A.N: I own nothing.

A.N#2: This is the last part of the Sealink Trilogy. Queen's Daughter and King's Consort are the other previous installments.

A.N#3: Re-written 5.1.12.

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"The Last Queen"

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PART I

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The young woman stood on the runway of the stolen yautja ship, a vast desert plain stretched before her. It was a flat, barren expanse, its soil as pale as salt. Rounded hills and worn mesas dipped in the distance, their slopes striated with alternating bands of soot and light. A chafing breeze blew, smelling of salt and dust. The girl peered through the wavering haze and barely discerned a jagged mountain range, white crags nearly fading into the paleness of the dusty sky. It hovered before her, almost a dream, resembling a line of great, ridged lizards lying at rest. Waves of heat buffeted her bare skin as she walked down the runway. A creature as black as spilled ink padded besides her, its walk smooth and lithe. Though no eyes graced the slick exoskeleton it still gave the impression of sight as its smooth, elongated skull swept side to side. Four bristling struts adorned its shoulders, rolling with each step. Its humanesque hands crunched on the caked salt as it reached the end of the metal runway. Its ribbed, skeletal tail slithered on the ground. The young woman besides it showed neither repulsion or terror. She was Sealink, the human embodiment of the black creature besides her. It was she the late Queen Mèlintèlinas bestowed the office of matriarch, and it was she who possessed the telekinetic abilities fitting of royalty. The creature next to her was called Kaylon. He was praetorian, larger in heft and swifter in cunning than the standard drone. Without speaking they stepped off the ramp. The ground was hot on her naked soles.

Four months ago she and her small Hive of Xenomorphs abandoned their planet to escape the spread of humans. It was only now did the yautja sensors indicate a world habitable for life, though now, seeing the desert before her, did she wonder how anything could survive. Her heart hardened. After being captured both by the yautja and the humans, twice she had wiggled free. Twice she had defeated the odds and survived. I'll survive this now, she thought, though knew this was an enemy older and more cunning than any single creature.

A salt waste, Kaylon said, his disembodied voice as grim as the desolate expanse before them.

"There wasn't much choice," the girl said. "We were lucky for finding a world as it is. Start checking the area. I don't want any surprises."

A slow hiss bubbled betwixt the vicious mouth. The Xenomorph rolled his shoulders, sending his four erect spikes swaying. Then he padded further out, small puffs of fine alkaline dust following his feet and hands, the blazing light striking the Xenomorph into sharp contrast. Sealink watched her senior praetorian with a twinge of pain in her heart. She shook herself, focusing on the harsher facts. Any creature could see the Xenomorph's darkness for miles. Ambushes, once so common on the forested world, would no longer be useful tactics for hunting. If there's anything to hunt, she thought. At least there were no humans. At least the desolateness would discourage any sort of visit from other star-travelers. Or hunters, the girl thought. She shivered despite the sweltering heat. No, the yautja loved their jungle world too much. Even they wouldn't spare a glance at this waste.

The ship behind her shuddered and the ramp lowed, as if complaining under a great weight. Sealink didn't turn to observe her counterpart's entrance, but said over her shoulder, "Come and see our new home, Damon."

The Xenomorph King plodded down the runway, each step causing the metal to groan. He ducked his massive head to avoid catching his two branching horns on the overhang of the ship. His shadow dwarfed Sealink as he stood above her, the great cavern of his chest billowing and expanding as he breathed in the liquid air. A cloud of fine dust puffed upward as he took his first step on the salt, settling gray on his clawed hindfoot. The elongated skull lifted and lips peeled from silver, even teeth. Once a simple praetorian, he too accepted the late Queen Mèlintèlinas' gift of monarchy. Now he was the first, and last, of his kind. Like myself, Sealink thought.

A desert kingdom, where those who find no peace withdraw to die, the King said. His voice as dead water, without ripple or bottom. A daunting trek for any to find a lair.

"We'll meet this challenge as we've met all others," Sealink said. Her thoughts was a sullen snowfall. At roughly nineteen a yautja took her as his gladiatorial slave; at twenty-three she had pitted herself against an entire human settlement. Each time she had thought she would die. Each time she survived. Each hardship shaped the soft mold of her being into the hard, pitiless leader she was now. She knew her survival had cost her. Vicious killer, ruthless monarch, Sealink was no longer the inexperienced, innocent girl she once was. Now her hands were covered in the blood of yautja, Xenomorph, and human. Her mouth tasted of salt, her lungs coated in dust. Sweat dripped in her eyes, but she welcomed the sting.

Above her, Damon blew a soft gust of air, testing the thin breeze. We will see. Where did you send Kaylon?

"I had him scout the surrounding area. When he comes back, we should head off to those mountains; it's a guide, if anything else. We'll go until we can go no further."

A solid plan, the King said, teeth bared in a lipless grin.

.s.

Sealink was glad to leave metal hull of the yautja ship. Though it carried her and her Hive of thirteen souls, Sealink couldn't shake away the memories of the powerful, hulking hunters. She had slain her captor, Dauncha, in those very halls. Ripped him apart using Damon's body. And although its scent of the yautja was long gone, she could still imagine the hot, oily musk. No, she decided. She would be glad never to see yautja construction again in her life. All she took was one dagger and collapsible spear, each she wore on a loose-swinging belt across her hips. A rough cloth she wrapped around herself and head in protection against the sun's constant blaze. From Damon's massive height she looked over her shoulder at her Hive. They counted eleven: one praetorian to protect the ten drones. But Sealink knew their number was smaller than that. Somehow, thanks her humanness, they had evolved beyond simple urges. Like herself and Damon, they were the only of their kind, able of thought and emotion. Of personality. And of faults.

She replayed Kaylon's report in her mind. Surrounding areas clear, Queen. I saw nothing for miles.

"Anything alive?" she had asked.

No.

That was half an hour ago. Now her subjects were lining in a rough caravan, hissing and jostling for prized positions. Kaylon patrolled the Xenomorphs, snarling several into politeness. Sealink felt the steel muscles beneath her tense.

We should travel at a swift pace, the King said, opening and closing his jaws in a mockery of speech.

"Why?"

I may be inexperienced in the ways of this waste, Damon said, stringing the words as if on a thick rope, but I smell a storm on the wind.

As if in agreement with the King, the wind picked up, blowing curtains of gritty, salty dust. Sealink wrapped her makeshift hood closer around her eyes and nose. She bared her teeth at her new enemy.

"Let's get this over with," she said.

.s.

The Xenomorphs fell into single-file: Damon and Sealink leading, the drones in the middle, and the praetorian bringing up the rear. She rode on the King's shoulders, right between his impressive spikes. From her vantage point she could sometimes see the dream of white-maned mountains floating before her on the horizon's edge. Haze hung in the air. Crumbling mounds obscured her vision. And despite her height her eyes reddened and her ears filled with blown dust. Her yautja cloth became caked with sand and blown salt. Beneath her, Damon turned from ebony to gray. They traveled across the barren waste, threading their way through banded hills. The salt waste stretched on and on, its monotony numbing. The sun overhead blazed shadowless. Fine dust floated, a smoky curtain on the air. Dust filled her lungs. Everything tasted of salt. Like machines the Hive continued their steady trotting, long skulls down and mouths slightly agape, never stopping for rest, never flagging. Sealink lost track for how long they trekked. Her human body forced her to sleep and relieve herself, but her subjects never once stopped. Little sting-tailed insects crept out at night. Other animals, too, inhabited this desolate place. Diminutive lizards scampered away over the alkaline dust. Several drones abandoned the line to catch them, and brought them to Sealink. Soon a various assortment of six-eyed lizards and two-headed snakes became her nourishment. Once a drone brought back a prickly sort of plant, which, once bitten through, spurted a sweet liquid. Sealink ate them whenever she could.

Despite their steadfastness, the predicted storm caught up with them. Wind hissed at her hair, lifting stinging sand. The winds gusted and whipped, howling. She wrapped the cloth around her head and buried herself beneath Damon's overhang crest, stealing whatever meager protection she could. The storm, coming out of the west, drove them eastward. Blindly, they stumbled toward the dreaming mountains that bordered the rim of the horizon. Unable to hunt, Sealink's empty belly ached and she fantasized about the lake on her old planet, the waters cool and sweet. In suspended moments between waking and non-waking, Sealink dreamt of howling yautja and gray-eyed humans, silver needles and screeing Xenomorph. Several times she cried for her mother, though for the Xenomorph Queen before her or her human birthmother, she didn't know.

At last the storm past. The ground grew firmer, its shifting granules coarser underfoot. Once one of the younger drones dropped from the line, a leg trailing. Kaylon bullied him to his feet, nipping at the sinewy flanks. Sealink watched from a distance, feeling the oppressive burden of the stark fact: they needed to find shelter if they were to survive. Her heart hardened as she felt her own empty belly grinding for nourishment at each rolling dune. She coughed, her throat raw and lined with sand. Beneath her Damon shuddered.

How are you faring?

"Just find us a home," Sealink said. The waste all around her lay lifeless, motionless. The sun burned a hole in the sky. Sealink thought she could smell herself cooking. Just a little more, she thought, embracing the steel core of her essence. She bared teeth, stretching bloody and swollen lips. Just a little more.

At last night fell and Damon called for a rest. Sealink descended from the King's side as the Hive slept where they fell, as if dead. Kaylon alone maintained watch, a cadaverous dog, nightmarish face cast a light blue in the moonlight. Sealink didn't bother ordering him rest; she knew being the sole praetorian of the Hive was a heavy burden. Her heart twinged again and she rubbed her chest, thinking of Zizar, the young praetorian who saved her life from a human before succumbing to his wounds. She shook herself, ducking the sting of nostalgia and sorrow. She walked away from the Hive, seeking solitude. The coolness of the night was a welcome from the dead, dry heat. She gazed up, lost in the brightness of the canopy of stars, dimmed somewhat by the moonlight. They dazzled down at her, stretching in all directions. One of them was the yautja homeworld, hot and stinking. Another was her forested one, now the humans'. She sighed, rubbing her arms at a sudden chill. She continued on, feeling her legs carrying her up the sloping dune. She stopped at the top, panting, hands on her knees. Her vision wavered in front of her.

Then she looked up. At first she stared at the blue landscape before her without seeing. Then her heartbeat began to pound within its cage of ribs, roaring in her ears. She swallowed hard as she gazed upon the moonlight-covered Hive. It was like a massive salt hill, even from far away clearly made up of old exoskeletons of past Xenomorph. They clutched at each other in eternal embraces, their tiny mouths twisted and wide. They must be glued together, she thought. Despite its blue hue Sealink knew in sunlight it would be bleached white. A blazing white bone mound. A white Xenomorph Hive. She fell to her knees.

Within moments Kaylon was by her side, his cold breath fanning her face. He froze, his lips quivering over teeth. Saliva hung from the leering maw. He looked out beyond her, towards the mound of old bones and stretched exoskeletons. His long, dark fingers dug in deep in the salt dune with gritty a crunch.

Queen—

"I know," Sealink said. She threw her head back and howled a Xenomorph cry, until her very bones vibrated with the screeching cacophony of the Hive. The King's bull roar bellowed across the wasteland, echoing and re-echoing. Sealink's ears began to pound but she welcomed the pain, her howls rising higher and higher until it was nothing but a wisp in the filament, filled for the first time with hope.

.s.

Dawn, falcon-gray and cool, rose to meet the buzzing Xenomorphs. Sealink stood on the crest, huddled in her yautja cloth. Despite the purple circles under her eyes she twitched and paced, feeling more alive than in months. By her side were Damon and Kaylon, their heads twisting and shifting, low hisses escaping emaciated jaws. Behind him, the Hive hissed and jostled, their tails cutting dark streaks in the gray air. Sealink could taste their excitement like a dark spice. It jittered in her fingers. Wordlessly she swung herself up on Kaylon as if on a horse, her legs astride his shoulders. The praetorian beneath her began to lope towards the desiccated mound of dead bodies. Her thighs quivered as they clung on tight as Kaylon picked up speed., the wind rushing in her ears.

The praetorian slowed as the white mountain of bones and chitin loomed towards them. Sealink craned her neck up, but the top was lost to her. She made Kaylon circle it twice. The results were conclusive: there was only one entrance, a dark, yawning slit in the white side. The praetorian stood as the girl slid off. The ground crunched and crisped under her weight, the salt blocks cracking. She rested one hand on the sinewy shoulder, her pulse loud in her ears. The gaping entrance beckoned, filled with unknown. She threw back her shoulders and bowed her head. Lowering herself to the ground, Sealink sat cross-legged on the salt. She closed her eyes, and allowed her essence slip inside's Kaylon's. She shook her elongated skull and bared her silver teeth.

Let's do this, she said to Kaylon. Then she began to walk, the tight meat-glove of Kaylon's body hers to control. Leaving her human body behind, she entered the skeletal walls. She lifted her head and called in her echolocation, and saw a wondrous sight: a high-vaulted ceiling domed an enormous room, large enough for many times their number. Holes and tunnels pockmarked the vaulting walls. Sealink could hear them extend deep within and enter deep within the ground. Their depth stretched beyond her ability to see. Her black hands displaced old bones littering the floor as she walked. Cobwebs covered everything. She reared on sinewy hind legs and hissed in the still, open air. Not a tremor of clawed feet disturbed the graveyard silence, not a whisper of ribbed tails. She fell back to all-fours. Empty, she thought. Empty as a yautja's heart. She could sense Kaylon question the validity of her statement, but she ignored it. She had what she needed.

She reopened her eyes and found herself outside, still cross-legged. She took in a deep breath, feeling trapped in a dull representation of the world compared to the fullness of Xenomorph echolocation. She clung to the memory of Kaylon's liquid strength as she rose to her sore feet, her legs wobbly. She was shaking the salt from her backside when the praetorian emerged from the darkness, as if he had been one with it.

Either heat had scourged any trace of scents away from the vicinity, or this has been unoccupied for years, he said.

"Abandoned,"she said softly, as if to herself. "But why?"

The Xenomorph shifted. Further reconnaissance will be needed.

Sealink nodded. "Of course. See to it, Kaylon." She turned around sent a telekinetic Come, Damon! to the where the King and others waited on the dune crest. She watched as the gray-mottled Xenomorphs loped towards the bleached white Hive, their knife-tips glinting in the strengthening sunlight. The sky was paling in the north, first turning as pink as watered blood, then as strident as gold. Sealink had to raise a hand to cover her eyes. I beat you, she thought, baring her teeth at the wasteland. I've survived you. She was grinning as the first drones strode up, their flexible lips wrinkling over silver canines. Sealink waited until all of them congested around her before saying,

"This is our new home. Mark it your own. If you sense anything wrong, report to me immediately. Kill anything that moves and bring its carcass to me. Is that clear?"

Without another word, the Xenomorphs slid past her and, two by two, and disappeared into the murky depths of the white Hive. Sealink let them. She could sense their satisfaction like the cool currents in a stream. A heavy weight rolled off her shoulders and she allowed herself a small sigh. She looked up at saw Damon was still with her. She nodded to him.

Yet another obstacle we've prevailed, the Xenomorph King said, words rumbling deep within the cavernous chest.

"Well, we've found shelter, but that's it," Sealink said. "That's not mentioning food, or hosts."

Planning on enlarging our Hive?

Sealink looked out towards the rising sunrise. It blazed in the lightening sky, the disk already too bright to look at directly. "Our numbers need replenishing."

The dark form of the King shifted. The savage face descended until its cold breath brushed her cheeks. It wasn't your fault.

"You think I don't know that?"

You still act like it is.

Sealink barked laughter. It was an ugly sound. She found herself pacing. She stopped instantly. She was no longer in a cage, a captive of two species. But it's still there, she thought to herself. I've never left it. She ran a hand through her hair and tore her fingers through the tangles. She winced at the sharp pain but welcomed it. Zizar received pain for saving her, and what was his reward? A deathstick wound that blew half his face off. He died in front of her, still calling out her old pet name, despite the anger he should've felt.

"It doesn't matter how I feel," she said, "the fact remains our numbers are too low to fend off an attack if we come across an enemy."

This waste proves a daunting barrier, the King said, but Sealink knew it'd be only a matter of time before he confronted her again about Zizar's death and her subsequent guilt. None will know the way.

"True," Sealink said. "As for food, there're plenty of those spiny plants, but I want Kaylon scouting first thing tomorrow morning. There has to be something more substantial to eat than serpents and bugs." She fell quiet, and listened to the sounds of her counterpart's deep breathing. "So strange to suddenly be so lucky," she said softly, as if to herself. "What are the odds we found a perfect Hive in the middle of this waste? Why would any Xenomorph leave such a beautiful Hive?"

Perhaps the reason lies beneath. Sickness cannot be seen through pitches of sound.

Sealink shook her head. "Doesn't feel like there was a plague. When I entered the Hive there weren't any skeletons anywhere, just assorted bits and pieces of old meals. If anything, it's as if they got up and left."

.s.

The more and more Sealink learned about their new home, the more and more she was pleased with it. Within days she realized the Hive provided protection against the nipping temperatures of the twilight hours as well as shade and coolness from the blazing, wavering heat. She liked the dimness of it, though sometimes dreamed of the blue sky and warm sunshine of her forest. The drones quickly fell into stabilizing the Hive's interior, and within days Sealink found all the bones cleaned and cobwebs gone. Fresh ooze coated the walls and soon everything was glittering with wet organic slime. The girl would close her eye and envision the walls pulsing with life, as if every tunnel was a vein and she was the very heartbeat of it. The slightly bitter smell of the secretions didn't wrinkle her nose, but made her inhale more to take in the scent of their victory over all the odds. She listened to the squabbling and fights as each drone vied for the choice spots, and was content.

The dilemma of the food was solved one day as Sealink walked along the salt dunes. She was counting all of the native plants in the area when she heard the distinct skree of a Xenomorph collide with furious snarling. She recognized the screams as Kaylon's and bolted into a run to discover the source. She skidded to a stop on top of a dune and saw the praetorian rearing and plunging at a wolf-thing. Sealink caught a glimpse of long fur pale as salt before Kaylon blocked her view, his long ribbed tail stabbing at the creature before him. Fine dust floated in a curtain of air as the praetorian lunged, arms outstretched, and pinned his enemy. The snarls squealed to a stop as a gout of blood splattered across the bone-dry salt. It started cooking in the sun. Sealink ran to Kaylon's side, hand on his black shoulder. The creature before her appeared like the wolves from her old homeworld, but vastly scrawnier. It was lank-limbed and large-pawed, its pelt nearly white. Its yellow eye stared at Sealink, its muzzle still curled in a death-snarl. It was the size of a small pony, but Kaylon had been bigger.

Came out of nowhere, the Xenomorph had said.

Sealink looked around, but saw no avenging companions. She shuddered to think what would've happened if one caught her alone.

"Think it's poisonous to eat?" she had asked, but the Xenomorph hissed. He stepped to it and buried his head into the wolf's soft belly and ripped away the thin layer of fur. The sound of wet crunching of bones filled the air as the praetorian tore and ate everything. Soon nothing but a bloodstained pelt remained. Blood dripped from the Xenomorph's leering maw.

It's safe, he had said.

Now Sealink took out hunting parties for their new prey. The strange wolf-creatures were swift and vicious, but were no match to the ferocity and ruthlessness that was the Xenomorph's birthright. They also found out the wolves hunted a six-legged creature that found its nourishment in the salt itself. Its eyes were bulging and keen; more than once it spotted the Xenomorphs and ran to safety, its stamina greater than even its hunter's. When it was caught, its flesh was tough and thick, but to Sealink there was no other goodness. Their success rate rose when Sealink devised a way of coating the salt onto the Xenomorphs' carapaces, allow them to mask their blackness. Soon she was using both sets of creatures as hosts to her implanters. They were kept in the vast underground lairs beneath the Hive as their ribs burst open. Months passed. More and more younglings were now the centre of attention, their fast-growing forms skittering about the Hive as indolent drones looked on. Sealink watched them all was satisfaction in her heart. She could now, for the first time since leaving her old homeworld, breathe free from anxiety.

.s.

Sealink sat straight up. At first she stared at nothing, her eyes adjusting to the dimness of her sleeping chambers. Then she heard it: a low hum. At first it was easy to ignore. Then it grew. The young woman waited, heart in her throat as the sound jumped to a ground-vibrating rattle, her body quivering. Then as quickly as it started, it stopped, the vibrations petering back into stillness. Sealink stared ahead, her body flushing cold. She shrugged out of the wolf pelts that made her bed and picked up the one that made her clothing, wearing it as a wrap with a thin belt to hold it in place. Her yautja spear and dagger rested in it. She ducked into the slick, membranous tunnel that fed into a larger passageway. From the coolness around her she knew it was near dawn, the waste still trapped in the grip of numbing cold. A drone, secreting a thick resin for the walls, paused to bow its long skull. Sealink passed by it and entered the main chamber.

Damon and Kaylon were already waiting for her. Two other praetorians stood in the background, both whipcord slender compared to Kaylon. She walked to her counterpart and senior praetorian.

"Thoughts on what we just heard?" she asked.

It came from far out, Kaylon said, his jaws leering in the gray light. His teeth clicked. Many lengths away.

Could it have come from inside the planet? Damon asked.

Possibly, Kaylon said.

"I want scouts on this," Sealink said. "Kaylon, I want you to take your swiftest praetorian with you. Damon—"

A drone leapt from a tunnel's mouth and skidded feet from the council. Queen!

Kaylon whirled on it, hissing displeasure. The drone flatted to the ground, showing its teeth, but refused to submit all the way. Sealink hissed Kaylon aside and glared at the drone.

"What is it that needs interrupting?" she asked.

The senior drone requires your presence in the birthing chambers.

Zaphara? thought Sealink. "Tell her it can wait—"

It can't.

The air seemed to chill as Sealink, Damon, and Kaylon stared down at the hapless drone. Sealink took a step towards it. Its belly touched the organic floor of the Hive as it warbled.

Please, Queen, it said.

Sealink grunted. "Alright. This damn well better be important. Kaylon, you have your orders." With that, she began following the drone deep into the bowels of the underHive. The air around her began cooler and older, smelling of musk and blood. Several times she had to hold onto the drone in front of her to see. At last they entered the birthing chamber. There were other drones there, Zaphara among them. It was she who pointed Sealink to a wolf trapped within the sticky resin, its head drooping as if in sleep. It was in mid-snarl, its lips etched away from teeth glinting in the low light. Its eyes were frank with death, its élan already gone. But it wasn't the dead wolf that Sealink stared at. The youngling—praetorian, she thought—crouched in its own birth blood, looked at her with its eyeless head. It didn't squeak or mewl. Sealink frowned. This is it? A defected praetorian? A crick of anger stirred in her belly at the distraction. She was about to stand up and snarl to be led back, when the young Xenomorph spoke.

Did you miss me, Se?

Sealink stood as if stricken, mouth an O, eyes wide, her muscles frozen. Then she sunk back down as if in a dream, her cheeks flush hot and cold, chills running down her spine. She recognized the voice of Zizar, the praetorian who had half his face blown off four months ago by a human deathstick. He had died; she was there. Yet here he was, whole and healthy in the youngling's body. She stared at the impossibility, her tongue thick in her mouth. With trembling hands Sealink picked up the praetorian baby as if he were a puppy, her fingers behind the tiny gray forelimbs. He weighed nothing. It was like holding a flower. Her dry eyes were steady as her heart wept.

"Zizar," she said.

.s.

Sealink stood outside, the familiar coarseness of the waste prickling the soles of her calloused feet. In the east, the sky was lightening into amethyst and pastel yellow, changing the deep indigo blue. Still-visible stars flickered, pale in the strengthening blaze of the sun. The young woman crossed the relative flatness and headed toward the crests of the nearby hills, searching for the highest vantage point. When she finally got there she crouched, the wrap of the yautja cloth shielding her face. The tips of the highest embankments were turning vibrant red as the sun climbed in the sky, highlighting the wavy, dreamlike mountains of the far-off distance. It was two days since she sent Kaylon to investigate the cause of the mysterious hum, and still there was no sign of his return. She continued to early-morning vigil, her thoughts an ouroboros twisting on itself. Damon said there was little she could do but wait. But the hum wasn't the only thing on her mind.

It was two days since the return of Zizar, and already he displayed the prowess of his past life. Though the smallest of the new batch of younglings, Sealink saw him win mock-fights against opponents twice his size. Already he was the size of a large wolf, sleek and vicious. She noticed several of the older praetorians try to mock-fight with him and receive a bleeding mouth in return. Sealink's heart ached. Those who knew him from before his death were hovering companions. Those who were born after Zizar's time watched on, curious at this strange youngling praetorian who commanded the respect of seniors. Sealink, however, couldn't bring herself to remain in his presence for more than a few minutes, and never alone. She avoided the tiny face, the crouching legs. Several times she thought she saw him searching for her, as he had done on the forested world, but Sealink was clever. She was never found. Damon never made any mention of Zizar's return, perhaps sensing his counterpart's discomfort. So she waited—for Kaylon, for herself, for Zizar—it didn't matter.

She was about to turn around and head back inside when a glint of movement caught her eye. A wolf? Sealink tightened a hand around the collapsible spear. Once she had to fight a salt wolf alone. It was like fighting a cat. She had won, but at the cost of three fierce scratches. But the movement she had saw wasn't a wolf: it was Kaylon, sprinting over the salt flat, behind him the younger praetorian. Her blood began to rush in her ears as she stood waiting, her stomach twisting. It's going to be nothing, she thought, nothing more than the planet's rumbling. Nothing more. She lifted her head as the two Xenomorphs pulled up, their breaths pulling hard in the air.

"So? What did you find?" Sealink asked.

Kaylon shook his head in an eerily human gesture. Yautja.

.

PART II

.

Sealink's stomach plummeted. She stared at Kaylon for a long moment.

"Yautja," she said. In her head a bell knelled. She felt faint.

Yes. A hunting party by the looks of it, five strong. At this he seemed to hesitate. Sealink bared her teeth.

"What is it? Speak quickly."

Four are yautja, Kaylon said, but the fifth is human.

Sealink blinked. "What? A human? But what's a human doing with them?"

It was dressed as the yautja, and traveling in their group, the younger praetorian said. Like it was one of them.

Sealink wanted to laugh and spit at the same time. The young praetorian wilted, as if expecting rebuke for speaking out of turn, but none came. Instead she turned to him and asked, "How far away are they?"

Kaylon was quiet, forcing the younger praetorian to say, They'll reach the Hive this time next sunrise at their current speed and direction.

"So you know for sure they're headed in our direction?"

Yes.

There is something else we need to report, Kaylon said. You're familiar with yautja weaponry, correct?

"What's with the word-play? Tell me what you want to say," Sealink said.

Kaylon bared silver teeth, shifting. As we were following the yautja and human, we saw a pack of salt wolves surround them, twenty strong, the largest I've seen. At first we expected a great bloodbath. The yautja did nothing to save themselves, save forming into a circle. I was sure they would be ripped apart. But then a strange machine on all of their shoulders, the human's included, whirred into life. They spat blue bursts of death, similar to the humans' deathsticks, only greater. They killed half the pack before the wolves retreated. It was a slaughter.

Sealink nodded, her thoughts like falling rocks. "Thank you both for your report. Get inside and rest, but send the King to me first."

The young woman watched as the salt-covered Xenomorphs disappeared into the slit of the white Hive. She looked at what had once been her savior. Now it stood like a betrayer, broadcasting their location to any who would look. Her eyes narrowed as a thought bubbled to the surface of her mind. Impossible, she thought, but was unable to shake it away. It clung like a yellow wind, as the cadaverous visage of her counterpart appeared through the entrance, the more tightly it sunk its claws in Sealink's mind. The King was like stone as he heard her give Kaylon's report. When she finished, the great Xenomorph extended his sinuous neck high above her, out towards their approaching enemy.

"Just like old times," Sealink said with a pained grimace.

Interesting how they've found us, Damon said. The eyeless skull seemed to stare at her. But you think you know the answer.

Sealink shook her head, tried to shrug, but in the end said, "We land on a desolate world and somehow manage to find a Xenomorph Hive. Abandoned, for seemingly no reason, but in pristine condition. We settle in it. Months later a yautja hunting party show up. What if . . . what if that was the point all along? When I was still with Daun-cha,"—here she said the name in yautja,—"he would sometimes go on extended hunting parties. Maybe this world is one of those worlds."

But aren't yautja hunters of exotic prey? Damon asked. Why not hunt on a world more suitable to their needs?

But Sealink was shaking her head. "The more challenging the hunt, the greater the 'honor' and glory. They want the harsh conditions."

How do they know the Hive will be occupied when they re-visit their hunting grounds? Damon's voice was like dead water. Sealink shivered beneath it.

"I don't know," she said. "Maybe they have a device that indicates when the Hive is ripe." She shuddered to think of the yautja watching, their greedy yellow eyes glinting as they surveyed her movements. She suddenly wanted to comb through the Hive top to bottom, or at least scrub herself clean. Again she yearned for the lake she left behind.

Perhaps it doesn't matter how they've arrived, Damon said, but what we're going to do.

"Kill them all," Sealink said. "We'll tell Kaylon and organize a strike force. They'll no doubt be entering the Hive, making them on our territory. We'll sort those who are able to fight and those too young. And now they hunt with some sort of projectile weapon." She stared out into space, in front of her a vast, yawning chasm. Then the steel of her being, yautja-nursed and human-honed, clenched tight.

Have you spoken to Zizar?

Sealink froze. "What?"

Zizar. Have you spent time with him?

She turned. "In about a day a group of yautja will be at our entrance. You think I have time right now to 'spend time' with him?"

Damon said nothing, as if he was made of stone.

Sealink shuddered under the silence. "I promise I will. After this yautja business gets settled. I'm not ready yet."

Time may be short, Damon said. Perhaps now your luck at survival is at its end.

.s.

The young woman stood in the middle of the mighty entranceway of the Hive, quiet. By her side crouched Damon like some sort of monstrous canine. Above and around her were every member of the Hive, resting easily in mouths of passages or clinging to the walls. The meager number had now swelled to fifty, their sleek carapaces glinting in the gray filtered light of the Hive. One of their number, a young praetorian, still small, rested in the front, nearest to Sealink. They hissed and jostled but soon fell into dead stillness as she raised a hand.

"By now, all of you know that a band of yautja and a human have heard word of our existence and are now coming to hold their hunt." Sealink didn't raise her voice, knowing of the keen hearing of the Xenomorphs. Above her, faint hissing from fifty throats could be heard. "They mean to kill us," she said, "to take our skulls as trophies! To them we are nothing but machines, bent on nothing but survival and the continuation of our kind. They do not think us as equals, but as animals." She looked around. "Let us count on that. We use their confidence against them. They expect mindless prey for harvest—let's show them something different."

Above and around, a hissing grew. Sealink raised her hand again and all fell silent.

"Despite such a low number," Sealink said, "we must be cautious. Yautja are strong and quick and clever. They train—they live—for this day, this moment. We must never forget that. Ever. I do not expect us to come out unscathed," she said, "but I do expect to give them all something to remember us by."

The resounding hissing that followed was like rain crashing on lake water. It was as if fifty had transformed into a thousand. Even Damon unleashed a full-throated bellow, a cry of battle. It felt as if she had been thrown into a thundercloud of snakes. She closed her eyes, remembering the outcry during her gladiatorial days as Dauncha's fighter. She let it pour over her like poisoned honey, the ever-present coldness enveloping her heart and tightening it to a killer's point.

For the rest of the day Sealink waited, high in one of the tunnels. Despite the coolness sweat glistened on her brow as she stayed motionless, breathing quick and light. Her legs twitched and jumped, filling her with the urge to pace. She periscoped and compacted her spear until her arm was tired with the movement. She was clad in a make-shift armor, similar to when she was a gladiatorial fighter. It consisted of shed bits and pieces of Xenomorph exoskeleton over a tight breast band and leather loincloth: a breast-plate over her chest, shin and thigh guards, shoulder pads, upper and lower forearm guards, and a pleated vertical plate to cover her belly. She strip yautja cloth wound around her forehead. She closed her eyes, imagining the nightmare of when she was a captive of the yautja. I'll never be free of you, she thought. She had killed her enemy with Damon's teeth, but still here she was, dressed as a mock-Xenomorph, sitting on needles, prepared to fight to the death. Perhaps her fate was infinitely tied to the honor-bound, bloodthirsty hunters. After all, they were to thank for her youth; it would seem logical they would be there at her end. Her eyes narrowed at the thought of the human with the hunting party.

They will be expecting us to attack in waves, a low voice growled, as deep as thunder. Sealink didn't even move, eyes still fixed on the entranceway. Shafts of light flooded in, the only sources of light in the Hive. Everything else was veiled in dim light.

Where are you? Sealink asked through her telekinesis

I'm in one of the lower tunnels, but listen, Sealink: the yautja will come in expecting a full-blown attack. We must draw them out, the King rumbled.

Draw them out? Yes, that could work. A swift drone to act as bait, to bring them in deeper . . . I like it. Separate them, make each one on their own. Take them down one by one till none are alive, Sealink said. We can't make it too obvious. Tell Kaylon. He'll plan it. I trust him.

The connection ebbed, grew small, and Sealink drew back to her own gnawing thoughts. Just as she about to stand up and start pacing, five shadows marred the long beam of light streaming into the great entrance of the Hive. She froze, body tightening. She crawled closer to the entrance of the passageway, the thin curve of her back taut. The shadows lengthened, oppressing and foreboding, like faceless ghosts. Sealink tensed high overhead, tightening her grip on her spear. The shadows disappeared into the dimness of the Hive and the flesh-and-bodies replaced them. Sealink's arms erupted into gooseflesh underneath her armor.

The five spread out into a loose half-circle, the tallest of them in the forefront. A heavy musky smell hit Sealink's nose, bitter and oily. They appeared young to her as they flexed their bulging muscles, meaty fingers curling, their heads turning every way. The yautja spread out, their weapons varied amongst them. One had their wrist blades fully extended, head slowly sweeping, as if scanning. Another had its spear grasped in its hand. Even the human sported a wickedly sharp blade, its double-bladed sides honed to a razor. One of them seemed to stare her way. She ducked, and when she looked again, the gaze had moved on. Their dreadlocks gleamed like oiled snakes. Each wore a hunting mask, though it was too dim to tell the minor differences between them. On each of their shoulders rested the cannons. Sealink stared at the small form of the human. Dwarfed compared to its companions, its short stature bristled with weaponry. The organic floor of her tunnel gave a little when she shifted slightly, trying to compromise between getting a better view and keeping out of sight. Her ears strained to hear any noise, irritated that for such massive creatures they could move so silently. Even the human was as quiet as a sitting stone. The human will be mine, Sealink thought as she tipped her eyes down, as motionless as the organic walls of the tunnel. She strove to control her breathing. Her eyes felt hot and hands cold. She could sense the combined excitement, fury, and apprehension from her Hive, their mingled alien emotions roiling like a powerful storm in her mind.

Two of the yautja exchanged muffled clicks. One of them pointed to the fresh secretions on the walls. The leader—or so she thought; he was the tallest—began to move deeper into the Hive, following wide tunnel of the main entrance. The high ceiling of the Hive domed above them. One by one, the human bringing the rear, they made their way deeper within. Sealink's eyes flicked. They didn't see her. She slunk down and stuck her head out a little more. Then it happened. A drone dashed in front of the tunnel, right in front of the yautja. It hardly paused as it ran into smaller tunnel. With a bellow the leader abandoned its comrades and gave chase, spear tight in its fist. The other yautja and human froze. One of the yautja held a fist in the air, then three fingers. Two other yautja and the human broke from the group and followed their comrade, their thundering steps hollow in the silence of the Hive.

Sealink scaled down the membranous, organic wall of old exoskeletons and resin. Behind her three praetorians followed suite, their talons biting deep within the walls. The single yautja whirled, rattling snarl rising from its barreled chest as Sealink and the three praetorians touched the floor of the chamber. It immediately took a spear and periscoped the lethal weapon to full length with a fancy twirling then crouched with readiness, a low clicking kurr emerging from behind the mask. Dreadlocks glinted. Beaded, reptilian skin shifted as rippling muscles bulged. If it was surprised, Sealink couldn't tell. The pewter eye-pieces betrayed nothing. The praetorians each hissed, their primary maws stretched open, their smaller secondary mouths clenching and unclenching. They began to circle the lone hunter, their elaborate carapaces glinted in the dim light. Sealink circled with them, a challenging hiss spewing from her mouth, her teeth bared, her nose wrinkled in a snarl.

The hunting mask betrayed nothing as the yautja cocked its head. The hard, snaky dreadlocks whipped over its armored shoulders at it turned to look at her. With a whistling battlecry, she released the praetorians on the yautja. The praetorians leapt as one, talons drawn and silver teeth bared. With a howl of its own, the yautja struck back, its spear aimed straight for the nearest one. The Xenomorph howled, but it left Sealink the opening she needed. Screaming, Sealink buried her blade deep within the fish-netted side as it struck a praetorian along side its head. As if the spurting green blood was a signal, the three Xenomorph mass-attacked it, acting as one ferocious creature. Several drones were pouring out of various tunnels, drawn to the noise and smell of blood.

"The cannon! Get the cannon!" Sealink cried, darting back as the praetorians and drones attacked the slashing hunter. Even as she shouted her order, it whirred to life. Acidic blood spattered. One drone fell back, shrieking. Even before Sealink could register what was happening, a blue blast of light exploded from the cannon and enveloped a tearing praetorian. A squeal of agony smote the air as it was thrown back. The harsh, metallic smell of acidic blood and burning meat filled the air. Then another. And another. Two more drones were cut down before Sealink threw herself back in the mêlée, this time using the massive yautja's dreadlocks as ropes. The rough, pebbly skin burned. Its tacky, warm blood coated her hands and arms as she hauled herself up, feeling the yautja roar. The yautja whirled and stomped, twisted and torqued. More than once Sealink felt Xenomorph jaws' click against her unprotected ankles and the undersides of her calves, scoring thin burning lines of blood. Sealink snarled again. She gripped her dagger and brought it down, hard, in the yautja's cannon. It slide right through the gun.

The yautja roared behind its pewter mask. The surrounding Xenomorphs warbled their war cries as Sealink sprang away from the wounded hunter, breathing hard. Her breasts heaved rapidly. The thin, shallow rents burned like fire on the unprotected parts of her calves. But her face curved into a savage bitter-sweet grin. As if by a silent, unspoken command, the Xenomorphs sprang back, giving the Predator a wide berth. Many were scored with wounds that trickled and spurted pale, green acidic blood. Their jaws stretched, their breaths whistling between exposed ligaments. Their maws were coated with green blood which mingled with clear, thick saliva. The yautja stumbled, its harsh breath heard behind its mask. The abdomen was shredded, the slippery coils of intestine hanging down to its knees in purple ropes. Gouts of blood spurted from a multitude of slashes. It stumbled again, just falling short of the Hive wall. It struggled to climb to its feet, but was too weak. Sealink and the other Xenomorph watched it as it reached down to its leg and slid a dagger from a hidden sheathe.

A few praetorians spat hisses and moved in front of Sealink, as if to intercept any thrown blade. But no need. With a final snarl, the yautja rammed the blade deep within its own heart. It shook as if cold for a few seconds before it slumped. It was done. The hunter, unconquerable to the end, was dead.

Sealink spat on the corpse and looked around. "Everyone alright?"

Yes. Most of the wounds are superfluous, hissed a young praetorian, the same one Kaylon took scouting. Six did not make it.

Sealink nodded. "They will be honored," she said. "Heap them in a corner so we can deal with them later. First: we have yautja to kill."

The seven other Aliens clicked and hissed their approval, half their group breaking up to drag their dead Hivemates off to the sides. The other half rushed into other tunnels, heading off to find others to help. Sealink stopped the young praetorian.

"You. What're you called?"

You've given me Onza as a name, Queen, the Xenomorph said.

"Good. Let's go find the other yautja." Sealink swung herself onto Onza. Crouching between the young praetorian's shoulders they flew down into tunnel. Passageways flew by as Sealink gripped the spikes with white-knuckled force. She could smell the oily musk of yautja and the hot, caustic scent of burning flesh. She spurned Onza faster, until the shrieks of wounded Xenomorphs and guttural battle roars filled the tiny confines. Runnels of sweat slid off Sealink, stinging as it touched cuts. Onza rocked launched himself forward, propelling himself with an extra thrust of momentum. With his own screamof defiance he flew at a fighting yautja. His jump was too high; recognizing this, Sealink leapt off him just as he reached the massive hunter, rolling in midair to land like a cat on her feet. The yautja hardly paid her any mind as he switched his grip on his blade, now pointing it upward. The young praetorian sailed over him, the razor end of the spear cleaving a swooping line down the length of body. The slippery screech of metal on shell filled the air. Onza spun, warbling. Sealink yowled at the sound, spurring the two other drones present. Two others stayed where they fell, their blood seeping on the floor, their flesh smoking from twin plasma blasts.

Somewhere in the background Onza slammed into the wall when the two drones and Sealink attacked. Together they struck, their claws ripping and tail slashing. Green blood flew. The yautja growled, scything the air with the blades on his wrists. Acidic blood spurted. Sealink attacked low, aiming for the tree-trunk legs. She ducked the swiping tails and back-slashing from the yautja, grunting. She hung on, feeling the hot, reptilian flesh ripple and move next to her skin. The musky stench filled her nose, and an image of Dauncha, her captor, blazed in behind her eyes. She looked up at the towering forms of the drones straining for ground with the yautja. Their tendons in their legs corded as they shoved against each other for supremacy. Screaming, Sealink sunk her spear deep within the yautja's calve muscles. A muffled roar vibrated through her as she was thrown across the room. She twisted, landing on a shoulder. She scrambled to her feet, feeling the blood hammer beneath her skin. Her breasts heaved as she panted. The two drones retreated a bit from their prey, their threatening hisses thick between their teeth.

The hunter roared a challenge, sweeping both arms wide as he kneeled, wounded leg useless. Blood spurted from the wounds seriating his body. The dreadlocks slicked over his shoulders as he turned his head from side to side. The two drones stood by, panting, their elongated skulls sweeping slowly back and forth. The yautja continued to roar, shaking his arms with his duo wrist-blades. In a blink of an eye the yautja was thrown backwards as a mighty tail hit him straight in the middle. The hunter went flying. Sealink looked in time to see Damon crashing through, unleashing a thunderous bellow. Saliva spattered. The force of Damon's tail crushed the yautja's chest and he clutched himself as if pained, but the pewter eye pieces betrayed nothing. Sealink cursed the mask. She wanted to see his fear, to see his reaction towards his certain death. The hunter craned his neck all the way back as the King pounded toward him. Teeth flashed. Dreadlocks slicked. With a growl, the yautja took out his wrist-blades with a single flick of his hand. In the other, he took out a throwing star. Damon didn't pause and continued to plow forward, swinging his massive horns back and forth. Within moments the yautja was nothing but ribbons of green meat.

Damon lifted his head, maw dripping fluorescent blood. His comb swept back as he crouched to Sealink's level. The drones have finished off another yautja; one remains. That and the human. Kaylon is already fighting the one yautja left as we speak—what of the human?

"I will deal with it," Sealink said. "The human's mine. Where is it?"

Last seen in the upper tunnels, Damon said.

Sealink took off running, her legs pumping. She didn't stop until she reached the spot Damon spoke of. The air was warmer, lighter. The young woman padded through the twisting corridor, spear tight in her hand. She knew the tunnel was a dead end. A shadow moved farther down. Sealink took her time, placing one foot in front of the other with a cat's precision. At last she turned a corner and found the human testing the walls for a way out. Sealink spat a praetorian's hiss. The figure spun and fell into a crouch all at once, its spear fully periscoped to its full length. It held it out to its side in a stabbing stance. Sealink continued to watch the human with a jaundiced eye, not moving. A cold anger infused her. She could feel herself shaking. The human rose from its crouch, but the spear hadn't moved. It began to walk toward Sealink, the skulls on its shoulder hitting the back of its metal loincloth. The hollow sound brought shivers to Sealink's skin.

"Ooman yautja?" Sealink asked in the yautja tongue, sneering.

The yautja-human continued to walk toward her slowly, step by step, spear out in front of her.

"Me kill you. You dead," Sealink said.

The human stopped. Its pewter mask glinted dully in the light of the Hive tunnels. It was then Sealink realized the human was female, like her. She was small and compact, her legs like trunks. In the dim light, the redness of her hair stood out. It was tied up in dreadlocks, yautja-fashion. Her tanned skin shone with sweat, muscles rippling out like cords. Sealink snorted in contempt. All dressed in yautja finery, she thought. She remembered how Dauncha didn't once give her yautja armor. No, she was forced to wear the chitin of her fallen foes, as if she wasn't good enough to touch it. A low growl, mechanical and metallic, brought Sealink back.

"I know you. You're Oo-kai'dhe, Dauncha's ooman kainde amedhe."

Sealink clenched her spear and mirrored the yautja-human's position. "Me kill Daun-cha."

The yautja-human stiffened. The spear lifted. "So, you were the one," she said softly, as if to herself. Her voice rose. "You're the cause of all this!"

The yautja-human gave a roar that sounded very much like a true yautja and brandished her spear at Sealink. Sealink launched herself at the other woman, a warbling screech ripping from her throat. The human smoothly turned and dropped to the floor. Overzealous in her attack, Sealink sailed over her. She twisted. She landed on all fours, a spitting hiss spewing from her mouth, her teeth bared, her nose wrinkled in a snarl. The yautja-human crouched, a clicking hiss emerging from her pewter mask. Her duo wrist blades sprang out of her leather gauntlets. Sealink eyed the razor edges. They slowly circled each other, pivoting around the empty space between them, each feinting, testing to see who would be first to attack, who to defend.

Sealink struck first. She dodged low, aiming for the right. The human shifted ever-so-slightly, then as fast as lightning struck with her blades, aiming to skewer Sealink through the shoulder. The young woman saw this and, using her momentum, rolled into her dodge. The spear came down and left a burning slice between Sealink's armor. She stumbled back, suddenly terrified of being cleaved in two. Blood welled, but it was only skin-deep. Sealink's spear scored against the yautja-human, causing her to whirl back to regroup. They circled again, each bleeding enough to stain the ground. Soon Sealink's armor became crisscrossed with white scars from the passing blades. The yautja-human was as solid as a tank, and quick. She countered Sealink's lunges and blows, parrying each feint and thrust. No matter how quickly Sealink whirled, or how fast she spun, the yautja-human was always there, weapon bristling. Sealink found herself panting. Sweat flowed. Blood covered her in a tacky slime. She stumbled back, a snarl on her face. The cold, emotionless mask showed nothing as the yautja-human advanced.

Sealink spat bloody spit her way. "Daun-cha easy to kill. Like fool!"

The yautja-woman flicked her bloodied wrist-blades at Sealink. "I'll kill you and take your skull, you tetch-na whore!"

With a roar, the human launched herself at Sealink, her spear twirling. Sealink swung with all her might and brought her own weapon down with force enough to knock her assailant's aside. The blow clamored, vibrating in her hands. The yautja-human hardly paused. Before Sealink could react, the yautja-human was on top of her, striving to bury her wrist-blades deep within the soft meat of her neck. Sealink strained, arms quivering, but no matter how hard she twisted and shoved, the other woman didn't budged. So this is it, Sealink thought. Then the yautja-human gave a guttural cry and lifted her blades to sever her neck.

Sealink closed her eyes, bracing herself for the hot gout of blood to spew from the her throat. A scream pierced the air, jarring Sealink to open her eyes in time to see a black shaped object barreling into the yautja-human. The blade clattered aside as the black assailant latched itself at the yautja-human's neck. The woman was knocked away from Sealink by the force of the surprise attack, a metallic cry of surprise resounding. Sealink continued to watch from her vantage point as the two combatants rolled on the ground, the chocked snarls and blood-curdling hisses. She watched with lunatic clarity, with an eye-of-the-storm calm. She watched as the she-human tried to stagger to her feet, but the jerking, dragging weight of the black monster on her throat forced her down.

It lasted just about fifteen seconds until the yautja-human reeled back, a bloody hole where her throat was. A hand flew to it. She gurgled. Sealink's eyes were glued to the yautja-human, unable to wrench them away, watching as the human swiftly surrendered to the fatality of the wound. She fell in a sitting position with her back to the wall. Blood continue to spurt in a torrent, dripping damson between her fingers. She counted to grasp at her throat, little gurgling sounds of distress coming from her. Sealink watched as young Zizar slowly turn to her, his muzzle dripping with blood. He gazed at her. He rested on his haunches, watching his Queen. The bleeding yautja-woman slumped behind him, a rattle like dry bones escaping her mouth. Sealink shivered as she thought, That could've been me. How would've felt, to feel her senses leaving her, feeling nothing but passing into gray?

Sealink stood up, her legs rubbery. It was finished. The yautja-human was dead, slain by the slashed throat, smote by Xenomorph fangs. The dull reddish gleams of her hair cascaded around her shoulders in the traditional dreadlock of the yautja.

Never will another human hurt me again, Zizar said quietly. Never.

A chill went up Sealink's spine as she regarded her long-ago friend. The blood that dripped from his silver teeth was as red as hers. For a moment, she wasn't a Queen but a human, looking at a Xenomorph as a deadly creature, a foreign and alien object.

"How did you know where I was?" she finally asked.

The young praetorian, now the size of a pony, didn't rise, nor went to her. The smell of your blood.

Sealink found herself returning to a crouch. Her arms shook. "Zizar . . . I'm so, so sorry."

The praetorian lowered his smooth elongated head before getting up. Sealink remained in the crouch as he padded to her, lights glinting off the exposed ligaments in his jaws and cadaverous chest. By the time he reached her she was on the ground, nose dripping. His cold breath fanned her head, his mouth gently brushing her hair. He didn't speak.

"It's my fault you died," Sealink said when the silence stretched on too long. She stared at the ground. "Back home. Your face, the wound . . . you have to hate me. Please."

I won't hate you.

Sealink slammed a palm on the ground and looked up. "Damn you! Can't you see what I am? What I've done? I'm a killer, I'm—"

We're all killers. Zizar's voice was colourless, like rain. You, me, Damon, the yautja, the humans. You are Queen. Blood must be on your hands. The question is whether or not you can live with that. He bowed his head. I'm going now. I'll leave you with the human.

Sealink remained on the ground as the praetorian padded away. She slowly sat up and stared at where he disappeared around a bend. She stayed there for a long moment, counting her breaths, head feeling as empty as an ocean. After a time she slowly rose to her feet and made her way to the yautja-woman. She kneeled besides the quiet form, then reached to lift the mask free. There was a faint hissing sound as the seal broke and the tubes fell away. She took a breath, then grasped the mask and gave it a sharp tug. It fell away in her hands. For a long moment she started at the dead, vacant face. The yautja-human seemed far prettier without her mask. Beautiful, even. She had full lips and a small nose flecked with freckles. The eyes were open, dead blue, its élan gone. Sealink reached up and closed the lids. Now the woman appeared to be sleeping, and nothing more.

Sealink made her way to the main chamber of the Hive, her legs leaden. Scorch blasts and acidic holes scoured the tunnel walls. At one end were a large pile of tangled limbs, black and gleaming, acid-bitten and mangled. Hands stuck out of the mess, fingers tented like they were searching for a lifeline. They were nothing but meat now, carapace and flesh as dead as the ground beneath her feet. A drone close to her said fifteen had fallen. Sealink rubbed her mouth with the back of a hand. In another corner were the hulking bodies of the yautja, as still as the dead Xenomorph. One was mangled beyond all form. The other two looked as if their heads had been caved in. She frowned, and turned to the drone.

"There were four yautja," she said. "Why are there only three here? Where's Kaylon?"

Slain, my Queen, a drone said. Now headless. The yautja who killed him escaped.

Sealink closed her eyes. She breathed hard through the nose, then reopened them. "Very well," she said. She was speaking down a long hallway, her voice tinny in her ears. "His successor will be chosen as soon as possible. You, there. You're in charge of dissembling the corpses to be used later for the walls. You. Take as many others as you need to fix the damage to the Hive. Zaphara: take any drone or praetorian free to hunt some food for us."

Sealink watched as the Xenomorphs headed to complete their tasks. Her body stung and throbbed. Without another word she went to her sleeping chambers, where she slept where she collapsed, dreaming of rifts and chasms, the bodies of her children littered about her.

.s.

Sealink's eyelids fluttered open. She stared at the ceiling without seeing it for a long moment, her body still, the air quiet save for the slow billow of cold breath. She remained still as the King stirred all around her, lights glinting off his comb. Sealink's throat worked. She could taste the sour breath on her teeth, and when she spoke, it was with a croak.

"How long?"

Long, Damon said. Sealink closed her eyes.

Zizar told me you almost died, he said.

Sealink frowned and sat up. "You spoke to Zizar?"

Came to me right after you left. Told me what he did.

Sealink's frown deepened. "Did he tell anything else?"

The Xenomorph King regarded her. Like what?

"Nothing."

Did you speak to him? The voice was like deep water.

"We should focus on more important matters," Sealink said, standing up. Her muscles twinged as her wounds itched and stung. She rubbed the back of her neck. "Kaylon's killer is still out there. If we can catch him and—"

And what, Sealink? Damon said. To what end? It can be the hardest lesson in the world, to stand back and let the inevitable play itself out.

Sealink stiffened. "What inevitable?"

The King was like stone, translucent teeth glinting like fish bones. You yourself said this Hive was constructed as a yautja trap, or hunting ground. Even if we kill the lone yautja, it still won't change the fact more will come in time.

"A never-ending cycle of hunts," Sealink said. She slowly sank back down in the furs, face flushing hot and cold. She saw a vision of mountains of dead bodies, chitin scattered and jaws unhinged. She shuddered. "What can we do?"

Leave this Hive, Damon said, or live with its price.

Sealink spat, snarling, "Not acceptable! There's no way I'll allow that. We worked too hard to reach this world, and if I keep letting my children die, I'd go mad. I'll stop the yautja from coming here, even if I have to go to the stinking jungles myself!"

The silence rang as Sealink's shouts died into nothing. The Xenomorph King loomed over the pale form, head turned to her, and though he had no eyes Sealink could feel his gaze boring into her like ice. When Damon shifted again, she watched with tense shoulders.

Understand what you're saying, the King said. You would have to leave your Hive and travel back to the nightmare you left nearly five years ago. You would re-enter the monster's den, all for task that has a dubious outcome? Why not live with the small sacrifice of lives?

Sealink stared at her counterpart. "I can't believe you'd sacrifice your Hive like that."

You did, back in the human settlement.

Sealink glowered, flushing. Then she bowed her head. "Yes," she said. "I did what I thought I had to. But this I can't live with. I can't live myself as it is. Why do you think I was so afraid of Zizar?"

Damon was quiet. Why were you?

Sealink began to pace. "Because I thought he was an avenging spirit, sent to punish me." She stopped pacing. "I wanted him to be."

The King was quiet. So was Sealink. She stood in the dimness of her sleeping chambers, surrounded in a space of mind that had been her sanctuary. She reached out and rested a hand on the cold, slick carapace of her counterpart, feeling him breathe beneath her palm. She didn't look at him. Her head felt empty yet full, and she was reminded of a long-ago dream Damon had. She shook herself, and took her hand away from the Xenomorph King's side.

If you do this, it'll be your most dangerous trial yet, Damon said. There is a good chance you won't survive.

"I know," Sealink said. "But I can't live in the yautja's shadow. I beat them once. I can beat them again."

Even if it means you'll spill more blood?

Sealink's mouth tightened. "I am Queen. There must be blood on my hands."

Can you live with it?

Sealink said nothing.

When do you mean to go?

"As soon as I can."

Will you tell the Hive?

Sealink snorted. "By now everyone's used to me leaving for dangerous missions." She sobered. "No, not this time. I'd rather slip away for this one."

Damon shifted all around her, as if he were some monstrous beast to devour the world. He lowered his cadaverous maw to her, breath cold as a desert night, teeth glinting like translucent fish bones. The girl raised a hand to meet the dark flesh, and with a tiny palm touched the lower jaw. The fingers trailed over the familiar furrows and divots, remembering each, until the sensation of flesh on chitin was all she could feel.

.

PART III

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Sealink stood in the shade of the Hive, a piece of dried meat in her hands. She stared out at the rolling salt dunes, the banded mesas farther back, and the wavering white line of mountains beyond them. Wrapped around her was her yautja cloth and wolf pelt. A bag of food and liquid hung from her belt, along with her dagger and collapsible spear. She looked over her shoulder at the white Hive behind her, the countless skulls and bones gleaming, locked in their eternal embrace. She knew inside the Xenomorphs were busy mending walls and repairing holes, perhaps even Damon acting as overseer. You should be with them, a part of her said, yearning to be part of the collective, of the familiar. A twinge of nostalgia bit her heart. You owe them, the other, larger, cooler part said. Her grip tightened on her bag's straps. You owe them an existence without the yautja . . . or die trying. She looked up at the light, cat-soft footfalls of a praetorian. Her mouth twitched.

"Hello, Zizar."

The Xenomorph padded over to her, his ribbed, jagged tail long behind him, the knife-tip glinting like a mirror. He hesitated before standing before her. He was about the same size of when he had died, though the shoulder struts were still slight with immaturity. Sealink stared at him, unable to help but imagine him without half a face, blood and brain matter oozing from the massive gash, smelling of acidity and infection, then watching him die in front of her, the last thing he tried saying incomplete. She remembered mourning for him. Now here he stood, whole and clean and undying. All of a sudden she was stricken with a deep, wistful longing.

You're going to track down the yautja who killed Kaylon, Zizar said.

Sealink nodded. "Yes."

You're going alone.

Sealink shook her head. "No, Zizar, I'm not. I was waiting for you."

Some of the colour reentered the praetorian's voice as he shifted, head swaying. You were?

"I was. You and I are going on adventure. It's going to be long, bloody, and dangerous. We might not survive. No, there's a very good chance we're not going to walk away from this." She lowered her head. "You were right, Zizar. I am Queen. Blood is on my hands. I have to learn to deal with my past, or not live at all. I want you with me because there's a reason you came back." She hesitated. "Even if that reason is still a mystery to me."

Zizar's flexible lips lifted, fell. The head bowed. I will do it.

"Want a moment to say goodbye?"

Zizar moved closer until he was alongside her. Everyone I need is right here. Let's go.

Sealink nodded, shoving away the feather-touch of unease. She rocked herself up and sat between Zizar's shoulder spikes. The cool, chitinous flesh was smooth as she easily slid into a better position. She looked over her shoulder at the salt dunes, mesas, and wavering dream-mountains. Somewhere out there lurked the yautja and Kaylon's skull. An urge made her look over her shoulder. Damon was in the great entranceway, her earliest companion, her counterpart. Sealink's heart tightened as she remembered, after the yautja capture five years ago, Damon helping out of the cold and vicious shell she had become. She half-raised her arm and waved it in a human gesture she had seen among the humans on the forested world. Then she spurred Zizar forward, heading to the west towards her enemy, turning only for the briefest moments to look behind her and the life she had before disappearing over a dune.

How long or how fast Sealink flew over the Salt Waste, she didn't know. All that she was aware of was the shifting black muscles moving in a tireless motion beneath her, the hot, salty smell of the wind and the very sound of it roaring in her ears. She crouched on Zizar like riding a horse, eyes slitted against any sand particles, mouth braced in a thin line from tension, knuckles white under the pressure of her grip. Zizar never once faltered nor stumbled. His energy was endless, the sound of his hard, cold hands and feet pounding the ground beat in her ears. He was organic steel, powerful and eternal. Sealink relished in his speed, his tirelessness, and the wind in her face. The hard, glaring blue of the sky and the waterless landscape whizzed past. And it was with that he bore himself and his Queen to greater and greater speeds, faster and faster, harder and harder, till it was only a pure miracle that his heart did not explode under the pressure.

It was only when the dark silhouette of the yautja appeared did Zizar slow, pounding footfalls becoming softer and softer. Sealink shifted between the shoulder spikes. Fear, once feather-light but growing heavier, laced her veins. The sweat trickling in her eyes didn't all come from the heat of the sun.

"How far?" Sealink asked.

Close. Maybe a mile.

"Flank it. I want to be within talking distance."

Zizar swayed his weight on his feet before shooting forward like a monstrous black spring, bending his run so it looked like he was running in a huge circle. Sealink bent over him, keeping her eyes slit from any kicked salt particles. From time to time she raised her head to see if she could see the foreboding yautja ship. She didn't have a Xenomorph's echolocation. She only had eyes, and they the heat waves rising above the ground tricked them, masking any long-sightings. Zizar began curving his run sharper as the dark shape came into view, the first details coming into focus. Sealink pushed herself up, now riding Zizar by her knees. She looked out, eyes narrowed, shoulders back, hands gripping the shoulder spikes with white-knuckling force.

"There! Cut him off, Zizar!" Sealink cried, spurring the praetorian. She sunk down in her seat. "Just cut the bastard off," she repeated to herself under her breath, both apprehension and anger roiling within her breast. Her heart bucked and churned at the sight of her age-old enemy. By now the yautja had seen Zizar and Sealink and was slowing down. She watched him place the slightly-crested skull of Kaylon on the ground with great reverence before resuming a combat position, loose and confident. Too confident, Sealink thought, and had Zizar slow down his run to a dog-trot. She squinted at the yautja standing not sixty meters away, controlling her breathing. She couldn't see a cannon on his shoulders. Kaylon must've torn it apart before he died, she thought.

"Careful," Sealink said, but to herself or to Zizar, she couldn't tell. "There may be a throwing weapons. Watch yourself."

Zizar didn't reply, but began to mince his steps, running at a sideways angle like. Sixty meters became fifty, then forty. At thirty meters Zizar planted his feet and braced himself, stopping. Though Sealink couldn't see the praetorian's visage, she was knew he had his fangs bared, dripping and silver, lips writhing in a threatening snarl. Behind him his ribbed, jagged tail whipped and furled, its deadly knife-tip shining dully in the stark sunlight. The yautja didn't emerge from his relaxed, casual calm. She could see now twin wrist blades adorned his forearms, and she wasn't surprised if a collapsible spear was hidden. It was then she noticed his height. He's small, she thought. The yautja was maybe six feet. No, more that she thought about it, this yautja looked young. The general form lacked the bulging muscle present in all other adult hunters, as if his muscles were underdeveloped. Even his dreadlocks were small in both length and width, barely going past his neck. If Sealink didn't know any better, she would say this yautja was quite a young adolescent. The sweating skin, pebbly and reptilian, was splattered with marble black. They formed irregular strips across the lean arms and muscled legs. Intermitted specks of burnt orange added to the base colour of a lighter, cream-umber. Where've I seen these colours before? Sealink thought before pushing it away.

She slid off Zizar with a silent grunt.

The praetorian shifted. Sealink?

"I know what I'm doing," she said, never taking her eyes off the yautja.

"Yautja!" Sealink called to her enemy in his tongue, the heat of the beating sun and scent of salt and forgotten. She saw only the yautja, the destroyer of her youth, her innocence. She stood not twenty meters from him, her heart a bird in her throat, pulsing. The yautja held his ground with easy readiness, Kaylon's ghastly grin stretched over his features as he sat in the sand, mouth held in a diseased gape. The yautja mask's eyepieces glared coldly at her, revealing nothing. The pewter of the mask gleamed and glinted dully, showing off two small, curving marks burned into the forehead. Kaylon's blood, Sealink realized. She was looking at the victory markings won with Kaylon's blood. She felt sick. The yautja tilted its head ever-so-slowly, a high growl escaping it. Somewhere in the unimportant background, Zizar hissed. Sealink pointed at Kaylon's skull. "Me want."

The yautja cocked his head as a strange tension enveloped his form. His forearms corded. The legs bent into a crouch. The clawed hands curled into fists. The small yautja snorted behind his pewter mask, his small dreadlocks making slithering noises as he shook his head slowly side-to-side, eyepieces glaring. She could almost sense the lipless grin, the clicking of the mandibles rubbing together. The image sent shivers down her arms and she bared her teeth. "Give me head, or die," she repeated, preparing the send Zizar at him.

"Hello, Oo-kai'dhe."

For a long moment Sealink blinked. She frowned and peered closer. It was then did the colours, so familiar, come clear. The shape of the enemy morphed into the figure of the yautja pup from all those years ago, the same young yautja who resembled Dauncha's hue of burnt orange. Memories rose unbidden in her mind, forcing her to remember her capture and containment on the yautja vessel. The cage. The glass wall and the conversations engaged across it between a terrified girl and a yautja pup. Sealink took a half-step forward, shock waning as it lost its paralyzing grip on her. She frowned in concentration, as if unwilling to accept Kaylon's killer could truly be the little pup she had seen as a light in the darkness. Without him, she was sure she would've gone mad, or allowed her bitter hatred towards Dauncha consume her. When the black-and-orange Predator didn't attack, she took another step forward, emboldened. She squinted at him.

"You," she said, stumbling on the yautja word for familiarity.

The word hung in the air, suspended by the fragile, hushed strings of Sealink's voice. In the sweltering midday heat of the salt dunes, no wind nor hazy cloud of sand could disperse the statement. She managed another step before she heard the yautja's fist tightening, the sound of rasping pebbly skin loud as a Xenomorph's roar in her ears. The young hunter shifted his weight on a ball of one sole, his shoulders hunching. His pewter eyes seemed to glare at her as a thin, reedy metallic whine began to fill the air.

"Not another step,"the yautja said. Zizar began to shift and hiss, saliva dripped from his bristling mouth. He gouged the sand, tail lashing. To his credit, the diminutive yautja did not show the slightest sign of fear. His muscles tensed, his crouch intensified. A high growl built within his throat, accumulating a savage hum.

"Zizar, back off," Sealink said before looking back at the yautja. "You, Daun-cha's—"

"Do not speak my sire's name!"

Sealink jerked back as if stung. The praetorian spat behind her, threats oozing between his jaws. He began to pace behind her, long dark fingers crunching in the sand. The yautja breathed hard behind his mask, the once-empty fist now clenching a knife. She eyed it coolly.

"If you ever speak my sire's name with such familiarity again," the yautja said, "it will be your death."

Her mouth turned downward. Whatever good-will feeling she had was bleeding away, twisting into a strange ache deep in her chest. The pup she once knew was gone; in his place was an angry son, hard and angry and miles away from the chubby youth she remembered. Her mouth thinned. She should've known this would happen. She had killed Dauncha in an act that stripped away his honor, all of his pride, and cripple all those associated with him. She remembered her escape from the yautja homeworld, stealing Dauncha's ship and huddling between Damon's forearms the long voyage home. Her late Queen, Queen Mèlintèlinas, had died on that planet, trundled like some grotesque insect left in a room to rot. She noticed the young hunter regaining self-control, his anger simmering into the loose-formed hunting hunch. Behind her, her companion kneaded the ground with his long, cold black fingers.

"I've searched for you," Dauncha's son said. "Now I know you are nothing but a dishonorable coward, a slinking pife-na. My clan became a laughing stock! All because you left in such a manner fit for a lou-dte kalei." The young yautja's voice shook with bitterness. He lowered his head in a position befitting of a charging bull, not one of sadness. "They said he couldn't even control his own slaves." The twin blades shot out of his wrist gauntlet. Zizar clacked his jaws and leaned forward, eager.

Sealink lowered her head. "Me suffered my part, yau-tja," she said. "As you suffered yours. Me no wanted be slave, yet me Daun-cha's slave."

"Pick up your weapon."

Sealink tensed. "What?"

"I said pick up your weapon."

"No."

The yautja took a threatening step forward, head lowered and cold pewter eyes belligerent.

"Pick up your weapon so I can claim your skull. Only then will my clan's name be restored."

The hot sun glinted off the landscape in a scorching, bleach-white haze. This was a dry heat, a sauna's furnace. Sealink resisted the urge to wipe the sweat dripping off her brow and down the length of her face. It was midday, the worse time of day to be out in the sun. Already she was beginning to feel the affects of being out in the heat for too long. I need to end this quickly, she thought.

"Me no fight," she said.

"You will."

Sealink spread her arms wide. "Oo-kai'dhe want peace."

The yautja laughed, a ripping kurr'ing sound. Sealink shuddered under it. "After what you've done to my clan's name, to my sire, to me, you want peace?"

The yautja's bellow echoed throughout the salt waste. Sealink was knocked to the ground as Zizar shouldered her out of the twin blades' arching path. She hit the ground with shoulder-numbing force, crushing the wind from her lungs. The wounds from the earlier battle blared in shooting aches through her body. She clenched her teeth, using her momentum to roll away from the clashing bodies. She looked up to see the behemoths clash in the age-old dance of death. Before Zizar could touch the yautja the blades slashed in an arch. The slippery screech of chitin on metal scarred the air like a sheet of lightning. Launching himself hard to the right, Zizar ignored the dripping wound and aimed straight for the yautja's legs. With an almost careless grace, the orange yautja replied with a sweeping arch of his wrist blades that forced Zizar to abandon the legs and leap up to the unprotected face. The yautja dipped and spun as if born to it. Leaping to her feet, Sealink rushed to where her weapons fell. Wrenching it out of the gritty, sandy ground, she sprinted to where Zizar was circling the yautja, his tendons straining out of his legs as he jerked his body back and forth to confuse his opponent.

"Zizar, no!"

The praetorian skree'd, battle cry wailing over the simmering landscape. Sealink slung an arm over the hot dome of his head and held on tight, forcing his head low. One hard look at Zizar and he covered his lips, a low hiss sliding from his throat. Then she stared at Dauncha's son in front of her. He was so close she smelled the oily sweat gleaming over his body. She could see scars decorate his skin, more numerous to count. Florescent blood dripped and ran over his body. Sealink observed his wounds with a cold eye. The two continued to stare at each other, human and yautja, each sharing a bloodstained past and uncertain future. Sealink refused to look away. The idea that had been crawling in her mind knocked on her lips. Her chest tightened. This is it, she thought, with no small amount of bitterness. Damon, forgive me. She took a deep breath.

"You want revenge? You and me make deal."

The yautja snorted. It was an ugly sound. Sealink tried to ignore the odd ache between her ribs. "Why should I make a deal with you when I can just claim your skull?"

Sealink didn't twitch. "Oo-kai'dhe want no more kainde amedhe hunts here. No more. In return, me let you take Oo-kai'dhe's skull."

Dauncha's son froze. Zizar's low hissing stopped. Sealink continued to stare ahead, eyeing the cold pewter eyepieces. The yautja cocked his head, a low clicking emerging from deep within his speckled umber throat. He took a step forward. She didn't move. Zizar shifted behind her, ribbed side pressing against her spine. He was hot on her back.

"What's stopping me from taking your skull now? You don't deserve an agreement," the yautja said.

"You die out here," Sealink said coldly. "Me kainde amedhe kill you. You no vengeance. You no Oo-kai'dhe skull. You die with others."

The yautja began to growl. "I'll win."

Sealink eyed his bleeding wounds and let her answer remain in her silence. The yautja spat and corded his arms. "I don't need anything handed to me!"

"We fight when me done convincing other yau-tja no hunt me kainde amedhe," she said. "Oo-kai'dhe fierce. May win. Yau-jta fierce. May win. Oo-kai'dhe no hand you skull."

The yautja leaned back and regarded her. Sealink wondered what he looked like under the pewter hunting mask. Her memory of him was hazy. In her mind he had baby fat still, but moved with the makings of a killer. Her mouth thinned. She remembered she had wondered, long ago, whether or not he would turn out like Dauncha. I hope not, she thought, or everything I'm doing is for nothing. She knew her own life was forfeit; as Queen, her only concern was the safety and continuation of her Hive. She took a step forward and the yautja tightened, a low crrr rumbling in his chest. The darkness of the eyepieces watched her as she drew her dagger from her belt and, with slow movements, slit the palm of her hand. Run liquid welled up and spilled onto the salt below. She held it up to show him.

"Oo-kai'dhe swear as kainde amedhe queen," she said, "Oo-kai'dhe give you fight for skull. But first, take Oo-kai'dhe to homeworld to speak to elders. Kainde amedhe comes with."

For a long moment her words hung in the air. Zizar was a black stone for all he moved, his wet breath slow between his sinewy jaws. Sweat rolled down her face as the yautja's chiseled hunting mask stared at her. Heat waves buffeted the three as the winds across the salt waste picked up. Somewhere, a haunt howled its hunger.

At long last, Dauncha's son grunted. He backed away. "As long as you die and you understand you will lose everything you care for, I don't care how it's done. You may ride with me on my ship, but your mission is folly. The elders will never grant your request. You're going to die far from your home and I'll be there to witness it. I don't even care if your pet kainde amedhe comes along. You'll learn you should've given up a long time ago."

Sealink watched as the yautja bent down to pick up Kaylon's head with more grace than she could ever muster and without a second look began walking towards the cloaked yautja ship, his short dreadlocks slank'ing and slish'ing against the metal shoulder pads. Sunlight glinted. Kaylon's head rode on the back of his shoulder like some kind of demonic parrot. It grinned at her, as if mocking her with its silence.

.