Metroid: Apex - Chapter 6 - BonelessRed (2024)

Chapter Text

PART 3

96 hours later

Chapter 36: Commander Telsteel

Location: Klendel Trinary star system, Planet K13, Edge of Kriken Empire territory

Stardate: 2425

A stare-down, a stand-off, whatever this situation is, it’s been going on for almost a week now. I just started my command rotation aboard the Forbidden One, a Federation-class Dreadnaught, for the 3rd time since our fleet arrived.

“No changes?” I ask while staring at a holo map of the entire system. Thousands upon thousands of angry red ships shaped like sharpened claws from the Kriken Empire still sit in various places above all 16 planetary orbits, doing nothing.

“No changes,” Commander Lakshpur yawns underneath her white officer’s hat. “Don’t you think this posturing has been going on for a little too long, now?”

“I’m not at liberty to say,” I answer, waiting for my night-shift counter-part to leave the command chair. She gives me a glance.

“What? You actually like sitting here?”

“I like being where I’m needed.”

“Furniture like this gives the definition ‘Spartan’ a good name,” Commander Lakshpur stands up to shake her legs. “All purpose and no comfort. Just like our positions.”

“We are a battleship, not a luxury cruise,” I point out as I take the seat from her.

“Whatever, enjoy a sore ass for the next 24 hours. I’m getting my legs looked at in the infirmary for any bed sores,” she says and walks off the command bridge through a hatch.

“Any incoming communications from the Kriken?” I raise my voice.

“Nothing, Commander,” A communications officer answers from a console nearby. “We tried pinging them under Commander Lakshpur’s orders, but no replies so far.”

That won’t satisfy the Six at all. At least I don’t have to deal with them directly. Then again, on the public side of things, the media refuses to quiet down.

Out of curiosity, I tap a few commands on a small screen embedded on my chair arm. And, just as I thought, most news nets are still abuzz with wide-spread panic:

“Still no word from Federation Council members on the Kriken Empire’s movements-”

I switch the channel.

“-and invasion seems unlikely, but a cease-fire pact doesn’t mean war ever ended-”

“They don’t want anything to do with us! They told us that! They did! Why move into enemy territory at all-”

“Assimilation? Alien probing? Today, we dive into the disgusting details as to why your family could be host to Kriken parasite technology-”

“-keeping us informed. It’s their job, and no one’s saying anything! We got riots, we got disorder, and I can’t even get a straight answer from my significant other, a Federation scout pilot who’s stationed on the front lines-”

I tap the screen off and massage my left temple with 2 fingers. Shouldn’t have had that extra stim-shot yesterday. Sleep’s been anything but adequate since the Kriken positioned themselves a hair’s-breadth from the Federation border, set up camp, and keep simply sitting there in absolute silence.

As far as I know, the Federation’s never been at odds with the Kriken hive mind. The non-aggression pact, as it should be called in the media, prevented any further hostilities between them and other people who decided it was a good idea to break away from Federation order and security, the “Free Colonies”, as they call themselves. Pioneers have to pioneer, I suppose.

If there’s been any battles, or deaths of any kind on the opposite side of this line, both the Kriken and Free Colonies have been silent about it. No inquiries, no requests, no demands, no threats, nothing. It’s like what ancient military advice likes to say about war, “1% sheer terror, 99% boredom.”

Still, my eyes keep fixed on the massive clusters of Kriken ships. While our fleet measures 100,000, the Kriken have sent 1 million for purposes unknown. A 10 to 1 disadvantage, and reinforcements are still a few days away.

“Sir, we have movement,” someone announces. I blink a few times and look at the map again. A small contingency of 3 ships move towards us, my ship. I stand up and circle the holographic display as the red lights move slowly towards our position.

“Any messages from that group?” I hover a finger directly over the tiny red representations.

“Translating…yes sir. They want to meet with us on the bridge.”

“Why?”

“They won’t say, sir. They’re not transmitting any more messages.”

The next few hours will make my palms sweat. I knew, always knew I’d have to be the one to settle something like this down. What do they want? Are they angry? Concerned? Curious? There’s so many details I wish I knew….

“Tell them I’ll speak on the Federation’s behalf.”

Two things stand out the moment I see Kriken delegates enter my dreadnaught via security footage: 1. Only the first ship sends 6 identical Krikens, skinny red beings that walk on spiny limbs, and 2. There’s a human among them. Walking, talking, like he knows the Kriken personally!

“Lieutenant?” I ask Ged, my junior officer standing beside me watching the feed.

“Yep?”

“Did any of our ships scan for human life Empire-side of the border? Rumors, even?”

“…We did…but found nothing. We’ve never heard of any official claims of allegiance, either.”

Allegiance, I almost shudder at the word. The Kriken build, expand, no matter what gets in its way. If you’re not? You agree not to interfere with its way of life, and the Empire leaves you alone. That’s a threat, not an agreement.

“Probably saving face, it would show ‘weakness’ to Federation forces,” I conclude.

Still, I study this man, a green sweater wearing, grey khaki pants shuffling, short messy crop of brown hair, like it was deliberately styled that way. Simply talking to a stony Kriken warrior as if with an old child-hood friend. The 6 of them, all walking in single file, walk ahead without stopping (no one’s in those cleared hallways at least), and stare ahead with their strange, singular glowing red monolithic eyes. It’s useless for me to try and dig into what thoughts flow throw that pointy skull, what actions its spindly but devastatingly fast body will take. I’ll have to leave that to our A.I. tacticians.

“On second thought, Apollo, make our security grade priority 546,” I command by raising my voice.

_All done_

“Speculation? On the Kriken?”

_One second. Modifying cameras with deadly weapons fire. All known escape routes covered_

“Thank you, Apollo. I hope I’m wrong,” I nod solemnly.

_We all do, Commander_

They enter the bridge and immediately fan out into groups of three, all facing forward, with the Free Colonies man in their center. He approaches me and extends a hand.

“I’m Vyndere, representative of the Kriken Empire,” a non-assuming, well-shaven and pale face greets me.

You represent them? A different species?” I ask.

“Dah. Their language is…say…,” he swivels his out-stretched hand, “not something everyone can do. They choose who understands them, and are invited in.”

Despite letting an awkward moment of silence pass, I ponder on it. Is this man being controlled? Apollo hasn’t told me anything yet, neither has he alerted the fleet. No warning electrical signal has gone off in my brain, a quick static shock that only I will notice coming from a neural implant.

“This is…an agreement,” Vyndere smiles at me. “Now, do we shake hands? Or is that rude gesture?”

Apollo didn’t find any weapons or harmful things on his person using every hallway scanner we have…so at great personal risk, I reach out and return the representative’s handshake. He gives me a quick 2 tugs and let’s go.

“Dah!” He smiles brightly and claps loudly together. “Now they know that you’re friendly as well!”

The 7 of us walk around the only circular table on the bridge with holographic strategy globe well out of eye-sight. Even though saying they’re now “friendly” with the Federation, instead of the previous neutral, anything can happen, especially with a month-long blank space in contact between both sides.

Vyndere introduces me to each of the 6 Kriken that traveled with him as we take our seats. I sit facing them. They look at me in return. From left to right, it’s Vindicate, Sharp, Breaker, Shell, Pierce,and Claw. From what I understand of Kriken names, they name their larvae, or their “young,” more-or-less, based on how they escape their eggs, which somehow divides them into the necessary tasks among the empire where they’re needed most.

Mutations happen here and there, and based on that specific mutation, new-born Kriken beings are sent wherever, whenever. Does this foster order? Does it help keep peace among themselves at the very least? Studies done by the Federation are still unsure. Many who went studying them have ended up dead “getting in their way of life,” according to Vyndere.

“Even though when we don’t know what those ways of life are?” I ask using a neutral tone to my voice, in the case that high or low pitches irritates Kriken hearing in any way. So little is known about them, this isn’t far off from a first-contact scenario.

Each Kriken turns its head at Vyndere. With a few nods and a quick smile, the representative turns to me and says, “They understood. However, a few of your people didn’t care. They murderedKriken.”

“Do you watch Federation media at all?” I ask.

“Yes, we both know nothing official’s been released, but, it did happen,” Vyndere’s smile fades and nods solemnly.

“Do you have evidence that can be verified by both sides of the border?” I ask.

“You see, the Kriken also have a few prisoners. We’re willing to do a trade,” Vyndere continues, with neutral, droopy, almost saddened facial expression.

“A trade?” I ask.

An electrical shock runs through the inside of my skull and down the back of my neck. Apollo’s signal. Something’s wrong.

The bridge hatch opens, and a man dressed in black steps through. He flicks a left hand in the air-

_Lockdown authorized_

“And who the f*ck are you, dah?” Vyndere accuses at the man, who walks towards me. It’s the Fleet Admiral.

“Sir? What are you doing here?” I ask.

“I’ll be handling the exchange,” Castor Dane answers.

“Sir? What exchange?”

“Some things you’re told, some things you aren’t. Technically, what we’re dealing with has been kept from the public for some decades. Now, are you going to get out of my seat or do I have to move you?”

I do as ordered and find another chair. The Fleet Admiral shuffles his newly-claimed hot-seat forward a bit.

“So, to you back-stabbing hive-mind bastards, the prisoners are on their way, but, we don’t see any activity like that on your side yet. That has to change.”

Vyndere remains silent and eyes a Kriken every few seconds. Are they…conversing or…I’m not sure.

“They just agreed. All 6 of your human prisoners are on their way. Thank you for understanding us.”

“The murders were unnecessary, though.”

“It’s the only way any great powers listen,” Vyndere nods solemnly.

Wait a second, all 6?! As in, the 6 Kriken in front of us-can’t be.

“And the group of you are…?” the Admiral drones.

Vyndere laughs cheerily. “No, not these 6 with me. They’re legitimate Kriken and not disguised Federation citizens. Every Kriken can see what all other Kriken can. And, by extention, the human prisoners as well. They all know and see you’re being honest this time. That’s evidence, dah? Your Federation technology is capable of extracting and understanding Kriken memories?”

“Even distorted ones?” the Admiral argues back.

“Distorted?” Vyndere asks. He confides with his alien group. This time, all 6 stay quiet, but noticeably twitchy and nervous. What’s wrong, Apollo? Why can’t you communicate through my ear-piece? Or did the Admiral order you to stand down? Why the signal?

“Are the prisoners in good health?” the representative finally asks.

“Oh, they’re fine,” the Admiral nods. “A few of their experiences were overwritten, and neural scans showed those were intentional. In short, we deactivated their bombs before entering any Federation vessel. A lot of suspicions are raised when a neat group of 6 suddenly appear and ready to go in a nice working ship.”

“But you looked over the memories, of the Kriken murders,” Vyndere states.

“We did, and foul play was there, yes,” the Admiral drones. “But that’s not the point were talking about at the moment. We’re both big fish in a very big pond, and know damn well that the victor always has a distinct advantage. It seems that Kriken are very disinterested in the Federation, something they can’t control, or even go through if war were to break out. Their growth would halt. I’ve seen all the studies done, and there would be horrible, massive losses on both sides, but the Federation would win in the end. To be blunt, we hold the bigger stick, through and through. And all of you damn well know that.”

“f*cking Fed-” Vyndere stops himself. One of the Kriken leans close to him, leaning extremely close, as if curious about a very particular spot on a pin-point location on his nose. It looks very invasive to personal space, but Vyndere maintains his composure.

“Apologies for almost being rude,” the representative gains his wind back. The Kriken returns to a forward facing position.

The Fleet Admiral snorts. “None needed. We’re just saying don’t f*ck with us anymore and we won’t cause a catastrophic mistake. That’s all these things ever are.”

“‘These things’?” Vyndere questions.

“War,” the Admiral answers.

Vyndere continues, “Sometimes, however, that’s the only answer people will accept. Especially after generations of Federation oppression and abuse.”

Castor Dane leans back hard enough to elicit creaky noise from his chair. “From what I understand, the Free Colonies left due to cultural differences. Not avoiding abuse from their Federation predecessors.”

Vyndere gives the Admiral a sweet, poisonous smile, “Wouldn’t that be nice if that were the truth?”

“As far as I’m aware, it is,” the Admiral confirms, still leaned back.

Vyndere’s smile melts away with an audible sigh. “So even that much is still kept from high-ranking people like yourself. There’s already been so many forced relocations, so many protests stricken down with excessive military might, and brief but well-hidden bouts of genocide.”

My mind races through various historical events I learned of during academy years. Most examples of colonies separating all had well-documented, peaceful transitions that were held to a vote. The Supreme Council never sanctioned any use of force towards Free Colony people or their cultures, officially.

The closest example of Vyndere’s claims that I can remember is the Strievan incident. Dozens of people, both civilian and military from both sides, lost their lives on a moon colony to a terrorist anti-matter bomb attack. The culprits were never found. However, it’s best to keep my mouth shut about that. The Admiral has enough to deal with already.

“Sorry, not buying it. The Free Colonies have their own propaganda machines as well,” Castor Dane comments. “Also, aren’t we a little off-topic here? Isn’t the purpose of this meeting to exchange our peoples and go back to our boring not-as-peaceful lives?”

Another tiny electric shock inside my neck. Damn it Apollo! What are you trying to tell us? What do we do?

“Whatever you say,” Vyndere smiles sweetly again. “That’s all you Federation types care about anyways, yourselves.”

“…Commander? Got something you wanna share with us?” the Admiral asks me, no doubt noticing me checking my data watch.

I read text on my tiny screen: Commander, the Kriken forces are beginning to move. Panic swells within me, but I contain any reaction. Maybe it’s just a show of force, a “pissing” contest as the Admiral likes to say.

I send the Admiral my response to his watch through text. If things have gone as far off the cliff as I think we have, the Admiral’s going to have to practice his official job very soon.

The Admiral leans back as he reads my message. He sighs loudly.

“So that’s how it is? Forget about the prisoners, then,” he says and adjusts his collar while leaning back.

Seven invisible beams of lethal energy fire off from the ceiling cameras and instantly kill every single Kriken as well as Vyndere by cooking the insides of their skulls. An unnaturally long moment passes before all of their bodies collapse and crash onto the table, chairs, and floor.

“Apollo, get us out of here,” the Admiral orders sternly. The holographic globular war map comes back on. Gigantic red tendrils begin stretching all the way aroundthe border and proceeding on our flanks!

“Fleet’s 6 through 12, protect our retreat,” I say through my data watch on an all-fleet channel.

A little over 7000 Federation ships of various sizes move into a sideways bowl formation, shielding the first ships going into hyperspace.

_Admiral, the Empire’s opening fire_

Large, sharp beams of pure red energy jolt out of the larger Kriken vessels, boring holes through 14 of our dreadnaughts, wiped out hundreds of our fighter skids, and taking out dozens of their own in the process on the other flanking tendrils.

“Commander, ever know what it’s like to start a war?” The Admiral asks me.

“Sir? Didn’t they open fire first?”

Castor Dane sits forward before glaring at me. “History might not see it that way, especially after doing what the Empire’s forcing us to do.”

“Do what?” I ask.

The Admiral turns his glare at the war map. “Apollo, code sigma delta 3, authorization: Fleet Admiral Castor Dane.”

_Authorization: accepted. Kriken Silencer primed_

“Sir? What are we doing…?”

“Being at the ass end of history, Commander. I strongly suggest you make your goodbyes to everyone you know and love back home ASAP. This is going to be a very dark chapter in both our lives.”

The Admiral squeezes his eyelids so tight I swear he’s been shot by some kind of micrometeorite that’s punched through the hull. I’ve never seen him wear that face. Or cry in front of me. That action alone tells me everything, and now I know what total, draining, inevitable despair feels like. And I’m forced to ride front seat through it all.

“Apollo, fire,” Castor Dane forces the words out.

First rumbling…and then-

The sudden boom vibrates any loose objects onto the command deck. The lights dim and flicker, and a translucent blue sphere on the war map starting from the edges of our fleet grows bigger and bigger. Once it reaches the massive tendrils of Kriken ships, all of them freeze in space. I knew it. The Admiral used it. Technology I thought was banned by all races in the galaxy. No wonder the Admiral paints us as the bad guys.

“You’re using neuro-sterilization waves,” I conclude with a croak.

“No, the Federation’s using whatever it can to survive. We never want war, but we also sure as hell don’t want to lose it. And, yes, I was part of the secret committee to keep researching neuro-sterilization.”

Not only is the wave stopping Kriken ships dead in their tracks, allowing thousands of Federation ships to escape, but it’s also killing the aliens. Whatever the wave touches, millions upon millions of Kriken bio-signatures end up flat-lining. Even though a highly reactive and coordinated hive-mind, the Kriken have also been shown to share pain. If that pain’s amplified? By a factor of millions? Mass death results. It won’t affect the entire Empire, but it will not only blunt their advance, but also mess up their communication further back inside their territory.

“Just for the record, I had no idea we were capable of or willing to commit genocide,” I say.

“And I’ll speak for you should we win and be forced into trial as war criminals. Also, get used to being hated by billions for the rest of your life.”

Chapter 37: Commander Riser

Location: Poroxone Research Laboratory within Negative Hyperspace

Stardate: 2425

“No variations? Marks? DNA traces?” I ask a lower exelune guard.

“None, Commander. We checked 8 times as ordered.” It replies craning its head up a level to meet my overhanging gaze.

“Good. Maintain current operations until further notice,” I conclude. The exelune climbs up a ladder to its security post. In the off-chance that any Federation survivors still hide in a small crevice or cabinet somewhere, and wish to return to a familiar habitat, I’ve ordered all exelune strains to keep watch over the former experimental storage containers, or “prisons” as the experiments called them.

I’ve since had several supervisors executed. There were several genetically defective units transferred to my command without any notice. I wasn’t allowed to know, at first. All it took was one defective poroxone to become too tired and too distracted, seized of his weapon, and then murdered by a surgical scalpel, wielded by a lowly experiment.

Yet, I search for only one escapee in particular. Back then, by the time we detected blood pressure spikes in 3 of our exelune, it was already too late.

It’s been 7 standard days, what humans call a “week,” since the experiment “Benedict” sent his strange, grotesque message to every monitor we have. The 3 exelune were shot multiple times in vital arteries, and even eaten. Some of the corpses he cooked, others he ate raw….

The only place he could still be hiding is directly beneath the lowest floor in the excavation tunnels. Despite our ambush, annihilating all other failed experiments, he managed to escape, barely. He would’ve perished regardless if it weren’t for the multi-use machine Benedict destroyed not long after using it. Even though all entry logs were wiped out with the device, it was easy enough to surmise his activities due to all the strange recording boxes he left around the room. For reasons I cannot yet comprehend, this human decided to leave those alone….

“Shackle, has all evidence from locker 3 been moved up to investigations yet?” I ask after pressing on my communication device fixated into my right ear canal.

“No, Commander. Should we move it now?” Shackle responds with crackling sounds still infecting our com system. Radiation has been a constant hazard in this place….

“Negative. In fact, delay the transfer. I wish to inspect the evidence one last time.”

I spread the objects out on a table, 24 of them in total. Twelve small metal cubes with tiny lenses embedded function as cameras, and all were set up to view all corners of the lounge room.

Six crystalline spheres that glow bright and dim when dragging an appendage across their surfaces were confirmed as light sources within the video message to better capture Benedict’s presentation. Four other metal cubes have nothing but sound-recording capabilities. The remaining 2 objects, 2 metal squares that lock together to form a 3D “T” shape, compressed all the recording data, converted the file formats, which then spread his message throughout our com systems.

I lift up a camera slightly different than the others. A little glassy node on this side seems different from the other lenses…is this a design flaw? An intentional modification? After placing it on a scanning table, activating a force-field on top, I attempt to remotely turn the device on by searching for whatever switch or program activates it. The x-ray screen reveals rudimentary circuit boards and a wire connecting one to the node…I press a screen command to feed electricity into it.

A tiny flat holographic screen appears, showing Benedict getting close to the camera during his unusual presentation. He behaves as if inspecting his face in the mirror.

I suspect it’s not a trap, but must continue practicing vigilance. There could be a delay-timer, a secret command, an embedded program to cause an explosion when activated. The force field will contain most of it should the device go off, but this human, I suspect, is much cleverer than we originally assumed….

He served as a medical unit for Federation military. That much we do know. Although, anything before that is still a mystery to me. How was he raised? Where is “New Zealand” on Earth, the human home-world? What does he want?

Cycles upon cycles of command experience tells me the answer lies in the message he sent, hidden within the strange language he spat at his cameras, embedded underneath all his alien movements which supplemented that barbaric ritual. Our computers have no prior data on the language he spoke. It’s something we’ve never encountered before.

There also exists a possibility that Benedict made several more objects that he took with him. How many and what they are, we won’t know until he’s caught or decides to show himself. My instincts tell me the latter is more likely to happen.

Whatever it is he’s set out to do, Benedict planned his activities with meticulous care. For a lowly human, his usage of the environment and any available assets genuinely impresses me. I thought High Command sent me here as punishment, not to provide excitement. Then again, hardly any Commander among our species gets to face a foe this cunning, this careful….

The screen and camera shut down once the message finishes playing. Then the device is what I expected, nothing but show. I deactivate the force field, gather all the evidence, and place each object back in their original places within locker 3. High Command will be expecting a report soon, as well as our shadowy benefactor.

After returning to my personal quarters, I turn on the sand bath, sink into its churning, bubbling medium, and think as the small granules grind and cleanse my chitonous layers. My report must be carefully constructed, as to both satisfy my superiors and ensure that blame is diverted away from my actions or lack there-of. I also gobble down 3 whole bowls of mashed sprukta.

Once nourished and body free of unclean oils and other bits of debris, I sit down in front of the recording terminal and clear my speaking tubules. I speak my report loud and clear as soon as the camera turns on. I state my name and rank, genetic strain, part of the exalted Shorogai, and begin from the time we found the remains of 3 exelune.

I cover any necessary details regarding the investigation thus far, such as what pieces of equipment went missing, what Benedict left behind, as well as a complete list of all the experiments we had. And, as far as anyone else in this laboratory knows, one lone savage human is the only Federation survivor left.

I conclude my message with a proclamation that Benedict continues acting in the interests of the people he was in captivity with. Whether it’s a cultural aspect of humans to continue acting for the dead, or something he’s decided all on his own, I leave that open to speculation. Even though I already know the answer, it’s best to give my superiors an opening to take credit, to solve the mystery on their own terms. That way, my position will not only be more secure in the future, but greater opportunities might open up as well. There is no advancement among “Space Pirates,” as the Federation calls us, without appealing to a superior’s ego.

Now all alone again with no prying sensory technology, I allow myself a sharp grin. The experiments foolishly assumed that they had free access during their escape attempt. We knew what was happening the moment Benedict and “Jenise” met, and my decision to let them all wander into one convenient place was the correct one, as I knew it would be.

Humans may be inferior on several accounts, such as their tiny and weak bodies, their limited energy reserves, their excessive need for sleep and food, but their erratic thinking patterns always held an irresistible interest over me. By wisely studying their ways, by slowly accumulating knowledge over many cycles, I came to know how humans think, how they react under various stimuli.

Their technology is slightly more advanced than ours, and it has to be, considering their weak physical stature. However, once all that is stripped away, they’re not much different than livestock bred for slaughter. Benedict, of course, differs little from that.

My grin stretches further. What will he do next, and when? I can hardly wait.

Chapter 38: Federation Six

Location: REDACTED

Stardate: 2425

_Link Established_

_All 7 Speakers present_

Speaker 7: “Thank you all for meeting on such short notice. We deem it appropriate in releasing to you all a bit of knowledge. An event occurred and was intentionally ignored.”

Speaker 4: “This is going to be good….”

Speaker 1: “Speaker 4, I thought you liked surprises!”

Speaker 3: “It can’t be any worse than the entire Kriken Empire declaring war.”

Speaker 7: “Your former Speaker 6 was not replaced on advisory grounds. He was a watcher for our Omega threat.”

Speaker 2: “How long were you aware of this?”

Speaker 7: “For many generations. Do you want a specific time?”

Speaker 2: “No. Your answer is adequate.”

Speaker 5: “And? Are any of us in danger? Another spy hiding somewhere?”

Speaker 4: “Well, if you say it like that, we’re likely to get suspicious of you!”

Speaker 3: “If that were the case, wouldn’t our esteemed advisors have hunted Speaker 5 down already?”

Speaker 5: “As if anyone in this lobby can find where I am. If ever.”

Speaker 7: “Would it calm the group to know that no danger is likely in our current scenario? The threads may change colors, but its shape remains uniform.”

Speaker 3: “‘Likely’? Can you just get straight to the point?”

Speaker 7: “Very well. The Omega threat’s been successfully cut off from our current meeting.”

Speaker 4: “And again, you’re asking for our blind trust.”

Speaker 7: “What reason would I have to lead you all to ruin?”

Speaker 3: “We barely know you at all. You could be a frog person or a f*cking 5-dimensional being hell-bent on universal domination for all we care.”

Speaker 1: “You’re much more energetic than usual.”

Speaker 3: “War tends to do that, Speaker 1. You should try it some time.”

Speaker 1: “Oh, no. I’m much too cowardly to do that!”

Speaker 3: “….”

Speaker 2: “If I may. Our experimental asset agrees to our terms.”

Speaker 6: “Finally, some good news, f*ckin’ eh.”

Speaker 4: “And, you are?”

Speaker 6: “Speaker 6, dipsh*t.”

Speaker 3: “Great, a pre-pubescent boy’s our newest member….”

Speaker 7: “Welcome! Friend!”

Speaker 6: “Shove that welcome up your ass. If I don’t know what you are and what you really want, then don’t expect a polite conversation from me.”

Speaker 7: “I see. Very well.”

Speaker 2: “Continuing with the subject at hand….”

Speaker 6: “‘Sylux,’ right?”

Speaker 5: “Who debriefed the 12 year-old?”

Speaker 6: “Not that I’m obligated at all to tell you, but, I’m actually 14. Get that straight you geriatric 78 year-old f*ck.”

Speaker 5: “Huh! He knows how to count!”

Speaker 6: “The bargain needs to change a little. He’ll turn on Samus, and then on us if we don’t.”

Speaker 3: “Can’t be much worse than an entire species bearing down your throat! Go ahead and suggest! As you’re going to insult us like a depressed teenager anyways.”

Speaker 6: “Whatever, grandma. Anyways, just lift his charges entirely and allow sanction in any Free Colony world not currently occupied by Kriken.”

Speaker 3: “Every Free Colony world is under Kriken control.”

Speaker 6: “You don’t know that yet.”

Speaker 2: “I for one, agree to the terms.”

Speaker 4: “Same.”

Speaker 3: “As long as I’m not involved in it, do whatever the hell you all please.”

Speaker 1: “May I introduce you to my beauty team? You need a vacation.”

Speaker 3: “Like I’d ever accept an offer from you.”

Speaker 7: “Are you all even on the same side? Sometimes I wonder.”

Speaker 2: “We are. Our objectives align.”

Speaker 6: “You all know I’m right. Sylux needs the right incentive. Give him freedom. That’s all he ever wanted.”

Speaker 5: “You speak like you’ve just had a pleasant afternoon lunch with the guy.”

Speaker 6: “I have my sources, just like everyone else here. All I’m asking, is that everyone in this chat group agrees to the terms. Or we lose a valuable bounty hunter.”

Speaker 5: “And you wouldn’t happen to be Sylux himself, would you?”

Speaker 6: “Not going to waste a comment on that.”

Speaker 3: “You do understand that he’s fused to the prototype suit? Wherever he goes, Sylux will have to take it with him. If public word gets out-which it will-there’s no canning that sh*t-jar once it’s open. Technology like that in the hands of an enemy will only scare our citizens and encourage further internal incursions. Have you ever watched footage of children being stomped to death by a rampaging mob? When a government destabilizes, people die.”

Speaker 6: “People die every day across the galaxy, most by natural causes, especially outside of anything Federation. But-why am I bothering. You greedy f*cks don’t care about the fringe colonies, anyways.”

Speaker 3: “Let me rephrase-when stability implodes? A lot of innocent people die. Thousands. Have you ever watched thousands die in droves?”

Speaker 6: “I thought you all enjoyed that kind of sh*t.”

Speaker 3: “Speaker 7! Is there any chance you could put a gag on this child? Wait, forget I even asked….”

Speaker 4: “Unfortunately, Speaker 3, I concur with Speaker 6 based on current projections. The colony Sylux wants to travel to would have to be far away from the current war. It’s obvious! He must have family there!”

Speaker 3: “And we’d have a full list on that if Samus wasn’t ordered to crash the BSL research station into f*cking SR388.”

Speaker 6: “With that aside, can I please get a round of yeses around the table?”

Speaker 1: “No objections here!”

Speaker 5: “He’s going with or without our consent. Face it, we’re much too busy to keep track of the most advanced armor tech the Federation’s ever produced, if we’re to exclude Samus’s power suit. Speaker 2, did you at least back up any data on that?”

Speaker 2: “No. Data storage was destroyed along with the Metroid Breeding module.”

Speaker 5: “Speaker 7, please tell me you have some more good news.”

Speaker 7: “Everything’s proceeding according to our sight.”

Speaker 5: “Not…bad news at least.”

Speaker 3: “Son of a bitch-we were just hit! Speaker 6, keep in mind that Sylux is your dog now. Leash it well, teach him some manners, and always keep some kind of control over him, no matter what. The one thing I’ll agree with you is incentive. Know what you’ll have to do now? Gain his trust, keep track of his family once you find out who they are, and then secretly hold it against him should he ever decide to attack Federation space in the near future.”

Speaker 6: “You’re like the mom that was hardly there for me, condescending. Always condescending. I know what to do. I’m not retarded.”

_Speaker 3 has disconnected_

Speaker 1: “Is war really that frightening? I only imagine horrible things.”

Speaker 7: “That it is, Speaker 1. That it is….”

_Speaker 2 has disconnected_

Speaker 7: “If no one else has any objections….very well. We’ll all talk again on the agreed date. Goodbye for now.”

_Conference terminated_

Chapter 39: Jacob

Location:Unregistered rogue planet

Stardate: 2425

“Find something?” Samus asks on our channel.

“Nope,” I respond after the 500th visor scan on some moss that survives on low levels of infrared light.

“Artificial structures? An alien character etched in stone?”

“I would’ve said something already.”

“Anything trying to kill you?”

“Like I said….”

“Another exciting round! Back to the ship,” Samus says before groaning in exasperation.

I begin yet another speed booster dash back towards Samus’s gunship across the dark, mostly barren landscape. Aside from moss, lichen, the occasional patch of wet regolith filled with the slowest bacteria I’ve ever studied in my life, there’s absolutely nothing note-worthy on this entire goddamn planet.

It’s been a week and 2 days, and the most we’ve discovered on this rogue planet can fit within half a log entry. Let me check…less than that! Even with Samus’s and my daily logs combined. I knew bounty hunting missions had boring parts, but never expected soul-sucking, lifeless work that doesn’t end.

The first thing we did upon touching down was look for any signs of the 2 previous search teams that disappeared several years ago. Aside from trace radioactive elements from ship thrusters on the bland, murky grey ground, everything else has been absolute squat.

Did the Supreme Council waste their time in sending us here? Samus keeps asking that question. I think she’s right. She’s also been very irritable, and conversations with her keep sliding into border-line arguments. I know it’s nothing personal, she’s just so bored out of her skull that she’s trying to start a fight and feel any mote of excitement.

Samus also talks in her sleep, excessively. As she’s gotten into the habit of keeping her power suit off during sleep-cycles, it also takes away any barrier between my ears and her loud, unconscious mouth. Most of that I suspect is due to past traumas she’s suffered in the past, but, does it have to be so consistent? I’ve told her my gripes over that, how it disrupts my sleep, even offering her some specialized medical treatment I learned during my training modules, to help her sleep better as well.

So far, she’s refused, citing “deviations to mission parameters,” suggesting that her being under the influence of any kind of drug at this time can and will compromise her combat strength. I sleep with my suit on now. Much quieter that way.

“Moss? Lichen?” she asks once I enter the ship.

First, I undo my helmet and take it off. “Moss. Same old sh*t.”

Samus shrugs and slaps her thighs while still seated in her command chair. “So, nothing. Again.”

“Yeah.”

Recognizing her elevating irritation towards our boredom, she occupies a majority of her time going through whatever data the ship has, on anything. Old documentaries she’s re-watched dozens of times in the past, old video logs, even technical manuals on my N-suit, anything to avoid going out into pitch-black darkness and scanning for anything insignificant.

For the past 3 days, she’s been making me do all that in her stead, saying it’s “valuable experience for a junior bounty hunter!” I go along with it to avoid the awkward conversations she tries to start. I think Adam needs to switch up her psychological treatment a bit.

“Adam?” Samus asks louder than she needs to.

_Nothing significant, like usual_ the A.I. responds. Do A.I.s get bored? I think even they can get bored.

I place my helmet on its usual place on the floor beside my chair before taking a seat. I turn on my screen and go over yet again the strange barrier circling the planet core that can’t be scanned by anything we have. We’d go down there ourselves to take a closer look, if there wasn’t 6000km of some of the toughest natural titanium I’ve ever seen. This planet might be boring as hell, but it’s also frustratingly weird. At the very least, that keeps my interest levels away from wanting a fight.

Still looking at that?” Samus asks me.

“Yeah.”

“If a machine who’s brain and functionality outclasses most geniuses out there can’t find a way past that layer, what makes you think you’ll do any different?”

“Beats me,” I sigh. I don’t add anything else.

The again…, “Maybe if we move the ship-”

The bang is so loud that I swear we’re all dead once I land onto the ship floor face first. My nose stings and bleeds.

“Please tell me that wasn’t you,” Samus says still seated in her chair. How the hell did she not get tossed in the air like I did?

_Affirmative. Severe seismic activity detected on 5 of 82 tectonic plates across the planet. Cause currently unknown_

Samus activates her power suit for the first time in 84 hours. “Anything damaged?”

_Minor scrapes along the ship’s landing gear and a bloody nose_

“A bloody-oh,” Samus pauses at the sight of my bleeding face. I grab some gauze from a compartment in the back and clean up.

“You good?” she asks after I toss the bloody gauze into our small garbage shoot. The gauze vaporizes with a high-pitched buzz.

“Yeah,” I say before putting my helmet back on.

“So, Adam, tell me you got something, anything,” Samus begs.

_Scanning. Several openings have appeared around the barrier. Detecting multiple subterranean cave systems that lead to the cracks_

WOO that’s what I’m talking about!” Samus pumps a fist in the air. “Let’s go kid, I’ll end up shooting someone if I have to watch The unusual life of Gartot Snails for a 12th time.”

I laugh a bit. Samus stops and looks at me.

“…That was a joke, right?” I ask her.

She says nothing and walks onto the exit hatch.

We have to speed boost a good several thousand kilometers before reaching an entrance in the ground that’s bigger than the width of my pinky finger. I actually measured a crack by sticking my armored finger into one and couldn’t move it any further past the tip. Whatever, we finally get something to do. And I won’t get shot by Samus because she’s too bored, I hope.

We stop dead at a huge chasm. It snuck up on us! It spans towards the horizon!

“Kid, what’s your visor seeing down there at the moment?” Samus asks.

I take a few careful steps forward, bend my knee a bit, and peer below. It’s dark, vast, and full of static. Static?

“A sea of electrical…something.”

“So, it’s not just me then. Good.”

I peer down again. “Some kind of weather?”

_Unknown source of interference lies below that phenomenon_

If I had to guess, Samus’s scan visor doesn’t know what the hell we’re looking at either.

Then, nothing. The static’s gone.

“You know, it might be what the previous search parties saw,” I comment.

“Comparing the footage now,” Samus states. “Various images line up with what the search teams encountered.”

“Think it precedes an enemy attack?” I ask with energy pistols formed.

“Let’s assume that’s the case, just to be safe,” Samus says and points her arm cannon at the massive canyon. Our backs touch as I cover the way we came: all that open, empty ground, covering as much vision as possible.

And just like the previous week, we wait. Even though several intense minutes pass by, it’s nothing compared to the training and waiting I’ve had to endure beforehand. If anything moves, living or non-living, it will get shot.

After a good hour of waiting, we release our back-to-back formation. “Adam, we’ll be going down the chasm now.”

_Affirmative. I’ll move the ship closer to your location_

“Thanks,” Samus concludes before looking at me. “Ready, kid?”

“We’re jumping in, right?”

“Yeah? Got a problem with that?”

“Nope. Just checking.”

The both of us then jump into the humongous pit.

Chapter 40: Sylux

Location: Kriken-controlled territory

Stardate: 2425

Another insignificant warning lights up my command screen. A small Kriken patrol formation, a cluster of 500 ships in total, passes by me from 114 light years away. Their internal security is thinner now with the war going on. I never thought this chance would come.

How long has it been since I’ve seen Marma’s face? Or tasted Tylu’s food pill experiments-no. No more false promises. It’s this kind of thinking that fused this suit to my flesh.

Not long ago, my mysterious benefactor sent me footage of the meeting where the war all started. Fleet Admiral Castor Dane, at least, was right. The Kriken forces are suffering way more casualties than the Federation at the moment. As deep as my hate for the Federation goes…their technology, at least, has helped me so far.

Then a significant warning lights my screen with happy orange colors. It can’t be. I check again. Tears form around my eyelids and become instantly filtered no thanks to my suit cleaning functions. It’s really here. I’m finally back. Home.

No security ships come to intercept me around this massive green and yellow world, as my people, the Renehvyr, are a peaceful race. The Kriken are all the defense we ever needed, but ironically enough, their protection also barred me from coming back. Federation culture and technology disgusts them…and forced me into a dark life of loneliness. Such rejection will never leave me.

As horrible as war is, it allows me safe passage, and Federation forces burn amongst the stars. I never thought I’d be happy again.

A small gathering of my kind condenses around a small stone landing pad along the outer perimeter of my family’s plateau. I land on the stone’s center.

The first one to greet me as I exit my ship hatch is a youngling dressed in a blue robe, an initiate into primary education. It looks up with wondrous glossy black eyes.

“Who are you?” the youngling asks.

“I am Sylux, your kin,” I respond.

“Sylux? As in, elder sibling Sylux?”

“Sibling?” I ask.

“Sylux? Is that really you?” a familiar voice calls out from beyond the landing pad.

“Eztzy? Marma? Nalox?” I ask. With my visor, I scan each of them. My knees quake from a long, long deprivation of familial love. I dash forward to meet them.

Nalox, my second mother, howls with sadness and relief. Even though separated by a forbidden skin I may never be able to undo, I compress all 3 of my parents tight against it. They do not mind nor care. I am home.

Every one of my family community, including a representative from every other plateau across Rehdah, is abuzz with talk. My parents, bless our communities, keep me shielded from the most prying of questioners.

“He will talk when he’s ready! Back away!” Eztzy, my father fans his hand at the crowd. Out of respect, many people do as he asks.

The plateau numbers are near the recommended safety limit, a total of 452 out of the dangerous 500, my visor tells me. Never did I think I’d be this popular! It’s hard to know what to say!

“Sylux? Are you hungry? Are you able to…eat still?” Marma, my first mother, asks with fingers delicately gripping my left arm.

With a quick neuro-command, I open my mouth slot and smile. “As long as it’s hot, I’ll eat anything you make.”

Now surrounded by a calmed crowd, fresh steaming food distributed to ever family member and visitor, our blue star setting over the horizon, the calming artificial purple light orbs hovering over a circular table each, we all dine and reminisce. My insides unwind and savor the closeness, how I missed this closeness! I cry again. People croon for me. Nalox cusps both my hands and gives them a few pats.

“You’ve suffered so much…but that’s all behind you now. We will help you however we can,” my second mother assures me.

I gaze at her paling blue skin. Her health hasn’t improved since we last communed as so.

“I know, I know,” I state.

“He’s ever been the sad one, even before entering the second womb!” Nalox calls out. Many laugh. I join.

My younger sibling, Naykara, as she’s called, shovels down a yellowish patreng fruit mush, with many pits discarded on a separate wooden plate.

“You will choke if you eat too fast,” I tell her with face hovering closer to hers. Surprisingly, she doesn’t back away in nervousness. What blatant bravery this child has!

“Really? My teeth can always tell where the pits are, though,” she responds with one eye only looking back at me.

“Even though our kind has 2 breathing tubes, the most common cause of death, last I checked, is not realizing the first tube is plugged,” I chide with a slow nod.

“…Oh. I’ll be more careful, then,” Naykara responds happily.

“Do you know what my meaning is?” I ask.

“You mean that once the second tube is plugged, you can choke to death?” she asks.

“Bright child!” Marma vigorously rubs Naykara’s head. She giggles. “She’s been learning a lot in school, I’ll have you know!”

I smile back. “And I take it that you’ve volunteered to be her family tutor?”

“Right you are!” Marma winks at me. “She passed the third trial with an 87% thanks to my strictness!”

“Impressive! I only managed an 82!” I add, genuinely proud of my little sister!

“Do you prefer being called ‘elder sibling,’ or ‘brother’?” Naykara asks me. I look back to her as Marma begins eating a small green jelly desert again.

“‘Brother,’ will be fine. I always wanted a little sibling, or do you prefer ‘sister?’”

“‘Little sibling,’” she shrugs and continues to eat. “Ish whu evryun calls mu anywaysh.”

I rrhmm in protest. “Chew with your mouth closed. It’s only polite.”

Naykara swallows sternly. “Is that a rule? With this many people present?”

“It looks unpleasant to many others. Chewed food that splatters from someone else’s mouth can also carry disease,” I explain after smearing a black, pungent sauce all over my Truncha steak. It should be “very sweet” according to Nalox.

“…Oh, you’re right. We learned about that a few deca-cycles ago!” Naykara cheerily chides.

“Then, if you please, practice proper manners, especially during a gathering of our entire planet.”

“Are you nervous? But you’re home!” she protests.

“Many things happened, Naykara, and they hurt me deeply. My ability to interact with peace once again will be difficult, and not just for me.”

“You’re hurt? I know first-aid!” she offers. I laugh sweetly. My adorable little sibling.

“It’s a different hurt than that,” I explain and twirl my wooden prongette which spears a sauce-soaked piece of steak near my mouth. “A kind of hurt that takes Annu-cycles to heal, years.”

“What does ‘years’ mean? I’ve never heard that one.”

“It’s a Federation way of measuring time, little sibling. And it’s one of several things I wish to forget, but cannot.”

Chapter 41: Commander Telsteel

Location: 5.2 light years from Ulysses star system

Stardate: 2425

I stopped counting after the second week. War rarely ends when we want it to. That’s right, we’re actually at war.

“Kriken tendril coming in for another assault,” my helmsman first lieutenant Harringer announces.

“Fire another round of artillery,” I respond.

“Aye sir. All Novus artillery squadrons, fire away,” he speaks into his comm station.

The holographic warglobe displays incomprehensibly large bolts of blue plasma racing towards the colossal approaching amalgamate of Kriken ships with a merciless barrage of super-heated death. The tendril begins vaporizing, instantly annihilating millions upon millions of enemies. How many Kriken are there?

Right, they’re our enemies now. I never hated them, personally, only thought them as strange. They never seemed evil, just different. Yet, that’s how most wars have worked, hating each other’s differences.

“Commander, another tendril approaching our sector,” another one of my observation officers, warns.

“Reroute reserve fleets 6 through 8 to intercept. Also send whatever fighter squadrons are available.”

“Aye sir.”

As she carefully relays my orders into her console, I plot my next move. Unlike many other Commanders across the Federation border, I’ve managed to hold onto my designated star system ever since our initial retreat a few weeks ago. Whereas over 40% of the entire Federation fleet had to fall back further to defend other territories, I’ve kept my spot clean from Kriken invaders. Even though just simulated, all those extra war-games I participated in during academy years are starting to pay off. Wish everyone else did the same back then.

Then again, I’ve also lost 2002 fighter carriers, over a million interception drones, 62 dreadnaughts, 16 artillery squadrons, 7 capital ships and all the Federation lives that came with them just to hold my position. The fleet I started out with is almost down to half its original strength. Despite casualties being overwhelmingly Kriken, as in the billions, we’re steadily losing ground by the cycle. And our only Kriken silencer still needs another 22 hours for a recharge. And they keep on coming….

“Commander, Papa Bird’s hailing us,” someone states.

“Put him on my ear-piece,” I state back. For good measure, I tap a command on my arm pad to activate a silencing field around my chair.

“Am I getting through?” Fleet Admiral Castor Dane asks.

“Loud and clear, sir.”

“Good. With all this communication tom-f*ckery going on these days-never mind. You’re going on the offensive.”

“Sir?”

“Are you questioning orders? Commander?”

“No, sir. Sorry sir. Will someone else be taking my place, though?”

“Your night-shift counter-part will play goalie until further notice. You, however, will be taking the Kriken Silencer deep into Empire territory.”

I close my eyes tight. I knew it. I knew I’d be a center-piece in all this genocidal sh*t.

I swallow hard. Hopefully the Admiral didn’t notice. “Will we be embarking now, sir?”

“Affirmative. Use whatever trickery you got up your sleeve to leave the system unnoticed. Preferably by both enemies and friendlies.”

Now I know why the Admiral strongly suggested those personal video logs. I made one for each family member and friend, just in case. I’m going to die doing all this. I f*cking hate being right.

“Yessir. I’ll break the Ancient Mariner away from the main fleet ASAP.”

“Before you do that, take a few hundred fighter units with you for good measure. Under no circ*mstances reveal the true nature of your objective to anyone else not currently on your command deck. I’ll send you the details once you’re outside Federation-controlled space.”

I swallow again, softer this time. “Right away sir.”

“I know it won’t mean much to say this, but, you’re a good person through and through. I’ve already recorded an entire series of personal logs stating how utterly against using neuro-sterilization technology you are. History will not find it easy to label you a monster.”

“…Thank you, sir. And, may I speak freely for a moment, sir?”

“Of course. I won’t condemn any colorful swearwords you want to hurl at me.”

“I joined this service because of you, Admiral. You were a personal hero of mine ever since the Strombili rebellion within the Orion galactic arm. Look I… f*ck it. Despite how distant I might’ve acted towards you at times, nothing ever made me happier than serving under you. As incredibly embarrassing as it is to say this, you’ll always be my hero.”

“I…wow. I was expecting something completely different. Since the Strombili rebellion? Surprised anyone still remembers that…anyways, best of luck to you, Commander. And, for the record, from the bottom of my heart, thank you. Those words mean a lot to a f*cked-up old man like me.”

“You’re more liked than you realize, Admiral. Over and out.”

Before my face can flush up anymore, I cut the Admiral off and release the silencing field. Never thought I’d gather up the courage to tell him all that….

“Lieutenant, find me 200 of our best fighter pilots and have them dock with us ASAP. We’re moving in for the attack.”

Chapter 42: Jacob

Location: Unregistered Rogue Planet

Stardate: 2426

The caverns twist and descend everywhere we look. We’ve had to hop from one uneven rock to the next, and have been doing so for several hours on end. Even though trained to do this, my lower leg muscles are starting to seize. It’s best to never let Samus know that.

Even with night vision on maximum brightness, it’s still hard as f*ck to navigate. Surfaces that allow a singular foothold are barely visible. Still, somehow, Samus manages to leap from one face to the next with little to no issue. I can only follow where she’s stepped to avoid an embarrassing slip down this never ending pit.

“Stop,” Samus alerts, forcing me to grip the wall-again-again-come on! Finally got a grip on something.

“Picking up lifeforms below. You?” Samus asks.

I scan. “…Yeah. Seeing whole swarms of them!”

As if on cue, a large cloud of yellowish luminescent…colonies of bacteria? Scanning…yeah. Gel-sacs filled with bioluminescent bacteria are flooding my vision, thousands upon thousands of them.

I aim a pistol-

“Hold up. Watch what they do first,” Samus advises. I wait, pistol still sticking out.

The gel-sacs light up the canyon walls all shades of yellow and green. They dance, swirl, hover in place, chase each other, and…play? I guess? No one’s ever seen these things before, so I’m not at liberty to say.

Several fly very close to us, but many quickly lose interest and rejoin their brethren. They act like a child spotting something neat, and then moving on to the next interesting thing all within a 5-second attention span. Probably looking for food, protection from predators, or…something else. I’m no nature expert.

Samus and I keep gazing at cloud after cloud after cloud of these creatures floating and flying in vast, swaying swaths as they woosh and swish from one location to the next. More come from below, and in different colors!

A strange mix of neon pink, purple, turquoise, all gel-sacs also swarm by in huge numbers. Then yellow-green again, followed by more purple, and…there’s a noise in the air. Like a distant whistling in the wind. What is that noise?

…It sounds pleasant at least. It could be from atmospheric gasses passing through various uneven surfaces of rock, or is it the creatures? A faint whistle, calm as can be.

I nearly shoot one that floats close to my face, but stop immediately when it makes a subtle warbling as it studies me. It continues swishing in the air, this way and that, crooning with different trills and whistles. If it weren’t “toxic to human health, be cautious,” according to my visor, I’d reach out and give it a pet. These things appear to have a cuteness to them, a child-like curiosity at this strange, bipedal alien being visiting its world.

Without warning, it shoots off with an almost panicked whistle, perhaps fearing that it will stray too far from its kin. Or think I’m a hungry predator. Samus clears her throat with an rrrhmmm on our channel.

“Yes, what a sight, anyways,” she says and drops from her spot.

The deeper we go, the fewer of those gel-sacs we see. Darkness overtakes our environment again. I sigh.

Samus stops just before a clustering of conical-shelled creatures slowly moving about on the vertical rock face. Visor says they feed off the rock, which is mostly titanium ore.

One of them raises itself a little to reveal protruding spikes-Samus shoots it on the spot, and it falls down into the abyss. Before raising any objections, I realize now that it attempted an attack. Visor confirms their lethal capabilities. A few others also raise protrusions, and despite my souring mood, I shoot a few along with Samus so they don’t cause us harm. Any creature we fire upon either explodes in brownish guts and gore or falls right off like the first casualty. Not all wild creatures will be friendly, but, that’s part of the job.

Both sides of the chasm merge more and more the deeper and deeper we go. Judging by the map when I zoom out, we’re still shy of 653Km to the nearest “breach,” Adam’s term for any fissure that’s broke past the mystery barrier. If we could speed boost it all the way, we’d be there in minutes. Yet, due to our destination being on the more vertical side, even our power suits don’t have much of an answer to the fall damage we’d sustain, and the 5.6Gs of gravity won’t help. Sliding and hopping down it is. For another 3 days at least, according to Adam’s estimates.

It’s dawning on me why Samus trained us so damn hard. Wild planets will eat you alive if you can’t endure their vastness and unpredictability. Our only life-line is Samus’s ship should the worst happen. I can only do so much for the both of us, but will do the best with what little I have, regardless. I can’t let her die. I can’t let anyone else die without a fight.

Our greatest enemy at the moment, thankfully, is just boredom. Rather than endless hostile swarms of alien life launching themselves out of the darkness, the most we’re getting is a few skirmishes. The shelled creatures that dropped down are still alive. They lift up their shells, showing spikes again-both get frozen by Ice beams, and then missile blasted by Samus and I.

Eventually, the 2 chasm sides are so close that I almost bump into the opposite wall on my next hop. Samus looks up and watches my head just slip by getting knocked way off rythym. I sit down for a bit after landing onto a merciful and flat piece of ground.

“And that’s why we don’t hop off inclines more than 2 body-lengths in situations like these,” Samus chides. “Lose control, lose your life.”

“Got it. Sorry,” I say. Arguing right now will take energy, and I’m needing more and more stamina the deeper we go. Plus, she’s right. I almost screwed up big time.

“While you’re down there, see anything we could squeeze through?”

I scan beneath me. “Gets tighter the closer we get. We’ll have to morphball our way down for a while.”

“Adam, give us another GPR sweep,” Samus commands.

_One moment_

On my HUD map, another set of 3D green tunnels expand like sickened tree roots, all using data from the ship scanner high above. There’s so many jagged turns and drops….

“We’ll take…this one,” Samus highlights an underground tunnel on our shared map in red. It’s much longer, but less inclined than the rest. The safer, the better.

Samus curls up first and rolls on our incline in a switch back pattern. I mirror her form and follow her exact path.

Although crooked, and melted by either hot temperatures or some creature’s excrements, the 2 of us roll through our new passage with ease. Whenever we’re not rolling this way and that, we’re hopping up one level, down a few more levels, Samus bombing any obstacles, and avoiding the occasional burrowing worm/insect with pincers the length of my arm.

Even with my suit’s inertial dampeners, I can’t help but receive a subtle feeling of vertigo, similar to riding a gravity coaster at an amusem*nt park. Maybe my brain’s trying to fill in familiar gaps. A nice feeling, though. If I had a half-pipe structure to roll up and down on, I could rock myself to sleep!

Being in morphball form, however, is one of the strangest things I had to get used to. I still exist physically, but also as “free-flowing energy,” as some of the N-suit technicians described it. I don’t feel like a marble rolling down a hill, but am able to perceive the overall movement like I’m taking a ride inside a toy ball. Or maybe that feeling’s all perception. My body’s still there, but it’s also not...I’m overcomplicating things again. Focus, Jacob.

After another quick bomb, Samus drops rapidly in a free-fall-I follow her without any thought. After what feels like a minute of pure falling, I bounce gently off Samus’s morphball form.

“Ow, watch it,” Samus complains via radio waves. We can also communicate in morphball form, somehow. The manual explained the phenomenon underneath the term “spiralized energy wavelengths” and that’s about all I can understand. Thankfully, though, my job doesn’t require understanding certain physical phenomenon through and through, just as long as it works when needed.

“You can feel that?” I ask and uncurl.

She uncurls as well. “If anything depletes my energy reserves, even by a little bit, I’ll definitely feel it.”

“Oh. Forgot about that, sorry,” I say before looking around. Speaking about our reserves, I check on them. The fall and my unavoidable collision at the bottom depleted 1.2% in total. Small number, but something to avoid.

Samus takes a sweeping look around. I do the same. Gigantic clear obelisks jut out of every conceivable angle. Pale reflections of us becomes scattered in a thousand different ways. Every facet, every crystal, foggy white coated with a sheen similar to the calm surface upon a lake during morning.

Between all the facet gaps, colorless slithering lifeforms squeeze into anything that can hide them from our sight. I wanted to reach out and touch what have to be the largest crystals I’ve seen anywhere, but, also don’t know what those worm things will do to me.

Still, even if no light’s down here, all the night vision imagery of jagged geometry is making my head spin. This is going to be very hard to walk through-

Samus starts blasting all those beautiful crystals to shimmering bits with her power beam in order to clear a path. Crystalline gemstones crack and shatter everywhere, dozens of fragments flicking my suit as she blasts away.

“What are you doing?!” I accuse.

She stops firing and looks over her shoulder. “Making a path,” she states before resuming.

Then reality bites me again. We’re here to investigate, find a way down past the mystery barrier, find out what happened to both search teams, and not preserve some of the most pristine natural crystals anyone’s ever seen. After taking a few sharp breaths, I help Samus out with her destruction by firing my dual pistols. Several colorless worms scatter and wriggle away as fast as they can. Just like the Space Pirates that destroyed our homes, we’re invaders shooting whatever we please to achieve a specific objective. I feel a bit sick, but also know that it must be done.

After a few missiles and a massive powerbomb blast, we enter a large cave that has multiple tunnels leading out of it. I scan along with Samus. I spot several holes in the ground. Wait. Multiple pairs of buck-teeth are peeping out of them…they’re similar to rodents, like naked mole rats. They’re 4 times larger, though, and fuzzy with white fur, too.

They chortle while sniffing and approaching us. I can’t help but let out an aww.

“Jacob, keep your distance,” Samus says in a low combat stance.

“What are you talking about? Don’t you just want to pet one-”

Jacob!” Samus shouts and opens fire. I duck on instinct as one mole rats gets intercepted mid-lunge by a power beam shot. Training kicks in and I start shooting as well.

We get jumped from all possible angles, but manage to keep them all off with Samus and I shooting full force back to back. Horrible shrieks and sounds of splattering gore infests the cave.

Another one jumps-I shoot it, one drops down from the roof-I dodge roll before filling it with searing energy holes-another bites my shoulder hard-Samus kills it with a well-aimed charge shot to the head-and I get back to our defensive position.

We continue unloading into an endless horde of alien naked mole rats before they finally start hesitating, then backing off. I hear my own heartbeat.

“Let’s assume there’s a lot more coming, we should leave,” Samus states. I offer no argument as we dash off into a tunnel using speed booster. We keep going and crash through several walls of loose rock before coming to a halt.

Samus turns around and stares at me. Great, here it comes….

“As adorable some alien life can be, always act on the threat level assessment provided by your scans. If any of them warn you about lethal capabilities, never approach without your weapon ready to go,” she explains.

I let my shoulders unwind. I was expecting a lot worse. “Sorry. I’ll do that,” I nod.

“However, I also have to acknowledge that you’re still fairly new at this,” Samus puts a hand on her hip and nods several times. “I don’t chew you out to be an ass, but to keep you alive.”

“Got it,” I nod again. “I’ll do better next time.”

“How’s your shoulder?”

I rotate it a few times. “Suit protected me, only lost 0.2% reserves.”

Samus nods and then looks around our tiny cavern with a singular clear crystal jutting out of the wall. “Still, despite that recent attack, we got lucky. Those rat-things might be the apex predator around here. Scan visor isn’t detecting any other life-forms, meaning we have to be inside a predator’s nesting grounds. As long as we keep our wits, keep our distance, we should find little resistance going forward from here. Until we get attacked again, that is.”

Resistance, I think bitterly to myself. You mean any innocent life that happens to be in our way.

I push that thought down. I’m on a mission. The next time I try and pet the wild life will be my last. I swallow my innocence and digest it alive.

It takes a little under 2 hours to wander outside the tunnel system and into a gigantic cavern filled with vast gooey swaths of glowing life! Making sure I’m constantly walking at Samus’s pace, I also drink in every last color, squiggly shape, bitty thousands of creatures both crawling along the cavern walls and floating in place like ancient jelly fish in some prehistoric ocean. We walk around a few what our scans term, “highly corrosive” glowing purple tendrils that hang down and coil along the hard, mucous-covered ground.

“Are those clouds?” I look up at fluffy pockets of mist.

Samus checks it out. “Mostly made of methane, but technically clouds.”

I step around a few skittering life-forms with hundreds of legs each. The mucous doesn’t hinder their movement at all. Low threat assessment at least…and they create that disgusting clear glop that makes sucking noises every time we step in a fairly deep mound of it. It acts as a web to catch food, except in the form of a massive snotty carpet that covers nearly every square centimeter of floor.

Nothing in here looks like anything I’d want to approach, all for the better too. Most things that move slowly are colorful and coated in poisonous spines, and anything else moving faster than that either darts away from sight before either Samus or I can get a good look at it, or looks too gross/ugly to give it more than a quick scan.

The only things that don’t move for us are those gigantic blue floating jellyfish. Occasionally we’ll spot something unlucky or stupid enough to get entangled within goopy tendrils that digests prey on the spot, all before beings siphoned as nutritious glop upwards into the main body like food or liquid traveling through a human esophagus. There’s even a slight gulping sound whenever it happens, eww.

We wander this biome for hours, always picking a path that leads downwards. Several small lifeforms approach us out of curiosity, but instantly back away the moment we get too close or is sent scampering with Samus’s quick and sudden foot stomps. Even though we haven’t fired a single shot since being attacked by those mole rat things, our weapons are always aimed forward.

The footing here is surprisingly flat and convenient. The goopy, sticky mucous also provides some safety by preventing slips and falls. Even our morphballs remain stuck to sheer 90 degree or more vertical walls thanks to whatever slimy trails we have to take if ground paths won’t work.

Occasionally, Samus barks at me to keep up and stop gawking at all this cool alien life. I don’t question her out loud, something she clearly doesn’t like, but I can’t help but wonder how many times she’s been to places like this to not be stunned with awe? How can she blame me? Yes, our mission matters more, but would a few extra seconds of scanning here and there hurt anyone? We have to be the first ones to witness any of these glowing creatures!

“Getting a transponder signal,” Samus stops to announce. She taps a few things on her arm cannon. “We have a match. It’s from Odysseus 1.”

One of the missing search parties. I check my HUD to confirm my mentor’s finding.

“Getting the same thing. Any chance any of them are still alive? Can’t get bipedal bio-signatures aside from ours,” I ask.

“Probably not. Don’t get your hopes up,” Samus states coldly and continues moving.

I humbly accept her answer. Disappointed as I am, she’s right. She has to be. It’s been several years since the teams went missing. To find nutrition down here in an alien environment? Nothing here we’ve scanned so far is compatible with most bio-chemistries I’m aware of. Also, if we don’t find their ships or anything similar soon, then we’ll just be scanning their remains.

Similar to the jellyfish tendrils, scans show nutrients, or dead alien body parts, flowing through the mucous as if being delivered elsewhere. Each insectoid leg, half an eye, pre-digested organs, hair, all pieces of organic matter snake along our feet, bound against the walls, and drag atop the ceiling. I can’t see any of it stopping, especially when some body parts disappear through cracks in the walls.

“Samus,” I say, almost cracking my voice in surprise. She stops to look at a very odd, but familiar shape that slithers past my left foot and towards her.

She squats down with arm cannon still aimed and plucks an armored finger from the clear muck. After shaking off any excess slime, she turns it over a few times.

“That’s interesting. This left ring finger belongs to Kenner Tygor, survey specialist from Odysseus 2,” Samus emphasizes.

A thought crosses my mind. “It came from back there somehow. Think any of them are nearby?”

“Hard to say,” Samus tilts her head, still analyzing the finger. “But the tissue inside is still alive. Let’s preserve it for now,” she says and tosses the body part to me. I let it fall onto my elbow where the N-suit absorbs and encapsulates the digit underneath a few hefty layers of nano-gel. My HUD confirms that the living tissue’s now in energy stasis, preserving it as long as my suit has plenty of power reserves.

“Think they got eaten?” I ask.

“Hell if I know. If that’s the case, don’t expect any survivors.”

“Should we go back and check?”

“Might as well. We can at least give their family members some closure.”

I let Samus take the lead again, but back the way we came. Thankfully, we’re ultimately not responsible for delivering the harsh news, should we find it.

We move a bit slower this time while scanning more mucous trails. It reminds me of the slime molds and amoebas I studied back in elementary school. I just hope whatever this network of slime is won’t add us to the menu….

Scanner isn’t sure if it’s one giant macro organism, a colony of sorts, or something else entirely. At first, I assumed it was some alien goopy web used to capture and digest prey. I’d go nuts studying this thing for days on end if it weren’t for Samus’s indifference and her cold, calculating mind.

“Got something. A thumb,” Samus points up to a ceiling formation that funnels upwards 25.4m from where we stand. Dripping mucous lines the walls and disappears into tiny cracks in the rock.

The thumb, like the finger, still has armor attached to it. After grabbing it with my grapple beam, I confirm it belongs to the same man with a scan.

I place the appendage right next to the other body part, and the suit fuses various microscopic threads of flesh, creating a closed network of blood vessels that also is cycled with nutrient-rich bio-gel.

The fingers move a bit, meaning the nerves and muscles are perfectly healthy aside from the immediate areas where the damage is, cuts and amino-acid molecules hinting at a vicious bite-mark.

What makes the finding even worse, is that Samus and I don’t have any data on what kind of creature it came from. The markings suggest teeth from a lifeform of large size, bigger than the mole rats we faced earlier.

We continue our search. Even though carefully recording each trail into a 3D map, even though both shared between the 2 of us, the slime trails seem endless. When one path branches out, another does the same and combines, and separates, and combines again….

“A fungus?” I speculate. The pattern has a very mycelium look.

“DNA doesn’t match with any known fungal species,” Samus answers.

“A new species,” I counter.

Samus shrugs, “Maybe. We won’t know unless we do a data transfer for Adam to work on. Speaking of which,” Samus stops and turns around, making me halt as well.

“Adam? Anything up there that would block a data transfer?” she asks the wall beside us.

_One moment. Doing a planetary sweep_

Still tracking all the weird goop, I now notice strange shapes inside the walls, like knots of fibers all tightening and pushing into messy clumps that pulsate…or blink-blink?

The knots all untangle in an instant. “Samus, did you see that?”

“…Yeah. That’s interesting.”

_Weather remains calm topside, hovering over your position. Send away_

“Find a comfy wall to sit against. This will take a while,” Samus says.

After increasing her armor hardness with a full tank’s worth of energy from my reserves, Samus lays down with her head elevated by a large rock, curls next to another rock but heated up with her plasma beam, silently stares at the glowing earth until nodding off into her requested nap. I’ll get my turn 3 hours afterwards if nothing bad happens.

I deactivate small temperature barriers within my suit arms, including the gloves. I bask the temperature-exposed skin to a deep, refreshing coldness followed up by a deeply warm and raw heat.

With the help of 2 pouch stims, I remain awake and staring at the comforting molten red rock right until the 3 hour mark with squat-all happening. At first, the lack of noise being underground so long started getting to me. Actually, it still gets to me. Checking the map for the 65th time. No new lifeforms or major changes to environmental integrity within our sector.

“Hmm…already?” Samus asks, but not with a voice I’ve ever heard her use. All defenses and straining words are absent, as if talking to a close family member. Her soothing staccato of air and vocal cord arrangements repeat in my memory.

“Um, yeah,” I respond.

“So? Liking the spelunking life thus far?”

“Quiet, but calming. And cool! How often do you do stuff like this?”

Samus sits up and rotates her shoulders a bit. “Maybe…a third of what I’ve done?”

“Yeah? Like the Phazon Incident?”

“Sure.”

“Tell me about it sometime? You don’t have to, though, just curious.”

Samus contemplates for a few seconds. “We’ll have to check with the brass for confirmation on that. Nothing personal, Jacob. My experiences contain very sensitive knowledge. Most of it deadly if used wrong.”

“I figured,” I nod to myself. “Do you think of those times often?”

“I…Jacob. Are you asking me a question or diagnosing?”

“The latter.”

“Is this about my sleeping habits again? Did I cause echoes with my snores?” she asks defensively.

“Adam, what would you say about adding Trenvenofol to Samus’s medication regime?”

“A sleeping aide?” Samus asks accusingly. “Sorry if I get a bit noisy-”

“It’s not about the noise, Samus. It’s the words you say while sleeping. You were okay this time, but I’ve noticed many key phrases in certain hours of the night. I keep hearing you say “Sorry,” “Old,” “Help,” “Here!”, all words that I assume link to a past trauma of some sorts. Adam asked me my opinion on the data he collected, and now I know that you’ll have to take a few extra pills. Doctor’s orders.”

_By increasing both sleep frequency, length, and quality, you’ll remain in peak condition for longer periods. This is not open for negotiation, lady. Simulations ran on your brain tissues yields 99.1% reduction on all PTSD symptoms_

“Fine. No arguments from me,” Samus shrugs the whole thing off.

“It will help. Similar cases show significant success,” I add.

“Kid, I know you occasionally do a virtual medical school program or whatever in that N-suit of yours, but even though a ‘volunteer emergency doctor’ being added to your job experience won’t shorten the 5 years you still need to become a legitimate medical authority. You only get the power of a majority-vote tie-breaker. And only for as long as the Supreme Council can squeeze out all the use you’re capable of.”

“Four and a half years, actually,” I point out. With a finger jutting in her direction. She gently swats it aside before standing up.

“While I do a patrol, get some sleep. You’re less of a whiny kid when you do,” she says and waves with her back to me.

I give her a mocking salute, even though she doesn’t see it. Guess our nerves from the previous week are still a bit raw. We’re calming down, though. Got some action for the distraction. As mechanical and unapologetically calculating Samus is, what she says happens 99% of the time. I trust her judgement, and that I can remain alive for just a bit longer as long as I do everything to assist the situation. Help her, and I help myself. It’s mutualism that’s starting to work.

And when things work, the less irritated by the other we become. Sure, tensions are still a bit high, but not as high anymore.

You start thinking good things about her. Like the sound of her wake-up voice. Wish she’d talk like that more often. More relaxed.

_Jacob? Are you still awake?_

“I’m here. What’s up?”

_Data transfer is complete. Sending you a data backup including various emergency plans in case planetary interference becomes an obstacle again_

“Roger. Send when ready.”

A measly 150 Terabytes of memory get beamed down to my suit sensors, which cover all portions of the N-suit exterior, and I do a quick check to confirm that all text has been successfully sent before confirming it with Adam.

_Have a good rest_

“You as well. Or do A.I. sleep at all?”

_We do. But in shorter bursts and infrequently_

“Huh,” is all I can say. That must be horrible!

I curl up closer to the rock which is starting to lose some of its heat. I switch my pistol type to plasma and shoot 2 hot beams that add a fresh coating of molten orange. After deactivating a few thousand more temperature filters on the N-suit exterior, I let the cozy, welcoming radiation help me stay focused on my breathing exercises.

Back on old earth, soldiers known as “Marines” practiced a technique called “box” breathing. By inhaling and exhaling in periods of 4 seconds apart, most acting Marines were able to stay relatively calm and focused even in the most intense combat. It’s not perfect, but I’m already noticing immediate improvement in sleep and combat quality.

And again, I think of Samus’s soothing voice. Like an echo falling down a deep, hollow tunnel, I drift into worlds beyond imagination.

Chapter 43: Commander Riser

Location: Negative Hyperspace

Stardate: 2425

Two exelune guards, my personal shield units, burst through the open hatch in a sprint walk, right in the middle of my sand bath. I glare them both down after standing up.

“If this concerns anything but Benedict, you 2 just sentenced yourselves to death.”

“It is Benedict, Commander. He’s left us a message. Said that he ‘left you a present’….” A stiff exelune guard says.

“Did either of you speak to him recently?” I ask.

“No, Commander. He left us a message in the form of another recording.”

I can’t help it. I smile greedily.

Now alone with the object inside my research room again, the small metal box is stuffed with a crude map drawn in black ink that looks as if it were flesh-marked, or “tattooed” as humans call it, right into the underside of an exelune exoskeleton. Whoever this came from must have been eaten already. These are just scraps Benedict left us.

After placing the flesh map on my analyzing table, I magnify the observation screen to 10x and highlight the whole drawing under high illumination. I immediately recognize human representations that flow and bend at unnatural angles. If I remember correctly…this art resembles “Aztec” or even “Mayan”. No. The markings are wrong. These depictions have no elaborate feathery headdresses on their heads, some are even smooth with zero hair.

The figures line up as if walking towards a destination. Their path also contains swirls that break off in square whirlpools, as if falling down from a great height.

No. This isn’t a “river,” but a “waterfall.” Those humans aren’t traveling, but falling from a great height. And, after zooming in on one particularly strange depiction, one of my kind, having its head carapace smashing open upon a rock at the bottom.

There are also words inside a few of the outer lines, tiny ones I can’t quite make out…zoom in again…ah. They are in Benedict’s language, English:

For all the cruelty you are

We prepare for you

A maw to hop inside

We will have our mana,

And…what does that say…it’s too small! I zoom in further, past 200x, past 400x! There!

Riser.

I stare at my name. That’s my name.

After a quick shake of the head, I realize that he’s known all our names this whole time ever since he accessed all personnel files from that data pad we destroyed. The joy from anticipation of the hunt sours a bit, and I don’t know why.

Is this message referencing a trap? We’ve scanned every conceivable surface, probed for radioactive activity that would indicate weapons he might have stolen, took several GPR readings and cross-referenced them with all available poroxone speculation.

However, readings down there are…fuzzy. There are shapes that no one on this base recognizes, globular formations speculated to be stalagmites and a cave of some sort, but no one’s been down that far ever since our arrival several deca-cycles ago. Going down too deep presents several risks to cave-ins and hostile encounters with underground life. Our resources would be spread thin, considering the narrow passages, something that Benedict can easily slip through and exploit.

…Or is that what he wants us to think? Perhaps he’s managed to hide himself somewhere much closer than we thought, like the ventilation shafts, or even right underneath the floor-I smile to myself. I let a bit of fear take over my thoughts. This is a singular human I’m dealing with. My resources and options far outweigh anything he could possibly have.

Although, there’s only so much I can do when coordinating all of these lesser genetic strains under my command. We have new equipment, such as more 3D printers available, a few new nuclear power cores to maintain base energy reserves, but could use much more. If high command wants this eradication to go as planned, the suggested materials will be sorely needed as well. Yet, my superiors will not appreciate multiple inquiries without evidence that Benedict is clearly a threat to our whole base, our whole secretive operation. Their silence lately is more telling than a scolding. They want results, soon.

Something critical needs to be revealed in the human’s latest message. If left undiscovered too long, the result could be fatal. Benedict has made his intentions clear, and all my base units are visibly nervous when carrying out their work. Realistically, all I can do for them is keep everyone distracted with endless tasks.

There’s the option to speed up this process under penalty of death, but that should only be used under the most extreme circ*mstances. Without a clear enemy to fight, using last-resort tactics will only make things worse for me.

With a few careful adjustments on my utility screen, tiny robotic arms inside the forcefield pluck up the piece of flesh and rotate it around in all directions while the table scans every conceivable angle. So far, I see nothing significant in all these microscopic images.

“Shackle, have your exelune guards found anything else of Reciter’s body yet?” I ask into my earpiece.

“Negative, Commander. We’re still investigating the lower levels.”

To get prey closer during a hunt, sometimes humans will use “bait” to lure in their food sources. Despite knowing that, what will I use for that purpose? All of Benedict’s kin have been eradicated, sterilized. Perhaps it would’ve been best to keep at least one of them alive-wait.

…Perhaps it doesn’t have to be fully authentic, but an idea has just crossed my mind. I walk over to another terminal and begin searching.

A warm feeling of satisfaction flows through my thorax. “Shackle, how much of Gifter’s biological samples do you still have in inventory?”

“One moment, Commander, checking right now.”

I give my second in command a few micro-cycles to finish.

“Inventory shows DNA samples from all previous experiments, including Benedict himself!”

The warm feeling becomes delightfully hot. My teeth threaten to puncture and escape my constantly curling and grinning jaw. “Send a guard to collect and deliver all of them to my floor. Should our technology be sufficient enough, we won’t have to search for Benedict any longer. He’ll come to us.”

Chapter 44: Samus

Location:Unregistered Rogue Planet

Stardate: 1547

A spark of pain erupts inside my head. I immediately do a suit-wide diagnostic. No concussions, no strange attacks, no radiation damage, nothing.

I hop down a few steps until at the bottom of a massive underground dirt-slide and hunch down in exhaustion. We’ve been at this for what feels like days. Maybe I’m a little out of shape.

I gaze upwards at the way I came and speculate. The tunnels span everywhere when viewed through x-ray. Jacob’s beacon’s still there, all vitals stable.

Despite the physical sluggishness, my mind’s been refreshed and made sharp thanks to a bit of rest. And it’s telling me to use my degrading physical reaction times to wander a tighter patrol than I intended.

I pick an odd doughnut pathway that ellipses out in a long arc, similar to a high velocity asteroid using a planet to slingshot. Checking behind me, Jacob’s still fine.

This continues for the next 4 hours until coming back to camp to see Jacob already sitting up and alert atop a flat rock a few stories above me.

“Easier to see anything that creeps and crawls,” Jacob says.

“And?”

“And…what?” Jacob asks back.

“Anything worth noting? Dangerous?”

“N…no, now that I think about it.”

“Good. How’re you feeling?”

“I’m…good, actually.”

“…why’d you hesitate there,” Samus points.

“You don’t usually ask me that.”

“About hesitating?”

“No, how I’m feeling. You usually don’t give a sh*t.”

“…”

“So,” Jacob suddenly slaps a leg. “Don’t worry about it. We’re on the job, right? What’s next?”

The paths extend in all directions, and the only indication of what we should do is continuing deeper to the planet core. All we’ve done is drop down, drop down further, and even further than that.

My legs begin seizing a bit while walking along another sloping pathway. “Just-just, got it, got it,” I assure with my hand on the wall.

Jacob walks up behind me. “Yeah, you’re sitting down for a while.”

I sigh in defeat. Doctor’s orders, I guess.

Jacob “advises” me to do slow leg-cycling while lying on my back. In addition to the mild stimulant that’s somehow nullifying the pain a bit, Jacob also uses Adam’s drug data to upload, 3D print with a specialized tube-like tool that Jacob can form, and then prepare a few injections for me to take the next time I take a nap. All I have to do is slip a few small clear rectangular prisms into a slot recently installed on my arm cannon. After a quick few tiny stings, the drugs start flowing and doing their work. I feel a bit…bubbly.

As I rest up close to another plasma-heated rock, Jacob sits down and starts humming. He wiggles his body a bit to the beat. It’s…it’s a Chozo tune. One Old Bird used to sing to me.

“Where did you learn that?” I ask Jacob in all seriousness.

“Heard you humming it in your sleep,” he states.

“Oh.”

“Is it Egyptian?”

“…No. Chozo.”

“Ah. It’s catchy,” Jacob nods agreeably.

“…Can I ask you a favor?”

“I’ll keep humming if it helps.”

“Thanks.”

After a dreamless, refreshing 4 hour sleep, we keep traveling down various tunnels until we hit a fair-sized gorge. We both gaze downwards at the final stretch towards the middle of the planet, and then we’ll be in unknown territory. Adam still can’t get any information below the cracks.

And it’s a sheer vertical drop. We’ll have to space jump down there.

_Sam_ Adam says before some radio static overtakes his voice.

“Adam? If you can hear me, restart. I repeat, restart,” I instruct. At least he kept the ship grounded, so it won’t get destroyed by falling out of orbit.

Very similar to old Earth electronics, turning the ship on and off actually helps Adam refresh his broadcasting software, meaning more reliable radio communication more often. Nine out of 10 times it’s worked.

“Adam, do you copy?” I ask sternly.

More static. No good. It’s that 1 out of 10.

“Jacob. We’re retreating for now. Ship needs-”

I’m interrupted by a sudden red warning on my visor. Nuclear-red blotches begin snaking their way downwards, cutting off all upper escapes.

“Cancel that. We have incoming liquid molten rock. Dive!” I take a running start and break into space jump. Jacob stays 5 feet behind me at all times.

We drop like the heavy-armored people we are and free-fall while spinning furiously with an occasional singular space jump to dodge whatever surface we want to avoid. I stop on something solid and Jacob does the same. I look up.

I do a wide scan for everything above my head. There’s very little, no, there’s nowhere where the magma isn’t….

Everywhere above, and I mean everywhere I can see, is a colossal wall of liquid fire bearing down on us. Then that leaves the opposite direction and nowhere else.

“Keep going,” is all I say and jump back down.

Even though dozens of kilometers away from us, the heat begins turning up. Our suits will be able to survive the extreme temperatures, in theory. But theory hardly matches practice in every circ*mstance.

“Samus! We have to stop! It will take a few seconds at most!” Jacob pleads on radio.

We both land on a very large stalagmite with a slight incline at the worst. “Okay, few seconds, go.”

“One of Adam’s plans involves overcharging your ice-beam to create a path upwards.”

“For something as specific as this?” I accuse.

“It’s possible. I think we should try it.”

Then again, it sounds like something Adam would come up with. “Fine then. Give me an 80% overcharge.”

Jacob places his hand on my back, creating an easier path for the energy to flow from his body. Then a surge electrifies and amplifies every single nerve fiber I have!

In a slightly intoxicated daze, I aim upwards at the encroaching magma. After a quick switch to Ice Beam, I begin charging. Jacob backs up to avoid the sudden and freezing drop in temperature. Ice crystals start caking on the floor, and a subtle mist permeates the air.

Now a glimmering white star, I unleash the largest Ice Beam anyone’s ever done; a massive column of pure frosty power that flash freezes and then disintegrates anything in its path. The force pushes me uncomfortably hard against the stalagmite I’m standing on.

The roar of our combined power reverberates off of every conceivable wall, producing the most deafening baritone any instrument has produced in the history of everything. There’s nothing down here to absorb the excess sound so it just amplifies.

Once the beam shrinks and fades away, I assess the damage. With that one shot, we managed to harden well over 800,000,000 cubic kilometers of molten rock. From all the dry planetary data I’ve been going over for the past week, I know that roughly equates to 2% of the planet’s total magma mass.

“That…holy f*ck that worked!” Jacob stares upwards.

“Maybe a little overkill. At least we’re not in danger of being sandwiched between a rogue lava flow and the planet’s molten insides anymore,” I comment, feeling the tightness in many of my muscles unwind.

“So, need an additional charge or-hey!” Jacob shouts as something whips him off the stalagmite. Before my grapple beam can reach his out-stretched hand, a clear and gooey tendril pulls Jacob out of my reach and into the dark abyss.

Chapter 45: Jacob

Location: Unregistered Rogue Planet

Stardate: 45,060,370 BCE

Cursing myself for not using my own grapple beam in the moment, I twist as best I can and unleash a barrage of energy shots onto whatever’s grabbed me. Samus, according to my visor, is in hot pursuit.

Several shots connect with this thick and slimy tentacle and splashes into thick, gelatinous goop that splatters all over me. At least it let go-

My head hits something hard and I go uncontrollably tumbling into the deep unknown. Using the momentum to break into space jump isn’t working.

I hit rock bottom, literally, taking most of the wind out of my lungs. If I could swear, I’d curse this stupid N-suit! Why didn’t it correct for the inertia?

After a quick few coughs, restoring a bit of the resting plural volume in my lungs, I shuffle into a kneeling position and begin assessing my situation. I aim my pistols in wide, circular arcs.

Whatever grabbed me has to be alive still. It’s there, watching me, waiting to strike.

I’m whipped onto my backside as something tugs my foot hard. I spray energy at whatever’s holding me down. A clear and leaking tentacle slithers lightning fast back into the tiny crevice it came from.

After a quick scan, I confirm that I’m surrounded. X-ray shows a massive, pulsing, and goopy mesh, one that I was pulled into by one of those long appendages. I’m already inside this creature’s grasp.

It instantly retreats as a hot red beam carves the mesh like a laser scalpel through polymer string. I add to Samus’s plasma beam attack, and go for whatever those messy bunches of goop are-it squeezes and slithers away!

“Samus! It’s trying to escape!”

“No sh*t. Freeze it!” she demands.

I switch to Ice Beam and pepper the rocks with tiny but high punch-through energy charges. They shred through tough walls of titanium ore and begin contacting whatever the hell it is we’re fighting, solidifying the tendrils into icicles.

Samus joins me, with much more effective results as she flash-freezes vast swaths of this gelatinous network into a solid, unmoving frame made of alien cells and nightmares. Even though we’ve already won, we keep spraying the area until every last bit of this thing stops dead.

“Can you squeeze through that gap behind you?” Samus asks.

I turn around. “Looks wide enough.”

After popping out of a small cave used for a trap or nest, my mentor gives me a wrist yank up to her platform just above mine. We look at the surrounding darkness.

“Just keep your eyes peeled for…,” Samus trails off, no doubt watching the shifting walls through x-ray vision just like me.

Massive amounts of alien mucous begin amassing on every side, even below. What we just fought wasn’t the whole creature.

Massive bulb after massive sickly white gelatinous bulb begins sprouting all around us, all over the ceiling, all over the walls, all over the ground below. Some of them burst, releasing slithering masses of worms that race towards our spot.

Again, we’re back-to-back, fending off all those slithering and squishy things with as much fire power as we can muster. Crumbling rocks, heaps of dust, globs of alien flesh, and sparkling fire burst and rain down from every conceivable direction. I’d ask Samus about possible cave-ins, but, if she hasn’t said anything about it, better keep my attention on not dying instead.

Samus fires another missile at one of the bulbs and it explodes like a vomit-filled party balloon. “Start scanning for a brain, or whatever nervous system this thing uses,” she instructs.

I don’t even have time to tell her that I don’t have time to do that. Taking my attention off the advancing horde even for a second will cause something very bad to happen. sh*t-nearly missed a jumping worm with some quick burst fire.

I’m stuck playing defense as Samus picks off creatures further in the dark distance. Even though most of our environment consists of solid titanium ore, more and more gelatinous filaments effortlessly squeeze through the tiniest of cracks.

Against all odds, I’m granted a few seconds of calm to scan for this creature’s weak spot. Then again, is it a single creature we’re dealing with?

…A bundle of stringy mass deep inside the walls shifts from top, to bottom, to the side, and bottom again. I mark it on my HUD for Samus to see.

Without confirming my suspicions, she charges her plasma beam and lets it loose into the rock, penetrating and incinerating whatever was roaming around in there…and the thing keeps attacking us by sending more gelatinous worms. Whatever it was she shot wasn’t the main brain, or there’s more to this creature’s nervous system than we think.

Different creatures begin emerging from the goo all over the floor. They’re those other worm creatures we saw earlier with all the filaments, making them look like over-sized and poisonous caterpillars that effortlessly glide on top all the gooey rivers that spawn them.

“Keep looking,” Samus instructs as she charges up her plasma beam. I keep up my shoot-anything-that-gets-too-close defensive strategy.

Now in x-ray mode again, I spot another stringy mass and mark it-Samus instantly destroys it too. Then another one forms inside the walls, and then another, and another….

“See that lava tube at the end of this chamber?” Samus demands as she marks the point in question as a red arrow.

“We making a break for it?” I ask.

Samus drops into morph ball and deploys a power bomb. She races off, and I’m forced to curl and follow or I’ll get caught up in an enormous explosion.

Even though a few of the worm creatures attack and bite us, draining a bit of energy as a result, we either roll out of the way or deploy normal bombs to rid ourselves of any attackers. Even though I fully expect the slime to ensnare us in some way, we simply roll over it like it were part of the rock itself.

After plunging after Samus and into the lava, the entire world rumbles and shakes as the power bomb detonates. Even though extremely tight and molten hot, my N-suit’s showing no signs of heat damage as I follow Samus through multiple tunnels that by all means would slow down anything else without gravity technology.

We pop out into a smaller chamber to assess the damage. I peel a few layers of lava off my arms and legs like heavy glowing layers of glass taffy.

“Can’t see any more filaments chasing after us, you?” Samus asks.

I give our surroundings an extra scan. “Same. What was that thing-”

Before I can finish my sentence, I fire and destroy at whatever gooey protrusion’s sticking out of the wall behind my mentor’s back-it’s too late. Samus collapses with a horrible moan after taking a hit by some strange, invisible beam that warps the surrounding air.

I rush to her and begin scanning. She’s suffered burns on 3% of her body? While wearing her Gravity suit-wait a second. Her suit looks different now…as if sections of her suit were completely removed…where are her massive, globular shoulders?

“How bad is it?” Samus wheezes.

“I’m…not completely sure. You got hit by something, and I think it affected your suit as well.”

Samus looks herself over. “Let me guess, I’ve been downgraded, again?!” she cracks the rock beneath with a fist.

Scanning again, I confirm that she’s right. She’s lost her Gravity suit, and now wears a much simpler version, only labeled as “Power Suit.”

Samus continues her labored breathing. “Not feeling great.”

I begin transferring energy to her, but, it’s not working. Her reserves are starting to decrease, despite my efforts. And that’s not the only issue. Her suit can barely shield her from the immense heat.

“Can you stand?” I ask. She does so, barely. By putting an arm over my shoulders, I help her hobble out of the chamber and hopefully into a much cooler environment.

After moving into an area that’s only 300 degrees Celsius, not ideal, but much better than the melting point of rock, I set Samus down to get a better look. Her armor smokes and steams.

And yet, no matter how many bursts of energy I feed her suit, the situation isn’t getting much better. I mean, there’s some positive results, but her reserves keep draining and fizzle into vapor the moment I stop siphoning from my main tank.

“Not great, huh.” Samus states.

“Not exactly, but you’re still alive, so that counts for something.”

“Jacob. You won’t like this, but I’m in no condition to keep going.”

I squeeze my eyes together so tight that my jaw starts hurting. “Samus, I’m not leaving you. My job’s to keep you alive.”

She laughs sardonically. “And how much longer can you do that for? An hour? Maybe less? We’re not stupid, Jacob. I’m f*cked. But, you still have a chance. Get to the surface, find Adam, and get off this f*cking rock and out of this f*cked-up life.”

“Samus,” I grind my teeth. “Not going to happen.”

“Jacob, stop.”

My heart freezes despite the infernal temperatures. I recognize this. This whole scenario. I’ve seen it before.

I try and protest, but Samus keeps talking, “Keep going-”

Not going to happen-”

“Keep going!” Samus kicks me hard in the shin, almost making me collapse.

I have seen this whole thing, at the hotel. I didn’t know what it was, but now I’m absolutely sure. It’s this moment, the moment I dreaded. Was this supposed to happen?

I try to say something, anything, but words are caught in my throat. Am I supposed to say something now? It’s stupid! As if I need to say some lines during a performance but can’t speak the damn things I’m so confused and angry and scared.

Samus slumps further against the wall. Her vitals begin destabilizing as internal temperatures continue rising at an alarming rate.

“…Samus?” I ask. No response.

I have to get her into a cooler area. Even though unable to speak, I can at least act.

Now carrying her on my back, I continue wandering around the chamber, looking for a way out, and find one, to my relief. It’s a small incline and very steep, but my grappling hook’s enough to carry the both of us to higher, and hopefully cooler elevations.

I constantly ping Adam for a response, any response, but all I get is static. We’re still too deep underground to get an accurate signal, or Adam and the ship’s incapacitated somehow. There’s too many unknowns, and I’m running out of options fast.

A feeling I definitely don’t want right now begins settling into my toes, my legs, and then my gut, creating a fluttering and fuzzy adrenaline that slithers throughout every artery and vein that I have. Jacob-stop, stop. I have to stop.

All I can do is wait for the panic attack to pass. I thought it was a seizure the first time. No. All it ended up being was dizziness brought on by hyperventilation. After slowing my breathing down using the box method, and injecting myself with a mild sedative for good measure, I’m focused again.

We might be on the move, but after checking my map, we’ll have to travel for weeks to get anywhere near the surface now. We’ve already ventured in so utterly deep into the planet’s core that any escape is all but-

I furiously shake my head in defiance. “No!” I shout. “Not a good attitude to have!” I remind myself.

As if mocking my resolve, the caverns begin shaking again. This time, however, a combination of lava and rock begin collapsing every single escape route that I wanted to try. All that energy and grit I had before dissipates like Samus’s remaining energy reserves. My knees give into exhaustion. There’s no way out, nothing.

Chapter 46: Sylux

Location: Redah, Kriken-controlled territory

Stardate: 2425

Despite the news, everyone stands firm, listening intently. The words remain stuck in my throat, even though they’ve already been said.

“The Federation and I made a deal, one that came with a price,” I nod, feeling heavy with shame. I can’t tell them the whole truth, I can’t tell anyone. My sister’s life depends on that.

And those cursed words! The same, damn, words keep cycling inside my mind,

“Her entire bloodstream is infected. Comply, and we leave those nano-machines inert. I know it’s a dick move, but I need leverage. Weneedyou.”

Twenty two neca-cycles ago, this voice spoke through an encrypted radio channel, origin unknown. At the very least, I can guess where the artificial virus came from, a Federation suit I’ve been forcefully married to until death.

I have no idea how to scan for let alone prevent this threat, as my suit either betrays my scans or simply doesn’t know. All I know is that Naykara experienced high fever, nausea, even a mild seizure at my benefactor’s verbal command. Only when I agreed to his simple, but damning terms did the symptoms stop.

No one else heard or knew what really happened. And if I ask any of my kin for help, the pain and suffering will happen again.

“And to pay it, I must leave. Again,” I raise my chin proud and high. Are you watching me, benefactor?

Eztzy, Marma, Nalox, and Naykara stand at the front of the crowd with faces already stained with tears. Despite not knowing the details, they know it’s a dark deal I’ve made. They know that my suit caused Naykara’s sudden illness. They want me to stay, I want to stay, but we all know that I can’t. Many others could already be infected.

“Still, I will do all I can to come back. I will find a way to rid myself of this suit, this fate. So please, my family, continue your daily activities. Naykara, learn well from everyone you meet. There’s always a lesson from each new encounter.”

Naykara wipes her eyes and snotty nose hard with a loose sleeve. “Okay,” she barely whispers. Even now, I still adore her. She’s so shy, so full of wonder. There’s so many things I wish to teach.

And with that, the crowd parts way just enough for passage all the way to my ship, still sitting on the landing pad. I loathe seeing it again.

But still, I walk. All my family, both close and distant, a total of 500 people see me off by offering knowing nods, words of encouragement, a nice hand-gesture, all of it sourced from boundless love.

Even though the door seals off behind my command seat, isolating me from my kin once more, I’ll risk everything I can to come back. Once this mission’s complete, I’m leaving for home, and won’t wait for permission of any kind. Surely, even my corrupted benefactor understands the situation he agreed to. I still have leverage, I’m still a threat.

Ironically, even though my suit is of Federation design, if I expire, so does the technology. For whatever reason, my benefactor’s adamant that it stay in-tact, therefore keeping me alive no matter what. They can threaten me, but are still out of reach….

I will find a way. I always have.

At my benefactor’s previous instructions, I enter coordinates for the Krike system, home of the Empire’s Queens, the heart of their neural network. Further instructions will follow once I arrive.

Before warp activates, I take one last look at home through transparent sections of my ship hull above. They fade to opaque once more as hyperspace opens, erasing all my happiness with a wipe of dull, white light.

Chapter 47: Commander Riser

Location: Negative Hyperspace

Stardate: 2425

“Commander, the last blockade has been fortified,” an exelune notifies me through my ear-piece. I nod in approval.

“Excellent,” I say neutrally. “Shackle, reduce security to middle-level risk.”

“Commander, we have a problem.”

Already? “Tell me.”

“The first experiment she….she chewed her own tongue off, causing a fatal loss in vital body fluids. No amount of bio-gel infusion’s working. She’s dead.”

My mandibles hang in exasperation. I knew there would be margins of error, but something this large?

“Prepare a second clone, then. Reduce grey brain matter concentration by 56%” I order.

“Right away, Commander. What should we do with the cadaver?”

“Flash-freeze it and move to cryo-storage unit 5. We’ll preserve it for future studies.”

This puts my plan on delay for the next 2 cycles. Oh well, we have an overwhelming “upper hand,” as some human commanders of the past have said.

---

As soon as I awake from my sleeping pod after a complete 2nd cycle, I tap my earpiece, “Shackle, I will personally arrive in Laboratory 5 in a few moments. Prepare the clone for my inspection.”

Shackle pushes it into direct view as soon as the hatch opens. I enter the room after dipping my head a little to avoid contacting the upper frame.

I look down on the clone dressed in a plain white gown. She stares up with a wide-eyed stillness. The clone starts talking, but most words, according to my universal translator brain implant, are not actual language. This one has some of the lowest intelligence I’ve ever seen! It’s so pathetic it’s interesting!

“Do you speak?” I ask the clone in “English” using a voice synthesizer I placed around my neck before arriving.

The clone pauses and squints away from my gaze. “I…speak?” it asks.

I hum in contemplation. “Good enough, Jenise.”

I encourage her to walk with 2 poroxone researchers towards the radiation room on the opposite side of our base. An obvious ploy, but instinct tells me that he will show up.

A total of 10 Terrestlia, genetic strains capable of shooting powerful electric discharges from their arms, remain on standby at various checkpoints. I may have to move a few of them depending where in the trap he falls.

After mere micro-cycles, my neck can’t help but extend upwards at the screen. It’s him, it’s truly him! He’s just about to jump out of the upper air duct!

Dressed only in a pair of grey sweat pants, Benedict, with a wildly flowing tuft of sandy blonde hair, descends onto my poroxone guards and pins them to the floor with strange, vibrating disks. He then bites into each of their throats…severing both carotid arteries in each guard. They bleed profusely and screech in horrid pain while holding their gushing wounds. A small, cold sensation trickles in my back ganglions.

The 2 poroxone die silently at the same time. Benedict caresses the “Jenise” clone with 2 tender palms.

“I’m sorry, I’m so sorry, I’m sorry,” is all he can repeat for several micro-cycles on end. Without warning, Benedict flips out a golden device-

The sudden pop noise from the screen makes my neck jolt, and causes one of the nearby poroxone within our Command room to bang against the bulkhead. Benedict turns his unusually wide eyes (for a human) at a camera. Sifting through feeds…there. I multiply the hallway feed to show on every screen.

“Commander, the Terrestlia are ready to attack,” Shackle notifies.

“Not yet, Shackle. Let’s see what he does next. Patience.”

As the clone has its life drain away in a growing puddle of bright red ooze, Benedict barks something in that same, strange tongue he used in his previous message. Upon previous research, I narrowed the language down to a specific island on the human home world of Earth. I know now that Benedict considers himself a “New Zealander,” or “Kiwi” as another identifying term.

I’ve sent a request to our shadow benefactor for all available information on that specific speck of land. According to the master time-keeper on screen it shows…1 more standard cycle until delivery.

“Have Terrestlia 1 and 3 move to the 5th barricade. That will keep Benedict closed in,” I say. A poroxone to my side repeats my words into a small microphone.

Benedict jabs his fingernails into the center of his chest forming a crude circle pattern. He then twists and slices open his own flesh, producing more of that disgusting red ooze.

Using it as paint, he marks himself with swirls around his eyelids and mouth creating a red-black contrast to the “tattoos” all over his chest and arms, licks his fingers clean and sticks out his tongue as far as it can stretch, much further this time, than the last time, as if modified to stick out longer, or more mass was added, yes, that’s how now pay attention, and he gives me the same wide-eyed taunt that’s unique to his specific culture, whatever “Maori” is.

After a brief, squealing shriek, all electronics shut down. All light is gone. Everyone’s emitting anxiety pheromones, whispering to each other, and it’s getting on my nerves. I can’t get into contact with any Terrestlia units.

“Silence!” I slam a claw down, creating a metallic bang on my command console, stopping the incessant chatter. “Tend to the back-up generators! Activate bioluminescent units! Work you inferiors!”

The room immediately shuffles into every unit attending a station, or walking to another area of the base in groups of 6. Under my orders, they are to each have a Terrestlia accompany them.

Under the bright, natural green light of a docile worm creature, I continue searching through the main computer board for any defects. After confirming that all hardware looks as it should, I place the large metallic purple plate back, closing it off. Once back-up generators successfully transfers energy to the Command room, my poroxone will run a full diagnostic of all systems, and catch exactly what Benedict just did to us.

“Commander, Team 4 has found an artificial tunnel,” one poroxone notifies from a portable communications screen.

I walk over, grab the screen from him and stare at the feed. Team 4 shines their bioluminescent creatures, 6-legged shelled organisms sprouting conical heads, shining light in whatever direction they look. The inner surface of the tunnel reflects light, creating an ominous aura of devastating green color. The surface is as smooth as glass, or polished precious stone.

“Scan it,” I tell the screen.

An exelune with scanning glasses gives the tunnel a quick sweep of bright blue light. “Formed through vetrification, intense heat. No DNA or organic molecules present.”

“Now do a wide scan,” I order.

After several more moments of intense blue and green, the exelune stays still, contemplating, unnecessarily.

“Exelune? Your results?” I ask.

It snaps back to attention. “Commander, sending you complete map data now.”

I wait. Once the file’s complete, I upload it to our base mapping software.

Knowing that many of my subordinates will be curious about it, I decide to satisfy that collective urge by having the map shown to the whole room in the form of a holographic projection sprouting from the screen.

It takes a bit longer than I expect, but the map completes. At first my mind can’t process the image I’m looking at. The scale is too comically large. Trickles of red 3-dimensional light spreads out, and further, and further…

“Are those all tunnels, Commander?” Shackle asks in astonishment as he approaches the map.

I tap the map on screen and enhance various tunnels in better detail. Some are natural, but continue onwards artificially. They’re everywhere. Across the entire planet.

Why? Why would Benedict do all this? What possible reason would he have to conceal all this, to put in this much gargantuan effort-no, the question I should be asking is, how?

…The 3D printer. He must have used it to make even more of them. And with his Federation military knowledge, he had the necessary means to create technology of some kind that allowed him to bore through the whole planet like a human child’s “playground.”

We’ve known about the layout of this world for several annual cycles now. How did no one on this base notice this happening?! How did I miss this?!

Restoring calm through some deep, steady breaths, I finally answer. “They are.”

Before I can add anything else, the internal room speakers begin crackling.

“Get a good look, f*ckers. I can go anywhere on this planet if I wanted to. It’s time for a feast, Riser.”

The speakers go dead quiet. My subordinates emit grotesque levels of anxiety pheromones within the gloomy, green glowing silence.

I slam my console for a second time, causing several poroxone, exelune, even Shackle to jolt back to attention. “He’s an experiment! Less than inferior! He’s hopelessly out-numbered, out-matched, and you all falter at his mere words? Get back to work!”

As the crowd disperses to resume their assigned activities, I take in a huge huff of air. Another faint chill flows like unwanted liquid throughout my thorax. Most of the stress pheromones I’m smelling are my own.

Chapter 48: Samus

Location: Unreadable

Stardate: 1,000,000,000,000,000,000

Am I dead? I pinch the back of my hand. Ow. Maybe not.

I open my eyes to a familiar sight: a small park I used to play at with my parents on K-2L. It’s the summer cycle: warm, bright blue sky, with a slight humid breeze. I stand up from a slumped position. There’s that same spring-ride with a cartoon horse head I launched off of and gave myself a bloody nose, the neo-steel cage that I could never fully ascend, the white neo-resin slide with several cracks due to high UV light levels wearing the materials away.

I look at myself. Still wearing the same-old jump suit. If this is the afterlife, I’d like to speak to someone about changing my attire….

“So, you are Samus Aran,” A voice says from atop the slide. I approach a bit and squint. I frown and fight back tears welling up from my eyelids but fail.

“…Mom?” I ask.

“Don’t forget me!” Rodney Aran, my dead father, says as he reveals himself from around the slide ladder.

What the actual f*ck. If this is just an illusion, or dream, it’s just too cruel. They’re exactly like they were the day K-2L got invaded. Dad’s still wearing his engineering jumpsuit, just like he did moments before detonating all that Afloraltite so the Space Pirates couldn’t steal it.

“She reacts as expected. How strong human parent-child bonds can be,” Virginia Aran states, sounding amused.

All experience and memory come screaming back into my head. I take in a deep breath.

“This isn’t real,” I state. “You’re both still dead.”

“Oh, no, we’re both very much real, Samus,” Psuedo-Rodney says. “I’ve got all the memories, all the physical stuff, everything Rodney Aran right here,” he lightly slaps his stomach with both hands.

“But she won’t associate the form with reality, especially after hearing Virginia Aran saying things that she wouldn’t have said,” another voice says. I don’t recognize it-it’s the Metroid baby from SR388, hovering at waist level nearby the cage.

“Granted, she’s a smart one, got the ol’ Aran genes after all!” Psuedo-Rodney proudly proclaims. “Plus, I can understand what this form is feeling it’s…powerful. Human emotions are so powerful!” he shouts out with tears streaming down his face.

I can’t help but cry even more. “What the f*ck are you?” I can barely say.

“What haven’t we been?” A hostile grumbling asks from behind me-I spin around and instinctively react by aiming my cannon arm at Ridley’s sitting form. Realizing I don’t have my arm cannon let alone my power suit, I reluctantly lower my limb back down.

“Or should it be ‘I’? Life-forms change identifiers all the time. What would you prefer, Samus Aran?” the disgusting Space Pirate Ridley asks me.

“I’d prefer if you remained dead,” I say and spit at him.

Psuedo-Ridley squints. “This form feels a similar amount of disgust.”

“We’re not here to harm you,” the Metroid baby gently pushes my hip, creening, encouraging me to pet it like it used to. I can’t help but stroke my hand across its smooth, gelatinous surface. “We’re here to study you.”

I take my hand off. “Why?”

“Because you’re what I consider to be ‘competition.’” Psuedo-mom announces from atop the slide, now standing up.

“That…just creates more questions. Are you an alien organism that’s taken over my brain, or something?” I ask.

“I wouldn’t dream of doing that,” Psuedo-Rodney says and approaches. I immediately back up in revulsion. He stares confused at me. “What? Rodney just wants to give his daughter a hug. It’s been decades!”

“You’re not my dad,” I retort.

“I am, just not the version you were hoping for,” Psuedo-Rodney sighs and smiles in defeat. A part of me wants to jump into his arms, let it all out, telling both mom and dad that I’ll never let them out of my sight again and I’ve missed them so much-

I shake my head violently, dismissing the fantasy. Whatever’s going on, it’s not good.

“Again, what. Are. You,” I look up defiantly at all the ghosts of my past.

“Explaining it will take some time,” Psuedo-mom starts. “What I am isn’t limited to one form or place among the threads.”

Threads. I’ve heard that term before. Right. Old bird used that word a lot when talking about space-time dilation during some of my childhood lessons.

“Can you give me something short and simple? Something a single human can understand?” I ask the crowd.

Each form’s eyes dart relentlessly within their sockets save the Metroid baby, which moves its mandibles slightly instead.

“In every biome, many niches exist. Scavengers, grazers, producers, and so on, and so on,” Psuedo-Rodney says.

“Biomes exist everywhere. Even among what you call ‘civilization’,” the baby Metroid continues.

“This entire ‘universe’ could also be considered a biome, with every organism within it playing different roles across their limited life-spans,” Psuedo-mom adds.

“This consciousness communicating with you right now, all of what I contain, could be considered a predator among it all. In fact, I’d consider myself on top of the food chain. An Apex Predator, if you will,” Psuedo-Ridley concludes.

“So…you prey on lifeforms like me?” I ask.

“Not…exactly,” Psuedo-mom says and jumps straight off the slide and lands silently, elating my adrenaline levels a bit. Knowing how mom was back then, she’d be seriously hurt after doing a jump like that.

“Even now…you show so much concern even when rejecting these forms…redundant. Continuing on, I am what you’d consider the most dominant lifeform ever to be conceived.”

I huff and smile. “Yeah? I’ve come across a lot of people and creatures thinking just that, and look how they ended up.”

“Yes, your role within the ‘galaxy’ has also been that of a predator, perhaps the most dominant one within the local biome,” Psuedo-mom nods, as if pleased with herself.

Pieces begin clicking together. I huff again, louder this time. “So…when you say I’m ‘competition,’ that means I’m somehow trespassing on your territory? Your role? A challenger to the ‘Apex Predator’ title?” I mock with 2 sets of fingers.

“That is both correct and incorrect,” Pseudo-mom answers. “You are what the interlopers made you to be. An artificial solution to their artificial problem.”

I let it sink in, trying to find answers within memory and experience. Just what am I talking to at the moment?

“It’s a bit of stretch, I admit,” Rodney shrugs. “We’re saying a whole bunch of things that don’t make sense right now. But, they will,” he nods.

“Regardless,” Psuedo-mom continues, “The difference between you and I is that I evolved naturally. You, however, were forced into the threads, a mistake that never should’ve existed,”

I don’t let the insult show in my body-language. Still, even though fake, hearing that from mom really stings.

“Well, here I am,” I splay my arms out, mocking her.

“Here you are,” Psuedo-mom nods.

“We won’t have sufficient means to communicate with you for much longer.” baby Metroid chimes in. “The fact that we, or I can communicate with you at all is a bit perplexing. This must mean you’re evolving. Unnaturally, but, evolving,” it explains while floating around me.

My vision and world begins to blur. Everything feels hot.

I think hard on it for a few moments, and decide to take the risk. “f*ck it. I know you’re all not real, but, can I make a selfish request of you before I…leave here? Or wake up?”

“Of course, Sammy,” Rodney smiles sweetly.

I turn to Ridley,” You, stay the f*ck away from this,” I turn back and hold my arms open wide. “Just…one hug?” I ask with tears breaking free. Mom, dad, even the baby Metroid rush in to embrace me.

“I know it’s hard baby girl…just know that we’re both proud of you, despite, you know, not being real and all,” dad mumbles.

“Ruining a beautiful moment, not-real-dad,” I laugh despite sobbing.

Even as the park fades away from existence, and my body becoming numb, I hold desperately onto a sensation I never thought I’d experience ever again. I even miss the baby Metroid’s comforting vibrations against my stomach. I keep squeezing and crying, squeezing and crying, squeezing and crying until darkness completely settles in.

Chapter 49: Jacob

Location: Undesignated Rogue Planet

Stardate: Unreadable

My energy tanks are almost dry. I’ve managed to back us up into a narrow crack in the wall, with Samus firmly wedged behind me, blocking her off with my body. Her fever’s not getting better, either. She’s still alive, but for how long?

At least all this molten heat opened up more avenues of escape. All it took was a bit of waiting for the environment to shift, a dash of courage, and some safe pathways began opening up through all the melting rock. We could use more of that, anytime now….

I unleash another storm of energy pellets at our continuing threat. Clear alien goop sprays everywhere. Anything that tries getting in here gets chewed into slimy pulp.

I thought this f*cking thing was dead. It’s coming from everywhere, and I still have no idea why! Or how!

Are we that appetizing to this…thing? It acts as an over-sized slime mold colony capable of spawning different forms from its ooze. The creatures have been getting larger, faster, meaner, and bearing sharper teeth.

No, wait. The walls are…growing? I zoom in with my visor.

Each crawling creature’s only 3mm and several are already in the air-

f*ck!” I shriek as a clear mass instantly appears in front of my face and I blast it. It just tried using a microscopic swarm on me, based on previous visuals. All those tiny floating creatures coalesced at the last second for a sneak attack. Is it learning? Is it adapting to us?

More biomass accumulates on my radar. Here we go again…only got 15% left…think…think…come on you must have something!

Samus’s foot tugs at my ankles, which have kept a vice-grip on them this entire time, and I can only spare a glance-sh*t!

After another micro EMP pulse from my suit, my reserves plummet to 4%, but at least halting every creeping critter in the area. Another sneak attack, no, there were several. Little plumes of gel plummet to the hot ground in tiny splats. For whatever reason, a traveling EMP wall kills, or at least delays them. Not for long, though.

Great, right on cue. More of those tiny creature carpets are coming….

Samus’s foot tugs hard this time putting me off balance-I catch the wall with my hand, providing resistance against whatever’s-

Behind us is this strange, snail-like maw filled with dozens of gnashing teeth, like a giant, squishy blender with blades on every conceivable inner surface. It’s pulling Samus in by the neck with a pair of sticky-looking tendrils, almost like spider silk but more elastic.

I shoot the restraints, releasing Samus, but the thing disappears into the wall before I can deliver a coup de grace. I give the wall 2 energy stream volleys regardless, turning rock into dust, and then dust into vitrified materials glowing with dull, orange embers.

Checking the front, the goop trails cover the stone floor in a tangled net. The blazing 1032 Degrees Celcius doesn’t seem to affect it much, but struggles to re-grow its network from the EMP, evidenced by sparks of static all over the cave and alien threat.

I scan the path ahead again, there’s a suspicious atrium, a giant, perfect sphere of ancient magma and/or gasses. It’s empty, mostly. Aside from those suspicious holes in the ground, walls, and ceiling. Similar to that giant rodent nest we encountered several day cycles ago.

Still, they’ll be much easier to deal with than whatever the hell’s been hunting us for hours on end. My legs are so stiff that sitting down at any time will defeat me. Should I conserve energy for attack…or maybe…actually, I’ll convert 2% to armor density…and apply a bit more power to my legs and shoulders, there.

I find it easier to carry Samus piggy back, as I can fasten her feet together around my waist using bio-glue usually reserved for emergency surgeries. It’s highly heat-resistant, too. It’ll only come undone over 5000 degrees Celcius, or a command from my HUD. I keep her arms crossed across my chest like my old elementary school backpack.

Her head rests on my left shoulder, bobbing up and down due to walking on uneven terrain. I scan the ground constantly, avoiding empty lava tubes, and any thin surfaces which could collapse from weighing anything more than 2 bounty hunters.

Now we’re at the one point I dread, a bubbling, splashing lake of lava, and a strange path of rock that switches back upwards against a massive cliff face. At least my visor says it’s much cooler at the top, a balmy 84 degrees Celsius, but better than what we have down here.

After applying a bit more bio-glue so that Samus doesn’t drop off at any point, I grapple up a few dozen feet to one platform, then another, and another, now we’re up top! Huh, that wasn’t so bad. To make things even better, Samus’s power suit has stopped leaking energy. We’re both still in desperate need of a recharge, but, she’s stable for now.

The Atrium’s past a thick oblong tunnel that reminds me of a large intestine. The only difficult part’s dragging Samus through a tight tunnel about 22 feet in length. It’s easier to grapple her by the back while pulling her out from the other side. After she’s safely extracted, I lean down to take a quick rest.

Samus’s whole body jerks, scaring the sh*t out of me with a mix of swear-words and gibberish. Is she waking up?

I rush over to her. “Samus? You awake?” Nothing.

I try asking again several times through my helmet speakers. I tap her visor hard a few times. Still, nothing.

After a scan, I confirm she’s still in REM sleep. Meaning she’s dreaming at a time like this!

She’s still running a dangerous fever of 52C, and if I had any extra reserves, I’d inject her suit with a bit of coolant. However, it’s better if I use whatever I have left to fend off more creepy crawlies that might come after us instead. Samus’s power suit keeps her nicely isolated, at least.

We finally enter the atrium after 5 scans; I can’t be too careful. After confirming we’re the only life-forms in here aside from small patches of extremophile bacteria, I set Samus down in the middle of the chamber.

In the silence, I gaze upwards. We’re too deep underground to send any kind of signal that Adam could pick up, and attempting that will take way more energy than we have at the moment. I wonder how he’s doing. Hope he got the ship off planet, and is bringing reinforcements this very minute. Not likely, but, I hope I’m wrong.

The holes snake deep into the rock for kilometers on end, and my visor can’t get a full range of how far they truly go. They’re much too tight for morphball, unfortunately. And bombing our way out of here won’t happen unless we have more energy.

There are other paths I could break into, but not without excessive effort. Again, it all comes down to the remaining energy we’ve got, which won’t be enough to simply blast through every obstacle. At least there’s no panic attacks incoming. Having all that prior training is starting to help.

As expected, the chamber’s much cooler than previous areas: a summery 25! Well, summer if it were deep underground next to some lava lakes; there are pockets of nice weather, but more so the infernal lethal ones. Not enough to melt Samus’s power suit, though.

“You f*cking kidding me?” I stand up with an unwelcoming chill running down my cervical spine, my back, and legs. That same biological goop’s rushing through all those tiny tunnels, and converging on the chamber. I have mere moments to decide my next move.

I shouldn’t have brought us here. I was so focused on getting Samus to a cooler environment that I let slip the fact that I put us in a very bad spot for getting surrounded. Blasting through walls it is!

“f*ck!” I curse loudly at the goop already filtering through the holes, and coating itself all over the inside of the chamber. I don’t even know where to fire, or if shooting it will do us any good.

After another quick scan, I aim at the thinnest wall I can find and give it a few bursts. It crumbles and reveals a path! I hoist Samus onto my back and-

Watch as the goop seals the exit off completely. You can’t be serious.

“You can’t be f*cking serious! What the f*ck do you want from us?!” I yell.

As if on cue, the creature answers by shooting out a thick tendril into my gut, knocking the wind out of me despite the suit’s protection, and separating Samus, who rolls on the floor, flashes a few times, and her suit disappears.

“No…” I can only groan in pain.

Another snail-maw appears from one of the holes, its tendrils latch onto Samus. I can’t move very well now that the goop’s enveloped me-something hits my arm-

Federation armor? Bone? Wait. It’s one of the Odysseus team members. Or was. I’m picking up all their DNA traces.

It got to the search teams first. They were defeated, and eaten alive.

Even though being bitten by several insectoid goop creatures, Samus’s jumpsuit keeps any teeth from puncturing skin. Can I get over to her-sh*t. I’m surrounded by goop minions-and shoot them before running again.

Once I see an opening through a fresh crowd of enemies, I dive to the left and shoot a protective cover at Samus’s exposed head using one of my medical tools. The nano-skin successfully wraps her face, hair, and thus her entire body off from the hostile, unbreathable atmosphere. And the gnawing goop creatures. Her vitals aren’t critical, and I have to keep acting. The creatures slither and skitter nearby, but don’t attack me, yet.

…I’m hearing the bombs again. I’m pounding on the doors. I’m screaming their names. Let me out, let me out. Let me out let me out let me out let me out let me out-my vision’s tunneling do something-let me out let me out let me out let me out-

Samus slides further and further away, closer and closer to some alien organism’s mouth. I shoot a quick burst at the mouth tendrils, severing them, but are quickly stitched together in an instant. That’s not fair. Her head enters the maw, tight translucent fibers stretching over everything else, becoming a gelatinous sac, being dragged inside.

I fire the last of my energy. Multiple creatures jump in the way to protect the main mouth. This is not how it’s happening.

Something sharp jabs my left thigh. I go down. Please. No. Once is already enough. I hear that sickening click of the pod doors in my memory. She’s not some random cadaver. Some disembodied voice on the other side of the thing Gaben shoved me into. Not a mere patient getting rolled away one final time underneath bloody sheets.

Fight!” I roar, not sure if at myself or Samus. Even though being weighed down and poked and prodded by sharp fangs and needles and cilia I start swinging with my guns hitting them again and again and again screaming and howling and screaming-

Samus gets completely swallowed, sliding away in mere microseconds along a clear tube-

Temperature on my HUD spikes so fast and a clear slicing sound frees Samus in a glimmering bubble of clear ooze as my skin burns-

After a full minute of screaming my head off, muffled by the immense roar of flame and heat and pure white light, my suit finally compensates for the extreme temperature shift, administers sedatives through all available injection ports, and begins healing the burnt, crispy skin underneath. My breath is saturated with hot sweat, but my suit’s filtering that out as well.

Two very tall creatures dressed head to toe in shimmering metallic skin or armor of some kind glare down at me with 2 huge sets of orange glowing eyes. I freeze.

Something moves past them. It’s Samus! Scanning. She’s breathing again. Her heartrate’s normal. She’s speaking!

A breath I didn’t know I’d been holding in this whole time finally shoots out of my mouth forever. We’re f*cked, yes, but at least I know I did everything I could. Don’t want Samus to go, but I can’t see anything else I can do. Suit energy, gone. Power source, barely stable. I could force a critical state, and take everyone out in one colossal anti-matter explosion, but something tells me these creatures are incredibly skilled, considering no traces of them existed on my scans until very recently, and won’t let me jeopardize their safety.

One of the creatures crouches down. “Are you okay, Jacob?” It asks me in perfect English.

I stare at it. Now getting an up-and-close look, it’s a bird head. That’s…incredibly familiar….

“A…ah….,” I try speaking, but the words get caught in my throat. The creature’s head tilts erratically and blinks its eyes, like a bird would when curious.

“I’m…good. What, you, a-what are you?” I correct myself.

A foreign voice calls out in alarm. The other tall figure next to me lets out a deafening shriek, as if a hundred raven voices all mashed together, calling off all at once.

In response, the ground shakes in alarming rhythm as gigantic stone bird statues begin stomping into the atrium, slashing, crushing, and incineratingany growing and crawling translucent thing that stands in their way with hot white breath. The fight’s over in mere seconds, 5 to be exact. The statues have crawled all over the floor and roof, covering every conceivable surface within the area. They then shove their massive stone beaks deep inside a hole each and-

I instinctively crumple up into a ball and scream again as more deafening heat and fire and pure white becomes my entire world. My throat feels extreme pain, forcing me to stop. I’ve been screaming that loud, but couldn’t hear it?

A soothing shimmering blue pulse grows outwards into infinity. The standing tall figure bellows another command, but softer, like an irritated parrot instead of a murderous raven.

All stone figures retreat in their same rapid and alarming tempo until the ground becomes solid and unmoving again. I wait.

“Samus!” I shout, remembering why I’m here.

The crouching bird creature looks her way. “She’s very tired, but undamaged. We have you to thank for that,” the creature nods solemnly with its massive eyes closed. “To answer your question, we are Chozo.”

“Sorry, what?” I ask, distracted by Samus being gently lifted off the ground with a snug-looking grey gurney by 2 glimmering golden bird-god creatures.

“Wait, what?!” I shriek at the creature’s answer. “But, you’re extinct!”

The creatures all chortle, no, that’s laughter. “Then we must be ghosts playing around with the living!”

They chortle louder this time. Bird face turns back to me. “We’ve trimmed the great guardian creature down to infancy. It won’t grow again for several of your ‘days,’ but we’ll be within safe grounds soon enough.”

The creature then smiles. Can birds smile?

“I’m Maopahn, Chief designate of colony security. And with me are my war-pack from left to right: Lightly Treading, Shield Maw, and Spiral Talon.” Each pat their chest once with a massive, balled limb of talons in succession to their names being spoken.

Another figure enters the atrium dressed in a dark robe and hood of fraying fibers. This bird creature is much more slumped, still big, but more withered than the other figures of pure muscle and shiny murder. Despite how kind they’ve acted to Samus and I so far, I’m surrounded by a den of apex predators. My next move is under their whim, this much is clear.

The older bird clears his throat like any human would. “And you may call me: Old Bird.”

Chapter 50: Jacob Pederson

Location: Unknown

Stardate: Unknown

Spiral Talon and Lightly Treading, Samus’s carriers, move like silent liquid silk despite being hulking titans of prey. Shield Maw walks to our right flank with “Old Bird” in the middle. Maopahn leads us all.

Unlike their stone counter-parts, or “Sentries” as Maopahn calls them, none of the Chozo in our group causes any disturbances in the ground as we walk. Their technology must be beyond me. No wonder my suit couldn’t see them coming.

“Are you well, Jacob?” the older Chozo, “Old Bird” asks me.

“I’m…okay,” I respond. Just to be sure, though, I give myself a quick scan.

Aside from being barely within the necessary threshold of energy to keep the Phazon power-core from metastasizing, my vitals are all but stable. Through all of that. I survived. Somehow.

“Your Phazon sample will remain inert whilst staying with us. However, we’ll provide you and Samus with whatever you both need,” he explains.

I give him a look, “Sorry? How did you…?”

“We scanned you, of course.”

Scans…there’s something else I forgot-“Adam!” I blurt out.

“You mean the artificial intelligence aboard your ship? Both of them are fine, as far as we know,” Old Bird says.

I try opening a com link to him. It’s…successful!

“Adam! You won’t believe-”

_I have been informed of the situation. The Chozo still live. An unexpected turn of events_

“So, you’re good, then?” I ask.

_All systems functional. I will keep the ship in orbit until further notice. Until next time, you and Samus are in good hands. Over and out_

I try opening another channel, but am getting blocked by more static. I…guess we’re okay? If Adam says so…still. What an underwhelming reaction.

Maopahn keeps at the Vanguard, occasionally stopping his courteous slow pace to scan the tunnels ahead with his orange and massive eyes. Wait, no, those are part of his helmet. Guess the whole “war-pack” wears suits like Samus’s and mine.

“You have a lot of questions,” Old man bird states.

“Well, yeah!” I look at him. “Didn’t your race go through an extinction event? The fact I’m talking to you right now suggests otherwise.”

“It’s a very long story. One you wouldn’t care to hear,” he shrugs, as if I’m the easiest book to read. It’s irritating.

“Okay, then, what’s the main reason you’re all still alive?”

The old Chozo furrows his face and bristles his feathers, “I would say…patience. Yes, that fits it best. Many threats overtime reduced our numbers, but we persevered in hiding.”

“Oh. So lots of you did die out. Sorry,” I say.

Old man bird sighs sweetly, returning his facial features to a smoother sheen. “Apologies aren’t necessary, and it’s very kind of you to care for others you barely know.”

“Well, it’s my job, I guess,” I say. “She’ll be alright, won’t she?” I ask.

“Samus? She’s in no grave danger, if that’s what you’re wondering. Recovery is all but likely.”

“Can I help?”

The old Chozo reaches out and tenderly holds my hand with 2 sets of shrunken, but still razor sharp talons. “You’ve already done more than you can ever know.”

Chapter 51: Samus

Location: Unreadable

Stardate: Undefinable

I thought I was still dreaming. After Jacob tenderly cut the protective face-mask off, I convinced myself nothing I saw afterwards was real. After Jacob confirming multiple times what I saw in front of me, I held a long, teary gaze on one of the most calming familiar faces I’ve ever grew up with.

After having Jacob explain the entire situation to me twice at my request, confirming that we’re in fact, in the real awake world, I approach our rescuers. I latch onto Old Bird so hard he oofs in surprise at the force.

He comforts me with warm embrace filled with fuzzy features as shriek after horribly long shriek ejects from my throat over the impossible relief I’m feeling. I’m home. I’m home. This is home.

I forgot Jacob’s nearby, but, I don’t care. My tears and guts spill out of my eyeballs. I need this. I need this.

After a full few minutes of all that, we then sit around a glowing red crystal glowing with heat. I’m told Adam’s fine, Jacob’s fine, that we’re all fine now. Jacob confirms that with a conversational recording with my A.I. partner. Jacob and Maopahn talk about something, but I’m a bit too far away to hear. Light fluctuations in the crystal trace long spindly shadows along the domed rock roof.

“Were you all here this whole time?” I ask, now leaning against Old Bird’s left wing.

“Yes and no. This whole planet can exist outside time and space. A pocket dimension, if you will,” my parent explains.

“That whole ‘Negative Hyperspace’ concept you told me about?”

“Precisely. We’re still within the ‘present,’ but opposite the current thread.”

Spiral Talon exits Old bird’s hut, saying something about tending to his brood. Something mechanical outside hovers by. Shield Maw and Lightly Treading also leave soon after without a word.

“You could’ve sent us a message, or something,” I suggest.

Old Bird hums and laughs at the same time. “It was necessary to keep secrecy until recent events.”

My recent dream comes to mind. “By the way…something spoke to me while I was out. It called me ‘competition.’ I know it wasn’t a dream. It just…wasn’t.”

My parent turns his head. “It communicated with you? A bit earlier than we expected…,” he trails off.

I look back at him. “And what is it?”

“A cosmic devourer, an undeniable force of nature, a mirror to the sum of all you’ve become thus far. It’s as it says, it’s the current Apex Predator of this galaxy, if not the whole universe.”

“It also said I was an ‘artificial solution to an artificial problem.’ Care to elaborate?”

He encourages me to stand up with a gentle lift of his wing. “We will need to talk in private.”

My parent leads the way up a few sloped paths carved into the crisp-cut stone floor, all perfectly 3D printed. I can’t find any chips, scuffs, no faults whatsoever. A few Thoha tribe members dressed in glimmering black robes gives us solemn bows as we pass by, Old Bird and I return them. How many years has it been since I’ve wandered in a Chozo settlement?

We both enter another domed hut carved out of bedrock, like everything else in the city. Gut tells me that Old Bird doesn’t have any good news.

---

It was only a few minutes at most, but I’m already running away, power suit equipped, but lacking all the power it had before. I don’t have speed booster, but sprint as fast as I can. Running. With no destination in mind. Past all the city’s Chozo inhabitants, both large and small. A few look my way, but most ignore me as I do whatever I can to escape into a private area of my own.

…The attack on K-2L wasn’t an accident.Old Bird’s bitter words are stuck in my brain like an unwanted cut.

I dash across a large stone bridge that exits the city and back into the tunnel system Jacob and I were brought from. A few Chozo guards look at me but say nothing. If they know who I am or care that I’m dashing right past them, neither of them show it.

It-it-it-it had to be done, because the threads wouldn’t show any better alternatives…my parent’s words continue a merciless replay as I begin opening fire with a sh*tty power beam only half as powerful as what I used to have. Chunks and clouds of debris shower down from the massive cave roof. Blood pours down my lips from the force of an uncontrollable bite.

The attack was planned.

Stop. I’ve heard enough. You have to be lying. You have to be.

The reason your colony was attacked, how the Space Pirates…I know it won’t sound right-how they knew about the Afloraltite supplies in the first place, why you are who you are right here and now, is because of m-me.

“Why...,” I say, repeating my word from a few minutes ago. My energy reserves continue depleting at a rapid rate as I demolish the cave out of pure emotional spite.

Old Bird didn’t offer any more words, only tears. He couldn’t talk anymore and broke down sobbing, leaving me empty. So I ran away. Just because. I don’t know anything anymore.

I scream until my cannon’s too overheated to continue, but keep firing the trigger anyways. I put the pieces together. Old Bird, no, the entire Chozo race made sure I’d ended up the way I am today by making a majority of my life a living hell. They killed my parents. They killed them.

An unknown amount of time passes. I don’t remember much other than constantly screaming, damaging my throat from the effort, not caring anymore, squeezing every droplet of moisture out of my eyes, nose, mouth, cutting deeply into the flesh of my lips until teeth started to crack, and demanding, why, why, why, WHY, WHY-

Now I’m kneeling down, hunched over, deflated, defeated, hollowed out, betrayed, cheated, wronged, depleted, unable to continue. Dad, Mom, every K-2L resident…goddamn it!

I want to speak, say something. Protest, fight on. Somehow. But I’m nothing. Empty. Without cause. I might as well be dead. I wish I were dead. I’ve had enough.

Jacob’s the first to seek me out. He asks if I’m okay. I can’t answer him. He scans me, determining that I’m physically okay, I think.

He asks if I want him to leave me alone. I shake my head, not knowing the actual answer. Jacob interprets this by sitting down nearby me, not knowing what to say or do. I look around briefly, we’re the only ones here. No one on the Chozo side came looking for me, to see if their precious weapon’s alright. Maybe they’re scared I’ll see them as enemies now. I’m not sure….

Another unknown length of time passes in silence, and Jacob occasionally adjusts his sitting position to make himself more comfortable while I’m deadlocked in my slump. Feeling irritated at the back and leg cramps, I shoot onto my feet.

“Are you going back?” Jacob asks, standing up too.

I say the only thing I can in the moment, “We have a mission to complete. We’re not done.”

He follows me back to the city side-by-side matching my walking speed, ready to help whenever I say the word. He’s naïve and annoyingly inexperienced at times, but also a good kid. He’ll become a better person than me. I know it.

I stop. “On second thought,” I try and speak more words, but the air fades away into nothing. I can barely speak, from all the screaming, no doubt. Still, I keep trying, “I need time. Alone time. I…,” I force the words out as best I can, “Need alone time,” I manage and start walking the way I came. Jacob briefly follows me and looks like he’s going to say something, but stops himself before returning to the Chozo city.

Chapter 52: Jacob Pederson

Location: Unknown

Stardate: Undefinable

Maopahn escorts me through a “recreation district” bristling with Chozo of all sizes participating in sport arenas carved into solid stone, furiously flapping their shoulder wings in attempt to out-maneuver the other while airborne. Once a white stone’s thrown into the “target,” a green-colored brick, which breaks, a point’s awarded the scoring team via a screen in what I assume to be Chozo numbers or hieroglyphs. The brick debris is collected with some kind of off-scene suction device that picks up any excess particles inside each room. A new green brick slides out of the wall pushed by a mechanism I can’t see.

Further along, through a winding tunnel, exists a garden of dense, lush, loud tropical gardens of dark green and flowering plants of bright yellow and pink. Stopping at an entrance, thoughts plagued with alien organisms attacking me, I turn to Maopahn.

“It’s quite safe. Do you want me to go first?” he asks.

“Please,” I say.

A majority of the noises stem from dozens of younger Chozo fledglings, all dressed in plain white robes and scampering around the gardens, jumping and gliding all over squiggly cages that resemble the smoothness of bone, no bird-child able to stay in a singular place for more than mere moments.

Several larger adult Chozo, adorning red robes, form a loose circle around their broods, mechanically moving their beaks, carefully watching their young.

A few little ones begin pecking and shrieking at each other. One loud retching squawk freezes the fledglings in terror. An adult speaks a few words I can’t hear properly, and the children march diligently to an isolated corner of the garden, where a muffled conversation between the 3 begin.

“Even though at peace for many decades, we still face internal conflicts once in a while, and not just with our young. Such is the way with many sentient life-forms we’ve observed over millennia. Chaos is much a part as order in nearly every facet of existence,” he explains.

The 2 fighting fledglings return to their tiny peers and resume frantically playing, disappearing into the buzzing of feathers and calming trilling chirps. “I mean, that was just a little kid’s quarrel. Happens all the time,” I comment.

Maopahn starts laughing with a chirp or 2. “Apologies, our culture’s humor is a little, say, ironic,” he wipes a droplet of moisture from one of his eyes.

I don’t get it. Although, I also don’t care, but say nothing in hopes that we’ll change the subject.

I’m only here on this pseudo-tour because Maopahn insisted that he’d guide me while we left a sobbing Old Bird alone in his hut. I didn’t see any reason in refusing.

The Chozo travel in pairs or larger groups, but never alone. Some covered in black or red robes, part of the “Thoha” tribe, or equipped with shiny and metallic armor and marching diligently together in tight formations, members of the “Mawkin” tribe.

Each street we pass are lined with homes perfectly carved out of rock. Despite each wall being dangerously thin, there’s no sign that any structure is buckling anytime soon. Even when several tones of bird and metal walk right over them.

Even among the 2 distinct tribes Maopahn’s told me about so far, their feathers take on different shades of brown, some grey (mostly belonging to older-looking ones), and pitch black coal. They even have albinism in a few judging by the pale white feathers and pink eyes.

Their wardrobe consists of long robes of various colors and hieroglyphic patterns that stretch all the way down to the floor, covering any traces of their feet. Even some from the Mawkin tribe choose robes over armor, judging by some of the war packs that cross our path. A few fledglings run around in playful zig-zags dressed only in white cloth underwear, exposing stumpy feathers both fluffy and lined with a waxy sheen.

Any and every time a Chozo walks, they’re accompanied by repetitive pat pat pats of their footsteps, rhythms varying with size and weight. It’s eerily similar to all those robotic, merciless statues that “trimmed” an organism via extreme heat that grows in just about every corner of the planet. Listening to their steps closely, it’s as if effort’s being applied to muffle any excess noise. Maybe it’s a cultural thing, who knows.

Through opened nano-filters on my N-suit, breathes warm and slightly humid air all over my bare skin. Exotic smells appetizing, spicy, and a rich dense aroma I can only describe as standing inside a flower shop, feeds into my helmet. It’s too bad there’s a higher concentration of CO2 in their local atmosphere, enough to suffocate me in a matter of minutes, or I’d be taking long naps in a few gardens of theirs, savoring every breath I could.

“You mean a different concentration of CO2. Assuming your biological preferences as the standard will blind you to multiple possibilities,” Maopahn concludes.

I stop walking for a moment. “Um, what?”

“Oh, right. You’re unaware of our telepathy. Well, there you have it, we read minds,” Maopahn stops and turns to smile at me.

“You could have told me earlier!” I protest. Is this funny to him?

“Apologies. I mean no disrespect,” Maopahn gives me a curt nod. “The only place we have left to go is our command cartouche. A ‘town hall’ or even ‘senate’. Are you interested?”

“Do I…have a choice?”

“Are you concerned for Samus’s well-being? You could go to her…but she may not appreciate the act.”

No, she wouldn’t. I know better than to get between her and her alone time. She made that clear during training.

“We’re keeping surveillance on Samus Aran at all times. We will respond if anything happens,” Maopahn gives another curt nod.

“In that case, to the command cartouche,” I say.

We continue walking until reaching a dead end within a long, dark tunnel. With a sudden, muffled metallic thump of a red spear weapon Maopahn materializes out of thin air, a bright silver metal disk forms at our feet. The wall in front of us disintegrates into grids upon grids of darting white lights all dashing around a collosal gold pyramid far off in the distance.

The scenery instantly rushes forward making me lose my balance-Maopahn snatches my shoulder with a firm grasp. “Do what you can to remain still. All cartouche transports feature inertial dampening, so you won’t be forced off-balance.”

“So why do I have to stay put?”

“You’ll be much more comfortable with the ride if you do.”

After a few seconds, I adjust to the extreme speeds. I feel nothing from it, like I’m stuck inside a virtual reality game with limitless map movement.

We abruptly change directions in just about every way when approaching the “cartouche,” as Maopahn keeps calling it. Traffic here’s directed by a force I can’t see nor hear. If Maopahn’s connected to this network somehow, he doesn’t show any signs of it or doesn’t want to tell me. At least it’s working. No one’s crashed yet, I think.

Avoiding hundreds upon hundreds of passenger-filled silver disks with like ours, our general direction takes us for a loop around the pyramid in an upwards arc. We enter an open slot alongside the pyramid wall.

Once the wall closes behind us and the disk vanishes after another solid clang from Maopahn’s spear, he begins a brisk stride, or at least brisk for me as I have to jog to keep up-and nearly collide into another Chozo going perpendicular to me within the yellow glowing halls.

“Keep close, Jacob. It’s a bit crowded in here,” Maopahn motions for me to join his stride. I increase my jogging speed.

The hallway bursts into a colossal cage, no, shimmering black columns, stacks of them, all stacked on each other, ascending all the way forming a skeletal pyramid inside the golden pyramid shell that surrounds it all. It’s as if ancient Greek culture piled all the temple architecture they’ve ever made during their history, painted it a shiny onyx, and combined them into a singular stepped-super-structure before stuffing it inside a pyramid that past Pharaohs could only dream of.

Unlike outside, the inner sanctum is eerily silent, with only minor bouts of noise coming from deep inside the columns. Maopahn and I stride across massive black marble slabs arranged in shallow inclines that step upwards into the main skeletal structure.

We pass several groupings of both robed and armored Chozo. The Warpacks stride in their tight configurations along restrictive paths, while the robed figures either wander aimlessly in conversation or sit down in various gardens lining the corners which sprout leafy green bushes from their black stone basins. Many Chozo sleep soundly on silvery benches that hover noiselessly a few feet off the ground.

“Would you like to explore this area a bit more? Or proceed to the command chambers?” Maopahn stops to ask.

Not knowing what I’d do or say if I mulled around here any longer, I pick the command chamber and keep walking. Maopahn respects my decision by proceeding in silence.

Several orbs attached to the upper walls and ceiling all glance at us while flashing pale blue light, some kind of scanning node. Once we get swept over, they all close their mechanical eyelids.

Still, I jog onwards, absorbing all the experiences I can. Sure, Samus might need a stim or something later, but, not until she’s cleared her head.

The inner-most chamber’s a tight square filled of what I assume to be Chozo dignitaries, all donned in exquisite onyx and gold robes scribbled with bird art and more hieroglyphs. Some even sport ridiculously tall hats that stretch up to half their body length. They all hush themselves while Maopahn and I approach.

He bangs his spear loudly upon the ground 3 times. “Speakers, I present to you all Jacob Pederson, partner of Samus Aran,”

I step forward, with all eyes and beaks pointed at me. Am I…am I supposed to do or say something?

“Hi there,” I wave. Several Chozo “Speakers” blink rapidly while twitching their heads, just like normal curious birds would do.

“Welcome, Jacob Pederson. We were just talking about you and Samus-speaking of which-has she returned from the outskirts yet?” A voice asks from the crowd.

Before I can open my mouth, Maopahn answers “No, Speaker. Her mind is still plagued with sadness.”

This unsettles the atmosphere. Some protest brazenly with harsh, guttural squawks. Others converse fretfully with one another, like some huge scandal just broke out and everyone’s talking about it.

“We’ve feared this-”

“Should’ve done more!-”

“Alternatives need consideration-”

“There’s nothing more to do-”

“Have patience! Have patience!”

And several other comments get thrown around in a massive auditory alien slurry. My translation software’s got a firm grip on Chozo language thanks to the gunship’s data banks, but, it’s incredibly difficult to grasp what the main topic is here.

…Samus is just in a bad mood at the moment. Why’s that such a big deal to them?

A few other Chozo warriors approach the inner square pound their spears several times and the chamber quiets down as a result. One of the speakers approaches the middle and stretches an open-palmed talon at me.

“Step forward, partner of Samus Aran. We wish to examine you further,” a feminine, smooth coconut milk mixed with sugar-syrup voice requests. It also has a subtle, but deep sweetness that can entice anyone it pleases.

Whether the tone was intentional, or that’s just how this Chozo speaks normally, I walk into the square’s center. Was this whole thing voluntary in the first place, I wonder?

After several long, awkward seconds, I stretch out my hand for the speaker to take it into…hers? I can’t tell Chozo genders apart.

“Yes, I am female. My name is Ahria,” she bows her head. I return it. Maybe all Chozo can read minds.

Then she clasps my hand tenderly in hers with eyes closed. Several other Chozo speakers close their eyes, too. The chamber becomes absolutely still.

Ahria smiles and emits a purring noise. Some Chozo laugh hysterically, others cheer with screeching chirps, and several more resume arguing.

“It seems as though we were looking in the wrong place,” Ahria says. “You’ve become a wonderful influence to her.”

“I…okay?” I ask, not sure what to say or do.

Someone from the crowd clears his throat, “He needs debriefing. Jacob won’t understand his role in Samus’s life unless we explain it to him. Preferably, simply as possible.”

I clear my throat too, “I might not be smart in comparison to your average Chozo, but I can still make sense of complex concepts.”

Ahria gives my hand a few reassuring pats “No one here questions your human intelligence, which is above average among your kind,” she explains and lets my hand go. I let the comment slide.

She continues, “Jacob, this may be hard to grasp, but, we Chozo had a large part in making sure the threads tangled you and Samus together.”

I flush up. “Meaning?” my voice squeaks.

A few dozen more break out into laughter. Ahria laughs too. “Not in the way you think, we mean your ‘destinies’ have become intertwined.”

“Like…fate, or something? Isn’t that a superstitious concept, though?”

The chamber becomes silent again, but more somber this time as several Speakers voice disapproving tones. Ahria shakes her head softly, like a disappointed teacher hearing a wrong answer from her student.

“What you call ‘fate’ has a different meaning to us. To us, it’s very real. We Chozo are capable of seeing through time, even manipulating it in various ways. We can see far into ‘future’ events as well.”

“So…you all saw what would happen to Samus and I in the future and…made sure we met?”

Ahria hums in approval. “And thus, ensuring your ‘fates’ became intertwined.”

“…Why?”

She hums approvingly again. “And that, is what we’ll need to explain carefully to you.”

Chapter 53: Commander Riser

Location: Negative Hyperspace

Stardate: 2425

It’s been several standard cycles since Benedict’s recent display. He jumped right into my trap only to mock me and escape. Pathetic display for a pathetic creature.

To pass the time, I read about Benedict’s “Maori” culture. His weakness is in here, I know it. Instincts demand I find it soon.

If I were to give Benedict any respect, it would be for his unique genetic line. His DNA matches those alive within Maori tribes today, so I know for certain that he was born and raised among them.

Also, despite a violent history of “colonizers” trying to subdue them with superior weapons and tactics, the Maori were never fully “colonized.” After several hundred years of attempts, the “British” had no choice but to make confusing amends with the Maori, a stalemate of sorts. The 2 cultures now both live peacefully together, sharing values and resources. How odd humans can be!

The Maori always fought, constantly, never giving in to their conquerors, despite crushing losses. As unnatural a concept that is to me, I can’t help but feel an elated respect for Benedict’s ancestors, for him even.

It starts as a mere giggle of amusem*nt, a chuckle, loud mandible buzzes, until I can’t contain myself any longer. My whole body shakes with laughter.

It all makes perfect sense now! With other bits of human knowledge aiding me, specifically on their bonds and “love,” complementing what I know now on the Maori tribe, I recognize exactly what Benedict’s doing.

Even if he’s able to escape from here at any time, allowing him to bring reinforcements to finish us all off, he chooses to stay instead! This whole bout of “revenge” is personal to him. He won’t leave until his delusional fantasy is satisfied!

My grin returns after the laughter has subsided. I had thought an entire Federation armada would’ve been here by now. But Benedict made the biggest mistake in his miserable little life and has chosen to remain hidden somewhere on this planet.

Looking to another monitor on my left, I confirm that every tunnel Benedict ever made is being closed off from one another. Benedict may have 3D printing technology on his side, but so do we. By making our own tunneling machines, we’re effectively eliminating any secret hiding spot one by one, and the Terrestila’s electrical blasts beautifully supplement the process.

All ships are heavily monitored, and set to explode should any unauthorized species try to access them. My garrison has successfully shut off any means of escape Benedict once had. He’s now trapped with us.

This whole time he’s been using “psychological warfare”, a term used for breaking human will to fight and survive. A pathetic method, but, still has demonstrated success across many species within the galaxy, but, always employed by the weak.

Still, I must finish my reading. I, too, have had many challenges, many threats to my life, and I’ve survived all the way to a Commander’s rank. I couldn’t accomplish that by treading any path lightly.

After re-reading all the information, I finally shut the monitor off and prepare a nice, relaxing sand-bath. My sore neck needs it.

Once the pleasurable pheromones wear off after a bit of sand churning, I contemplate in sober silence. Benedict has averted my expectations time and time again. I was acting hasty, and it’s already cost several of our lives. Central Command won’t like that if I don’t produce results and produce them soon.

Instead, I’ll play on his terms. I’ll even entertain the idea that we’ll be “equal” players in this game of death. And I know exactly what my next move shall be.

Chapter 54: Old Bird

Location: Unknown

Stardate: Undefinable

Greetings, reader.

Our time here is limited, for I am no master of the threads. In fact, the opposite is the case. However, I won’t ask you to understand.

I am the master of the attack on K-2L. I sent planetary data to Ridley’s ship, allowing them to discover the afloratite, and won’t say otherwise. My guilt is real, but, so is my decision. It must not change.

There were no other alternatives. Perplexed, our entire race searched for a reason why. None other were found. Without Samus becoming an orphaned child, becoming a warrior without equal, our galaxy, countless ways of existence, would all be devoured.

A “natural” phenomenon, it calls itself. An “Apex” Predator. Perish the thought! Does it not conceive itself as an invasive species? It takes too much, and will never stop without intervention. This we know.

And still, my soul bleeds when I see her pain. Should I have ever considered myself a parent? Should I have distanced myself, instead? Would you know an answer to that, reader?

…Forgive me. It’s not my place to ask.

Even though I’ve traversed these same streets for decades, entering and exiting the command cartouche hundreds upon hundreds of times, I feel weak at the knees. My daughter will be there, and that’s the moment I’ll pierce beyond the fog.

Again, forgive me. No one cares about the prattle of an old, withered bird. Only what he does next.

Chapter 55: Jacob Pederson

Location: Unknown

Stardate: Undefinable

Now I know I was never led here by choice, but by design. Even though everything’s been explained to me, it’s difficult to conceptualize.

The Chozo “steered” the moments that led to Samus and I meeting. By “perceiving” it differently on a massive, telepathic scale, they can change the entire flow of time into something else. As long as the threads don’t “fray,” their term for the splitting into an infinite amount of possibilities, the Chozo can more-or-less determine what’s going to happen in the future and even change it! Real life seers, except more than that.

I also know why Samus is so pissed. I’d be on her side if the Chozo manufactured the circ*mstances of my colony in the same way. However, by letting me “perceive” their views of the threads via strange and fuzzy telepathic link, I confirmed they had nothing to do with the Space Pirate attack on Trinity. It was fated to happen, regardless of any 4th dimensional tampering.

Now sitting on the stone floor away from the tight square at my request, I can finally have some much-needed alone time. Whether it’s the huge amounts of information I’ve just absorbed, the 28 hours since I’ve had my last rest, no, it’s both. I’m tired as hell. I’d nap here if the room wasn’t so damn loud. Even though a wise, powerful species, possibly the most advanced this galaxy has ever known, their leaders bicker just as much as any other highly opinionated politician.

Maopahn treads softly towards me, looming over like the massive, shimmering red Egyptian god statue he is. “Do you need anything?”

“Yeah. A soft, warm bed and some quiet.”

“It won’t be long now. It would be in your best interest as well to see this meeting take place.”

“Got any adrenal stims, then? Or even a cup of coffee?”

Maopahn holds a single talon to his red armored beak and scratches it gently. “I can contact a Thoha pharmacist to manufacture something. But it may take time.”

“Nothing on hand that will work with my physiology?”

“At the moment, no,” Maopahn confirms.

“Forget it, then. How much longer till Samus and Old Bird get here?”

The Mawkin warrior turns back to the speakers. “As you have already seen, Samus will arrive first, and then ‘Old Bird,’ as he prefers to be called.”

“What’s his real name? Or is it a secret or something?”

“Hallowed Whisper. An honorary Thoha title.”

“And that’s…important right? Is he your main leader?”

“He has significant influence on Chozo politics. Elders usually do.”

“That…tells me nothing. Do you know what I’m asking?”

“…Yes, now I believe I do. He served as a ‘main’ leader in some capacity for several hundred of your years, but was imposed limits as to what laws and customs he was allowed to manufacture.”

“…So he was your boss for quite some time, and now he’s not?”

At least I’m feeling more awake now. Even though just one alien bird person, I’m feeling a growing interest in him.

“His role has changed to a more advisory station, but a majority of speakers still heed his thoughts carefully. It’s not all that uncommon for Hallowed Whisper to offer the final say in many matters.”

A group of 4 Mawkin warriors, a standard warpack, swiftly wanders close by, allowing me to compare their sizes with Maopahn. He’s nearly twice as tall and thick than every other Chozo I’ve seen so far. Perhaps it’s his friendly demeanor, or my own lack of perceptiveness, but the fact that he’s a hulking combination of armor, muscle, and feather doesn’t feel all that threatening anymore.

Oh, wait. That’s right. He can read all my thoughts. Well, you’re okay, Maopahn. Despite being the behemoth you are. He gives me a wink. Although, have to admit that those blinking armor eyes are creepy as hell.

After a few more minutes of rapid-fire Chozoian conversations, a language eerily similar to some languages spoken on various middle-eastern Earth continents and colonies in the Shumai star cluster, Samus, in full armor, walks into the chamber the same way Maopahn and I entered. Everything finally goes quiet.

Only her ominous footsteps fill the void. Everyone looks at her.

Her helmet and armor disappears, leaving just the blue jumpsuit. If I didn’t know Samus on a personal level already, I wouldn’t have noticed those heavy sweat stains around her armpits and groin. If she’s aware of the fact, she doesn’t seem to care.

“My guess is that no one here knows what I’m about to say,” Samus announces in perfect Chozo. “Even you, Old Bird. Or should I address you as ‘Hallowed Whisper’?”

From the opposite side of the chamber, Old bird shuffles in with the tapping of a black cane. He clears his throat.

“We will not press our laws and rules upon you anymore than we have to. You may address me with any name you choose. As was always the case,” Old Bird responds in his language with a much louder voice I believed him capable of using.

“About that,” Samus gives Old Bird an accusatory frown. “What Chozo law specifies letting a 3 year old girl bear the entire weight of a culture upon her shoulders?”

The speakers mumble nervously. Maopahn tightens his spear grip.

“None,” Old Bird stops just before the tight square of his Chozo peers. Half now look at him, and the other at Samus. “It was an unthinkable act,” Old Bird shakes his head in disgust. His beak stiffens. “But I knew that it was necessary for the galaxy to survive. To give it a fighting chance. Through you,” he nods, softening his tone.

“Go ahead, ask me. You didn’t get the chance to when I ran off a few hours ago,” Samus states.

Old Bird’s face wrinkles into a mass of flesh and feather. Wetness squeezes out of his eyes, and a bit from his nostrils. “Am I a monster, to you? Do you h-hate me? Our entire race?”

Samus glares with cold, blue eyes at her foster parent. I wish I knew what to do, what to say, but, anything I do right now might shake up a millennia of careful planning by the Chozo. I don’t agree with all their methods, but, after that long, telepathic conversation, I can’t help but see as the Chozo being in the right, despite the horrible life they forced Samus through. Yet, what happens after all that is her choice and her choice alone. What if she decides to kill Old Bird? Everyone here in this chamber? Even me? Wait-no. Just, just wait for what happens.

Samus breaks her gaze and stares away from everyone else at a wall somewhere, and I can see it in her face, her puffy eyes, her tight lips, her incessant head nods, the question on her tongue waiting to get out, to ask why, why it had to be her, why she had to lose so much and gain so little, why she’s the center of it all and not someone else.

She finally faces the square again. “A good friend of mine once said that monsters don’t shed tears over committing unnecessary harm. I’m not a stupid, naïve kid anymore, Old Bird. I know what you had to do was necessary. It’s f*cked up, but, I would’ve done the same in your place.

“And to save an entire galaxy of free beings at the cost of making one innocent girl’s life a living hell?” Samus rotates towards the speakers. “Only the most insane would abandon such a sweet deal.”

Parent and child stare at each other, tears flooding between them, connected by a bond of unfathomable depth. I never knew Samus was capable of feeling this amount of passion. This amount of sorrow, grief, and pain. I always thought her a straight-up rough-neck military type that overpowered anything she didn’t like. I’ve read about her softer side in some of her journals, but to experience it in person? I’m awed, afraid, inspired, and feel so deeply sorry for her all at the same time.

“When I was 4,” Samus starts in English, “and couldn’t sleep, you skipped 3 days of leadership duties to comfort me, even when several Mawkin enforcers threatened you with arrest if you didn’t get back on the job,” Samus explains before taking in a huge snort of mucus. Old Bird stays still and quiet, still full of tears, still full of regret.

“When I was 14 and broke my arm during a spear-training accident, who hopped into the practice arena and took a training blade to his left shoulder, despite being out of combat for decades? Even though I wasn’t in any real danger, you acted without hesitation.”

More tears leak from Old Bird’s eyes and nose. Some of the moisture drips onto the floor, which is gross as hell, but, no one else here seems to mind.

“Do you,” Samus laughs a bit while holding back sobs. “Do you remember that one night where we sat down together underneath a clear starry sky, and you listened to me and my stupid nightmares a few weeks before I left Zebes for the Galactic Police Force?”

“You were very worried about how you’d adapt to using a different toilet, and if you’d get made fun of for wearing your hair in different ways. I remember it all,” Old Bird responds in English and nods stoically.

Samus brightens at his response with a smile, so much so that she’s taken aback and has to recollect herself while fighting a grin. “I’ll never forget how warm your feathers were that night, how comfortable I was knowing that someone cared that much for me,” She smiles with tears on maximum overflow. “If all you were was a product of your own decision, you wouldn’t have gone that far for me, at any time in my life.”

She inhales sharply, sucking in a horrible amount of mucus. “But to think that I hate you? No!,” her voice pierces the air with a squeak.

Samus sprint-walks forward-Maopahn moves forward-Samus embraces Old Bird in a tight vice with her arms and holds him there. Several speakers mumble and whisper in concern. Mawkin warpacks approach the square with caution. Maopahn stays deadly still.

I relax, though. Maybe it’s because I’m human like her and understand what just happened, but, it’s alright now. The galaxy will survive. Samus is the hero we all hoped her to be. She’s forgiven him.

Just like meeting her parent for the first time in decades, Samus unleashes another unholy fit of wailing and sobbing. The Old Chozo keeps one hand firmly clasped on his daughter’s head, pressing her face into his shoulders, and buries his beak into her hair with eyes sealed off by fresh, flowing tears.

I have to suck in my own snot, too. When did I start crying as well?

Maopahn lets go what has to be the biggest Chozo breath I’ve ever heard. “Our decision was the right one. I am eternally glad for this.”

Despite a deeply beautiful moment going on, I risk the question anyways, “So, what happens now?”

The Mawkin’s form hardens again. “Unfortunately, this is where the thread frays. Absolutely anything can happen now.”

Chapter 56: Jacob Pederson

Location: Unknown

Stardate: Undefinable

Metroid: Apex - Chapter 6 - BonelessRed (2024)

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