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Zabraga stared intently at the viewscreen, reviewing both the image and the post-scan statistics of the ship that the Shorekaa was currently on approach to. It was gargantuan, its proportions far beyond anything she had witnessed before, and given her trade she’d had the opportunity to walk the corridors of some impressive ships over the years. Such behemoths were normally long haul, Galactic Class cargo vessels, but the largely defunct array of artillery banks and the remnants of triple-layered ablative shielding reinforcing the fractured hull, told her unequivocally that this ship had been something very different in its heyday: a warship.
According to the scans it was more a floating source of salvage than anything else now — though she noted various systems had been made functional again, indicating that whoever was occupying it was attempting repair rather than stripping it down for useful or valuable parts. Regardless of its dilapidated state the ship remained imposing, and constituted a logical base of operations for a group seeking to remain beyond the watchful eye of the Federation.
“Docking at Bay Six of The Liberator has been approved. Starting final approach,” the autopilot announced.
Raising her eyebrows briefly at the name of the ship she relaxed back into her chair, allowing the autopilot to do its job. She could’ve piloted the little Skimmer herself, but then what point investing in a sophisticated AI piloting system if she didn’t let it handle all the mundane aspects of spaceflight? It had proven her best investment to date, in spite of the considerable cost. A few years ago such a luxury would’ve been little more than a pipe dream — but spending what little she had on a one-way ticket to Kavian had paid off, her skills as an infiltrator being in high demand with both the upstanding and more nefarious elements of the Kaviani citizenry.
Idly she wondered if she was finally going to meet her current benefactor. She had been tasked via her usual intermediary, with performing various jobs for the same individual on all six planets over the last few months, but as-yet had gleaned nothing about their identity. To be asked to rendezvous in neutral space with what she assumed could only be a ship serving as some sort of underground headquarters… there were several implications that she mulled over as the Shorekaa slipped smoothly into the docking bay, thrusters firing to slow the Skimmer’s momentum, and angle it towards the green-lit docking clamps.
Perhaps they’re impressed with my work and wish to offer me a permanent position. It was a plausible notion; her intermediary had conveyed that her benefactor was very satisfied with her work — particularly her knack for efficient execution.
On the other hand… what if they’re tying up loose ends? It wouldn’t be the first time she’d had a target placed on her back for being a potential source of information best kept out of the hands of Federation authorities. However, it seemed somewhat excessive to have her travel all this way only to silence her. There was a muted thud as the docking clamps made contact with the Skimmer’s hull. Then again, there’s little chance of me escaping this monster of a ship, is there?
“The Shorekaa is now docked, and it is safe to disembark,” came the autopilot’s monotone.
She gritted her teeth against a sudden stab of anxiety, stood up and walked through to her kit room. Deciding that it was best to be prepared for any eventuality, she equipped herself with various items she knew wouldn’t show up on a body scan, slipped into her metamorphic greatcoat — her third most expensive purchase behind the Shorekaa and its autopilot system — took a deep, calming breath and headed for the airlock.
She was met at the threshold of her ship by a pair of armed Greys who, after a perfunctory search of her person and a quick full body scan — the face of the Grey holding the scanner screwed up slightly in what she took to be a frown at the results (Grey facial expressions were so hard to judge), though it made no move to take anything from her — escorted her from the docking bay directly to the ship’s bridge. The layout was straightforward and practical: a central corridor running like a spine the length of the ship with branches leading off to different sections.
Everything about the vessel was oversized, the corridors through which they passed arching high overhead, and there was a fundamentally alien aesthetic that Zabraga had never come across before. It had an ancient feel to it, and everywhere she looked there was evidence of decay decades, or perhaps even centuries in the making. It was possible that its creators no longer even existed; why else would such a hulk be left derelict in deep space?
Whoever had built this ship, they weren’t a part of the Federation — and that fact was reinforced as the doors slid open and she was led onto a bridge clearly designed for a species larger in stature than any of the Federation races. Glancing around the cavernous space she noted an extensive web of retrofitted platforms, walkways and workstations, and perhaps a score of crewmembers engaged in different tasks — several of whom were clearly security, occupying small raised platforms that gave them an uninhibited view of the bridge space.
A low mechanical hum sounded from the chair directly in front of her, and it began to rotate. It was massive, the chair-back easily three times her height, but as it turned she saw that it too had been altered to seat a much smaller individual. As it came to a stop one of her Grey escorts ushered her forwards, and then they both retreated several paces to flank the entryway. She took a few steps, stopped and looked up at the being seated before her, quickly masking her surprise upon finding herself facing a Reptiloid.
They stared at one another for several moments, and Zabraga carefully kept her facial expression neutral as she noted the Reptiloid’s semi-emaciated condition — something hidden only partially by the loose-fitting robes it wore — strange scale-free patches on its face where almost human-like features were visible, and its fever-bright ochre eyes. It — he, she silently amended, given the barrel-like wideness of the torso and more ruggedly sculpted facial features — was clearly not in good health, but there was an inherent strength and sense of command in his gaze as he cast a dispassionate eye over her.
“So, you are the agent who so capably executed my requests,” he said in a hoarse baritone, “I did not expect you to be a Human; your species are regarded by mine as loud, and clumsy — not traits conducive to your precise, subtle profession.”
“I am pleased to be of service,” Zabraga replied, “My lord.” she added, uncertain of how else to refer to the Reptiloid.
“My lord?” he made a hacking sound that she took to be laughter. “I am no lord, merely one seeking restoration of that which was so callously taken from me.” He placed a clawed hand upon his chest briefly, “You may call me Kol.” the name was pronounced in such a bestial way that it sounded like an animal barking.
“A pleasure to meet you… Kol,” she attempted semi-successfully to replicate the intonation, “I am Zabraga.” She hesitated momentarily, “May I ask: why am I here?”
The corners of Kol’s mouth quirked upwards slightly, “Your reward for a job well done of course,” he made a vague gesture with one hand, “And, an offer…” Pushing on the arms of his chair he levered himself slowly to his feet, lips peeling back briefly in a sharp-toothed grimace. He carefully descended the retrofitted steps to the floor and stood before Zabraga, looming over her despite the slight hunch to his posture. “Come,” he said, and then walked past her towards the bridge doors.
Dinner & Discourse
A short distance down the central corridor Kol turned off to the left, entering what appeared to be an area set aside for living quarters. They passed a number of doors, most of which were closed, though a few were open — either intentionally or through disrepair — and Zabraga was surprised to see people in most of the rooms beyond, engaged in a variety of mundane activities from cleaning to exercising. There were other people moving up and down the corridor too, and all of them spared a respectful nod or a friendly wave as Kol passed. The smell of cooked food wafted from one particular doorway ahead, and that was where the Reptiloid led her: to a room that had been converted into a large canteen.
“I suddenly felt hungry,” said Kol, noting her somewhat puzzled gaze. “And I’m sure you would appreciate a proper meal, after your journey.”
“I wouldn’t mind something other than freeze-dried rations,” she admitted with a wry smile.
They walked over to the serving area and waited as one of the cooks took a pair of military style ration trays, tore off the vacuum-packing and slid them into a multi-tiered food calefactor. A short blast of radiation, and the trays were removed and passed over the counter, the items in the various sections piping hot. Kol led her to a small table in a corner of the room and gestured for her to sit first; she chose the seat that gave her a full view of the room and put her back to the wall. The Reptiloid nodded as if he’d expected this, flipped his own chair around to avoid any fuss with his long tail, and sat opposite her. She looked at him inquiringly, and Kol raised his scaly brows at her.
“Well? What are you waiting for, permission? Eat.”
Suiting actions to words he picked up a slab of what looked like some sort of meat, tore a chunk off it with his teeth and started slowly chewing. Zabraga tucked into a piece of dense bread — it was heavy going, but tasted decent enough — and the two ate in silence. Swallowing the last piece of the meat, Kol casually picked at his teeth with one of his claw-like fingernails and regarded the diminutive human as she picked over the contents of her tray.
“Not quite what you expected,” he said, causing her to look up at him.
“Well…. no, I guess not,” she conceded, “At least, I didn’t expect to be sitting in a mess hall eating space rations with -” she gestured at him, “I assume you’re the leader here, right?”
“I suppose you can call me that, yes,” he nodded, “I am the one who started this, and over time others have chosen to support my goal — for various reasons.” He examined the fingernail he’d used to pick his teeth then, seemingly satisfied that it was free of detritus, looked up at Zabraga again.
“I would like you to collaborate with us on a permanent basis. Having your skills readily available would be useful to our ongoing endeavours. What do you think?”
Zabraga kept the feeling of relief from showing on her face. She’d already hedged that would be the direction of their meeting; why waste — she hesitated over deeming it “good food” — a nutritious meal on someone you were getting ready to kill? Still, this whole situation had given rise to a host of questions that jostled for space in her mind.
“Why?” She asked, then quickly clarified, “Why me, I mean.”
Kol shrugged, “Because we share some similarities,” seeing her frown he went on, “My recruiters vet potential contractors thoroughly — including a deep dive into their pasts beyond the mere scope of their profession.” He spread his hands, “Your particulars made me think that you would be sympathetic enough to the cause to be more than just a third party on the sidelines.”
“My particulars?” Zabraga raised an eyebrow quizzically. “Whatever it is about my past that makes you believe that I’d join you, you also need to be aware that I’ve always operated independently — and I’m not sure I want to change that. Anyway,” she offered a shrug of her own, “I have no clue as to the nature of your cause; our intermediary provided no details outside the purview of the task.”
Kol nodded “As requested. I would gladly fill in the blanks,” he continued frankly, “But if you’re not open to the possibility of working for me directly, then it would be a waste of both our time.”
“I’m open,” Zabraga replied, “But I can’t guarantee a yes.”
“Fair enough,” Kol tapped a finger against the end of his almost human nose pensively. “I’ll start with the most salient point: would it surprise you to learn that I am unable to shapeshift?”
She didn’t bother to mask her surprise. “You can’t shapeshift? How?”
Kol bowed his head slightly, “The ability was… taken from me when I was still young.”
“By whom?” she’d never heard of a Reptiloid that couldn’t shapeshift; the concept in itself was shocking, but to hear it had been taken… outrageous.
Kol raised a hand, “Before I get to that, let me preface it with a little about my childhood. You see, I grew up poor just as you did, living on the edge of Kavian’s swamplands. It was a hard life there, though not unbearably so; we Reptiloids are capable of adapting and surviving in much harsher conditions,” he paused for a moment, a distant look in his eyes as memories bubbled to the surface of his mind. “Our community was, by necessity, a tight-knit one,” he went on, “And all members were expected to make sacrifices for our continued survival. My family made such a sacrifice -”
“How could sacrificing your shapeshifting ability conceivably have helped your community?” Zabraga cut in.
“It wouldn’t — or at least the sacrifice I’m referring to was not my shapeshifting ability specifically, but rather that loss was a byproduct of it.” He grimaced, “No, the sacrifice made by my family was me: I was sold to a research institute whose agent came to our settlement with an offer simply too attractive to consider refusing.”
Zabraga pursed her lips, clearly displeased. Selling children wasn’t a particularly uncommon practice by any means — families living in poverty did what they had to, because no one else was coming to save them — but the thought of it made her angry nonetheless.
“Why you?” she finally said.
“My age, no doubt. I was the only teenager in the settlement, old and physiologically developed enough to both control my shapeshifting ability and withstand whatever the researchers planned on doing to me during their tests, yet young enough not to be fundamentally necessary for the day-to-day tasks of the community.”
A thought occurred to Zabraga. “Does this relate to the KavTech Enterprises documents you had me… appropriate, for you?”
“Just so.” Kol smiled briefly. “Yes, it was a KavTech agent with whom my settlement forged an agreement: six years of my time spent at one of their Federation funded facilities on Kavian, in exchange for equipment and resources capable of transforming daily life for us. Naturally, both my family and I were honoured to facilitate such a boon to our community’s quality of life.”
Zabraga nodded; it made a lot of sense — yet the notion of dangling life-changing tech in front of a group in exchange for research guinea pigs still made her bristle. Still, that was the harsh reality of life — and there was no changing it.
“So the KavTech researchers took your ability to shapeshift?” she asked.
“To cut to the chase: yes — eventually.” He scratched absently at his scaled head. “Prior to that I spent several relatively happy years at the facility, living in comparative luxury compared to my family’s home, and also comfortable in the knowledge that I’d helped my people in a significant way. The researcher catered to my curiosity too, and over time I learned the fundamentals of both biology and chemistry.” He frowned, “It was when the Greys took over, that things took a turn for the worse.”
Zabraga cocked her head, “Greys are friendly and fairly pacifistic in my experience.”
Kol snorted. “Clearly you’ve never met members of the scientific sect. Most Greys you come across in public are the spiritual kind; the science-driven ones secret themselves away inside research institutes and the R&D departments of major corporations.” His lips peeled back in a sharp-toothed sneer. “Science is akin to a deity to them, and they’ll do anything in the pursuit of greater scientific knowledge, mindless of the consequences.” A hint of bitterness entered his voice. “I was little more than a live cadaver to them, to be poked, prodded and operated on without remorse.”
“That sounds terrible,” Zabraga said quietly, offering him a sympathetic smile, “How…” she hesitated, aware of how painful the subject might be for him.
“How did they take my ability to shapeshift?” he finished for her, and she nodded. “Their technique was multi-faceted; a combination of genetic manipulation and invasive surgery. Our ability isn’t governed by a single organ, genetic expression or anything like that apparently, so they took a broad approach to inhibiting it — including fusing numerous bones throughout my skeletal structure to prevent morphological change. Part of why I have some trouble walking these days.” He noted the look of horror on Zabraga’s face and waved a hand dismissively.
“It wasn’t painful if that’s what you’re envisioning. The Greys are masterful brewers of narcotic cocktails the likes of which connoisseurs of chemical pleasure would pay hand over fist for.” He grinned, “They’re very covetous of their recipes, though.” The smile left his face. “Covetous of everything related to their research, it would seem. Those documents you procured for me were so heavily redacted they got me no nearer to my goal.” He raised a stalling hand, “Not your fault, of course.”
I wasn’t going to suggest it was, Zabraga thought. “Is that the reason for your…” she waved a hand over her own face, “unique look?”
Kol made a sharp hacking sound. “That’s one way to phrase it — and perhaps the most diplomatic I’ve heard.” He mulled it over, “I cannot recall exactly, but Reptiloids are prone to spontaneous shapeshifting when emotionally overwhelmed. Likely that’s what happened at some point during the procedure, and their success left me…” he gestured at the less Reptilian side of his face, “Like this.”
Zabraga frowned, “It looks almost Human.”
“Indeed,” Kol nodded, “I had spent several years almost exclusively among your species, up until the Greys — and had been treated well. Emotional shifts are fight or flight in nature,” he shrugged, “And subconsciously I must have chosen flight — to a comforting form.”
“I see.” Zabraga found herself intrigued to know more about Reptiloids in general, but instead pressed Kol on to the next part of his story. “How did you get out?” she asked.
“I was set free,” he replied with a slight shrug.
“Just like that?” Zabraga couldn’t help but allow some of her disappointment to show.
“More or less. That particular KavTech facility was shut down after the environmental lobby successfully campaigned to put a stop to invasive research of sentient species. The Greys were reassigned, their experimentation on me left incomplete — and I was left to find my own way back…. home…” There was a wistful note to Kol’s voice as he uttered the final word.”
He gave her a knowing look. “Rather anticlimactic, wouldn’t you say? No daring escape or anything tale-worthy; just me being shoved out the door with only the clothes on my back as protection, and no idea where on Kavian I was.”
“Reality is often prosaic,” she replied. “Did you return home?”
“Of course. We Reptiloids are communal beings, so my priority was to get back to my people,” he made an off-hand gesture, “I won’t burden you with the specifics of how I got home. The reaction of my kin, however… When they learned that I couldn’t shapeshift, they were initially outraged at the researchers. Over time,” his eyes narrowed, “Such ill sentiment was refocused on me, and latterly my family.” There was a harsh edge to his voice.
“You see, shapeshifting is glorified above all else in Reptiloid culture — to the point where offspring who fail to develop the ability are ritually sacrificed, and it is counted by all as a mercy. Someone like me, an adult unable to shapeshift… I was an aberration, and I quickly came to be abhorred.”
“That’s…” Zabraga struggled for an appropriate word, “Barbaric.”
Kol nodded sharply. “It is. Although…” his shoulders slumped slightly, “It is technically a mercy. Reptiloids must, akin to their less evolved brethren, undergo a regular — I suppose you can call it a shedding process — whereby we metamorphose into a subtly different form. If we fail to shapeshift over a long period of time, then our bodies begin to decline.” He paused, steepling his fingers, “How old would you say I am, Zabraga?”
The question took her by surprise. You look ancient, she thought. “I’m not all that experienced with how Reptiloids age-” she began carefully, and Kol cut her off.
“Come come, we’re beyond such reserved rhetoric now. Say it plain,” he admonished.
“Old,” she replied, “Very old — and sick.”
Kol nodded, and looked down at one of his skeletal hands and its parchment-like covering of frayed, scaly skin. “I’m thirty-one, by Federation standards,” he said quietly.
Zabraga’s eyes widened. “What?!” she blurted out.
“It’s true. I should be in my prime, but I’m trapped in this doddering, decaying old body. For every year I fail to shapeshift, my body ages roughly five — and it’s been over ten years since I lost my abilities.” He grimaced. “I’m not even sure I’d be able to shapeshift properly even if I did find a way to undo this state that the Greys left me in. Several of my bones have started to fuse, and shapeshifting places such stress upon our bodies that it may well kill me.”
He sighed. “Still, I must find a way — not only for myself and my family’s sake, but also for those Reptiloids born unable to shapeshift at all. It could change our culture, putting an end to centuries of ritualistic barbarism.”
“It’s a worthy cause,” Zabraga replied, “What of the people following you though? What will we get for our efforts?”
“We?” Kol’s brow furrowed, “So you accept the offer, then?”
She nodded and said simply, “How can I not?”
The Reptiloid smiled. “You give me hope, Human. As to your compen-”
Zabraga forestalled him with a raised hand. “Before we get into that, please answer me one thing: are you planning a war against the Federation?”
“No,” Kol shook his head, “I have no desire for that sort of vengeance. In any case,” he chuckled, “We would surely lose. Our plan is far subtler — but that’s a more private conversation than our current circumstance allows.” He stood and raised his arms, “Everyone!” he called to the scattering of people in the canteen, “Another sympathetic soul has agreed to join us!”
The combination of clapping, table-slapping and cheers that followed caused Zabraga’s cheeks to colour. She stood somewhat hesitantly and raised a hand, looking around. “A pleasure.”
“The pleasure is ours,” Kol replied, inclining his head towards her, “And particularly mine.”
The story, all names, characters, and incidents portrayed in this this article are fictitious, do not represent actual events, and are meant to provide a fun and engaging experience for explorers only. For more information on the Syndicate activation and associated rewards please read here. To dive deeper into the lore of Alien Worlds please visit our Fandom.
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