This has been a difficult chapter, and it is nowhere near good enough to justify having taken a year to produce. Oh wait, I'm sorry: TWO years. Jesus. There is not always an elegant way to do exposition, and this is a whole chapter full of it. In Pey'j's voice, which – well, let's just say that spell check and I are NOT on speaking terms right now.

This is where I must begin counting on my portrayal of the characters that we all know and love to be reward enough for you to stick with me as I stray even more dramatically from what Ancel & Co. have passed down as canon. This chapter is where I say, "Yes, Hillys is a fine and lovely place. Let's see how it fits into the universe, now, shall we?" and if the story is compelling enough, you will come with me. If I fail to write it enticingly enough, this is where I lose you all, and by waiting 2 years to publish this chapter, I'm pretty sure I've lost any momentum that would have made it easier to bring you all along.

I lay no claim to anything but the story. I adore the world and characters created by Michel Ancel and Ubisoft, and mean nothing but tribute to and appreciation of them in the writing of this sequel.

Chapter 11

The Past

Jade's face was flushed and her nostrils flared with every breath. Pey'j took a shocked step away from her fury, taking in her jutting chin and firey eyes. He could not recall a time he'd seen her this angry. His chest ached and he felt an urge to crawl under the table in shame; her anger was fearsome but justified. He had been keeping the truth from her for far too long.

Pey'j sighed deeply, his shoulders rounding and his eyes falling to the floor. The feeling of defeat swept over him in a sharp wave. He rubbed his head self-consciously and began to talk, incapable of meeting her eyes: "Like I was sayin', I met your parents on Sagittaria. Adam an' I built and fixed stuff, and Hanna was a field agent. One of the best."

Jade turned her eyes to the picture in her lap and traced her parents' faces with a trembling finger. Hub placed a hand on her shoulders and squeezed gently, looking at the photograph surreptitiously.

Without moving his gaze from the floor, Pey'j continued.

"Even though IRIS told us to keep our real lives secret, the three of us and your ma's partner, Hogan, were real tight. Hogan was the best man at their weddin', and me'n'Adam were inseparable. Always buildin' things together. The Beluga, now – she was our masterpiece." Here, Pey'j paused to let his eyes flicker over the schematics for the Beluga plastered on his workshop's walls, and for a moment the worry-lines around his mouth twitched into a vague smile.

The pig paused a moment and took a deep breath. Looking Jade over, he reached out his hand for a moment before pulling it back as if stuck by a pin.

"A bit less'n a year before you was born, a young man named Zak came to live with Adam an' Hanna. They introduced him as Hanna's cousin. He was a funny sorta fella – not quite right in the head, like, and real slow. Like a child in a man's body. But he had a spark to him. Liked kids, liked animals, liked to build things. I let him play with my tools sometimes, and he had a real knack for makin' things. Dumb as a rock though. Hogan couldn't stand him – the kid really freaked him out. I overheard Hogan yellin' at Hanna once 'bout how big a threat the kid was, an' I didn't really make much of it at the time – just thought he was bein' small-minded 'bout the poor kid. But it strained their friendship, an' I started seein' less and less of Hogan.

"Around the time Zak came to live with 'em, Adam got real jumpy. Hanna finally got pregnant – they'd been tryin' fer years – and your da started talkin' about what kind of world he wanted his baby to grow up in, an' how dangerous a child's life would be.

"It wasn't 'til a coupl'a months before you were born that he told me 'bout the Order. Zak had been with me in my workshop all day an' I'd been lettin' him build things, but at some point I forgot to watch him. Adam came by an' blew his lid when I said I didn't know where he was – when we found him, he was starin' into a pearl we had rigged up to a machine one of our science-types had been working on. She'd been tryin' to find a way to keep the pearls contaminated after the DomZ beast they'd come outta had been killed, so she could get to studyin' the DNA in 'em or some hogwash. But she'd never managed to have 'em hold onto more'n a coupl'a green streaks here and there.

"But there was Zak, starin' right in to this pearl that was glowin' green with patterns shiftin' all around like a livin' thing.

At this, Jade looked up from the photograph of her parents and studied Pey'j intently.

"Adam blew a gasket, knockin' Zak outta the way and bustin' the pearl into pieces. He tore me a new one for lettin' him outta my sight, yelled at Zak for wanderin' off, and finally sat down with his head in his hands. That's when he told me 'bout the Order. He told me that Zak was a Vessel, an' that Adam was sworn to protect him...or, more like, to protect the world from him."

Jade straightened her hunched posture and began fiddling with a loose thread in the seat of her chair. "A vessel of what? Why did the pearl affect him so? What damage was my father so worried about him doing?"

"Would you just be patient an' let me say my piece," Pey'j grumbled in exasperation. "This ain't easy as it is, li'l lady. Stop tryin' to jump ahead.

"I had a whole passel of questions for your da at that point. Questions like, 'a vessel of what? Why'd the pearl mess with him so bad? An' what damage could a sweet moon-brain like Zak do?'" Pey'j shot a glance at Jade, who reddened slightly around the ears at his heckling.

"So let's tackle the hardest one – the one that'll help explain the others," Pey'j continued slowly. He began pacing the room slowly, rubbing his hands together slowly, his face void of emotion.

"Zak was a Vessel. That's what Adam explained to me that day. The Order exists to watch over the Vessels – both to make sure they don't come to no harm an' that they don't do none – an' to make sure that if any harm comes to 'em that the Essence is passed on to a new Vessel."

Here he ceased his pacing, turned to face Jade, and looked her directly in the eye for the first time since he began his story.

"The Essence is the heart of all this damn mess," he said gravely, "and it's the part what I understand the least. So you're gonna have to trust me that I'm tellin' you what I can, here, an' that I'm willin' to help you learn more. But it ain't gonna make much sense to you, because I've been tryin' to understand it for over two decades an' I'm still confused as hell."

This disclaimer riveted Jade's attention; she met Pey'j's eyes and ceased her fidgeting. Behind her, Hub too froze into perfect stillness, hanging on every word.

"The Essence is a part of the DomZ queen that was taken from her a very long time ago. Without it, she ain't got her full strength nor abilities, an' she has spent the past 3,000 years trying to track it down. She has destroyed two worlds in the process an' enslaved untold hundreds of others. I don't know what would happen if she were to get it back, but I'd just as soon not find out.

"There's a race called 'the Old Ones' that took this Essence from her in the first place, an' who started the Order to keep it safe once they died out. To my knowledge they're all dead as doornails by now.

"But before they kicked the bucket, they figgered a way to capture this Essence in a human body, to keep it from returnin' to the DomZ queen and to make sure it don't get used as a weapon."

"So that's what I am," Jade said tonelessly. "A human body being used as some kind of protective sheath for an alien weapon."

"You're a draz-gatted victim, is what you are, and a damn survivor!" Pey'j said angrily. "You were never s'posed to be a Vessel. That was all because of...but I'm gettin' ahead of myself again. Let's back up to that day.

"So Adam told me about the Order, and I guess that was my induction. Hogan and Hanna were in on it too, but I shouldn't have ever been allowed to be. They're awful picky about their members, an' they look down on us Sus Sapiens and all the other 'working races'."

"Fanatic xenophobic nonsense," Hub muttered darkly.

"Well yeah, but not everywhere is as full of love and puppies as this nice little backward water world," Pey'j retorted. "We Fauna Sapiens may be accepted here, but there's worlds where we ain't no better off than slaves. So Hogan was right pissed off about Adam inducting me into the Order. They had a big fallin' out when he found out, and he requested a new assignment with IRIS. We didn't see him again until he came to warn us about the DomZ two months later."

Pey'j sighed heavily and ran his hand over the plans for the Beluga. "Lookin' back on it now, I'm fair sure it's all my fault," he said heavily. "It was Zak lookin' in that draz-gatted pearl when I wasn't paying no damn attention that must of gotten their attention focused on Sagittaria. We were pretty well prepared for them, as far as those things go, but come they did an' some of their sarcophagi came straight to us. Hogan beat them there by mere minutes, all outta breath an' lookin' like death warmed over, but he didn't get there in time for us to get Hanna out soon enough.

"She was so far pregnant that she hadn't been on missions in months, and was due to pop any day. We started for the Beluga right away, your parents, Hogan, me an' Zak, but it was too far to its hidin' place and she was movin' too slow. The DomZ caught up with us and went straight for Zak.

"Your da an' Hogan all but gave their lives protectin' Zak, and the rest of us did all we could. But they got him an' were takin' him away when Hogan shot him right in the head. Then he took out this old-as-hell-lookin' device, an' Adam and Hanna both started screamin' at him to stop what he was doin'...but his last act in life was to activate that thing. An' its sole purpose is to pass on the Essence from a dyin' vessel to a new one.

"He transferred that thing into Hanna, an' it took hold of you right in her belly. She went into labor right there.

"Adam an' I drove off the rest of the DomZ and just barely got Hanna to the Beluga in time. We left Saggitaria not knowin' where to go. You were born in space, an' yer parents decided the most important thing was to protect you. Adam was dyin', an' nothin' we could do was savin' him. Hanna was still weak from childbirth, an' knew that the DomZ would be followin' her since they'd seen Hogan transfer the Essence into her body. So she an' Adam decided to go out with a bang to buy me time to escape with you, so that your life could be spared...and so that the Vessel could be protected," he added reluctantly.

"We padded Hanna's belly and I dropped them off on a small, barely inhabited planet, an' they went off to start a false trail. You an' I went on to Artemis, where I began to raise ya. No one suspected us, on account of me bein' a Fauna – it was the perfect cover.

"An' on Artemis I waited. Found the IRIS chapter, started a new life, and waited for word from Hanna or Adam. I never gave up hope until one day someone from the Order showed up an' let me know that they were dead.

"An' from there, you know the rest. We stayed on Artemis a while, moved here to Hillys. Had a pretty good time of it really, until the DomZ showed up again, bringin' those stinkin' Alphas with 'em."

Pey'j sat down wearily, every line of his body screaming exhaustion. "So there it is. You're my little girl. You're also a few other things, an' the key to an intergalactic conflict just happens to be one of your fancier hats."

Jade sat mutely, her mouth slightly agape. She turned the picture frame in her hands, and stared at it with dull, unblinking eyes. "I think..." she began softly, "I think I need a second alone, now."

With that, she set the picture down with careful precision and walked slowly out of the room. Pey'j and Hub met one another's eyes, and in tacit agreement they let her go.

"How many people know about this?" Hub asked suddenly, his voice strained.

"Me," said Pay'j, "You. The member of the Order I report to. Anyone he's told. An' anyone with half a brain who saw her little show up on Selene," he finished, his voice seeded with both affection and bitterness.

"The DomZ will be coming. Soon, and in greater force," Hub stated. He folded his hands behind his back and straightened to attention. "We must evacuate her from the planet immediately!"

Pey'j snorted. "Well thank pig heaven that somone thought o' that," he snapped. "I've only been tryin' to arrange an escort since we got back from Selene, is all. But y'know, I'm not a hunnert percent sure that the Order wants to save her. I think they may just be plannin' to transfer the Essence an' hell with what it'll do to her. She's too visible now, y'see, an' they don't trust me to be emotionally impartial, not what I don't see their point, but..." he set down the crescent wrench he had been fiddling with and straightened his age- and weight-bent back, met Hub's eyes directly, and spoke every syllable precisely: "But if they try anythin' of the sort, they are goin' to have to come through me."