“I’m so glad you decided to let me replace your missing eye and thumb, Commander Terex. Yes I am, yes I am!” Yipper, the Tolleg surgeon bounced excitedly around Terex’s feet, his long, furry ears flopping. With his shaggy gray brown fur and long face, he looked like a cross between a baboon and a hound dog—or so said the humans who inhabited the Mother Ship—but he was the best prosthetic surgeon around.
“Yes, well…” Terex blinked his new prosthetic eye, which was indistinguishable from the other, and flexed the thumb the little surgeon had grafted seamlessly to his hand.
He had lost his original body parts in a struggle with Two, the Dark Kindred, who had maimed him in order to gain access to the Mother Ship’s restricted areas. Two had needed the thumbprint and retinal scan of a Council member in order to get into the water processing area, where he planned to dump a toxic virus into the entire water supply and take over the ship. He had ultimately been stopped before he was able to carry out his evil scheme but not before he’d gotten to Terex who had, unfortunately, been in the wrong place at the wrong time.
At least, that was what Terex tried to tell himself when he thought of the shameful episode.
But try as he might, he couldn’t forget the way Two had overpowered him, shot him up with a paralytic agent—and mutilated him. With the paralytic in his system, Terex had been helpless to stop him. He still woke from nightmares, drenched in sweat, where he felt the bite of the Dark Kindred’s knife sawing through his thumb…felt the sharp tip gouging into the flesh of his eye socket.
Stop it, he told himself angrily, flexing his new left thumb again. It was a traumatic experience but it’s over now. Get over it!
It was good advice but Terex was having a difficult time taking it, possibly because the incident with Two wasn’t the only time in recent memory when he had been overpowered. Previous to his struggle with Two, he had been inhabited by Ur, a demon from the Black Planet, who had used his body as a host for his evil designs.
These two very personal attacks, coupled with the death of his beloved mate Solange, now dead for ten solar years, had made Terex seriously question if he wanted to continue living. The answer, he had decided, was no. But before he died, he had a mission—a quest of vengeance that could not go unfulfilled.
Two had left behind a single scion—a huge warrior grown in the flesh vats of the Scourge Father Ship. When Two had died, this scion had fled to parts unknown. At first it was thought he might be on the Scourge home planet, but several probes sent to scan the surface of the toxic world had revealed no life signatures.
Two’s scion was still out there, somewhere, and Terex was determined to seek him out and rid the universe once and for all of the evil bastard. Then he could die in peace—either in battle or by his own hand, after the deed was accomplished. He cared little which way death came—only that it came swiftly and honorably after his vengeance was complete.
“Tell me, Commander Terex, if you please, if you please,” Yipper said, breaking into his morbid thoughts. “Why did you change your mind and decide to have your body parts replaced after all? I was told that you were dead set against replacements at first. So I was, so I was.”
“It wasn’t out of vanity, I can tell you that,” Terex said dryly. “I don’t give a damn for how I look any more—it isn’t as if I’m courting a mate. But Commander Sylvan pointed out that I would be at a disadvantage if I allowed myself to stay maimed. When I thought of it, I realized he had a good point. I am hunting an enemy who is larger and stronger than myself—I need every advantage to take him down.”
“A good point, yes it is, yes it is.” the little Tolleg nodded eagerly. “And the parts I’ve given you will put you at a distinct advantage when it comes to battle. They aren’t just exact replicas of your own lost bits and pieces, no they aren’t, no they aren’t!”
“They’re not?” Terex frowned and looked down at his thumb. “How are they different?”
“Your new ocular piece has an extraordinary range of vision,” Yipper explained. “You’ll be able to see four times as far as you would with your normal, organic eye. And you’ll also be able to focus on small objects and magnify them if you so choose.”
“That’s useful.” Terex closed his right eye and focused his left at a spot on the far wall. Since they were standing in Yipper’s surgical suite slash repair shop, what he saw was a white rack filled with prosthetic hands, legs, feet, and arms. When he concentrated, he found he was able to focus on one particular body part—a foot—and see it in great detail, down to the curving, lifelike ridges on the toenails. “Yes, very useful indeed,” he murmured.
“Oh, and before I forget, your new retina can mimic the retinal pattern of any creature or person living or dead,” the little Tolleg said. “And your new thumb can mimic any print as well. So no door should be locked against you in your quest.”
“Is that right?” Terex frowned thoughtfully. It seemed cruelly ironic that he should have been maimed because of Two’s need for his unique print and retinal pattern and now the replacement parts he had been given could, in turn, mimic any pattern he might need in his quest to kill the bastard’s scion.
Ironic but fitting.
“Yes that’s right. Yes it is, yes it is.” Yipper nodded eagerly, his ears flopping again. “And I’ve even installed a pigmentation control that will affect your hair, eye, and skin color.”
“What? But why?” Terex raised an eyebrow.
“In the outer reaches of space, it is often advantageous to be able to blend in with others of an alien race. Yes it is, yes it is! Observe.” The little Tolleg guided him to a 3-D viewer standing against one wall of his surgical suite. “Now put your new thumb against the temple closest to your new ocular implant. Then imagine yourself with a different colored epidermis or hair,” he instructed.
Terex stared at himself. In the viewer he saw what he had always seen—an older warrior but one who was still in his prime with hard muscles and piercing dark blue, almost purple eyes. As he was a Blood Kindred, he had the double set of fangs where a human would have their canine teeth. He also had dark blond hair, like most Blood Kindred, clipped military short.
“Try something new—yes you should, yes you should!” Yipper said excitedly.
Terex had no heart for any kind of foolishness but he didn’t like to disappoint the little Tolleg who had done such an excellent job of restoring his body, if not his spirit.
Placing the pad of his new left thumb against his left temple, he pictured himself with silver skin and black hair like a Yalen.
At once, his image changed in the viewer. His skin turned shiny silver all over while his hair turned black.
The skin tone was startling but Terex thought the hair looked surprisingly realistic. It was even flecked with specks of silvery-gray in the same places his own blond color was, though it was much more noticeable now that the main part of his hair was black. The color extended to the closely clipped beard he now wore as well. Most Kindred were clean shaven, but lately Terex had begun to break with tradition—in more than one way.
“Ah—very good! Very good!” Yipper exclaimed.
“Yes, it’s…interesting.” Terex put his thumb to his temple again and returned himself to his normal skin color. But the black hair he rather liked. It matched his mood of late. He decided to keep it.
“Tell me, Commander Terex, how do you plan to find the one you seek?” Yipper asked him. “I have heard that the probes of the Scourge Home World, where it was thought he had gone, found no life signatures.”
“I have been promised help in that regard,” Terex said gravely. “I was told by one of the priestesses who has the gift of Sight that she would meditate upon the matter and let me know when she had some insight.”
“Ah, the priestesses are very wise, so they are, so they are,” Yipper murmured. “Truly, they serve the Goddess well.”
“Certainly,” Terex said neutrally. In point of fact, he had given up trying to understand the motivations of the Mother of Life—the Kindred Goddess who had created their race and who some said still took an active part in it. Terex was no longer sure if that was true or why a supposedly divine and perfectly good being would allow so much evil to befall one of her children.
Then the old guilt surged up in him again.
Don’t pretend you don’t know why, whispered a little voice in the back of his mind. The evil which befell you was not of the Goddess’s doing but of your own. The sins you committed in the past can be expiated with nothing less than pain. The agony you have endured, both physical and mental, is of your own making.
Yes, but would he never be done paying? Every time Terex thought the scales were at last balanced, some other evil would befall him, reminding him yet again of his misspent youth and the wrongs he had committed. Wrongs which could, apparently, only be paid for in blood.
Well, he was through paying, Terex told himself. He would seek out Two’s Scion with the help of the Seer Priestess and kill the bastard good and dead. In the process, he prayed that he might be killed himself. Then and only then would he finally be freed to enter the presence of the Mother of all Life. Maybe he would even see Solange again. That would be sweet. His beloved mate had been gone over ten cycles now—it would be good to gaze upon her lovely face once more.
But what if your sins still aren’t paid for? whispered that voice in his head. What if you wind up in one of the Seven Hells instead of in the Goddess’s presence with Solange?
Terex examined the thought and found that he didn’t really care. As long as he was gone from this plane of existence, he would be well content. For a time he had thought there might be something still worth living for—the image of a female with green and gold flecked eyes rose for a moment in his mind but he pushed it away. The female that bore those lovely eyes was not for him—no female was for him.
There was nothing for him now but vengeance, pain, and if the Goddess granted it, death.
“Commander Terex, are you well, are you well?” Yipper sounded concerned and Terex realized he had been staring off into space, contemplating his own demise as calmly as one would consider what to have for mid-day meal. It occurred to him that his newly fatalistic attitude towards life ought to bother him. But it didn’t. Nothing bothered him anymore—nothing touched the shell that had formed around his heart. There was that, at least—he was safe from emotion, safe from pain. And wasn’t it better to be cold than in agony?
Yes, much better, he told himself. Aloud he said to Yipper, “I’m fine, my friend. And I wish to thank you for your fine service.”
“You’re very welcome, so you are, so you are.” The little Tolleg nodded earnestly. “If there is anything else you need or require, please don’t hesitate to call on me.”
“I will,” Terex said, smiling a little. “I—”
Just then he got the strange tingling sensation in his temples which meant someone was trying to bespeak him. He frowned—he had no close friends aboard the Mother Ship, not anymore. Who would be trying to contact him in such an intimate fashion?
“Excuse me,” he said to Yipper. “Someone is trying to communicate with me.” Striding out of the surgery, he rounded the corner and stood in an empty hallway where he could concentrate. Closing his eyes, he opened himself to the call and heard a strong, feminine voice in his mind.
“Warrior, it is I, the priestess Nirobe. You consulted with me and asked that I meditate to learn the whereabouts of the last scion of Two, he who tried to destroy us.”
“Yes—yes, I did.” Terex felt a surge of excitement shoot through him. “Have you found out where he is?”
“In a manner of speaking,” the priestess replied evasively. “I have information you can use but it comes at a price. Will you pay it?”
Terex frowned. “What is the price? I thought the advice of those who make their home in the Sacred Grove was freely given.”
“In most cases it is but this is a special occasion,” Nirobe sent primly. “Will you pay the price?”
“How can I offer to pay when I don’t even know what you want?” Terex demanded, feeling frustrated. “What if you ask for more credit than I have or can borrow?”
“The payment I require is not in physical wealth but in spiritual riches,” the priestess replied obliquely. “All will be made clear in the abundance of time. Come to the Sacred Grove this very evening directly after Last Meal and we will discuss what you owe and how you can pay it. Then and only then will I impart the knowledge which the Goddess has given me.”
“Very well.” It was an irritating caveat but Terex knew better than to complain. The priestesses who served in the Sacred Grove almost always spoke in riddles—it was useless to expect a direct answer out of one of them.
“I will see you at the appointed time. Until then, warrior, be well.” The presence of Nirobe faded from his mind, leaving Terex frowning and uncertain.
What knowledge did the priestess have for him…and what payment would he have to promise in order to get it?
“Hey, little sis, how are you doing today?”
Elaina Benet sat on the edge of her little sister’s hospital bed and tried to smile.
“Oh, you know—fabulous as always.” Her sister Gina gave her a tired smile and a weary thumbs up. But the small gesture seemed to exhaust her because she had to close her eyes and breathe deeply, her thin chest rising and falling strenuously under the blue and white hospital gown.
Elaina’s own smile faltered as she looked at her little sister. Once Gina had been plump, always complaining that her butt was too big and her thighs were too thick, but that had been before the cancer. Now her sister was thin to the point of emaciation—her body almost skeletal. Beneath the unflattering hospital gown, Elaina could see the sharp angles of her hip bones. Gina’s collar bones stuck out like a terrible necklace and Elaina thought she could almost count her ribs.
Oh Gina, she thought, swallowing back a sob as she looked at her sister’s sunken face, the cheekbones jutting under her formerly round, pretty cheeks, and the dark circles beneath her tired eyes. Oh little sis, you’ve changed so much…
The diagnosis had been a cruel surprise—an unexpected shock. Cancer didn’t run in their family and Gina had never been a smoker. But apparently Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia didn’t care about any of that. It was an aggressive kind of cancer that mostly affected people over the age of sixty and even then it was much more prevalent in men. Again, CCL didn’t seem to care that Gina was only thirty one and female—it set up shop inside her once plump and healthy body and refused to be eradicated though the doctors had tried everything from radiation to bone marrow transplants, to numerous rounds of Chemo.
Though Gina was eight years younger than Elaina, she now looked at least ten years older. The cancer had ravaged her, had stolen her beauty along with her youth and vitality.
It was horribly ironic that the cancer wasn’t curable when so many other diseases now were, Elaina thought as she watched over her sister. When the Kindred had come to Earth, they had brought the cures for so many illnesses, including most forms of cancer. Unfortunately, CCL wasn’t among them. And since her sister’s cancer was advancing rapidly and hadn’t responded to any form of treatment, she was probably going to die.
No—don’t think it! Don’t even let that thought enter your mind! Elaina scolded herself quickly. Think positive—things are going to work out. They have to!
She’d been telling herself that since Gina had first gone to the doctor complaining that she was tired all the time and the least little brush against anything caused huge purple bruises to form on her skin. Elaina continued telling herself the same hopeful, positive things even after the diagnosis of cancer. Through each course of treatment she’d maintained a positive attitude, both for herself and her little sister, certain that this new method or course of drugs would be the answer—would be the cure. Even when chemo, radiation, and the bone marrow transplant all failed, Elaina had stayed positive.
There’s still a chance, she had told herself. There has to be a chance—has to be help somewhere. And so, after every kind of human medicine had failed, she had gone to ask for help from the priestesses in the Sacred Grove aboard the Mother Ship. She wasn’t a believer in the Kindred Goddess but she was respectful of all religions. Also, working in the HKR building, she’d heard some amazing stories about miracles the Goddess had supposedly performed.
But while the priestess she’d spoken too—an older woman named Nirobe—had been kind, she hadn’t been able to give Elaina any hope. Her words had been quiet counsel about accepting the will of the Goddess, which was sometimes beyond mortal comprehension. Elaina had left the Sacred Grove feeling like her last hope had been shattered.
It was almost more than she could bear.
“Hey…” Her sister’s soft voice cut through the swirl of dismal thoughts in Elaina’s head and she looked up to see that Gina was looking at her.
“Hey yourself,” she said gently, trying to smile. “You’re looking better today. How are you feeling?”
“Like crap.” Gina laughed and the laugh turned into a cough.
“Here.” Reaching for the covered cup with a straw sticking out on the little rolling table by the bed, Elaina helped her take a sip of water.
“How’s Jake?” Gina’s voice was paper-thin when she finally swallowed the water and could talk again.
Elaina bit her lip. Jake was Gina’s son—only thirteen years old and terribly angry that his mother was sick. Since Gina’s diagnosis he’d been getting into all kinds of trouble—lashing out in every direction in helpless rage that Gina was being taken from him.
A former straight A student, he was failing most of his classes and he’d been picked up by the police twice—once for drug possession and once when he and a friend tried to break into a car. Luckily his step father, Gina’s husband, was a good lawyer and had been able to get him off with only community service both times. But the stress of Jake’s teenaged angst and all-consuming grief and rage was beginning to tell on their once solid relationship. Recently, there had been some talk about sending Jake back to his biological father who lived in Oregon.
Elaina had argued strenuously about that with Gina’s husband, Gary.
“But if he goes now, he won’t be able to see Gina before…before…” She’d waved a hand helplessly, unable to say the words aloud.
“Just say it—before she dies.” Gary had sighed harshly and ran a hand through his hair. “I know it, Elaina, I know but he doesn’t go to see her anyway. I’ve tried and tried to persuade him but he hasn’t been to see her in three months now. What good does it do to have him hang around Tampa getting into trouble while she’s slipping away if he won’t even go see her?”
Elaina knew he was right, but she also thought Jake might change his mind or find his way through the rage that was consuming him. He seemed to blame his mother for getting sick in the first place—as though she could help it in some way—as though she had chosen to get terminally ill and leave him. It wasn’t a rational reaction but then, there was no rational reaction to such intense grief and pain.
Elaina hoped maybe Jake would somehow get through his rage and misery and decide to visit Gina before the end. But if he made that decision when he was on the other end of the country in Oregon, it might be too late for him to get back to Tampa. If he—
“Elaina? I said, how’s Jake?” Gina’s thin, whispery voice cut into her contemplation.
“He’s fine,” Elaina lied as well as she could. “He’s…keeping busy. Some kind of science project, I think. Probably come to see you once he aces it—you know how involved he gets in his projects.” She smiled and pressed her sister’s hand gently. “You’ll be seeing him soon anyway, once you get out of here.”
In the past Gina had smiled and played along with her, adding to the pleasant fiction that she was going to get better and go back to her family soon. But this time she shook her head.
“You don’t have to lie to me, Laney.” There was a dreadful sorrow in her face—a look in her gold and green flecked brown eyes, so like Elaina’s own—that said she couldn’t pretend anymore. That she didn’t have the strength.
“What are you talking about?” Elaina protested, not willing to give up the lie. “You’ll be out of here soon. Dr. Edwards said another round of chemo—”
“No—no more chemo.” Gina shook her head. “I can’t take anymore, Laney—I can’t. I’m so tired and I hurt all the time. I think if I could just get…just get Jake to forgive me for leaving him I’d be ready to go.”
“He doesn’t understand,” Elaina said earnestly, pressing her sister’s hand. “He’s so young…so angry. He misses you, Gina. He…” She choked, trying not to cry. “He just wants his mom. I’m sure he’ll come to see you soon.”
“Yeah, I’m sure too.” But Gina’s voice was cold and flat.
“Don’t let it get you down.” Elaina tried to keep her voice light though her eyes were stinging. “Listen, I know it doesn’t seem like it now but things are going to turn around. They are.”
“I don’t think so.” Gina closed her eyes again. “I’m tired, Laney. I need to rest.”
“All right. You go on and rest. I—” Suddenly Elaina got a strange tingling sensation in her temples. It was almost like the beginnings of a headache but it didn’t hurt. “Um…” She frowned, losing her train of thought as the tingling got stronger. What was going on?
Suddenly a voice sounded right inside her head.
“Elaina? Elaina of Earth…it is I, Nirobe, priestess of the Sacred Grove.”
“What?” Elaina muttered under her breath. She got up and moved to the other side of the hospital room, not wanting to scare her sister. “What is this? Am I going crazy?”
“Do not be concerned for your sanity, my dear. I am bespeaking you by means of a think-me—a device which allows us to communicate mind-to-mind.”
“Oh right—sorry.” Elaina had heard of such devices, but she had also heard that married Kindred were able to speak telepathically without them. Apparently it was a bond they formed when they mated. She couldn’t imagine having someone in her head all the time though—just talking to the priestess mentally was weird enough.
“You can simply think to me, my dear—I will be able to hear you,” Nirobe said. “You came to me earlier asking for help for your beloved sibling who is ill, did you not?”
“Yes! Yes, I did!” Elaina couldn’t keep the hope and excitement out of her mental voice. “Did you find something that could help her? Oh please tell me you did!”
“I have not found anything, my child, but it is possible you might.”
“What?” Elaina felt her heart sinking back down to her toes. “What does that even mean?”
“Come to the Sacred Grove on the Mother Ship just after Last Meal today and I will explain,” Nirobe promised mysteriously. “Will you come?”
“That’s around eight o’clock, right? Yes. Yes, of course—anything I can do to help my sister…” Elaina stared at the sunken form on the bed, her cheeks gray, her narrow chest rising and falling so faintly Elaina could barely make it out. “Anything,” she vowed. “I’ll do anything at all to help her.”
“You may be required to live up to that vow my dear,” the priestess murmured in her head. “I will see you after Last Meal then.”
“Thank you!” Elaina said aloud, but she sensed the connection was already broken—the presence of the priestess had faded from her head.
“What…what was that?” Gina opened her eyes tiredly. “Who were you thanking?”
“It’s a long story.” Elaina looked at her watch and saw that it was already a quarter past seven. If she wanted to get back to the HKR building and up to the Mother Ship, she would need to hurry. “I’ll tell you later,” she promised, leaning over to give her sister a kiss on one thin cheek. “It might be something good—something important.”
“Okay.” Gina’s eyelids fluttered down again and she dozed in the morphine-induced haze her pain meds kept her in most of the time. “See you later, Laney,” she mumbled.
“Of course you will.” Elaina pressed her little sister’s hand gently and let go. And maybe when I come back, I’ll have a cure with me, she thought but didn’t say. She left the hospital room, closing the door quietly behind her, and then set off down the long hallway at a rapid pace, her heels clicking briskly on the industrial green tiled floor.
It was time to get to the Mother Ship and find out what she could do to save her sister.