CHAPTER 20: THE RANSOM DEMAND ARRIVES

There are two main features of the guest house on Misko; a huge dining room that can seat up to 24 and an equally large sitting room. Empress Nalau was doing a fantastic job of making sure the head of each group involved was kept in the communications loop. She had borrowed Whotov, Ferocity’s butler, to help with the tangible things – making sure there was food and beverage available and gathering and dispersing supplies. The guest house has only two bedrooms, but that is of no consequence, all of the visitors have ships available to them. Nalau was the only one that needed to actually reside at the house.

After receiving the ransom message, the Muse of Mischief requested everyone’s attendance at the massive dining table to share the VReoria’s demands and come up with a plan. The table was so large that she and Agent Brzko were both able to sit at the head of the table. Immediately to her left was Nalau, ready to take any action requested. Immediately to Brzko’s right was Ferocity, but surprisingly, he wasn’t the only dragon at the table. Hasira had made it in time for the meeting. He had confidently positioned himself between Zri and Vustia. Also at the table were Waaw and Xiix, commander and sub-commander of the Suus fleet, Pruglar, commander of the Ploosnarian fleet, and of course ShyUst.

Agent Brzko opened the meeting, “We’ve received the ransom demand from the VReoria.” He looked at his tablet, laying on the table in front of him he read the message aloud.

We the VReoria have your precious Trelod. We will only exchange her for the Muse of Mischief. You will meet us on Cazoova at the following coordinates one rotation from now.”

“That doesn’t make sense.” Zri said. “The VReoria know that you and Brzko can travel at will, they can’t detain you.”

“They must think they’ve found a way.” M said slowly. “Or… they think they have a way to instantly kill me. Why the hell do they want me?”

“Specimen logging.”

Everyone turned toward the voice. Hasira took a second to gather himself. “Please forgive me if I have spoken out of turn. We have kept ourselves secluded for so long that I am unfamiliar with your protocols.”

“Honest communication is the only protocol here, Hasira. Please continue.” Ferocity said aloud, putting the other Dragon at ease.

“When Dragona was enslaved we observed many things about the VReoria. They looked upon us as though we were lower life forms so they spoke freely around us. But we listened and remembered every detail we heard. They spoke of another classification of VReoria, the collectors.”

“More than one kind of VReoria? I don’t like the sound of this.” M said.

Hasira continued, “The collectors have a small fleet of specimen ships. These ships are said to travel around this Universe, and others, collecting perfect specimens of higher life forms. The beings are suspended in state of existence that is neither living nor dead. They intend to use the genetics from the collection to alter their own genes. Some said they were attempting to create a master race of warriors by adding the strengths of every species they encounter to their own DNA.”

“Is that how they were able to cloak their appearance when they attempted to kidnap us on Trella?” Brzko asked.

Hasira considered his response carefully, sharing information with other species was new to him. “Possibly but I don’t know for certain. It was the other classification, the enslavers, that occupied Dragona. I don’t think they ever cloaked their appearance, but that doesn’t mean they couldn’t have.”

“They sound ruthless.” Vasira said.

“Mmmm. They are. They poisoned Dragona, altering the atmosphere in order to dominate us. It took us a very long time to figure out why we could no longer fly or breathe fire.”

Hasira’s comments weighed heavily on them all. It was such a barbaric thing to do. The room stayed silent while everyone thought about a fleet of VReoria collectors on specimen ships.

ShyUst broke the silence, “Muse of Mischief, I don’t understand. You and Agent Brzko can time travel, is there a reason you don’t travel back in time and prevent this, or leave a warning for Lelelu?”

“I wish it were that easy but it doesn’t work that way. If we change something in the past it doesn’t stop it from happening in this Universe, because it already did happen. Changing history just creates fractures in the timeline, or what some call parallel universes.” M explained.

“You can’t exchange yourself for Lelelu, we can’t allow the VReoria to capture you. Can you imagine what they could accomplish if they actually were able to use your genes to obtain the ability to travel through apertures?” Zri said. “Once we hear the details of the exchange we’ll need to find a way to make them think you’re exchanging yourself for Lelelu, just long enough to get her back.”

A clone.” Everyone turned toward Waaw, and Xiix, unable to tell which telepath had projected the thought. It was Waaw, he continued, “We all know that members of the Universal Coalition have agreed not to participate in cloning activities. But given the circumstances, they may be willing to hold an emergency vote and allow a single deviation from the agreement.

“That could work.” Zri said. “I’m sure that Gaznzul would give their approval.”

“As will Ploosnar.” Nalau said.

“I think the ruling council of the Planet of Portals will also agree.” Vustia said.

“Dragona will approve of the plan as long as we are assured that the equipment used is to be destroyed afterward.” Hasira said.

Brzko looked across the table to Waaw, “You must think that Ciic will approve of the idea?”

I do. You and the Muse of Mischief have served Suus on many occasions. She will not approve of the Muse of Mischief exchanging herself for Lelelu.

Brzko turned to M, “So what do you think?”

“Uhhh, other than being a little creeped out by the idea of cloning myself I think it could work. Waaw, who has the technology and how long will it take? We don’t have long to prepare.”

Please allow me to return to my ship and consult with Ciic. The Suus database contains the details of successful cloning processes. The practice was common for cloning diseased organs long ago. I will need to review the data in order to give you an accurate answer.” Waaw projected.

“While you’re doing that, we need someone to contact the Universal Coalition and inform them of what’s going on.” Brzko said.

“I already have.” Nalau and Vustia said in unison.

Vustia gestured to Nalau, suggesting that she continue. She did, “They were already aware of the situation, the kidnapping. They have approved of the plan to use a clone, as long as it’s a single clone, destroyed after the rescue, and the equipment is also destroyed.”

“Wait, so it’s a clone of  me, then wouldn’t it have my abilities?” M asked.

No.” Waaw projected. “It will only look like you, we will not clone your entire brain.

“Wow, this just keeps getting creepier. OK so Waaw, while you return to your ship to get started on the clone idea, the rest of us need to come up with a plan for taking down these VReoria specimen ships once and for all.” Brzko said.

“It won’t be that easy.” M said. “We have an obligation to rescue all of the specimens that are still alive.”

CHAPTER 18: BABA LIVES

Lelelu could not get used to the death smell. It hung in the air like a thick fog. At first she thought it must be actual dead beings that created the smell, but she began to realize that it was the smell of a barbaric species. The VReoria sustain themselves on flesh. Is that why she’d been taken, was she to be eaten? It didn’t take her long to get past that idea, she assumed she’d been kidnapped in an attempt to gain access to the Muse of Mischief and Agent Brzko, after their failed kidnap attempt on Trella.

She couldn’t figure out why she kept having visions of her father. After disappearing on a mission to the Glion Galaxy he was presumed dead. Debris from his ship had been found far from where he was supposed to be, but she couldn’t remember where. She’d been just a child and that part of his death wasn’t important to her. All that mattered was that her Baba was not coming home.

After standing for hours she grew weary and slid down the wall until she was sitting. She dozed off and immediately saw him. “Hello Le.”

“Hi Baba.” Lelelu said to an empty room.

Le, you’ve got to stay awake, stay ready to fight.

“OK Baba, why do I keep seeing you? You’re dead.”

I’m not dead Le, I’m here.”

Before she could process what he’d said, she heard something outside the door. Instantly, she was fully awake, standing, and ready to attack.

The door slid open and two cloaked VReoria entered. Even when they attempted to look like Trelods they were hideous and slimy looking. Their appearances shimmered and the falsified appearance disappeared, revealing creatures that are slimy and bulky, with elongated heads and large eyes, long appendages, covered in tentacles hanging down from the front of their faces.

She stepped toward them, ready to attack. But they were surrounded by some sort of energy field, it pushed her back. She went at them again, and again it pushed her back.

“Oh, more tenacious than the other after so many years. Perhaps we should keep her.” The VReoria nearest the door said.

“No, we already have one of them. This one is bait.” The other said, they made a hideous high pitched sound and seemed to jiggle. They were laughing.

The one closest to the door slid a tray along the floor, kicking it really. “Sustenance.”

They both turned and left. She rushed the door, but she wasn’t strong enough to hold it back. If she hadn’t removed her fingers they’d have been snapped off.

She looked at the tray they had left, it contained a bowl with some foul smelling liquid in it. She kicked it and it flipped over, letting it spill through the holes in the floor. That at least reduced the smell.

You have to eat Le.”

She just about jumped out of her blue skin. She turned a complete circle almost expecting to see someone else in her cell. But she was alone. It was one thing to have dreams about her father, but to hear him in her head when fully awake. Lelelu thought she’d lost her mind.

Le, listen to me. They’re going to trade you, trade you for someone you know.

Oh get out of my head! Is this some desperate attempt to get information.” She thought, assuming she was under mental attack by the VReoria.

Le, it’s Baba. I’m here. I’ve been here for a very long time.

Baba’s dead. If you paid better attention to the details you’re stealing from my mind, you’d know that.

I’m not dead Le. I’ve been imprisoned here all this time. This is specimen ship. The VReoria are attempting to collect one of every species. I don’t know what they’re planning but I’m sure it’s not good.

“Shut up! Get out of my head already.” She yelled aloud.

Le, do you remember the name of your best friend in early school? Wasn’t it Zestrilia?

Nice try, anyone could know that. My father’s dead.”

OK Le, ask me a question. Ask me something only I would know.”

She leaned her head against the wall and closed her eyes, thinking back to her childhood. “Why did I refuse to go sailing with Zestrilia when I was a child.”

Because you said that her feet stunk, and if she couldn’t keep her feet clean then she couldn’t be trusted to keep you safe on the water.”

Lelelu had never told anyone but her father the truth about why she didn’t go sailing with her friend, not even her mother. The realization that she was really communicating with her father hit her hard. It defied logic. Even if he was here, she wasn’t telepathic.

“I’ve lost my mind.” She said out loud to an empty cell.      

No Le, you haven’t. I’m really here.”

“Baba?” She broke down and wept, wept for all the time she’d missed her father; wept for fear of her current situation; wept for fear she was losing her mind.

CHAPTER 17: EMPRESS NALAU GETS A JOB

The Muse of Mischief almost always arrived at the bottom of the palace stairs when she visited Ploosnar. A habit she had developed when she was young in order to prevent the palace guards from being startled. Today, there was no time for that. She arrived on the landing, outside the entrance. The palace guards were momentarily startled. M was well known on Ploosnar and once they recognized her they relaxed.

“Sorry, I’m in a real hurry today.” she said.

“We understand.” one of them answered.

M rushed inside and asked the first butler she encountered, “Where is Empress Nalau?”

Before he could answer the Empress rounded the corner. “Oh M, I’m so sorry. How can we help?” She said embracing M.

“I need a big favor Nalau.” The Empress just looked at her, waiting to hear what it was. “I need a coordinator, someone that can handle incoming and outgoing communications for me. Brzko and I can’t get bogged down with the details but I’m afraid we may miss something without someone managing communications.”

“Of course, it would be my pleasure. Do I need to bring anything?”

“No, we should have everything you’ll need. We’re going to set up the guest house as a command center.”

“This would be the guest house you built for us on Misko?” Emperor Bartala said as he rounded the corner with Wisssi lounging in his arms.

M realized she rarely saw the Emperor and Empress this relaxed – Bartala wore green slacks and simple white shirt with the sleeves rolled up and Nalau was wearing an almost identical outfit.

“Hey Bartala. Yes. Don’t worry, Nalau will be safe.”

“I have no doubt! Please contact me if you need anything and keep me informed when you can.”

Empress Nalau took a second to kiss her child and embrace her husband, and then turned to M. “OK, let’s go.” And they did.

They arrived near M’s house. She kept her grip on Nalau’s arm to steady her.

“Which house?”

“That one.” M said pointing to the guest house and walking that way.

“I don’t need an escort M. You have more important things to do. Have someone get me an earcom link and I’ll take care of the rest. Where’s Whotov?”

“Probably there.” M said pointing to Ferocity’s house.

Nalau was off. She went to Ferocity’s house first, intent on securing Whotov’s help with gathering supplies – she intended to have sustenance and other supplies available for everyone on Misko.

Whotov answered when she knocked on the door. He was shocked to see her, “Empress Nalau! To what do I owe this honor.” he said as he bowed.

“There’s no time for formalities Whotov, I need your help.” She said stepping into the house.

M clearly didn’t need to babysit her. She had made the right choice getting her to help. Nalau may be an Empress but no one can organize and mobilize better than she can. “Zri,” M called via earcom link.

“Go ahead M.”

“I need you to get Empress Nalau an earcom link and set up a full communications center in the guest house.”

“Brzko told me where you went. Everything is ready for the Empress.”

“Thanks. Brzko, Ferocity, where are you?”

“We’re all at the guest house.” Brzko answered. “We need to start working on a plan.”