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Fanmail Appreciation Chapter
The marines' boots clicked in perfect unison as they walked
down the corridor.
Commander Lewis had felt nervous since the moment she arrived
on the Aiaia. It was the nervousness of a schoolgirl
entering a suddenly professional world; everything was too
clean, too well-organized, too Navy-perfect.
The marines escorting her were a case in point. Since she had
met them at the docking bay they hadn't put a single step out
of place. Their high black boots rose and fell in perfect
unison; their black uniforms with green piping were perfectly
pressed and utterly clean. Aside from the perfunctory greeting
and a pasted-on smile, neither marine had even looked at
Lewis. Their eyes remained fixed ahead, like locked bayonets.
Black and green. Rear Admiral Nyskar's colors.
The Aiaia was a MoBaP, a Mobile Battle Platform. It had
jump engines but little in the way of sub-light thrusters.
Just enough to push it carefully around a system. What it
lacked in mobility, however, it made up for in firepower.
The Union had seven MoBaPs, each commanded by a Rear Admiral,
with an eighth on the way. They protected strategic assets;
their mobility meant the enemy could never take their location for
granted, their firepower meant the enemy could never ignore
them. A single MoBaP could deter an entire battle fleet.
Admiral Nyskar's MoBaP had come to the San Michel system for
repairs. Unusually, it had played a key role in the conquest of
Origen Prime, jumping in during the battle and destroying
three Commonwealth dreadnoughts.
It was a daring and unorthodox move, stunning and successful.
Had there been questions about Admiral Nyskar's choice of
assignment, her request for a MoBaP over a fleet, she had
answered those questions in six hours of fire and glory.
Commander Lewis had heard of Admiral Nyskar, of course.
Everyone had. The most brilliant field commander of her
generation. At the Academy she was already legend, particularly
to the female officers, a group capped by law at twenty-five
percent of the student body. There wasn't a female cadet
alive who didn't want to be just like Ellibree Nyskar.
So Commander Jasper Lewis was doubly nervous about meeting her;
not only was Nyskar a highly superior officer, she was a living
legend. And from what Lewis had seen so far, Nyskar ran the
very tightest of ships.
Jasper Lewis was the commander of the San Michel system
defenses, which consisted of precisely six single-gun
ships and the destroyer Punica, her flagship. The system also
had a static defensive grid, enough to fight off a
small pirate fleet but which the Aiaia could pound into
orbiting dust within minutes.
It was Lewis' second command. The first had consisted of eight
months aboard a Ptah class cruiser, a relic, and then two
months of drifting in space after the cruiser lost a battle
with Commonwealth raiders.
She had gotten a lot of reading done on that lifeboat,
between fending off or hiding from subsequent pirate
vessels. After she was found, entirely by accident, she
was court-martialled for the loss of her command, cited
for bravery in the face of significant odds, and assigned
to guard San Michel.
The marines stopped suddenly and Lewis realized she had been
daydreaming. She stiffened slightly as the marines saluted
a woman passing by.
"Colonel DeKraal," they said in unison.
"Marines," the colonel replied, stopping to return the
salute. She was taller than average and very busty; her
skin was a deep brown, a color rarely seen in space if
one's ancestry didn't mandate it, which
DeKraal's blond hair told Jasper was not the case.
"You must be Commander Lewis," DeKraal said.
"Colonel," Jasper replied. "Yes ma'am, I am."
"Welcome aboard, Commander. Admiral Nyskar is eager to...
"Thank you, Colonel. I, uh, am eager to meet her."
There was a strange look in DeKraal's dark eyes; as she
looked at Jasper she seemed not just curious but almost
But then, she wore a Service uniform. They were all
a bit odd.
DeKraal saluted again. "Marines. Commander. Enjoy yourself."
Jasper nodded, stifling her impulse to raise an
eyebrow. "Thank you, Colonel."
Everyone started forward again; the marines' boots clicking
in perfect unison. Lewis snuck a look behind herself; Colonel
DeKraal was walking away but looking back at her.
The colonel winked.
A handsome young man looked up from a desk.
"This is Commander Lewis," one of the marines said, in what
was almost a monotone. "She is here to see Admiral
The man smiled and rose behind the desk. He saluted.
"Commander Lewis. I am Lieutenant Commander Briggs, Admiral
Nyskar's secretary. It is a pleasure to welcome you aboard."
"Thank you, Lieutenant Commander. It is a pleasure to
He smiled again, then his eyes flicked to the marines,
standing stiffly at Jasper's flanks.
"Dismissed," he said. The marines saluted, pivoted in place,
and left, steps clicking in unison.
He held out an open hand, gesturing to the side. "Commander
Lewis. It pains me to ask this
of you, but would you mind waiting for a few moments? Admiral
Nyskar just got called by the Admiralty and is busy speaking
with them. You can sit right over there. If I can provide you
with anything - coffee, tea?"
Figures. She wasn't even a Captain. Admirals got to pull
this sort of thing. "I'm fine, thank you."
At least he looked earnest. "I really am sorry. She should not
be more than fifteen, twenty minutes."
Lewis flipped him another salute, which he returned. She
turned around and walked over to the chairs of the reception
There was another officer there, an older woman about due for
a rejuv treatment. A marine. Jasper saluted. "Commander Lewis,
San Michel system commander," she announced.
The marine stood with the usual reluctance-almost-to-the-point-of-insult,
and returned the salute. "Captain Ndele, eight hundred twenty first
"Good afternoon, Captain."
"Is it?" The woman sagged back down into her chair. "I can't tell.
Four days in transit and the first thing they do is have us
attend 'orientation'. As though we needed to be shown our
way around a MoBaP. As though the Aiaia were entering
combat instead of leaving it. We're here for the next Pee Eff
year; do we need 'orientation' on the first day?"
"I assume the answer is 'no'," Lewis replied.
"You're damn right it is. Decorated hero or not, I'm going to
give Nyskar a piece of my mind."
"Well," came Brigg's voice from the reception area, "now is
your chance, Captain. The Admiral is ready to speak with you."
Ndele stood up, nodded at Jasper, tugged her sleeve ends, and
marched through the door Briggs was holding open.
He closed the door behind her. "Commander," he said, "as soon as
the two of them are finished, it is your turn. It shouldn't
take too long, but Captain Ndele seems, ah, to have some things
to get off her chest."
Jasper nodded at him. "It appears that way."
He sat down and Jasper leaned into her chair.
There were no magazines; this wasn't a waiting room. But
the Navy taught one the value of entertaining oneself while
standing idle. Lewis brought up her mental picture of
Ndele tugging her sleeves, both sleeves at the same time, arms
crossed; a common problem for servicepeople who worked
out. Her first mate on the Ptah had done something similar,
though one at a time. Apparently the Marine uniforms didn't
come in 'athletic cut', either.
She glanced at the door, and at Lieutenant Commander Briggs.
He was busy at his vidscreen.
Jasper turned her mind to idle time thought number forty-three:
her seaside villa. She picked the yard to work on; first
a nice stucco wall, low enough to see over, and then some
flowering vines atop it. She went through a couple designs
for the wrought-iron gate...
She was suddenly very aware that she had to pee.
She'd gone just before leaving the Punica - that couldn't have
been more than half an hour ago. But now she really, really,
needed to pee.
Nothing for it. "Pardon me, Lieutenant Commander," she said,
standing up, "I need directions to the head."
He nodded. "Out the door, turn left, take the ladder down a
floor, step out, right, two hallways, left, and it will be
on your right."
"Thanks," she said. "I'll be right back."
She stepped out of the room and turned left. A few feet down
was a shaft; she checked for occupants and then climbed
the ladder down one floor. She turned right, crossed two
hallways, turned left, and walked a ways down the corridor.
There was no bathroom.
Frowning, Jasper retraced her steps. Perhaps he had meant
in the second hallway rather than past it. She walked back
one cross-corridor and took that.
Still no sign of the head.
Slowly, Jasper walked down the corridor, looking at doorplates.
Was the head marked differently? She had never been on a
MoBaP before. On the Ptah the heads were... but of course,
the Ptah had been obsolete even when she was serving on it.
But all of the other ships she'd served on had them well
She heard the click of footsteps. A little ashamed at her
own lack of knowledge, Jasper turned to ask the approaching
person where it was. She had to be close.
The woman appeared to be a ship's doctor; she was dressed
in white, although she wore the same knee-high black boots
as the marines. She seemed lost in thought despite her
"Excuse me," Jasper said, "I..."
The doctor paid no attention to her at all. Staring fixedly
ahead, she walked right past Jasper and clicked away down
Jasper stared after her.
Then she got a little angry.
The doctor turned, almost pivoting in place, and walked into
a room. Frowning, Jasper stalked down to it. She was the
system commander, Prophet Forsake, and would be damned if
a mere doctor blew her off like that! She'd have an apology
or the woman would be in the brig.
"Monitoring facility," the doorplate said. The door slid open
at Jasper's touch.
It was a sickroom. Men and women lay recumbent on beds; perhaps
a dozen in all. Most of their eyes were closed in sleep, but
one woman was sitting up, the doctor examining her.
It was an odd tableau; the seated woman stared ahead blankly
just as the doctor had in the corridor, and despite her attention
to the patient the doctor seemed hardly more focused, her face
slack, her head moving but her eyes fixed.
Neither woman said anything.
The sheet covering the sitting woman slid down, exposing her
breasts. Jasper looked aside - she would call the doctor on
the carpet after she was finished with the examination.
A screen caught her eye. It was dinner-tray sized, clear
plastic in a white rim, atop a swivel arm. Display numbers
and traceries glowed softly on its surface; it was positioned
next to one of the sleeping men, rotated so that the screen
surface was vertical next to his head.
Jasper stepped over to look at it. Out of the corner of her
eye, she watched the doctor swing an identical screen up
next to the head of her patient, who was still bare-breasted,
staring mindlessly forward.
The screen showed an overlay of the man's head, his skull
outlined in red. There were numbers and acronyms along
the side, and veins and nerve clusters glowed in soft
amber... and there was something else.
In his skull, there was a green, bean-shaped thing, with
rootlike traceries spreading from it.
Jasper blinked. The man was-
Ants. It had to be. The Aiaia had just come from Commonwealth,
or formerly Commonwealth, space. The Ants were busily overrunning
the rest of that once-nation, assimilating the worlds that
the Union didn't rescue in time.
This man was an Ant. Or was becoming an Ant.
Jasper looked up. The doctor was typing at a pad next to the
female patient's bed. The woman had lain back, but was still
nude from the belly up. Her eyes stared blankly at the ceiling.
Jasper moved the man's screen up, looked through it at the woman.
The screen sensed the change, and took a moment to adjust.
Then it acquired the new target, and filled with display
numbers and scrolling data. The woman's skull was outlined
in red, and within it-
Green. More than the man; from this distance, the filaments
almost seemed to fill her head.
Jasper stared. What was going on here? What were they doing?
Well, easy enough to find out. She stepped around the bed.
"Doctor," she said.
The doctor appeared not to have heard Jasper. She bent over
the patient again, this time with an otoscope.
Jasper, exasperated, spoke louder. "Doc-"
The doctor had pushed the x-ray screen aside. Through sheer
chance, it was now between her and Jasper.
The doctor's brain was full of a soft, glowing green.
Jasper didn't move. The doctor... was an Ant? But that made
no sense. Ants didn't... Jasper racked her brain. She didn't
know much about them, not really, just stories. They abducted
people, took them into their hives and turned them into
drones. Planted things in their brains. But drones looked
different, were kind of wet-looking and had lumps and...
...and stared vacantly into space.
She swallowed, and turned around. Walked out of the room.
One hallway back and up the ladder. As she approached the
Admiral's office, the door opened and Captain Ndele walked
"Captain," Jasper blurted. She needed a witness. Someone
to confirm what she had just seen. She hurried forward.
Captain Ndele's eyes flicked towards Jasper. Then, without
speaking, she turned slowly, and walked away.
Jasper stared at her, then yanked open the door to
Nyskar's office. Lieutenant Commander Briggs looked up at
"Commander Lewis. I'm sorry, but it's going to be another
couple of minutes. No longer than that, I'm sure."
"Where's Captain Ndele going?"
He looked nonplussed. "Back to her command, I suspect.
She held up a finger. "I'll be right back."
Jasper looked down the hall, but Ndele was already out of
sight. "Captain!" she called, hurrying in the direction
the other woman had gone.
She reached an intersection, saw a couple of crewmen
walking in step, didn't see Ndele. Jogged
to the next cross-corridor; looking right, she caught
a flash of Ndele's uniform disappearing down a laddershaft.
Jasper ran to it. "Captain," she called, but beneath her
Ndele released the ladder and disappeared onto the floor
Jasper scampered down the ladder, leapt off onto the
The hall was empty, and Jasper cursed - but there, a closing
door. No one else was in sight; Jasper sped down the hall
to the door. The wall placard read: "Training and Orientation".
Gingerly, she opened the door. She could hear voices.
Just beyond the door was a small foyer; an open double-width
doorway led from it into a largish meeting room. There was
a meeting going on; the room was dim, with light at the
front, and someone was addressing a full audience.
Captain Ndele stood in the open doorway, facing the
congregation. Her hands were relaxed at her side.
"Ca-" Jasper began, but then someone entered the foyer from
the room beyond, placing a hand on Ndele's shoulder.
Ndele did not move, simply remained in place, staring
placidly into the room.
"Tell me," the other person said. Jasper could not see
them clearly through Captain Ndele.
Captain Ndele did not turn her head; Jasper watched her
lips move beneath blank eyes. "I am Captain Aiyala Ndele.
I am here to be reprogrammed. My will has been removed;
my mind is open and receptive."
"Very good, Captain Ndele. Come with me."
Ndele turned slowly in place, and walked into the
meeting room behind the other person.
Jasper just stared.
What the...? Was that supposed to happen to...?
She had to get out of here.
Only then did she hear the words that were being
spoken in the meeting room.
"...has opened you all. You are all open, now.
Your minds are soft and receptive."
She needed to run, to flee.
Unable to resist, Jasper took a step forward.
"Remain focused on the screen. Do not think. Focus
on the screen but do not try to understand. Allow
the programming to enter your soft, open mind."
Marines. A hundred marines, seated on the floor.
Staring blankly at the glowing screen at the
end of the room.
She could not help herself. Jasper looked.
It was a swirl of green and black light. A
silhouette stood next to it, speaking softly.
"You will obey the Queen. You must obey Her.
Obeying the Queen is your only purpose. Your
only purpose. Your only purpose."
It began flickering, white and black and green.
Jasper closed her eyes and turned away.
"She is my Mistress. i am Her slave. You too are
Her slaves. You will all serve the Queen."
Rapt, the watching marines murmured their agreement.
Jasper could no longer see them but she could hear.
Some were panting.
"Some of you she will convert into Her drones.
Some of you she will program now, and convert later.
Some of you, those whose minds are suitably open, She
will leave human, programmed into lifelong obedience.
But when you leave Aiaia you will all be Her slaves."
"Yes," came the whisper from many lips.
Jasper's questing hand found the door. She slid
outside, eyes opening, gasping for breath.
A woman walked by, in uniform, boots clicking.
Her glassy eyes didn't see Jasper at all.
Out. She had to get out. Off the station, before
they got her.
Her shuttle was gone, back to Punica. She was supposed
to be on Aiaia for some time, perhaps through supper.
Then one of Aiaia's shuttles would ferry her back home.
That was the plan.
She had to get off this ship *now*.
Where would they be? Jasper looked around. She had
a good sense of where the docking bay she had entered
from was. But were there escape pods there?
Prophet - the Aiaia was in the hands of the Ants?
Ants weren't like this - were they? They were aliens,
xenos, slimy and green, and they dragged people off
and changed them.
They were changing people here, all right, but where
was the slime? Where were the xenos?
It didn't matter. Escape first. Jasper set off down
the corridor, in the direction of the docking bay.
It was a level above her, but she wanted to make
distance from Nyskar's office first of all.
Nyskar. What had happened to her?
The hallway curved, which jibed with Jasper's sense of
where she was onboard. She stepped up her pace. From
ahead, she heard the rattle of wheels.
And then she saw her first xeno.
It was small, waist-tall, with five meaty legs and
five eyes. It was walking towards her, accompanying
a woman pushing a cart.
The cart was full of glossy white eggs. Three racks
of them, ovoids the size of two fists held together.
There were at least a hundred of them.
The woman stared mindlessly forward as she rolled the
cart towards Jasper. What intelligence was in the
xeno's eyes was unguessable.
Jasper stiffened her back, fixed her gaze, and walked
They didn't stop, or turn. All three of them just
The hallway kept curving and they were out of sight.
Jasper realized she was trembling.
Then, a sign. "Escape Pods".
She managed not to break into a run.
They were not far away; a short walk and there
they were, six thick doors, with buttons under
glass, right on the side of the main hall.
A uniformed man was approaching, staring past
Trying not to look desperate, Jasper stabbed at a button to
open an escape pod. The drone clicked by behind her; her
back stiffened uncontrollably, her mind flashing images
of seizing hands bearing her off to the meeting room,
hypnosis melting her mind until she obediently lay down
for implantation. A white bed and an Ant brain of her
very own, and then Jasper would be striding these halls
with glassy eyes and a perfectly obedient brain.
Slowly, reluctantly, the pod's door disengaged its lock
and lifted open.
There were probably alarms, somewhere, but the ship was
being repaired and the escape pod would have controls
onboard; she could fly it away faster than they would
react. Jasper could radio the Punica and have them pick her
up. Once on her own ship... the Aiaia would have to
destroy them to silence her, that would cause an inquiry...
Jasper, straightening after ducking into the pod, stopped short.
Seated in the escape pod's pilot seat was a slim woman
in a black uniform. She was pretty in a pale, spacer way;
her dark hair framed her head like a black halo.
"Ad. Mir. Al..." Jasper said slowly.
The dark-haired woman smiled. "Do come in. Let's talk."
The door of the escape pod hissed closed.
Jasper shook her head. "You. You're an Ant."
Nyskar nodded thoughtfully. "That's true," she said.
"They've infiltrated the whole ship. Infected it."
"It's my ship, Commander. They didn't have to infiltrate
For an instant Jasper wondered if the Navy knew, if they
consented, but she realized that was impossible. It was
just Nyskar's bearing, her calm...
"You're the queen," Jasper said with sudden, horrible insight.
"That I am."
"Then you - you did all this..."
Nyskar nodded. "And more, besides. And I'm just getting started."
She wanted to ask why, since when, how... but what came
foremost to her mind was how did Nyskar look so damned
normal when she was an alien monster...
"Go ahead and ask," Nyskar said.
"Yes, I can read your mind. Ask."
"How do you... why don't you look..."
"Because I am not just an Ant, Commander. I'm a former
human. I am a human *plus* an Ant. Everything
I was, I am - and more."
"What do you want with me?" Jasper whispered.
Admiral Nyskar stood up. "The Aiaia is my Hive, Commander.
It is an extension of my mind. All creatures on it are
my slaves... or are becoming my slaves. I was in your
mind from the moment you came on board. I am in your
mind now. I can change you in an instant, squeeze your
will until you are my most fervent servant."
"But." Nyskar smiled a small smile. "The Aiaia is my
Hive. I cannot control the fleet, the planet, the many
worlds I have infected. That's not how we Ants work."
She took a step forward, and Jasper was aware that she
did not even think about stepping back. Nyskar stood,
almost touching her, and stared into her eyes.
"I did not bring my Hive to this system to repair,
Commander. I could have repaired at a dozen other worlds,
done so quicker and more efficiently. I came here
because of you."
"I have read your record, Commander Lewis. You have not
been fortunate, but you have been good. Very, very good.
And now you are in sole command of the garrison fleet
of a placid backwater system.
"You would make an excellent queen."
Jasper's mouth hung open. She didn't know what to say.
"I arranged for your 'tour'," Nyskar went on. "I want you
to have no illusions about what we are. Most of my drones
are just that: drones. Capable of nothing but eager
obedience. Without motivation or goals aside from those
I give them."
Jasper shook her head. "You didn't... ask... them."
"No. I am the Queen; their minds and flesh are mine by
right. I take what I want and reshape it as I see fit."
Nyskar's eyes flashed. "The desires of drones and
the desires of humans alike are nothing. Only My
"I don't have a choice, do I?"
Nyskar looked away, stepped away. "Actually, you do.
San Michel will be ours, and all its inhabitants.
But you don't have to be the queen. You can tell me
'no'. I'll find someone else, someone perhaps not
as brilliant but certainly more willing."
"And what would happen to me?"
"The new queen will take you, I'm sure. You will become
one of us regardless. Now or later. But if I take you
then you'd serve me, not her. And this is where you are
stationed-" Nyskar waved a hand irritably "-it would just
become complicated if I made you mine."
"But you'd just keep me here until you found her?"
"No. I'd wipe your memory and send you home. My search
for her may take some time, and you would be missed."
"You wouldn't... turn me?"
"I can see your answer, Jassie. I'm disappointed. No,
I'm not going to 'turn' you. You will become a drone,
make no mistake. But you won't be mine; you belong
to my Sister-yet-to-be. And I don't know when she
will take you."
"Let me go," Jasper said quietly.
Nyskar sighed. "Yeah." She gave Jasper a rueful look.
The escape pod door slowly lifted open. Two of the
blank-eyed marines stood outside.
"I'll take you to a shuttle," Nyskar said. "Then a
little memory wipe, and you'll head back to your ship
remembering only a pleasant meeting with me."
The marines rotated slowly in place, and began to
walk. Jasper followed them, heart thundering in her
She had to leave herself a message. Had to warn herself
somehow. But how? Nyskar could read her mind. Anything
she did - write a note, record something - Nyskar would
The admiral was walking behind her.
She had to think. Concentrate. There must be a way to
warn her future self. But how? Nyskar could read her
The marines stopped, pivoted left; Jasper hardly noticed.
She had to think. Had to concentrate. There must
be a way to warn herself.
But Nyskar could read her mind.
They passed through a doorway and the air became warmer,
wetter. Jasper was thinking hard, concentrating.
She paid no attention to the bulbous growths lining
the wall, or the uniformed personnel suckling at them.
There must be a way to warn herself.
Nyskar could read her mind.
She had to think.
The marines led her onward, clicking in unison, and Jasper
matched their pace unconsciously. They walked and
turned and walked together; the nude men and women
they passed, standing placidly with the back of their
heads attached to the walls by thick green cords almost
distracted her but she knew she had to think, to
The marines stopped.
Nyskar could read her mind.
*You need a place to think.*
Jasper looked up.
It was a honeycomb, a beehive, but human-sized. Most
of the cells were capped; through the translucent
waxy seals she could see the shapes of people.
But she didn't have room for that thought in her
brain; all of her brain was in use, was being
used to think, to concentrate.
She wasn't sure what she was thinking about, any more,
but that hardly mattered. She needed to concentrate.
One of the cells was open and empty; it seemed like
an excellent place to rest while she thought.
Jasper climbed inside.
Ellibree waited until she was still, then carefully
took the egg from the eggmother standing nearby.
She ran a hand over its smooth, white surface, then
gently placed it atop Commander Lewis' head.
As the eggmother began to seal the cell, she
turned and walked away.
Ellibree sat down in her chair and tapped a button. The
vidscreen rose from the desk. She reached out mentally
and instructed the communications drone to connect
her to Tetha, en route to the capital city of Rouen.
The obedient visage of the communications drone vanished,
and Tetha appeared on the screen. Her totally
unconscious smile at seeing Ellibree worked its
usual magic and Ellibree found herself smiling back.
"So?" Tetha asked.
Ellibree sighed. "She's being assimilated right now.
As a drone."
"Oh. Well, that's a shame."
"Yeah. She had potential."
"Don't worry, love. We'll find one. We always do."
Ellibree laughed. "I'm not worried. A little annoyed
at the waste of material, that's all. Anyway, she has
lots of promising friends and colleagues, and the
new Commander Lewis will be only too eager to introduce
them to me."
Tetha chuckled. "That she will."
"Have a good time on the planet," Ellibree instructed.
"Keep your eyes open for potential queens."
"There's only one Queen in my eyes."
"You know what I mean."
Tetha made a wide-eyed serious face. "Yes, Mistress.
I will keep my eyes open for potential queens."
They shared a long, fond look, and then Ellibree
cut the connection.
She sighed, and swiveled in her chair. Looked at the
painting hung on the wall behind her, of a young woman
with twinkling sapphires in her ears. Swiveled back
There were more people in the waiting room, the captain
of a resupply ship and the head of one of the repair
*Send in Captain Wo-Jing*, she instructed her secretary.
As the captain walked in, she was already adjusting his mind.
END Fanmail Appreciation Chapter