Etherno

Chapter 28: Out of the Frying Pan

Aiden growled in frustration and slammed her fist into the dirt. She’d been out here in the wilderness outside the city for hours, and the only thing she’d been able to do was make her hand glow softly. She’d managed more than that just after she’d transferred to this body.

Aiden jumped to her feet and paced back and forth. Perhaps she was over-thinking this. Back then, she hadn’t thought, she’d just acted. Now, she’d been concentrating on trying to access this body’s power.

She sighed. This would be much easier if the host were conscious. The doctors were still undecided on whether or not the host personality was even still alive. Aiden refused to accept that possibility. Too much like those body-snatching Natas. She shivered. The Matari were supposed to exist in a partnership with the host.

“Come on, snap out of it. How can I work with you if you won’t respond?”

There was no answer. Not even a twinge of thought in response to Aiden’s question. She huffed out a breath, then paused mid-stride. That might be it. What if the host was still alive, but too confused and terrified to respond? Some mammals reacted to extreme stress like that. One individual would fight to the bitter end, others would go comatose with fear.

Aiden could certainly understand that response to a Natas forcing its way inside, shoving you aside, and treating you like an overly complicated puppet. If that was the case, the question was how to reach the host?

She closed her eyes and mentally drew back. In a normal joining, the host would now be in control. Aiden still didn’t sense anything, but she didn’t fall over, either. The host had to still be alive. She’d spent most of her time over the past week in this state, hoping the host would come out, so to speak. The first time she’d done it, she’d fallen over and had to re-assert control to prevent her face from smashing un-checked into the duracrete floor.

Please come out. You’re safe now. I’m a friend. I know you don’t trust me, and I don’t blame you, but give me a chance to prove it.

No response.

Aiden sighed mentally. There was a third possibility. The host may have suffered brain damage in the battle while the Natas was still in control. The physical damage had healed, but some of the personality’s data may have been lost. Hmm.

“Aiden!”

Aiden waited to see if the host would react to the Kagoshi soldier that was rapidly approaching from behind. Still nothing. Aiden ignored her disappointment for now and resumed control. She pivoted on her heel.

She didn’t recognize the young Kagoshi enlisted man. Most likely he was sent on behalf of someone else. Presumably, he was here on a matter of some importance, as she’d left instructions that she be left alone for the rest of the day.

The young man jerked to a stop and saluted her.

Aiden returned the salute. “Yes?”

“The Governor sent me to get you. We’ve received word from Outpost 2D20 that they’ve intercepted a cargo ship that was attempting to jump here.”

Aiden raised an eyebrow. “I assume there’s more to this news than just an inbound cargo ship?”

“Yes, ma’am. Sorry.” He flushed and saluted her again.

He’d better be new. Aiden was going to give the Governor a piece of her mind about this idiot soldier.

“The ship is carrying seven Natas. One Nekotian, and the rest are that new strong type!”

Aiden took a step backward. Seven! One had almost killed her. “You—you should have told me that first!”

“Please, hurry back. The Governor wants you to lead the team against them.”

Aiden swore under her breath and ran for the city.

dragon

The ramp lowered and Kasai gasped. At least two dozen bipedal aliens were in the corridor outside the ship, guns drawn and pointed at her and the others. The aliens were short. The tallest of them came up to about Kasai’s shoulder. They wore white armored uniforms that covered everything but their faces, which were angular, shiny, and purple.

“Ooo!” Tannin peeked over Onin’s shoulder. “Purple!”

“Shut up, Tannin,” Saija hissed through clenched teeth.

One of the aliens in the front lifted his gun about an inch. “All right, Natas, you’re surrounded. Come out one at a time, and keep your hands where we can see them.”

“Oh, we can understand them.” Tannin sighed. “That’s a relief.”

“Not the time.” Onin whispered.

“I think there’s been a misunderstanding.” Amaryllis squeezed between Kasai and Onin. Amaryllis was without her trademark staff. She took a step forward. “We’re not Natas. We—”

“It’s a Nekotian!” The lead alien jabbed in Amaryllis’ direction with his gun. “Must be one of the old hosts. If they move, take her out first.”

“Uh—” Amaryllis scratched behind one of her ears. “I think there’s been a misunderstanding. We’re not Natas.”

“Oh, come on!” The leader scowled. “I’m not that dumb. Every time we’ve encountered one of those aliens behind you, it’s been a Natas. Now, are you going to surrender or not?”

“There really has been a misunderstanding.” Onin lifted his hands, palms up. “We’re not Natas. They came to our planet and possessed a number of our people. We’re here to track them down and bring them back to justice.”

“You expect me to believe that?” The leader snorted. “Yeah, we fall for your little fib, let you in, and you kill us all. I don’t think so. Are you going to do this the easy way or not?”

“Wait! We need to speak with the Matari!” Amaryllis said.

The alien leader’s eyes narrowed. “A Natas actually wants a Matari to come? What kind of trick is this?”

“No trick.” Onin left his hands in the air. “Back on Gesara, our planet, we worked with the Matari to stop the Natas.”

“It’s true!” Amaryllis smiled. “The Matari will be able to confirm that we’re not Natas.”

“You lie!” One of the other soldiers in the front line took a step forward. “Die alien scum!”

He pulled the trigger. Kasai gasped. Everything seemed to happen in slow motion. A yellow plasma beam snaked out from the gun. Amaryllis’ eyes widened in shock. Kasai leapt forward and snapped her wings out to their full length. They seemed to take forever to extend. Ever so slowly the edge of Kasai’s wing slid out in front of Amaryllis. The plasma beam curved over and absorbed into her wing.

Kasai felt a rush of energy. Everything snapped back to regular speed. All the guards were firing. Kasai kept both wings extended to block the shots. Onin had generated a servitor. Cerina had her guitar unslung, and Saija was opening portals to redirect any shots that got past Kasai.

“Wait!” Kasai spun around and rested a hand on Onin’s shoulder. “We came here to stop the Natas. We’re on the same side. We can’t afford to get into a fight over a misunderstanding.”

Onin sighed and re-absorbed his servitors. “You’re right. But how do we calm everyone down?”

Kasai frowned and looked around, being careful to keep her wings extended. Her gaze fell on Cerina. She held her guitar, but wasn’t playing it. For once, she didn’t seem to be over-reacting.

“Cerina!” Kasai waved her hand.

Cerina turned her head and raised an eyebrow. “What?”

“We need to defuse this situation fast. Can you play some calming music, please?”

Cerina’s brow furrowed, and the side of her mouth pulled back in a sneer. She sighed, then leaned back to look over to Onin. Onin nodded to Cerina. She sighed again and strummed a soft chord. Kasai felt the tension drain out of her shoulders. Soon, the laser blasts stopped.

Onin stepped around Kasai, and towards the alien soldiers. “We’re on the same side. The Matari can back that up. Check with them, please.”

The lead alien waved at his men to stand down. He stared at Onin for what felt like forever. “You didn’t shoot back when we started it.” He turned to glare at the soldier who had fired the first shot. “If you’ll voluntarily place yourselves in our custody until a Matari can get here, we’ll re-evaluate the situation based on what they have to say.”

“Hey!” Cerina stepped forward. “That’s not—”

Onin waved a hand at her. “That’s fine.”

The alien leader snorted out a breath. “Hmm. Follow me, then.”

He turned on his heel and led the way down a hallway. Onin followed him. Kasai stayed close to Onin, and the others fell in line behind him.

“Hey.” Celina whispered and used her gift to carry the whisper so only Kasai, Onin, and the other Gesarans could hear her. “How do we know they’re not just gonna lock us up and not bother to contact the Matari?”

Onin looked over his shoulder and flicked his glance from Cerina to Saija and back. Cerina shrugged and followed them without another word.

dragon

Aiden yawned. She’d never been able to sleep well sitting up and the full burn through hyperspace that the escort ship was making didn’t help. Every time she got comfortable, the ship would either bump or something would beep. She’d been up for fourteen hours now, and had only managed to doze off for a few minutes a couple of times.

She sighed. If she was being honest with herself, the thought of a whole team of Natas on the outpost scared her to the core. What was left of the face of her old host flashed through her mind. She shivered. Sure, she had the same type of body now, but she hadn’t mastered it yet. She squared her shoulders. Nothing to be done about that. The Natas had to be stopped before they made it off the outpost.

Aiden drifted in and out of consciousness, but didn’t quite manage to get any decent sleep. A beep sounded over the intercom. Aiden sat up and rubbed her eyes. The outpost was a dull gray dot out the window. The transport ship took a few more minutes to finish its approach. Aiden took a few deep breaths.

A clang rang out as the docking collar latched. Air hissed, then the light above the door changed to green. Aiden stood, took another breath, and took a moment to search for the host body’s personality. Still nothing. She sighed, squared her shoulders, and stepped through the hatch onto the outpost.

A Kagoshi captain waited for her. He was tall—for a Kagoshi—his head still only came to the top of Aiden’s shoulder.

He snapped off a salute. “Matari. We’ve been expecting you.” He looked her up and down. “Good. You’ll need that body if they’re lying to us. This way, please.”

Aiden followed the captain down the hallway. “The Natas are in the newer hosts, then?”

The captain’s head cocked to the side. “Same species, yes, but they claim not to be Natas.” He paused and looked over his shoulder. “You’ll be able to tell, won’t you?”

“Yes.” Aiden nodded. “It will be immediately apparent to me.”

“Good.” The captain spun on his heel and continued down the hallway.

They rounded two corners and stopped in front of a reinforced door. Two guards stood on each side of the door and at least Aiden paused. She felt something… familiar?

One of the guards swung the door open. None of them were Natas, and none of them looked familiar, but something in the slightly older looking black-haired man resonated with Aiden.

She took a step towards him. “Ryogin?”

dragon

The room’s walls, floor, and ceiling were metal. Four long metal benches lined each of the bare walls. Kasai sat on one of the benches and tried to lean back against the wall without crushing a wing. They weren’t that delicate, but it was still uncomfortable to lay on them.

“Well, now what?” Cerina crossed her arms and leaned against the far wall. “I still say they’re not gonna bother contacting the Matari.”

“Not a problem.” Saija waved a hand. “If that’s the case, I just portal us back to the ship.”

“Ooo! That’s a good idea!” Tannin jumped to his feet. “Can you bop me back there just for a second? I’m getting hungry.”

Cerina slapped the back of his head. “Idiot.”

“We’re probably on camera.” Onin looked up into each of the corners of the ceiling. “I don’t see anything obvious, but they’d be pretty foolish to leave suspected Natas alone. We should just stay here and wait patiently to prove we’re not a threat.”

Everyone sat down after that. Tannin drummed his fingers on his leg. Cerina tapped a rhythm on the side of the bench. Saija played with her hair. Amaryllis, Onin, and Ryogin sat and stared at the wall. Probably thinking about something. Maybe.

After what felt like hours, but according to Kasai’s phone was only fifteen minutes, the door to the room creaked open. Kasai rolled her head to the side to see who or what came in.

She jumped to her feet when a Gesaran leg entered the room.

“Shanay!” Tannin jumped to his feet and pulled a rubber chicken out of his pocket.

The others jumped their feet and formed a line in front of the door. Onin had a servitor out already, and was generating two more.

Something was weird though. For one, she was modestly dressed. Second, she stopped in the doorway and had a confused look on her face.

Shanay turned to her left. “Ryogin?”

Kasai and the others turned their heads as one to look at Ryogin.

He blinked a few times and stepped forward. “Aiden? Is that you?”

“Hey, wait a minute!” Tannin thrust his chicken out at Shanay’s nose. “I’m not that bright, but did you get rid of the Natas? ‘Cause you’re not try’n’ to kill us. So it’s either that, or this is a trap.”

Onin turned to Ryogin. “I believe you owe us that explanation now.” His voice was low and clipped.

“You’re right.” Ryogin ran his fingers through his hair. “Aiden, if you’ll step in and close the door, please.”

“Okay.” Shanay entered the room, nodded to the guard, and closed the door behind her. “But who’s Shanay?”

Kasai looked over at Onin. His eyes hadn’t left Shanay. Kasai wrapped her arms around Onin’s right arm and pressed up against him. Something weird was going on.

“So, uh, you’re probably all wondering how we recognized each other, right?” Ryogin looked around at everyone.

Onin nodded. He still hadn’t re-absorbed his servitors.

“Where to start?” Ryogin ran his hand through his hair again. “You know how the Matari and Natas are related species, right?”

“Yeah.” Saija snorted. “We found that lovely tidbit out when the Natas forced an unwilling Matari into a Gesaran host. What else are they hiding?”

“Well, uh—” Ryogin wiped his brow and looked around the room.

“It’s okay.” Amaryllis pulled him into a hug. “They’re our friends. You can tell them.”

Ryogin gripped her hand. “Well, there are two factions among the Matari. A long time ago, before the Natas drove them from their homeworld, the Matari co-inhabited bodies with a willing host to form a merged entity. There were a number of benefits for both parties, and it was only done when the host wanted it. The Natas forced the issue, and were banished for it. Eventually they were able to gain enough power to drive the Matari off their homeworld.

“When this happened, some of the Matari vowed never to take hosts again to prevent this from ever happening again.”

“Wait a minute.” Cerina raised her hand. “That wouldn’t help anything. That wouldn’t prevent some wack-job from breaking that rule.”

“Exactly.” Ryogin nodded. “Most of the Matari argued that same thing, and continued to take willing hosts.”

“Okay.” Onin glanced back and forth between Ryogin and Shanay. “But that doesn’t explain any of what’s going on right now.”

“Well.” Ryogin took a deep breath. Amaryllis patted his arm and smiled at him. “Uh, I’m blended with a Matari.”

Kasai blinked. Did she hear that right?

“Wait.” Tannin tilted his head to the side. “So you’ve been a Matari all the time?”

“No, you idiot.” Cerina poked Tannin in the ribs. “He said he’s been blended.” She looked off to the side. “Whatever that means.”

“So…” Saija drew the word out and turned to Amaryllis. “You knew about this the whole time?”

“Mmm-hmm.” Amaryllis smiled and nodded.

“It happened a long time ago, when I was a teenager. I’d always been fascinated by the Matari, so I was poking around the compound—”

“Isn’t that illegal?” Onin asked.

Ryogin ducked his head. “Yeah. Then I fell down part of a mountain and broke my leg. One of the Matari found me and joined with me to heal me. And we’ve been together since.”

Kasai looked at Amaryllis. “Why didn’t you tell us? We really should have known about this.”

“Sorry.” Amaryllis looked at the floor. “I wanted to, but it wasn’t my secret to share.”

“That was my fault.” Ryogin put his arm around Amaryllis’ shoulder. “I asked her not to tell anyone. As freaked out as people get with the Natas possessing people, I was afraid none of you would trust me.”

“So.” Cerina put her hand on her hip. “Instead of a difficult truth, you lie to us.” She snorted. “And you expect us to trust either of you ever again.”

“Hey!” Kasai turned to Cerina. “First, it wasn’t Amaryllis’ fault. If you told me something in confidence, you wouldn’t want me telling everyone.”

“That’s a good point.” Saija looked back and forth between Kasai and Ryogin. “I can understand why he didn’t want to tell anyone. I know the Natas and Matari say they’re different, but we really don’t know them that well. And after what happened to me—” Saija wrapped her arms around her chest. “Yeah… I’d have a hard time trusting them.”

Kasai shuddered. Being possessed by a Natas would terrify anyone. She walked over and pulled Saija into a hug.

“So, I’m confused.” Tannin scratched his scalp. “Have we been talking to Ryogin, or the Matari this whole time?”

“Both. We’re blended together.”

“How does that work?” Tannin asked.

“Uh-oh, he’s thinking.” Cerina smirked. “I smell smoke.”

“Anyway—” Onin stepped between Tannin and Cerina. “What happened to Shanay?”

Everyone turned to look at Shanay.

“Me?” She held a hand to her chest. “What do you all keep calling me that?”

Kasai let go of Saija and took a step back. “Wait, I thought you’d be back after the Natas left?”

“Supposed to.” Shanay blushed and looked down at the floor. “The host was injured when I fought the Natas. I don’t know if she’s still in here or not.” She looked up at Kasai. “Did you know her?”

“Well, not really.” Kasai scratched the back of her neck. “She was captured by the Natas, then possessed before we could save her. We got there a few seconds too late and watched it happen.”

Kasai shuddered at the memory. Onin put his arm around her shoulders, and Kasai leaned into him, grateful for the support. “I don’t want that to happen to anyone else. That’s why we’re out here, chasing one of the Natas that got away from us.”

“Good.” Shanay let out a breath. “I heard a bunch of Natas invaded the station, and that’s why I’m here. I’m very glad to hear that there are some of your species resisting them. The prevailing theory was that the Natas conquered the entire planet of super-hosts.”

“Wait, super-hosts?” Tannin’s eyebrows scrunched up. “Us?”

“Yes.” Shanay brushed a stray strand of hair behind her ear. “Your race has physical abilities far beyond the Kagoshi or the Nekotians.”

“We’ve heard of the Nekotians.” Onin jerked his chin back to Amaryllis. “Are the guards here Kagoshi?”

“Exactly.” Shanay nodded. “My name is Aiden. I’m a Matari who’s been working with the Kagoshi to defend against the Natas.”

Kasai blinked. It really was Shanay’s body, but it clearly wasn’t inhabited by the Natas they’d fought before. Was Shanay really gone? Kasai sighed and hugged Onin’s arm tighter. She’d really hoped they could save her. Perhaps fighting the Natas was as difficult as Ambassador Miton had said it would be.

Kasai looked up at Aiden. “So, Shanay is gone?”

Aiden shrugged and looked at the floor. “I’m not sure. She shouldn’t be, and at times it feels like she’s hiding in here somewhere, but I haven’t been able to make contact.”

“That is unusual.” Ryogin stroked his chin. “It must have been a stressful situation, but even at that you should be able to communicate with the host. Have you seen a Matari doctor?”

Aiden shook her head. “Haven’t had the time. I barely defeated the Natas that was in this body at the cost of my previous host’s life. A Matari doctor was supposed to see me on Kagoum, but I got the notification from the outpost here that they’d captured a bunch of Natas.” Aiden shrugged.

Onin drummed his fingers on his thigh. “Sounds like you should see a doctor about that. Also, if you could ask the Kagoshi to let us go, we’ve got a Natas to catch.”

Aiden scratched the back of her head. “Yeah. I’d love to, and we really can use all the help we can get against the Natas, but the Kagoshi can be… stubborn. I’ll see what—”

A beep sounded. Aiden pulled a phone—or something that looked like a phone, anyway—out of her pocket. Her eyes widened and her face paled as she looked at the screen.

“There’s—” Aiden’s voice caught. “There’s been another attack. Thirty Natas just raided the main supply depot for this entire sector.”

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