Cover art by Jeanette Eileen Widjaja
(Note: The text that appears below is a pre-release preview which is taken from a version of the manuscript prior to final proof reading and formatting. As such, it may contain minor errors or typos which will be corrected in the final version of the novel.)
“WHAT ARE THOSE?” JAKARI asked, staring at the hologram floating in the middle of the medical bay.
“Those are humans,” Dubari said. “Dominant intelligent species of Sol 3, AKA Terra, AKA Earth.”
“They named their planet after dirt?” Jakari asked.
“According to the report from Napati’s unit,” Dubari said.
“Primitive? Barbaric? Dumb?” Dubari asked. “Honestly, what do you expect from a species that’s still debating whether they are the only intelligent life in the universe?”
“I was going to say weird,” Jakari asked.
Dubari shrugged. “That too.”
Jakari sat down near the hologram and dropped her hand on the control interface point on the arm of the chair, bringing up the vital statistics on ‘humans.’ The report from Napati included about ten million genetic profiles and a reproductive algorithm that would allow them to ‘breed’ unique profiles for her and Dubari to use. That was fairly standard for an infiltration package. What wasn’t standard was the humans themselves.
In the ten thousand or so years she’d been alive, Jakari had seen a lot of aliens. Big ones, small ones, flora and fauna evolved. Predators, scavengers, and grazers. Carnivores, omnivores, herbivores, chemivores, and photovores. Oxygen breathers and methane breathers and water breathers. Even a handful of species like her own that had long since left their purely organic origins behind in favor of techno-organic or even fully robotic bodies. There was a lot of variety, but she hadn’t seen anything quite like humans before.
The lower segment of their legs didn’t end in a proper paw or hoof. Instead, it was shortened into a kind of elongated hand with vestigial fingers at the forward end. The whole thing was pressed against the ground as some weird sort of ped. There was a joint where it connected to the rest of the leg, that had a bit more mobility than a joint in that place normally would, but the main joints of the leg were the knee between the upper and middle segments and the hip joint. There was no tail, which must have made balancing even harder with the oddly shaped peds. The sex organs on the male just sort of dangled loosely between the legs instead of withdrawing into the body or into some sort of protective sheath. The lower spine had an odd bend in it. The female had enlarged mammary glands, even when they weren’t actively nursing their young. The arms were normal enough, she supposed. They actually had a better range of motion in the shoulder than most species. A short neck, which was common enough, but then the head. The face was oddly flat, the fangs were undersized to the point of uselessness, and there was a huge, flat plate of bone above the eyelids. The strangest thing was the hair. They only had hair in significant quantities under the shoulder joints, around their sex organs, and on the top and back of the head. The males did grow hair on their lower face after they reached maturity, but Jakari could hardly see the point. They were mostly just big, pink, naked things.
“Was there anything in our orders about why we’re going to this planet?” Jakari asked.
“Just that it was a high priority mission, and that Napati would brief us when we arrived,” Dubari said.
“Wonderful,” Jakari said. “I hate going in blind.”
“You hate going in.”
Jakari looked over at Dubari, who had a grin on their face. She shrugged because what they said was true. She hated their job. It was necessary, and they were both good at it, and what they did probably had more impact on the course of the war than any number of battles and sieges, but it didn’t mean she had to like it.
“I just want to know who we’re supposed to kill,” she said.
“Does it really matter?” Dubari asked.
Jakari had to bite her tongue, because of course it mattered. Assassinating some dumb, young lieutenant leading a resource scouting mission wasn’t going to have any sort of lasting effect on the war and was a waste of their time. Not that she seriously believed that was their mission. Napati was second-in-command of the entire Suil Agam. She wouldn’t be out here on some godforsaken mudball if there wasn’t a reason. The problem was, Jakari no longer trusted Arthan to have a good reason. Not since Cruthanna. What had happened there had broken her faith in Arthan, and the more she watched him, the more apparent it became that most of what he did these days was about holding on to power, and not enough of it was about actually ending the war.
“Arthan assigned us this mission personally,” Dubari said. “It’s got to be important.”
“I hope so,” Jakari said. She looked back at the hologram of the humans. “And if we have to wear that, I hope it’s quick.”
“Are you going to pick a male form this time?”
“Do I ever pick a male form?” Jakari asked.
Dubari laughed. “No.”
“Then what makes you think I’d do it this time?”
“I thought you finally might be getting bored of the whole woman thing.”
Jakari shook her head and told the computer to ‘breed’ a set of genetic profiles for her.
“You could try it,” Dubari said.
Jakari didn’t answer, but then she didn’t have to. It was an old argument between them. Dubari had been born centuries after the Migration. They’d never really known what it was like to have a body that couldn’t be reshaped at will, or how much that body could become a part of your identity. Jakari had been born a woman decades before the Migration, and she had liked being a woman. Dubari, like most of the Gadan born after the Migration, viewed gender as a relic of the past. They didn’t understand why shifting into a male form made Jakari want to crawl out of her skin.
She’d done it plenty of times when it was necessary to see a mission through, but it always made her uncomfortable in a way that shape shifting in general didn’t. Dubari thought it was a weakness, something that would help the enemy spot her, but she figured if it wasn’t something she could shake after ten thousand years, no amount of nagging or teasing was going to change her mind. So, when the computer finished breeding the profiles she requested, she loaded them into her Phylactery’s memory core, along with the movement and combat algorithms, language pack, and sample clothing packs that had been sent along with the report. While all of that was loading, she displayed the first genetic profile in the holoprojector and started scrolling through them, trying to find one she liked.
“They’re very pink, aren’t they?” Dubari asked.
“Apparently they come in different colors,” Jakari said. “The pink ones are just the most common in the area we’ll be operating in.” Jakari stopped scrolling as a new image filled the projection.
“That one, you think?” Dubari asked.
“I like the brown better than the pink,” Jakari said. “This one is listed as ‘Afro-Latino,’ whatever that means.”
“How do they survive without fur or scales?” Dubari asked.
“I don’t know,” Jakari said. “Maybe the hide is tougher than it looks.”
“It would have to be,” Dubari said. “Go on, give it a try.”
Jakari nodded and pulled up the clothing packs. She frowned as she realized they all included some form of ped covering. She’d always hated wearing anything on her paws, but apparently these human ‘feet’ were delicate enough to need protection, so she didn’t have a choice. She scrolled through the outfits until she found something she liked. Heavy black leg coverings, a blue underlayer that covered the torso and upper arms, and a hide outer layer that covered the torso and arms. There were also undergarments that covered the genitals and some sort of elastic contraption that restricted the movement of the enlarged mammary glands. She tweaked the settings until the hair on the head was trimmed short in something called a ‘pixie cut.’ At that point, she figured it was about as good as she was going to get, so she stood up and shifted, reorganizing the Techno-Organic Polymorphic matter that made up her body until it settled down into the correct form. An exact duplicate, down to the genetic level, of the human woman in the hologram.
“Not bad,” Dubari said. Jakari detected a bit of envy in their tone, but that was nothing new. She had always been a better shapeshifter than them. It came with having centuries more practice, though she also suspected that part of it was that shape shifting was a skill she’d had to work hard to learn as an adult, rather than an inborn ability she’d had her whole life. She worked at it, and even now, she spent a few hours a week practicing.
She took a couple of steps, using the movement algorithms Napati’s unit had sent along. They were surprisingly well-optimized, considering how long Napati had been on the planet. Jakari was also a little surprised by how stable the form felt. She had expected to have to lean forward to keep from falling over backwards, but instead she found that she could stand up straight. Walking was a little scary. It was less walking and more falling forward and catching yourself over and over, but it worked well enough. She even managed to run a couple of laps around the medical compartment before she sat back down.
“Well?” Dubari asked. “What do you think?”
“I think it will do,” she said. “Pick a form and we’ll give the combat algorithms a try.”
Mamachi watched the transport ship light up the night sky as it came in for a landing. It had the flat disk shape of all warp-capable space craft, but some of the craft’s TOP matter hull had been reconfigured to create control surfaces to aid with maneuverability and to give the craft a long nose, which helped it cut through the atmosphere at supersonic speeds. Those features melted back into the main disk as the craft came to a stop over the designated landing pad. It hovered briefly as it extended six landing legs, then gently set down on them. Once it had settled onto the ground, the boarding ramp lowered, and two human forms came down the ramp.
Mamachi couldn’t keep a smile off their face. There was no question as to which one was Jakari. She always chose a female form. Which meant that the male human had to be her partner Dubari. Mamachi wanted to run forward and pull Jakari into a hug. It had been far, far too long since they’d seen her. Almost three decades. Unfortunately, however much Mamachi wished they could just spend time with one of their oldest friends, threats to the Suil Agam had to come first, and they hadn’t faced a threat like this in thousands of years.
Mamachi watched as Napati and Special Agent Gomez stepped forward to great Jakari and Dubari.
“I am Napati,” she said with a bow. “This is Special Agent in Charge Silvia Gomez. A human. She is our liaison with the local government.”
“I am Jakari.”
“I am Dubari.”
The formal introductions were a necessary ritual in a culture made up of shape shifters, especially when meeting in new forms, but once they were done, the tension and formality of it fell away, and Jakari stepped forward and hugged Napati.
“It’s good to see you again,” Jakari said.
“It’s good to see you, too,” Napati said. “How have you been?”
Jakari sighed and stepped back. “You know how it is,” she said. “The old man keeps us busy.”
“So I’ve heard,” Napati said. Mamachi could hear the disapproval in her voice. They knew it came from Napati’s disapproval of the types of missions Jakari was assigned, rather than disapproval of her, but it didn’t stop Mamachi from frowning. They respected Napati a great deal, but they suspected they would never see eye to eye with them about this. If Jakari could pull off the mission she was here for, it might very will help end the war, and Mamachi had more reason than most to want an end to the fighting.
Jakari turned to Gomez. “Special Agent Silvia Gomez, I am Colonel Jakari of the Suil Agam Army. This is my partner, Major Dubari. Thank you for welcoming us to your world.”
“Thank you for coming,” Gomez said. “If you’re as effective as General Napati says, I’m hopeful that you might be able to end the threat to my world and my people.”
“We’ll do our best,” Jakari said. She looked over at where Mamachi stood.
“Is that Mamachi?” Jakari asked.
“It is,” Napati said.
Jakari smiled and walked over to Mamachi, looking them up and down.
“Don’t you dare,” Mamachi said.
Jakari smiled, and before Mamachi could react, she bent down and drove a shoulder into their waist. She wrapped her arms around them and stood up, lifting Mamachi over her shoulder and spinning around as they both laughed. After a few spins, Jakari bent down, planting Mamachi back on their feet and letting them go.
“How have you been?” Jakari asked as she stood up, a smile on her face and laughter in her voice.
“Good,” Mamachi said. “I got deployed here over a year before the Char Oram arrived.”
“Time away from the fighting,” Jakari said, her smile getting even bigger. “Did you enjoy it?”
“Very much,” Mamachi said
Jakari reached out and squeezed Mamachi’s shoulder. “I’m glad for you, old friend.”
“Thank you,” Mamachi said. “I wish we had time to talk, but things are bad, and time is of the essence.”
“Then I guess we should start the briefing.”
Jakari followed Napati and her team into a large building while one of Napati’s troops moved her ship into a hangar. Apparently, they were trying to keep the presence of aliens on the planet from the locals. She didn’t really see the point, but it was a trivial thing. She was a lot more interested in why Napati, of all people, had called in the Suil’s top assassins. Napati hated assassination as a tactic and as a strategy. She thought it was beneath them.
There was probably a time Jakari would have agreed, but the occupation had taught her a few very hard lessons in just how low she was willing to sink in order to end a war, and the facts were, assassination was really effective as both a weapon of terror and a weapon of war, and Jakari was really, really good at it.
Dubari was, arguably, better, but that’s because they were still a true believer. They still believed every word out of Arthan’s mouth was divine truth. Jakari didn’t give a shit about Arthan and his vision. She just wanted to end the war, and she was more than willing to shatter any Phylactery it took to make that happen. Even Arthan’s. Hell, especially Arthan’s.
Napati led them to a briefing room. It couldn’t be anything else. Briefing rooms and conference rooms were surprisingly consistent across alien cultures, as was an almost bone-deep aversion to them. Napati took the head of the table, and the human Gomez sat to Napati’s right. Mamachi sat to Napati’s left. Jakari took the one on Gomez’s right, and Dubari took the seat on Mamachi’s left.
“So, why are we here?” Jakari asked.
“I’ll allow Mamachi to explain,” Napati said.
Jakari looked over at Mamachi and smiled. Their human form looked young, with bright golden hair, light brown skin, and dark brown eyes, but they had the same confidence Jakari had seen when they’d met on Cruthanna all those years ago.
“Six standard cycles ago, I received a report from a source that Cikara was planning an expedition that would take them off Cruthanna. I was hesitant to believe it, since none of the Triumvirate have left Cruthanna in almost a millennium, but the report came from a reliable source, so I thought it bore further investigation. I approached Napati and asked if I could be dispatched to the world Cikara had supposedly chosen as their intended destination to see if the report was true. Napati agreed, and I came to Earth.
“When I arrived, I used local resources to build a monitoring station that would allow me to detect incoming warp signatures, and then I waited. About a year after I arrived, I detected a dreadnought dropping out of warp. I only got a brief look before it cloaked, but it was enough to confirm it was a Char ship. At that point I contacted the local government, in the person of Special Agent Gomez, and I opened diplomatic relations and received permission for a Suil expeditionary force to come to Earth to counter the Char forces. Once I had permission, I sent a message to General Napati, and she arrived with her forces two local months later.
“For the last five local years, we have only had brief skirmishes with Char forces, but about two years ago, the same source that warned us of Cikara’s expedition contacted us again. They told us that Cikara was on Earth, and that they were here to develop a new weapon. We had no idea of the nature of the weapon, or how big a threat it would pose, but given that Cikara was overseeing its development personally, we have been doing everything we can to gather additional intel. Two months ago, we got lucky.”
Mamachi placed their hand on one of the interface points on the table, and a hologram appeared, showing a human form in a containment cell.
“This is a Helot,” Mamachi said. “It’s Cikara’s new weapon. We captured two of them when Cikara’s forces attempted to rob a military base.”
The hologram shifted from a live feed to a rendered model of the human form. Then the human form peeled away, leaving something that looked like a Phylactery, but was bigger.
“What is that?” Jakari asked.
“It’s a device called a Shroud. It’s designed to encase a Phylactery, and once it does, it suppresses all memories stored in the Phylactery prior to being linked to the Shroud. It then loads a number of preset forms into the Phylactery, along with combat and movement algorithms associated with those forms, and it writes in a limited personality that is absolutely loyal to the Char Oram.”
Jakari suddenly understood exactly why she was on Earth. What she was looking at was a monstrosity. Gadan were techno-organic beings. They didn’t have a set form and could reshape their body at will, but the Phylactery was where their mind was stored. A small spherical computer that held all their memory and knowledge. This new device basically erased the person inside the Phylactery it was attached to and replaced them with computer code.
“So, if they capture one of us, they can attach one of these Shrouds to our Phylactery, and turn us into some sort of mindless drone soldier?” Dubari asked.
“It’s worse than that,” Mamachi said. “The two Helots we captured were not Gadans. They were humans. Cikara’s transferring human minds into Phylacteries, and then attaching Shrouds to them.”
“They’re turning humans into mindless cannon fodder,” Jakari said.
“Exactly,” Mamachi said. “Right now, they’re grabbing humans in small numbers, working on perfecting the technology. But there are nearly seven point seven billion humans on this planet. If this goes into mass production, the war will be over, and the Char will win.”
Mamachi looked over to Napati, who gave them a small nod.
“I reported our findings to Arthan, and he sent the two of you here. Your mission is to kill Cikara and destroy both the weapon system and all research related to it,” Napati said.
“How the hell are we supposed to do that?” Dubari asked.
“I don’t know,” Napati said. “As it stands, we don’t even know the location of Cikara’s dreadnought, much less how we could get someone onboard.”
“I might have an idea,” Jakari said.
Dubari turned to look at her. “Is it a good one?”
“No. It’s a crazy, stupid, dangerous idea that’s more likely to get us killed than the target.”
“Well, that’s never stopped us before,” Dubari said.
“That’s because we’re both idiots,” Jakari said. She turned back to Mamachi. “You said that Cikara’s grabbing humans in small numbers.”
“Yes,” Mamachi said.
“Where from?” Jakari asked.
“A city called Dallas,” Mamachi said.