer to them as the Shadow, because a shadow of uncertainty has hung over us for so long.”

“How did you learn the truth about them?” asked Maulik.

“Refugees fleeing devastated worlds, rumours,” shrugged Ka’lan, “But how we discovered is not that important, it was the knowledge of our own genetic code being used to seed other worlds that interested us most, that knowledge gave my ancestors the desire to explore beyond our own solar system, that knowledge led us to the planet you call Terrillia.”

“So you have known about us for some time,” questioned Maulik, “So why no contact?”

“You weren’t ready, we discovered a race identical to ourselves, yet very different, you had not developed inter stellar capabilities, you used verbal communication and you were slowly destroying your natural resources.”

“You could have advised us, maybe prevented some of the mistakes we made?”

“We have laws that prevent interference with developing species, we simply observe until the time is right.”

“And now is the right time?” replied Maulik feeling a little upset that such close genetic relations could have simply watched as his ancestors had destroyed his home world.

“Circumstances have pushed us to this decision, it is not entirely popular, especially as you have developed such a close allegiance with the Watu, but it was decided that time is short and despite our serious misgivings combining our forces offers the best chance of success against the impending attack.”

“You talk as though you know when they are coming… the Reapers?”

“Of course we know,” replied Ka’lan, “At their present rate, they will be here within eighteen months.”

Maulik felt his skin contract as the information sunk in catching his breath, Go’an had mentioned twenty years, a number that had stuck in his mind and eased his initial concerns, “Plenty of time to prepare” he had told himself.

“Are you sure? I mean how do you know for sure?”

Ka’lan laughed, “We have been launching sensors for many years, following the path of destruction, it has taken only very basic calculations to estimate when they will arrive in our system, it has been a race for us to develop weaponry that can match them, a race that I am not sure we are winning, our factories are producing fighters and battle cruisers at maximum capacity but I am not sure it will be enough… but just maybe, if the Territes and Watu stand at our side… then we may stand an outside chance of victory.”

“I think that is exactly what the Chancellor is proposing,” added Maulik with enthusiasm, “And they have quite an advanced fleet now… far more advanced than our own,” Maulik sensed confusion and a little disbelief blossom in Ka’lan’s mind.

“If they have advanced then it has been in secret, we have always considered yourselves to be the dominant power in your system, in our eyes the Watu are little better than the Su’al.”

“I hate to admit it, but it seems we were both wrong, believe me they have developed ships that have incredible capabilities.” suddenly he felt the urge to hide the information about Kressa that he held in his mind, creating a mask he hoped the Diurians hadn’t developed the same level of telepathy that Go’an displayed. “I wonder what has happened to him?” the thought crossed Maulik’s mind, it was very strange to experience a time without interruptions.

“This is interesting news,” replied Ka’lan, “Very interesting, perhaps we will agree to Chancellor Go’an’s offered peace summit… perhaps.”

“Perhaps?” asked Maulik.

“We never considered the Watu as a serious ally, in our minds they would simply add to the numbers but not contribute greatly, our interest was an alliance with Terrillia, this new development will have to be debated and discussed by our own Senate, it will not be a popular decision if we ally ourselves formally,” he shook his head, “Yes, this changes things drastically.”

The transport slid to a graceful halt outside a wide and low, glass fronted building.

“These are my headquarters,” announced Ka’lan as he led Maulik up the steps and passed him through the security check point, Maulik flashed a message to Kressa requesting a secure and private link.

“I’m monitoring you,” she replied instantly, “And I detect no threat or deception.”

“I agree,” he replied, “I just wanted to let you know that I think we are safe here, and also ask if you have been in contact with Go’an?”

“Negative,” she replied instantly, “But I am sure it will not be long before he requests an update.”

“Understood,” he replied, “I will be back as soon as I can.”

***

“If you don’t mind?” Ka’lan indicated the small hypodermic sensor in his hand, “I have flouted regulations simply allowing you to enter this building without submitting a sample, so if you please, let’s get the formalities out of the way.”

Maulik shrugged mentally, sampling was common place at home, and standard verification for most transactions.

“There it is,” growled Kressa as she monitored the conversation from the landing pad, it had all been too convenient, everything she knew about the Diurians promised her hostility and suspicion at their arrival, their welcome had been far too warm, regardless that Maulik and Ka’lan were the same species she didn’t trust, her feral instincts couldn’t handle the concept, trust was a luxury that couldn’t exist in the wild, even though she had never lived a natural life the instincts were still strong, she knew she couldn’t trust her own species any more than any other, family members would tear her to pieces for her fresh kill, and now she sensed the Diurian’s reaction.

“It’s not deception or threat,” she whispered to herself as she attempted to understand the feeling that had set off her natural alarms, “It’s more like anticipation, trepidation… almost fear… And hope.” she suddenly understood.

“It’s just routine,” added Ka’lan as the sensor sampled Maulik’s genetic code, “You would be surprised how many species there are in deep space that can mimic another entities form, not that I am suggesting you are a Morph,” he added with a laugh, “But I would be in serious trouble if I took you into the heart of our central intelligence buildings on face value alone.”

“No big deal,” replied Maulik, “We do this at least twenty times a day back home.” Ka’lan checked the reading before transmitting to the central data banks, “Well, that confirms it,” he laughed, “Closer than cousins, our genetic codes are identical, the scanner accepts you as Diurian.”

“Where do I apply for a residents permit?” joked Maulik, “I love the atmosphere here, so clean tasting.”

“Come,” instructed Ka’lan, “I’m sure something could be arranged if you were serious.” and led Maulik deeper into the building.

“Relief, now he feels relief, like a burden has been lifted,” whispered Kressa, “What is your true agenda Diurian?” she considered strengthening her link and warning Maulik, but what would that warning be, that the Diurian had been nervous and was now relieved beyond what would be considered normal. “I have nothing more than my instincts,” she admitted, “But no proven threat.” frustrated and filled with a growing concern she decided to wait a little longer, cooling her growing aggression she forced her reactor to settle, power had been surging as she fought with the urge to rescue her friend… but rescue him from what?

“What are your capabilities, size of fleet, class of ship?” asked Ka’lan as they sat in his plush office.

“You’re asking the wrong guy,” laughed Maulik, “I’m just a Harvester Master, I have no connection to the military, as I told you, I’m not even here on behalf of my own people, Chancellor Go’an sent me to represent him and present his proposal.”

Ka’lan nodded, “That information we can get when official diplomatic links have been established.”

***

On Watuma Go’an followed the developments with growing interest, it was by design not accident that he had remained silent, his input was unnecessary while Maulik was doing such a good job of first contact, and he knew that the conversation would flow more freely if neither party knew of his eavesdropping. It gave him a warm satisfaction when he learned how under estimated his race had been, the secrecy and security had been worth the loss of face for such a proud warrior people, often he had been pressed by the High Council to reveal the Watumian might, to flex their muscles in the galaxy, but he was cautious and calculating, and now his patience was about to pay dividends.

It had been a gamble on his part, trusting such a vital mission to the wilful and headstrong Terrillian but he congratulated himself on a wager won. Of course he could have probably achieved the same result through diplomatic channels, but that would have taken time, time he knew was in short supply, it wasn’t only the Diurians who had knowledge of the impending arrival of the Reapers, but it was a knowledge that he had withheld from the High Council. Their dithering and scepticism had played right into his hands, true he had pushed his own convictions in public, but in the background he had secretly spread dissent, effectively dividing the Council, weeding out his most ardent detractors and revealing the truth faith of his followers.

His plans were falling into place very nicely and he allowed himself a rare genuine smile, a sign of deep satisfaction rather than the feigned reasonable and approachable façade that he showed both friend and potential foe alike, “Emperor Go’an.” he repeated secretly, shielding his thoughts from his brother, the Vice Chancellor who had just entered his palatial new office in the recently completed Citadel.

“Negotiations go well with the Diurians,” he announced with pride, “Our three fleets, combined with those animals the Su’al should prove to be an effective match for the Reapers when they arrive, they will not take our system quite so easily.” he chuckled.

“Now is the time for diplomacy, for agreements to be signed, alliances forged… the foundations for my Federation will be laid, this is a historic moment Na’ta. I sense your mind is troubled brother.” he glanced up and bared his teeth, “Tell me?”

“It is of little importance,” sighed Na’ta, “A delegation from the dominant clan of the Su’al are here seeking an audience.”

“And the meaning of this?” replied Go’an.

“There appears to be a reluctance for the clans to cease their own hostilities, they are like animals,” he sighed, the task of bringing a united Su’al to the alliance had been delegated to him, a task he was finding tedious and frustrating, “It is impossible to hold their complete attention while they insist on fighting amongst themselves.”

“They are your responsibility,” snapped Go’an, “But let me give you a little brotherly advice, races like the Su’al only respect dominance and aggression… if I were faced with your task…” he paused for a moment deciding if his proposed action would be revealing too much before continuing, “If I had your task, I would select a smaller Su’al clan at random, and then send a squadron of Kressa, leave not one alive… then demand to meet with all of the other Clan Lords,” he laughed, “Explain to them that you will no-longer tolerate their behaviour.”

“With you leave,” smiled Na’ta, “Chancellor… brother.” he bowed low with his fist tight against his powerful chest.

***

Maulik stood before the Diurian Senate and delivered the message that he had quickly prepared on behalf of his people, he felt that a proposal for alliance would sound better if it was coming from Terrillia rather than Chancellor Go’an, and with the Chancellors marked absence he relied on Ka’lan for advise on protocol and procedure.

“Do not mention the Shadow… Reapers,” he corrected himself, “Simply say that you are here by chance and that you wish to suggest a diplomatic exchange between our worlds… you will appear before the Senate to be seen more than heard anyway, some of the old guard distrust reports and data, but they do trust their own eyes, just be natural and answer their questions as best you can, do not, I repeat DO NOT mention the Watu at this moment, they are an issue that will need gradual introduction into the minds of the Senators, that will be for my department to propose.”

Maulik had nodded, and feeling ready for anything he had taken his place before the rows of ancient mirrored eyes, the questions had been polite and none specific, news of his world, similarities in customs and beliefs were discussed before an elderly Senator dragged the questioning down a new path.”

“Surely a Harvester Master should remain with his ship?” he felt a shrewd mind probing for hidden answers.

“Very true” he admitted, “But during this mission I have also learned that I have finally been awarded my Scouts Licence, so you could say at this moment in time I am “acting Master” but “active scout,” that is the reason that I stumbled into your space.”

“So you came to harvest us,” chuckled the old Senator, his comment generating a ripple of laughter amongst his peers.

“Indeed,” laughed Maulik, “But sadly our laws prohibit that course of action.” again there was a ripple of laughter.

“I wish to talk with you privately,” the Senator forced a secure link to deliver his message, on the landing pad Kressa growled but restrained herself, there was still not sufficient threat but she sensed a new agenda was about to be revealed, “Patience.” she told her feral instincts.

***

“You are no diplomat.” the Senator chuckled as the doors to his private chambers sealed

“Very true.” agreed Maulik.

“You do not have the shroud of secrecy practised by the diplomatic corps, you must be more careful of your thoughts,” added the ancient mind that probed him, “You are revealed to me, but not to my peers, now deliver the message from the Watu, that is what you are here for… is it not?”

Maulik thought quickly, the Senator laughed.

“Not a diplomat for sure,” he chuckled, “While you have been attempting to hide your thoughts you have become transparent to me, Master Maulik, I sympathise with you, this was a task that you did not want, you are out of your depth and filled with confusion. It is too late to hide those thoughts now… tell Chancellor Go’an that we will be prepared to meet him, his proposal will be given fair consideration, I speak for the Senate.” he added almost as an afterthought.

“And who should I say has authorised this meeting,” replied Maulik feeling weak minded and slightly violated.

Again the old Senator chuckled, “Tell him that Emperor Tanik extends a personal invitation.”

“Emperor!” gasped Maulik.

“I believe that your work here is done, your full message is revealed at last, and you have my reply, Master Maulik, you are free to rejoin your very interesting ship and leave at your convenience. But you are free to return at any time you wish, I understand that your genetic data has now been stored and you can consider yourself a welcome guest.”

“Thank you Emperor.” he bowed low provoking another chuckle.

“You have been spending too much time with the Watu,” he laughed, “That action fell out of use in our society many centuries ago, but I accept your mark of respect.”

***

“So very true, I really wouldn’t make a very good diplomat.” stated Maulik as he was led back to the transport.

“You should relax,” replied Ka’lan, “You ended up in a difficult spot and handled yourself well, not many can resist the mind of the Emperor, he is on a level far above the likes of us, but if I might ask, what does he find so interesting about your ship, our scans have revealed nothing exceptional?”

“Then I think you must wait until the Watu have arranged an official demonstration,” he chuckled, “But I promise you, you will be in for a very big surprise.”

***

“Well, we survived.” joked Maulik as the landing computer released its hold on Kressa.

“I am not so sure,” she growled catching him by surprise, “I won’t relax until we are out of Diurian space.”

“You sensed some hostility?”

“Not hostile intent, or any real threat… but my instincts tell me that we should be very careful, I can’t explain my feelings, but I really don’t think we can trust them.”

“For the first time I really think that you are over reacting.” he replied.

“Maybe.” she conceded, but couldn’t dispel her growing unease, and with a sudden surge of power Kressa left their escort standing in her wake and burst out into open space.

“Now we are finished with the Chancellors mission, would you like to exercise your duty as a Scout,” she teased, “While I was sat on the landing pad, and very bored, I accessed the Diurian central archives and borrowed their star charts.”

“Borrowed?” questioned Maulik.

“I didn’t steal anything classified,” she giggled, “And if they want to leave their charts in open files for anyone to read, well that’s their own problem, I was curious and decided to take a little peek.”

“And?”

“Well it just so happens that not so very far from here is a developing planet that doesn’t appear on any Watumian or Terrillian chart, according to the archives it is in a sector that is surrounded by asteroid fields and other such obstacles, but not too difficult for us to explore, just imagine Maulik, your first trip as a scout, an adventure, unknown space!”

“Then I will plot a course” she purred as his thoughts were revealed.

“And signal 7, tell Relik we will be delayed.”

“I already did.” she purred and with the famed agility of her breed she instantly altered course and accelerated into uncharted space.

***

“Are the results for his sample back?” asked Emperor Tanik.

“They are Sir,” replied Ka’lan, “It is confirmed, his people would appear to be clear of the virus.”

Tanik sighed, “Then it would appear there is only one option open to us.”

“Agreed Sir.” replied Ka’lan as he placed the results on the Emperors wide desk.

“Keep this quiet, we cannot act until after the Shadow threat has been eliminated, we can wait a little longer.”

“Understood Sir,” Ka’lan replied as he saluted smartly, “Eighteen months is not so long.”

Tanik rubbed his decaying legs through the exoskeleton, of course he couldn’t feel the massaging through the dense yet light alloy, but the movement was somehow comforting.

The virus had emerged many years before, carried by an off-world freighter, within days the entire population had been infected, the weak it had killed within hours, the strong lingered on the edge of death before slowly making a full recovery. Bio filters had successfully scoured the atmosphere until every last trace of the alien virus had been eradicated, but the action was too little, and far too late.

Scientists had attempted to arrest the damage caused, the virus may have been removed but it had sparked a genetic breakdown, the signs were slow to appear but once established the gland that controlled cell regeneration rapidly began to fail, in effect the Diurians began to gradually diminish as dead cells were not replaced. Drugs were created and tested, the results showed a slowing of degradation but not a cure, as the population weakened the alloy exoskeletons were developed, this gave back mobility, together, enhanced drugs and the light alloy suits had returned the Diurians back to an acceptable standard of existence, but the Emperor was aware that acceptable was not what his people wanted, they wanted health, full health without prosthetics, they wanted a cure.

It had been a military scientist who had first proposed transplantation, all eyes in the Senate had turned upon the radical, their minds screaming No, but their hearts yearning for release from the steady cycle of decay, his idea was shelved but the dream had lived on, reluctantly Tanik had given secret orders that research should proceed, but that no transplant would be attempted until much deeper study had taken place.

The scientist had ignored the order and with the assistance of mercenaries had obtained a hatchling from distant Terrillia. His procedure had been a complete success and presenting data disguised as computer projections rather than a live case study he offered the Senate a viable cure.

“I wish it could be different,” he sighed as he dropped Maulik’s results back onto the desk, they had tried replication and cloning, but the results always came back negative, their genetic make-up was too flawed for the procedures to be a success, it was transplants, or death.

“Such a pity the donor has to die.” he thought as his heart ached over the decision he would shortly be forced to make. “For the benefit of all Diurians.” he sighed before locking the information away in the most secure sector of his mind.

***

“How long now?” asked Maulik as he lounged in the relaxation area attempting to sleep, they had been travelling for six hours.

“Another four hours at least,” Kressa replied, “I am having to slow down a little now, this space is littered and unpredictable.” suddenly she rocked slightly, Maulik instantly recognised the discharge of her main energy weapons.

“Are we under attack?”

Kressa chuckled, “It was an asteroid drifting into our flight path, it uses less energy to destroy such objects than to plot a course around them, moments later Maulik saw a bright flash as the debris from Kressa’s latest kill burned out on her raised shields as she tore ever forward through the dust cloud, all that was now left of the small planetoid.

“I hope you scan for life before you fire,” he chuckled, “I’m joking.” he added quickly as he felt the concern welling in her thoughts.

“Good, I’m relieved it was only a joke,” she replied, “I only kill when we are threatened, it may look like I kill for fun, and I admit when I am aroused it is fun, but when I am relaxed and secure I respect all life, no matter how insignificant.”

Once again Maulik remembered the old natural history documentary he had watched so many years before, the sleek blue feline had been lying relaxed in the vegetation as a herd of prey animals had milled around almost close enough to touch, the cat had just fed and the urge to hunt had been low, the herd had sensed the reduced threat and grazed unconcerned. His Kressa displayed all of those signs, aroused and filled with the hunting urge she was vicious and uncontrollable, yet when calm and at rest she was docile and sensitive… of course she wouldn’t kill for the enjoyment without stimulation.

“Did your “borrowed” data indicate the level classification of the life forms on our destination planet?”

“That data didn’t exist,” she confirmed, “The Diurians don’t use the same classifications, all the data available indicates a developing world with low levels of colonisation evident, I would suspect L5 at the most advanced, but the chart was a little outdated, we will approach slowly with minimal shields.”

“I’m going to attempt a short sleep, try not to get us into too much trouble,” he laughed, “And wake me before we arrive.”

***

Maulik wasn’t sure how long he had slept before he was woken by Kressa’s urgent calls.

“We have arrived,” she called as he cleared the drowsiness and confusion from his mind, “But the Diurian data is not very accurate, come and look.” quickly he hurried forward and dropped into his seat, the forward view port revealed an unexpected sight.

“It looks like a space station, so much for L5 life down there.” Maulik stared in wonder at the slowly rotating hub, a vast central unit sprouted radial arms that stretched out into open space like the spokes of a primitive wheel, and to the outer end of each spoke was attached a smaller module with docking ports.

“A space station or a space port.” replied Kressa, “It could even be a trading post, those ports are adjustable, my scans show that they can adapt for different classes of ship.”

Maulik began to wonder just what type of explorer he was as an irrational fear entered his mind. “I don’t have a good feeling about this place” he confided.

“I sense no hostility,” came back the reply, “My stealth shields are fully functional, there is no known technology that can detect us, we are invisible and perfectly safe.”

“So you think we should take a closer look?” Maulik drew comfort from Kressa’s confidence and felt his flagging courage fortified, Kressa’s response was a deep purring, he felt her anticipation and desire.

“You are the scout,” she teased gently, “We can investigate if you wish.”

“Take us lower… a low orbit of the planet, lets run some scans, get a feel for the place before we dive in feet first.” the low hum of her reactor increased slightly as Kressa slid gently into the upper atmosphere and took up her station.

“Scanning,” she announced, “Atmosphere: high levels of sulphur, carbon and nitrogen, low levels of oxygen and methane, you wouldn’t want to breathe this,” she joked, “There are strong thermal signatures coming from the surface.”

“If you think it’s safe, take us lower, let’s have a look.” Maulik was beginning to feel the true spirit of exploration stir in his heart.

“Strong gravitational pull,” replied Kressa as they descended through the lower atmosphere and emerged into a zone obscured, “This is smoke,” she clarified, “I will try to filter it out of the view screen.”

“What emerged from the gloom as Kressa made allowances for the pollution almost stopped Maulik’s heart.

“Are those factories?”

“I believe so,” she replied and edged closer, “Although nothing in my database comes close to the scale.”

Below them as far as the eye could see were industrial areas belching out thick acrid smoke, Kressa ran her scans again and paused before relaying the data.

“That explains the gravity,” she announced, “This planet has a very iron rich core, many of these units are smelting and processing the raw metal… the remainder, well Maulik, this planet is one vast shipyard.”

“Can you get us closer undetected?” Kressa didn’t reply, she simply slipped lower until they were hovering above a mighty battle cruiser under construction,” “That is one big ship,” he exclaimed in wonder, “It makes 7 look like a toy.”

A light flashed on the console to his left.

“That’s not good,” exclaimed Kressa, there was an urgency in her voice that startled Maulik, she appeared worried, it was a sensation he had never experienced from her before, “I think we may have tripped some kind of security sensor grid, hang on Maulik… incoming!”

Kressa jinked sideways as a missile roared past, its exhaust port flashing as it began to circle searching for another lock.

“I thought we were invisible?” he cried as Kressa fired a pulse detonating the sleek projectile as it began its wide turn.

“We are,” she growled, “But they can obviously see us… multiple incoming, time to get us out of here.” Maulik glanced out of the side view port just in time to see dozens of missiles streaking towards them before Kressa shot out into open space, “We appear to have stirred up trouble for ourselves,” she chuckled, now she was out in the open again the doubt had left her mind and her natural instincts were wake and aware, “The missiles are simple heat seeking,” she announced, “No other guidance or intelligence.”

“OK,” replied Maulik, “But what about those, those aren’t heat seekers, those are star-fighters.”

A steady stream of small dart-like ships were pouring out of the space port and vectoring towards their position.

“How are they detecting us?” the question was not directed at Maulik, Kressa was exercising her growing feelings of independence and speaking to herself.

“Kressa, why are we still here?” Maulik cried in alarm as multiple weapons locks registered.

“You are safe,” she growled, “I need a few moments more.” Maulik’s anxiety rose as he counted at least thirty darts streaking towards them with a steady stream still leaving the port, the small siren screamed as more and more locks were established.

“In your own time,” he added nervously, “Any time you’re ready,” his thoughts becoming becoming shrill, “Kressa?” he cried as missiles fired their thrusters as they broke away from the lead fighters, an impact countdown began, not Kressa’s voice, a computer, cold and dispassionate… “3… 2…,” before the countdown could complete Kressa leapt away crushing Maulik back into his seat as the missiles streaked through her ion wake.

“Kressa, that was too close.”

“We were in no danger,” she purred, “But the delay was worth it, I managed to access and download their central computer.”

“I hope it was worth it, my nerves are tattered.” gasped Maulik as he attempted to control his racing heart.

“It certainly was,” she replied, “I know everything about them now, and this information is going to turn a few heads when we get back home.”

Maulik was about to reply but found himself stunned into silence as Kressa jolted as if she had been shunted from behind, seconds later a bright flash erupted by the left view port and he felt her shudder.

“Three of them, directly behind,” Maulik didn’t need her mental warning, he gripped his seat tightly and held his breath, on pure instinct Kressa banked hard before slotting in behind the far less manoeuvrable lead ship.

“That’s for firing a missile up my rear,” she growled as a high energy pulse sent the sleek dart and its pilot to oblivion in a vivid flash of blue flame, another missile exploded just in front of her nose but her shields absorbed the energy and heat as she flashed through. The pilots were experienced and battle hardened.

“This is more of a challenge,” she cried as she tore after the ship that had fired on her last, it went through a series of complicated evasive manoeuvres but Kressa’s instincts and reactions were too fast for the more clumsy star-fighter.

“He’s quite good,” she purred as she released another pulse that disabled the smaller crafts reactors. Leaving her foe floating helpless she turned on the surviving craft expecting to give chase… except he wasn’t running.

The remaining ship hung in the blackness of deep space and waited, her sensors told her his weapons were hot but not locked, for a second she paused.

“What’s he waiting for?” she questioned, before suddenly Maulik had a flash of inspiration.

“Kressa… get us out of here, he’s stalling, he’s sacrificing himself to hold us here just a few moments longer.” instantly she ran a long range scan but detected nothing.

“I don’t understand, why, there are no reinforcements close?”

“Trust me Kressa… run.” he begged, but too late.

Cloaking shields shimmered in a ring as heavy battle cruisers materialised and Kressa’s console screamed with multiple weapons locks.

“I should have listened to you,” she whispered, “I’m sorry Maulik.”

“Be quiet,” he laughed, no mirth, but a small sound of resignation, “It’s my fault for wanting to get closer, I should have just filed a report and not let my curiosity get us into this mess.”

“Incoming communication,” she declared just as Maulik felt his translation implant begin to hum softly.

“You are charged with espionage, how do you plead?” the voice was distorted and strangely mechanical.

“I’m not a spy,” replied Maulik quickly, “I’m an explorer, I stumbled upon your planet by accident.”

“Then why did you violate our central archives?”

“Oops,” whispered Kressa.

“I am sorry, I was just running a routine scan” Maulik lied, “I meant no harm.”

“They are charging weapons,” declared Kressa, “If this doesn’t work, them I’m sorry, and it has been a pleasure to know you Master Maulik.” before he could even process her heartfelt apology Maulik was crushed by inertia as Kressa pushed her systems and reactor past critical and jumped into FTL, the shock wave created by the volley of pulse cannons that had simultaneously fired was drawn behind them buffeting Kressa causing her to roar under the strain, gradually the energy dissipated and she eased down until her internal sensors dropped back below critical.

“Maulik.” she cried in alarm as she read his neural output, the massive force of the jump had rendered him unconscious instantly, quickly she scanned again for damage, he was intact, with a sigh of relief she increased the methane density, feeding his brain and extended her scans.

“No sign of pursuit.” she reassured herself and returned her thoughts to her friend. “He is my friend,” she assured herself, “He doesn’t treat me like a machine like the Watu, he cares about me.” she sensed him stir as the pure methane seeped through his skin and fed his starved brain.

“Are we alive?” he asked as his confusion began to clear.

“Yes, we are alive.” she replied, he sensed a hint of concern in her voice.

“Kressa, are you OK?” he asked with growing awareness.

“I’m sorry Maulik, the strain of the jump was too much for some of my systems… I’m venting plasma.” she whispered.

“Is it serious?”

“I won’t make it back to 7 in this condition,” she admitted, “But I can regenerate the damaged systems if I can find somewhere safe to land.”

“So let’s find somewhere.” he responded quickly.

“I’m afraid it’s not as simple as that,” she replied, “I’m leaving a clear trail for them to follow, they will catch up with us within nine hours.”

“And how many hours for you to regenerate?”

“Twelve.” she replied, the sadness clear in her voice.

***

For another hour Kressa limped on gradually extending the gap between herself and the battle cruisers that she knew were in pursuit.

“Maybe they will give up chasing… now that we are probably far outside their territorial boundaries.” Maulik offered with as much optimism as he could rouse.

“They won’t stop,” she replied with certainty, “I found something disturbing in their classified files, we have stumbled upon an invasion fleet, they are making ready to invade our space Maulik… so you understand, they can’t afford for us to escape they will keep hunting us, it doesn’t matter how far we run, they will follow. I have located a small planet that has an atmosphere that will support you, I can drop you there and signal to 7 with your location, they should be able to pick you up within ten days.”

“And what about you?” he questioned already knowing her mind.

“You already know.” she purred, but he felt the pain she was experiencing.

“Absolutely not.” he declared with finality, “Either we hide on this planet you have found while you regenerate, or we turn and face them together, I am not getting out of you now, not for any reason.” he felt her gratitude welling up mixed with intense sorrow.

I don’t know what to say.” she whispered softly.

“Then say nothing,” he chuckled, “Just get us to the planet and start regenerating fast.”

***

Kressa gave the small planet a final scan as she descended down to the surface.

“There is a small area of magnetic interference close to the northern pole,” she indicated, “It just might mask my signature for a while.”

“That’s good.” he replied enthusiastically.

“Yeah,” she agreed, “But it will also leave me blind, I won’t be able to tell when they arrive, we will have to rely on line of sight, and by the time we can see them with the naked eye… well, it may be too late.” she tailed off.

“I’ll take that risk,” Maulik replied firmly, “Besides, we don’t really have any other option… do we?”

“look over there, the narrow canyon,” Maulik guided Kressa’s mind as he indicated the deep gorge up ahead, “If you can land in there I could bring down a few of those trees above with a pulse rifle, they should shield you from sight, they will also be blind without sensors.”

Kressa drifted into the gorge, the steep walls closing in on either side, almost touching by the time they had reached the ground, there Kressa settled and ran down her reactor.

“You will have to wait inside until I have sealed the damaged plasma valve, I don’t want to risk singeing your shiny silver skin.” she chuckled, Maulik laughed and opened a sachet of re-con meat.

“Just let me know when it’s safe an I’ll try and disguise you a little.” he replied as he drew a rifle from the weapons locker and checked the charge.

“So who were those guys?” he asked as Kressa continued to close down her none vital systems.

“They are called the Drakan,” she replied, “Their archives are very interesting, they are a semi nomadic race, I am still trying to pinpoint their original galaxy but it would appear that they wander from system to system seeking planets with very dense iron cores, they then establish mining and manufacture to increase the size of their fleet. Basically they will move into a system, deplete the metallic resources before subduing the inhabited planets, they are scavengers, they operate under a dictatorship, they strip each system bare and move on.”

“I suppose that data doesn’t highlight any weaknesses in their battle cruisers does it.” joked Maulik,

I haven’t got that far yet.” chuckled Kressa, “But if they do have any design flaws, I will know about them before they arrive.” she promised, “It’s clear outside now, so you can camouflage me whenever you are ready.”

“Did you scan the planet for life forms?”

“Nothing above L5.” she chuckled, “You should be safe.”

***

Maulik stepped down the ramp and onto the damp ground, instantly he felt the irritation on the soles of his feet.

“Water,” he declared, “That’s just perfect.” avoiding the damp soil he stepped from rock to rock and studied the ridge line of the gorge high above, spotting a likely dark leaved tree he took aim with the rifle and fired a pulse, the kick of recoil was stronger than he had anticipated and the jolt caused him to stagger back a pace stepping onto the dampness and making him jump as the liquid burned, the tree stood stubbornly undamaged, its shiny black leaves quivering as if to taunt him and his poor aim.

“I guess I need to get much closer,” he told himself and searched for a dry path up out of the gorge, “If I can get up there I can fire directly into the base of the tree, it looks tall enough to fall across the gap, that should hide Kressa from all but the most determined search.” he reassured himself as he spotted a worn track leading through the undergrowth, a track obviously used regularly by the indigenous fauna.

“L5 only, I hope she’s right.” he chuckled as he began to climb avoiding the taller bushes that dripped with corrosive water.

“Too much oxygen.” he gasped as the climb began to take its toll on his complaining body, the methane was there in abundance but it was not pure, the oxygen tingled on his skin and fouled his respiration pores, “Not much further,” he grimaced and stared at the ridge that was looming not far above, “Fell the tree and after that it’s all downhill, I can shut myself back inside Kressa and breathe again.” It all sounded so simple, and would have been if Maulik had not slipped and sent a shower of small stones rolling and bouncing down the track behind him, the disturbance was enough to startle a flock of winged reptiles from their roost in the trees above. Their panicked flight shook the branches above his head and sent down a shower of water droplets. Only quick reflexes saved Maulik’s mirror membranes from damage as he covered his eyes, he stifled a scream as the corrosion bit into his hands and face, and heard skin sizzle as he wiped away the liquid frantically, heart racing and agony shooting through his sensitive fingers he fought for breath, his mind told him to rush back to Kressa, breathe clean methane, treat his burns, but his heart told him to hide her first, his heart won the debate and fighting the pain he continued his climb.

Reaching the ridge he paused to catch his breath, the methane was thin with so much vegetation around, he could almost see the noxious oxygen pumping out of the dark leaves that surrounded him, shaking he studied his hands, both fingers on his left hand were badly burned, the smooth silver skin beginning to slough and a thin clear liquid began to seep out of the rapidly forming blisters, his right hand had fared better, his opposing thumb digit had suffered no damage and the blistering on his fingers appeared minimal,

“It could have been much worse.” he told himself as he adjusted the rifle and took an unsteady aim at the thick trunk of his chosen tree, bracing himself he fired and in an explosion of flame and splinters the huge tree groaned and slowly began to topple, through luck more than good judgement it crashed across the narrow gap sending a thick shower of black leaves fluttering down creating an unintended additional layer of camouflage over Kressa, peering down into the gorge he assessed his handiwork, the cover wasn’t perfect but he was confident she would escape detection… if they were very lucky.

“Her plasma trail will be very faint by the time they arrive.” he reassured himself on the painful walk back down into the gorge, “And with luck it will be so faint they won’t know exactly where we came down.” armed with that optimistic view he began to believe that they may just be able to remain undetected until she was fully regenerated. “And what then?” he asked himself, “Kressa is a fine and powerful ship, but matched against battle cruisers?” Only Kressa would know what would happen then, fight or flight, she would have to decide.

“You are injured.” she called with concern as he clambered up the ramp and dropped down onto the long padded seat beside the small data monitor. He felt like his skin raged in flame, and large fluid filled blisters were developing on his hands, “I didn’t know what was happening outside, the magnetic flux here has scrambled my external sensors, but my internals are working and even without them I can feel your pain, lift the seat, there is a med-pack that is designed for your physiology, there are painkillers and burn treatments.”

“You really are a wonder.” he managed a small chuckle through the pain, “You cater for all my needs.”

“I have to,” she replied, “Without you I am stranded, I have to keep my pilot alive and well, yet recently I have been feeling that I could override the protocols.” Maulik listened with interest as he injected a dose of painkiller and opened a small sachet of burn salve, “You know that my programming prevents me taking independent action, I can remote fly if we have a link established and you tell me to or I sense danger, but if we are not connected I am supposed to be dormant, aware but unable to react.”

“Are you telling me you think you can act of your own free will?”

“I’m not sure,” she replied and he sensed the confusion in her mind, “The protocols are in place to prevent my wild nature from surfacing, except in a fight, I can understand why they programmed me this way, my species are quite aggressive and irrational,” she laughed, “Yet I still have a growing feeling that my mind is stronger than the safety systems.”

Maulik wasn’t sure how to approach the subject of Kressa’s intelligence in her natural state, he didn’t want to insult her by pointing out her ability to communicate was computer enhanced.

“If you did beat the programming?” he began, she pre-empted his query.

“I’m not sure, but I feel that I would not lose my rationality, I would just gain my free will… but I’m not sure, that’s why I have been resisting the temptation to try an override.”

“Be careful, I wouldn’t want to lose my friend,” Maulik replied with feeling, a feeling she picked up instantly.

“You are genuinely worried that I wouldn’t be the same Kressa, I almost expected you to instruct me not to try the override because you risk losing a ship, but you are more concerned as a friend… that is deeply touching.”

“Hey, I just don’t want a wild cat trying to eat me.” he laughed but they both understood his jest merely covered the genuine concern he felt for her safety.

“How is regeneration going?” he changed the subject, time was counting down and the Drakan were probably pushing their reactors hard in pursuit.

“The damage wasn’t extensive,” she confirmed, “But the repair will take time, my nano bots are rebuilding a plasma exhaust valve as we speak, but it will still take just over eleven hours before I am fully functional again.”

“How are you feeling now, I sense the pain is reducing?”

“It is reducing,” he replied, “I really don’t want to go out there again, too much water dripping, but I have been thinking… your external sensors are not functional here?” Kressa made a small sound of frustration.

“I’m blind down here, I won’t be able to warn you when they arrive, they will be able to walk right up to us and I won’t be aware until it’s too late.”

“That’s what I guessed, that is why I will have to go outside again, the electro-magnetics may scramble your sensors, but they don’t affect my eyes, from the ridge above I will have a good view, it may just give us a few minutes advance warning if they discover us.”

Gratitude welled clearly inside her, “It will be very uncomfortable for you, there is water everywhere.”

“That’s why I will be wearing the bio-suit I just found with the med-pack he grinned, I wish I had known about it before.”

“Unless they have managed to increase their velocity since my last scan as we entered the atmosphere, we have just over eight hours before they arrive, please Maulik, take some rest now and I will close down my systems to an absolute minimum, it may speed up the regeneration by a few minutes.”

The cabin lighting dimmed, and in effect, they both slept.

***

“System rebooting.” called the computer generated voice that roused Maulik from his deep and peaceful slumber, Kressa had shut down every system except life support, including her higher functions in an effort to channel more computing capacity to her regeneration.

“I see it clearly now.” she gasped as the computer re-engaged her intelligence enhancer. “I see the flaw in the programming, and I know how to override my safety protocols.”

Maulik’s drowsy mind cleared in an instant, “How? Is it safe? Will you still be the same?” the questions jostled for priority, Kressa chuckled.

“They made a big mistake, they didn’t forecast a time when the computer would reboot but keep life support online. It had to stay on not just for you, my brain needed it too, but for an hour I was conscious without restraint, just as it finished rebooting my enhancer kicked in, and during that split second delay the entire code was revealed to me, it is so simple, so basic… and safe.”

“But will you still be… you?”

Kressa purred deeply, a sound of joy and satisfaction, “Let’s just say that I will be able to resist the urge to eat you,” she giggled, “My intelligence enhancer will remain operational, I can just switch off the safety, but it will give me freedom, I will be able to move without the need for a pilot, I will be able to act on my own, I will not be trapped any more, Maulik, I will no-longer be a prisoner, I will be free.”

“So do it.” Maulik’s reply was simple, he felt her anticipation and excitement, he didn’t have the right to question her choices.

“Really?” she asked quietly, “aren’t you worried that I will just fly away without you?”

“I know you won’t Kressa, I have faith in you.”

Suddenly the interior lighting blinked out and the computer display flashed, it’s bright screen shrinking to a concentrated dot of light in the centre before fading to black, moments later a small green blinking cursor appeared followed by a rapid stream of florescent script that raced down the screen, the interior lighting stuttered back to life and Kressa gave a deep sigh.

“It’s done?” asked Maulik, he felt her contact, it was still Kressa, but the connection was stronger he felt, more positive, almost physical in its intensity.

“Yes,” she purred, “It’s done, and for the first time since I was a small cub I feel free, truly free.”

“I am happy for you,” he replied with total honesty, “Now we are partners,” he chuckled, “If you don’t mind working with a primitive.”

“You remembered that comment then?” she asked as she recalled her statement when they were only just getting to know each other, “I think I can tolerate you.” she purred.

“Shutting down completely has reduced my regeneration by almost an hour.” she added happily, “But the bad news is that we can expect company very soon, less than an hour, but with my sensors inoperable, they may even be outside right now.” Maulik reached for the pulse rifle nervously, an automatic reaction that caused Kressa to chuckle, “Why don’t you try on the bio-suit and go to scout around a little… Scout Maulik?”

“Skipping the protocols has also enhanced your attitude,” he laughed as he slipped his leg into the light suit, the material felt strange against his skin, uncomfortable and unnatural, “Now I know how the military must feel,” he joked, “This thing itches already.”

“Better than getting burnt again.” she replied.

“How am I supposed to breathe in this thing?” he complained as the material began to smother his respiratory pores.

“Relax” she laughed, “The suit will pressurise automatically when you seal it over your head.”

Sure enough, as the seal snapped securely around his eyes he heard a faint hiss and his breathing eased instantly as the suit circulated pure methane, grabbing a visor to shield his membranes Maulik was fully protected from the elements.

“Lucky it’s black,” he laughed, “I should match the surroundings quite well now, I want to be hidden, not advertise where we are… OK, wish me luck.” and grabbing the rifle he stepped out onto Kressa’s ramp.

He thanked the Gods for the suit because even before he had reached the foot of the ramp heavy grey clouds began to crowd above his head and small droplets of water began to fall.

“I’ll come back as soon as there is anything to report.” he called as he began to stalk towards the animal track that led to the ridge high above, the water droplets increased in size and frequency and he shuddered as he imagined what would have happened to him if the same downpour had happened earlier. After a few minutes of scrambling on the wet and slippery soil he reached the top of the ridge and huddled under the cover of a dense overhanging bush, it’s black leaves shining like obsidian as the water dripped steadily, his visor began to smear with trickling fluid ruining his clear vision, quickly he wiped away the streaming moisture and scanned the surrounding countryside.

There was no movement of any kind, glancing up he studied the heavy grey clouds.

“Well so much for seeing their ships enter the atmosphere.” he sighed, glancing behind he saw that the gorge was closed to Kressa’s rear, “That’s one positive,” he acknowledged, if they were discovered by ground troops they could only approach from the front following the narrow gorge, with him sniping from the ridge and Kressa firing her forward pulse cannon they could fend off even a heavy attack, an assault from the air was a different matter but he forced the thought from his mind.

Time passed slowly as he maintained his vigil, how long he had been crouching under cover he didn’t know but it must have been a considerable time because the methane in his suit was beginning to taste stale, “Just like home.” he chuckled as he recalled the heavy recycling within his home cities shields. Boredom was beginning to dull his senses, so he almost missed the unnatural cloud movement, just in time he saw the heavy water vapour roil and begin to part as the hull of a dark and menacing ship slowly broke through the cover.

“Kressa, they’re here.” he called, urgently focussing his mind determined to reach her.

“Understood.” she replied faintly much to his delight and relief, they had contact, it was weak, but it was established, he could give her a little warning, even if it was an order to fire blind down the length of the gorge.

Maulik crouched lower and squeezed himself deeper into the foliage, the ship had sunk below the level of the cloud and now hovered over a wide plain at the foot of the gorge, light flickered across the wide and heavy belly and small dark dots materialised in the faint shadow cast by the hovering bulk, with a sinking feeling Maulik realised Kressa’s plasma trail hadn’t dissipated as quickly as he had anticipated, the signature must have lingered over the area, not enough to pinpoint their location, but sufficient to give their aggressors a starting point.

“A landing party just transported down on the plain,” quickly he counted the dots as they spread out in small teams, “About twenty,” he estimated quickly, “And five heading this way.” Kressa’s reply was very faint and he focused all of his concentration to hear her. “When I say, fire one pulse straight ahead,” he called, “But don’t fire until I say.”

“OK” he caught a very faint reply, “Just say when.”

“How long before regeneration is complete?” he prayed to the Gods she was close, forced to open fire they would instantly alert the Drakan to their position, one strong blast from orbit and they would be history.

“Twenty three minutes.” she replied, Maulik groaned silently, they would be in the gorge long before she was prepared. His mind raced, weighing options. The option that made most sense felt like suicide, it was suicide he understood, but not only was Kressa at great risk if he didn’t act, the entire system would be doomed to death or slavery. Somehow the Drakan invasion plans had to reach the Senate, or even Go’an, he admitted reluctantly, and without wasting precious time thinking he began to run back down the track and into the gorge.

“I don’t have time to argue or debate with you,” he shouted as he reached the bottom of the ramp, “So just listen, I’m going to the foot of the gorge, I’m going to draw their fire, hopefully long enough for you to finish regeneration… when you have finished,” he paused before taking the leap that would ensure the cloners on Terrillia would have another hatchling to create, “You have to leave, Kressa don’t argue, we don’t have time.” He sensed her anger and frustration bubbling, “It’s more important for you to get the invasion plans back to 7, the Senate or High Council will know what to do, please Kressa, you have your freewill now, you don’t need me, just do as I ask.”

“But,” she began, and with a feeling of intense pain in his heart Maulik severed their connection and began to run.

Kressa called, and growled, the connection to her friend was blocked, she hissed and spat with the pent up fury of her kind, but she knew if she had a heart it would be breaking, his sacrifice was as much for her as the plans she held, that was clear to her and her anger faded to be replaced by a feeling of intense sadness.

Maulik sprinted as he had never sprinted before, in his mind it was imperative to reach the mouth of the gorge before the Drakan troops, if he could hold them off just long enough to give Kressa a fighting chance of escape his sacrifice would be worth it, even if he was hit by a massive plasma pulse from orbit he would be far enough away from Kressa to avoid any damage to her systems. After what he judged to be five minutes he began to slow, his sprint dropped to a jog as he began to sense their presence. They were still distant, but too close to continue his headlong charge, the last thing he wanted to do was run into them at full speed. His plan; to tuck himself behind solid rock and with a series of rapid pulses he would hopefully stall their progress, “They don’t know what a lousy shot I am.” he laughed nervously, “For all they know I’m a crack Colonial Marine, a trained killer.”

The gorge began to widen as he slowed to a cautious walk, “Here,” he told himself, “This is as good a place to die as anywhere else.” and stopping he began to search for a secure position to lie up and await their arrival.

The Gods must have been with him he decided as he spotted a large boulder part way up the right hand wall, he dashed up the slope and dived behind the solid rock taking cover. The boulder was larger than it had looked and he pressed his hands against the solid security.

“This should deflect rifle fire,” he decided with more hope than certainty, he was an ex gunner and could strip a pulse cannon with his eyes closed, he could reel off the capabilities and specifications without thinking, but pulse rifles were not cannon, they were in the grey area of his knowledge, it was all guesswork, maybe the boulder would disintegrate at the first strike, he didn’t know, the only surety he had was he was about to find out… very soon.

Nervous seconds dripped away into minutes, how many minutes he wasn’t sure, but he reassured himself that every second that they didn’t appear in his sights was a second bought for Kressa. The gas in his suit tasted sour, fear he guessed and considered venting in an effort to clear the foul taste, the air outside was worse he remembered and settled his mind to watching again.

He didn’t have to wait long before the first of the Drakan troops crept into view, they were professionals he appreciated by the way that they were spread, he’d had a vain image in his mind of spotting them huddled together presenting a wide target, one shot would wreak devastation and he could race back to Kressa leaving five smouldering bodies crumpled on the gorge floor, his hopes of a quick solution and ultimate survival withered and forcing his shaking hands to steady he took careful aim and fired.

A split second later his lousy aim was confirmed as the shot he had so carefully placed on the advancing Drakan’s chest sheared off his legs just below the knees, the soldier dropped instantly but the scream of pain that Maulik was anticipating never occurred, the damaged soldier struggled onto his chest and fired directly at Maulik’s position, in the split second before he ducked for cover Maulik saw the flicker of electrical shorting in the severed legs, a mechanoid he realised instantly and his heart sunk.

“Discount fear,” he told himself as he quickly re-evaluated his position, “Mech’s don’t register fear, they are programmed to be disposable… which means I have to improve my aim and take out their power source with the first shot, or I am fried.”

Splinters of shattered rock rained down on his suit as the damaged Mech kept up a steady barrage of fire on the boulder, “So much for me keeping them pinned down.” he laughed with resignation as he realised that not just one but three of the mechanical soldiers were firing a steady stream at his hiding place, “They are keeping me stuck here while the other two are circling round to come at me from the side and finish me.” the realisation made him feel a deep nausea, “At least the new me won’t have a scar, or be covered in burns.” he laughed trying to find a positive before his impending and inescapable demise, that thought almost lifted his spirits until he realised the new Maulik would have no knowledge of Kressa or their unusual friendship, for Maulik that thought signalled the greatest waste and deepest regret he could envisage, he felt his heart aching, “Such a terrible waste,” he sighed and stood up firing his rifle wildly at any target he could pick through the blurring caused by his deep sadness, a sudden courage swelled deep inside and rather than wait for the final blast as he had intended he remembered he was supposed to be buying time, quickly he dived aside into the thick undergrowth and rolling quickly onto his stomach he took aim and squeezed off a pulse, to his delight the damaged Mech exploded, the head disintegrating seconds before the body slumped releasing the rifle to clatter on the stony ground.

“One down.” he screamed before leaping away from the damp brush just as a volley vaporised the spot where he had been lying a second before. Without conscious thought or decision he raced further uphill, kinking left and right as the pulses exploded around him, he spotted one of the Mech’s that had circled high to flank him and through reflex alone he raised the rifle and fired, his spirits soared as the shot struck perfectly on target and the mini reactor nestled inside the chest cavity spluttered and sparked, he didn’t wait to watch it fall but raced on higher. A plan began to form in his racing mind, “They have tried to flank me, so why shouldn’t I flank them?” and clinging to that thought he shot sideways across the side of the steep bank and struck a wide animal track, glancing down into the gorge he spotted two of the Mech’s striding towards his original hiding place, halting he quickly dropped to his knee and aimed, the shot was hurried and wide and served no other purpose than highlighting where he was, diving to the ground he heard the deep thwump of discharge moments before the trees around him splintered and exploded in gouts of blue flame.

“Well, at least I got two of them,” he told himself as apathy flooded over him, “Two lucky shots.” he knew he couldn’t rely on getting lucky again, “It’s just a matter of time now.” he told himself as another tree exploded showering him with sparks and burning leaves, the felled giant crashed down at his side sending shock waves through the ground and into his chest. Maulik slowly raised his head and peeped back into the gorge, the Mech’s were still approaching but he suddenly noticed they were not handling the slippery and steep bank with any great efficiency, “Just a couple more lucky shots.” he begged the Gods, and resting the rifle on the tree trunk at his side he calmed his nerves and aimed.

The shot was guided by the Gods he decided, he had quickly adjusted the gain to maximum as he took steady aim, he knew that once fired the rifle would be useless for at least a minute while it recharged, but considering he rated his chances of survival at considerably less than zero if he missed, he was finished anyway, he wouldn’t get another shot even if the rifle held any residual power.

The massive pulse smashed the butt back into his thin shoulder and he cried out in pain at the impact, a moment later his cry of pain turned to a shout of victory, the leading Mech exploded and the force of the pulse smashed through the metal body with sufficient energy to spare to disrupt the reactor of its partner, with a mental sigh of relief Maulik watched the second Mech spark as its knees bent and it crumpled to the ground.

“That’s four.” he counted as his hopes began to resurface, maybe he could survive to tell the tale, a second later his heart sank as he heard the ominous and very familiar hum of a rifle charging directly behind him, and deciding to face the final shot rather than take it in the back he rolled over just in time to see the Mech levelling his aim.

***

Chancellor Go’an woke slowly from the nightmare, in his dream he had been aboard his private transport returning from talks with the Su’al. Na’ta had taken his hinted advice and despatched a squadron of Kressa into Su’al space, but his brother hadn’t restricted himself to military targets, the Kressa had wiped out the small fleet of fighters quickly and efficiently before turning their attentions on the base ships, the families of the fighters, the supply ships, the small flotilla that was the heart of the clans society. Na’ta had wiped out all trace of the Su’al’s second largest clan. An action that had opened eyes in the galaxy, and caused dissent in the High Council. It had created a diplomatic headache for Go’an, but it had also brought the scattered Su’al together, fear of the Kressa had driven them as a united race to the negotiating table, they sued for peace. Go’an demanded loyalty and obedience, the Kressa threat was too real for pride to stand in the way of sense, so the Su’al had knelt before him and sworn allegiance.

He opened his eyes a little wider and searched his memory, where was he?

The nightmare began to take shape again. He had been in his transport, the talks had gone well, the Su’al had added another three thousand star-fighters to his growing fleet, he was feeling particularly pleased with himself… but something had happened to crush that happiness… but what? he searched his mind.

“Alarms sounding,” he suddenly remembered, “Attack.” The memories began to clarify, he had been relaxing and joking with Na’ta, it’s wasn’t strictly protocol for them both to be on the same transport but Go’an was a law unto himself, his advisor’s had pleaded but he had ignore their advice, the missiles had locked on and his fighter escort had raced to shoot them down, his pilot had dived sharply, a steep rapid dive that had forced his stomach up into his throat, he remembered clearly now, the impact, explosion, pain upon pain and disbelief as he saw the ground racing up to meet him through the gaping hole in the floor where his feet had been seconds before.

“My legs.” he cried out attempting to sit up, the lights above his bed were bright, too bright he began to complain as he blinked against their glare, faces crowded over him, shading him from the intensity, it was a relief, a sharp pain in his arm drew his attention from the illumination, he turned his head to see a needle being withdrawn, “What?” He stammered, “Happened?” darkness closed around him and the nightmare began again.

***

The Watumian High Council gathered in closed session and a nervous excitement rippled through active minds, none there wanted to start the debate yet there was a sense of hopeful anticipation hovering in the air, Senator Gu’lan took the chair and brought the meeting to order.

“It is a sad day,” he shook his head and carefully assessed the mood, “We are faced with a dilemma my brothers, today we lost our Vice Chancellor, and our beloved Chancellor Go’an clings to life by the most slender of threads.” again he paused, they were all waiting for his word, six months of Go’an’s leadership had been a strain on them all, loyal supporters and opposition alike, Gu’lan saw his opportunity but chose a different path.

“This act of terrorism strikes directly at the heart of Watuma.” he cried and bared his fangs, “And it must not go unpunished.” the council members stirred uncomfortably, the meeting was not supposed to take this route.

“This member agrees completely, the perpetrator of this act must be hunted down and executed, but surely honourable members of the council, we have a more pressing issue to debate, our intelligence agencies will bring the guilty to justice, of that we can be assured… but,” Senator Vi’an paused for a moment, “But, my dear brothers, Watuma is now a ship without a captain, if Chancellor Go’an survives his terrible injuries it will be many months before he will be fit to resume his duties, we have no Vice Chancellor to administer on his behalf…” he left the question hanging, waiting for reaction. Vi’an was the leader of what was left of the opposition, officially Watuma operated a two party system but Go’an had introduced a new style of government, opposition was tolerated but expected to agree with his policies, “To disagree showed a lack of patriotism.” he had warned and all members had understood the thinly veiled threat.

The High Council had finally settled itself to the acceptance that they were secondary in the destiny of their planet but it was better to be an ally of the Chancellor than face expulsion or worse, for six months he had led them down the path of militarisation as he prepared for a war only he was convinced was actually going to happen, they had seen budgets cut to non-essential ministries and extra funds diverted to the military, Go’an was almost out of control, yet suddenly their salvation had been handed to them courtesy of terrorists, all they had to do was grasp the chance and act.

“Well spoken brother Vi’an.” replied Gu’lan, “You have indeed clarified our current dilemma, truly Watuma has been robbed of its captain.” The seasoned and wily Gu’lan seized the opportunity that the less experienced Vi’an had opened for him, if Go’an survived it would be Vi’an’s head that rolled for suggesting a change of leadership, Gu’lan would have simply been reacting to the demand.

“May I suggest that we adjourn for one hour, possibly an hour of prayer and quiet contemplation while we all consider who should lead our people as “acting” Chancellor until our beloved and respected Go’an has recovered.”

“I vote for Gu’lan,” a lone voice called from the rear of the chamber, “I second that.” cried another, Gu’lan smiled and raised his hand.

“Thank you for your confidence in me brothers, but deliberate for a while, do not make hasty decisions, take this hour to pray for strength and wisdom, and ask the Gods to deliver our Chancellor back to us soon, fully recovered.”

Gu’lan closed his mind but listened carefully to the thoughts of the other members, his supporters had played their role well, calling his name had pushed him to the foreground as the next possible Chancellor, and he felt his support mounting.

The High Council was called back into session exactly one hour later and it was no great surprise to Gu’lan that he won the vote by a huge margin.

“I am honoured by your faith and trust in me.” he had told them in his first address as acting Chancellor, “And my first duty will be to name my Vice, as you know it is traditional to appoint a member of my own party, but I wish to mend divisions that have been forming, therefore I appoint Senator Vi’an to act as my Vice Chancellor.” a ripple of surprise raced around the chamber, Gu’lan sensed open hostility from within his own party, he simply smiled, Vi’an was perfect, young, inexperienced and very gullible… the perfect scapegoat.

***

Ka’lan settled himself into the comfortable chair beside Go’an’s bed, the old rogue had been conscious for only a few minutes but he was prepared to wait, he enjoyed seeing his enemy so helpless.

“Our ally.” he corrected himself with a small chuckle. News of the attack had come to him as he had been travelling to Terrillia, just as the Watu had hidden their Kressa fleet the Diurians had not revealed their latest advances in FTL travel, their new improved anti matter drive had reduced a journey that had previously taken weeks to only a matter of hours. As a diplomatic gesture he had detoured, he had also brought a gift.

Go’an stirred into semi consciousness and groaned, the light cover that was draped over his body clearly emphasised the Chancellors condition, his barrel chest appeared as a mountain, but the mountain tapered away to nothing as the eye travelled south, flat sheet lay where his legs should have been.

“They are a short race before any accident,” he chuckled, now he doubted Go’an would even reach the level of his knees, “But my gift will repair that deficiency.”

“Wake up Go’an, you fat animal,” he signalled, “I have travelled a long way to talk to you.” but the Chancellor remain unresponsive, in his sedated mind the nightmare continued, and at the side of his bed stood a shortened and widened Diurian exoskeleton.

Chapter 8

Maulik attempted to cover his eyes as the pulse rifle hummed louder as the recharge cycle ended, suddenly he decided he didn’t want to see his death dealt and regretted his decision to face the Drakan.

“Will it ever charge?” he thought to himself, he found the answer to his question as the Mech lowered the weapon and began to pull the trigger, Maulik covered his eyes and said a final silent prayer to the Gods, there was a deafening explosion and he felt heat searing against the black bio-suit.

“I expected it to hurt more!” the final thought entered his mind before the shock from the plasma pulse turned his world to blackness.

“Maulik, wake up,” the voice cried, familiar and frantic, “Please wake up.” the voice pleaded.

“Kressa, can’t you see I’m dead,” he replied weakly before sitting up with a start.

“Don’t be so stupid,” she snapped, “You are fine, now get up and lets go.”

Maulik searched his body for the gaping hole that he truly expected to find, but found himself whole, in a daze he turned to see Kressa hovering just above the ground, her loading ramp extended beckoning him inside, promising safety. Gathering his wits he saw the melted Mech slumped against a tree some distance further up the hill, the force of Kressa’s blast had destroyed it completely fusing its joints as surely as an experienced welder.

“Stop daydreaming,” she shouted, “We have to go, the others will be here soon.”

Grasping his salvation Maulik stood and with a mighty leap he raced up the ramp sensing it snap shut quickly behind him, he began to remove the bio-suit but Kressa had other plans.

“There’s no time for that now, get into your seat quickly,” she ordered before banking steeply sending Maulik staggering sideways, “Quickly.” she screamed.

Maulik lurched forwards and half fell into his seat landing heavily, instantly he felt the tight grip.

“Now.” she hissed, “Now they will see what happens when the Kressa are angry.”

Maulik wasn’t sure if Kressa or her reactor roared but the sound chilled him, she felt very different, somehow more aware… and very, very angry.

Anticipating her he gripped his seat, only just in time as she raced out of the gorge and bore down on the heavily armed transport that was still hovering over the plain below, a volley of missiles sprouted from the fat carrier but Kressa simply hissed and with lightening speed spat out a rapid burst of plasma pulses that detonated the sleek projectiles as they were still seeking their target, clearly now her reactor whined as she accelerated hard, again she spat and hissed, pouring her plasma laden venom onto the bloated carrier. Detonation after detonation tore into the superstructure, flames erupted, plasma leaked and flared, “Say goodbye.” she whispered before sending a pulse that ignited the venting raw plasma fuel starting a chain reaction that tore the carrier in half sending the remains crashing onto the plain below.

“I want a name.” she cried as she selected her next target.

“Excuse me?” answered Maulik in shock, “I thought you were busy right now?”

“It’s important to me.” she replied as she tore a second carrier into a cloud of flying debris.

“You have a name… Kressa!” Maulik answered amazed that she could concentrate on such ferocity yet still continue a civilized conversation with him, the paradox in her actions left him feeling confused and dazed.

“Kressa is my species, how would you feel if I insisted on calling you Terrillian all the time rather than your name.”

“OK, yeah, I guess you have a point,” he replied as she swept across the plain picking off the platoons of Mech’s that were firing their pulse rifles at her, “What name do you like?”

“I don’t know any names,” she snapped, “If I did I wouldn’t be asking you would I? No, the Kressa don’t have names… L4 remember.” she caught his question before he could ask.

“Sorry, I wasn’t thinking.” he replied sheepishly.

“What was that name you just thought of?” she asked suddenly, “Salyna, I like that,” Maulik had been thinking of his female genetic match, same paternal and maternal genetic makeup, different gender.

“Your sister Salyna, I like the name, from this moment on my name is Salyna.”

“Salyna.” she purred happily.

“My name is Salyna.”

***

“I thought I told you to leave without me,” Maulik stated as they climbed through the upper atmosphere, Salyna chuckled quietly.

“I didn’t hear you say anything like that, what I heard was, “I’m going to delay them while you finish regenerating” I assumed it was understood I would come for you.”

Maulik laughed, “Freedom has given you selective hearing, but I’m very happy you thought of me, I really did think that was the end.”

“Two battle cruisers ahead.” she announced casually, Maulik sensed her tone was a cover for the excitement and anticipation he felt building, as if to confirm his thoughts Salyna growled softly as a squadron of small fighters launched from the closest cruiser.

“We could always run.” he suggested.

“No.” she growled forcefully, “No more running, we have to finish this now, we can’t risk them tracking us back to 7.”

“But they’re battle cruisers,” Maulik felt his own fear welling inside, “Kre… Salyna, are you sure you can handle them?”

“Watch.” she hissed and accelerated hard.

“Weapons lock,” he cried as alarms began to hum building to a crescendo as multiple missiles launched and acquired their target, clearly he saw their thrusters flare like twinkling stars as they locked on and screamed towards them.

“Salyna, missiles…” he called frantically.

“I see them.” she spat but remained on course.

“Shields…. please.” he begged as his alarm grew.

“I see them.” she hissed in reply before darting onto a new heading leaving the swarm of missiles stalled as they lost their target.

“Now watch.” she roared, a wild and menacing sound, Maulik was suddenly aware of a savage and feral mind, she was fearless, powerful, her sole purpose was the kill and he felt like baggage, he didn’t exist in her mind, her thoughts were pure focus, intense and deadly.

Wave after wave of plasma pulses flashed past her rapidly accelerating hull, her instincts alive and acute, her intuition enabled her to dodge and slide the heavy fire as she closed in on the fearsome but clumsy ship.

“Exhaust ports.” she shouted in triumph as she shook with the force of her own discharge before climbing hard causing Maulik’s head to spin, the G forces darkening his vision, his mind on the very edge of unconsciousness.

“You asked me if they had a weakness.” she purred as the massive ship rippled with explosions.

“The shielding around their exhaust ports, it’s weak.” she laughed, Maulik stared back through the side view portal in time to witness eruptions of flame belch out of the cavernous hangar doors that lined the massive cruiser in long rows, one after another poured flame into space as a chain reaction gathered pace inside.

“They are engaging their drive.” she chuckled as she turned swiftly onto the remaining cruiser.

“We can’t let them escape.” Maulik shouted, he was drawing from her raw emotions and strange feelings of aggression filled him, his reserve had disappeared, he also anticipated the coming kill.

“I feel alive.” he laughed as he willed her to destroy, to hunt and kill.

“Now you understand what drives my species.” she purred, “Now you know the real me.”

***

With the heat of battle far behind Maulik calmed his emotions and steadied his mind, they were back on a direct course to 7 but he couldn’t subdue the lingering thrill he had felt as the second cruiser had exploded violently, he had roared with her as the massive plasma pulse had torn away a huge section of the hull exposing multiple decks to the chill vacuum of space.

“Finish them.” he had screamed as Salyna had banked hard to line up for another pass, the dying cruiser was still firing valiantly but he felt no concern or fear, only the elation of victory.

“You are not quite as civilized as you would like to think.” she chuckled, she felt his anticipation as she chased down the remaining stranded star-fighters, “You hide your natural aggression behind a thin veil of sophistication, but you are just as primal and savage as me beneath that shiny skin.”

Her statement had given him pause and he thrust the thought aside blaming his excitement on her influence, yet deep inside he knew she was right, it was the primitive in his mind that had been awakened, no-longer locked away behind the wall of civilized behaviour his race had adopted.

“Perhaps we are not so different,” he reluctantly admitted, “I do feel a thrill unlike any other I have ever experienced before.”

“Welcome to my world.” she purred as she finally finished the solitary remaining fighter that she had been toying with.

That had been hours before and Maulik relaxed as Salyna reconfirmed that their battle had ended the pursuit. To cover their tracks and avoid the possibility of being followed by support vessels that would probably be despatched to search for the missing cruisers when they didn’t return home she had detoured into a vast asteroid field, playfully she dodged the massive chunks of floating rock, detonating several creating clouds of suspended dust that chocked her ion trail as she raced through, confident in her efforts she plotted her new course and shot to FTL.

Chapter 9

“Good, you are finally awake.”

Ka’lan stood and walked to Go’an’s bedside, “I won’t bother to ask how you are feeling, I have been savouring your pain as you slept, quite exquisite in its intensity… don’t you agree?”

Go’an groaned, “Have you come to gloat Diurian?”

Ka’lan laughed, “Ever the diplomat, yes I have to admit I am enjoying your suffering, but that is just my personal feeling, I am mainly here to offer my support, and the support of the Senate.”

Go’an probed the mind hidden behind the alloy mask, much was revealed and his anxiety rose.

“Your replacement is not as focussed as you are,” replied Ka’lan as he saw Go’an react to the High Councils actions, “The Senate feel that despite the fact you are nothing more than a barbarian your thinking is more aligned with our own than Chancellor Gu’lan… I’m sorry, acting Chancellor Gu’lan.” he added with a laugh as he felt Go’an’s fury grow.

“So it is in our own interest to ensure that you regain power quickly, hence my gift, feel honoured Watumian, we do not share our technology readily.”

Go’an looked at the armour that stood beside his bed, “What use is that if I have no legs to support me.” he snapped.

“But this armour is your legs now, you will soon become accustomed to its operation, luckily for you it is a very simple device, your mental limitations should not be a handicap.”

Go’an flared at the insult but was met with a mind that proved to be his equal.

“Do not try to intimidate me,” Ka’lan silenced the tirade of insults and threats, “It is you that needs my help, be grateful that the Senate have decided that you are of value in the impending war, if it was my choice I would leave you here to rot.”

“Now get up Go’an, put on your armour and go and take back your power before it slips away forever.”

***

Pain surged through Go’an as the exoskeleton contoured itself to his body.

“The first time is always uncomfortable,” laughed Ka’lan as he saw Go’an wince, “But once the initial adjustments have been made you will grow accustomed to the feeling.”

“There the adjustment is complete, and I do believe that you are a little taller now,” the Diurian didn’t attempt to hide his mirth, “Try your new legs Chancellor Go’an.” he instructed.

Go’an felt a sharp prick as the suit administered a dose of painkillers, “That is automatic,” chuckled Ka’lan, “You will feel no pain again.”

Go’an stood hesitantly but his confidence grew by the second as the exoskeleton made minute adjustments to his stance and balance.

“I feels as though I am not wearing it.” he exclaimed in disbelief, and with a rapidly growing confidence he stooped to grab his bone staff, “I am happy to see this survived the assassination attempt as well.” he chuckled, “I am ready” he declared with defiance and anger in his strong voice.

“Then go and retake your position.” nodded Ka’lan.

***

Consternation filled the High Council chambers as Go’an strode proudly to the speakers platform, his arrival had been unannounced and stunned silence met his opening words.

“You appear surprised to see me brothers.” he began, glaring around the chamber and baring his long fangs in a sign of annoyance. “I hear disturbing rumours, it would seem that my injuries have been greatly exaggerated, but I can assure you my friends, I am quite well, and more than capable of continuing my Chancellorship, unless of course there is a challenger that wishes to step forward?” a subdued murmur rippled around the chamber and all eyes turned to Gu’lan.

“Tell me Senator.” he fixed his eyes menacingly on the unfortunate Gu’lan, “Do you know of any challenge to my supremacy?”

“No Chancellor, I am not aware of any challenge.” he replied meekly and bowed his head in respect.

“Then the rumour must be false,” came the chuckled reply, but the look in his eye spoke volumes directly to the heart of the humbled Senator, “We will speak privately after this session.” Go’an forced himself into Gu’lan’s mind to deliver his message, “I think we have a great deal to discuss.” With a small nod Gu’lan felt his life slipping away, his experience warned him to expect nothing less.

Go’an straighten himself and took a deep breath, “I have lost a brother, Watuma has lost a loyal and devoted son, I will lay the blame at no-ones door… yet,” he added with a cold menace, “But I can promise you all that wherever the investigation leads, the culprits behind the attack will beg for death before I have finished with them… but of course, this information does not concern my loyal brothers here assembled,” he grinned and scanned the chamber, “Yes, you are in here” he hissed quietly, “But you are strong to mask your guilt from me, small matter, I am patient.” he thought, and began to imagine the satisfaction he would gain during his retribution.

“And now brothers, to new business.” an audible relief spread around the room as they all felt his probing mind change direction.

“It is my pleasure to introduce Ka’lan of Diuria… step forward my friend,” he beckoned with a warm smile, “Ka’lan and I have just signed a pact of none aggression and alliance between our worlds, from this moment forward old injustices are forgotten… for the greater good of both our peoples. Hostilities are over.” he shouted and slammed the butt of his staff down on to the polished stone floor sending a loud crack echoing around the now silent chamber.

“Our agreement marks the beginning of an alliance between four powerful peoples, the Watu, the Diurians, the Territes and the Su’al, a military alliance governed by a federal committee, I am honoured to announce that I will personally lead our new Federation into battle against the Reapers,” he quickly assessed the Diurians reaction and with relief found Ka’lan’s thoughts to be passive.

“The threat is real, the Reapers are closer than any of you imagine, united we will prevail,” a small uncomfortable silence followed before Senator Vi’an stood and began to clap, others followed, moments later the Council stood as one and applauded their Chancellor, he had regained power and also stamped his name as the leader of the new Federation. “One step closer to Emperor.” he chuckled silently.

***

“A small group of terrorists have claimed responsibility for the attack,” confirmed Vi’an as he met with the Chancellor in private discussions, “It is rumoured that they have a base of operations on one of our colonies in sector twelve, intelligence have yet to identify which planet.”

“You don’t like me do you Vi’an?” Go’an mentioned almost casually, Vi’an swallowed hard.

“I disagree with some of your policies Chancellor, but I have no personal ill feelings towards you.”

Go’an grinned, “Well answered, neither yes or no, a political response…. sit Vi’an, I wish to discuss something with you.” he sensed the nervousness but after deep and thorough probing he discovered no feelings of hidden guilt. Go’an had not expected to find any, Vi’an was young and inexperienced yet he had only the interests of his people at heart, he had not been on the Council long enough to become deluded and crave the ultimate position, he had taken no part in the assassination attempt.

“Senator Vi’an, you have been acting as Vice Chancellor during my short absence,” the young Senator swallowed hard again before nodding, Go’an sensed fear, “I want you to continue in that position, I find your honesty and openness refreshing, do you accept the challenge?”

Confusion raced in the young mind and brought a grin to Go’an’s face.

“I am not evil Vi’an, nor am I a dictator, I am simply committed to the best for Watuma, I am a true patriot, the coming threat is real,” he stood and strode to the wide windows that looked out across the city, “I wish I could have become Chancellor during a time of peace,” he sighed theatrically, “But that is not to be, I look out now at all of my fellow Watu, they live their lives with a feeling of security… why do they feel secure Vi’an?”

“Because we have a strong military?” offered the Senator hesitantly, unsure of the correct response.

“Exactly, we are feared, fear equals respect which leads to security Vi’an, we cannot allow peacetime politics to jeopardise our future. I am going to give you some privileged information,” he turned his back to the window and stared hard at Vi’an, the warm sunlight reflecting from his body armour creating a soft glow around his outline, “When do you guess the Reapers will arrive?”

“I don’t know, no-one knows, sometime in the next twenty years.”

“Would you still find my military preparations unreasonable if I told you they will arrive within the next year and a half?”

“Of course not, your actions would be seen as prudent by the whole Council,” he replied quickly before stopping dead, “You know when they will arrive… don’t you!”

Go’an smiled and gave the slightest nod.

Vi’an stood and bowed low, “Chancellor Go’an, I accept your challenge, I will act as your Vice Chancellor, it will be my honour to serve you and Watuma… you have my total and complete support.”

“Good,” he replied, “We have preparations to make.”

Chapter 10

Harvesting was still in progress when Maulik and Salyna arrived back at Harvester 7.

“I don’t want to be locked inside the Hold again.” she announced with finality.

“Yeah I understand that, but the rooms aren’t quite big enough for you on the accommodation level,” he laughed, “I don’t know what to suggest.”

“I have no objections to the hold,” she replied quickly, “It’s being locked in that frustrates me.”

“Well that’s an easy problem to solve, when we are in orbit you will be free to come and go as you wish, all I ask is that before you leave you log it with the duty officer. Don’t feel restricted,” he chuckled, “I can’t treat you any differently than any other member of the crew, they all have to report before they can disembark, standard procedure.”

Salyna considered the offer for a moment, “You really consider me a member of your crew?”

“I do, and much more.”

Salyna purred contentedly, “I can report before I leave.” she chuckled.

***

“Progress report” Maulik signalled Relik on the bridge as they entered Hold 32.

“On schedule,” he replied, “No major problems while you have been away, only a drone malfunction and we lost the transporter banks on Collector 15 for a short while, routine stuff, nothing out of the ordinary.”

“Have you captured a breeding herd yet?”

“They are in Hold 33 acclimatising, take a look while you’re down there.”

Maulik left Salyna compiling her data ready for transmission and strolled to the observation room that overlooked Hold 33, the desk officer saluted smartly as he entered.

“Excuse me Master, but are you alright?” the officer questioned with concern and at that moment Maulik understood he must look a mess dotted with burns and blisters.

“I’m fine, it was an eventful trip,” he grinned, “How are the L6’s adjusting?”

“It’s strange, they seemed completely lost and confused the first day, but since we increased the oxygen they appear to be settling in very well.”

Maulik walked to the wide window and stared down at the milling masses, “How many did we get?” the hold looked cramped and full.

“Twenty thousand,” replied the duty officer, “I know you specified only ten thousand but the scans revealed that they varied slightly from continent to continent, not a huge variation but significant, we used our judgement Master, it seemed to make sense to preserve samples of every variation.”

Maulik smiled, “You did right, good job, how many losses so far?”

“They appear to be very tough, only minimal losses, and that was only because a group attacked the science officers when they entered to take samples.”

“And their foodstuff?”

“They are omnivores, they eat everything offered so far, we have stored some of the indigenous L3’s and L4’s for their consumption on the trip back, and taken on millions of litres of water, they actually drink it.” he added with disgust, Maulik rubbed his hands absent mindedly,

“I’ve seen enough water to last me a lifetime.” he whispered.

“They look very similar to the Watu from up here,” Maulik joked, “Maybe a little taller, and much less hair, but very similar, they could almost be distant cousins.” instantly he regretted the thought, if what Go’an had told him about multiple planets being seeded with the same genetic building blocks the moral consequences could be far reaching.

“This is a different system to ours.” he convinced himself, yet the similarity lingered in his mind, “No, were not related.” he laughed weakly to himself.

***

“You won’t have heard the news,” chatted Relik over the day meal, he had been following news events fervently.

“So tell me,” replied Maulik as he placed his fingers on the fresh meat and savoured the different but exquisite flavour, quite unlike anything else he had ever tasted before,

“It’s very exciting, we’ve joined a Federation, the news came in this morning, just imagine, an alliance between us, the Watu, the Su’al and some race called the Diurian’s, I think that’s what they’re called, who would have believed it, us and the Watu working together, when Go’an was on-board I never believed we would ever join with them.”

“That’s what the invasion was all about.” replied Maulik dreamily as he continued to savour the meat.

“Yeah, well here is something you don’t know, Go’an survived the assassination attempt.”

“What attempt?” Maulik lifted his fingers and paid close attention.

“His private transport was hit by missiles, a terrorist attack, Na’ta his brother died instantly and the rumour started that Go’an was dead too, then suddenly there he is, large as life dressed in some kind of exoskeleton.”

“That would explain the lack of contact.” realised Maulik, his head had been silent for so long he was beginning to forget about Go’an’s constant prying, and the exoskeleton could only be from one source, but how had the Diurians arrived on Watuma so quickly?

“It seems the Kressa are not the only secret about to be revealed.” he thought.

“Yeah, that’s what caused the attempt, so it’s rumoured,” added Relik, “Since the Kressa wiped out half of the Su’al population everyone is saying the missile was fired in retaliation.”

“What do you mean? The Kressa attacked the Su’al?”

“Not just the fighters, they took out the support ships, females and hatchlings, everyone, I know that Kressa of yours is pretty amazing, but you have to be careful Master, they spare nothing.”

“Are you listening to this?” he signalled Salyna on a private link.

“I don’t believe it,” she stated with passion, “You know what I’m like Maulik, when I’m aroused I need to hunt and kill, but not the defenceless, there has to be a mistake.”

“Or different programming.” added Maulik.

“That’s also possible, it has to be something like that, we wouldn’t attack prey that couldn’t fight back, our safety protocols wouldn’t permit such actions.”

“It’s a mystery” acknowledged Maulik.

“A mystery I need to get to the bottom of.” she growled and severed the link.

“When will the harvest be complete?” Maulik returned to safer ground.

“Tomorrow.” replied the lieutenant as he slipped a dripping strip of tender flesh into his digestive pouch and sighed.

“The northern half of the continent was more infested than we projected initially, but by this time tomorrow every single one of the L6’s will have been cleared, there are just some small isolated pockets left now in the far north.”

“And the southern continent?”

“Clear,” Relik replied, “It didn’t take very long, there wasn’t the density.”

“Harvesters 12 and 16 arrive in a few weeks, we transmitted the data so they are already re-configuring their collectors, within the next couple of months the planet will be clear of the infestation.”

Maulik replaced his fingers on the meat, “This is amazing,” he sighed, “Do we know what it’s called?”

Relik picked up his small data tablet and tapped the screen,

“Yeah, they had some form of rudimentary archive system, let me just check what they called themselves… here we go.” he smiled as the information flashed up.

“They called themselves…

Human.”

End of Part 1

And so ends the introduction to the Rise of the Kressa Trilogy.

With the galaxy facing the ultimate threat as the Reapers return, a continued battle of wills takes place between the four reluctant allies and throughout the continuation the double dealing and deceit intensifies as hidden agendas are revealed, but all differences must be put aside to deal with the more urgent Drakan invasion plans revealed by Salyna.

Watch out for part one of The Rise of the Kressa, due out soon.

h1<>{color:#00000a;}.

A message from the author

Dear reader,

Thank you for taking time to read Harvester 7. If you enjoyed it, please consider telling your friends or posting a short review. Word of mouth is an author’s best friend and much appreciated.

From the same Author[
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An unlikely Hero. A Sword of Power. A race against time.

Long before the dawn of man, peace reigned in the world. True evil did not exist. Or so it was thought, for the ancient evil had been defeated long before. But even the wisest can make mistakes, for a new darkness from the north began to spread across the land, insidiously, secretly, a dark and terrifying leader rising from the ashes.

Gondell Lenzen had never considered himself special or important, an ordinary Gnome, leading an ordinary life. Yet, a hidden and long forgotten family heritage drew young Gondell into a chain of events that would bring the free world to the brink of disaster.
As the forces of darkness mass against the armies of the Guild, only the legendary Keeper can bring certain victory. A fact that both sides know well.
The Keeper became the key.
A small team of misfits may prove to be the free worlds only hope as they struggle against the greatest odds to snatch Gondell, the Keeper of legend, from the clutches of the Dark Lord and his minions. An unlikely group. Elf, Ogre, Dwarf and Nymph partner with a Ghul, a desert demon in a desperate race. A race that they cannot afford to lose.

Gondell’s Quest. An epic adventure into the world as it was before the rise of man. A story that races from deep and inhospitable deserts to the frozen lands of the north, from the high seas to the highest mountain peaks. A titanic struggle between the forces of good and evil. A story of friendships forged and loyalty won, strategies revealed, deception, fear and doom.

Reviews for Gondell’s Quest.

The epic story of an unsuspecting hero, dragged into a battle that all thought had been already been won.

Believable and heart warming characters that will develop into friends.

A rich and beautifully described world, filled with mythical beings.

The story grips you from the first page.

***

As a rule, I usually tend to judge all epic fantasy type books against the lord of the rings, which is really quite unfair I know, but that’s just me. Sometimes I’m surprised, but more often disappointed! Gondell’s Quest is certainly no disappointment, the exact opposite.

Yes it’s a long book, and this is only half of the story! But once you start, you find yourself carried to another world, a world before mankind screwed things up so effectively.
The character selection is wonderful, usually it’s just elves and dwarves, not the case in this book. I really love the nymph Fiorina… and after reading this, I really wish that they actually existed ha-ha.
I don’t intend to give too much away, all that I will say is this, if you have read and enjoyed the lord of the rings books, then you have to try Gondell’s Quest.
Personally, I can’t wait for the concluding part.

***

When in the mood for an epic fantasy read, I expect to be taken away, absorbing every detail as if I were there. I love a lengthy well-written adventure, the kind that you simply can’t put down even though you have things you should be doing. Everyone loves a good adventure and Gondell’s Quest delivered and then some.

First, I love Gondell. He is a predictable little gnome, content to go about his life fishing and living a quiet life, never expecting his existence to be of importance to anyone. It is his desire for fish that leads him down a path he didn’t expect. Gondell is surprised to learn, via a naughty little fairy, that he is the keeper—the key to winning an impending war.

It was nice that the hero in this story is a gnome and not the usual elf or fairy and there were several different creatures that were new to me. The Guild, an unlikely combination of Elf, Ogre, Dwarf and Nymph partner with a Ghul, and race to rescue Gondell from the clutches of the dark Lord as they struggle to maintain good over evil.

The character development is impeccable and gives the reader insight into the characters intentions, emotions and thoughts. You won’t get spoilers from me…you just have to read to find out.

Overall I give this book an easy five stars, for many reasons: the story and character development were on par with what I expect from an epic fantasy—to be engrossed in every aspect of the adventure, the story-line was extremely well-written and professionally presented, and even though it was a long read, the mystery kept me turning the page and left me wanting for more. This book had me from the second I previewed it and it is representative of such great adventures as what Tolkien brought to us. It is exactly the type of read you would snuggle up with on a cold winter night and I will most likely read this book again and again. I look forward to reading the second part of Gondell’s Quest and learning how it all plays out.

***

Gondell’s Quest explores a world before human dominance, a world of mythological and magical creatures, and introduces a few new surprising champions. No-longer is the battle between good and evil restricted to elves and goblins, dwarves and orcs. Wonderfully deep and descriptive, the author develops and captures the emotions and feelings of the characters, their joy and despair, fear and courage, their strengths and frailties. This is a lengthy book to be sure, but that is the greatest joy because despite the hefty word count, it will leave you wanting more.

Editorial Review

*****

Traffik: The Stolen Girls. International Bestseller (Action & Adventure / Contemporary Fiction)

Peninah’s Passion. (Action & Adventure / Interracial Romance)

The Fountain of Saba. (Action & Adventure / Interracial Romance / Spirituality)

Tokoloshe. (Action & Adventure / Paranormal / Supernatural)

The Red Trade. (Action & Adventure / Contemporary Fiction)

Finding Justine – Libertine (Action & Adventure / Contemporary Fiction)

Sleepwalker. (A psychological thriller)

Discover more books by Andy Lang by visiting the website.

andy-lang.top


Harvester 7

The genetic secret to all life in the universe revealed, and so begins the countdown to Armageddon. For over seven hundred and fifty years the harvesters had been voyaging into deep space, but each journey was becoming longer and more dangerous, because suitable planets were getting fewer and more difficult for the scouts to discover. Terrillia was a dying planet and nothing could be done to prevent the inevitable. Master Maulik carried the responsibilities of feeding his race with pride, and he performed his harvesting duties with diligence and compassion... yet his heart longed for adventure. But it is often dangerous to long, for sometimes the heart receives that which it desires most, and Maulik finds himself plunged into a game of political intrigue and brinkmanship that could alter the balance of power in his galaxy as rival species form an uneasy alliance. For the ultimate doom approaches. And as opposing factions draw together he finds himself a pawn in the great game, his only true ally, his new found friend, the Kressa. Discover how the story begins, the preparations for war, deceit and double dealing, plans within plans, the strangest of friendships... and an entire race reduced to the status of livestock.

  • ISBN: 9781310372247
  • Author: PMO Publishing
  • Published: 2016-06-09 16:40:12
  • Words: 41297
Harvester 7 Harvester 7