Rating: NC-17 (language, violence, adult situations and graphic sexual descriptions)
Classification: Col/Post Col, MSR, /O, Consensual and (implied) Non-Consensual Sex, Angst, Mytharc
Warning: “Abaddon’s Reign” is a grownup tale set in harsh times. A number of scenes contain graphic descriptions and portray adult situations that may offend some readers. Please, read with caution.
BOOK IV MUSIC [mp3]
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The Great Red Dragon
Continued from Book III
Earth Date: October 12, 2002
Cassandra Spender's Quarters
The honeyed scent of paste wax filled the tidy bedroom. Dibeh polished Cassandra’s mahogany wardrobe, making it gleam brighter than an Overseer’s onyx chair. She enjoyed this particular chore. The rhythmic motion created knots of warmth in her upper arms and between her shoulder blades. She felt a growing sense of accomplishment as she vanquished yesterday’s dust from the deeply carved panels and moldings.
In her head, she sang as she worked. She didn’t imagine the croaking grunts of her actual voice, but a clear and lilting timbre, like that of her mistress. Lady Cassandra’s favorite song referred wistfully to a place called California -- a place Dibeh had never visited. Truth be told, Dibeh had never been anywhere other than the ship, and no further from her shared room on the servants’ deck than the officers’ residences four levels up.
//All the leaves are brown and the sky is gray. I’ve been for a walk on a winter’s day.// Dibeh wasn’t fond of the song’s gloomy lyrics, but the tune was pleasant. It looped through her head as she swirled wax around the dresser’s ornate drawer pulls. //Stopped into a church, I passed along--//
A tap on her arm startled her. She spun to find her friend Ulso unexpectedly at her side.
“You scared me, you sneak!” she signed and smiled to show she was pleased to see the older servant.
“Master Ca-Lo is demanding to see you,” Ulso signaled in response. Her nimble fingers sliced the air, quickly and gracefully spelling out her message. She punctuated the Master’s unexpected request with a hard-clenched fist to demonstrate its importance.
"Me?" Dibeh signaled back, surprised. She was Lady Cassandra's aide; she had never serviced Cassandra's son before. "What does he want with me?"
"He did not say, but he is in another of his dark moods. Servant Be-Gahi said he refused his midday meal -- threw his pot of tacheene against the wall."
"You can hardly blame him for that!" Dibeh scrunched her face and stuck out her tongue to demonstrate how little she liked the putrid stew-like dish.
"When Be-Gahi tried to clean up the spill, Master shouted to the Angels, hoisted her over his shoulder and carried her all the way down to the servants' kitchen, where he dumped her at the feet of Cook VI."
"I do not believe it." The kitchen was two decks below Master Ca-Lo's quarters. He would not have taken the trouble. He had more important things to attend to: the Infants were nearing maturation, new Breeding Compounds were under construction in Earth's largest cities, and the Armada was launching daily assaults against terrestrial uprisings. The number of dead and captured was awe inspiring, outstripping all expectations, yet there remained much to do. Mistress Cassandra talked incessantly about her son's various and significant responsibilities. "Rumors multiply faster than larder maggots in a sweet bin," Dibeh warned.
"I was there. I saw it happen," Ulso insisted. "As did twenty other servants."
"Ca-Lo actually went into the kitchen?"
"I'm telling you, the Master dropped Be-Gahi on her fat old ass right next to the sanitation sink, then began shouting blasphemies. I feared the Red Dragon would strike him dead, and us along with him!"
Similar stories about Ca-Lo's foul temper had been circulating the servants' deck for weeks. Just yesterday the gossips recounted how Ca-Lo had forcibly evicted Companion XXI from his apartment and then ordered all thirty-six of his personal hybrid consorts to leave him alone...indefinitely. It was said he hadn't bedded a single one since the night the Earth woman was locked away in the Privation Chambers.
"Maybe he has grown weary of being at the center of the servants' gossip," Dibeh signed.
"Then he should give us less to talk about." Ulso prodded Dibeh's arm. "You better hurry, young one. The Master's mood is not likely to improve while you dawdle."
Dibeh thanked Ulso and abandoned her polishing to hurry to Ca-Lo's quarters.
On her way, she fretted over her appearance; furniture wax caked her nails and her coarsely woven dress was a simple uniform, brown in color, without adornment and stained at the pocket, not at all suitable attire for an audience with the Master. Her hair was tied into a knot at the back of her neck and held by a plain clip. She wore no burnished silicon bracelets to show her worth, no decorations at her ears, no jeweled stud in her small nose, nor paint on her face like a pretty consort. Truth be told, such devices did little to improve her appearance. She had been bred to serve a lady, not be attractive to men.
When she reached Ca-Lo's quarters, she smoothed her hair as best she could and then pressed the enter button on the keypad beside his door.
"Come in." Ca-Lo's voice crackled from the speaker.
At his command, the door opened with a pneumatic hiss and Dibeh stepped into his sumptuous apartment. The remains of his spilled tacheene lay at her feet, the carpet stained orange-red. She stooped to gather the broken bowl and clean the mess.
"Leave it," Ca-Lo snapped, without looking up from his desk.
His uniform was wrinkled and unfastened at the neck in a most unsoldierly fashion. His hair was unbound, snarled and in need of washing. A two-day stubble bristled his customarily smooth jaw and bluish-gray shadows smudged his cheeks beneath downcast eyes.
Spread out in front of him was a collection of feminine garments: a silky black blouse, twill slacks with a slender belt, and a pair of boots, quite small.
He studied the items for a long time, smoothing the silk and fingering the boots' thin laces.
Dibeh stood straight as a sewing needle beside the door, awaiting his next order.
Several long moments passed in silence before he finally lifted his eyes to acknowledge her.
Feeling awkward and not knowing the appropriate thing to say, she dipped her head and signaled politely, "How goes the Harmonious Settlement?"
He frowned and waved off her question. "Come here," he growled.
She obeyed, stepping carefully around the congealing tacheene, fearful that even the scuff of her slippers on the plush carpet might further irritate his already volatile disposition.
"Closer!" he demanded when she paused an arm's length away.
She edged closer.
Apparently not satisfied, he grabbed her wrist and yanked her nearer still.
His hand was hot, almost feverish. He gripped her arm tightly. The tart odor of his sweat caused her to wrinkle her nose. His countenance was so severe she began to tremble.
When he noticed her fear, he loosened his hold a little, enough for her to withdraw her hand. An apology flitted across his face, then was gone.
"See this?" He retrieved a delicate gold necklace from the pile of garments.
Her head bobbed and she tried to smile.
"It belongs to Dana."
"The Earth woman?" she signaled.
He regarded her with grim eyes. "I want you to take it to her."
"But...she is in a Privation Chamber, is she not?"
"Sir, I do not have access to the Portal of Solitude."
He returned the necklace to the pile of clothes, then dug into his pants pocket and withdrew a slim transponder. It was unlike any she had ever seen, as slender as the Mistress' snuff tube and no longer than her smallest finger. Nih-hi-cho symbols, meticulously inscribed in the metal, spelled out an ancient prophecy along one side.
"This will get you in," he said. "Don't lose it. It's the only one like it on the ship."
She hesitated, not wanting to take such an important key or accept his dangerous task. What if she were to get caught trespassing inside the sacred caldarium? She would be executed, certainly, or forced to live out the remainder of her days in a Privation Chamber.
"Please, sir, do not ask me."
"There's no one else." He rose from his chair. Tall and imposing, he leaned over her. "Dibeh, you are my mother's personal aide. She trusts you. She said you would do this for me."
Not wanting to contradict her mistress or Master Ca-Lo, she took the key with a trembling hand and tucked it into her sleeve. "What shall I tell the guards if they stop me?"
Impatience huffed from Ca-Lo's nose. "Dana is being kept in a stasis cell. You can pose as her Feeder. No one will stop you."
He plucked the necklace from the desk. "I would take it to her myself, if there was any way. But I'm denied access. The Overseers watch me whenever I'm outside these rooms. You, on the other hand, can walk right under their noses without being noticed."
It was true. Most Nih-hi-cho paid scant attention to hybrid servants. At times they seemed unable to discern a consort from a cook. One hybrid evidently looked much like any other to the purebloods, and their insignificant thoughts were not worth reading.
"You will collect Dana's meal in the kitchen," Ca-Lo said. "Deliver it as instructed. After you dispense her quota of na-a-jah, give her this."
He dangled the cross in front of her. Its symmetric symbol meant nothing to Dibeh, but the pretty way it reflected the gleam of Ca-Lo's desk lamp was mesmerizing.
"Is there any message you would like me to convey to the Earth woman when I give her the necklace?"
His expression turned mournful. "I doubt she'll be conscious. At least I hope she's not." He took hold of Dibeh's hand and pressed the necklace into her palm. "You mustn't let anyone see you give this to her, do you understand? I can't protect you if you get caught."
She nodded, unnerved by the challenge ahead, yet afraid to disobey Ca-Lo -- or disappoint her mistress.
"Come back here after you leave the caldarium," Ca-Lo said, stroking her hair in a gesture of tender gratitude. "I want a report on Dana's well-being as soon as I return from the Overseers' Chambers."
Besh-Lo paced in front of the supply elevator, broken glass crunching beneath the heels of his polished military boots. He was in his human form, awaiting Cassandra Spender. She believed he was her secret confidant, a man named Sergeant Thompson. The Overseers, on the other hand, knew him as Watcher VIII, VII's replacement. In truth, he was both. Besh-Lo was a Refuter spy, a double agent pretending to be Cassandra's ally while also posing as one of the Overseers' faithful Watchers.
The Nursery was just as it had been after the preemptive release of the Infants: frigid, foggy and littered with overturned incubators. The birthing process had activated a rapid chemical reaction within the clones, transforming the Infant's amniotic fluid into a corrosive digestive enzyme. It quickly reduced the dying Kryceks to a shimmering soup of mineral byproducts. The liquefied remains then congealed and shriveled to a powdery residue. Almost five months later, the clones' distinctly human odor still hung in the air like mold spores, irritating Besh-Lo's sensitive nasal passages.
The elevator chimed, announcing Cassandra's arrival. Besh-Lo ceased his pacing and stood waiting for the silvery doors to open. His reflection stared back at him, a compact, sinewy man, forty-eight Earth years old, with walnut skin, corkscrewing hair cropped close to his skull, and whiskers the color of steel wool. Shrewd eyes gleamed like buckshot beneath his stern brows. A grim sneer exposed a flash of gold.
The doors slid open to reveal Cassandra, alone in the car, a scowl pinching her face.
"Why must we meet in this godawful dungeon?" She stepped out of the elevator and shouldered past Besh-Lo. Her nose wrinkled and she fanned the air. "My God, it stinks in here."
"Pod sediment, ma'am. Most unpleasant, I agree, but unavoidable."
"Then let's not waste time. Tell me what you've learned."
"There's a plot, ma'am."
Cassandra rolled her eyes with impatience. "There is *always* a plot, Sergeant. That's not news. I want to know about Dana. How is she?"
"She is in danger."
"Obviously. She's in a Privation Chamber, for goodness sake. I want to know if she's pregnant." Cassandra flapped her hands in a "get on with it" gesture.
In order to make her think he was taking appropriate precautions to ensure their privacy, Besh-Lo captured her elbow and guided her away from the elevator. She believed he was completely loyal to her and her son, just as the Overseers believed he was devoted to them and the Society. Imagine their surprise if they should discover his true identity.
Not that such an eventuality was likely. He was far too cautious.
He steered her around several broken cryopods toward the room's center, away from the Nih-hi-cho's hidden bio-trackers.
Lowering his voice in a ruse of secrecy, he told her the Dragon's honest truth. "The Refuters intend to kill the Earth woman and her baby."
There was no need to lie about the plan. If Cassandra were to repeat it to the Overseers, they would simply consider her ill-informed and dismiss her improbable claim as another of her many groundless ravings.
"So there is a child?" She broke into a manic grin, more concerned about her status as a grandmother than the threat to the Earth woman. "I'd almost given up hope."
It had been five months since Dana Scully was locked away in a stasis cell. The Overseers had confirmed her pregnancy after the first week, but they kept that detail from Ca-Lo and his mother. Their intent was to use the information as leverage at an opportune time. That time had come. The Overseers were meeting with Ca-Lo at this very moment. As Watcher VIII, Besh-Lo was given permission to share the information about the child with Cassandra, as a way of gaining her trust.
"The pregnancy has been verified," Besh-Lo said.
"Oh, this is wonderful news! I can't wait to tell Ashkii."
"No doubt he will be pleased."
"Yes, yes. But..." Her smile vanished. "What about Dana? Surely she'll be safe from the Refuters in a Privation Chamber. She's guarded there, isn't she?" Worry creased her brow. "My God, suppose one of the guards is a spy?"
Besh-Lo dismissed the idea with a cluck of his tongue. "Ma'am, how could a spy infiltrate the Society? The Nih-hi-cho are able to read minds, remember?" His voice cooed, trying to placate her. In truth, the Refuters were remarkably adept at disguising their thoughts and identities, even from the Overseers. They made excellent spies; they'd been practicing for generations. Besh-Lo was proof of their success.
"I don't want anything to happen to Dana. Her baby is my grandchild. You understand its importance, don't you?"
Her unfounded pride caused him to bridle. If the child was like its demonic father, it was an Abomination, not a deity.
"The Refuters are purists, ma'am," he said, trying to sound repulsed. "Their distaste of human contamination is legendary."
"The Society is no better," she spat. "Just more cowardly."
There was no need to react to her insult; she believed him to be human like her. "They respect you and your son, ma'am."
"Then they must respect my grandchild, too."
"You must do whatever you can to protect my son's unborn child, do you understand?"
"And keep me informed of the plot against them."
"If it comes down to it, I could serve as the baby's surrogate."
He recoiled inwardly at the notion, barely able to conceal his shock. "S-surrogate, ma'am?"
"Yes. Dana's fetus could be implanted in my womb. The Refuters wouldn't dare harm me."
Don't be so sure, he thought, appalled by her suggestion. The idea of her carrying her own grandchild sickened him, not because of its incestuous implications, but because human reproduction itself was disgusting.
"I sincerely hope such a drastic measure will prove unnecessary, ma'am."
Dressed in a filmy Feeder's veil, rubber gloves and sackcloth shift, Dibeh paused outside the Portal of Solitude to steady her nerves. She had never visited this part of the ship before. It was a holy place, off limits to infidels like her. Only hybrids who tended prisoners were allowed into the hallowed chamber.
Rising in front of her, the Portal's massive door was solidly constructed and intricately carved. It towered five meters above her head and if three servants were to join hands with arms extended, they could not span its substantial breadth. A bas-relief sculpture decorated its central bronze panel, depicting the Nih-hi-cho's most significant religious scene -- the Divination.
An image of the Holy Red Dragon filled the uppermost portion, his twelve heads radiating out from his torso like tongues of fire. His scaled, coiled body was draped upon the shoulders of the Divine Legion of Angels, serpents like himself with Nih-hi-cho faces and benevolent eyes.
Beneath them were members of the Society, pious believers, purified by their collective prayers, destined to join the Dragon's Divine Kingdom after life. They were marked on the forehead by crystal diadems representing their supreme gift of telepathy.
The Nih-hi-cho appeared to walk upon a sea of black oil, supported from below by the hunched shoulders of pathetic half-creatures, hybrids like herself, doomed to damnation by their detestable human attributes. These deformed half-breeds were portrayed without mouths or diadems because they could neither speak like humans, nor communicate telepathically like the blessed Nih-hi-cho.
At the very base of the Portal were the Terrestrials, crammed together like frog spawn in an abominable quagmire of stars and space gasses. They worshipped at the feet of their evil Lord God, a hideous chimera, winged like the Earth's buzzards and furred on his head and face like a goat. Malevolent laser beams shot outward from his too-small skull.
Loyal minions were positioned near the deity. One, a female, wore a crown of twelve stars. She stood upon the Earth's moon, surrounded by a sinuous moat. Her belly was enormously pregnant, evidence of her sins.
Dibeh suppressed a sudden, inexplicable urge to touch the woman's swollen belly. Even wearing her gloves, to do so would be sacrilege.
She shifted the bag of na-a-jah that hung heavily over her left shoulder and fished Ca-Lo's transponder from her sleeve.
An electronic lock was mounted to the right of the door's deeply fluted frame. She inserted the transponder into its small round keyhole, wondering again if she would be arrested the moment she crossed the threshold.
"Guide me, please, O Holy Dragon," she prayed, glancing up at the carving of the powerful god.
A green light blinked on the keypad. The lock clicked several times and the door swung silently inward, releasing a gust of humid air. The draft hissed past her ears and ruffled her veil, smelling sickly-sweet, like fermenting fruit.
She tucked the transponder away, squared her shoulders and stepped inside.
The Chamber's magnificence stole her breath. The holy temple was enormous, drum-shaped, and paved with translucent amber, lit from below and incised with a repeating pattern of hexagons. It was capped by a dome, thirty meters high at its apex, decorated with luminous glass panels that illustrated sacred scenes like the creation of Ah-Toh, the Nih-hi-cho's home world, and the twenty miracles of the Red Dragon.
Priests came and went through dozens of narrow archways in the caldarium's bowed walls. They wore billowy green robes over starched white undercoats. Pale green sashes, the color of fresh onion shoots, circled their slender waists and draped nearly to the floor. Crimson caps hugged their bulbous, gray skulls. Silicon bangles tinkled at their wrists and ankles as they crisscrossed the deck, busy as ants in a melon barrel. Intent on their tasks, they took no notice of Dibeh.
Numerous guards stood at attention in niches around the room. Imposing in their black military uniforms, they were armed with rifles and stun sticks. They all had identical human faces -- beaky, square-jawed and fierce, with ashen eyes and prickly jowls. Their sternness caused Dibeh's racing heart to rise to her throat.
A male Greeter materialized seemingly out of nowhere, startling Dibeh when he poked her arm with a long-nailed finger and asked in a disdainful tone, "Location?"
His glossy black hair was piled high in a topknot in the style of the Armada's Bliss Boys, consorts to the human soldiers who preferred masculine bedmates. He smelled of human sweat and his pursed lips were painted bright red. She handed him the numbered chip she'd received from Cook XII in the kitchen, and tried not to stare at his bright blue, claw-like nails.
"Cell X-G-2416," he read from the chip and smacked his crimson lips. He gave her a squinty-eyed stare. "Stasis Section. The Earth woman, hmm?"
Dibeh smiled and patted her leathery bag of na-a-jah to indicate her purpose.
"This way." He pivoted on glittery slippers and headed out across the honeycombed deck. "You're late, you know. The other Feeders have already come and gone."
She hung her head and signed an apology, to which he harrumphed and tipped his pointy nose skyward.
Two-thirds of the way across the Chamber, he stopped to squat beside one of the lit hexagons. It looked exactly like all the others: two meters wide, glassy and golden, and outlined by a silvery, razor-thin border. The Greeter fitted her numbered chip into a small, shallow depression where two sides of the honeycomb pattern came to a point. Almost immediately an aperture opened at the center of the hexagon, yawning like a mouth, exposing the cell below -- a fleshy, damp, pocket tucked beneath the deck.
Curled at the bottom of this sticky cell was the Earth woman, Mistress Cassandra's friend Dana Scully, naked and pale, lying on her side in a gelatinous pudding of protein ointment. Her red hair was wet and matted. Her skin was stippled from cold and veined with blue. She bore no bruises or other obvious signs of mistreatment, but her eyes were squeezed shut and her brows drawn together as if she were suffering unbearable pain.
"She is hungry because of your lingering," the Greeter accused. He removed the chip and rose to his feet. "You had better hurry," he ordered before leaving her on her own, taking the chip with him.
She slipped the bag of na-a-jah from her shoulder and knelt beside the gaping aperture.
A thick umbilicus -- the feeder tube -- connected an organic funnel at the upper rim of the cell to the Earth woman's mouth, where it snaked presumably into her gullet, passing through her stretched, pale lips, bulging her throat.
Smaller hoses plugged her nostrils; Dibeh guessed they pumped oxygen into her lungs, because the air in the cell was damp and foul, like the servants' necessarium whenever the sewage conduits become clogged. A fourth hose sprouted from between her legs and a fifth from a reddened incision in her side below her ribs. Both of these tubes disappeared into the slush at the bottom of the cell. The woman's abdomen was noticeably rounded, like the winged woman on the caldarium's great, carved door.
So, the gossips' stories were true. Dana Scully was with child.
Dibeh tried and failed to imagine what it must be like to nurture a fetus within one's own body, then flushed with shame at such a wicked idea. Everyone knew that proper offspring were produced inside a disposable host. Even hybrids and clones were produced in ablution tanks, which thankfully bore no resemblance to the wombs of terrestrial females.
The Earth woman mewled and hugged her swollen belly.
Believing she must be hungry, Dibeh lifted the bag of na-a-jah, extended its rigid spout and fitted the nozzle into the upper end of the umbilicus. A gentle squeeze pushed gruel from the bag into the feeder tube, which expanded as it filled. Dibeh watched the sludgy na-a-jah ooze incrementally through the translucent umbilicus, into the Earth woman's gaping mouth.
Dana Scully whimpered when the first dark lumps passed her lips. A wave of sympathy engulfed Dibeh. She reached into the cell to comfort her as best she could, gently wiping clots of buttery protein ointment from her closed lids, then swabbing out her ears and stroking her hunched shoulders. Sadly, the Earth woman didn't respond to her ministrations; the whimpering continued, punctuated by audible gulps as she swallowed her meal.
After several minutes, the last of the na-a-jah finally drained from the tube. The Greeter would be returning soon to close the cell. Dibeh had scant time left to give Dana Scully the necklace.
She peeled off her left glove and shook the necklace from its hiding place in the thumb. Her hands were trembling as she looped the delicate chain around the woman's neck and quickly fastened the tiny hook.
The Earth woman's hand flapped blindly to the gold cross. Her brow smoothed a little as she fingered it. Thin tears drizzled from her slitted eyes.
Dibeh smiled, relieved the necklace was providing some measure of solace, no matter how temporary. The next Feeder would certainly spot it and take it away, but for a short while Dana Scully could rest easier.
The slap of footsteps alerted Dibeh to the Greeter's approach.
She quickly arranged the Earth woman's hair to hide the necklace, then slipped her glove back on and disengaged the feeder bag. She was on her feet, ready to leave, by the time the Greeter reached her.
He crouched and inserted her numbered chip back into its groove. The cell's aperture squeezed shut.
"Well? What are you waiting for?" he snarled when she continued to stare at the shallow indentation at the hexagon's midpoint. "Get out of here."
She gave him her meanest scowl and extended her hand for the chip. She had been told to return it to the kitchen along with the empty feeder bag.
He dropped it in her palm, taking obvious care to avoid touching her ointment-slathered glove as he did so. "Now go," he ordered.
She spun and retreated from the room. Countless hexagons blurred beneath her feet as she hurried toward the exit. How many of the cells held prisoners? Her stomach pitched at the thought of their bodies below her. Before today, she had assumed anyone locked inside a Privation Chamber must be a vicious criminal or a depraved sinner. Yet Dana Scully seemed neither. She was a hapless victim, abducted from her world and held here against her will.
Why did the Society allow such injustice? How could the blessed Nih-hi-cho be so cruel?
Dibeh broke into a run, desperate to leave the loathsome place as far behind her as possible.
Chamber of the Council of Overseers
Ca-Lo stood at attention in front of the twelve members of the Council. The Overseers remarked among themselves about his disheveled appearance.
//...excessive preoccupation with the imprisoned Earth woman...she was his first human sexual partner...seems to have established an enduring bond...we can use his devotion to our advantage...//
"You are wondering, Ca-Lo, why we have summoned you here," Overseer One stated telepathically.
"You want a progress report, I assume," Ca-Lo said.
"Not at all; we have already been apprised of the Armada's successes," Overseer Two replied, leaving the human commander to ponder the identity of their unnamed sources. "You are here to receive new orders."
"You will travel to Salt Lake City at dawn, local time, to tour our first operational breeding compound."
"I direct the conquest, not the reconstruction."
"You do whatever we tell you to do."
Ca-Lo's face remained a mask of calm, belying the resentment and trepidation they could read in his mind. "May I know the purpose of this tour?"
"To meet the settlement's supervisor and attend to his needs."
"With due respect, I have more pressing responsibilities at the moment."
"Yes, the insurrection in Texas, the rebel uprisings in New Mexico and Utah. We know all about these inconveniences."
Incredulity rippled through Ca-Lo. "A sedition at Fort Weather can hardly be regarded as an 'inconvenience.' "
"It will be dealt with in due course. Right now the Harmony settlements are pivotal to our colonization efforts and are therefore a top priority. You will meet with Lieutenant Harris--"
"Harris?" Ca-Lo's fists tightened. His next words ground from between clenched teeth. "That bastard was not to be released without my permission."
"Our orders always supersede yours. We freed him, as a reward for his exemplary behavior in the Privation Chamber. Five months is certainly long enough to hold a grudge, don't you think?"
Ca-Lo struggled to tamp down his rising resentment. "Send someone else."
"We are sending you."
"Why? Am I being punished?"
"Yes, you are."
Ca-Lo's indignation transformed to rage. His eyes sparked as he roared, "I've done everything you have asked me to do. I've led your Armada to the brink of victory. I've given you this entire planet. In the name of the Red Dragon, what more do you want from me?"
//...he has referred to the Armada as ours, not his...loss of loyalty...the Earth woman's influence...//
Ca-Lo's slip came as a disconcerting surprise to the Overseers, but his other claims were accurate and his question not unexpected. Ca-Lo was, in large part, responsible for the Nih-hi-cho's recent successes. He was a superb strategist, maybe their best tactician. Adept at predicting the actions of the most proficient terrestrial military leaders, he had a natural aptitude for divining motivation and calculating behavior, honed no doubt by years of attempting to ascertain the unspoken intentions of his Nih-hi-cho masters.
By comparison, the Nih-hi-cho themselves were merely mediocre when it came to anticipating their enemies' trickery. It was an inescapable truth, one they accepted without rancor. The Society was accustomed to group consciousness. For countless generations their telepathic abilities had ensured they knew the thoughts of their members, so there was no need to guess, no cause for guile or cunning. Every thought, idea, plot or scheme was shared, completely out in the open. It was unnatural for Nih-hi-cho to be secretive. There wasn't even a word in their native language for "deception." They had never needed one, not until they met humans.
Nih-hi-cho could, of course, react to a conspiracy once they detected it. But in battle, playing defensively was likely to lose the war. Which was precisely why they used humans like Ca-Lo to strategize for them.
"It is not your military prowess that is in question, Ca-Lo. We are quite pleased with your performance in that regard."
"Then what's got you so damned pissed you're willing to make me errand-boy to Harris?"
"You have made no progress in your search for young William Mulder."
Ca-Lo latched onto their complaint and used it as opportunity to bargain. "I've tried, you know I have, but I need access to Dana Scully if I am to find her son."
He had made an honest attempt, they knew. Unfortunately he had come up empty handed.
As had they.
"Her mind has been probed, Ca-Lo. She doesn't know her son's current location," Overseer One admitted.
"Maybe not, but she could supply clues to his whereabouts. She gave the boy to someone, right? If I could get that person's name, I'd have a place to start, a trail to follow. It's what I'm good at. You know it. Give her to me and let me try."
This was exactly the response they had been hoping for.
They conferred quickly. William Mulder must be found and Ca-Lo's expertise in such matters would be invaluable.
"We will allow you to question her," Overseer One said.
Ca-Lo's hopes rose. "I'll need time with her, to earn her trust."
"How much time?"
"I don't know. It might take a while."
"We will not give her to you indefinitely. Not without seeing significant progress in your search." They had no doubt that, if properly motivated, he could find the boy, so Overseer One delivered an additional impetus: "It has been confirmed she is pregnant."
A peculiar sentiment arose in Ca-Lo, akin to the feelings of ecstasy the Nih-hi-cho shared when joined in communal prayer.
"You must release her then." When Ca-Lo saw their hesitation, he delivered an impetus of his own. "If the baby is what you fear he is, the human God will not be pleased to discover you have been torturing the mother."
Again the Overseers conferred and came to a unanimous decision. "You may have Dana Scully for as long as you need."
"I want her permanently."
"Only if you bring us the boy."
Feeling confident, Ca-Lo said, "I'll bring you the boy. And when I do, I will take Dana Scully as my wife, my sole consort. I want to marry her."
The notion was revolting. Marriage was a vulgar convention. Humans believed it sanctified their aberrant mating practices. To the Nih-hi-cho, however, all sexual unions were profane and no known ceremony could make them holy.
"We will consider it," Overseer One lied, "*after* you bring us the boy. But be warned, Ca-Lo, if you do not locate William Mulder before Dana Scully gives birth, then she will be returned to her cell and you will not be given a second opportunity to get her back."
Ca-Lo was no longer listening. His mind was already focused on his future success, just as the Overseers had hoped.
Dibeh went directly from the Privation Chambers to Ca-Lo's quarters, exactly as he had asked her to do. Finding his door locked, she squatted with her back to the outer wall to wait for him.
Forty minutes later, she heard a jubilant voice reverberating through the serpentine corridor. It was Ca-Lo and he was singing!
He broke into a broad grin the moment he spotted her. "Dibeh! I have excellent news."
"That is good, sir, because my news is not so excellent," she signed in response.
His smile sagged a little. He offered his hand and pulled her easily to her feet. At his verbal command, the door to his quarters unlocked and opened, and he steered her inside with his palm to her back.
"Sit," he said, as soon as the door had closed behind them. He gestured toward his wingback chair, but when she lingered beside the door, he let his hand drop. "You gave her the necklace?"
"Yes, sir," she signed.
"And? How was she?" Worry knotted his brow.
A rush of words flowed from her hands, uncensored and frantic. "She was unconscious, sir, and in pain, and the cell she is in is very foul. She cannot stretch her limbs. The shunt in her belly appears infected. Please, Master Ca-Lo, you must do whatever you can to get her out...as soon as possible. No one should be forced--"
"Be still. It's okay, it's okay." He snagged her fluttering hands and held them between his palms. "Dibeh, she is going to be let out. The Overseers are releasing her to me today."
Surprised by this news, Dibeh withdrew her hands to sign, "Thank the Divine Angels!"
His smile returned, brilliant and full of joy. His green eyes sparkled. "You want to know the best part? She's pregnant."
Dibeh's cheeks heated at this frank disclosure. Ca-Lo's liaison with the Earth woman and its obvious consequences were not appropriate topics of conversation for a master and servant.
Ca-Lo seemed not to notice her discomfort, which grew even more profound when he unexpectedly started to disrobe. He peeled off his jacket and then his shirt, baring his chest as if she were not in the room. He let the garments drop to the floor, then headed to the adjoining bedroom, continuing his jovial commentary as he went.
"There's a lot to do before she gets here. The apartment must be given a thorough cleaning," he said.
Dibeh collected his clothes and trailed after him. She nearly tripped over his discarded boots when she entered the bedroom.
He targeted her with the steady point of a finger. "I want you to oversee all the preparations, Dibeh. You can have three servants to help you. Ask First Cook to prepare something special for Dana's dinner. Bring the best wine on the ship. Oh, and I want fresh flowers in the outer room...and in here." He waved in the general direction of the nightstand before he disappeared into the bathroom.
She heard the tub start to fill. "I need a clean uniform," he shouted to her, but before she could fetch one, he returned to the bedroom, completely naked, and began rooting through the wardrobe.
"Please, let me do that, sir," she signed, shocked by his nudity.
With his back was to her, he missed her offer of help.
Two, three, four clean shirts flew through the air and onto the carpet, tossed aside for perceived imperfections. Ca-Lo's unbound hair fanned loosely across his broad shoulders, the ends brushing the upper curve of his buttocks.
"Sir? Sir!" She went to him and tapped his arm.
He spun to face her and she found herself staring directly at his exposed male part. Immediately she shifted her focus, but it seemed no matter where she looked, it was still in view.
Divine Angels, his physique was nothing like that of his mother, whom Dibeh had seen naked many times during her bath. Ca-Lo had a thick, purplish hose-like protuberance dangling between his legs. Beneath it was a wrinkled sac, swollen with two egg-shaped somethings. Dark, coiled hair furred the preposterous organ, so that it resembled the genitals of a terrestrial ram or steer...which was exactly how his Consorts described his parts whenever they gossiped about his sexual proclivities.
Dibeh felt another rush of blood rise to her cheeks.
"If...if you please, sir, go...go take your bath," she signed, her fingers stumbling on the words. "I...I will bring you some pants...clothes...a uniform."
He nodded in a distracted way, oblivious to his state of undress. He ran splayed fingers through his long hair, combing back the wayward locks. "Uh...yes, okay. My...my boots..." He glanced at the dull, scuffed boots.
"I will see to it they are polished," she promised. "Everything will be taken care of. Please, sir, do not trouble yourself with these details. Take your bath," she said, once again on the verge of glancing at his groin.
He reached for her and gave her shoulder a grateful squeeze. Kindness brightened his entire face. "Dibeh...I appreciate all you've done today...for me and for Dana."
"Thank you, sir."
"Would you consider undertaking another very important task?"
She hesitated, stunned that he would bother to ask her. It was his right to demand whatever he wished and it was her duty to obey. "Of course, sir. What is the task?"
"I want to assign you to Lady Dana, permanently."
"To...?" What was he saying? "You want me to be the Earth woman's personal aide?"
He chuckled. "Yes, except you'll have to stop calling her 'the Earth woman.' She's going to be my wife, Dibeh. Do you understand what that means?"
Dibeh had heard of the bizarre human practice called "marriage," thankfully in vague terms only. She tried to hide her distaste.
"What...what about Madame Cassandra?" she asked. "Who will take care of her?"
"She'll have a new aide," he said matter-of-factly.
Dibeh had been with Cassandra for several years. She didn't want to start again with someone she barely knew. And the Earth woman...Dana Scully...Lady Dana...whatever she was supposed to be called...she had been quite condescending toward Dibeh when she first arrived on the ship.
In addition, there was the baby to consider. Would Dibeh be expected to tend it, too?
Ca-Lo must have sensed her doubts, because he stroked her hair in a reassuring way.
"It would honor me, Dibeh, if you would serve Dana with the same dedication you have shown to me and my mother.
O Great Dragon, how could she object? Ca-Lo was leader of the Nih-hi-cho Armada. She was a mere aide.
"The honor would be mine, sir," she haltingly signed.
"Good." He appeared relieved and it was only then she realized he had expected she might actually say no to his request. "Your first official duty will be to escort Dana to my quarters as soon as the Appraisers have finished with her in Assessment Bay 12."
"Yes, sir." Her opportunity to object had passed. "As you wish."
Time is irrelevant, interminable here. You think you might be going crazy. Dreams, fantasies, hallucinations swirl over you like flotsam on a stormy sea.
Do you hear your mother calling? Can you smell the tart fragrance of fresh cut grass lingering in evening-cooled air?
Crickets sing after dark. The moon smiles upon eight neighborhood children of varying ages. You feel safe playing Kick the Can with the officers' children on a San Diego parade ground.
"Dana! Dana, come in now. It's late," Mom calls from your front porch, her voice urgent, but not angry.
"I gotta go," you tell the other kids and they groan.
"Fifteen more minutes," wheedles bristle-haired Sarah, scheming, always scheming. "You can pretend you didn't hear her."
"I can't fib to my mom." You've never been able to lie convincingly. Your tendency to blush precludes deception.
Inwardly you pledge to practice, because deceit may come in handy some day.
You wave goodbye to your friends. Your skinned knees sting as you skip home.
Your arms throb, too, you notice, and you try to stretch them high above your head to work out the prickles and kinks, but find you cannot.
It's dark where you are.
Don't...don't think about that.
Think about how a warm bath and Mom's goodnight kiss will make your aches disappear.
Or, better yet, think about Mulder's tender caresses.
Can you hear him whispering your name? His chuckle resonates like the quiet rumble of a DC subway train deep beneath the city's street, muffled by soil and concrete and the murmur of passersby. His laugh, like his smile, is both satisfying and heartbreaking because it is as genuine as it is rare.
You imagine him above you now, propped upon his elbows, making love to you. His scent, his touch, his contented moans are all delightfully familiar. Yet there is a strangeness about him that puts you on guard. His eyes flash, too green. Long locks of chestnut hair drape his shoulders and tickle your bare breasts. You comb your fingers through the glossy strands and wonder where this fantasy came from. You almost never read romance novels, preferring scientific journals to bodice rippers. Yet, like a Harlequin hero, Mulder is seducing you. You feel ravished as he controls your body and dominates your heart.
His open palm traces the inner curve of your thigh; his fingers stutter from your knee to your pelvis. They pause there to explore your curls, seek your entrance.
You arch toward him, allowing him to slide into you. You feel possessed in every sense of the word and at this very moment you like it. You love it. You love him.
But your body goes numb when you notice the mark on his right cheek. A tattoo or brand. Sinister symbols that appear to reel through the shadowy stubble of his beard. You trace them with your thumb, remembering alien artifacts and submerged spacecrafts and a book about Anasazi Indians.
The Sixth Extinction.
The end of the world.
"Stop," you protest and push firmly against his chest.
His heart hammers beneath your palms. He is panting, brow knotted, eyes squeezed shut; ecstasy hums in his throat.
Oh God, he isn't Mulder.
He dips his head and slips his tongue into your gasping mouth. He tastes like Mulder. You wouldn't mistake another man's flavor for his, would you?
You try to convince yourself this is him, this is your lover. Who else could he possibly be? You wouldn't allow a stranger to do these things to you. And you need Mulder so very badly right now. To soothe your hurting arms, your cramped legs, your swollen throat and cracked lips. To warm your chilled, wet skin and lessen the panic that is rising within you like a spring tide, threatening to swamp you, drown you.
You want to be a carefree child again, safe in your parent's San Diego home...or, better still, beside Mulder on a rumpled bed in a cheap motel in Roswell. Before your argument. Before you were taken prisoner. Before you were sealed inside a small, damp prison with no way out...
Suddenly a blindingly bright light penetrates your closed lids. Balmy air cascades over your naked body and its unexpected warmth is almost painful. You force your eyes open.
Four pairs of elongated, gray hands are reaching for you. Wide, inky eyes stare down from above. You hear alien voices inside your head.
//...detach the feeding tube...lift her out...wrap her for assessment...//
You curl, trying to protect your belly, your baby. Tucked into a ball, you listen hard for your mother's voice.
"Dana! Dana, come home now. It's late."
I'm trying, Mom.
Assessment Bay 12
Under the guise of Watcher VIII, Besh-Lo stood to one side of the assessment platform, where he had a clear view of the evaluation procedure.
Six Appraisers positioned themselves around the Earth woman. She was nude, conscious, and confused. Pinned to the platform by metal rods through her wrists and ankles, she stared at them with eyes rounded by fear and pain. Thin trails of blood drizzled from her puncture wounds. A delicate gold chain glittered about her sweat-slicked neck.
An array of overhead lights cast a silvery pattern of dots and hash marks across her distended abdomen, which bulged like a ripe melon. She struggled to fold her arms over herself in a futile effort to protect her unborn child.
The Appraisers' purpose was threefold: to repair any physical debilitation incurred by the woman during her incarceration, to inspect her implants, and, most importantly, to determine the genetic constitution of her fetus.
Besh-Lo listened telepathically for the fetus' rudimentary consciousness. He sensed the child rolling blithely within its mother's uterus, a distinct human being, intellectually separate from the woman, despite their physical attachment.
A simple chromosomal profile would show if this baby was Ca-Lo's. It would also determine if the child had inherited its father's unique immunity to the Oil. If the Derivation flowed in its young veins, then it would be left to develop naturally inside its mother. If not, it would be aborted and destroyed.
Appraiser I scanned the woman's abdomen with a flat, handheld bio-comp to establish the fetus' exact position and to ascertain the extent of its development.
"25.76 centimeters. Middle ear structures are formed. Digestive system functioning. Weight 327 grams. Gender -- female," he reported telepathically.
He set the bio-comp aside. Appraiser III swabbed the woman's abdomen with disinfectant and then inserted an amnio needle just below her navel. She cried out when it pierced her skin and then held her breath, teeth clenched, as III guided the needle through the muscular tissue of her uterus into the amniotic sac.
He began to siphon fluid. "Removing 30 cc's."
The liquid flowed through a tube into a portable DNA verifier held by VI. The verifier quickly configured the sample. In milliseconds the data was charted and compared with Ca-Lo's preexisting profile.
"Probability of paternity: 99.9994 percent. Combined Paternity Index: 158251.22," Appraiser VI read from the miniature display. "Ca-Lo is included as the biological father of this child."
There was another possibility, of course.
The Earth woman's memory scans had revealed she and Mulder engaged in a sexual encounter the night before she was brought aboard the ship.
This fact complicated the issue of paternity in a remarkable way: Fox Mulder was not simply the Earth woman's lover, he was also the original source of Ca-Lo's DNA.
On March 4, 1961, a team of terrestrial scientists had been ordered to embark on one of Earth's earliest eugenics efforts, the New Destiny Project. Borrowing Nih-hi-cho techniques, they harvested cells from Teena Mulder's ten-week-old fetus, at the direction of the baby's alleged biological father, CGB Spender.
Nuclei from the donor cells were injected into de-nucleated embryonic cells. The resulting embryos were implanted into a group of specially selected, geographically disparate human females. Spender's wife Cassandra was among them.
The Nih-hi-cho learned of Spender's unsanctioned experiments in early April and immediately set out to find and destroy the fetuses.
They discovered the majority of the women had miscarried within days of being implanted. Only twelve remained pregnant six weeks later. The Nih-hi-cho abducted these surrogates, intending to kill their babies.
While performing the first abortion, they made a terrifying discovery: the dead fetus possessed the Derivation. Plans changed immediately. The remaining eleven fetuses were harvested alive and placed in cultivation tanks, the same type used for nurturing hybrids.
Ten of the children subsequently died. Only Ca-Lo survived the tank's rigorous artificial environment. Six months after the natural birth of Fox Mulder -- Ca-Lo's biological twin and, technically speaking, his father -- Ca-Lo was removed from the tank, healthy and squalling, the irises of his eyes tinted permanently green by the chemicals.
Ca-Lo was unaware of his true origins. He believed he was conceived naturally, the biological son of Cassandra and CGB Spender, removed at an early stage during an abduction. Cassandra believed this, too. Ca-Lo's sense of individuality and his intense desire to think of himself as a normal human being had become increasingly pronounced as he matured. The Nih-hi-cho realized early on it was to their advantage to keep him ignorant of the circumstances of his heritage.
Because Ca-Lo and Fox Mulder were genetically identical, it was impossible to determine which of them had sired Dana Scully's baby. But precise identification of the child's father was of little consequence. It was the baby's blood that mattered. Did it carry the Derivation? Was it an Abomination?
"The child's blood?" Besh-Lo asked, eager to know if the fetus carried the anomaly.
"The Derivation is present," IV confirmed, disappointed. "The pregnancy cannot be terminated."
Besh-Lo was impatient to report the findings to his fellow Refuters, but he remained in attendance so as not to arouse suspicion.
Appraiser III proceeded to test the Earth woman’s implants, once again using the bio-comp. “Systems monitor, model A-570, in the naso-pharynx, functioning. Locator, Type 2, sub-dermis, lower back. Also operational. As is the old EM-20 chip in her neck.” The crude chip had been discovered when she was examined months ago. It was a terrestrial design, used for basic bio-manipulation. Non-detrimental to their purposes, it had been left in place.
Repairing the Earth woman's debilitations took only a few seconds. She would be able to walk by the time a hybrid aide arrived to fetch her. Besh-Lo watched with growing disinterest as the Appraisers finished preparing her for release, his thoughts already on the plot to kill her and the Abomination. It would be an incomparable honor to be the Refuter who sent their despicable souls back to the realm of their Heavenly Father.
Scully trailed Dibeh, her gait unsteady. She wore a long-sleeved gown of embroidered blue velvet. Its brocade bodice was ornately beaded and hugged her breasts, which plumped above the deeply scooped neckline. A voluminous skirt draped her rounded abdomen and its hem swept the ground, rustling at each step like wind before a storm. Gauging time by the swell of her belly, Scully estimated it had been five or six months since she last walked this serpentine corridor to Ca-Lo's quarters.
Her memory of that visit was vague. Elusive and alarming images -- emerald-green eyes, long, chestnut hair, an alien tattoo -- suggested she had slept with Cassandra's son on that long-ago evening. Yet in her mind it was Mulder, always Mulder, in the bed with her, making love, just as they had done in their motel room in Roswell.
She would have discounted her suspicions about Ca-Lo altogether if not for the results of the aliens' tests less than an hour ago.
Probability of paternity: 99.9994 percent, they had said. Their words had come to her telepathically, as clearly as if they had spoken aloud. She wasn't drugged or under hypnotic suggestion. What was happening was real.
The aliens are wrong, she tried to convince herself. They've made a mistake. My baby is Mulder's. It has to be.
She clutched her belly when she felt the child flutter, its tapping both remarkable and regretful. It reminded her of William, naturally. It also reminded her of those lingering, desolate months when she was searching for Mulder, desperate to be reunited with him.
A similar desperation gripped her now. Mulder was missing again. And just as before, she was uncertain about the origin of her baby.
"Deja vu," she murmured, causing Dibeh to glance back at her with inky eyes.
"I made love to Mulder in Roswell," she told the hybrid.
Dibeh nodded absently, pretending to understand. The hybrid didn't know Mulder. She had probably never heard of Roswell either.
"*Mulder* is the father of this child," Scully insisted, speaking to Dibeh's back. The baby fluttered again, bringing tears to her eyes.
She reached instinctively for her cross. An old prayer formed in her mind as she fingered the tiny symbol of her faith: Please help me protect my baby, keep it safe and healthy.
Scully's own apparent health surprised her. Months of enforced inactivity should have resulted in debilitating circulatory problems and pronounced atrophy of the muscles. Yet here she was, keeping pace with the lithe hybrid.
The aliens had done something to her during their exam, something that healed the inevitable consequences of her incarceration, the same way they once healed Cassandra's spinal paralysis.
Arriving at Ca-Lo's door, Dibeh pressed the buzzer on the keypad.
Mulder's voice boomed from the intercom, bidding them to enter, his familiar timbre squeezing Scully's heart.
The door slid open and she followed Dibeh inside. They found Ca-Lo sitting at his desk, dressed impeccably in a jet-black military uniform. His hair was neatly combed, fastened at the nape. He was clean-shaven and his smile appeared shy and hopeful.
He rose awkwardly from his chair, nearly knocking it over when he took a clumsy step toward them. His resemblance to Mulder seared her soul; it left her feeling flushed, shaken and vulnerable, craving the man who wasn't truly there.
She shoved her nostalgia aside, marched up to Ca-Lo and delivered a hard-hitting roundhouse punch to his jaw. "You bastard!"
The wallop turned his head and split his lower lip, but failed to unbalance him. She expected him to retaliate, either to return her punch or shout or restrain her. She braced herself for an outburst, but none came.
"I-I deserved that," he said softly, sounding genuinely contrite.
Her shoulders sagged. God damn it. She had wanted him to deny everything, prove her elusive memories wrong.
"You deserve a lot worse, you son of a bitch."
His tongue explored the rising welt on his lower lip. When he encountered fresh blood, he dabbed it with the back of his hand. "You're right. I do. I...I'm sorry."
"I don't want your damned apology. I want to *go* *home*."
He gestured expansively. "This is your home...now."
It dawned on her he wasn't talking about the ship in general; he was referring to this single apartment.
"You plan to keep me imprisoned in your quarters for the rest of my life?"
"I had hoped you might view it as a good thing." He attempted to smile, but managed only a grimace. "It's more comfortable than a stasis cell."
"So I should be grateful?"
"You thought what? I'd be so overwhelmed by your generosity, I'd fall into your arms--"
"And back into your bed?"
"Maybe you fantasized we would live together, happily ever after."
"Not exactly, but..." His gaze flitted to her abdomen, then to Dibeh, who was standing quietly beside the door. "You may go, Dibeh," he said.
"She stays," Scully said.
"Dana, we need to--"
He swayed on the balls of his feet with the same unrestrained energy that often plagued Mulder whenever he was nervous or excited. "All right. She can stay."
His glance dropped again to Scully's stomach.
She recognized the look. It was identical to Mulder's, the day he had come to Washington Medical Center, placed his hand upon her stomach and, for the very first time, felt their child move.
As if reading her mind, Ca-Lo reached out with splayed fingers. "May I?" He stopped just short of touching her.
It's not yours! she wanted to scream. But then he would know she'd slept with Mulder. How would he react if he learned she might be carrying another man's child? The way he was proudly ogling her mid-section clearly showed he was thrilled by the prospect of fatherhood.
Scully felt suddenly short of breath. Her field of vision began to fray at the edges; silver-gray flecks sizzled between her and Ca-Lo. Her knees buckled. He reached for her, gripped her at the elbows to keep her from falling. Her stomach churned when he scooped her up in his arms and carried her into the adjoining bedroom. She protested with weak jabs to his chest, but her fists had gone numb and her muscles rubbery. Tears welled in her eyes, scalding, frustrating.
"Don't cry," he murmured against her temple, cradling her. "Please, don't cry."
He laid her carefully on the bed, which seemed to pitch and roll beneath her. She gripped the blankets. She was sliding, spinning. She was suffocating.
"Dibeh, fetch some water." His voice sounded far away, wavering and thick, like the desperate call of a drowning man as he sinks beneath the waves, deeper and deeper, all the way to the ocean's murky bottom.
Scully choked a moment later, certain it was she who was drowning when a mouthful of icy water flowed past her lips to the back of her throat. She opened her eyes to find Ca-Lo standing at her bedside, gripping a half-empty drinking glass in his hand.
Dibeh arranged a cool, wet cloth on her brow.
"You fainted," Ca-Lo said.
"Pregnant women do that sometimes."
"Yes." Was he really so ignorant? She tried to sit up, but a wave of dizziness knocked her back.
"I'm going to request a Healer," he said.
"Healer?" It sounded alien. "No. No, I'll be fine...I *am* fine."
He set the glass on the nightstand and wiped his palms nervously on his thighs. "Maybe you need food. Dibeh, would you go to the kitchen--"
"I'm not hungry. Please...just leave me alone." She snatched the cloth from her forehead and tossed it to the floor.
Ca-Lo's cheeks reddened. He retrieved the cloth, clearly struggling to keep his emotions in check.
After a moment, he blurted, "It's a girl."
"The baby. I was told the baby is a girl." He gripped the cloth so tightly his knuckles became bone-white. "I've wanted a family for a long time, Dana. A daughter. And sons. Lots of kids." He was babbling. He barely seemed to notice when Dibeh took the cloth from him. "And a wife, of course...a human wife."
"As opposed to what?"
His mouth opened and his jaw labored, but nothing came out. He gave up his search for words and crossed to the birdcage. The birds flitted and chattered at his approach. He hung his fingers through the brass lattice and waited, silent, motionless, until one daring, bright-colored bird fluttered to his thumb and perched there. It tilted its head, eyeing him, and warbled a sweet, earnest song.
Dibeh fussed with Scully's pillows, fluffing and rearranging. Scully stilled her with an upraised palm.
The bird flew from Ca-Lo's hand. He turned to look over his shoulder at Scully, his gaze solemn. So like Mulder when disappointment threatened to crush his spirit.
"I love you," he said simply, and his tentative declaration took her back to Mulder's hospital bedside, hours after he'd nearly drowned in the Bermuda Triangle.
"D-don't be ridiculous. You barely know me."
"You're carrying my child."
"You tricked me into having sex with you!"
"I wanted you."
"So that made it okay?" She raised herself on her elbows. "What about what I wanted?"
He shrugged apologetically. "You're the first human woman I've been with. I guess I made some mistakes."
The first human...? "Are you saying you usually have sex with aliens?"
"No, no, the Nih-hi-cho don't have sex. My partners were hybrids." His tone was matter-of-fact, without a hint of shame.
"Hybrids?" Scully stared at Dibeh, who was watching them with worried eyes, listening intently to every word they said. She was slight, maybe five feet tall with the physique of a twelve-year-old. Her grayish-green skin was dry and coarse, like a lizard, although plumped by an underlying layer of fat that gave her a somewhat babyish appearance. Her fingers were oddly elongated, her nose almost nonexistent. A thick mane of amber hair capped her oversized head, looking incongruous with her alien features.
Had Ca-Lo slept with her? How many half-breed children did they have?
Scully lurched from the bed and staggered toward the door. "I'm getting out of here."
"Dana, you can't." Two strides brought him close enough to snag her arm.
"Let me go." She tried to shake him off, but he tightened his grip.
"Dana, there's nowhere to go. You're being monitored. They implanted a locator chip in you."
A chip. The word knocked the air from her lungs. Automatically, her hand clamped over the back of her neck, feeling for the familiar lump. Had they removed the old chip, her defense against cancer? "Where is it?"
"Does it matter?"
"Where is it?" she shouted.
The fingers of his free hand grazed the small of her back and for just an instant she swore she was with Mulder, outside any number of doors where he had guided her, comforted her, watched over her and kept her safe. Feeling displaced and queasy, she swayed on unsteady legs. If not for Ca-Lo's firm grasp on her arm, she surely would have collapsed to the floor.
"They punish you when you don't cooperate," he warned.
"Cooperate? What does that mean? Sleep with you?"
"No, but trust me on this. Don't fight them."
"Let me go."
"And don't fight me."
"*Fuck* *you*." She wrenched her arm free.
His hands dropped to his sides. "Dana, you can't win, believe me, I've tried. They'll hurt you...and the baby. They'll do things that are a thousand times worse than being kept in a stasis cell."
"Get out of my way."
"They'll cut you open while you watch. They'll take out your insides. No anesthesia. No drugs. Your heart, veins, muscles, bones -- everything is exposed. It's goddamn cold when your skin is peeled back--"
"Enough! If you're trying to scare me, you've succeeded."
Her hands were shaking. His hands were shaking, too. He was breathing too fast. Panic blazed in his eyes.
"My God." Realization hit her. "They did those things to you, didn't they?"
He clamped his teeth together and admitted nothing, but the twitching muscle along his jaw told her all she needed to know.
She scrutinized the tattoo on his right cheek. "What do those symbols mean?"
His fingers brushed the marks, exploring them as if he'd forgotten they were there. "It's a...a label."
"They labeled you?"
"Yes. When I was a baby. I don't remember it."
"What does it say?"
"Ca-Lo is your name."
"No, it's a classification. Not a particularly nice one." He stared down at the glossy toes of his polished boots. "The literal translation means 'destroyer'...or demon...devil... abomination. Pick one. It doesn't much matter. The Nih-hi-cho consider me the spawn of Evil," he said wryly.
Branded a devil as an infant. Her hand covered her stomach. How could she possibly shield her baby from the aliens' cruelty? She had been unable to keep William safe, and his situation paled in comparison to this one.
"Your mother called you Ashkii," she said, grasping for some shred of normalcy in this inhuman universe. "Is that your real name?"
A humorless laugh chuffed in his throat. "Hardly. Ashkii means...'boy,'" he said. "I was Ashkii XII for a very long time. The Nih-hi-cho aren't big on individuality. They prefer to number everyone. My mother still uses it because she's under the mistaken impression it's an endearment."
Scully dreaded the answer to her next question. "What happened to the others -- one through eleven?"
"I don't know and I try like hell not to think about it."
The uncertainty of her future loomed menacingly in her imagination. Fear howled in her ears. "They're not going to let me go, are they?"
"No. Not you, the baby, me." He reached out and traced the swell of her belly with his open hand. "It doesn't have to be so bad."
Tears filled her eyes. She blinked them back, struggling against an urge to scream. "I'm not staying here. I'm going to find a way out."
"When you do, be sure to tell me where it is."
"You've given up."
"Me?" He shook his head. "I'm not easily discouraged." He lightly tagged her cross with the tip of his finger. A sad smile played on his lips. "Dana, there's somewhere I have to be right now, but I'll come back as soon as I can. Dibeh will bring you whatever you need while I'm gone. And I'll send my mother to check on you both later."
His tone was tender, brimming with affection. He sounded so like Mulder. If she were to close her eyes...
She pushed his hand away. "You can't make me care about you."
He leaned close and planted a light kiss on her ear, at her temple, on the bridge of her nose. His head dipped until his mouth hovered millimeters from her lips. "I told you, I'm not easily discouraged."
She gave him a hard shove, rocking him back a step. Glaring up at him, she said, "Your name suits you, Ca-Lo. You are the Devil."
Salt Lake City, Utah
The runabout hovered at an altitude of 500 meters above Harmony I's luminous landing pad. Thrumming antigrav engines kept it airborne while the pilot awaited permission to land. Ca-Lo fidgeted in the co-pilot's seat, trying to keep his hands off the controls and his mind off Dana.
The latter proved impossible.
He must make her understand. The Nih-hi-cho were not a patient race. Failure to comply with their rules risked both her life and the life of her baby.
*My* baby, he reminded himself.
He was going to be a father. The prospect conjured an unexpected reaction in him, an overwhelming desire to protect his little unborn daughter. It was illogical. Yet so powerful. He knew he would do whatever it took to safeguard her. He would trade his own life for hers...or Dana's...if it came to that. He had never felt this way before. Not about anyone or anything. It left him simultaneously delighted and afraid -- a disconcerting combination.
Ground control issued their instructions and the pilot maneuvered into position. He was an 18-year-old airman assigned to the Armada's transport division. Human. His nametag said "BOYD, H.B."
Ca-Lo watched their descent through his side screen. Harmony I stretched out below him, an immense stronghold that took up the northwestern-most sector of Salt Lake City, including the now defunct SLC International Airport. The settlement sparkled with electric lights, unlike the dark outer neighborhoods of Bennion City, West Jordan, Sandy, Cottonwood. A ten-meter-high, five-meter-thick, and miles-long silico-steel bulwark encircled the compound. It was lit by an unbroken chain of mercury vapor lamps, positioned twenty meters apart, resembling a string of lustrous pearls from above. Off to the south, a mammoth silico extruder was currently pouring the rampart's remaining segments. Heavily guarded gates pocked the fortification at widespread intervals, providing access for ground transportation -- supply trailers, prisoner vans, peacekeeping patrols. A fleet of sub-space Stingers, armed with anti-aircraft artillery, lined an eastern runway, primed for an unlikely Terrestrial offensive. Electro-magnetic pulses had rendered the majority of Earth's military ineffective, but the humans were clever and determined; they periodically managed to power up and launch a missile or two.
Pockets of militant rebels, like the enclave in north Texas, presented the most serious threat to Nih-hi-cho occupation. Dogged human militia ran intermittent raids on Nih-hi-cho supply convoys, stealing goods and killing drivers before the trucks could reach their destinations. How the rebels learned the exact routes and schedules in advance remained a mystery. Even the most adept mole would have a tough time fooling the telepathic Nih-hi-cho for long. More likely, the guerrilla factions had crafty leaders to plot their raids.
Ca-Lo fully expected to capture them eventually. In the meantime, he admired their cunning.
Watcher VII was in his human form and waiting on the tarmac when Ca-Lo deplaned. Ca-Lo noticed the former Lieutenant had been promoted to Major.
"Harris," Ca-Lo greeted him, suppressing an urge to throttle the weasely spy.
"Still pissed?" Harris' smirk deepened the scar below his fogged right eye.
"You'd be dead if I had my way."
"Then it's good for me the Overseers are the ultimate authority."
Harris was untouchable now, protected by his faithfulness to the Society.
"Let's get this over with," Ca-Lo said through gritted teeth. "Show me what I need to see, give me your fucking wish list, and I'll get the hell out."
"Nothing would please me more." Harris indicated a waiting jeep. "Our ride."
The tour lasted six tedious hours and included stops in Harmony I’s power plant, food services, and three factories. Human captives worked the assembly lines, manufacturing na-a-jah, incubator parts, and silico-cloth, which were traded to sister settlements in the mid-west sector. Conditions in the factories were abysmal. The silico-cloth extrusion process produced noxious fumes and acidic byproducts that burned the workers' skin, eyes and lungs. When they became blind or otherwise incapacitated, they were "retired" to the salty depths of Farmington Bay. New prisoners were shuttled from Antelope Island to replace them. All humans were expendable, as far as the Nih-hi-cho were concerned, and demand for silico-cloth was high. It was used to make the army's form-fitting uniforms. The durable black fabric was better protection than terrestrial anti-ballistic vests, yet lightweight, flexible and exceptionally comfortable. Worth the sacrifice of a few hundred human lives.
Dressed in one of these very uniforms, Ca-Lo trudged at Harris’ heels through the military barracks, an immense human warehouse, and a brand-spanking new Nursery. The nursery currently lay empty, but plans were underway to stock it with hosts by mid-December, when a fresh batch of clones would arrive from Phoenix. Ca-Lo tried to focus on Harris's litany of logistics and complaints, but his thoughts kept returning to Dana. Was she resting okay? Had she eaten? How was the baby? Had his mother come to check on them yet?
Finally, the tour ended and Harris drove Ca-Lo back to the landing pad. He parked beside the runabout, but remained seated behind the steering wheel. Both men kept their eyes trained on Airman Boyd, who was performing a routine exterior flight check.
"I need more soldiers, Ca-Lo," Harris said.
"You have the largest deputation in this sector."
"I need more. Harmony I is significantly more vulnerable than the other settlements. Its central location and large inventory make it a prime target for Terrestrial raids. Our forces are under daily attack from groups to the east and south. We lost twenty troops and five armed vehicles just this morning."
"So I should condemn more soldiers to their deaths by sending them to you?"
"It's not my fault the rebels are devious. Their leader is a skilled strategist, an ex-Marine. He served in Viet Nam. He knows how to fight a guerrilla war."
"And you don't," Ca-Lo sneered. The Nih-hi-cho had put an idiot in charge of their premiere settlement facility. It was ludicrous. Harris' telepathy should have given him every advantage, but apparently his incompetence was insurmountable. "Who is this man, this great leader?"
"His name is Walter Skinner. Ex-FBI. He aided the escape of two prisoners from Fort Weather earlier this year, before organizing rebel forces in north Texas and New Mexico. He's currently camped in Wasatch-Cache National Forest."
"You know who he is and where he is, but you haven't captured him?"
"It's a big forest, Ca-Lo, and he doesn't sit still long enough for me to stop and chat." Harris appeared thoughtful as he stroked the old battle scar on his craggy cheek. "Look...I know you consider me incompetent, but the fact remains, I *am* in charge here and the Overseers will intervene on my behalf if you refuse to grant my requests."
Countermanding my orders, Ca-Lo thought, to keep me in my place.
The Council would not tolerate acts they considered willful or petty. Especially not so soon after giving Dana over to him. He had to tread lightly, play their game, at least for the time being.
"They released the Earth woman -- how lucky for you." Harris smiled, causing the scar on his cheek to pucker.
Ca-Lo had felt his old Watcher dipping into his mind throughout the long night, but this was Harris's first direct response to the news of Dana's release.
"It's not like them to be so generous," Harris noted.
"Generosity had nothing to do with it."
"I have no doubt. They want Dana Scully's son." Harris sounded almost bored. "Give me more troops, Ca-Lo, and I'll get him for you."
"You? How? You can't even get this man Skinner, and he's sitting in your own back yard. How the hell are you going to find William Mulder?"
"I've spent a good deal of time inside Skinner's head while tracking him."
"You're going to love this." Harris' sighted eye targeted Ca-Lo. "Skinner is the man Dana Scully entrusted to hide her son. Isn't life a constant surprise?"
This was startling news. "Where is the boy?"
"That information is negotiable."
"Damn you..." Ca-Lo struggled to keep his temper in check. "If you know where he is, why haven't you gone after him?"
"Ah, that brings us right back to the subject of soldiers, doesn't it? I've been telling you all along I'm short on manpower. Give me more troops, and I might be persuaded to hand the boy over to you instead of the Council."
"You cock-sucking son-of-a-- Why should I trust you?"
"Because, unlike you humans, we Nih-hi-cho don't hold grudges. We don't suck cocks either. That's another strictly human perversion." Harris's fogged eye rolled independently of the sighted one. "Don't be a fool, Ca-Lo. I need more men and you want the boy, so let's come to an agreement. Don't risk William Mulder -- and your precious Dana Scully -- to settle an old score with me."
Ca-Lo hated to admit Harris was right, but this was not the time to be seeking revenge. Swallowing his resentment, he capitulated. "All right, Major, I'll authorize your soldiers. But if the Divine Angels grant you the good fortune to find the boy before I do, you had better deliver him directly to me, because if you don't, I swear on the Red Dragon himself I'll come back here and rip your fucking Nih-hi-cho head off."
Tse'Bit'a'i', Ca-Lo's Quarters
The clock on the nightstand ticked another minute closer to morning. Dibeh lay curled in a ball on the far side of Ca-Lo's wide bed, her diminutive form all but lost beneath a snarl of blankets and linens. Her muted snore reminded Scully of a purring cat.
Scully folded back the covers and slipped quietly from the bed. The bathroom lights flicked on automatically when she crossed the threshold. There was no door, so she gave up the idea of privacy, lifted the hem of her long white nightgown, and squatted above the toilet to relieve her aching bladder.
She washed at the sink, a broad oval basin surrounded by masculine toiletries. The soap smelled like almonds. She squeezed an inch of toothpaste onto her finger and scrubbed at her teeth.
A mirror covered the wall above the sink from countertop to ceiling. Staring back at her from the glass was a gaunt woman she barely recognized. Her complexion was ashen. Blue veins mottled her neck and chest, disappearing into the lacey bib of her cotton nightgown. The gown was lovely, soft and decorated with satin trim.
She spat into the sink and wiped her mouth with a towel. "He can provide pretty sleepwear, but not a toothbrush," she grumbled.
Her hair was a mass of weedy tangles, several inches longer than she remembered. She tried to comb the snarls with her fingers. Failing miserably, she borrowed Ca-Lo's tortoise-shell comb to work out the knots.
Several minutes of painful tugging tamed her unruly hair. She drew it back into a smooth ponytail and, lacking anything better, confiscated one of Ca-Lo's silver clasps to fasten it at her nape.
Curious about the changes in her body and the progress of her baby's development, she presented her profile to the mirror. The loose nightgown hid her form, so she gathered it tightly behind her back until the fabric hugged her torso and revealed the shape of her breasts and belly.
It was a girl this time. If she were to believe Ca-Lo and the aliens.
She had to get out of this place, off the ship, away from Ca-Lo and his henchmen. The door to his quarters was locked from the outside -- she'd tried it earlier, not five minutes after he left on his errand. Dibeh had done all she could to intervene, but Scully ignored the hybrid's frantic hand signals and shook her off whenever she grabbed hold of her arms. A hard slap on the face and a firm order to "Keep away from me!" finally did the trick. Dibeh retreated to a corner and watched with wet eyes as Scully rummaged through every drawer and cupboard in the apartment.
Unfortunately, her search turned up nothing, no key or combination to the lock, no alternate way out. Exhausted, she gave up, determined to renew her investigation after a couple of hours of sleep.
Although not exactly invigorated, she was ready to pick up where she'd left off. Checking Ca-Lo's computer files for a combination to the keypad was next on her agenda.
She tiptoed past Dibeh.
At the archway between the two rooms, she nearly ran into Cassandra.
"Jesus," she gasped, startled. "Cassandra, what are you doing here at this hour?"
"You're in terrible danger." Cassandra's eyes darted around the room. She was dressed in a black fleece jacket, gray quilted trousers and Thinsulate gloves. "They want to kill you. They're on their way."
"Who? Who wants to kill me?"
"The Refuters. They're the worst. They think your baby is evil, an Abomination. They believe their Legion of Angels wants it destroyed. I'm scared, Dana, for you...and for my future grandchild. You--"
Cassandra fell silent when Dibeh staggered from the bedroom. The hybrid blinked sleep from her eyes. Her hair was flattened on one side, her wrinkled shift askew. Her hands formed silent questions, which Scully was unable to decipher.
Cassandra ignored the aide and implored Scully, "We must leave...now."
"Where can we go?"
"I have access to a personal shuttle on the hangar deck. I can take you to Earth. But we must hurry."
"Let me get dressed." Scully took a step toward the wardrobe, but Cassandra grabbed her arm to stop her.
"There isn't time."
Dibeh rushed forward, making frantic hand signals.
"No, you stay here," Cassandra told the hybrid.
A desperate squeal hummed in Dibeh's throat.
"You're *not* coming," Cassandra said.
Dibeh's unintelligible whines grew more insistent. She latched onto Scully's arm with a vise-like grip.
"She seems determined to go," Scully said.
Cassandra glared at her aide. "Stop making such a fuss," she demanded.
Dibeh grunted and moaned. She repeatedly pointed toward Ca-Lo's desk.
"Okay, okay," Cassandra relented, "you can come. But we must go now!"
With Dibeh still clinging to Scully's arm, Cassandra herded them out of Ca-Lo's apartment and down the damp corridor. For the first time in months, Scully felt a surge of genuine hope. She would soon be returning to Earth, to her home, and God willing, to Mulder.
Ca-Lo whistled a cheery tune as he approached his quarters. He was hugging a fat bouquet of fragrant stargazer lilies and three sacks of assorted gifts for Dana, everything from dental floss and nail clippers to satin undergarments and a striking, embroidered silk robe. Cassandra had supplied him with a list of personal items, female stuff that Ca-Lo understood nothing about.
Breast cream? What the hell was that? Was it a beauty aid or a dairy product?
The ship's Keeper of Stores had demanded an outrageous sum for the goods. Ca-Lo paid the greedy bastard without comment. In truth, he would have spent ten times as much to ease the melancholy in Dana's eyes.
At his spoken command, the door to his apartment slid open. He strode inside, eager to bestow his gifts.
Two steps into the room and he smelled it.
Blood. Nih-hi-cho blood.
He dropped his armload of gifts. Flowers fanned across the carpet; toiletries spilled from the bags. A bottle of prenatal vitamins rolled several meters, rattling as it went. He lurched toward the bedroom, trampling blossoms in his haste.
The room was empty. The bed unmade.
"Dana!" His call startled the birds. They flew from their perches, rising up in an explosive flap of wings and high-pitched chirps.
He loped past their cage to the bathroom.
A rumpled towel lay beside the sink. One of his hair clips was missing. And his comb was out of place. But there was no blood, no sign of a struggle.
Sniffing the air, he followed the citrusy tang of Nih-hi-cho blood back to the outer office.
Nothing appeared amiss, except...
A gummy puddle of phosphorescence frothed beneath his desk.
Ca-Lo crossed the room, accidentally kicking the fallen container of vitamins as he went. It skidded into the fizzing blood and stuck there.
Crouching on hands and knees, he peered under the desk.
That's when he saw what he feared most.
A woman's hand. Pale and small. Palm up, fingers loosely curled, slicked with green blood.
He grabbed the limp arm and pulled her out.
It wasn't Dana.
It was Cassandra.
Green blood matted her hair and her favorite blue robe. She was dead, her skin already growing cool, her eyes open and glazed with fear. There was no apparent injury, no splash of her own bright red blood.
What the hell had happened here?
He drew her into his arms to check her back for wounds. The collar of her robe was saturated with fresh green blood. Above it was a small puncture at the base of her neck. It foamed with phosphorescence.
Hands quaking, he gently prodded the tiny hole and felt the burn of noxious Nih-hi-cho blood on his fingertips, painful, but not lethal, not for him.
In his shock, he grasped for answers. This was a shapeshifter. Dana must have killed it and then escaped.
Except shapeshifters reverted to their natural state when they died.
Confusion twisted through him. Cassandra wasn't Nih-hi-cho. She was human. She was his mother. The only person who had ever cared about him. She didn't have alien blood...she couldn't because she wasn't alien...
Realization shattered his illusions and brought tears, scalding and hurtful. She had lied to him; she wasn't human. She was Nih-hi-cho.
What did that make him?
There was no one to turn to for answers, no one he could trust. He rocked the dead woman, pawed her blood-soaked hair. Hot tears coursed down his cheeks. She had loved him once, no matter what she was.
What dastardly person would do this? And where was Dana? Kidnapped by the assassin?
He had to find her. Shoving the body aside, he rose to his feet. There was only one way off the ship. He reached across his desk and punched a call to the Hangar Deck.
"Transportation," an airman answered. "What can I do for you, sir?"
No need to identify himself; the airman had already seen his name on the intercom display. "I want a list of recent departures."
"How recent, sir?"
"Anything in the last...uh..." -- he glanced at the body -- "two hours."
"Yes, sir. There was one, about twenty minutes ago. Personal shuttle."
"Who signed for it?"
"Checking the log now, sir."
"Make it fast, Airman."
"Yes, sir. It was...it was your mother, sir."
"My mother?" So the assassin wasn't Dana. It was a shapeshifter, a Refuter, no doubt. And now the bastard was posing as Cassandra to escape the ship. "Was anyone with her?"
"Uh...yes, sir. One human female and an aide."
Ca-Lo's heart was pounding so hard he expected blood to pour from his ears. "Where were they headed?"
"Log says Harmony I, sir."
It was a ruse. They wouldn't go to the settlement.
"Prepare my runabout. I'm on my way."
Somewhere Over Utah
"Where are we going?" Lady Dana asked. She was buckled into a curved, high-backed seat beside the woman who looked like Mistress Cassandra, but wasn't.
Dibeh trembled in the seat behind her new mistress, her hands trying to warn Lady Dana of the imposter's deceit. "She is not Mistress Cassandra," Dibeh signaled over and over again, so many times her hands ached from making the signs. She did not know who the stranger was, but she most certainly was not Cassandra Spender. Dibeh knew her old Mistress's jerky mannerisms, the gravelly pitch of her voice, the apple peel scent of her skin.
This fraud moved too efficiently and her tone was too piercing. She reeked of something bitter, like rotting horseradish.
Whoever she was, she steered the four-person shuttle above a sea of rutted clouds; her fingers danced over the controls with the skill of a seasoned pilot.
"We're going to Hill Air Force Base," she said, using soothing tones. "You'll be safe there. It's still controlled by the U.S. military. The Refuters won't follow us."
Lady Dana hugged her thin cotton nightgown across her chest and shivered against the cold. Her breath fogged the cockpit's frigid air. "What are Refuters?"
"They are purists. They believe that God, the human God, *our* God, is a scheming demon who is constantly testing the devout. They believe their Legion of Divine Angels are the true deities of the universe."
"What does any of that have to do with killing me?"
"The Refuters can't abide polluting their race by hybridizing themselves with humans." The imposter glared over her shoulder at Dibeh.
Her look was so fierce, Dibeh's hands froze in midair. She shrank into her seat, unable to suck in a breath; it was as if a nest of snuff spiders had hatched in her throat.
"I still don't see the connection." Lady Dana's teeth were chattering. From cold or fear, Dibeh didn't know.
"They also seek to destroy any human who possesses the Derivation," the imposter said.
"An immunity to the Oil."
"They think I have this...this Derivation?"
"No, they believe your baby does."
The aircraft shuddered as it descended through the thick layer of clouds. Lightning flashed beyond the windscreen, briefly painting the interior silver. For that instant, Dibeh thought she saw a familiar face beneath the imposter's bone-white flesh.
Walnut-colored skin. Corkscrewing hair. Whiskers the color of silico-steel bracelets.
It was Sergeant Thompson, Cassandra's confidant, Dibeh was sure of it. She'd seen the two of them conferring on numerous occasions, their heads bent in private conversation, their whispers kept low so that no one could overhear. Mistress Cassandra had described her secretive companion as human, but clearly he was not, not if he could change his appearance this way.
He was Nih-hi-cho. A shapeshifter.
Dibeh sliced the air with her hands, trying to warn Lady Dana, "He is a Refuter! He is the spy! Lady Dana, he is going to kill us!"
She feared he had already committed murder, back in Ca-Lo's quarters. She had smelled blood the moment she stepped into the outer office from the bedroom. Saw it on the carpet beneath Ca-Lo's desk. The imposter must have hidden his victim there.
She looked now for signs of Nih-hi-cho blood on the spy's jacket and gloves. Sure enough, there were specks of green dotting his wrists.
Dibeh groaned to get Lady Dana's attention. She spelled out the impending danger with both hands.
"What is she saying?" Lady Dana finally asked.
"She's afraid of flying," the imposter lied.
Dibeh shook her head. "Ung, ung, ung," she grunted. Her hands waggled, "He is a murderer!"
"Settle down!" the imposter hissed. When he noticed Dana's shocked stare, he smiled sheepishly. "There's no need for panic. We're going to be on the ground in a few minutes."
Another bolt of lightning bathed the shuttle's interior. Sergeant Thompson's ebony features jittered once more beneath Cassandra's skin.
She'd seen it. Divine Angels be praised, she had seen the imposter's other face.
"Is something wrong?" The imposter feigned concern.
"No. No, it's just the storm. I'm a little afraid of flying myself. How much longer before we land?" Lady Dana glanced back at Dibeh.
Dibeh had spent her entire life reading the eyes and bodies of others: either mute hybrids like herself or secretive masters who said one thing while meaning another. Lady Dana's eyes were wide with understanding and her body, while superficially calm, was preparing for action, the muscles tight, feet set apart, ready to push her from her seat, hands positioned to strike.
The descending shuttle rocked and broke through the clouds. An enormous body of gray water, striped by ragged waves, rippled below them. It was ringed by dark, forested mountains.
"You're not going to Hill," Lady Dana stated without emotion.
"What makes you say that?"
"We're heading north over Salt Lake."
"To avoid a Nih-hi-cho outpost," the imposter claimed.
He flicked the controls and drew up on the steering column, increasing the angle of their descent. The engines growled. Shredded clouds twisted past the side windows. The shuttle was careening toward the lake at a frightful speed.
"You're not Cassandra." Lady Dana's hands clutched the armrests. "You're alien...a shapeshifter. You intend to kill me. That's what Dibeh's been trying to warn me about, isn't it?"
The imposter chuckled. His features began to roil, transforming from Cassandra's familiar face to Sergeant Thompson's dark countenance and then to his natural Nih-hi-cho form. He turned to snarl at Dibeh, "You should have stayed on Tse'Bit'a'i'. Now you will die, too."
The altimeter indicated they were less than 1000 meters above the surface of the lake, and the Refuter showed no signs of pulling up or slowing their heart-pounding descent.
"This is a suicide mission?" Lady Dana asked.
"Your baby must never be born." The imposter gripped the controls. "It carries the Derivation. It is an Abomination."
"Please...don't do this."
"I will be rewarded for my faithfulness. The Red Dragon will accept my soul into his Divine Legion where I will live for eternity in honor."
They were close enough to the lake for Dibeh to see foam cresting in the waves.
The imposter began to pray aloud to the Dragon. Lady Dana reached for the tiny gold cross that hung from her neck.
Dibeh did not want to die.
On impulse, or perhaps guided by the Dragon's will, she unbuckled her belt and lunged for the imposter. His prayer stopped and he yelped when she tightened her arms around his neck. Belted into his seat, he couldn't turn to fight her.
Choking, he released the controls to claw at her face. The shuttle wobbled and veered. Dibeh dodged the imposter's worst blows and hung on, squeezing his throat with all her might. Her arms were strong from years of polishing and lifting and carrying. The imposter could not dislodge her.
Lady Dana reached for the steering mechanism and tried to take control of the craft, but managed only to nudge its nose skyward before the shuttle hit, bounced, and skimmed across the lake's corrugated surface. It pounded over waves, yawed sickeningly to starboard, began to spin. Dibeh was thrown hard toward the control panel. Dana screamed.
Then the world went black.
Continued in Book V...
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