The Prime Empire - Parts 19&20

Winterborn nodded, “So, it’s some kind of shapeshifter or changeling?”

Captain Gul'bres mimicked her nod, “Yes. They are called the Ven; they are a species which lives in the furthest reaches of the Empire. They were discovered by the Quin’tel over a century ago, but were not brought under our dominion. Not that we didn’t try,” he paused, “They act now as a mercenary force which will work for anyone who has the resources. Now, we need to test you and your officers before we speak further.” he nodded to the Quin’tel who had escorted them from the shuttle. Winterborn nodded to the security officers who had been nervously looking towards her for direction. They relaxed, if only a little.

“Please bare your arm, Prime,” said the Quin’tel to her side. She noticed the security officers being given the same treatment. The lizard-like being held her arm in a firm but gentle grip. She found herself surprised by the strength present in the small digits of this alien's hand. The Quin’tel reached with his fifth arm for a small tubular device sitting on a waiting metal tray. He pressed the mouth of the tube against her skin and warned her that a small but sharp pain would be forthcoming. As he warned, a feeling not unlike a bee sting burned her arm where the tube met skin. She made a point not to show any of the discomfort that she so readily felt.

She heard a yelp of pain from one of her officers, and looked over and turned a grin at the stricken warrant officer. “Now, now. That wasn’t so bad was it, Warrant Officer Sam?”

She smiled ruefully, “No, Sir. I was just surprised, Sir.”

A moment later, the Quin’tel seemed to visibly relax. Captain Gul'bres bowed again, pressing his forehead against the lichen-covered floor of the ship. “This one thanks you for your cooperation. You are cleared. Neither you nor the officers who accompanied you are Ven. I apologize for the inconvenience.”

Winterborn crouched before the Captain and placed her hand on his shoulder, “I understand. You were doing your duty, and you were doing me a favor,” she pointed at one of the tubes, “Do you mind if I borrow a few of these? I’d like to get testing my crew as soon as possible.”

The Quin’tel shook his head in imitation of the Human gesture, “I am not permitted to allow this technology to leave Quin’tel claws. I apologize.”

Winterborn opened her mouth in surprise, “Not even if your Prime demands it?”

He shook his head again, “Captain, I must respectfully remind you that you are not yet coronated. When you are endowed with all the significant powers of your position, of course we would not hesitate to comply,” he somehow managed to bow lower, “We give you this deference in recognition of what you will be, not what you are now.”

Winterborn helped the Quin’tel to his feet, “Fine then, would you accept coming aboard with a few of your people to test our crew for us? We would be most gratified to finally have this situation put to rest.”

The Captain inclined his head, “Yes, Prime. That would be acceptable. We can arrange for no more than a hundred to assist you in this fashion, and no less than fifty. Such is protocol.”

Winterborn was surprised at the high figure, “Why that many? I was expecting a medical team, maybe two.”

The Quin’tel chittered in wordless displays of surprise before the Captain quelled them. He spoke solemnly, “In cases where a Ven has been found, you want as much force available to help take them down. Truly, it is a shock that the Prefect and his aides weren’t killed. They will be honored for this display of martial prowess.”

“When can you have your people sent over?”

He cocked his head to the side, “We will send them over along with you. We cannot allow the Ven to prepare.”

“Make the arrangements, I want this sorted out as soon as possible.”

A full compliment of one-hundred Quin’tel filed in through the airlock, boarding the Athena. She had not notified her officers that such a force was arriving on the advisement of the Gul'bres; she wanted to maintain the element of surprise for as long as possible. In order to accommodate this, she ordered a general staff meeting. The Quin’tel took up positions around the ship, watching all shuttles, access tunnels, and service stations. A team of twenty accompanied Winterborn to the Officer’s mess, where she had ordered her crew to gather. She watched each of her officers for any sign of treachery, though they all seemed to react with surprise and alarm in equal measure. All of them, save for the doctor, who seemed to show very little reaction at all. Winterborn made a note of that; she’d be the first to be evaluated.

“Hello all,” she addressed the nervous group, “it is my duty to inform you that we have been infiltrated by a creature called a Ven—they are a species apparently capable of mimicry. We must find this creature to prevent further harm that may come to this ship and her people. We will start by checking everyone in this room.”

The doctor stepped forward, coming to a sharp salute, “Sir, I would like to inspect the devices the Quin’tel are using to ‘test’ us—I need to be sure that they aren’t trying to cause us any harm under the guise of friendly overtures.”

“Denied, Commander,” snapped Winterborn. “I have seen the technology the Vol’en’brus has at their disposal. If they wanted to cause us harm, we’d be debris by now. I have already been tested by the same method. Now, let’s start with you then, Doctor. Once cleared of suspicion, you will be allowed to assist with the testing.” She nodded to the Quin’tel at her left and right, who walked carefully towards the doctor. Several Quin’tel held weapons which looked shockingly close to the firearms of the Terrans, though she supposed that the design was natural enough that most species with projectile weapons and Human-hand-like appendages would very likely have similar designs.

Winterborn wasn’t exactly sure of what had happened next; one moment the doctor was standing still, and the next she had become a blur. She bolted towards the officers faster than the Captain would have imagined possible. The Quin’tel had fired, but they had been far too slow on the draw. The doctor now held Rosa Fallborn firmly in a headlock, keeping the lieutenant squarely in front of herself. She was a human shield.

Part 20

Winterborn stepped forward, her hands splayed to the sides in a warding gesture. "Don't do anything you might regret. If you kill her, you won't be leaving this ship alive."

The thing which wore Commander Springborn's face smiled, rotating its hostage to be directly in the path of the Quin'tel weapons. "I know that, Captain, I just need a bit of leverage. I know how fond you are of Rosa here." The Ven licked Fallborn's cheek while staring Winterborn dead in the eyes.

"I swear to God," whispered Winterborn, "If you harm one hair on her head, I'll kill you myself."

The Quin'tel Captain stood at Winterborn's side, he spoke to her softly, "We can wound the Ven if you allow us to fire through the hostage. The information the creature could reveal to us under interrogation could be invaluable. I request permission to fire, Prime."

Winterborn sagged under the weight of the situation, "No. Don't fire unless I give the direct order. We can't risk getting Rosa killed."

The Ven smiled broadly, showing a disturbing, perverse pleasure in the situation. "Now," it said, "move away from the door and prepare a shuttle for me. If I see signs of sabotage or bad faith, I will kill your lover."

Winterborn waved to the Quin'tel pointing weapons at the Ven, "Clear the path, nobody fire without my direct command."

The Quin'tel obeyed reluctantly, stepping away from the door and lowering their weapons. The Quin'tel Captain whispered as they cleared the door, "Forgive my impertinence, Prime, but you are making a grave mistake. Don't let personal feelings interfere with practical decisions."

"I know what I'm doing, Captain," whispered Winterborn through clenched teeth. She tapped into her comm system, "Prepare shuttle three for departure. Clear a route to the ship. I don't want any personnel anywhere near that route."

"Affirmative, Captain. Clearing a path now," reported Ava.

Winterborn watched as Rosa was dragged into the corridor. For the first time, she understood exactly what it was to want to personally kill another living creature.

As the Ven dragged Fallborn into the hall, Winterborn tapped into the ships cameras to watch their progress.

She waited a moment, watching the Ven's progress through the ship. She ordered security forces to rush to establish multiple firing angles in the shuttle bay. With the way the bay was built, there were several firing angles which could be utilized—if they setup in the correct locations, at least one officer should have a safe angle to fire no matter where Rosa was being held. Winterborn sent a message to Rosa, reading: 'Do not resist when you enter the shuttle bay. We will have sharpshooters prepared, we don't want any sudden movement.'

Rosa read the message and sagged in relief. This prompted a sharp jerk from the alien that was dragging her. Rosa winced in pain, feeling the joints in her neck popping. The knowledge that a plan was in place was more of a comfort to her than she could have imagined. Truth be told, though, she hadn't really planned to struggle—she had tried plenty hard as soon as the Doctor—the Ven—had grabbed her, and she knew just how strong it was. She wasn't sure if the special forces soldiers from Terra would have been able to break their way free from the creature. No, she'd already given up on resisting.

Even with the plan in place, fear thrummed through her heart like a drumbeat. She couldn't help but imagine a thousand scenarios where the plan went awry—the sharpshooter missed and shot her instead, the Ven evaded the shots and stole away with her in the shuttle, the Ven was shot, but managed to snap her neck in the process...she shuddered at the myriad of ways this could go wrong.

Needing to distract herself more than anything, she resorted to trying to learn something, anything, from her captor. "Why are you doing this? What did we ever do to you or your people?"

The doctor's face smiled and spoke like it was addressing a toddler, "Silly girl, I don't have anything against you, personally. Your people are little different than any other species. I do this for the profit of my world. This is just business."

Rosa winced as they rounded another corner, the Ven leading with her body, taking in every detail of the hall before moving forward. "Can you tell me who hired you? Or is that against some kind of code of honor or something?"

A laugh as clear as a bell sounded from the Ven, "No. We can't disclose a client's identity to a third party. I appreciate the attempt, girl."

They rounded the final bend leading to shuttle bay three, the Ven picking up speed as it walked, effectively carrying Rosa's mostly-limp body along. She palmed the door open, ducking behind Rosa and pushing her slowly into the open room. Rosa was hoping for a shot to take the Ven out as soon as they cleared the threshold, but was quickly disappointed. As far as she could tell, none of the security forces had made their way into the shuttle bay at all—that was until she saw a slight shimmer in the air on top of one of the air vents. She had to keep herself from smiling—the security forces had made it into position after all.

The Ven picked up pace, pushing Fallborn forward at nearly a run. Just as they were about to reach the shuttle, she heard a voice in her neural implant, "I love you, Rosa. Good luck."

The sound of a firing rifle split the air. Time seemed to move in slow motion—the Ven's head turned towards the source of the sound, the creature seeming to move at standard speed against the backdrop of the world in slow motion. Rosa felt absolute horror as the creature gripped her chin, wrenching to the side with vicious strength. The sound of her neck snapping sounded like a crack of lightning on a quiet night.

The last thing Rosa heard before losing consciousness was the wet sound of a bullet splitting the skull of the Ven. She managed to smile, knowing that the thing that killed her wouldn't live to gloat over her body.

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