Interlude: Herald

(12/1/80 – Zellig)

    Patience was something I had managed to obtain over my nine cycles of existence.  When I was younger, I was an upstart, a rebel, a perfect fit for the military and the discipline that would be forced upon me.  While initially I had abhorred the structure and rigor of the uncompromising military, the challenge to best others and prove myself had grown to mean everything to me.   

    That was eight cycles ago, back when I had just been properly entering a Trillodan’s proper maturity.      

    Now I was one of the five highest ranked officials in the Trillodan army.  My old commanding officer had repeatedly berated me, beaten me, and insisted that I would be worth nothing as long as I lived.  I let a sinister smile creep across my face as I realized exactly what he’d say if he saw what had become of me; he’d call me a monster.  

    Not that he would be wrong, mind you.  

    I was acutely aware of how long I had been waiting I had been waiting in the Hall of Order, but I didn’t fret or demand answers from either of the guards at the end of the corridor.  They were predominately decorative, a remnant of a time long gone where Trillodan used to fight amongst each other. We used to be such a savage and foolish lot, nearly driving ourselves to extinction over ideals and idiocy.  While we were known for our galactic control and technological superiority, it was not always that way. Like humans, zari, and so many other sentient species, there were a few great filters that were needed to pass. 

Our initial hurdle had been against our environment.  Despite being self-aware, our dependency on moisture and specific climate had made technological advance a testament to our fortitude and ability to grit and bear through.  As soon as we could start creating clothing that kept us wet and started cultivating organisms that would grow on stone and keep buildings from being dry pockets of air, we could begin work on computer technology and industrial processes.  While Xalaani wasn’t rich in terms of natural ore and precious material, we had worked feverishly to enable ourselves to farm for materials off world.  

The more recent hurdle had been one of internal conflict.  When our society no longer struggled for forward progress, a question of morality and ethics came into play and it divided our great society down the middle, a split that led to war that ravaged much of the planet’s surface as well as other worlds we found ourselves occupying.  Despite us nearly driving ourselves to extinction, a few shrewd leaders were able to pull together and enact compromise and stop the bloodshed and ultimately save our hemorrhaging population.   

The Hall of Order was a monument to established rule, and one that had survived nearly fifteen cycles. There was only one Trillodan left alive who remembered its construction and it was the woman who had helped push the idea forward so long ago: head of the Trillodan military and government, the Immortal Matron.  She had been a key figure in repairing the social fabric and uniting the disparate masses under a common cause. The Immortal Matron was such a key figure in Trillodan culture for so long that no one had dared to replace her despite our government not being an explicit autocracy.  

Due to her policy, the Trillodan people were split among two lines: the harsh military and the peaceful civilian.  One respected and needed the other, and both were well seen after under her watchful gaze. The Matron was the voice of the military by and large, extending our reach across the stars to ensure that there could never be a society like ours but without the restrains she imposed.  Our old civil wars had ravaged dozens of planets, and that had just been collateral damage. The greatest fear of the Matron was if another species came into the power we had but without the same levels of moderation; it was the primary goal of the Expedition to keep such a catastrophe from ever happening.  Back on Xalanni however, she had a council to represent the will of her own people to keep them content and appeased. The Immortal Matron understood that she was, at least in part, associated with war and bloodshed. She wasn’t a clean and pristine ruler and knew that there was need to distance herself from the utopian day-to-day affairs of the majority of the population.  The council was formed by democratic appointment and provided a perfect buffer between her and society.    

Thanks to our dutiful and clever Matron, we lived on one of the only utopias in existence.  A pristine society where all could thrive and truly live.  

    I glanced down the hall at the sentries who were watching me, at least not with animosity or fear.  As I took stock of who they were behind the golden armor and helmet, I realized I knew one of them. “Dar’an,” I called, “I see you got light duty!”  

    He straightened his posture, slamming his hand against his chest twice in salute, “Commander Zellig, sir.” 

    I scoffed, “I’m not your commander anymore. You answer to Gal now, not me.”   

    He smiled, baring his fangs from behind his ceremonial helmet, “He’s harsher on the rules than you, sir.”  

    “I always believed in results, not decorum.  As long as the job gets done, I don’t care how neat it wraps up.”  I extended an arm and he clasped it in a soldier’s handshake.  

    “I do miss the Expedition,” he confessed, “There was so much more going on as compared to being in the Garrison.”  

    “Dar’an,” his counterpart warned, “Position.”

    I didn’t have to look to see why he spoke up anything, I felt the movement through the floor as the councilmembers headed for the exit.  Flashing a smile, I left the guard to his duties, not wanting to cause my former charge any trouble. While the Garrison was hardly a necessary institution, it was one I still chose to respect.  It had been instituted at the beginning of the Matron’s rule to help keep order while insurgency continued to smolder and rage against the society she built from the ashes. She had seen the value in making people safe, and the presence of the Garrison kept many at ease to this day. They were quiet protectors with the whole purpose of protecting the Trillodan people.  

    The first face through the door was one that I had come to revile over the last three cycles.  Councilman Barlow, was the closest thing to an insurgent that had existed for the last ten cycles.  He was a silver tongued cur who was working to leverage the council against the Immortal Matron and see her dethroned.  It was his personal belief that we shouldn’t be infringing upon other fledgling societies and he refused to listen to any sound reasoning about how much damage technological advancement could be when left unchecked.  

He was oblivious to the value of our Matron and how much control she truly exhibited or at least that was my impression of the man.  I had asked her more than once if I should kill him, but she insisted that he could be dealt with and that she needed to respect the will of her people.  She was firm in keeping Xalaani free of tyrants and she was not about to break her own rule after so long of having it instituted.   

I admired her objectivity but he struck more nerves with me.  It was thanks to him that enrollment in the military was dropping and that my best friend’s various projects were under excess scrutiny.  Thanks to Barlow, there was the actual chance that Trillodan’s perfect society could see drastic shift with repercussions that could cost us everything we had built over the last twenty cycles.     

    Still, as he approached, I bowed in polite gesture.  For better or worse, he was a high ranking member of the government.  “Councilman.”

    “Zellig,” the green tinted figure said, his purple robes flowing behind him, “Dare I ask what brings you to the Hall of Order today?” 

    “Audience with the Matron,” I replied, trying to keep a calm demeanor.  Few people made my blood boil the way he did.  Likely because on many occasions he had taken it upon himself to be particularly nasty and snide, knowing that he could push and prod, playing on everyone’s perception as me as a monster.  I did respect his ability to whip a room into a frenzy, but the fact he had directed it at me more than once was infuriating.  

Having a perfect memory, I could recall every time over the last cycle and a half he had insulted Vaneel or maligned me.  His current count was up to one-hundred and ninety-four instances of condescending speech. I had contemplated a unique way to kill him every time he started a tirade against me; it was a pleasant distraction while he babbled on at my expense.    

        “Are you sure she has the time for an informal meeting?  The Matron is a very busy woman after all,” he chuckled, taking note of my simple garb.  I seldom wore anything for decoration and instead opted for a black tunic and trousers, refusing shoes like most of my people.  Councilman Barlow stepped forward, his feet slapping against the cold tile flooring, “Commander Zellig, I must confess that I am surprised you’d show your face so soon after what happened on Tso’got.”

    I kept my expression neutral, not wanting to let him know my disdain; I was hoping that he wouldn’t know yet, that I could stall this particular conversation until I had more results to make up for my egregious loss of life.  Tso’got, realistically, had been a disaster.  It was made so much worse by the inherently low birth rates of the Trillodan people; while technology had given us the gift of extended lifespans, the damage we had wrought on our own planet had made rearing young a challenge. Despite being the sovereign race in the universe, we only totaled in the millions.  One of the most detrimental outcomes of our civil war was the lingering effects from biological agents that he yet to be reversed.  

Damage to our genetics had rendered many infertile and a vast percentage of the children born were with extreme defect.  Despite the Trillodan being able to live easily a dozen times longer than most sentient species, we were still treading around endangerment.  Only five percent of the children born survived their first year, and only half of those survived their first cycle. Despite our prowess and progress forward into medical science, we hadn’t managed to undo the damage we had inflicted on ourselves.      

There was no doubt that this insipid councilman was going to hammer that point home and use it to prove that my friend’s research as well as the Immortal Matron’s guidance of the military was a direct threat to our wellbeing and continued existence.  My shortcoming would be yet another blade for the councilman to chip away at our leader with.   

    “I answer to the Immortal Matron,” I replied, “She requested a report in person.  I am here to honor that request.”  

    “Is she here to get a proper count on your losses?  Three-hundred and seventeen dead, Zellig,” he said, his voice cold, “Perhaps you’ve discovered a way to help us raise children quickly, or maybe your friend Vaneel has an answer?  Neither of you have helped to bolster our ranks; the least you could do is to cease stopping so many lives short.” 

    My lips twitched, threatening a sneer and Barlow smiled, he’d noticed the little tick.  He knew he was getting under my skin, but he’d made a point to go after the most vulnerable part of my past.  The way he looked at me, that little self-assured smile of his, he fucking knew.   

He knew that three and a half cycles ago, I had buried my child.  My son hadn’t made it through his first year, just like most of Trillodan children.  

“I would assume someone of your position would know how to respect the sacrifices those men made,” I growled.

    “Sacrifice?  They did not protect me or my family,” he replied with a laugh, “No one asked they go and die for ‘the cause’ you are spearheading.  They chose to follow a reckless fool.”  

    I bared my teeth, furious, “Speak ill of my soldiers again and I tear your head off.”  

    That gave Councilman Barlow a moment of pause; while he was a persistent annoyance, he wasn’t an idiot; Barlow knew exactly how capable I was in terms of physical confrontation.  Despite there being witnesses and soldiers from the Garrison present, none of them could stop me and that wasn’t unknown for the councilman.  While he repeatedly lied and spouted slander against my friend’s research, the politician was wise enough to respect Vaneel’s aptitude, especially since he was mere feet from the scientist’s crowning achievement.  

“You’d make me a martyr,” he cautioned, donning a confident smirk, “You sure that’s what you want?”

    People had filtered in, collecting around us, all on their toes, anxious for conflict.  It was a common practice of almost all sentient species: that draw to violence. It didn’t matter how advanced, how refined, or how sophisticated the species was: when there was a fight, it drew everyone like iron to a magnet.  The spectacle, the thrill, the anticipation of that tipping point, all of it enticed even these supposedly refined and dignified members of the high government to come and gawk like slack-jawed drunkards.    

    I glared down at him, wondering how easy it would be to snap his neck.  “At least as a martyr you’d be quiet.” 

    Mutters crept around the throng who were spectating, and the two sentries nearby stepped forward, making their presence known but not saying a word; they weren’t going to try and intercede if they could avoid it.  I knew that Dar’an wasn’t about to raise a weapon against me after spending time in a legion with me. The other would likely be cowed by my reputation or refuse to raise arms against one of the most influential men in the military.  

    “For as monstrous as you are, Zellig, we know you aren’t a fool.  You won’t hurt me, no matter what I say about you or your psychotic, warmongering friend.  No matter what epithets I use, no matter what insinuations I make about the pair of you, you’ll just stand there like a massive gargoyle.  You are all talk and no action.  I’m probably safer thanks to you being nearby,” he said, patting my chest.  

    Steeling my gaze, I proved him right and stood still as a statue.  

    “Friends,” he said with a sweeping gesture to the audience, “Take a look at the great and renowned Commander Zellig.  The epitome of brute strength and tenacity, it is just a damn shame that he doesn’t know how to think first before he speaks.”  

    “A shame someone of your station doesn’t know the definition of the word dignity,” I replied in a growl.  

    A few scattered snickers were heard as Barlow clapped his hands in mock applause, immediately regaining control, “My goodness, the brute is able to show some wit!”  His gaze narrowed as he stepped uncomfortably close to me, “It’s a shame that so many followed you on a suicidal mission that served no purpose. It’s a shame that cleverness of yours wasn’t of any more use for them, isn’t it?” 

    My fists clenched as I leaned down closer, “Last chance, watch your mouth.  Speak ill of them again and-”  

    “And you’ll infringe upon my ability to speak freely?  A privilege that so many others have fought for, yes?  A right that was bestowed on us by the Immortal Matron herself!”  He took a step back, “Vaneel really did do a number on your brain, didn’t he?  Maybe you used to be a clever militant, but now you’re just a goon that the Matron tosses around for her amusement.” 

    “And you’re a frivolous figurehead.  A pompous windbag who uses so many words to say so very little.”  I grinned, “At the end of the day, Barlow, you’re nothing more than a fleeting notion, a little flight of fantasy for idiots to mass behind.”   

    He bowed, “You honor me so, bestowing such a decorative insult upon me, my commander.  It’s a shame that this ‘frivolous figurehead’ has more sway than you do.  Really now, Zellig, this is not your arena, it’s mine!  So, please, go home to that mate of yours. Oh, wait,” he said with a laugh, “I forgot she left you when your only friend made you a monster!” 

  Red began to creep in on the edge of my vision.  I allowed a quick dose of serotonin and dopamine to regulate my mood, to keep me from ripping his chest open and eating his heart.

“Since you can’t do that, maybe you should evaluate your strategy and put together a plan to avoid killing hundreds of our finest youth so unnecessarily.” He cocked his head to the side, “Just because your life means nothing to our society, it doesn’t mean you should cast aside their so frivolously.  Then again, they were dumb enough to follow you, so maybe they deserved what happened to-”    

    He didn’t get to finish that sentence as my hand snapped forward, seizing him by the throat.  It was easy to hold him off the ground with one hand, and his feeble attempts to pry himself loose made me smile.  “I warned you about speaking ill of my soldiers, but you just couldn’t help yourself, could you? Me, you can chastise and insult me until you’re out of breath, but that you dare to diminish the fallen is unforgivable.” 

    A gurgle escaped his lips as he waved frantically to the sentries standing a few paces away.  His skin darkened as panic overtook him, his movement became more disjointed and desperate as I felt his pulse speeding up, rebelling against the absence of much needed oxygen.  

    “They won’t help you,” I laughed, “One of them served under me, and the other knows what I can do.  As monstrous and moronic as you paint me, as you paint the military, you have never managed to understand the concept of respecting the position.  You flaunt your authority, but all you have are words and people claiming they’ll support you.” I looked around at the bewildered group of council members, “Do they seem like they want to support you now?”

I lifted him above my head and relaxed my hand slightly, just enough so he would stay conscious and continue to listen.  “I feel your heart, hammering,” I laughed. “You constantly call me a monster, a mindless machine, a scourge on the Trillodan society!  Well,” I asked, looking around to the clamoring council members, “Should I prove him right?” I looked back up at him and squeezed down, just barely leaving his throat intact, “Should I be the monster you so desperately want me to be?”   

    “I believe that he has learned his lesson, Zellig,” a stern voice called above the din.  The council member parted as a small figure stepped forward. Her skin was a deep crimson with speckles of pink dotted around her face.  As unimposing as she was, people reverently bowed to her and stepped aside, some sinking to a knee. 

She was the most successful leader in all history: Iilena Lamaak, the Immortal Matron.  

“Do be a good man and set down Councilman Barlow,” she said politely, though the words were clearly not a suggestion.  I obliged, dropping him in an undignified heap. 

Barlow rose to his feet, trying to straighten his robes and he pointed an accusing finger at me while he still gasped for air, “You allow this, this, monster, this savage, to sully-” 

“As I understand it,” she interrupted with a coy smile, “You had the audacity to demean the sacrifice of Trillodan soldiers.  Soldiers that, if I recall correctly, were in fact serving the empire at my behest. Are you insinuating that I somehow am responsible for sending three-hundred and seventeen soldiers knowingly to their doom?  Now, now, Councilman Barlow, while Zellig here may not be the smartest brute around, do you believe me to be a shortsighted blight upon our society?  Do think before you speak,” she cautioned.  

Barlow’s green skin paled a few shades in embarrassment and shame, and I could not blame him.  While I was straightforward, the Matron was a beast of a different kind and far more dangerous.  The High Council existed largely because Iilena had insisted upon its creation, because she wanted to help in preserving the culture of the Trillodan and to avoid becoming a fascist autocracy.  She knew that being an absolute ruler would tempt her to commit atrocities against her own people and many other innocents.  

But, even with the High Council to preserve the will of the Trillodan people, she still held the lion’s share of the power, and notably the military served at her behest.  While she did not control all of the affairs on Xalanni, she was responsible for all off world activity.  She had confided that a few people had managed to push her before, challenging her for rule; all she’d had to do was prove they were too volatile and unfit to lead.  Iilena Lamaak was not so crude as to threaten his well-being, but she could demolish his reputation if he tried to push too hard.  

“No, Matron,” he replied, slowly, cautiously.  

“Then will you explain why you decided to be so decidedly distasteful towards one of the most decorated militants on the planet?  Would you care to tell all of us here why you are being spiteful towards a man who offered his body for the sake of scientific progress?”  She took a step forward, glaring him down, “Maybe you would be more empathetic if you were forced to serve your species like Zellig has been brave enough to do.”  

He paled but glared past her to me, “That doesn’t change that he threatened to behead me, and then he accosted me!” 

She laughed, a single bark of a laugh that shut him down in an instant.  “Barlow, let me be clear; I heard what you said regarding his personal life.  Such an attack is unbecoming for any man, let alone one of your position. For someone aiming to dethrone me, you must do better than such crude condescension.  I was half tempted to let him asphyxiate you for making such an ass of yourself. The next time you have the audacity to insult a fellow Trillodan for losing a child, you’d best hope I’m not in a foul mood, otherwise I might have your daughter vanish.  Maybe you should experience the grief he had to withstand. Then, maybe then, you will think before you dare make such a comment.”

No one dared to breathe as the Immortal Matron stared down the councilman, his skin nearly turning black from terror.    

She sighed and then turned to me, “However, he does have a point. Zellig, despite how much this fool deserves having his head torn free of his shoulders, leave it on for now. You can’t simply kill everyone who talks back to you because you are able.  Councilman Barlow is correct that he does have the right of free speech to use, though I’m sure from now he’ll be more mindful of abusing liberties,” she added with a pointed glance his way.   

I nodded, “Yes, Matron.  My apologies.” 

“Good!”  Iilena Lamaak leaned forward towards my nemesis, “Are you happy now, Barlow? Has my ‘monster’ been chastised enough?” 

He nodded and the Matron whispered something others present wouldn’t hear.  My enhanced hearing allowed me to eavesdrop, a fact I’m sure that she remembered.

 “Remember, Barlow, my monster is a loyal one.  Be careful.”  

The Matron turned to the gawking politicians, “I assume you all have better things to do than stand around like mindless fools.  Zellig, follow. The rest of you, get back to work.”  

No one argued and everyone quickly fell in line, scurrying about like insects when a light was shined on them.  She did not speak to me, but I could hear her accelerated heart rate. While she had used my unruly behavior to scare Barlow back into line, she was not pleased.  

The Immortal Matron led me into her personal chambers, a small cave carved into the cliffs that the Hall of Order was nestled against.  In large part, she did it to be different, to stand apart from the other chambers who were decorated with wood or tile. For her, it was a rustic chamber though there was a corner brimming with technology and monitors feeding her information about the state of a dozen different ventures she was always looking into.  Despite being alive over a millennia and a half, Iilena Lamaak was still razor sharp and able to think a dozen steps ahead. The High Council had a running joke that part of the reason no one took her job was because no one was smart enough to pull it off.    

“You have done an excellent job causing me trouble,” she groaned as she took a seat on a smooth green stone.  “Vaneel did give you the ability to modulate your brain chemistry; the fact you don’t use it more in practical settings can be grating at times, Zellig.” Before I could reply, she raised a hand to silence me, “I know your personal conundrum and your disdain for being a machine, but think before you act.  This will come down and only strengthen Barlow’s hold on the council once the dust settles.”

“My apologies, Matron.  Though, if we are being candid, there is only so much that Barlow can do to genuinely threaten your leadership.”  

She let out a huff, “I am technically an elected official and I refuse to be an absolute tyrant.  The reason no one dares challenge my throne is because I’m too good at what I do, at least for now.  However, you’ve likely convinced a few more to join his side today thanks to your stunt. Barlow might be a bit over-zealous, but he’s far from stupid.  He knows that he can bide his time and eventually usurp my role for himself in a cycle.”  

It wasn’t something people called attention to often, but the truth was that the Matron was ancient.  She was sixteen cycles old when most only lived half that many. I was alive because the augmentation preserved me and effectively did away with aging, but she had no such luxury.  In another cycle or two, the Immortal Matron would become an ironic title. Even if she didn’t keel over, the mind would eventually start to slip. Part of why she gave Vaneel such authority and position was because she wanted to use his research for her own gain and to ensure she was up to the task until the very end.        

A wave of shame slapped me in the face but I did my best to not reveal my own frustration, “Apologies-“

“Stop,” she said, curt.  “One of the reasons I enjoy your company is you aren’t so intimidated by me that you grovel.  Do away with formalities. I’ve been alive too long to be bothered by such nonsense. Now, enough about the politicking.  That is my mess to clean up. After all, I don’t keep you around because you play well with others.”  

“Yes ma’am.”  

She took a quick glance at the battery of screens along the wall before looking back to me, “So, do explain to me why there were so many casualties and why the hell you only managed to obtain seven specimens for my head of research.  Barlow might be an ass, but he has a point; your mission was a disaster and you’ve never fallen short before.”  

“The Adapted were more problematic to control that we originally assumed.  While we had seen numerous instances of their power being used, we weren’t expecting such coordination,” I summarized for her.

The Immortal Matron frowned, “Elaborate.”

“Adapted had previously existed as small groups, little cliques that were constantly fighting amongst one another for control or prestige.  When we arrived on world though, many others came to aid against our assault teams. Despite being enemies prior, there was someone who had pulled strings and drawn groups together and coordinated.”

“That was evident from the footage released from ‘Feast Day’ as I have heard it dictated,” she replied, “Why was it shocking to you that they would work together in the face of a larger threat?”

“In large part we assumed they would flee more than fight.  While we were ready for them to band together, we weren’t ready for them to be particularly organized and act more like a proper coalition rather than a few disparate groups loosely bound together by demanding circumstance.  We weren’t under the assumption anyone was amassing influence among the Adapted.”

“You are a seasoned veteran.  From the view of a human, you are nine-hundred years old and have had more life experience than all of them put together.  How is it that you were overwhelmed? I know you are capable of salvaging situations more dire than what you faced.”    

“Lack of information,” I explained with a frustrated click of my tongue.

She cocked her head to the side, curious.  

“What damned us was a few key players that their organizer, Titan, had managed to keep concealed.”  The Matron gestured for me to expound. “Titan had three major complicating Adapted at his disposal that he’d been smart and kept hidden from the public eye.  The first was Forest; while we did see her fighting with Eldritch during Feast Day, we didn’t understand exactly how far her influence ran. It is my belief that she was encompassing vast amounts of the city and relaying information instantly for teams to be dispatched to foil our attempts at capture.  In some instances, the roots she used simply engulfed entire transports and freed those we had captured. Due to her being so massive, there wasn’t a clean way to put her down. She was like fighting a force of nature,” I recalled with a little shudder. I had seen the aftermath of her roots burrowing into a soldier and ripping them apart; it was an ugly affair, even by my standards.

“And the other two?”

“Relay is the name that Vaneel has extracted from the mind of one Adapted, apparently a man who could mark areas as zones where he could provide teleportation.  He gave incredible mobility that we were wildly unprepared for. His presence meant there was no delay in response times and no slow in retreat times either. Once the Adapted made it to one of Relay’s areas of influence, they were gone.  They simply had more maneuverability on the surface.” I took a seat on a slick block of marble that acted as her other ‘chair’ before continuing. “We also assumed that we would be able to trace some kind of energy signature, but that has thus far been a dead end.” 

The Immortal Matron’s skin darkened as she mulled over the information I was providing.  “And the last issue?” 

“An unknown,” I confessed.  “While we lacked control of the ground, I opted to fallback to using the sky to our advantage.  Their vessel was crude and defenseless, ultimately a floating box. Thanks to Forest, we couldn’t take over while it was still on the ground without simply obliterating the lot of them.  We opted against doing so in order to preserve the specimens.”

“But?” 

“Somehow, the Adapted managed to create something akin to a Void Door.”  

A concerned expression cross her face, “That seems…impossible.”  

“And yet,” I replied, solemn, “I watched it happen.”  

She straightened her posture, “And how far has Vaneel made it with uncovering what makes these fiends tick?” 

I grinned as I heard a pair of footfalls approach the door.  While she claimed not to be gifted, her sense of timing was impeccable. “How about you ask him yourself.” 

Right on cue, the door opened and my friend walked in, bowing respectfully as he approached.  His usual purple color was a few shades lighter, betraying his nervousness. While he was personally appointed by the Matron, he was still scared of her and the authority she wielded. Prior to working under her direct appointment, Vaneel and government officials had seldom seen eye to eye.

One more reason I harbored hatred for Councilman Barlow.  

“Matron,” he greeted.

“My chief researcher,” she replied, offering him a soft smile, “Report.”

He straightened and stood between us, “My findings are…admittedly limited due to small sample size.  However,” Vaneel added with haste, “They are remarkably consistent.”

“Elaborate,” she insisted of him now, leaning forward with interest. 

“Sampling the cells of all the Adapted we captured, they were markedly normal at a glance as compared to humans as they were catalogued half a cycle ago when we gifted them with Common.  For them, evolution is a slow practice and the fifty year span would see one or two new generations come to join the society or so.”

“And what does that matter to me?” she inquired.  “Evolution for most sentient species is incredibly slow.  Every species we take interest in has overcome the demands and boundaries of natures.  There is no more need for physical growth when technology can bridge the gap.”  

Vaneel cleared his throat and nodded, “Yes, Matron, but these humans were different upon further inspection.  Humans of the parent generation had some kind of tiny microorganism in their blood stream.”

Even I was interested now.  Vaneel had kept himself isolated while he’d been working the last few days and keeping his research to himself.  I respected his process and had kept my distance, giving him the space desired to think and operate freely. He, like me, didn’t always play well with others.   

“There was this anomaly in the parent generation?” the Matron asked, curious.  

“Yes.  While it seemed to predominately be free floating, some of the cells were consumed and integrated.  It isn’t unheard of for cells to adjust their nature by consuming and integrating other micro-organisms.   One of the more common example is with a small construct called mitochondria.”

“Spare us the biology lesson,” I said, “Tell us why this is relevant.”  

He glared at me, annoyed that I had de-railed him for a moment.  “Yes, right. While the parent generation had imperfect integration of the new organism, one point that was consistent across fourteen samples we took from Tso’got was that sexual organs seemed to integrate consistently.  The parent generation wasn’t necessarily given the effect of this micro-organism, but they were effective carriers of the thing due to all sex cells being infused with whatever this thing is. Their offspring, the Adapted, have a uniform cellular composition, all with this micro-organism populating their cells.” 

The Matron gave a satisfied smile, “Good work, Vaneel.  You have found what makes them tick.”

“I don’t quite think I have found all the parts,” he said with a pained expression.  

“Why not?” I asked.

“If the integration is uniform across every Adapted, and the integration is perfect among the parents sexual organs, why aren’t there more of these Adapted?  If I am to extrapolate, every single human has the ability to manifest these sorts of powers but there are only an estimated 200 to 300 present on Tso’got. That is an incredibly slim margin that suggests there is something limiting the manifestation of their powers.”

Iilena nodded thoughtfully, “You’re assuming there must be something that acts a trigger, or some specific mutation that enables them to come into their gift.”  

“Do you believe it could be an environmental trigger, maybe something to do with the air on the Zari home world?” I asked.  “There are differences in the air on Tso’got as compared to Earth.”

My friend shook his head, “I contemplated that, but too much of the place is uniform.  If it was some kind of industrial fume inhaled, half the population would have changed easily.  My best guess is either some strange genetic quirk acts as an enabler, or there is some kind of behavioral or specific chemical component that activates the micro-organism.”  

“What do you assume it does?” 

He turned to the Immortal Matron, “It is my personal belief that this organism is meant to be some kind of…power supply for lack of a better term.  Much in the way that mitochondria were subsumed by eukaryotic cells to benefit the gestalt, this thing was likely designed to fill the same role and buffer the host.  However, I don’t think that whoever designed this could have predicted the peculiar outcomes.”

She frowned, “Someone?  You believe this organism to be manufactured?” 

“It seems unlikely to have simply materialized and infected the generation of humans before we subjected the planet to Protocol 37.  It also seems highly unlikely that we would find such a peculiar micro-organism that is so unlike anything else we’ve catalogued. My best guess is that it was a synthetic design that was made to proliferate among a species and lead to long term changes of the group as a whole.”  He paused for a moment, thinking out loud, “It seems unlikely that humans were able to make this, honestly. The design and sophistication seems far too complicated for their known level of biological engineering. While they were more than proficient at creating viruses, those were child’s play compared to…whatever this thing is.”     

Despite answering to her directly for five cycles, I had never seen the Immortal Matron show an expression of genuine concern, let alone fear.  It was there only for a moment, but something he’d said actually worried her. Vaneel hadn’t noticed, but the picture was painted vividly in my mind, and it would be there forever.   

“Vaneel,” she said, her tone of voice shifting to that of a command, “Isolate the organism.  I want to know everything about it. I want you to figure out how it works and what acts as a trigger for it activating.  You will keep your findings private. Only Zellig and myself are to know about what you uncover, understood?” 

He nodded, wary, “I am obligated to report my findings to the council should they demand them.” 

She rose and walked forward; even though he stood straight, I could tell Vaneel was cowering.  “Vaneel, my head researcher, you report to me. The High Council, Barlow and his cronies, they will likely see me deposed in a cycle or two, but for now they can stay out of my way.  I will see this issue through. Am I clear?”

While I was a strong proponent of her demeanor in the moment, I wasn’t sure I was going to like the rationale behind it; if something could cause concern for a woman who had essentially commanded and shaped the universe for over a millennia and a half, it was no trifling matter.  

“Yes, Matron,” Vaneel replied.  “And, what should I say if they ask?” 

“Inform them that you have done your due diligence and reported it to the office of the Immortal Matron.  Stonewall them with that answer, I will deal with any kind of political fallout that might befell you. For now, they are outsiders, understood?” 

He nodded.

She grabbed his shoulder, turning him towards the door, “Why are you still here?  Get to work.”  

My best friend needed no further encouragement and scurried away, giving us a bow on his exit.  

She let out a sigh, and put her face in her hands.  It was rare to see any kind of crack in her façade, let alone a complete break.  She had been the mastermind behind controlling several galaxies for cycle after cycle all while maintaining utopian society.  Iilena Lamaak had managed to concoct the perfect blend of pragmatic and altruistic that enabled her to rule while allowing her people to live without the ravages of war ever befalling their planet.  She had refused to expand and claim land or subjugate other species, only acting when she believed it was in the best interest of the Trillodan and the surrounding civilizations.  

“Matron,” I said, softly, “What are we up against?” 

“I believe I am wrong,” she whispered, “Or at least I certainly hope I am, but I fear a ghost of our past may be coming for us.  If I’m right, when you pressure these Adapted, there will be complications from their makers.”  

I didn’t pry, knowing that if she wanted me to know, she would tell me.

“Zellig,” she said, composing herself, “This is a mission you are not allowed to fail.  You are to capture all of them.  Vaneel will discover what makes this micro-organism function.  If this is not possible, you are to destroy the lot of them.  They must be controlled and contained by any means necessary.”  

“Yes, Matron.  I have a few requests then.”

“Name them,” she demanded.  

“I want a Crimson City.  If push comes to shove, I want the ultimatum of enacting Protocol 37 readily at my disposal.  There won’t be any tip-toeing around the decision due to having to call for reinforcements to engage.”

“Done.  What else?” 

“My legion.  All of them.” 

She smiled and chuckled, “Of course you’d ask for them.”

“You want a search and capture operation, it is going to work best with small groups on whom I can trust completely.  While the Trillodan regulars would do well against another organized entity, the Adapted thrive on chaos. On Tso’got, they were used to messy engagement, limited rules, and no constants on a battlefield.  Besides, outfitting the typical foot soldier to be able to stand up to some of the bigger named Adapted isn’t feasible to do on time. They are meant to be on proper battlefields, not guerilla warfare.”  

“Councilman Barlow will bury me with this,” she replied, “Giving you the best group of killers alive will only fuel his movement that I am to be dethroned and that the Trillodan as a society are to go in a different direction.  Some of those you consort with are the most vile kind of soldier,” she reminded me. 

Two cycles ago I had created a group of specialized soldiers who were a cut above.  Thanks to Vaneel and some additional help, I outfitted them with unique armor, giving them all a specific arsenal tailored to what they felt most comfortable with.  For a full cycle, we were the ones who hunted down technology that could benefit the Trillodan Empire. Should there be resistance or sabotage at a mining outpost, the Expeditionary Legion were the ones who dealt with the uprising with utmost efficiency.  

Unfortunately, Barlow argued that we were hamstringing other branches of our military, making a motion to dissolve my legion and spread my seasoned operatives amongst other outfits.  It had been a clever move on his part to weaken my footing since I was the commander most devoted to the Immortal Matron.     

I sighed, “I understand.  However, I’m telling you that they are best for the job.  Common soldiers simply aren’t malleable or up to the task.  They are. Give me the soldiers I can most depend on.”  

“Done,” she decided after a moment of deliberation.  “As long as Vaneel can deliver on the research, I should be able to stall Barlow and argue for the value this will bring our people.”     

Knowing that I may well regret it, my curiosity finally got the better of me, “Matron, what are we truly up against?” 

“I can’t be sure yet, but if Vaneel’s suspicions are correct, the Adapted could be the beginning of a whole slew of gifted opponents, equipped with abilities we will struggle to counteract.  If this micro-organism is something that was manufactured, the architects will be out there and looking to perfect their project. We need Vaneel to crack the code first. As soon as he can prove that we can harness it, I can allot him all the resources at our disposal to replicate it and wield such power ourselves.”  

She knew more than she was letting on, but I didn’t need to press it.  When it came down to it, I was a soldier, and she had given me my orders.  

“Understood, Matron.”  

“So, I know you have already thought about what you are going to do next.” 

I grinned, “Have I?” 

She scoffed, “Despite the drivel that Barlow spouts, you have a fine head on your shoulders, especially for this sort of thing.  Knowing you, you already have a plan thanks to what Vaneel told us.” 

“Vuuldar,” I stated.  “The man leading them, Titan, is making an army.  Currently, it is small in numbers, so he seeks to bolster their ranks.  My guess is that he had been arranging to evacuate everyone for years prior to our arrival, waiting until the last second to gather as many as possible before leaving the planet.”  

“Why Vuuldar?” 

“Humans have occupied two other planets besides Tso’got, and Vuuldar is closest thanks to the orbit.”

She sighed, “You believe there will be other Adapted there?” 

“If what Vaneel said is true, then it is safe to assume there will be others who will have manifested such changes.  If the parent generation was all able to carry the micro-organism, then the new generation of humans on either refugee planet can Adapt.”  

“What is his endgame,” she asked, “This Titan.”  

“Simple.  He comes for us,” I said with a dismissive wave.  

Iilena pursed her lips, “How?  Xalanni is mobile by design and self-sustained.  We have managed to create a world that no longer is anchored to a star or in need of solar energy to sustain itself.”  

I shrugged, “I can’t pretend to know all of how they work, but why else would you mobilize an army?  Titan is not without plenty of firepower, and the downside of a small group of rebels is that they could easily slip onto our planet while being fairly incognito.  More dangerous than an army is a dedicated group of like-minded individuals. He has essentially recruited dozens of these groups to help him fight,” I explained. “If he has his way, he will get vengeance on us for what we have done to their home.”  

“You know this must not come to pass,” she replied.  “Though, I must ask, why do you believe he won’t come for us now?  If he has someone capable of opening a Void door, or at least something similar, what is stopping him from unleashing someone so powerful on Xalaani?” 

“He has only been alive for a quarter of a cycle, and though he is battle hardened, he is no seasoned commander.  He is a child with ideals and an untampered desire to win. Thus far, he hasn’t experienced defeat and he isn’t eager to start.  To put himself at the best odds of victory, he will need to accumulate all the power he can obtain before daring come after us directly.  We are a species that can end worlds so he will assume he needs every available body to march against us.”

“And what makes you think you can stop him, despite him being so well armed?  What makes you sure of your assessment?” she demanded.   

I grinned, knowing the Matron was testing me, making sure I was keeping my head on straight.   “No matter how clever Titan is, I know his scope was narrow and his attachment too strong to those he shares a kinship with.  His appearances on Tso’got were seldom, almost exclusively to help his fellow Adapted fight against oppressive agencies that the humans and Zari created.  I reckon that to him, the Adapted are his extended family. He fancies himself some kind of patriarch, looking out for his own.”  

While it would make him a passionate combatant, it wouldn’t make him the most pragmatic.  Despite how much raw power he had at his fingertips, he lacked something that no Adaptation seemed to give: experience.    

The Immortal Matron nodded thoughtfully, “You plan to exploit this?” 

“It is my assumption that once he has mustered force on Vuuldar he will move to gather what little he can on the last refugee planet and then begin his siege upon Xalaani.  It is also my plan to see how many I can steal away from him while he is spread thin on the Ellayan home world. Their victory will lead to some overconfidence which I will punish.  If I don’t miss my guess, it will make him volatile when I remove his family from under him. Since the Adapted coming after us are made of disparate groups it is my belief that if the head of this crusade wavers, there will be infighting and the coalition he has made will come apart.” 

“You plan to let them destroy themselves.” 

“A house divided cannot stand,” I said with a smile.  “If there is no central leadership, no coordination, it will be a rout.”     

Iilena rose from her seat and bade for me to follow her to the door, “Tell Vaneel to select several other researchers that he trusts and have them help.  The second that we have the information about the Adapted we need, we are going to exterminate the rest. Zellig,” she said, being sure she had my utmost attention, “I can’t stress this enough, these youth cannot be allowed to triumph.  No matter the cost, swear you will see to their downfall.” 

I smiled, bearing my twin rows of menacing fangs, “I will not fail you, my Matron.” 

While most would shy away, my superior leaned forward, challenging and bearing her own teeth, “Tso’got was a failure you will need repeat.  Am I clear?”  

I slammed a fist to my chest in salute and bowed, “On my life, Matron.”  

“Good.  Go. I want these children to know exactly what they have meddled with.”  

At her wave, I stepped out of her little cave and back into the Hall of Order, unable to hide my grin.  My heart hammered with excitement and I didn’t bother altering my body chemistry to settle down. In my nine cycles of existence, there had never been a threat that unnerved the Matron.  

I had been alive nearly a millennia and never been gifted with such an opportunity before, a chance to fight a true threat to my people.  It wasn’t some insidious ideology or threat of philosophical quandary. This was more direct, more blunt, almost tailor made for me to overcome.  This was unadulterated conflict. Titan had brought me a war to fight, and he would not surrender or quit, not until the bitter end.    

As my heart hammered in my chest, one thought kept repeating itself in my mind, like a drum heralding the call to arms.  

I would crush the Adapted under my heel.  Like all peoples we faced, they would kneel.  

In the end, all served the Trillodan Empire.    

These Adapted would be no exception.   


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