For simplicity of communication, any speech in the Yautja language will from this point be in italics. Apart from the italicised telepathy… oh, you'll see what I mean when we get to it.
Spineback leaned forward from her resin hangings, and hissed softly. Talon squirmed uncomfortably under the Queen's gaze.
¬On this planet I cannot complain about having a new member of the Hive,¬ the Matriarch said finally. ¬Make sure that you know where your loyalties lie, though. Your ex-prey broodkin always try to spread that loyalty. Such friendship with our prey is useful sometimes, but a burden at others. I accept you into the Hive.¬
>Thank you, Matriarch,> said Talon.
¬And your work bringing that host was well spent. You may not have subdued the creature yourself, but to take on such prey as that on this world takes skill. Stalk well.¬
Spiketail mentally beckoned Talon away, and the two exited the Hive in silence.
>What was that last bit? 'Stalk well'? It seemed like a command.>
>It was,> replied Spiketail. >It basically means that you can go and do what you wish until the Queen has need of you. You're supposed to further the Hive, but so long as you don't deny your duties as a drone of the Hive, it doesn't really matter.>
>I probably ought to go and see Vathris, then. He's probably wondering what happened.>
Talon turned, sensing a slight change in her mentor's tone. >What's the matter?>
>You told me that when you changed, you planned to oust Spineback and take control of the Hive yourself. I presume that now you intend to learn at my side until you feel ready to do that?>
>Yes. What of it?>
>The answer is no.>
>No buts, Talon.> Spiketail's voice was icily calm, brooking no argument. >I have lived within this hive for almost six months now. I agree that it will not be a pure-minded Alien that will bring the changes that will ensure that we can all live together. But it will be me, not you, who makes the Transformation and the challenge to Spineback. I've earned that, at least, in my time.>
>My taking over of the Hive was the whole point of using the retrovirus!>
>Oh yes? What happened to your obsession with all xenos? I can see you becoming a Queen one day, Talon,> continued Spiketail in a gentler tone. >But until I either die or you set off to create your own hive, it will not happen. Make sure you explain that to Vathris.>
>If you're the one who will take over the Hive, why haven't you done it already?> said Talon, unconsciously entering a hostile posture.
Spiketail only retracted her lips, revealing the silvery teeth.
>I'll tell Vathris,> said Talon coldly. >But this isn't over.>
>Good. I'd hate to think that it was.>
Talon turned and moved for the Asphodel without another word.
>Spiketail! Over here, there's something you need to hear!>
Spiketail spun in surprise to see Shadow on the edge of the clearing.
>You've cheered up,> she said.
>When you've had a major revelation that might explain life, you don't have time to be miserable,> replied Shadow. >Come on, we need to find the Yautja. They might know something we don't.>
"What are you two up to?"
They turned to see the Varbolt siblings strolling towards them from the Asphodel.
>Good to see you up and about, Tyrion,> said Shadow. >No permanent damage, I hope?>
Tyrion shook his head. "Those spitter-crocs have a nasty venom, but it only shuts you down. They like their food intact."
"I take it you're off to see those friends of yours?" said Elysa.
The two drones were silent for a moment, and then turned to look at each other dead on.
>What did you tell them?> they said simultaneously.
"I guessed," interrupted Elysa. "You never used to spend so much time in the forest – far too dangerous. So I guessed that you must be meeting something you couldn't bring here."
A siren abruptly sounded on the Asphodel. It was the signal for everyone to get aboard; incoming danger.
Tyrion made to go back to the ship, but Elysa pulled him back. "Don't be a wimp," she said scornfully. "We've got a couple of Aliens with us; what could possibly happen? Who are these friends of yours?"
>They're called Yautja. We tried to kill each other, then had to work together, and are now vaguely friendly with each other.>
"Mind if we tag along?"
Shadow considered this. >They'll be safe if we tell them not to attack you. Besides, we probably need someone from the Asphodel to hear this.>
"Just a moment," said Tyrion. "We need to stop at the bunker."
"A little stash of weapons for if we're ever caught outside the ship," said Elysa.
Shadow blinked as the siblings pulled out a pulse rifle and several cartridges each from inside a hollow tree. >Innovative hiding place,> he commented. >We must have passed that tree a dozen times and never guessed.>
"Right. Let's go to meet these 'Yautja'.
They walked in silence for a time, until they found the little clearing that the Yautja had moved to.
The moment she saw them, Elysa had snapped up the pulse rifle, and would have fired if Spiketail hadn't flicked a claw into the gap behind the trigger.
>That's not a very nice way to greet people,> the xenomorph chided. >I should know. What's the matter?>
"Those are the matter! They're Predators! We had trouble with them a few years ago, they killed a dozen people before we drove them off!"
Spiketail looked questioning at Othar'a.
"Probably true," the Yautja said.
>We really don't have time for a game of 'they killed us, so we'll kill them',> said Shadow, who was rapidly losing patience. >Everyone, sit down. You all need to hear this.>
>So what's the big deal? Why do we all need to hear this?>
Shadow quietly explained what the Jockey had said about the 'Sentinel'.
"The L'ulij-bpe Paya," breathed Kal'Arak'e. "We knew that there was some force that attracted ships here, and prevented them from leaving, but I don't think that even the highest Elders of the Tjau'ke Thwei knew this much."
Tyrion and Elysa looked beseechingly at Shadow.
>He said that they knew of some sort of entity that causes the ships to disappear in the nebula, but nothing more. Look, I can see that constantly translating is going to become a real pain; I don't suppose you two have some sort of gadget that'll do the job?>
"No. I can understand the ooman tongue from my link with you, but Kal'Arak'e is as in the dark as they are."
>This matches up with what Talon said. She said the Vathris serves something called T-T which keeps the Asphodel safe, provides energy – it was what allowed those cannons to fire – and controls the local area. Obviously it's bigger than she thought. Wait – what are these 'Tjau'ke Thwei'?> asked Spiketail.
"The Clan that brought us here. They bring Youngbloods who wish to find challenge and skill to this world, and push them to their limits."
It hit Shadow in a rush. >You can leave this planet?>
"Yes. Our ship is guarded from the L'ulij-bpe Paya's attacks, so we land unharmed. The Elders are very clear that we should respect it, though. Several hunting parties were attacked when they tried to Hunt certain things." Othar'a looked him, puzzled. "We shared memories; I thought you knew."
>It goes so fast… I must have missed that little detail. If you can leave…>
"Not so fast. The Elders would never consent to oomans leaving with us, let alone kainde amedha."
"So these Predators can leave whenever they want? Why don't they?" asked Elysa dubiously.
>Being on this world is a test of their skill and ability,> replied Spiketail. >So when we first saw you near the Asphodel, you didn't attack it because it was one of those 'certain things' that this T-T, or whatever it is, protects?>
"I would assume so. The Elder only said to stay away from it."
>The Queen of that hive said something about 'being left alone'…>
"Most likely some sort of implant that produced compulsions in the mind," said Kal'Arak'e.
>The attacks on the Charon,> said Shadow. >They followed some sort of pattern… first a strong, lone creature, then a swarm of weaker ones, then a few technologically advanced ones. We were being tested.>
"So… all the evidence points to the fact that the entire world is controlled by some sort of computer," said Tyrion slowly.
"Which tries to control everything directly or indirectly," completed Elysa. "Asphodel it controls through a deal of some sort, where Captain Eveth does what it wants and it protects us… the Yautja aren't controlled, but they don't attempt to destroy anything that it has… that hive was controlled through an implant or something in the Queen…"
>And now it's trying to control our hive through Talon. She said that Vathris wanted her to take over so that it could be 'brought under control'. That probably meant T-T. And since Talon's loyal to Vathris, T-T controls the hive.>
"It can't be allowed to exist," said Othar'a decisively. "The many ships that it brings here might create a rich hunting ground, but we'd be no better than scavengers if we let it exist just for that."
>How, precisely, do you intend to destroy a billion-year old supercomputer that has a race that once came close to ruling the galaxy as one of its servants?> asked Shadow sarcastically.
"We're not alone. If we explain exactly what the L'ulij-bpe Paya is, I'm sure that the Elder would give support. We tiptoed around it because we did not understand what it was."
>Well named, for one thing. 'Crazy god'… that pretty much sums up what the Jockey said.>
"What else did this Tarutaska Amedha say? Did it just talk of these 'Cythera' and the L'ulij-bpe Paya?"
>Nothing else useful,> said Shadow. He wasn't sure how the Yautja would react to hearing that they were once slaves, or even that they had once been allied with the xenomorphs. He hadn't even told Spiketail of the creation of Aliens.
"Spiketail, what did you say to Talon before she ran off?" said Tyrion slowly.
Spiketail would have blinked at the non sequitur if she had had eyelids. >That if anyone around here was going to take over the Hive, it would be me.>
"And she's going to tell Vathris that?"
"So he'll tell T-T?"
>Probably. Where is this going?>
"How do you think T-T will react to hearing that what it would probably consider to be a rogue element taking over a hive right next to an important servant? What was the alternative to Talon taking over, from what she said?"
>Dest–> Spiketail stopped abruptly. >Oh no…>
"The new Queen is problematic for you, isn't she? Wouldn't it be simpler to let it happen?" said Othar'a.
>NO! If anything is going to happen to the Hive, I'll be the one to do it! Come on, there's no time!> Spiketail moved like the wind towards the Asphodel, with Shadow in hot pursuit.
"I see that things didn't go quite to plan," said Vathris as the door closed behind Talon.
>Yes. Spiketail stopped me from changing directly into a Queen. She's going to help me adapt to life as a xenomorph, and then… who knows?>
"Then you'll take over the Hive from this Spineback?"
Talon shook her head. >Spiketail was very clear on that. I suppose it was part of the deal, I just didn't realise it. She will take control of the Hive, and then some day I will set off to create a new hive.>
"You should have insisted."
>I tried! I even told her about T-T, and how this was the only way to prevent the Hive from being destroyed, but… I suppose she's right. She has seniority, she knows how a hive works…>
"But you could learn that."
>It would take a while. And anyway, she would still be first in line.>
"You could be… moved up in the queue."
Talon sensed the strange hesitation, and knew what he was suggesting immediately.
>You even think about harming her, or any part of the Hive, and you'll have to go through me,> she hissed.
"Holly, listen to me. You know as well as I do that Spiketail will not be friendly to us. She may not be actively aggressive, but the moment that it would be of benefit to her, she would kill everyone on the Asphodel! She can't be trusted with that kind of power! You're the only one who can make the hive into an asset for the Asphodel instead of a threat. And if it's a threat, T-T will demand that it be destroyed."
>I will not go against her wishes.>
"Don't you want to be a Queen?"
>Of course I do,> she snapped. >But if that means betraying my kin, then I'm happy to stay as a drone all my life.>
"Your kin?" Vathris gave her a hard look. "We're your kin, Holly. Humans, not xenomorphs. You're betraying us."
>I'm playing on the other side now, Vathris. Whether you like it or not, I am now part of the Hive.>
Vathris looked at her sadly. "If that's the way you feel, then I have no choice." A cruel smile slowly formed on his face. "I'm actually pleased that you decided this. Taking a hive off the planet would be such a pain in the neck."
>What did you say? Off the planet? That's not possible!>
"Watch me, little drone," Vathris replied. "I've been planning this ever since you and the rest of the Charonites came along." He rotated his chair, and pressed several keys. The computer screen came to life.
Update 3-7-Gamma sent.
New letters flowed onto the screen, in a different type.
ASPHODEL COMMAND VATHRIS CONFIRM UPDATE 3-7-GAMMA
"Oh, yes." Vathris' fingers blurred for a moment.Update 3-7-Gamma confirmed. Initiative 7-Beta no longer feasible due to corruption of Charon 17 – Asphodel 89 – Holly Chance. No suitable replacements. Request energy transfer to matrix 7-Lambda.
CONFIRM ENERGY REQUEST TO MATRIX 7-LAMBDA – WEAPONS ARRAY
>NO! YOU CAN'T KILL THEM!> screamed Talon.
"Like I said, watch me, Miss Chance."
Energy request confirmed. Request permission to proceed with Command Asphodel 212-Gamma.
"Yes, Miss Chance?"
With a screech of fury, betrayal and hatred, she leapt at the captain of the Asphodel.
He flipped a small switch, and with a crackling buzz, and force field snapped into life. The enraged xenomorph bounced off the barrier. "I think that you just confirmed which side you're on, Talon. You can be sure that I'll have a use for you once we leave the planet – in the biology labs."
PERMISSION FOR COMMAND ASPHODEL 212-GAMMA GRANTED. ENERGY TRANSFER IN 30 SECONDS.
>How do you intend to leave the planet?> snarled Talon. >The ship's reactors are dead and the engines are shot!>
ENERGY TRANSFER IN 25 SECONDS.
"Wrong on both counts. You see, the engines are in perfect condition; I just hid the fact that they had been repaired after our crash. And as for the reactors…"
ENERGY TRANSFER IN 20 SECONDS
"I and some of my more gifted engineers have been working on a little scheme to reboot them. You see, the reactors themselves have also been repaired, but they need a jolt of energy far larger than can be provided by our sole functioning reactor."
ENERGY TRANSFER IN 15 SECONDS
"T-T only provides enough energy to power the necessary systems; no overflow. But we worked out a way to trick it. It provides energy to all six of our CPSCs when we want to fire them – and they require a vast amount of energy, as you know."
ENERGY TRANSFER IN 10 SECONDS
"We've rerouted the power conduits on three of them to feed the power directly into the reactors. We could potentially have done it when we were attacked by that hive, but we weren't quite ready…"
ENERGY TRANSFER IN 5 SECONDS
"So here we are. When I fire the cannons, the hive will be obliterated, and the Asphodel will be brought back to full operational strength. Our engineers have guarded the computers against Tartarus' virus attacks. There is nothing to stop us. And with the danger alarm sounded, everyone will be aboard."
>Tartarus? That's the name T-T?>
ENERGY TRANSFER COMMENCING. MAXIMUM CHARGE IN TEN SECONDS
There was a faint hum that rattled through the warship as power began to accrue in the capacitors of the plasma cannons.
"Yes. I don't know what it's called in reality; just a joke on our part really. In the Greek myths, the darkest place of Hades is Tartarus, you know…"
>Talon! Can you hear me?>
>Spiketail! Vathris is about to destroy the hive and leave the planet!>
MAXIMUM CHARGE IN 5 SECONDS
MAXIMUM CHARGE GENERATED
Vathris pressed several controls. With a slow groaning, the CPSCs rotated to focus on the little hive dome.
"Say goodbye to your 'kin', Talon."
He pressed the final control.
Air screamed as it was ignited by the three arcs of power that lanced into the hive. Through the porthole, Talon watched, sickened with her failure, as surrounding trees exploded into flame, and crumbled into ash almost instantly.
The blasts died away into nothingness.
And a faint whir filled the Asphodel as all three reactors powered up.
An awful empty feeling filled her as the faint, distant, comfortable buzz of the hive mind vanished.
ASPHODEL COMMAND VATHRIS CEASE REACTOR ACTIVATION
Vathris laughed, and flipped a switch. "Why should I, Tartarus?"
REACTOR ACTIVATION WILL RESULT IN UNACCEPTABLE INCREASE IN THREAT LEVEL OF ASPHODEL
"What are you going to do? Send your cronies in? In seconds, we'll be in space." He laughed, and pressed the intercom. "All hands, this is Captain Vathris Eveth. Please find somewhere comfortable – we're about to take off and leave this hellhole behind us. Make it so, engineering."
The ship hummed again, and with a series of jolts, the Asphodel slowly rose from the surface of Hades.
>You're taking off!> said Spiketail desperately. >Stop it, we're still out here! Not just me and Shadow, there are humans!>
>I can't. I'm trapped behind force fields. I'm sorry.>
The Asphodel rose into the air, and with a guttural roar the main engines kicked in. The warship gathered speed, and began to rise towards space.
Spiketail, Shadow, Tyrion and Elysa, and the Predator siblings could only watch as the ship rose away from them.
>I'll be back! We'll be back!> called Talon. >I'm not alone here on the Asphodel in wanting to escape with you. And once they realise they left some of their own behind… And if we don't return, give Tartarus hell from me! But we will, I promise!>
And then a long spear of light reached out from the ground, and smashed into the diminishing silhouette of the Asphodel.
>NO!> screamed Talon.
And then the ship that had contained all their hopes exploded.
Chunks of metal rained down over the clearing that had been its home, and trees ignited as the red-hot steel caught in their branches.
As the four that had called the Asphodel their home stared in horror, a miraculously intact metal plaque fell to the ground in front of them.
"That was on one end of the bridge," said Tyrion quietly. "'USC Asphodel, prototype weapon platform. We bring the food of the dead.' Ironic, really. A ship named after the Asphodel Fields lands on a planet called Hades, and is destroyed by a being named Tartarus."
"I think that my point has been made," said Othar'a sadly. "This 'Tartarus' cannot be allowed to exist. That it would wipe out so many lives just because they tried to leave is a crime inconceivable to even the most dishonourable Yautja."
Spiketail looked up at the slowly settling debris cloud of the Asphodel.
>I'm with you,> she said.
There we have it. The ending of Asphodel, both the ship and the story. Hope you've enjoyed the ride… the third (and final) part of the Hades Chronicles will be out soon – look out for Tartarus. I look forward to seeing you then…