Threedak slowly pushed her plate of meat aside. The invader looked unappetizing, a struggling mass of raw muscle traced with just visible clusters of nerves and veins pumping a blackish substance that appeared to function as its blood. Its surface was covered with sores and abrasions where it had been bodily pried from the suit.
She wrinkled her nose and flicked her tongue to taste the air. Beyond the musty scent of the room's wood paneling, and Kahtash’s pleasant dry/sandy taste, Threedak’s sense detected the tang of blood metal. She reached out and picked up the writhing invader. The thing was almost four feet long and required both of her graspers to keep its twisting form from slipping out of her grap.
Hesitantly she glanced at Kahtash. Her daughter saw Threedak’s unspoken question and nodded.
“The invader is safe to eat,” her daughter responded. “The analyst that ate the last one didn’t suffer any ill effects, but she was shaken by the experience. She was checked out afterwards and showed no ill effects, but the information she gave us was fragmented and disjointed. I suspect she didn’t have the context to put everything in place, and that is part of why I came to you.”
“Both for your experience, Kahtash tapped the side of her head with a grasper. “You have more lives stored away than any of us. You have history absorbing the memories from a completely alien being in a way that the rest of us don’t. From our first awakening, we’ve always grown up knowing about the humans and normalizing their lives. For many of us its second nature to adopt the measurements and idioms of an entirely foreign race. We don’t even notice the expressions that are native to Dhaj versus their entirely human counterparts anymore.”
“But Mother,” Kahtash continued. “You have made this leap before. You’ve peered into new minds and made sense of the jumble within. Plus with the experience and perspective of all of the humans as opposed to just a smattering, you’re the most prepared to actually sort this situation out.”
“Also,” Kahtash shrugged. “There was also the matter of impact. If you see what our analyst saw, you’ll have a better idea as to whether she was exaggerating the situation. With any luck you’ll be able to garner an inspiration or insight into our foes that a less well rounded Dahjtel might have been able to. If possible, I would prefer our decisions to be made by someone who has actually peered inside our foe.”
Threedak nodded to her daughter and sat on her eating couch. Usually consuming memories was a fairly straightforward process, but it hadn’t been unknown to startle or stun a Dhajtel into losing their balance. She pulled the vile wriggling mass to her maw and bit down into it. A thick black liquid, almost resembling oil, oozed out of the severed tentacle.
Immediately the membranes covering her eyes flickered in disgust. The texture of the limb itself was rubbery, the muscle just a little too smooth and elastic for her comfort. Her complaint over the texture barely formed, Threedak recoiled as the taste hit her tongue. Bitter and peppery with a plastic finish. Wretched. She let the flesh slither down her throat, still twisting as it danced to the charges from severed and forgotten nerves.
Before the first chunk of meat hit her stomach, Threedak was already digging into the invader as it thrashed weakly in her grasp. Lump after lump wormed down her gullet as Threedak did the best she could to consume as much of the creature as possible before she started peering into its mind.
Then the memories hit. Threedak was no longer in her own scales. She no no longer possessed anything resembling skin and scales. Instead she… was a massive spaceship. Nineteen kilometers long little more than a hanger for supply shuttles, ramscoop for fuel, an engine, and room for her. Her body stretched throughout the entire ship tweaking nobs and electrical electrical circuits hooked directly into her nervous system to ensure that exactly the right levels of water, protein and nutrients were fed into her body.
Satisfied with the added potential biomass, Threedak grew. Her perception turned to cells near the rear of her ship and fed them the material and nervous impulses they would need. Her flesh, a collection of nerves and muscle, expanded at a rate visible to the eye, a pinkish gray wall growing to fill her environment. She felt the confines of her ship pressing up against her and constraining her. The feeling was alien, there wasn’t any sense of pain or pressure. Simply a knowledge that she could not longer grow any farther in that way.
She stopped, mentally sending out a call to the rest of the fleet. Floating next to her was another flesh barge and two of the heavy factory ships, all around the same size as her. Adjusting her sensors, as naturally as she would her eyes, Threedak glanced around the rest of the fleet. Distantly she could feel her body on Dhaj gasp and fall back into her couch.
A cloud of freighters and processing ships surrounded the three core vessels. Only about 6 kilometers in length each, bigger than the Empress Threedak, they contained the resources and biomass the fleet needed for its task. Beyond them were twelve great fleets positioned in a sphere around her ship. The fleets handfuls of glittering sand in the emptiness of deep space, of deep space possessed well over one hundred torch and capital ships apiece.
Threedak felt the black ichor that served as her blood run cold. Those were the defensive fleets. The core of her race never actually entered systems, instead lurking on the extreme periphery where wormholes were more easily formed, they relied upon massive fleets of scavengers and smaller ships to scour entire solar systems for resources to feed into their massive maw.
Essentially, it was impossible for any enemy to find the home fleet. They never entered the system, instead hiding outside of sensor range where they could easily be warned away by in system scouts and relay stations, disappearing long before they could be discovered by interloping ships. Their databases contained no information on its location. In fact, they had no databases to raid at all. All information was kept solely within the synapses of the cluster of muscle and flesh that ‘crewed’ their ships, theoretically impossible for an opponent, no matter how technically adept, to steal information from.
On Dahj, Threedak could distantly feel Kahtash press a damp rag against her forehead, trying to soothe her frothing and thrashing body. She grinned. Despite the roiling emotions caused by the dissociation of the experience, this is what she’d been missing. To finally be involved at the frontline of the empire once more, contributing in the same way her daughters did as she did out thought and out planned her foes.
Daughters? Her perspective shifted once more to the fleet surrounding her. She was Vanguard Beta, the second great flesh ship of the host. She did not have daughters, just extensions of herself, severed and poured into the ships, tanks and small construction suits needed for the host’s mission. She flexed her mind in confusion, feeling the extensions of herself dimly in about half of the surrounding ships.
Each vessel had its own nerve clusters and was capable of limited thought, but they were all still part of either Vanguard Beta or her sister, Alpha. When they acted, it might appear independent. Certainly she wouldn’t have immediate knowledge of their actions until they moved within broadcasting range. That independence was a lie. They moved without her will just as much as her tail would twitch when poked or prodded by Dormah, instinctively and without conscious control.
Tail? Beta’s thoughts roiled. She didn’t have a tail. She was a ship with loosely connected peripheral organs in the shape of other ships used to fight off pests and claim resources for the host.
She concentrated on the Vanguard’s mission, having to center herself for the first time in centuries. For some reason she could feel an alien inquisitiveness within herself asking questions, seeking basic knowledge that was the simple basis for her being. The Host consisted of the Masters and the Vanguard. The Masters created the Vanguard over a millenia ago, dispatching the Vanguard into space to pave the way for them as heralds.
Over the intervening years the eight great flesh barges of the Vanguard expanded, cleansing trails through the vastness of space away from the homeworld where the Masters waited. Her sisters and her grew in size and biomass, fueling greet fleets which they used to cleanse their zones of the pests that might trouble the Masters.
Once a zone was cleansed they would pause, and build the great gleaming cities for the Masters to inhabit once they left the homeworld. They crafted paradises on worlds within the appropriate tolerances of the Masters and left extensions of themselves, slowly working on the multi century process of terraforming worlds that didn’t quite meet those exacting standards. On the moons and asteroid belts they built the stations, mines and factories the Masters would want once they stepped into their new homes.
As the exodus continued, foe after foe ground into dust and their worlds perfected for the Masters, they never actually encountered the beings. Beta knew that they existed. After all, how could they not. They created her. Despite this she never wondered why the great cities and fully developed solar systems never saw the arrival of the Masters.
She still had extensions in many of them, even those a mere handful of light years from the homeworld. They sent updates as they performed final tweaks, ensuring that moons had the right Oxygen to Nitrogen ratio to perfectly compliment the Master’s lungs, fiddled with the albedo on a world to cool it just enough to make it a balmy paradise. Still, after all of those years they never saw the Masters. Not even a single scout ship to check on their progress.
Why was she thinking about these things? Beta ruminated, trying to determine where the strange chain of intrusive thoughts had come from. This should have been a perfectly ordinary day.
The wordthought was cycle. It should have been a perfectly ordinary cycle during which she put together the final fleet to destroy the race of pink bipeds clogging up this galactic arm. They had fought well, better than most but not as well as some, but ultimately their fleets lay dead in space, nothing but processed materials and biomass for the fleet. All that remained were their last coreworlds, impressively guarded sanctuaries that would be perfect for the Masters once they left the homeworld.
It didn’t matter that this world was almost eighty years from the homeworld by the fastest series of wormholes. Beta’s directives didn’t contemplate stopping. The Masters wanted the Vanguard to expand until told otherwise.
Her engines rumbled. What if the Masters were dead? What gave her the right to simply snuff out races so far from home and steal their resources?
Something was wrong. These thoughts were not Beta. Something insidious had invaded her. An enemy of the mind that was not contemplated. Frantically Beta swung her scanners too and fro, looking for a ship that had snuck close enough to her attempt to access her neural network. This should not be possible, yet clearly it was so.
She found nothing lingering outside her ship, yet those thoughts did not belong to her. Distantly she felt a body. A small frail thing. This should and could not be so. Somehow this thing was invading her, attempting to rip the secrets of the Masters from her.
Beta’s vision pulsed and went red. Her perception swarmed through her body looking for the offending parts, neurons that tasted alien and wrong. In a fraction of a second, she found them. A cluster that would was set to be turned into a worker and ground warrior. Distress and anger flushed through her as she shunted the cells aside, frantically pouring them into the suit to which they were assigned.
The blade closed over her flesh and with a slight tugging sensation, it was gone, part of the new worker. Her perception blurred.
Worker blinked its scanners, clattering its four metal legs against the ground as it stood up inside Vanguard Beta. It was not set to incarnate for at least five days. Sloppy. It tried to contact Beta for information and was met with a wall of rage. Alien and burning, Beta consumed the queries tearing them from Worker and refusing to respond. Worker queried again, unsure what to do as it poured through its neural databanks.
Threedak lost focus, and came back to herself heaving. Dormah stood nearby, speaking to Kahtash in angry hushed whispers. She winced, feeling the pain of an IV embedded in her grasper. She lifted her head groggily.
“Are you MAD Threedak?” Dormah shouted at her as soon as she noticed she was awake. “Your mind almost gave out twice and your heart DID give out once. Please oh great Empress, tell me what in your infinite wisdom made you think that consuming an alien you knew to be completely foreign would be a good idea.”
“Water,” she croaked, taking a pull from the offered cup before responding. “I thought it would be safe, Kahtash said that the previous-”
“Paskon has PTSD,” Dormah interjected, throwing a heated glance at Kahtash. “The military only bothered to check her body. Of course they wouldn’t worry about something as complex as her mind. The poor thing is just whispering about the glory of “The Masters” half the time. Of course she isn’t doing fine!”
“Please,” Threedak raised a grasper, her head beginning to pound. “This truly will be the last time.”
“Dormah,” Threedak looked at her unconvinced doctor before turning to her daughter. “Kahtash. It is time for all of us to meet. I have… not been well and there are many things I need to discuss with you and your sisters. Both of a personal nature and with regard to the wellbeing of the empire as a whole. For now I need to rest, but all of you should return to attend me here tomorrow for dinner.”
“Mother,” Kahtash trailed off slightly. “Aren’t you going to return to Meridian Station? If you aren’t well it would be best to bring Dormah back to her equipment so she can care for you properly.”
“No Kaht,” Threedak replied affectionately, reaching out and taking her daughter’s hesitant grasper in both of her own. “This is where things began and there is no need for Dormah’s equipment now. If anything I am a Dhajtel of symbolism and habit. If we are going to complete a cycle, I will do so on my own terms and in the proper way of things. Gather your sisters. We will meet again tomorrow.”