Etherno

Chapter 25: New Body

Aiden ducked as another energy beam vaporized the upper half of the concrete pillar he was behind. He looked over to his right. A crater was all that was left of the squad.

“Well, time to use this, then.”

He shrugged off his backpack and grunted at a stab of pain that spiked through his central core. He fumbled with the zipper as another explosion rocked the ground beneath him.

“Is that all the little ants?” The Natas’ voice echoed off the concrete. “I thought I counted one more?”

Aiden pulled the two halves of the null-bomb out and screwed them together. This thing had better work against the newest host the Natas had found. Dang things were tough. Didn’t look it, though. Instead of a crystalline exoskeleton, they had smooth skin. They were bi-pedal, and this particular one was rather obviously mammalian.

The problem with using the null-bomb was, either way, he likely wouldn’t be around to warn anyone else that the Natas had found one of the Kagoshi advance warning posts.

The null-bomb beeped that it was ready. Aiden took a deep breath, punched in the activation code, pivoted away from the column, and threw it straight at the Natas’ back.

She spun around, raised her hand, and let off an energy blast. Fortunately it missed the null-bomb. Unfortunately, it vaporized Aiden’s right arm.

He cried out and half fell, half jumped back behind the pillar. There was an overwhelming white light, and it felt like his body was being stretched across a football field before the world faded to black.

Another explosion woke him. He groaned, then coughed as he couldn’t catch his breath. Everything hurt.

The Natas. He forced his eyes open. The entire outpost was gone, smeared into the epicenter of the implosion. Only a few fragments of the enormous concrete pillars remained, and they looked like clay sculptures that a giant hand had scraped across the compound.

He rolled over onto his side and almost passed out again from the pain. The Natas was sprawled unconscious a few yards away from him. Incredible. The outpost was gone, he was dying, and the thing had only KO’ed her. Aiden scooted toward her, leaving a blue trail behind him. He blacked out for a second. He looked down. His left leg was gone and he was covered in blood, with a steadily enlarging pool of it underneath him. He pulled and pushed his way over to the Natas.

Odd. She looked peaceful in her sleep. Brown hair swept up in a pony-tail, and rounded ears on the side of her head, but other than that she looked almost like a Nekotian. If she were Nekotian, Aiden would estimate her age to be around sixteen to eighteen orbits old, but there was no way to know how old a creature that could survive a null-bomb really was.

He coughed again and still couldn’t catch his breath. This wasn’t the way he wanted it to end, and not his choice, but…

He grabbed the girl’s collar, pulled himself closer, and pressed his open mouth against hers.

Everything was dark. Aiden floated in an empty void, unable to see, smell, hear, or feel. Something was wrong. He concentrated, and could feel his blood circulating. He focused on pushing it out, and around, and slipped into a healing trance.

dragon

Aiden opened his eyes. Stars stretched across his field of vision. That had taken much longer than it should have. Something else was wrong too. He still felt like the same person. He sat up and turned to the left. His body, what was left of it, lay sprawled out on the concrete. He reached over and closed the eyes of the corpse.

He pulled his hand back and stared at it. Long, delicate fingers, not a trace of dirt, not one scar. He flexed it experimentally. All the fingers moved without any trouble. This shouldn’t feel new. He could worry about that later. Now, the system governor needed to be warned that the Natas had found them. He rose to his feet and pitched forward, and took a few steps to regain his balance.

“That’s right, different weight distribution…”

This body’s voice was sweet and soft. Not what Aiden had expected from a Natas. One expected shrill and harsh from such a blood-thirsty species. He looked the host body over again. Smooth arms, porcelain skin. He…she—it would be hard to remember to use the correct pronouns—ran her hands down her sides. She had an hourglass figure, large breasts, and flat stomach.

The host. Why were there no new memories? In each of Aiden’s four past mergings both he and the host had joined into a single new person, with his, the new host’s, and the past host’s memories. It was possible that this host had rejected the merging. Aiden had seen a few case studies of such incidents back in school before he’d merged with his first host. This wasn’t a preferred situation, and was only acceptable in extreme emergencies. Aiden glanced over her shoulder at what was left of the last host and shuddered. It certainly was an emergency, but there should still be something of the host’s personality left. The case studies had described the experience as a constant battle for control.

Aiden took a deep breath and relaxed. Nope, nothing. The host simply wasn’t there.

“Well, I can worry about that later,” she muttered. “First, to warn the governor.”

She jogged back toward the troop transport. Hopefully there was still something left of it. A small bolder—all that was left of a building—was in her path. She jumped over it and found herself flying through the air. She came down half-a-dozen yards away and blew up a small plume of dust upon impact.

“Wow, not even a jarred bone or sore muscle! I wonder—” she looked around and spotted a fist-sized stone half buried in the rubble a few feet away. She stepped over and pulled it out. It looked to be granite, or something similar. She squeezed the stone and it crumbled to dust with little effort. There was a faint tingling sensation. She frowned. Had her hand glowed yellow? Perhaps she had imagined that.

“Sheesh, these things are strong. And this was just one of the scouts.”

She dusted her hands off on her pants and jogged to the ship with renewed purpose and sense of urgency.

A warning light flashed as she approached the door to the bridge. Probably the intrusion alarm, as the current host body’s bio reading wasn’t logged into the sensors. She knew the code to do just that, but the control for it was on the bridge.

“Computer: allow bridge access, code JX1-79 alpha.”

“Voice print not recognized. Access denied.”

Aiden ran a hand over the door frame. The servo should be along the left-hand side, about—here. She pulled her hand back, made a fist, and punched through the metal. Crazy. Quarter-inch thick dura-steel alloy, and she was peeling it open like tinfoil. Not even a scratch on that soft skin, just a strange tingling sensation and a soft yellow glow around her entire hand. She hadn’t imagined it this time. She pulled the leads off the servo motor and jumpered past the controls directly to power. The servo sparked, and the door to the bridge slid open.

“Intruder alert!” blared over the intercom. “You have five seconds to leave the ship before automatic counter-measures are deployed.”

Aiden vaulted over the rail, landed in the captain’s chair, and tapped in the emergency override code. The alarm stopped. She entered the bio-scan, fingerprints, and voice code for her new body to her existing access codes, then went to the helm and entered a course to the system capitol.

dragon

Aiden stared at her reflection in the mirror in her old quarters. This was going to take some getting used to. She shook her head. More urgently, she needed to look like something other than a Natas warrior or they’d never let her in to see the governor. Clothes were easy enough. She pulled a pair of cargo pants, a t-shirt, and a leather jacket out of the closet, stripped off the Natas battle armor, and changed. The pants were a little baggy, the shirt too loose in some places, and too tight in others, but they’d do for now. The jacket fit perfectly—as long as she didn’t want to zip it shut.

There. Normal clothes. She sighed. Not much to be done about the different body.

Aiden stood outside the guard shack at the governor’s mansion and glared at the young idiot.

“For the fifth time, I said it’s urgent.” Aiden ground her teeth. “I have an emergency report, and I’ve given the proper pass-phrase.”

“Ma’am, I’ve already said I haven’t heard that pass-phrase before, and the office hours are closed for the day.”

Aiden pinched the bridge of her nose. The moron hadn’t bothered to check the pass-phrase with anyone, and of course someone with his clearance level didn’t know it.

“Look, you little idiot. I’ve had it. You’re not following proper procedure, and I’m not leaving until you’ve at least checked with your superior. I could just knock you out and walk right in, but I’m not going to do that because it’d be more hassle and paperwork. So, are you going to at least check with your superior, or am I going to have to be more persistent?”

The guard’s eyes grew wide. He took a step back, drew his weapon with one hand, and picked up the phone with the other.

“Hello?” he said into the receiver. “Yes, this is Osterly. I’ve got a crazy alien lady out here threatening to force her way in. No, she doesn’t look armed. No, she didn’t give a valid pass-phrase. Um, ‘the squirrel of warning is black in the garden’… What, you’re sure?” the guard held the phone away from his ear and winced as the person on the other end yelled at him. “Yes, sir, I’ll be sure to verify all passwords from now on.”

The guard gingerly placed the phone receiver down, hung his head, and gestured to an opening door in the wall.

Aiden went through without a backward glance, and ran through the garden to the private entrance to the mansion. The guard at this door kept his weapon pointed at her, but stepped aside and let her enter a code into the keypad next to the door. The door beeped and slid open, and the guard lowered his weapon and resumed his post.

The Governor was in his study. He looked up as Aiden entered.

“You’re not who I was expecting.” He reached a hand into his desk drawer. “What’s my third granddaughter’s name?”

Aiden smiled. “You don’t have any grandchildren yet, sir. Your oldest daughter, Eliesa, was just married to Fredrick Benton last month. I was at the wedding, but I didn’t look like this at the time.”

“Have a seat, Aiden.” The Governor poured a glass of water from the decanter on his desk and passed it over to her. “The mission didn’t go well, I take it?”

“That depends on how you define ‘well’. The entire scouting team is dead, Outpost 4279 is obliterated with nothing left but a crater and some rubble, and I was forced to take a new host out of desperation. On the plus side, we know for sure now that the Natas are aware of us and are coming here. Also, we have a rather—unique—opportunity to safely gather data on their latest hosts.”

“How much time do you think we have?”

“I’m not sure. Judging from their first attack on Statico Prime, I’d guess about a week, but it might be longer or shorter than that when the advance scout doesn’t report in.”

“So—” The Governor stood and walked around Aiden. “Is this body…?”

“It’s a Natas, yes. Not sure of the species. It looks fairly similar to the Nekotians, but it’s got different ears and a lot of almost supernatural abilities. It’s strange, though,” Aiden crossed her arms over her chest. “There doesn’t seem to be anything left of the host. There wouldn’t happen to be a Matari doctor around, would there?”

“I’m afraid not. I’ve already requested that one come immediately—“

“—To verify that I’m really who I say I am.”

“Yes, per protocol.” The Governor walked over to the door and held it open for her. “I do happen to have something of an expert on-planet at the moment, though.”

“Oh?”

“Well, not what you’re expecting.” The Governor led the way down the hall. A few guards slipped around the corner and tried to remain inconspicuous. “He’s, ah, actually a medical examiner, but he is the only person currently on-planet that’s worked with both Natas and Matari, ah, patients. But don’t worry, he’s got his regular medical license as well.”

Aiden almost expected to meet the doctor in the morgue, but instead the Governor led her to a small medical office buried in the lower levels. There were plants in the corner, and paintings of landscapes on the walls. A cushioned exam chair sat in the middle of the room. A man in light blue medical scrubs stood at a counter in the back of the room. He turned around when they entered.

“Well, hello, there,” he said. “I’m Leonard McCovnich, but you can just call me Doc. You must be Aiden?”

Aiden nodded.

“Yes, she’s the Matari I told you about that needs the verification scan,” the Governor said.

“If you’ll just have a seat up here, miss.” Doc patted the examination table. “We’ll get that taken care of.”

He turned and retrieved a hand scanner from a drawer below the counter. He switched it on, and ran it up Aiden’s right shoulder, over her head, and down her left shoulder.

“Hmm.”

“Well?” the Governor tapped a finger against his belt. “Is she who she says she is?”

“Oh, certainly.” Doc scratched his scalp. “That’s one of the new hosts, for sure, and there’s definitely a Matari in there. It’s just these readings are a bit weird.”

He ran the scanner over Aiden’s head again, and harrumphed. “Could you lie back, please?”

Aiden adjusted her position as the chair reclined, and a larger imaging scanner lowered out of the ceiling.

“Anything wrong?” the Governor asked.

“Well, from a security standpoint, no. From a medical standpoint, perhaps. There appears to be damage to the frontoparietal network, and the medial temporal lobe. Short version, miss, you should be in a coma.”

“Could that explain why I can’t access the host’s memories?”

“Darned if I know. I’ve examined precisely one of these corpses, and most of it was missing. But assuming their brains work anything like Nekotian brains, and from the partial scan I’ve got, it looks like there might be a few similarities, the brain damage is at least a reasonable theory for the missing memories.

“I’ve got a little more experience with Matari patients, and you appear to be perfectly healthy. Your healing abilities are probably the only reason the host isn’t dead. Any further speculation I’d like to leave up to the Matari doctor who’s on the way. In the meantime, though, I’d like to get some more thorough scans.”

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