A.N: And lo, the chapter which took seven years to write.
"He knelt by the bed and bent over her, draining their last moment to its lees; and in the silence there passed between them the word which made all clear."
—Edith Wharton, The House of Mirth
The inside of the ship was murky, the dull red lights gleaming in the oily consistence of the air. Sealink shuddered despite herself, skin crawling as memories pressed all around her like liquid steam, making it difficult to breathe. It smelled of bitter musk and stale air. Only the slick chitin of Zizar's shoulder blade kept her from abandoning the ship and the plan to plead for her children's lives. She kept close to the praetorian, forcing herself to breathe in even breaths. If the yautja in front of them sensed her discomfort, he made no motion of it; as soon as he entered and closed the ramp he disappeared in the murk, leaving Sealink and Zizar to themselves. Only his fading footsteps on the metal grating announced there was another living creature on the ship. This is it, she thought. She took a step forward. No turning back. She made her way deeper within the bowls of the ship, feeling the walls compress all around her. Zizar's nails clicked against the metal grating of the ship, echoing in her ears.
After some time of wandering, Zizar stopped in front of a doorway. The hatch was closed, but the Xenomorph inclined his head. It's empty inside, and large, he said. A suitable chamber?
"Let's see it," Sealink said.
The door opened with a rough push and the young woman looked in. Zizar had spoken the truth: the interior was at least six praetorians wide and four long. Random crates and nets broke the ringing emptiness. The air felt different, staler, as if no one had breathed in there for a long time. She shuddered with the memory of the prison cell with its glass wall and hopeless stench and turned to Zizar.
"It's better than last time," she said with a smile, but the humor fell short, and the grin quickly left her lips. She could feel the praetorian regarding her, his gaze steady and blank like the worn-away expression of a river stone. Sealink ducked under its weight and moved towards the door. Suddenly the room felt too small.
"I'm going exploring," she said. "I'll be back in awhile." She stepped in the silent corridor and left the door ajar lest Zizar wanted to join her, but he never emerged. Sealink tried to ignore her relief and picked a direction to walk, her steps aimless and wary. Yautja runes followed her as she made her way through the ship, harsh and serrated. The sooner I get this mission done, the better, she thought. Her heart hardened as she thought of Damon's last words to her. She knew this journey could very well be her last. What was she thinking, thinking she could change anything for the better?
Her steps took her deeper in the ship than she had ever experienced. Each way looked the same and soon she began wishing Zizar was by her side. But she pressed onward, until she came across a metal door. She didn't know why she wanted to open it, but she did, throwing her hip to push it loose. It came free with a metallic squeal and Sealink found herself staring at someone's living quarters. Her first instinct was to close the door before the inhabitant returned, but then she realized all but one were dead. The chances of this being Dauncha's son's quarters were tiny. She peered inside. The room was spartan, filled with nothing but a small berth and weapon's rack. The berth looked like someone slept in it recently, the furs disturbed. Sealink stepped closer to the weapon's rack. Numerous killing devices gleamed in the murky red gloom, their edges razor-sharp and oiled. Ornate symbols and rune-like words were carved in the hilts and steels of several of the weapons. There were spears and blades and knives and throwing stars and things Sealink couldn't comprehend. One thing she noticed was all of them were relatively small in length, small enough for her wield. Her hand stretched out to one blade, her breath light.
Sealink whirled around. Dauncha's son stood in the doorway, dyed red from the ship's lights. His mask was off, and so was most of his armor, but with the lighting it was difficult to discern his expression. He was slight, almost whiplike without the extraneous metal and skulls, yet he seemed to fill the entire doorway. His oily musk mixed in the air in a heady, bitter solution. Sealink tensed, recognizing her spatial disadvantage. She considered calling for Zizar, but didn't. She waited, locking gazes on where she thought his eyes were.
"Why no?" she asked.
In the dimness the mandibles flared, and a low growl rumbled in the air. "You don't have the honor to touch a dead warrior's weapon."
Then he was gone, sandled feet thudding down the hallway. Sealink remained frozen for a heartbeat more before taking off after him. It didn't take long to catch up to him. She matched him step for step, trailing slightly. Though he didn't turn to regard her she knew he was aware of her. Her heart gave a little clench. We've come a long way, haven't we, she thought. Though she didn't like to dwell on the nightmarish months as Dauncha's gladiator, she remembered cherishing the son's presence. He had been but a pup, growing quickly into the honed killer he would one day become. And she knew he would—he was yautja: he was supposed to be a hunter. Now our paths meet again, she thought as she followed him. They didn't speak the entire time it took to arrive at the command bridge. At first she tried memorizing the way, but at last she gave up for the sheer monotony of the hallways. The moment the door opened with a pneumonic hiss he went straight for what looked like an important control panel and began clicking and fiddling with it. Sealink lingered near the entrance. The area was spacious, large enough to hold at least a six yautja. White light filtered through the vast windows. Outside was her world, seen behind a wall of glass. Sealink took a step forward, suddenly homesick. You may never see it again, she thought bitterly.
Sealink stayed out of the way as Dauncha's son went through the motions of setting the ship alight. Despite his youth it was obvious from the ease which he awoke the controls he was skilled. The panels flooded with green and red lights as systems hummed to life. Sealink clung to the wall as the ship shuddered like a horse casting off flies. Its great engine churr'd to life and Sealink saw the land shift outside the windows as the ship lifted. The churr grew into a stuttering rumble as the engines kicked into a higher power and suddenly the ship was ascending, leaving the world she had fallen in love with behind. Searing blue filled the windows, and as the yautja maneuvered the ship beyond the atmosphere, the blue deepened until it was the colour of a Xenomorph's carapace. The familiar colour soothed her terror of the empty vastness. Washes of cold stars speckled the black monotony. The noise of the engines eased into a low, vibrating hum, permeating the air until it was the only sound besides the clicking of the yautja's claws on buttons. She cleared her throat.
"The room," she said. "It yau-tja ooman's, no?"
The yautja's hands stilled on the panels. His back tensed. His head turned profile to her.
"What do you think you're trying to accomplish in engaging me in conversation?" he asked, and the amount of black hatred in his voice struck Sealink as if a physical blow. He turned fully, yellow eyes gleaming from the sunken sockets like coals. "You may want peace," he said, taking a step forward, "but you won't get it from me. I'll have your skull one way or another, or I'll watch as the others tear you limb from limb like the cur you are. Don't speak to me like you know me. Don't even look like you know me. Now get off my bridge before I decide fuck the arrangement and kill you now."
Sealink fumbled for the door. It hissed open and she fell through, and as the slid shut in her face, she stood panting, as if she had sprinted through the Hive. She put a hand to her chest and grimaced. She turned and almost jumped.
"Zizar!" she said. "I didn't—what are you doing here?"
The praetorian's nightmarish visage emerged from the gloom as if it were a part of it. She could hear his quiet breathing from between the savage jaws and the click of his claws as he drew near. She lifted her hand without thinking and he nudged the smooth curve of his skull in the cup of her palm. The movement and position was an old one, and Sealink blinked at the bittersweet nostalgia. She began to rub her hand up and down, just as she had done years ago when Zizar had been nothing but a gangly praetorian. But he isn't anymore, she thought. Spirit resurrect, avenging demon, benevolent essence, she didn't know what he was. But the motions were familiar, and Sealink didn't want to deny the small comfort. Zizar lowered his head, hissing with each indrawn breath.
You'll gain nothing in attempting amends, he said, words quiet and low. You must earn it. That is the yautja way.
"And how would you know so much about yautja?" Sealink asked.
I'm right, aren't I?
Sealink stopped caressing the sleek carapace and let the hand fall to her side. "Yes, you're right. I don't know why I . . . I don't know. I thought—" She shook her head. "Let's go back to our room. We have no place here."
Sealink lost track of the passage of time. With nothing to do but sleep and brood and pace, she fell into a bored, tense state. She yearned for the salt wastes, the desolate stretches of nothing. Her life had been so filled with hardships and trials, how poetic was it to fall in love with a barren world? Now with her friendly advances towards Dauncha's son rebuffed, Zizar was all she had. If Zizar felt the effects of dullness, he made no comment of it. He seemed to be perpetually at rest, never moving from his corner, his head quiescent between his quiet hands. Sealink almost wished he would be as restless as she. Before his death he was never still; now it was she who couldn't help moving, her legs carrying her in circles. Was it some lingering effect of experiencing the after life? Sealink couldn't bring herself to broach the topic. Sometimes he reminded her of the friend she had lost, other times, a cold stranger. She could almost hear Damon in her head encouraging her to talk to him, but words were clumsy on her tongue. And with the praetorian making little attempt at conversation, silence filled their days.
Whether it was on his part or some other influence, Sealink didn't see Dauncha's son again during the voyage. Sometimes she thought she heard a breath or a click of claw on metal, but after exploration, she always found herself alone. The loneliness bore down on the young woman. After their last encounter, she had no urge to repeat a confrontation, but neither did she want to give up on the yautja. Some part of her yearned for the connection they once had—she, a terrified girl, he, a naïve pup. She was convinced he had been the reason she had kept her sanity. Was it foolishness on her part, an idealistic dream? She didn't delude herself: he'd kill her when he'd have the chance. But what if he also thought about the days before all this? Bah. The emotions confused her. Despite the odd urges, she never actively sought him out. She never revisited the room that belonged to the human yautja. She tried not to visit behind many closed doors, but after days weeks? of being coped in the metal bowels of a dark ship, there was little else to do. To her it was a form of pacing, of exerting energy but going nowhere.
One such wandering brought her in front of a door. She didn't know why she stopped in front of it, or why she was suddenly struck with the urge to go through. After, when it was all over and she was back with Zizar, she knew something had pushedher. As always, it was quiet save for a low humming of machinery. The hallways stretched in either direction and were lost to the murk. Wherever the yautja was, it wasn't near her. She mustered her courage and gave the door a pushed. It squealed open and Sealink threaded herself inside.
A nauseating odor slapped her. Her stomach flip-flopped on itself and she brought a hand over her nose.
It was as if something rotting was cooking. The foul smell came from a huge vat in the middle of the room. Steam rose from the boiling liquid within the container, an eerie, pulsating yellow light emitting from it. Morbid curiosity and a terrible sense of don't look, don't look warred within her. She felt as though she'd been there before, in front of the same sordid-smelling vat. The sense of déjà vu, the I know what this is was unsettling, and more than anything she wanted to leave. But the urge to know was too much. As if drawn by an invisible thread, she worked her way over, as cautious as a skittish deer, her feet soundless on the metal floor. When she reached the vat she lifted herself up on her toes and peered into the yellow depths. There was a split moment in time where she couldn't see beyond the bubbling surface, hovering tremulously between the sheer second of unknowing and knowing. Then the shock cascaded. Kaylon's skull grinned up at her, bone-white. Sealink fell back as if burned. She managed to stumble a few steps before emptying the contents of her stomach noisily on the floor. The nauseating odor of flesh boiling pressed down on her like an iron weight. She couldn't escape fast enough and slammed the door behind her. The oily, musky air of the corridor was no better, and as she sunk to the floor, wheezing, the last barrier broke. For the first time since learning of his death, she cried for the loss of Kaylon.
Sealink felt more than heard the ship dropping out of hyperdrive and entering orbital descent. The walls began rattling as the thrusters took over, the once-low hum of the engines jarring into a whirring rumble. Sealink waited it out, grimacing at her speeding heartbeat. This was it. She looked over to where Zizar lay. His claws bit deep into the metal grating, his lips quivering over glistening teeth. When the worse of the shudders died down, Sealink made her way to the door, shoved it open, and stood in the corridor. Zizar slipped out behind her. He nudged her shoulder with a feather-light touch. He didn't say anything; he didn't have to.
The corridors seemed endless, as if they didn't want to relinquish their hold on their captives. Sealink wanted to sprint, to run, but she forced herself to walk until she found the whipcord shape of Dauncha's son. She instantly tensed. He was decked in his full armor, his cannon perched on his shoulder like a macabre mechanical parrot. He was maskless, his young face hard and angular. His eyes gleamed from within the sunken sockets. His mandibles twitched and jittered but slowed when he perceived her. Her heart gave an involuntary clench at Kaylon's skull strapped to his back, dead and gleaming white. She swallowed hard against the bitter knot in her throat. Since the full realization of Kaylon's death and her mourning, she felt as though a fog had been burned away. Her clarity focused to a chilled point. What happened to Kaylon is what's going to happen to all my children, she thought with cold certainty. Whatever misguided hope of friendship, of a renewal of their bond, withered within her. They had both changed beyond the scope of their initial meeting. She was no longer the helpless girl, and he, no longer the curious pup. He wasn't her ally, and she was glad she was finally clear-sighted enough to see it. She embraced the hot kernel of hatred, welcoming its simplicity over the complicated ache of the past emotions. Hate was simple. Hate was good. It would tide her through what was to come, be they her last. It's always been that way, hasn't it, she thought. Hatred. Violence. Killing. No matter where I go, no matter what I do, somehow it always finds me.
Like father, like son. If he planned to kill her family, she'd send him the same way as his father. Her palm throbbed with the promise she made. Fight to the death, she had said. She never defeated a yautja before. Only with Damon's body did she slay Dauncha. Her hand tightened to a fist. Who said she would keep her promise, anyway? She didn't owe this yautja anything—if anything, he owed her. She lifted her head and pretended not to notice him. If the son noticed a change in behavior, he made no sign of it. As if by unspoken signal, the metal hatchway released and made its whining descent. Light replaced the murk inch by inch until the ramp was completely open.
The waft of hot, humid jungle air was almost more than Sealink could bare. In an instant she was back in the gladiatorial pits, numb in the face of hundreds of yautja yowling for her death. She could smell the thunderous odor from the jungles, the foul breath from the yautja mouths, the sweat already pouring down her body. Her throat felt as though Dauncha's phantom hands were wrapped around it, squeezing, unrelenting, as if after all these years finally finding vengeance from the grave. She didn't realize she was backing up until she collided against Zizar's chitin. The surprise woke her. The Xenomorph nudged her, once, softly, and Sealink remembered herself. She turned her head and found Dauncha's son regarding her. The eyes pinned her with their flat gaze, and she could feel the contempt, the loathing, as if it were a physical thing. Without a word the yautja heaved Kaylon's skull over his shoulder and began to make his way down the ship's grated ramp. Coldness settled over her like a shroud as she began to descend the ramp after him. The light hit her like a blow, narrowing her eyes to squints. Then the heat met her. Unlike the dry heat on the salt wastes, this one was steamy, sweltering, and within moments sweat was pouring down her hairline and collecting on her upper lip.
There were sixteen yautja present, filed in two rows of eight. All were dressed in ceremonial armor and maskless, but Sealink didn't need to see their faces to know they were astonished to see her and the docile Xenomorph trailing behind her. After a few seconds of shocked silence, a scar-marked, gristly veteran barked a command and within moments bristling spears surrounded her and Zizar. Those nearest to the Xenomorph left him a wide berth. Sealink tensed, but the old Sealink, the cold one, remained outwardly calm. She didn't react when a spear broke ranks and prodded the flesh under her chin. Thunderous silence rang throughout the assembly. Zizar hissed once, then fell quiet. She lifted her chin, as if daring the yautja to sink the spear deeper. When nothing happened, Sealink pushed it away and said in her most peremptory voice,
"Me Oo-kai'dha, slayer of Daun-cha. Take me to council. Me have words to speak to old yau-tja."
If the silence was quiet before, it became smothering now. None of the hunters moved. Then the yautja, the same scarred one who shouted the initial order, stepped forward. From the length of his oiled dreadlocks and from the hard, scarred visage, Sealink judged him to be Dauncha's age, still in the full rigor of prime. He was predominately yellow with brown striations, spiky black growths speckling his brows. For some reason the appearance reminded her of the hawks back on her old forested planet, with their piercing gazes and lethal appearance. When he spoke, his voice was a combination of cat's growl and rock gravel.
"Thraen! What is the meaning of this?"
Sealink turned her head and saw blatant discomfort from the deliberate set of the young yautja's shoulders. Her mouth stretched in a vicious grin.
"So, name is Thraen," she said, and found it delicious the way his jaw clenched.
"Silence!" the scarred yautja said. When Sealink held her tongue, he turned his orange gaze on the young yautja. "Explain."
Thraen shrugged, his mandibles moving in lazy circles so reminiscent of Dauncha Sealink shivered on the spot.
"What is there to explain? This ooman believes it can—"
The yautja commander leaned in Thraen's face, so close Sealink could barely make out his words. He hissed, "Don't jerk me around. We all know this creature is Oo-kai'dha, the same one responsible for your sire's death and your clan's fall from honor."
Thraen's mandibles froze in mid-circle. The young yautja went stiff, a faint, greenish flush gathering on his cheeks. The look he shot Sealink made her want to bolt in the nearest hole. She inclined her head instead, baiting him.
The yautja commander spoke again, still in the low voice, low enough so she had a hard time discerning what was being said. It was then it occurred to the young woman this yautja was trying to spare the younger one more humiliation. Was he some sort of ally? A benefactor? Mentor, even? Sealink's eyes narrowed. It would make sense—Thraen was still young and in need of guidance when Dauncha died. Someone would've had to continue his studies, protect him against his own kind.
"I don't know what you're thinking of accomplishing by bringing her back alive, but until you kill her, it doesn't look good."
"We have an arrangement," Thraen said, but even to Sealink's ear it sounded hollow. The blush deepened. The young yautja refused to avert his gaze on what seemed to be sheer pride alone.
The scarred yautja stepped so close to Thraen they could've tangled tusks. Sealink strained her ears to hear: "You're in this neck deep. I can't protect you this time." Then the commander moved back. In a carrying voice he said, "We're escorting Oo-kai'dha to the council of elders."
"And kainde amedha," Sealink said. "Goes too."
The commander growled. "Don't push your luck, tech-ne lou'dhret," he said, but amended with ill grace, "And the kainde amedha." He leaned close enough to Sealink for her to smell his hot breath. His orange eyes seared into her. "I know what you're capable of. If you or the praetorian so much as nudge a toe out of line, we'll kill you both."
Sealink nodded with as much pride she could muster, and soon fell into step amongst the escort. The spears never lifted. The yautja didn't know how to respond to Zizar's seemingly docile behavior—he was a praetorian, a far more vicious counterpart to the drone, which, by itself, was a more than savage opponent. They followed him as if he were to burst into violence at any moment, their grips on their weapons ready for the slightest twitch of menace. Sealink wanted to laughed at their fear, but she buried the urge under the layers of cold Xenomorph Queen persona. She never stopped walking with her head held high, despite the hordes of yautja stopping everything they were doing to gawk, unabashed, at the outlandish procession. Mutters followed the stares, too low and overlapping to discern, but Sealink had a very good idea of their topic. Ahead of her, Thraen never once acknowledged the low pulse of surprise and suspicion. She supposed he was use to mutters and discontent. The mutters grew louder and more insistent the deeper they went into the yautja acropolis. At last Sealink could make out That's Oo-kai'dha—I'd recognize it anywhere and Is that an actual praetorian? Why is it and the fool's doing—
Sealink turned her head to look at the crowds. A guard barked, "Eyes upfront!"
This is it, she said to Zizar through their telepathic link. She wanted to wiggle with giddy triumph. We've made it.
Yes, Zizar said. So far.
His brevity brought a feeling of ill wind. She instantly sobered. She knew the feeling intimately, but she shoved it away with an almost savage violence. No—it will work. After all the hardship, after all the suffering, something in the universe would have to grant her request. She would save her people. She would beat the odds.
The procession brought her and Zizar to a massive flight of stone stairs. The suns and muggy air were merciless. More and more Sealink wished for a cool mouthful of water, or one of the spiny grey plants back on the salt waste. Her calves ached as stair after stair led their way to more stairs. Soon she was climbing higher than she'd ever experienced on the yautja homeworld. She became high enough to see the sprawling dwellings of the yautja populace, and beyond them, the thick mass of vegetation. The sky was the colour of bloodstained sand, the twin suns hidden behind a thick swath of sweltering gray clouds. Her body was plastered with sweat. Zizar showed no evidence of fatigue and hissed whenever a yautja strayed too close. When they finally crested the platform, Sealink was never gladder to see flat ground. She had little time to catch her bearings as the vast temple loomed before her. She craned her head back and shielded her eyes. It's ancient, she thought. Vine-covered mosaics of hunters locked in eternal battles covered the temple's surface, the aura of power and prestige vibrating from the stone panels. Sealink could only stare awestruck at the sprawling behemoth of stone and statue. Mottled statues carved in artistic renderings stood as if guarding the several entrances, forever grasping their spears in their cold, gray hands. Centuries have built this. A culture revolved around this. Her enemy was bigger, more well-rooted she had ever realized. Sealink felt tiny, puny compared to the might and grandeur of the wealth and strength of the yautja. Don't get lost, she thought. Remember what you are. Lifting her chin, she went to step into the yawning depths. She managed a few feet before two yautja flanked her and stepped in her path.
Spears barred the way. Sealink growled. "What this?"
The scarred yautja commander stepped up. "Until the council pronounce you worthy of their audience, no admittance is granted. You must wait here."
Sealink bowed her head with ill patience and waited as the brown-striated yautja slipped behind the guards and disappeared. She didn't know how long they waited. It seemed forever and a day before the yautja returned. In her eagerness, she almost didn't catch his words.
"They will not see you."
Sealink stared at him for a long time, mouth and brain disconnected. "What you mean, no see?"
"You are unfit to hold their attention. You must prove your worth the same way all unblooded do: you must go on a kainde amedha hunt."
At first Sealink was unable to comprehend what he was saying. Then her face began to flush. She could feel herself buoying up with despair and rage. It coursed through her veins and paralyzed her diaphragm, building behind her eyes in an increasing throb. It was a bit late for them to ask her for a kainde amedha skull—had they'd asked her during her first visit, then she would've showered bones over their feet. She would've dragged whole carcasses! Her reputation was known throughout the yautja homeworld: surely her status as a gladiatorial pit fighter reached the decrepit council ears. What, did they forget all the lives she'd taken? Must there be more blood spilt? Was their thirst for death not yet sated? She wanted to spit words in the most condescending, contemptuous voice she knew, but in her fury she forget how to speak the yautja's language. She quivered in place, livid.
Thraen walked into view and sneered, perverse pleasure scrawled over his hard face. "I told you."
In that single moment Sealink hated him more than she ever did Dauncha.
"Not so fast." The elder yautja shook his head, a strange grimace in the set of his maw. "As punishment for 'wasting the council's time with inane requests,' you're instructed to accompany the ooman while she proves her honor and worth."
The expression on Thraen's face fell away as swiftly as if it was slapped off. A stony mask quickly replaced the betrayal. As if the moment never happened, he thumped his chest in grim acknowledgement.
The scarred yautja's mandibles twitched. "And til that day, she is to remain in your care."
Thraen's flesh paled six degrees. In a strangled voice he asked, "This also by council's decree?"
The older yautja's tone was rough but not unkind. "Yes."
Thraen's mandibles jerked and twitched with increasing violence. He turned away, ringed maw clacking with accelerating agitation. At first Sealink felt vindicated, vicious even, but as her blood cooled and logic took over, she realized fueling the young yautja's hatred would be worse for her. It would do her no good in the long run if the yautja wanted nothing more than to tear her spine from her skin. And if her success in procuring the thrice-blasted worth depended on him, then she would have to avoid inciting his wrath. She wrinkled her mouth. This whole situation smacked of injustice. Now she would have to risk her life to kill more kainde amedha to save her family. Taking a Xenomorph one-on-one in a controlled environment was different than hunting one in a Hive setting. There would be a very good chance she wouldn't survive such a hunt. All at once the hopelessness of the situation loomed over her like a harrowed shadow. She glanced over her shoulder at the temple's passageway in despair. The council was within her reach, not minutes away. Hope, once so bright, rotted at her fingertips. A different shadow fell over her. She looked up, startled, to find Zizar by her side. The praetorian, at once out of place and strangely appropriate, inclined his head in the old, familiar movement. Sealink completed the gesture by reaching up and caressing the smooth, black carapace. He was cool beneath her human skin. She remembered kissing him once, as a human would do to another. Without thinking she wrapped her arms around the thin, corded neck and embraced him. She was close enough to hear the low, raspy bubbling hiss of his breath deep in his chest.
When Sealink pulled away she found every yautja in attendance staring at her, some their mandibles frozen, others gesturing wildly. She lifted her chin and returned the yautja commander's gaze. With remarkable self-control, the yautja constrained his disgusted amazement and jerked his head in acknowledgement. Clicking a few orders to his underlings, he had them clear the area till she, Zizar, Thraen, and himself were alone. Sealink eyed the young yautja warily. He was nearly shaking, his mandibles shivering under the onslaught of rage and frustration. When his mentor went to move by his side Thraen snarled him away. In one swift movement he heaved Kaylon's skull across his shoulder and without a look to either of them began to descend the massive staircase. The commander let him go without molestation, though Sealink had been sure a chastisement was in order for such a rude departure. She shifted her weight, unsure of how to proceed, inwardly groaning at the tasteless task of hunting Thraen down. Where did she even begin?
Help came from an unexpected quarter when the yautja commander growled, "Follow me, then. I will bring you to his domicile."
They did not speak once during the long trek down the staircase. Already sore muscles groaned in protest as Sealink descended the last step. The yautja struck up a quick pace, moving through the acropolis with single-minded purpose. Yautja of all ages and genders gave a wide berth, their eyes locked on Zizar. Several trophy-covered males and females thrust their mandibles out aggressively, kurring under their breaths as their eternal enemy and prey strode past them. The praetorian acted as if they were beneath his notice, gliding over the ground with predatory ease. For Sealink the whispers were harder to ignore. She knew many recognized her as Dauncha's infamous ooman kainde amedha. She wouldn't be surprised if many of them attended her gladiatorial fights. Things are different now, she thought. She refused to lower her head and returned credulous looks with chilly ones of her own.
Sealink recognized the old path to Dauncha's abode long before setting eyes on the dwelling. Her breath left her lungs as she turned the corner and saw it. Gooseflesh erupted down her arms despite the sweltering heat. She recognized the place instantly. She would know it anywhere. The five years had not been kind; the dwelling lay buried under layers of neglect and disrepair, cracks and vines choking the sidings. The front entrance looked as if no one had used it in years, what had been the door hanging from one slab hinge. Faded writings crawled over the spaces between the empty windows like wounds. Without waiting for the yautja commander Sealink stepped into the darkened hallway. Cobwebs and the musty smell of mold met her nose. She heard Zizar rustling behind her but the sound was faraway. She walked down the long corridor as if in a dream, following the long ago path of her capture. She found herself in what had been the courtyard. Sands that were once clean and white were gritty and clumpy from poor handling. She stepped in the centre, head quiet, ears filled with the whack of phantom blows of the beating that nearly killed her.
A movement lifted her gaze. A yautja, hunched and covered in scars, shuffled by, burdened under a yoke of water barrels. It took a few more steps before realizing it was not alone. It turned its head and stared straight at her. At first Sealink stared back without recognition. A slave, perhaps; it appeared as unkempt as its surroundings with its gray skin and heavily scarred visage. But then she noticed how only two claw-tipped mandibles twitched while the others drooped, especially the mangled one from her long-ago bite. Her mouth dropped in a small O. A second later the dim burn of acknowledgment lit the yautja's gaze. The rounded back straightened. The yoke sloughed off. The water barrels crashed unheeded to the ground. The yautja took a step forward, the two mandibles twitching and jerking with increasing fury. A terrible growl erupted from his throat. All Sealink had as warning was the strangled word "You" before he launched at her. She spun away and leapt clear of the clout that would've knocked her clean off her feet. She hissed as he came at her again, swinging wild, foam flecking the roaring maw. She ducked two more blows before curling in close for a punch; it was like hitting solid rock. She stumbled back, cradling her stinging hand. She scrambled for purchase in the clotting soil as the yautja rushed at her, yowling. Sheer reflex saved her from a skull-crushing haymaker. She darted away, snarling in fear. The yautja followed, murder scrawled across his blazing face.
He was in striking range when something black and furious collided into him with the force of a battering ram. The yautja went tumbling in the grit, gray dreadlocks flying. When he rolled to a stop he remained there for a moment, disoriented, before propping himself onto his elbows. He looked up to a mouthful of hissing praetorian inches from his face. The yautja froze as Zizar drooled above him. The two mandibles spasmed.
"Leave him, Zizar." Sealink brushed the dirt from her clothes. She stood up. "He's not worth it."
The praetorian backed away, head bowing, hands scouring in the sand. Sealink watched as Dauncha's former Head Trainer rose to his feet. A long time ago the mere cast of his shadow was enough to send her into shivers of fear. Now she stared at the ghost of that yautja, a curious mixture of contempt and emptiness tight in her throat. She lifted her chin.
"Go away," she said. "Or Oo-kai'dha not stop kainde amedha next time, Ra'ka."
The rekindled flame in her old tormentor banked as he glared death at her, unsaid words ringing clear in the space between them. Sealink refused to look away, matching his hatred with a cold one of her own. Her gaze dipped to the long-ago bite she'd scored, reliving a tiny thrill of jealous triumph, then back to him. It was enough. Ra'ka heaved himself up to his feet and shuffled away, frame bent under the weight of years of dishonor. She released the breath she'd been holding and shook herself. She would deal with him later, if it came to that.
You should've let me kill him, Zizar said. I would've done it gladly.
Sealink ran a hand through her hair and found she couldn't answer. She clicked at him to follow her back into the hut, but she knew she didn't have to. The praetorian shadowed her closer now, his face nearly butting her elbow. She ducked inside and instantly knew where she was going next. After a few moments of negotiating the abandoned hallways she stood at last in front of her old cell. Like everything else it looked like it hadn't been in use for years. Wisps of straw remained of her old bedding. The metallic water bowl was overrun with a family of two-headed insects. When she pressed her hand against the glass wall and withdrew it, a handprint remained in the dust.
"This is where they kept me," she heard herself say. Her heart was a sluggish thing in her chest.
Zizar shifted behind her. Such a small cage, he said, voice low. He clicked quietly to himself, then said, I understand, now.
Why you pace.
Sealink's brow crinkled into a frown. She turned to face him. The room was almost laughably small with the pony-sized praetorian and human squeezed in. With the cramped quarters Sealink was close enough to see her distorted reflection on the Xenomorph's carapace. She opened her mouth to speak when a tiny movement in her peripheral drew her attention away. She found the yautja commander regarding them from the entrance. The savage, alien face was closed off as the mandibles stretched and converged. Zizar tensed, but the young woman placed a hand on the smooth dome.
"Thraen's life became hell the day they learned of Dauncha's fate," the yautja said without preamble. "From that moment onward he had to fight for everything—even the right to walk in the marketplace. He's the last of his clan's line; no respectable female will ever bear his sons."
"That why you help him?" Sealink asked. It was hard to dredge up sympathy when the old horrors of the cell pressed at her back.
The yautja stared hard at her for a moment, the mandibles going quiet. Then he said, "I saw him training, once. I knew instantly he was a genius. I knew then I had to see his education through, social stigmas be damned. He became the youngest unblooded ever to participate in a Blooded hunt. Life became better for him after that. Until you showed up, at least." His voice lowered to a growl and he took a menacing step forward. "I don't know what type of 'arrangement' you have with him, but you've fucked up his life enough. I won't see that happen again."
The tension mounted in the tiny room as human, yautja, and Xenomorph glared at each other. Sealink's mouth wrinkled.
"Dauncha was cause of all pain. Blame him, not Oo-kai'dha."
"You were the one who killed him."
Sealink snarled. "Me no wanted be slave. But me slave. Me no want fight. But me fight. But yes, me wanted kill Daun-cha, and me kill him. Puny ooman slay mighty yau-tja!"
The commander's breathing was growing heavy. "I'd tread carefully if I were you," he said in a soft, dangerous voice. He placed a hand to a knife at his belt when Zizar wrinkled his lips and hissed. Sealink could smell the rising scent of bitter musk. She leaned close to Zizar and clicked. The commander's exposed mouth clenched as he glared meathooks at her.
"What did you say to it?"
"Me say to Zizar—" here she said the praetorian's name in the kainde amedha tongue, complete with hisses and whistle, "—be at ease. No want fight here."
As if suddenly becoming aware of the rising hostility and his spatial disadvantage, the yautja uncoiled. He affected nonchalance as he flicked out a mandible. "Fine. If you won't tell me what all this is about, I'll get Thraen to. But mark my words, Oo-kai'dha: I will not see you destroy him any further. "
Sealink shook her head, frustration rising like the bitter tide. "Oo-kai'dha want peace."
The yautja snorted. It was an ugly sound. "I doubt that."
Sealink bared her teeth. She was about to snap a retort when Zizar brushed her shoulder. You'll get nowhere arguing with a stone wall. Let him be.
The young woman knew the praetorian's words were true, but the lure of trying to prove herself was hard to ignore. Why was it so difficult to convince these boar-headed hunters it wasn't all just about them? Despite the sting of an unfinished argument, she ceded. She offered a nod the brown-stripped yautja's way and said, "We all tired and hungry. Go talk to Thraen. See me tell truth."
The yautja kurred deep within his barrel chest. He turned to leave.
"Wait," Sealink said.
The yautja stopped, but didn't turn to face her. She took a step forward.
"Who was ooman yautja?"
The brown yautja didn't move. Sealink tried again. "She was with Thraen, on kainde amedha hunt. She dressed like yau-tja." She didn't mention it was Zizar who had killed her, or how she had tried herself.
"That is Thraen's story to tell," the commander said at last, "and I am sure he'd be loathed to tell it to you." Then he was gone, disappearing down the empty halls of Dauncha's old domain, leaving the young woman and the praetorian alone. Sealink didn't realize how taut she'd been until she slumped against the cold, hard chitin of her companion's side. She was surprised at how disappointed she was at the yautja's answer. She wanted to know the mystery of the human yautja, enticed by the knowledge there could be other hybrids like her out there. A low croon whistled between the leering jaws. At first Sealink couldn't tell what she was hearing. It took her a moment to recognize it for what it was, and when she did, a hot, immediate bloom of fondness and ease flooded through her. It was an old sound, harkening back to days before Zizar's death, back when he would often comfort her with low-pitched timbres. It was nothing more than a hum, but she pressed against him in earnest, grasping onto the tiny sign of affection with the urgency of a drowning man. Zizar kept crooning long after Sealink stopped embracing him with an almost crushing grip. She had forgotten the sound. It was sweeter to her ears than any other in the three worlds she knew. The two friends remained quiet and in their own thoughts until Sealink's belly rumbled its hunger. She pulled away, grimacing.
"That yautja never mentioned where we can get food," she said, rueful and more tired than she had felt in a long time. She placed a hand on her stomach.
Then we find our own, Zizar said.
Sealink found herself smiling. It was a small one, no more than a shadow. Zizar turned and left. Before following him the young woman took one last, long look at the room. She decided she would never set foot in it again.
Sealink stared off into nothing, hand propped on her chin and the other resting on her knee. The world was dyed a deep, pre-dawn mauve, the sands of the training area almost lilac. A small fire, built from whatever would burn, thrummed near her feet. Roasting in its own juices was the squat, wrinkled-necked fish-frog Zizar caught in the jungle. Occasionally a drip of liquid would hit the fire and hiss like an irritated kainde amedha. In the background, Zizar crunched into the other fish-frog, pausing so often to lift his head and curl his lip before returning to his meal. Sealink watched him for a bit, enjoying the way the orange firelight played on the organic designs of his chitin. Then she returned to her brooding, the whole events of yesterday playing back like a slow-rerun tape.
Your meat is done.
"What? Oh. Thanks." Sealink frowned. "How did you know it was cooked?"
Zizar didn't pause from his eating. Cartilage snapped with a brittle twinkle. Could hear it.
The young woman sat back with a wry grin. "The last thing I need is burnt food. I owe you." She reached out and grabbed the spit away from the fire. Within minutes the meat was devoured. Hot grease ran down her chin as she gnawed the cartilage from the joints and sucked the marrow from the bones. She rocked back, grunting her satisfaction. After several moments more of licking her fingers, she fell back into quiet. Only then did she realize Zizar had finished eating and was regarding her with a most intent stare.
That yautja yesterday, the one who attacked you. It was clear he was from your past. Zizar's lips lifted, quieted. The long, double-jointed fingers cupped the remaining bones of his meal and, in a strangely human gesture, tossed them into the fire. Who was he?
Sealink eyed the praetorian. She licked her lips and shrugged under the sudden turn of the conversation. "He was . . . Daun-cha's second. Did all the dirty work."
He hurt you?
Sealink broke eye-contact and stared moodily in the fire. It wasn't, 'Did he hurt you,' but 'He hurt you,' as if the question was nothing but a polite veneer. Zizar already knew the answer. She suddenly wished for other topics. She never liked thinking about That Day when everything changed. She'd be old and gray and still remember it with agonizing clarity. She shifted, trying to alleviate the sudden embarrassment of showing this part of her life to the praetorian. Even Damon, though he'd witnessed her gladiatorial fight and had seen first-hand her change, never knew of the initial catalyst that stripped her innocence away forever. She'd lived with the secret for so long admitting it to someone seemed almost sacrilege. Was this how the late Queen felt when She was captured and forced to lay eggs? Had Mèlintèlinas kept the horrors of what happened to Her bottled up inside? Sealink was about to say I'm sorry, Zizar, I'm not ready, but stopped herself before the words could escape her tongue. She ran a hand through her hair, frustrated that even after all this time, the yautja race still had her locked in its iron-like grasp. She found herself nodding. She met the quiet praetorian's regard.
"Yes. Very much."
Zizar clicked his jaws in a wet sound. His hands spasmed into fists before quieting in the sand. When he spoke again, the earnest confusion rang as clear as bell.
You should've let me killed him. But you didn't. Why? Why, after everything he's done to you?
Sealink spat to the side. "That's the thing," she said. "I've already gotten my revenge. I've even had my revenge on Thraen, which I never meant to happen." Her mouth stretched into a smile devoid of humor. "I guess he's my only regret."
Sealink grimaced. How could she quantify everything the pup had been for her? She had latched onto his essence like a drowning man in a storm, grasping on its brightness when the hatred threatened to swallow her whole. He never shielded her from Ra'ka's temper or his father's exploitation. She did remember, though, him tossing extra scraps food in her cell, and how he had reminded her of Zizar so much it both pained and kept her from going insane. The young woman shifted, unsure how to tell the praetorian how much he'd been a influence on her survival, if to tell at all. She also didn't feel like mentioning how she contemplated killing the pup to get back at Dauncha, how she had decided against it for the sheer fact it wouldn't wound her captor enough. The previous embarrassment returned in full force. She cleared her throat. If Zizar caught on her discomfort, he made no sign.
"I hated everything . . . except him." She looked away. "He was the only one who didn't expect anything from me."
A little silence stretched between them, growing thicker with each passing moment. She picked up a stick from the fire and with the burnt end etched shapeless designs in the sand. Somewhere in the jungle a creature cried out, ytrrrrk-ytrrrrk. The fire now roasted on a slow simmer, the glowing embers tinkling.
Neither you or Damon spoke of your time here, Zizar said, handling the question as if it were a live, poisonous thing in his hands.
"No. We didn't."
Sealink shrugged helplessly. "No one could help me."
I would've, Zizar said quietly.
Sealink stared at the friend she had once lost and regained, mouth open, a sudden wave of unexplainable sadness washing over her. "If only you knew how much you've saved me, Zizar," she said. She broke off, confused to find her nose stinging. She scrubbed at her eyes, then stared at a faraway point. "I would've gone mad. I know this. When Damon saw me that day in the death pit, I was sure I was going to die."
She blinked. No, she thought. I had wanted to die. After the constant strain of months of hatred, the chance to escape into blissful numbness had been too inviting. She remembered asking Damon to finish it, to end her life, and only after when she recognized him did her gritty grasp on survival return. Zizar's right: I stopped speaking to everyone after that, she realized. Isolated, confused, unsure how to cope, how could've anyone help her? How could they've understood what she had gone through? Damon had been her only confidant, but he had respected her wishes for silence, perhaps to her detriment. Sealink turned her head to regard the praetorian, the strange sensation of losing something loved holding a death-grip around her heart. She was brought back to a long-ago conversation she had had with Zizar, back when they were still on the forested planet. He had asked her a question in such a bold manner it had surprised them both. She remembered thinking how brazen he'd been, and now, on the yautja planet, he refused to shy away from the questions only Damon dared ask. She still didn't know what Zizar's reincarnation meant, but perhaps this was one of the reasons. She bowed her head to him.
"Yes," she said. "I realize that now."
Another silence fell on the two companions. She looked up, noticing for the first time the twin suns were already tinging the tops of the trees blood-red. Though the air was still relatively cool, she knew the respite wouldn't last. She stirred the last of the dying embers of the fire. Someone, no doubt Ra'ka, would clean the mess. She heaved herself up and brushed herself clean.
"I'm going to look for Thraen and figure out what we're going to do," she said. "Alone."
The praetorian hissed between gaping jaws. You sure that's wise, Sealink?
Sealink shrugged. "I think it would be better that way. Don't worry—you'll be the first to know if things get tense."
Though his face didn't change, the young woman got the unmistakable sensation Zizar was frowning at her. Alright. But the second he becomes violent, get away. I may not be able to save you like I did with that other yautja.
Sealink snorted. "You think I can't handle myself?"
That's not what I meant.
She sighed through her nose. As much as she appreciated the attempt at rekindling the closeness that had existed between them before, her head felt as if stuffed with rocks. She could feel a headache growing behind her eyes. "I know." She tried to smile but it came out more of a grimace.
Hurrying away before she could hear his response, she left the training area and reentered the abandoned dwelling. She didn't know where Thraen was, but she supposed if she looked enough, she would find him. She passed her cage without a glance and continued right through, ignoring the empty rooms yawning on each side of the passageway. Everything smelled of stale dirt and mildew. She continued until she almost reached the other side of the hut, and by then could hear something moving, and from the grunts, it was a yautja. She tensed, thinking it was Ra'ka, a hand going to the collapsible yautja spear wedged in her belt. She curled her lip. She would kill him herself if he shoved his mangled face her way. She slowed, cautious now. She considered calling for Zizar but chose against it. Hugging the remaining shadows, she peered into view.
It took a moment to realize the yautja in front of her wasn't Dauncha. When her brain caught up to her pounding heart she recognized the orange brindling was off and the figure was far too slim. The young yautja was naked save for a metal loincloth, his clawed feet bare in the clotted sand of the smaller, more private training area. The sand around him was torn up, as if he'd been there for hours before. His muscles rippled as he engaged a complicated move, twirling the double-ended staff as it were an extension of himself, never pausing, never hesitating in the slightest. As if hearing an invisible cue he flung the staff towards a series of targets at the other end of the small training area and the thrumming fudddudududud of a successful hit filled the clearing. Not even pausing to admire his handiwork the young yautja began a series of fighting forms, his thin tresses glinting in the strengthening red daylight, face tight with concentration. A blade appeared, then another, and soon he was weaving them around him in a deadly pattern, delivering deathblows to unseen enemies. He maintained this for several minutes or hours; Sealink couldn't tell. All she could see was the naked grace and power in the young whipcord body. She didn't know how long she watched him. There was something violent and beautiful the way he moved, not unlike a kainde amedha. The twin suns were clearing the horizon line when she purposefully crunched a twig beneath her foot.
Thraen whirled around. He froze when he saw her, his mandibles stiffening in mid-jerk. Within seconds he threw a black glower her way. The claw-tipped appendages resumed their motions, stretching and converging with aggressive thrusts. Pretending as if she wasn't there, he stalked toward the targets, shoulders taut. Sealink sighed through her nose and braced herself. She hurried after him, the churned sands warm beneath her feet.
"Wait—we need talk. Thraen—!"
"Do not say my name!"
Sealink balked, spitting a hiss of surprise as Thraen spun around around, froth speckling the ring of his teeth. She side-stepped, already in mid-crouch to ameliorate her chances of escape should he charge her. But Thraen never took a step closer as he panted at her, breathing like a bull's, eyes burning so hot the air felt cold in comparison. Sealink watched, wary, as the yautja visibly tried to control himself. The exposed teeth ringing the humanistic mouth glinted as he looked away and relaxed the fist holding the spear in his hand. When he spoke again, his voice was a cold as a frosted blade.
"What do you want."
Sealink straightened, but dared not take another step closer. "Talk about kainde amedha hunt."
Thraen leered at her, mandibles flaring wide. "What about?"
The young woman could feel her face flushing. She struggled not to bristle. "You know what. Me need hunt to talk to council. You need help me."
The yautja chuckled in the hunter's kurr-urr-urr, voice still lacking the true adult's rumble. Not a drop of humor laced his tone. He spread his arms out wide. "What's the rush? We have plenty to time. Years, even."
Sealink tried to ignore the ice dripping down her back. "That no part of deal."
The pretense of humor dropped from his face as the yautja glowered at her. The young woman was quick to continue, "We go on kainde amedha hunt. Me die, me survive. If survive, me go to council and they spare Oo-kai'dha's Hive. Then me out of Thr—me out you life. No more bad honor."
A strange gleam entered Thraen's eye. For the first time since the conversation started he took a heavy step towards her, all the while shaking his head in a slow, hypnotizing manner. "Ohhh, no. Ohhh, no you don't. We made a deal, remember? Regardless of the hunting status of your worthless Hive, you and I fight to the death. Or has your craven nature forgotten that?"
Sealink flushed. The hand she'd cut to seal the blood promise balled into a fist. "We no have to fight," she said, but fell quiet at the yautja's undisguised leer of triumph. It was an ugly expression on the face hard beyond its years, savage with distorted glee. He took another step closer, further closing the gap between them. She could see the sweat on the pebbled, reptilian skin.
"And what if I turn to the council and say I discovered a kainde amedha they've never seen before? What if I tell them I have found a King, Oo-kai'dha? How do you think they'll react to that bit of information?"
She stared at him in horror. "No."
"Give me one reason not to. If you go back on your vow, if you skitter away like the utter tetch-na coward whore you are, I'll march straight to the council and tell them all about the glorious prey I found." His eyes burned a feverish fire. "Go on. Dare me. Dare me to do it."
Even if she trained for a hundred years, she wouldn't be ready to defeat Thraen's skill level. The only yautja she'd killed was through a Xenomorph's body—Damon's. She was trapped under the weight of a promise she had no intention of upholding. "Me no want fight you," she heard herself say.
"Too bad. You're going to fight me, or I tell everyone about your King. See the hunts on your pitiful world stop then."
The sibilant threat hung in the air like a guillotine blade, both suspended and oppressive. In its wake they realized they were close enough to kiss. He was hunched, making him only slightly taller than her, allowing her a perfect view of his yellow, humanistic eyes; she could see the capillaries pulsing beneath the surface, could see the pupils constrict and dilate as he focused on her. She could smell his hot breath and feel it puffing on her cheeks. As if realizing their proximity Thraen jerked back as if burned, kurring low in his throat, brows lowering in a severe expression. Without another word he spun on a heel and stormed away, leaving Sealink standing breathless, anguished, her heart a tangled knot in her chest. One way or another she was going to fight him. If I even survive the kainde amedha hunt, she thought. She had no idea how to train for one, or what her plan would be; she very much doubted she would get help. She decided to deal with Thraen after everything else. She shook her head. He would be no help. His mentor, on the other hand, could aid her. Surely he would find a way to fund and plan the hunt. A momentary surge of rage at the unfairness of it transfixed her in place. No matter what she would do, bloodshed was unavoidable. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath, willing herself to relax. On a hostile planet with so few allies, she couldn't afford to make mistakes. She knew she had to find the yautja commander, but all she wanted to do was sit. The pre-morning conversation with Zizar and now Thraen's confrontation made her want nothing to so with hunting, searching, or speaking. She made her slow way back to the campfire and found it abandoned. Zizar was nowhere to be found. His long foot- and handprints led away from the training area and towards the jungle. Sealink frowned. Maybe he was still hungry and was looking for something else to eat. She had no heart to call for him. Maybe he needed a respite as well.
She walked to one of the pillars and slide down until her butt hit the ground. The shade was cool compared to the rising swelter of the sands, and soon the young woman was dozing behind heavy-lidded eyes, resting.
She snapped awake at the first crunch of sandled feet and was in a crouch the next, hissing. The yautja commander stared at her, pausing. He trilled quietly. Sealink climbed to her feet, face flushing. If the grizzled yautja noticed her discomfort, he ignored it.
"Where's your pet?"
She rubbed sleep from her eyes. "What?"
The upper mandibles twitched. A low clickingrumbled in the thick, muscled chest. "The kainde amedha. Where. Is. It."
Sealink affected nonchalance. "Somewhere."
The yautja cocked a heavy brow. "Really."
She bristled. "Why you want know?"
"I like to keep track of my enemy at all times."
Sealink shook her head. "Me said no enemy. Zizar no hurt if no attacked."
The yautja eyed her long and hard, mandibles converging. "That's what you said before," he said, tone blank.
The young woman blew hard through her nose. "Look. Me want go on kainde amedha hunt so me can 'prove' worthy—" she tried not to gag, "—to speak to old yau-tja. That all me want. You worry for Thraen, yes? Me worry for kainde amedha Hive. It same." When the commander yautja said nothing, she plowed through. She could feel blood pounding behind her eyes as she came to the crux of her argument. She leaned in. "Thraen no help. You only help. Oo-kai'dha want this done quick-quick, even if she die in hunt. If live, she talk to old yau-tja." She took a deep breath. "Then Oo-kai'dha and Thraen fight to death." She didn't want to mention the improbability of her survival. She had no dilutions: the commander probably already knew.
She lowered her voice and stumbled on the rarest word in the yautja tongue. She didn't even know if she was pronouncing it right. "Please," she said. "Please."
There was an instant where she thought the lean, hard yautja would remain silent; he gazed at her, exposed teeth clacking as he tensed and relaxed his jaw, seeming to look straight beyond her, through her, as if she wasn't there. Then the moment passed. The orange, strangely human eyes peered out from deep within the sunken sockets.
"I won't be doing this for you."
She nodded. A rush of relief threatened to make her dizzy. "Me know."
"The last thing Thraen needs is more dishonor. The sooner this business is behind him, the better."
Sealink nodded again, though inside she was smarting at the blatant unfairness. What did you expect? the little voice in her head said. They all saw Dauncha in the right and she, an ooman, in the wrong. She twitched her head. All what mattered was the survival of her Hive, and if swallowing her pride meant that, then so be it. The young woman noticed the imperceptible way the yautja tensed when a black shadow slunk into view. She tried not to flaunt her pleasure at Zizar's return, rubbing a hand down the front of his dome when he stopped besides her. The praetorian's wet breath hissed between the sinewy jaws.
"The yautja wants to know where you've been," she said.
Zizar writhed his lips. The commander flared his mandibles in response.
Around. Exploring. Watching. What does he want?
"I'm setting up arrangements with him for the hunt," she said. "It'll be taken care of."
Zizar bowed his head lower. You're unhappy.
Sealink hid her grimace and turned to the yautja who was still standing there, mandibles quiet, body in the relaxed form of a hunter waiting for a reason to attack.
"He out in—" she didn't know the word for 'jungle' was, "—green, watching. He eat things."
The yautja clicked. "I'd suggest you tighten the leash. You don't want to give us an excuse to kill it."
Sealink lifted her chin. "Me keep nothing on leash," she said. Her mouth added, "Bad things happen if did."
The commander glowered, the speckled brows frowning in a severe expression. "I knew Dauncha. He was a good yautja. He didn't deserve what you did to him or his clan."
She snorted, unable to stop herself to say: "It better me kill everyone, then?"
She was unprepared when the yautja looked away. It was a subtle gesture, nothing more than a dart of the eyes, but she saw it as if painted red.
"Yes," he said. His voice was low. "It would've."
Then he was turning away, sandled feet crunching in the unkempt sands of the derelict courtyard. Before he was out of earshot, he said over his shoulder, "I'll return in half a moon. You will have your hunt then."
Sealink was quiet long after the commander was gone. Zizar butted her elbow with his mouth. Though it was a gentle move, it still rocked her forward. She clicked at him; it was an absent-minded sound. The praetorian stopped. He stepped in front of her, forcing her to look up.
Sealink tried to move away. "It's nothing."
Don't lie to me.
She stilled. There it was again: that tone. No, it was more than that. She stared at him hard. She blinked when Zizar returned it. No, it was more than that: the act of submission—the shifting, the pressing to the ground any kainde amedha would present to their imperious matriarch—never came. Now she stared at him in open astonishment. Was he truly Xenomorph? Did dying and returning give him some unknown power to ignore a Queen's dominance? Even Damon, her royal counterpart, never spoke to her in that way. Zizar, she thought, what are you?
Please, Zizar said, this time his voice gentle. Tell me what he said.
She continued to look at him as if he was a foreign creature. "I'm going to die," she heard herself say.
The praetorian tensed. What?
"I promised to fight Thraen to the death in exchange to talk to the old yautjas. He threatened me to tell everyone about Damon if I didn't. If that happens, everyone will know about him and try to kill him." She gnawed her lip. "I saw him fight, Zizar. In a hundred years, I couldn't defeat him."
You underestimate yourself.
Sealink shook her head. "Even the yautja commander said Thraen was a genius." She laughed, though it sounded like a pained bark than anything else. "How can I fight and kill someone like him, when I can't even kill a human pretending to be a yautja?" How can I be Queen when I can't even control my own subjects? she wanted to add. Was she growing weak? Could she even save her people?
Before she could sink too far, Zizar's moved closer. His breath was cold on her cheek. Ever since the yautja stole you away, you have always been alone. When you tried to stop the humans, you made sure you only had yourself. When the yautja came to the Hive, you went after the human alone. But it doesn't have to be that way, Sealink. Let me help you. I cannot do it as your child; I must be your equal. Please. He was close enough to kiss. You have me to let me in.
Sealink realized she was rubbing his carapace, palm rippling over every scar and divot. All were unfamiliar. Of course, she thought. He has a new body now. There was no thought. Closing the distance between them, she pressed her lips on the organic metal, just as she had done years ago at the lakeside. But unlike last time where she had pulled away and wiped her mouth, she remained there, feeling the warmth of her lips leech into the coldness of his chitin. When she did finally step back, Zizar followed. His mouth was large enough to cover her entire cheek as he peeled back his lips and bumped her with his silver teeth. Gooey saliva slobbered all over her face but Sealink found herself standing still, unable to find the heart to shake free.
Sealink rolled hard, avoiding the searing strike that would've separated her head from her shoulders. She was back on her feet in a heartbeat, snarling, crouching low. Her grip on the collapsible spear shifted as she was running forward, launching herself at her enemy. Her enemy saw right through her and rose to meet her, skreeing a battle cry that echoed across the early morning air. Sealink flipped and met the praetorian's blows with a quickness that almost matched his, ducking and weaving the powerful swats. One long nail caught her thigh but she ignored the stinging line and went for the throat, thrusting her spear upwards into the well where neck met throat. The two separated under mutual consent, Sealink panting, Zizar hissing. Within moments he rushed at her, humanesque hands reaching to strip the flesh from bones. She ducked, scuttling beneath the black, shifting body. Withdrawing a band of black cord from her belt, she let one of the hind legs step into the noose. Drawing it tight, retreating, she heard the Xenomorph's whistle of wrath before seeing him launch at her. Never letting go of the cord, she threw herself to the ground, tugging as hard as she could. A squeal like tape being forcibly ejected from a cassette rose in the air as the praetorian toppled to the ground, hind leg cut out from under him. Sealink tried to climb her feet but found a smothering weight on top of her. The old fear of confinement warred within her as she struggled to find purchase with her legs to buck in him off. After a few moments of kicking and scratching, Sealink sunk to the ground, exhausted. The praetorian descended his head and, with the lightest of touches, pressed his secondary maw to her forehead.
Dead, he said.
"Get off me, you lout," she said, and the moment he lifted she rolled away, shaking off the lingering claustrophobia. She stood, covered in sand, the numerous cuts stinging as sweat mingled with blood.
Since the yautja commander left them all those days ago, Zizar and Sealink trained. It had been a long time since she'd fought kainde amedha exclusively, but the old skills quickly returned under Zizar's tutelage. If Zizar wondered at her proficiency at killing Xenomorph, he never made mention. He pushed her harder than even during the gladiatorial fights, forcing her to learn how to attack and kill a praetorian, not just a drone. All the same, that still didn't change the fact she would have to face an entire Hive. When yautja hunted kainde amedha, they did so in groups of three or more. Thraen would be there, but Sealink didn't delude herself; in no way would he be looking out for her. Only Zizar would be her ally, but as much as the sleek praetorian demonstrated enthusiasm and willingness to enter the enemy Hive with her, she knew he would be in as much danger than she. He would be torn apart. She shook her head, shoving the thoughts away. And as she'd predicted, Thraen was of no help. The few times she did see him was when he slunk into the jungle, perhaps hunting for food like she and Zizar did. He was a ghost for all he moved. Sealink left him alone. She knew their paths would cross again.
You'll need armor to protect your flesh, Zizar said, pulling her away from her thoughts. He was sitting in an awkward angle, raising his hind leg like a feline to get at the length of black cord. When his mouth didn't work he plucked at the cord with his double-knuckled fingers in an oddly human move. Sealink grimaced.
"I think I may've just the thing."
Zizar looked up. The yautja provided you with armor?
"Exoskeleton from the kainde amedha I killed."
The praetorian stilled. A teakettle's warble escaped his gaping jaws. How did you remain sane?
"Who said I did?"
Zizar regarded her steadily, leg still high in the air, black cord forgotten. Sealink went over and helped him untie it. When it was removed she returned it to its spool and tucked it back into her belt.
I could kill them all, he said with the chill that never left his voice when referring to the yautja race.
Sealink scratched him on the underside of his chin. "That's what they want. Don't do anything crazy until we get the carcasses the old yautjas want."
Neither of them commented on their slim chances of survival.
Several days passed since her conversation with Zizar before Sealink plucked up the courage to face her old enemy.She knew Ra'ka wouldn't be far from the training sands. Since she and Zizar started utilizing the courtyard, she noticed the ex-Trainer lingering at the edges. Several times she caught him staring at her; a well-placed curl of the lip was often enough to send him on his way, but it never eased her worry that she would wake up with a knife at her throat. She hoped she wasn't doing the wrong decision by keeping him alive, and as she made her way over to the hulking shadow, she tightened her grip on her spear lodged snug in her belt. Long purple shadows covered the ground. The jungle loomed. As if sensing her presence, the dishonored yautja pretended not to hear her approach and immersed himself in his task of cleaning a ship's scrubbers. When she was a healthy several feet away, she cleared her throat.
When he ignored her, she repeated in a louder voice, "Ra'ka!"
He turned his mangled face to her, growling in a way that made her think of a rockslide, a sound as damaged and foreboding as his appearance.
Sealink stood tall. "Old armor—me need it. You still have?"
The disgraced yautja sneered at her. "Back to your old tricks, eh?" His voice was thick and raspy like the bristles of a steel comb. It was such a shock the young woman blinked.
She grimaced with little humor. "Yes. Old tricks."
"Always knew you were bad trouble. Told Dauncha to be careful. Can't trust an ooman."
Sealink inclined her head. "Me more than ooman."
The hulking ex-Trainer snorted a bull's grunt, deep and massive. "Don't matter what you are. You're dead. Seen you training. Know what you're doing. No ooman survives a bug hunt. Dead." The dishonored yautja began to laugh like a human, a heavy, drawling heh-heh-heh. He leaned back and crossed his arms over his scarred chest. "Who knows? Or maybe you will. In that case, I knew I'd toughen you up. Always broke em the best. You oughta thank me."
The young woman recoiled, a shocked snarl leaping to her throat. She curled the soft meat of her lips away from white teeth, and as she stared at him, she cursed her stunted speech. How could she explain to the yautja who'd made her life a hell that she'd spent the last five years trying to overcome the traumas and horrors held at his and Dauncha's hands? How could she quantify her pain in a way that made him understand she was trying to save her people, and through that, herself? She was more than just a killer. She had to be. How could she explain all of this to the yautja who stared at her like he'd rather smather her blood all over the walls than be talking to her? Zizar's words If you hated everything about your capture, why not achieve your revenge? rang hollow in her mind. Why not drive her spear through the soft meat of his throat? She could already see herself stabbing upwards and feeling the hot flow of blood running down her arm. Her own throat worked as she lowered her head. She kept her eyes seared onto his.
"Me survived you. Me going survive this."
With a lightening swiftness that belayed his haggard countenance, the ex-Trainer closed the distance between them until a hairsbreadth separated she and him. She could feel the heat radiating off the pebbly, reptilian skin. His hot, stinking breath fanned her cheek as clawed mandible hovered in the space above her eye, poised as if to pierce the white jelly. He hissed, "Try, Oo-kai'dha.Fight again for all to see. Listen to them roar for your death. You were nothing but entertainment. Nothing."
There was no thought. Sealink reared back and, with all her strength, smashed brows with his. Stars exploded behind her lids as she staggered a step, gasping through the throb of pain. Through her momentary daze she saw Ra'ka staring at her as if she sprouted three heads. A hot trickle of blood from her forehead fell into her eye, but she blinked it away. She shoved her face back into his and screamed,
"ME – AM – EVERYTHING!"
For a long moment nothing filled the courtyard except for heavy breathing—light and hard from Sealink, slow and heavy from the yautja. Neither of them moved for several heartbeats, each breathing the other's air. She was the first to sidle off, twitching in step like a spooked horse. The blood was turning tacky as she tried to wipe it off her face. She turned her head and saw Zizar hovering several feet away, long, narrow hands kneading the grit. A line of torn up sand marked where he paced. Before she could voice her surprise she saw Thraen. Her astonishment spiked. The orange yautja too was close, though nowhere near as close as the Xenomorph was. After so many days and nights with little sighting, why did he choose to reveal himself now? Perhaps it was her imagination, but he seemed bulkier in the shoulders, stouter in the mid-drift. His thin, hard face was unreadable as he appraised the scene, the mandibles converging and separating in slow, even circles. When he became aware Sealink noticed his presence, he rattled high in his chest and, without a word, strode off. A heavy grunt pulled her attention back to the scarred yautja. His expression was closed, his tone blank.
"Wait here," he said. "You'll have your armor."
Sealink nodded, unable to speak through the tightness around her throat. She stepped aside to let the disgraced yautja trudge past. It was only when his shadow lifted did she realize her hands were shaking at her sides. She clenched them into fists and rubbed her knuckles. Another shadow fell over her. It was Zizar.
Sealink waved him off. "I'm fine," she said. She pressed her fingers to it gingerly. The cut on her forehead stung. "Seems I had Thraen's attention."
You had everyone's.
Sealink grunted. "Good. About time I did. I'm sick of screaming at a rock." She shuddered like a horse flinching off flies. Zizar clicked between his jaws. When he slunk closer she ran her hand down the knobby line of his exposed vertebrae. An image of the mountain range on the salt waste rose to her mind; a wave of nostalgia sluiced through her.
"Go on," she said. She gave him a gentle shove that hardly moved him. "Go catch us some food. I'll meet up with you later."
The praetorian swung away, hips shifting and shoulder blades rising and falling as he headed towards the jungle. Sealink continued to stare at the spot where he disappeared into the lush foliage, her head empty, her thoughts silent. The cut on her forehead had stopped stinging and was now pulsing with a low heat, but the pain was miniscule. It was nothing. She felt nothing. She sighed through her nose, suddenly more tired than she'd been in a long time.
"Think you're clever, huh?"
Sealink whirled around. Somehow, Dauncha's son had circled around and doubled behind her. Now he loomed at her, head lowered, a strange tension shivering off his frame. His umber throat worked, the curved tusks clicking when they touched. He was eying her as a lion did a wounded antelope, hungrily, appraising, as if all of her weaknesses were his to observe. Sealink instantly bristled. She knew that look: it often graced Dauncha's visage whenever he was growing rich off her. Ice dripped down the valley of her spine.
"What you mean?" she asked.
"Don't play coy," he said, voice still pitched low. "You know exactly what I mean. You're trying to get nice with the yautja you've fucked. Well, let me tell you: it's not going to work."
Sealink dug her heels into the sand when Thraen took a heavy step forward. His words took a soft, dangerous edge, as if steel lined every syllable. "You've ruined Ra'ka's life. Don't you dare presume you can breathe his air like an equal."
She lifted her chin. "Things between Ra'ka and me, our things. No yours."
The orange yautja cocked his head in a birdlike jerk. "Oh? You think it's not my business?"
Sealink cut her eyes to the left. In the expanse of her mind she screamed Zizar! Before she could look up again she heard the whistle of the open hand before it smashed against her cheekbone. She had a moment of weightlessness before crashing to the ground. The wind escaped her lungs in a mighty woosh! Heat instantly bloomed across the meat of her face as pain took hold. As she gasped for air, her diaphragm paralyzed, a hot, reptilian gripped her by an ankle and tore her forward. She was rolled onto her back. Within seconds he was straddling her stomach, hunching over her torso, one hand pinning an arm down and another wrapped around her white throat. He shoved his face into hers. She could smell meat on his hot breath. Foam flecked her cheeks and nose as spittle rained from above. When she tried to shake her head free he forced her still, hand tightening into a vice. The old claustrophobia surged within her and she began to screech, legs kicking, free hand clawing at anything she could sink her nails in. Thraen shrugged her efforts aside as if they were flies. The grip on her windpipe spasmed enough to block it off. She immediately quieted, compelled to obey. Hurry, Zizar, she thought. Her heartbeat was maddening in her ears. Unable to look elsewhere, she stared at her tormentor's visage. She was close enough to see a minute tremor running through the crab-like mandibles. When the hold on her neck released enough to allow air, it was all she could do not to wheeze.
"It would be so easy to snap your neck. Like bending a fishbone." The pressure increased on her windpipe. Something went red behind her eyes.
"Daun-cha easy to kill too." Sealink felt her trachea bob against the hot, dry skin of the yautja's palm. Inside her mind she could hear, faintly, i'm coming, sealink. Her body was cold. "Me kill Daun-cha with kainde amedha teeth. Take out eye. Bash in skull. He bleed with throat cut!"
When she realized what had escaped her mouth, she went numb. She had expected many things, all of them including her stupid death. Thraen staring at her, frozen as if turned to marble, mouth agape, was not one of them. She had little time else to contemplate as a roar shattered the air.
The young yautja was ripped off Sealink and tossed as if he weighed a flower. The orange yautja rolled twice before popping to his feet, agile as a weasel. Sealink scuttled upright, hand at her bruised skin. Both the commander and Ra'ka were there; in the ex-Trainer's hands was a old, frayed sack bulging with misshaped things. He clicked when he saw her flushed, angry skin.
"Careful. She bites."
The commander whirled on the older yautja, snarling. At full height the hulking ex-Trainer would've towered over the other by a good foot, but Ra'ka never rose from his slouched position. When the brindled yautja charged at him, mandibles flaring, the larger one backpedaled, his own snarls small. The commander swiped at him and scored five jagged lines on the already-crisscrossed shoulder. Ra'ka bellowed but did little more than hurry faster out of the way. When he was at last out of range the commander stormed towards Thraen, who was still staring at Sealink as if she'd grown a tail and sprouted dreadlocks. The commander charged at the smaller yautja, roaring, arms outspread, muscles rippling beneath the pebbled skin. The sound of an attacking opponent seemed to snap the young yautja out of his sudden stupor. Thraen was quick to give ground, allowing himself to be bullied away, rattling. The commander got in one stunning cuff before the faster one licked out of range, dreadlocks slapping his shoulders as he shook off the blow's aftershocks.
"How dare you go against the council's wishes?" Spittle flew from the commander's mouth. "Do you want a death sentence? Get out of my sight before I drub you proper!"
Thraen didn't wait twice. Still rattling, he disappeared into the derelict complex. The brown yautja growled and rumbled for a moment more before turning to Sealink. His spiked brows cut in severe angles.
"Procured the funding for your hunt," he said roughly, the growl distorting his words. "You're leaving tomorrow morning."
She stared at her unexpected savior as if he'd grown three heads. "Oh." Her voice was a raspy bucket of gravel. Had the day arrived already? It felt like yesterday she'd landed on the hunters' homeworld. Suddenly she felt she didn't train enough, prepare enough, done enough. She had tried to keep track of of the days with gouges in a branch, but when the days and nights started blurring together, she had stopped. Now none of that mattered. The time had come: Thraen's mentor had keep his word. Tomorrow she would leave the planet for a darker one, perhaps to her death. She didn't realize the yautja was stomping off until she looked up and saw Zizar loping towards her. He balked.
"It looks worse than it is," she croaked.
A kainde amedha's body was not built for gentle ministrations. Without a tongue, Zizar was unable to lick away the blood. He drew in close, mouth hovering just above the wound on her forehead, his cold breath fanning her skin.
Who did this?
"Thraen. We traded words." He almost killed me. Sweet All-Mother, I almost died.
Zizar made a sound like a cassette being forcibly rewound. He'll end you one day.
She shook her head and gingerly brushed her throat with a fingertip. "I don't think he'll try anything after this." But he could've. He was so close. But he didn't. Why? Before Zizar could speak again, she said, "We're leaving tomorrow. We have our hunt."
The praetorian stilled. Already?
Sealink tried to nod but hissed when her throat protested. Still shaken by her miraculous survival, she bent down and picked up the bag heavy with kainde amedha armor as if in a dream. "Good. I'm tired of waiting."
It was night. A dim cacophony rose from the jungles, a cry rising from hundreds of throats as they hunted and killed and escaped each other. It occurred to her then she hadn't strayed from Dauncha's old complex since the landing. Aside from the brief sightings Ra'ka, Thraen, and his mentor, she hadn't seen another of the hulking, powerful brutes. It was as if she was on an island, trapped in a timeless vacuum. She looked upward. It was abnormally clear. Stars blanketed the sky in a white brilliance, numbered in the thousands. She remembered fearing the dark, hating the nightly reminder of the yautja homeworld. Now I'm here, she thought. It was strange to look up, not in loathing and apprehension, but with yearning. She stared for awhile, wondering which speck could be the salt waste and the Hive she'd left behind. She'd been gone for so long already; what if they thought her dead? She was too far to reach out to Damon or her children; if she died, would her counterpart sense it? A darker thought nestled in her mind. How would it feel to die, to no longer exist? Despite her extensive training, there was so little chance of her surviving the Hive hunt. Her body was human, a fragile, soft container, nothing like the toughness and savagery of either a kainde amedha or yautja. Even Thraen and the commander acted as if they were saying their goodbyes; Sealink knew enough about yautja hunts to know a solo hunt in a Hive was the closest thing to suicide in the culture.
She heard Zizar's approach before she saw him; she could barely see him as he glided from the apparent nothingness, hardly disturbing the air around him. Dim starlight glinted off his dusky carapace.
"Couldn't sleep either, could you," she said.
Only the glint of nightlight betrayed the turn of his head.
I've never been more awake, Zizar said. A quiet scrunch of chitin on sand signaled him sitting his haunches in the sand. In the darkness he was nothing more than a suggestion to her frail human eyes; she knew he had no trouble seeing her in his gray vision of sound. She looked at him without seeing. The thoughts from before returned.
"What's it like to die?"
The words slipped out her mouth before she knew what she was saying. The question hung as if suspended on knotted rope, blunt and clumsy like a dulled blade. A line of clouds rolled in and threw the ground into pitch black. For a very long time Zizar didn't speak, a part of the darkness for all he moved. At one point Sealink thought he had left. She stared at the place where she thought he could be, feeling strange to know he was out there but couldn't see. As she strained her eyes the image of Zizar's face half-rotting in the shade of a beech tree appeared. She could smell the yellow stench. She tried to shake the vision free. Did he remember this too? Did he remember looking up to her, gasping? What's it like to die? She was so engrossed in her own thoughts she almost missed Zizar speaking.
It's like catching the prey you've hunted all your life. Somehow his voice came from right in front of her, as if he'd moved without her notice. It was pitched low, tinged with unmistakeable wistfulness. It's . . . wonderful.
Sealink sat back, throat tight. She tried to ignore the longing in his tone; she knew it had once laced hers. "Wonderful? But, I remember—" She winced. "I thought it would—does it—did it hurt?"
Life hurts. Jaws met in a hollow click. Death doesn't.
"But you came back." She leaned forward. "Why?"
Again, Zizar was quiet for a long moment before he spoke.
In this life everything is supposed to be as it appears: a human is a human, a yautja is a yautja, the dead remain dead. You are one of the few who bend the rule. You have a human body but your mind is Queen; you are more than what you appear. I, like you, am a bend in appearance. I can't explain it anymore than you can quantify your nature, Se.
Sealink jolted back as if burned. She stared, face flushing, hands freezing. She tried to make Zizar out, surely he was but a foot in front of her, but couldn't. "Before you died," she said, breathless. "You—"
You never get over me calling you that.
"You never stopped using it." Something hot ran down her face. "That silly youngling name."
All around them the jungle thrummed with life, a mournful urck-urck-urck calling out for an answer that never came. A balmy wind came through and the clouds released their clutch on the stars. Light returned and Sealink saw Zizar sitting canine-style several feet from her, ribbed tail quiet on the sands, his eyeless, domed skull regarding her. The young woman leaned back against the wall of Dauncha's dwelling and never took her gaze off him. The dull sheen of stars glinted against his exoskeleton, giving him an eerie, outer-world appearance, as if he wasn't really there but a part of her imagination. She wiped the sticky tear tracks away with a cursory hand.
"I've defeated so many enemies," Sealink said. "I survived being entertainment for the yautja, survived a human colony, survived the salt waste. I've even survived from being a host to the kainde amedha all those years ago. Every single time I made it through. Not this time. I don't think I'm coming back from this one, Zizar."
You sure you're going to die?
"I still don't know what to do when I get to the Hive," she said. She chuckled again. She didn't know why her chest felt so light. She felt herself smiling. "And that's not even including my fight with Thraen. Maybe Damon's right. Maybe my luck's run out."
So you can predict the future now, ah?
Sealink laughed. A silence fell between the two friends, a silence the jungle picked up with ease. For a while Sealink listened to the cacophony, fading in and out, her mind sluggish with exhaustion but tight with nerves. At one point she was unsure whether she was awake or dreaming. Something shifted in front of her, the rough scratch of sand disturbing her. Without thinking she made room as the praetorian settled himself besides her, his chitin jagged and cold but still a comfort. She leaned against him and closed her eyes to the rhythm of his slow breathing. Sleep hovered beyond her grasp, mockingly near. Sleep was like death then, always close, just beyond reach. She had yearned for death once, but for all the wrong reasons. I think I won't mind it when it comes, she thought, but not before I accomplish what I set out to do. Death was not an option now. She felt like laughing and being sick to her stomach at the same time. She had rules to bend.
The sunrise was tinging the treetops red when the yautja commander came for her. Sealink was already awake when he strode into view. She'd seen the stars disappear and night morph into dawn. Bags clung beneath her eyes, tight with exhaustion, but she never felt more awake. Her entire body buzzed as she got up to meet him. Neither exchanged words. Zizar stayed close behind, sand crunching beneath his long, black palms as the commander led Sealink and him away from Dauncha's dwelling with little fanfare. As the young woman dipped under the derelict entranceway, she had the strangest feeling she was leaving behind a sanctuary. The yautja's long strides gave her little time dwell on the odd emotions, the bag of armor slapping her thighs as she jogged to keep up. Strengthening light stained the hard-packed ground red. She stuck close, head craning all around her at the yautja acropolis she hadn't seen in so long. The population was still asleep; Sealink caught sight of two grizzly hunters coming out of stone huts, their dreadlocks long and oiled. They rumbled when they saw her. Her guide led her towards the outskirts, away from the main vein. It didn't take long before they arrived at the ship. It was smaller than the previous ones she'd ridden in, its lines sleek and jagged. Won't be able to avoid each other this time, she thought. It was then she realized Thraen stood in the shadow of the ramp, dressed in light armor and in thermoregulating mesh. She squared her shoulders. The young yautja straightened when he noticed the small party and went to meet them.
Sealink hung back as the two yautja stood toe-to-toe, their height discrepancies making the commander look down and Thraen look up. The spontaneous He's going to be lean like his father flashed through her mind. She watched them thump fists to the other's chest, rumbling a note she'd heard only once before, when Dauncha greeted his son long ago. She looked away, the feeling she was intruding on a private moment overwhelming. When she looked up again Thraen was disappearing up the ramp and into the dark depths of the ship. The commander was regarding her, the sunrise painting him deep red.
"You go ahead," she said to Zizar. "I'll be right behind you."
As the praetorian headed towards the ship, she made her way to the commander. She stopped in front of him and lifted her chin.
"When Oo-kai'dha comes back, you take me to old yau-tja."
The commander inclined his head the barest increment. "Return with honor, or not at all. Good hunt."
With a final nod, Sealink turned and followed Zizar into the metal throat. When she crossed the threshold the ramp began closing with an electronic whine. Little by little the light disappeared until at last she was cast in the red murk. The air was only slightly bitter, but she knew it would get worse as time passed. She closed her eyes and breathed through the stirrings of claustrophobia. When the walls began to rattle under the pressure of the thrusters, she reopened them. Zizar appeared by her side, nothing more than a red suggestion. They waited out the worse of the shudders and roars until at last the familiar hum of machinery permeated the walls.
The strange sensation of dreaming while awake didn't shake off. Again trapped in the timeless void of a gloomy ship, Sealink didn't know if it was night or day, late or early, or how many days had passed. Without even a window to see the stars, the monotony quickly turned the hours dull. With such a small ship, she was loathed to have a confrontation with Thraen. She stayed in her room as long as she could, sleeping, dozing, staring at the empty metal walls of her tomb to eschew him. Zizar hardly moved from his resting position, head between quiescent hands. When the urge to pace came, she tried to sleep it off. Any trip she made out of the room was quick and brief. She steered clear of the command bridge. She had found the ration of food the day night? hour? before and would dip by to snatch a length of what looked like dried meat. It had little taste to it and made her jaw ache to gnaw, but it satisfied her belly. Water had been a little harder to find, but when she did, she made sure she lapped up enough to maintain her strength. She tried to judge going when Thraen wouldn't be, but at last her luck ran out. She entered the room, hoping for a drink of water. She noticed the lights glinting off the dreadlocks too late; half already into the confined space, she froze. Thraen looked up and stiffened. She spun to flee.
Belly tight with trepidation, every instinct screaming at her to run, Sealink slowly turned until she faced him, half-crouched. When he took a step forward she snarled. The yautja stopped, trilling quietly.
"Before, when you spoke of my father's death, what did you mean, 'killed with kainde amedha teeth'?'
Sealink growled and tightened her stance. "Why? Want finish killing me?"
Thraen shook his head. "I lost control then. It won't happen here."
She snorted. Her mouth wrinkled. "Me smell your hatred. Why want me talk about sire's death?"
"Because—" He took another step forward, causing her to shriek. The cry was so eerily Xenomorph the yautja jerked back. The two stared at each other, the small room quickly filling with Sealink's panting. Thraen lifted his hands, palms up, an almost indiscernible chitter rising from his throat. Sealink blinked at the miniscule act of peace. Thraen continued: "Because I'm confused. Did you kill him, or a kainde amedha?"
She frowned. She rose out of her semi-crouch in increments, still acutely aware she was between a wall and him. "Me did. In kainde amedha body."
Thraen rattled. "What?"
Sealink grunted. "Me no yau-tja words explain what happens, but Oo-kai'dha's mind go inside kainde amedha body. Can control. With body, me kill Dau—me kill sire."
For a long moment the yautja was quiet, his mandibles twitching in slow passes. Sealink considered inching her way out, but knew it was no use. He was too close; if he wanted to, he could grab her arm and break it. The bitter, oily air smothered her. Her bruised throat bobbed with each swallow.
"You're telling me your human body didn't kill him, but a kainde amedha's."
Thraen sat down on the metal bench behind him, churring lowly. The lighting was too poor for her to to see his expression. Sealink took the opportunity to slip out of reach and stood in the doorway, the fresher air at her back clearing her head.
"Why you want know this?" she asked when Thraen made no move to speak. "Why you so want-know?"
The yautja lifted his head to her. The mandibles were perfectly still. The overhead lighting cast his sockets in total shadow, giving him a haggard, skull-like appearance.
"Because this changes things," he said, his voice so low Sealink had to strain to hear.
She frowned. "How—"
A growl stopped her. "Please," he said. It was then she realize his mandibles weren't still, but shaking. "Get out."
Sealink didn't need to be told twice. She fled and hurried back to her room, close to running by the time she reached it. Zizar was waiting for her. He didn't say anything, nor did he go to her, but she knew he had heard her screech. She ran a hand through her hair, trying to dispel the strange conversation from her mind. Why was Thraen so interested in Dauncha's death? Before he didn't allow her near the subject. It did stop him from breaking my neck, she thought. She shuddered at how close her gross lapse in judgement almost killed her. She didn't know what she'd been thinking, if she had at all. You're still alive. Get over it. It doesn't matter to you. She was glad Zizar didn't feel like in the probing, questioning mood, and without speaking, went over to him and curled up in the hollow of his side.
Hours day night later, the walls began to shake. She held onto Zizar for stability as the small ship shuddered and groaned, the roar of the thrusters fighting gravity deafening. She was nearly bucked off the praetorian when the ship gave a final careening warble. All was still for a minute before Sealink clutched at her head, gasping.
WHO ARE YOU.
The words were searing, like light from a sun, and just as hot. She sensed a massive presence, but she couldn't see it over the power of the words. She felt Zizar at her side, but as if from a distance, as if she were miles away and her consciousness was looking down from high above. She could dimly sense him pawing at her mind as a dog would a door to escape the rain, but she couldn't hear him over the brightness. She clenched her eyes and gritted her teeth.
Get out, she said. GET OUT!
As sudden as it came, the presence in her head disappeared. The light receded, leaving behind a high-pitched ringing in her ears. She pulled away from herself in slow increments, opening her eyes first, then uncurling from the ball she had rolled into. She ignored Zizar's attempts to get her to her feet and used the ship's wall to climb in a standing position. Zizar sidled back.
What was that? Why did you collapse? he asked.
Sealink rubbed her forehead, the lingering pain remaining like the afterimage of a sunspot.
"The Queen," she said. "She spoke to me."
A teakettle's hiss escaped the praetorian's teeth. She knows. Ambush will be of no use to us.
"No." Sealink shook her head carefully, as if balancing a water jug on her crown. "I never intended an ambush."
"I knew any Queen would sense another Queen's presence close by. I can feel her feel me. She's intrigued. She wants to see me." She looked down at the bag of armor at her feet. Every part came from a Xenomorph she killed.
"I don't think I'll be using this," she said. Her mouth twitched. "Guess I didn't have to talk to Ra'ka after all."
What are you talking about? You should use whatever protection you can.
Again Sealink shook her head. "We both know armor is useless. I'll live seconds extra with it on, which is nothing. If I'm going to survive this hunt, it won't be because I'll be killing drones and praetorians right and left."
Zizar hissed. That's noble of you, but do you think that's for the best? How are you going to last if you're nothing but in your soft human body?
"Going to bend the rules, remember?" She chuckled a little before sobering. She reached out and grasped his face. Her hands were a child's against his large, gaping maw. "No matter what happens out there, promise me—"
The door opened with a metallic clang. Thraen stood in the gap, decked in full armor, masked, the cannon perching on his shoulder like a mechanical parrot. Sealink realize he was dressed exactly as when she'd met him on the salt waste. He clicked roughly, and Sealink knew they had arrived. Then the yautja was gone, disappearing down the metal corridor with velvet steps. Sealink got up to follow. She was stopped when Zizar's mouth engulfed her wrist. His head dwarfed her arm; it was as if he had a white branch between his teeth. The teeth pressed against the skin like feathers, gentler than even a lioness with her cub. Not an ounce of fear trickled through Sealink as she allowed herself to remain hostage. She regarded the friend who had become more than just a friend, who taught her so much in past months. An idea, vague, faint, simmered in her mind, but before it could come to fruition, she realized it didn't matter what exactly Zizar was, or why he'd come back. None of that mattered now. She gently pulled at her hand, and after an initial resistance, he let her go.
The world was a steamy, jungly one, its strange, giant trees twisting high and blocking the understory, so any light that streamed in was muted and hazy. The was damp and cool on the forest floor, and as Sealink stepped out of the ship, she breathed in a large gulp of the loamy, sweet air. Something screamed kup-kup-kkkuuuppp before crashing away in the bushes. Flying bugs hummed past. Purple grass slithered in their protective structures as she went further out, kneading her toes in the dirt. She listened to Thraen behind her, hearing him shimmy his armor in place and make that last few adjustments to his assortment of spears, nets, and wrist gauntlets. She turned around. The yautja stood before her, his meaty hands furling and unfurling. His blank pewter slits stared at her.
"Is this a joke?" he said. His words dripped with incredulous disgust.
His growl came out metallic through his mask. He gestured at her naked body. "You have no armor on, not even garments."
Sealink nodded. "This time, no."
He grunted. "Your death," he said, then went back to fiddling something with a computer module at his wrist. She looked at Zizar. The praetorian said nothing.
"Alright," Thraen said. "We're three thousand noks away from the Hive. If we stay straight, we should—"
"Me lead," Sealink said.
Thraen threw her an ugly glare behind his mask. "You have no idea which direction to take," he said.
She shook her head. "Me feel Queen."
"Me feel kainde amedha Queen in head. Oo-kai'dha will follow her."
A second, heavier pause permeated the air. Sealink wasn't lying; since the flash encounter on the ship, she sensed the rival Queen's presence in her mind like a malignant cancer, always there, waiting, watching. It was a beacon lit in red, calling to her, and Sealink intended on following it. Without waiting for a response, she started heading towards the direction of the pulse, ducking large bushes and skirting around logs. She heard Zizar following her, then, after a pause, Thraen. The trio fell silent as Sealink followed the tugging. Twigs snapped at her arms, stomach, and legs. Whining bugs hovered around her ears. Rocks dug into the soles of her feet but none of it mattered. Her body quivered with tension as she headed towards her enemy. The terrain meshed together. Noises dimmed. She felt neither hunger nor thirst, and by the time Thraen hissed at her to stop, she was nearly at the entranceway of the Hive. She stepped back, blinking, as if waking from a dream. Unlike on the salt waste, the jungle surroundings camouflaged this Hive. Its entirety was hidden except for its entrance. The opening was larger-shaped, wide at the bottom and tapering at the top. A strange breeze came from within, like a monstrous breath from a yawning throat, cold and bitter-smelling. Sealink recognized the bitterness from the secreted resin used to strengthen the walls. Her own Hive would be doing it now. For a moment the undeniable fact that she'd be committing murder rolled over her in an overwhelming tide. She stood as if transfixed, listening to the sound of the Hive's breathing. In her mind, the Queen's beacon pulsed.
Zizar padded to her side. Se?
"It's alright, Zizar."
Thraen growled behind them, his cannon whirring to life. "What's the hold up?"
Sealink speared him with a glare. "No hold up."
"Good. Now, when we enter the Hive, it's going to be chaotic. There'll be kainde amedha all around." The mask stared at her, the unspoken fact she didn't have a single weapon on her hovering in the air. "When you kill your prize, you'll have to run. Just because you'll leave the Hive boundaries doesn't mean—"
Thraen rumbled high in his throat. "Should I not return, there's a button on the command bridge that activates the auto-pilot. It has this symbol." He wrote it in the dirt with a finger. "Press it, and it'll take you back to the homeworld."
Sealink nodded, throat tight. Thraen chittered behind the mask and began to stride toward the entrance. She stepped out in front of him.
"Me lead," she said.
Thraen said nothing, the smooth lines of the mask expressionless. Sealink took one last look at Zizar and, taking a deep breath, crossed into the Hive. The coolness was more apparent inside and gooseflesh erupted across her skin. The breeze ruffled her hair. It was her Hive and not her Hive; it was eerily similar to hers, but different enough to give a strange, skewed, alternate-reality ambiance. She almost expected Damon to come out of a tunnel to greet her. The pulse was stronger now, the intervals shorter between bursts. She lowered her head to her chest and plowed through, entering deeper into the dimness. Organic membranes squelched beneath the trios' feet as they continued. Thraen's cannon whirred and whined as it searched for movement, but the longer they walked, the more deathly quiet and still everything became. Sealink could feel the collective pressing all around her, foremost the Queen. Zizar's lips never stopped wrinkling, shoulder spikes bristling as he slunk behind her. Thraen was a ghost for all the sound his footsteps made, his grip around his spear loose and ready. When the tunnel split into three parts, Sealink went to enter the farthest left one. Thraen grabbed her arm and stopped her.
"Something's wrong," he hissed. "We should've encountered drones by now."
"They watch and wait," Sealink said. "Queen say, 'Wait. Want see this Queen. Let her come.'"
"What?" The grip on her arm tightened to the point of pain. "You saying we're headed towards the Queen?"
Sealink nodded. The pulse was growing to a needle-point. Thraen shoved his face into hers. She twitched when a mandible accidentally brushed her cheek.
"We're nowhere equipped to deal with the Queen. You're proving nothing by going after her. All the council needs is one kainde amedha—a drone would be enough. You don't need the fucking Queen."
Sealink jerked her arm free. "Then stay. Get drone. If me to survive, me need Queen."
Thraen took a step back. "You planned this. You knew all along you'd be going after her."
"'Return with honor, or not at all.'" She kept herself very still. "Me have to save family."
Before Thraen could retort, Sealink continued her way down the dank tunnel, the lighting becoming so poor she needed to hold onto Zizar. A muffled curse later, Thraen followed, the cannon maintaining its vigil. Sweat beaded her forehead despite the chill. The pressure in her head was growing like a balloon, squeezing her thoughts and sensations out. She counted her breaths to maintain focus, the fear of losing herself greater than the fear of losing her physical body. The membranes were slippery and gooey underfoot and several times she clung to Zizar when her footing failed. Her hands shook as if cold and gooseflesh decked her body, but still she continued to feel as if on fire. Then she heard Zizar speaking to her, but it was are you alright? what's wrong? faint, as if he was speaking from a very great distance. She sent him a quick It's okay, Zizar, but she knew she soon wouldn't be able to hear him at all. The pulse in her head was almost to singing point, the intervals so close together they blended into one steady signal. A sickly green light was growing at the end of the tunnel. Able to see, Sealink disentangled herself from Zizar. She headed towards the opening, sweat pouring down her face, shivers racing up her spine. Before she could enter, Thraen stopped her again with a hand on her arm. She sensed he was trying to say something, vehemently too, but she couldn't hear. Enough of her was still there for her to say, "Trust me," before she shook free and entered the Queen's chamber.
The first thing that struck her was the immense size of the antechamber. Dome-shaped, high-ceilinged, it was a room fit for royalty. The greenish glow came from bio-fluorescent fungi clinging to the membranous walls. In the centre of the massive hall, taking up most of the space was the matriarch of the Hive. She was sitting on a bloated, translucent sac of eggs, crouched over it like a spider. She was a creature composed of jagged lines and harsh, serrated angles, all black and glistening like an ebony jewel a devil would wear. Her monstrous, ornate comb swept back and her secondary arms twittered as she looked down at the newcomer to her chamber. Sealink saw her and didn't, her pupils blown.
WHO ARE YOU.
I am Sealink.
WHY ARE YOU HERE.
I have come to kill you.
Sealink felt rather than heard the shrieking laughter. It crushed her head in its ringing jaws and refused to let go. She fell to one knee, gritting her teeth through the tempest. Tendons corded in her neck. Dimly, she sensed something hovering over her, protecting her body. It had to be Zizar. She clutched at the kernel of strength and pushed herself up with it.
Laugh all you want, Sealink said, but I will take your life this day.
YOU, KILL ME? WHERE IS YOUR BODY? WHERE ARE YOUR CHILDREN? YOU HAVE NO POWER HERE.
My power is all myself. I need no other thing.
YOU ARE A FOOL FOR COMING. YOU INTRIGUED ME, BUT NO MORE. YOU ARE NO QUEEN. I WILL DEVOUR YOU.
Sealink waited out the aftershocks of the scorching words, her head corkscrewing into pieces, as if shoved through a meat grinder. She struggled to gather herself up, gaze locked on the ghastly visage of the matriarch. She could feel capillaries burst in her eyes. Something was roaring above her, something like cannon fire rippling overhead. Shrieks were piercing the fog of her physical ears, still too faint and faraway for her to care, but increasing in number exponentially. Sealink took a few deep breaths, feeling her lungs fill and empty. She closed her eyes, then like an arrow shot from a bow, entered the Queen's mind. An agony she'd never felt engulfed her essence, searing her in a white heat that would rival a volcano's. Sealink was screaming. Her eyeballs were exploding and her skin cracking and shriveling. Her bones turned to dust. She died over and over, her mind mending and breaking to the point she thought she'd gone insane. In the madness Sealink clung to herself, desperate to keep together through the maelstrom. Amidst her screams, she realized death is wonderful life is pain all i feel is pain pain pain i'm alive i have to be still alive. She groped for a foothold, shrieking. When her essence touched something, she squeezed with all her might. A shard of pain rippled through her, but it wasn't her pain. She clamped down harder, bringing her teeth into it. The essence beneath her bucked and writhed. Sealink's agony redoubled as the Queen bit as well, her fangs sinking into her. The young woman screamed again.
you can do this, se!
Sealink startled, her blind eyes turning. zizar? what are—
fight her. fight her, sealink!
The Queen snarled at the new intrusion and darted at tiny speck. Sealink struck her from the side, bowling her over in the flash of teeth. She clung on with all of her strength, wrestling with the hot, scorching storm that was the Queen's essence. It was like dipping her legs in lava; all sensations of her being were burned away. Sealink began to float away on a cloud of numbness, the whole of her growing as light as a feather. When the Queen reared up to swallow Sealink whole, the tiny fleck, no bigger than a grain of sand or a gnat, collided with the matriarch with the force of a bullet. Enraged, the monarch went after the nuisance with the savagery of a thousand tigresses, roaring, aiming to destroy. Sealink swirled around her like a monstrous snake, wrapping her being around the twisting, writhing Queen's. The pain, once so fiery and blistering, was nothing but a dull pressure. She couldn't feel anything, and as she twisted and began to squeeze, she sensed the Queen's struggles of attack morphed into struggles to escape. Ruthlessly, almost single-mindedly, Sealink never let go, wrapping herself tighter and tighter around the shrieking, screaming mind of the Queen. Sealink gritted her teeth and doubled her strangulations. The Queen skree'd, her cries nearly deafening.
No, Sealink said. She squeezed with everything she could give, her damaged essence groaning. Suddenly, the resistance gave. The writhing softened and fell away. It was like holding smoke. Unsure, Sealink released her coils. She could still sense the Queen, but it was a shadow of what it once was. In a desperate attempt to save her mind, the Queen had escaped and locked herself in the far reaches of the body. It's over, Sealink thought. She could feel the cold air circulating in her lungs, the moisture collecting in her mouth and dripping down her chin. She touched her the dome of her head, her mouth. She lifted her head—how heavy it was!—and saw chaos with her gray vision of sound. Zizar was engaging two praetorians, claws and tails flying for dominance. Bodies littered around him like a gruesome audience. Thraen was blasting Xenomorph right and left with his cannon, praetorians shrieking, body parts exploding over egg sacs in acidic rain. Behind him, protected, was her human body. It was sitting cross-legged, eyes closed, chest barely rising and falling. How small it was, how sickly pale. The smallest of winds looked like it could topple it over. Sweat-ladened hair covered the forehead like ink seaweed. Several times enemy kainde amedha came close, but the yautja kept them at bay. Sealink roused herself. A glorious screech trumpeted through the chamber.
As if striking a switch, every Xenomorph of the Hive froze. They instantly backed off and each one disappeared into the walls as if they were ghosts. She could sense them waiting for her instructions like automatons waiting for their master to turn a key.
Do not harm the foreigners. No one approaches them, Sealink said. Breathlessly, deliriously, there was not one single complaint. If the collective sensed a change in their monarch, they didn't show a sign—or couldn't. The heady rush of wonder swept through her. She held a primary arm in front of her. It was sinewy, corded, tipped with a long, double-jointed hand. This could be my hand, she thought. The claws glinted in the green light. A sense of wholeness like never before flooded her with the force of a tsunami, washing away all other thoughts as if they were motes of dusts. Truly kainde amedha.She could finally have a body match her mind; she no longer had to wear that soft, human shell. It would be a simple business to destroy the Queen's essence at this point; though the Queen was hiding, Sealink could route her and become the undisputed owner of the magnificent body. She inclined her head to regard the half-crouched yautja and Zizar. How easy would it be for her to kill Thraen now. In her new body, she could crush her opponent at last. She could return to the salt waste, at last ravishing, at last at peace.
I have what I want. I finally have . . .
She regarded the hand again, the hand both hers and not hers, the hand she had tried so hard to achieve. It was truly beautiful in her echolocation, savage and lean, built to destroy worlds and create armies of children. It would've engulfed her human body, a single digit sufficient to crush the fragile thing. So easy. So quick. Why couldn't she have it? Hadn't she suffered enough, sacrificed enough? She rotated hand in front of her, an aching sadness replacing the wonder from moments before. She dropped it to her side. She bowed her elongated head, clacking. Goodbye. The instant the world permeated her mind the Queen instantly rallied, her essence shooting out of its hiding nook. She scrabbling for a foothold, shrieks ringing, but Sealink pressed on. She brought the knifed edge of the tail to her own throat. With a slice, she cut through the chitin as if it were paper-thin leather. Acidic blood exploded out in an arterial torrent. There was strangely little pain. She could feel her grasp slipping, as if her essence was turning ethereal. The Queen was fighting with everything she had, roaring, but Sealink knew it was too late. She brought the tail up and the last of her strength, brought the knife down. There was a suspended moment where the Queen roared in furious agony and Sealink hovered in the space of body and not-body. Then the moment ended, and a black sea swallowed her whole.
Sealink was dead. She floated on a painless cloud, anything passing behind her eyes hazy and blown out. She was as light as a butterfly, a leaf on a stream. Several times she thought she recognized Thraen why are we in a jungle?, but she knew it had to be her spirit saying goodbye to old enemies. He'll be better than his father, she thought—a death thought. Once or twice it appeared as if he noticed her and leaned over, but that was impossible. She was dead. She had killed the Queen, and in doing so, herself. There was nothing left. Sealink was fully prepared to accept that fact and to float away on death's comfort, had it not been for the dawning shards of pain. It had been slight at first, barely noticeable. Then the discomfort swelled to the sensation of biting, gnawing ants crawling over every inch of her body. She squirmed to alleviate the strange pain, but it only grew worse. She drifted in and out, sometimes aware of the red darkness all around her, the hum in the air, then not. The crawling-ant sensation turned into fishbones driving into her skin. Fishbones turned to poisoned fangs. No matter how much she twisted and shuddered, there was no relief. She couldn't understand. She cried out to escape the torture, but help never came. Something hovered over her, dark, sleek, but she couldn't see. Her eyes were gone. Her bones were melting. She couldn't moved. Something wet dripped on her forehead, then went away.
By the time Sealink opened her eyes and saw the inside of the yautja scout ship, her body was soaked with sweat and wracked with tremors. She felt stuffed in a body ten sizes too small; the slightest pressure on her skin brought glassy corkscrews of pain behind her lids. She couldn't feel her legs. She stared up at the metal ceiling, eyes faraway. I'm alive, she thought. She blinked once before blacking out, the pain too much.
The intervals between awareness and floating grew shorter and shorter until Sealink became coherent for most of the time. She could prop herself in a sitting position, but she still had no sensation below her hips. Her legs stretched out in front of her like sticks of living meat, there but not there. She tried to ignore the growing dread at their stillness and clung to Zizar as a distraction. The praetorian appeared not heavily damaged; other than a few healing gouges and slashes, he was whole. He was larger now, full grown; in the darkness, he was beautiful. When he noticed Sealink fully awake, he crooned for hours, the rough hum filling her with an exhausted joy. It took some time before she could use mouth to speak, and longer still to use her telepathy. Her head still felt as if stuffed with cacti, and using telepathy sent needles of agony behind her eyes.
"I killed the Queen?" Sealink asked, softly, as if to herself. Her tongue hurt. Her throat hurt. Memories were confused and hazy. She thought she remembered a serpent of fire, screams, searing pain, but maybe that was something else. Zizar lay in front of her, stretched on in the pose of a sphinx. They had been alone for hours, the hum of machinery and engines filling the silence between them. She rubbed her forehead. "You saved me, I think."
I only helped. You were the one who defeated her. Cut her throat with her own tail. Decapitated herself. I brought back the head—
"What? You have the head? Here? On the ship?"
I knew you needed proof of a kill for the council, so while the yautja was carrying you back, I dragged the head.
Sealink shook her head, an ache growing behind her eyes. "Wait, what? Thraen was the one who carried me back? What about the Hive kainde amedha? Didn't they try to attack?"
Your last command was strong enough to keep them at bay. When the Hive Queen died, they disappeared in the bowels of the Hive. Zizar was quiet for a moment. I think it's best if you and the yautja speak.
"Bring me to her."
"The Queen's head. Bring me to her." Her mouth twitched. "You're going to have to carry me; my legs aren't working yet."
They'll heal soon; they just need more time, he said. Then he bent down.
Gritting, grunting, Sealink pulled herself up onto Zizar's shoulders by his tubules, her arms shaking with exertion. After some maneuvering, she managed to sit herself on the praetorian, just behind his neck. A cold sweat broke out across her forehead but she ignored it, concentrating instead on not letting go. The corridor was quiet, save for the low, distant humming of the engines. You can do this. She breathed hard through her nose. You can do this. Her hands were white from the force of their grip. She was focusing so hard on not falling she didn't realize they had arrived on the cusp of the cargo hold. It was the largest room of the ship, expansive enough to hold twenty, thirty praetorians. In the centre of the cargo hold, regal in death, was the Queen's head. She was propped against several metal creates, the ornate comb glinting red under the overhead lights. Her lips were fixed in a snarl, her translucent teeth sharp and dead. She appeared to be sleeping. Sealink swallowed hard.
"Bring me closer."
Zizar's nails clicked against the metal grating. When he became near enough Sealink slid off his shoulders, her legs thudding on the floor in a useless heap. She ignored Zizar's hiss of consternation and crawled the rest of the way, stopping just in front of the skull. She half expected a cold breath to fan her face when she did, and experienced a strange disappointment when found none. She touched the dry, cold dome, her hand like a child's compared to impressive size. The Queen was still, too still. You were my opponent, but never my enemy, Sealink thought. Someone had to die, and that someone was you. Pulling herself closer, she turned and leaned against the skull. Its sloped edges followed the natural contour of Sealink's spine, and for the first time in what felt like since she was a girl, the young woman let herself relax. She sunk against the cold shell, every bone exhausted.
"I think I'll stay here a for a bit," she said.
Sealink closed her eyes. "I'm sure."
She could feel him regarding her, but she didn't care. She was tired, more tired than she'd ever been in a long time. She felt she'd lived ten lifetimes in the span of a breath. A Queen. She'd defeated a Queen, and lived. But instead of triumph, all she could feel was weariness. It didn't matter if she'd survived a kainde amedha matriarch—she still would have to fight Thraen back on the homeworld, and her legs still weren't working. The strife never ended. All she wanted to do was sleep, so despite the sense of being watched, she tried ignored it. It was easy at first—she knew Zizar would eventually bored and leave her alone. As minutes stretched, she realized he wasn't budging. She frowned, a flash of irritation flaring hot. She opened her eyes.
"Zizar, you really should—"
Zizar was gone. Thraen was staring at her, squatting on his heels not three feet away, maskless. He was motionless, as if he'd been crouching there for hours. She stared back without blinking, the weariness in her mind blunting much of her surprise. The yautja before her shifted, upper mandibles curling.
"I look at you and all I see is an ooman female. A pitiful specimen, hardly worth a second glance. You aren't tall. Your muscles aren't large or well trained. You make mistakes suckling pups know not to. Yet," he said, clicking lowly, "you managed to take down a Queen kainde amedha without moving a muscle. I understand, now. My father was a fool to underestimate you, and died because of it."
"You carry me out of Hive," she said.
"I needed you alive." His steady, unaffected tone matched hers. She wondered if she had fallen asleep and this was one of her real-not-real dreams.
"You need to tell the council what you told me. How you were a kainde amedha when you slew my sire."
"That change things?"
"It's honorable to be killed by a kainde amedha, not some ooman female slave. I can have my clan's dishonor expunged with your testimony."
"So, think old yau-tja listen to Oo-kai'dha now?"
Thraen trilled quietly. His gaze flitted to the head Sealink was leaning on. "They would be fools not to."
She regarded the young yautja. "If me say this, we no fight to death."
One of his mandibles twitched. The eyes narrowed. "What if I still wanted your skull? You did just put me through ahunt for a Queen."
Sealink's lips curled. "You want honor more than want Oo-kai'dha skull."
The yautja grunted. He suddenly rose to his feet. Sealink remained where she was, again strangely unperturbed at his proximity. Then again, even if she wanted to move, her legs were useless. She lifted her head to look at him. She both saw him and not saw him, as if he were a ghost and she was seeing an afterimage, a mirage. Several streaks of blue gel covered long gashes on his shoulders and muscular torso. He would sport scars. She heard him say something about their proximity to the homeworld, but she knew she was fading fast. Her chin nodded to her chest. The cold sweat was back on her brow, but none of it mattered.
Sealink ate and rested the best she could as time drifted between her fingers. Her legs continued to remain lifeless, but she told herself they needed more time to heal. Thraen appeared several times to coach her on what to say to the council. If he noticed her lack of walking, he kept it to himself. He forced her to memorize the phrase Nain-desintje-da—'pure win', along with several others, pressuring her to ameliorate her syntax so she 'wouldn't look like an idiot'. Zizar hovered in the background, watchful, as Sealink tripped on the unfamiliar phonics. Thraen growled and shook his head.
"It's 'I', not 'me.' Get it right!"
"I," Sealink said, stumbling over the complicated mess of sounds associated with the pronoun. "Must me?" She shook her head. "Must I?"
"Yes," Thraen said. "You better. Otherwise you look like a fool, despite your honorable trophy."
Sealink thinned her lips. She hadn't considered the council refusing her request. Since achieving the Queen's skull, she thought the council would be bought. Thraen's right. The head only solidifies my 'worth', nothing else. Her eyes narrowed. If they don't say yes, I'm killing everyone.
Thraen's snort drew her out of her thoughts of murder. "Relax. If you don't purposely insult them and say everything I told you, they should listen. The Queen's skull goes well to your favor. But remember to mention my sire's death. Don't forget."
"If you don't, I will kill you," Thraen said. He climbed to his feet. There was a moment where he paused, half-posed to leave, half-posed to stay. When it looked like he was about to say something, jaw clacking, he disappeared down the corridor, his footsteps fading. Sealink let him go, too caught up in her own mulling to notice. A few minutes later, the ship began to rumble as it entered orbital descent. The rumble turned into a dim roar as the gravitational forces shook the walls. When the worse of the shakes died down and the thrusters took over, Sealink took a deep breath, then nodded to Zizar. The praetorian padded over and sunk down to her level. In a now-familiar move, Sealink situated herself between his spikes, letting both legs dangle down one side. She twisted her torso to grip the two fore struts that acted as a harness. She whistled and braced. The praetorian rose to his full bristling height and began to carry her towards the end of the ship. When they arrived at the ramp Thraen was already there, waiting, the silent head of the Queen at his side. He appeared slight compared to her dark length, too young against her grand age. He was decked in light armor and maskless, just as he had been when he'd first returned to the homeworld. Muggy heat rushed up through the opening, bringing scents of wild jungles and the reptilian inhabitants. Thraen rumbled deep in his throat.
"Don't fall behind," he said. Hefting the massive skull onto his back as if it were a sack of bricks, biceps bulging, he strode down the metal ramp, each step causing it to rattle.
Ready? Zizar asked.
The praetorian followed after Thraen, hissing quietly. The suns beat down, the red sky striated with bands of gray clouds. Wet, steamy heat engulfed her in a sweltering embrace. When her eyes adjusted she recognized Thraen's mentor, the brown-striped yautja. He was standing at the end of the ramp, arms crossed, chattering loudly at the pulchritudinous sight of the Queen's skull. When Thraen stopped alongside him and placed the head down, the commander touched the ornate comb, still kurring deep in his chest. Sealink made her way over. The commander's eyes crinkled when he saw her, mandibles converging and parting.
"Worthy prize." His gaze dipped to the Queen's clenched frozen jaws. He trilled softly, excitedly.
Sealink lifted her chin. "The council, please."
The commander nodded, still trilling under his breath. Gesturing to the assembled ceremonial guards, they began to gather around Thraen and the skull. Several scarred veterans brushed their palms against the Queen, kurring, before hefting the head onto their shoulders. Sealink fell behind as the procession took off, surprised at the clear air of reverence. The persistent low chitter continued when the assembly moved into the yautja acropolis. Several older yautja reached out to ghost their claws over the black carapace as it was carried past. Not a single one gave Sealink a second glance as the Queen's head moved away. The lack of scrutiny was a relief; she enjoyed the invisibility in the Queen's wake, relaxing enough to let the murmurs wash over her. The crowd diminished the closer the assembly became to the towering steps of the ancient temple. Sealink leaned forward and held onto Zizar's spikes as he began the climb. She tried to keep her cool but the higher he rose the quicker her heart palpitated. Her bowels twisted with anxiety. She looked at the Queen's skull and forced herself to relax. The council would have its pound of flesh. She'd given her sacrifice. She closed her eyes and focused on the sway and rhythm of the praetorian's body.
Zizar's soft voice permeated her mind. You're quiet.
Sealink grunted. I've learned my lesson since last time. I won't relax until this is over.
Like wakening from a long dream, the stairs ended and the staggering panorama of the temple appeared in full view. If possible, it seemed grander than last time, more imperious. The laconic statues glared, as if affronted by her sheer audacity, but for the briefest of seconds, she felt no fear. They couldn't refuse her now. She could enter. Though she wasn't surprised when the commander told her to wait, a frisson of nervousness still twisted her bowels. Sealink watched as the guards carried the Queen's skull and disappeared beneath the stone arches. She placed a hand on her pounding chest. She knew she'd be pacing if her legs allowed her. She glanced over to where Thraen was standing. His mandibles converged and flared in thoughtful movements as he looked forward. He minutely stiffened when the commander reappeared. Sealink gazed back at the brown yautja as regal as any royalty. The commander nodded.
"They will see you," he said. He glanced at Thraen. "You too."
Sealink tapped Zizar's shoulder. "They're ready."
Zizar started forward, following after the brown-striated yautja. After a few seconds Thraen took up the rear, ghosting behind them on velvet feet. Coolness hit her skin as she entered the stone temple. The ceilings were moderately high vaulted, allowing a breeze smelling vaguely of oily musk and dust to circulate through. The hunting murals from outside continued to cover the walls, yautja in various stages of victory warring against hallowed prey. Several times Sealink thought she saw an artistic rendering of a human, but the lighting was too poor for her to tell for sure. The commander led them down the hallways until he stopped before a large chamber. Zizar drew to a halt alongside him. Sealink looked at down at the yautja.
"I go no further," he said. "You must do the rest."
Sealink nodded, throat tight. She noticed his gaze dipping to her motionless legs. Their eyes met. Her lips thinned. She tapped Zizar again, whistling him forward. His nails toc'd on the stone tiles in hollow clicks as he entered the council chamber. A skylight allowed daylight to flood the front portion of the room. The Queen's head was already there, resting on the floor just in front of the half-circle of yautja, as if waiting for her. Thraen was there as well. He stood a respectful distance away, head bowed and eyes lowered, as if to merely gaze upon the council was sacrilegious. Sealink glanced back at the front of the room and stiffened. There were seven yautja, all sitting in stone chairs. Every inch of flesh was decked with beads, small skulls, scars, ceremonial armor, teeth necklaces, ornate metal work. One elder yautja wore what looked like avian skulls amongst its long dreadlocks. One had a jagged pale scar running diagonally across its face. Three of them had breasts like Sealink, their tusks longer than their male counterparts. Judging by all of their gunmetal gray dreadlocks and long, elongated mandible tusks they were old, older than any yautja Sealink had ever seen, but she knew they were anything but weak. There was a powerful aura of razor acuity around them as they focused on her, reminding her of the salt wolves back home, savage and sophisticated. She felt tiny under their scrutiny. For the first time since Dauncha's reign, she felt like prey. The Queen's skull seemed to leer at her. You are like me to them, she appeared to hiss. The hunted.
One of the council males, the one with the avian skulls in his long dreadlocks, frowned and gestured at her. "What's this? Why is the ooman astride a kainde amedha?"
Sealink cleared her throat. "I use him to walk, honorable council."
The frown deepened. "Remove yourself from it and stand before us. We will hear of this request you have for us."
She tightened her hold on the tubules. Let me down, Zizar.
Zizar lowered himself to the stones, folding his legs with a panther's grace. Sealink pushed herself off, struggling slightly when one of her legs got in the way. She physically moved it so she could sit on the ground. A loud rumble stopped her.
"Is this a joke? An ooman without functioning legs killed a Queen kainde amedha?"
Sealink froze, the marrow chilling in her bones. She looked up to find several of the council exchanging growls, chuttering under their breaths. She turned her head over her shoulder and saw Thraen standing stiff, shoulders taut. Their eyes met. His were glowering. Sealink looked back towards the council.
"Wait! I can expla—"
Avian-Skull slashed the air with an arm, houghing a deep bull's grunt. "Be quiet, ooman!" he said. "We have no time for your trickery and deceit. You clearly stole the kainde amedha skull from the one we made accompany you. We should have known better than allowed an ooman audience. Tch! You are forbidden from this chamber, and for—"
Sealink skree'd, the haunting cry so eerily Xenomorph three of the council gripped at unseen weapons at their belts. When the last of the scream died down she found herself frothing in fury. In her truculence she dragged herself forward, snarling like a mad creature. Not this time, she raged. She pulled herself until she was abreast with the Queen's skull and slapped the stone in front of her.
"You will believe, you will listen! I did this. I am Oo-kai'dha, slayer of oomans, yau-tja, kainde amedha. I killed Queen! I prove my honor, yet you doubt? I lost legs in battle with Queen. But she lost her head." Sealink bared her teeth, snarling. "I have done all this for you! Nain-desintje-da! My win is pure. Now you will listen!"
Avian-Skull rose from his seat, seething. "How dare you—!"
"Nen-yuar'da, be calm. I am intrigued. I would like to hear this she-ooman speak." The yautja who spoke had the jagged scar running down his face like a great pale swath. Unlike the clipped and furious tones of his compatriot, his were smooth and sonorous, like the grain of an old oak tree.
At his first word Nen-yuar'da quieted. He turned to the other yautja. "Yey-dtai'k-dte, you cannot possibly—"
"As would I," a female said, cutting him off with a cursory wave. She cast an amber-coloured look Sealink's way. "Well? Give tongue. You have our ear, ooman."
Sealink bowed her head, pulse ringing in her ears. "Thank you, honorable council. I am Oo-kai'dha, kainde amedha Queen," she said. "I—"
"Wait. Now you say you're a Queen?" It was Nen-yuar'da, no longer shouting, but voice still as friendly as a wasp's sting. "Impossible."
She met his gaze with a flat one of her own, cold anger bubbling to the surface. "How think I kill Queen? Ooman body weak, useless. No true ooman match for her. How I sit on kainde amedha without dying? Here it stands, without angry teeth or death. Dauncha knew this when he saw me. That why he take me, why make me fight. I command my kainde amedha with mind, as kainde amedha Queen do. Like other Queens, I have Hive. All are my children. I know my Hive is one of training worlds, a hunting ground." She spread her arms wide. "Yau-tja council, Oo-kai'dha begs you, stop hunting my children. I am the only. They are only. There are other Hives, other hunting grounds. Go there. I offer this Queen's head and my legs as price."
Her speech hung on precarious tether-hooks in the air. She waited, not daring to breathe, unwilling to move. The yautja with the avian skulls glowered at her from beneath his heavily-spiked brows, but he relented enough to exchange glances with his fellow council members. Sealink schooled her features into a cold, impermeable mask. She could hear Zizar shift behind her. Though he couldn't understand the yautja tongue, she knew he sensed the moment had come.
It was Yey-dtai'k-dte, the scarred one, who spoke. "Though it is a pity to waste a hunting experience on such cunning and tenacious prey, there are no objections from us. Your Hive is but one of hundreds of hunting grounds. Your request is granted, Oo-kai'dha, kainde amedha Queen; we find your offering adequate. For the span of your natural life and beyond, we will not land ship or set foot in your Hive, as tempting as hunting such unique prey is." The yautja rattled. "A word of caution. Though we will deem it dishonorable to hunt your Hive, not all follow our law. There may come a time outlaw yautja seek forbidden prey and attempt to reap your skull. If you are as clever and powerful as you make out, you should defeat and kill them with ease."
Sealink's face never twitched as the reality permeated her mind. She bowed her head in a curt nod, unable to allow herself anything else. She had little time to feel relief or happiness. She could feel Thraen's glare burning a hole into her neck, cutting into her skin as easy as heated wrist blades. She knew he could tell them about Damon's existence at any moment. She licked dry lips. "One last thing, if may have council's attention," she said. "I have words to speak of Daun-cha. I no claim credit for his death. A kainde amedha killed him. His death was pure."
There was several beats of silence after her words fell away. Sealink could feel Thraen's anxiety and suspense as if it were an electric current, the hairs on her nape rising as if staticky. A female clacked her long, elegant tusks together. "We understood you killed him. Are you changing your story?"
"Daun-cha is dead. Kainde amedha rip his throat with eye teeth. That's all I care."
"How did a kainde amedha entered the ship?"
"I snuck him on," Sealink said. "He was from my Hive, captured and pit to fight like Oo-kai'dha. Made him kill all yau-tja on ship, even Daun-cha."
"How can we know you speak true?" It was Nen-yuar'da again, voice as level as a frozen lake's surface.
Sealink bared her teeth and slapped the Queen's skull. "How else know? My kainde amedha left no yau-tja survivors. I was there. I saw Daun-cha die with own eyes. Oo-kai'dha proved honor. You must take word."
"You misunderstand our race, Oo-kai'dha, despite your substantial time with us," Yey-dtai'k-dte said, his cool equanimity subduing her aggression. "Yes, you have proved your worth and strength with such a magnificent trophy, but trophies do not make one honorable. It is the spirit within that allows this, not the external bounty of the hunt. A dishonorable warrior can just as likely take a Queen's head as you have, but still he would remain disgraced. We shall see if that is the case with you."
The scarred yautja's gaze was a dead weight, boring straight into her soul as if everything was laid bare for him to see. She sensed him searching for a lie, a hint of deceit, and Sealink knew he would've found one had it existed. But none did. Technically she was a true kainde amedha when she killed Dauncha, body and all. The truth gave her the confidence to proudly return the stare, never blinking, lifting her chin in challenge. Without moving his head a micron, the scarred yautja's gaze shifted till they were spearing Thraen.
"Well? Is this true, son of Dauncha?"
Thraen pounded a fist to his chest and quickly averted his gaze. "It is, honorable council. Oo-kai'dha speaks without dishonor."
The council exchanged glances, seeming to understand each other without anything more. Sealink waited with bated breath, the anxiety of before returning to full force. They had to believe her. What other proof did she have of lying? What would Thraen do to her if his disgrace remained? Would all of this been for naught? At long last the council quieted, each of their gazes resting on Thraen. The last female spoke, one of her tusks chipped and another lined with gold. Her voice as deep and guttural as a male's.
"It seems a change of status is required, then. We have a reliable witness testimony. Since your sire died an honorable death, we see no reason to continue the disgrace. Your clan's dishonor is lifted, Thraen, son of Dauncha; be free of its weight."
At first the young yautja appeared if he didn't knew what to do, standing with his mandibles frozen and eyes wide. When enough sense returned he thumped his chest with a fist and bowed his head. He croaked what sounded like thanks, phonics distorted by emotion. The last barrier broke. Sealink allowed herself to slump slightly, the weariness she'd kept at bay returning with full force. It was done. She had saved her people. She looked at the skull next to her and touched it with her fingertips. Thank you.She withdrew her fingers, the inexplicable sadness marring what should've been joy. She looked up to see Zizar padding forward, crooning his rough hum. The council watched with avid eyes as he helped her between his shoulder struts, her useless legs dangling over his side. When she was stable enough he rose. Then, in a clear, unmistakable move, he bowed his head towards the council. A hush descended upon the yautja. They didn't nod in return or make any other sign they noticed the miraculousness of the event, but Sealink was glad. She bit back the urge to cuff the praetorian.
Zizar, you fool, let's go, she said, but there was little heat behind it. His nails clicked on the stones as he turned and headed towards the exit. Thraen followed, ghosting behind them, head still lowered and mandibles stilled in disbelief.
Two days passed since the fateful meeting with the yautja council. The moment Sealink, Zizar and Thraen had returned to the dwelling the young yautja disappeared into the jungle and was not seen since. Neither was the yautja commander or Ra'ka appeared. It was as if they all vanished. Zizar loathed to leave Sealink's side, but she needed food. He eventually slipped away on velvet feet to hunt, melding in the jungle without disturbing a leaf. Sealink let him go. She squinted against the sun's reflection on the sand. It was high noon at Dauncha's dwelling and despite sitting in the shade, sweat ran freely down her body, the rough cloth she wore clinging like a second skin. Since hearing the council's decree she was content to sit and stare at the clouds, feeling the most relaxed since hearing yautja land on her salt waste. The last great weight had rolled off her chest. Her mission was complete. No more kainde amedha hunts, no more dealing with yautja. If she ever saw another hunter in her life, it would've been too soon. All what was left was the return home.
Sealink closed her eyes and tried to relax into the sun. She would see Damon again. All her children and family. The barren salt waste. She missed the nothingness. She was done with adventures. She opened her eyes again, slowly, as if unwilling to wake from her dream. You can do this. She glanced down. Her legs were thinner than she'd ever seen, the once firm and virile muscles in her thighs and calves now atrophying from disuse. Eventually they would be as thin as sticks, nothing but living bone and stringy muscle. Already her knees were starting to jut out like knobs. A twelve-legged bug crawled over one of her shins and Sealink watched as if from miles away, able to see but unable to feel the sensation of the tiny legs on her skin. Her throat worked. It's okay. She let out the breath she was holding. It'll be okay. After a moment she lifted a hand in front of her and rotated it. It was a human's, the palm rough with calluses and criss-crossed with lines, the skin tan from the constant exposure of sun and exposure. Faint blue veins pulsed beneath the wrist's soft, thin flesh. She wiggled each of the four fingers and thumb, watching as they bobbed and curled. A movement caught her eye. Sealink looked up and saw Ra'ka staring at her from several feet away, looming. His skin seemed grayer since the last time she'd seen him, as if he had collected a layer of dust in her absence. He chuttered lowly when she noticed him, like the thunder of an approaching storm. She stiffened and put her hand down. They were alone.
"What?" she said.
"Arndk'dhe told me what you did."
She frowned, in no mood for riddles. "Who?"
Ra'ka lifted one of his remaining mandibles in a sneer. "Thraen's friend."
Sealink tried to alleviate some of her discomfort and leaned back against the wall surrounding Dauncha's courtyard. "Uh. So that his name," she said. She flicked her gaze up. The ex-Trainer was closer now, yellow eyes gleaming from within the sunken sockets.
"So. Saying a bug killed Dauncha now, eh?"
Sealink nodded slowly. "Yes. Kainde amedha."
His flat, steady gaze drilled into her. "And you had nothing to do with it."
The yautja let out a growling chuff. "We both know you were the one who killed him."
Sealink lifted one shoulder and let it fall, matching his heated gaze with a cool one of her own. "Council convinced," she said. "That all matters."
Ra'ka's mangled face hardened, the two functioning mandibles twitching. "You've always been a slippery one. Knew the moment I saw you. Tricking the council—I'm not surprised. They're a bunch of limp dicks. But it was real kind of you, thinking about our dishonor and trying to rid it. Real kind." The yautja took a heavy, deliberate step forward. "But I can think of a better way. Get up."
Zizar, I need you back here, Sealink called. She heard a faint stirring in answer.
"Well?" he said. "Get to your feet."
Sealink bristled, painfully aware of her handicap. "Can't."
Ra'ka cocked his head in a oddly bird-like move. A soft chitter escaped his fanged maw. "Oh? Can't run?"
Sealink glowered and remained silent. In a vaguely human gesture, the yautja's mandibles flared sideways to form a horrific smile.
"So, if I do this—" in a lightening move he wrapped a hand around her throat, "—you can't do anything about it." The back of her head smashed against the wall and for one scorching second she was too shocked to breathe. Then she realized the grip was loose enough for her to pull in air, but barely. It was struggle not to hyperventilate. The hot, reptilian skin filled her with revulsion and she fought not to twitch. She glared into the yautja's face not inches from her own, hating him as never before. The grip tightened indiscernibly, teasing, his regard mirroring the hatred in her own eyes. Sealink tried to turn away from the hot, stinking breath but he forced her forward. He tch'd softly, as if reprimanding a mistake. His gaze was feverish, too bright; they locked onto hers as if she were the prize he'd been hunting for years. Sealink's trachea bobbed in the shadow of their madness, the first shards of fear stabbing her stomach.
"Ra'ka, wait. This no solve—"
"Shhhhh," he said, hand clenching. Her air supply disappeared. Terror shot through her. "That's enough out of you."
Sealink clawed at the meaty forearm, choking, but it was like scratching at living steel. Her efforts were laughable. She could hear her pulse pounding like a drum in her ears. Her face began to redden. Zizar! Help me! The hulking yautja leaned in closer enough they could kiss. His two working mandibles framed her face in a perversely intimate gesture. His bitter musk rolled over her.
"So you survived. Thought Thraen would have the balls to kill you, or leave you to the bugs. He's young. Doesn't know how slippery you can be, eh? Dauncha made that mistake. I won't." At the emphasis the grip tightened. Black dots danced in her vision. Her lungs burned. In a desperate move she clawed at his face, hooking her thumb into his eye socket and bearing down with all her force. Hot, viscous liquid spurted in a salty torrent. The yautja reared back, bellowing. His hold released. Sealink clutched at her throat, gasping. She looked up in time to duck the fist swinging straight for her head. Spider cracks crawled up the wall from the force of the blow. Sealink had pitched forward to avoid it, but with her dead legs she couldn't move. She barely had enough time to cough when a heavy hand clamped on the back of her neck. Sealink shrieked, clawing at the fingers and wrist. It was like fighting cement. The yautja began to walk towards the jungle, dragging her with him, her legs cutting heavy ruts in the sand. His heavy breathing frightened her more than the grip on her neck. The old terrors were resurfacing with the force of a tsunami, the nightmare of before curdling in her stomach. She writhed and snarled, unwilling to die like an animal led to slaughter at the hands of her oldest enemy. Tears of frustration ran down her face.
"Ra'ka, no! Don't do this. Don't—!"
"This is going to be for Dauncha, you little tetch-na. Had to bide my time, but I was patient. Been waiting to do this since you bit off a chunk of my face. You're fucking dea—"
The yautja pulled to a stop as Zizar exploded from the forest. At her angle Sealink could see him feet away, spitting and squealing like an over-worked teakettle, unwilling to approach with her in so precarious a position. Ra'ka roared above her, the hand tightening on her neck until she could feel her vertebrae grind against each other. She could see her death moments away, white-hot and instantaneous. Just as she was about to call to Zizar the yautja broke off in mid-roar. A low, sucking gurgle took its place, as if he was trying to breathe but something was stuck. He began to cough, slow at first, then with greater intensity. Something hot splattered her head and shoulders. The hand around her nape spasmed once, hard enough to make her eyeballs bulge. Then the grip went slack and Sealink fell to the ground as Ra'ka pitched to the side, still-vibrating spear protruding from the centre of his chest. She stared, unbelieving, as the ex-Trainer attempted a few more gurgled breaths before his body went still. He's dead, she thought, stupid with surprise. Finally dead. The truth hit her like a battering ram and she slumped, suddenly aware of her bone-deep exhaustion, coughing hard enough to bring up bloody saliva. She massaged her throat, wincing. A shadow fell over her as Zizar rushed to her side. His cool, dark hands were rough as they brushed her shoulder, neck, and face. She allowed Zizar to investigate for several seconds before hissing him away.
"I'm okay, I'm okay," she said, voice gritty from abuse. She knuckled the tear tracks away, blowing snot from her nose. She flinched as the praetorian reared up, screeing a nails-on-chalkboard cry that vibrated throughout the jungle's edge. Without a single word he launched himself at the fallen body, driving his knifed tail into the corpse again and again until Sealink was covered in bioflorescent blood from residual spray. His claws rent the flesh into ribbons and shattered bone, the hideous scgloosh, scgloosh sounds filling the air until all what was left of the yautja was a mess of muscle and bone in a pond of green. When Zizar turned to her he was covered in bits of meat and skin. The praetorian bumped his mouth against her cheek hard enough to rock her back to the ground. Sealink pushed him away until he retreated, still hissing like a wasp nest under his breath. When he froze, every muscle taut, shoulder struts bristling, Sealink looked up in alarm. The owner of the spear stepped out of the jungle's edge, body held in the loose, confident stance of a predator. Sealink rubbed her throat and spat to the side.
"Let him be, Zizar. Zizar! I said leave him!"
Dauncha's son walked to them, keeping a cool eye on Zizar's agitated jerks and twitches, another spear held ready in his grip. The praetorian gave ground, hissing sullen threats. When it was clear the Xenomorph wouldn't attack, the young yautja made his measured way to Sealink, kurring a note of detached curiosity. He stopped inches from the carnage, green blood puddling around his clawed toes. His mandibles twitched in lazy circles, gaze hooded. He stared at the remains, head cocked, upper mandibles lifting and falling as he clicked low in his throat. Sealink stared hard at him, unable to see a single glimmer of anger in his stance or in the expressive mandibles, unsure whether that boded ill or well. She waited for him to say something, anything, but the longer he stood, silent, inward, the more she realized words were unnecessary. Everything had already been said. The tension drained from her frame. When their eyes met, she felt no fear. He inclined his head in the closest thing to a nod she'd seen him give her before trudging away, not even bothering to retrieve the spear still imbedded in the remains of Ra'ka's chest.
"This ship will take you to your world. It will be on autopilot. I programmed it to land at the same coordinates as the last time. "
Sealink squinted against the rising sunlight of the early morning. The ship was the smallest she'd ever seen—had she'd known the name, she would've likened it to an escape pod. It was no more than fifty feet long from bow to aft and twenty feed wide. Its surface was a dull, mottled finish. Twin thrusters rested on either side like wings of an eagle. A heavy odor of ozone rose from them. Zizar shifted beneath her, chuffing low and soft.
"The voyage will last ten solar cycles. You have been provided with enough food and water to last."
The scents from the jungle were keen and fresh this time of the morning. She closed her eyes and breathed in the pungent aroma of moist soil and humid air, the sharp, metallic fumes surrounding the ship's thrusters, and beneath it all, caught the barest hint of bitter musk surrounding Thraen as he stood near her side.
"The tracking beacon located on all ships has been deactivated in this one. Once you leave planetside, we won't be able to follow. Neither can we assist should there be any malfunctions."
I hated this world, she thought. Hated its people, hated its culture. Hated even the twin suns in the sky. She opened her eyes. Dauncha was dead. Ra'ka was dead. Though she'd be glad never to step foot on this place again, she was surprised to find a sliver of regret. She shook out of her inward ruminations and realized the young yautja was still speaking. She looked at him as if seeing him for the first time. He was close enough to brush Zizar's flank if he wanted. The yautja was dressed in light armor, his midriff and thighs unadorned, sunlight glinting off his oiled dreadlocks. A necklace of small skulls draped across his neck. They looked freshly procured, gleaming bone-white in the sunrise.
"Once you enter and the ramp closes, it will automatically take off. You are free to leave."
"Arndk'dhe says you have mating proposals," Sealink said. "Will sire many sons?"
"He can leave his tusks out of my business," Thraen replied with a ruffled flex of his mandibles. He shifted weight on his feet, his sunken yellow eyes meeting hers. "But yes."
Sealink nodded. "Happy for you. Make line strong."
Thraen clicked, kurring as all yautja did, but said nothing. A ghost of a smile flitted across her face. She nodded again, her chest and heart light. In that moment she would've thanked him for saving her from Ra'ka, for giving her second chance, for everything, but Thraen's gaze flicked, his hand lifting and rising in the gesture she knew to mean It is all said and understood. The moment passed between them unspoken, as ephemeral as a wisp of smoke, and as lasting.
Dauncha's son grunted, looking away. "I'll check the supplies. I won't be long."
He left. Sealink stared at the spot where he had departed, mulling. Zizar shifted again, tubules swaying.
What was all that about? he asked.
"The ship will be ready soon," she said. "He's just checking our food."
Zizar shifted for the third time. His passenger stroked the side of his ligamented neck. "Something on your mind? You're so restless."
The praetorian was quiet. Then he said, I'll admit, something has been bothering me since the hunt.
Sealink's mouth twitched. "Oh?"
Back in the Hive, when you were in the Queen's body, you could've remained there. But instead you chose to return to your human body. Why? You finally had what you wanted.
It was Sealink's turn to be quiet. She looked down at her thinning legs and human hands.
"I knew I couldn't speak to the old yautja with a Queen's body. I couldn't have saved my children. Without them I am nothing. I am Sealink; when I grow old and die, that will be it." She frowned a little then. She lifted a hand in front of her, watching as the sun dyed the tips of her fingers blood red. She could see the tiny capillaries pulsing beneath the skin. "Something Thraen once said to me made perfect sense. My body is nothing but a mask; when anyone sees me, all they see is a human female. But I know the truth. I saw it when I was in the Queen's mind."
What did you see?
Sealink could sometimes remember it in the pre-dawn before the morning, when she still hovered between dream and reality. She'd wake up gasping, basking in a glow so warm and complete she felt she was dying. After a few minutes the memory became vague and shadowy, as if it viewed a great distance away, leaving her wondering why she'd woken up in the first place. By mid-afternoon the memory would be entirely gone, forgotten save for the tiniest feeling she was missing a crucial part of herself. She'd forget until the next time she woke up, hand on chest, wrapped in an aura of unfathomable peace. But those episodes were occurring less and less, and soon she knew they would end all together. For now she clung onto the phantom sensation with the strength of a dying man, holding onto the bare moments when she truly understood herself.
"We were equals. Sisters, one and the same," she said. She smiled, but it was neither happy nor sad. "I was whole."
Zizar was quiet. There was nothing left to say after a statement like that.