Masquerade

cropped-kmack-blog-header-white-2

Masquerade (science fiction short story)

           © Kasey Mackenzie

[This was one of the short stories I wrote during the brief period of time I spent entering the Writers of the Future Contest before deciding to focus on novel-length fiction, and getting an agent.  I’d like to re-write it completely someday in order to clean up some of the writing and get rid of the head-hopping, but I still have a fondness in my heart for this one.  This is a much cut-down version from an overly bloated first draft, which is another reason I’d like to re-write:  to make sure the necessary backstory gets mentioned briefly earlier on since I removed whole chunks of it.]

 

“The treasonous fanatics of the Terran Tier split off from the Earth-based Hominid Tier in 2128, declaring open warfare upon the rightful government and engaging in atrocious acts of genocide against other species. Fortunately, the technological resources of the Hominid Tier, and the as-yet fragile Universal Alliance, proved far superior to those employed by the Terrans. Within a relatively short timeframe, the Terrans were routed, and banished to the homeworld they christened “New Terra.”

“Defiant, having learned nothing from their defeat, they became more insidious in their tactics. To this day, one and a half centuries later, they persist in spreading their racist propaganda and seek to overthrow the Hominid Tier and the Universal Alliance. With such antecedents as Old Terra’s Ku Klux Klan, the Taliban, the German Nazi Party, and many other ancient hate-groups, they are skilled in subverting others to their cause, teaching the superiority of humankind and that the purity of Terrans must be upheld at all costs. Today, they employ militant mercenaries—known as Cleansers—to seek out and covertly eliminate those they deem most dangerous to their cause.

“Fortunately, their power-base is confined mostly to their own solar system, as they rarely make alliances with any of the Unaligned Techworlds to further their own ends. In this, their racist beliefs serve to help limit their power. However, they are most persistent, and—much like a cornered animal—will protect their holdings at any cost. They are fanatical, methodical, and not to be underestimated. They are enemies of the esteemed Hominid Tier, and the Universal Alliance, and as such are to be thwarted whenever possible. Honor to the Hominid Tier, and Honor to the Universal Alliance.”

Head tilted as she listened raptly, the young woman’s large green eyes widened as she obediently repeated the responsive statement that signaled the end to another lesson. “Honor to the Hominid Tier, and Honor to the Universal Alliance.” She sighed softly at the pleasure of another lecture concerning those who provided so well for her. Dr. Melanova would be pleased that she had listened so well, and would be able to repeat verbatim the lesson in its entirety. To do any less would bring about dishonor, and punishment.

Charade pushed aside the slight glimmer of resentment that pulsed through her at the thought of being punished. Dr. Melanova would most certainly not be pleased if she even suspected that her pupil was still capable of feeling such ungrateful emotions. After all, the Hominid Tier provided for her every need, educating her and training her to be a valuable member of the Universal Alliance. Someday she would even be allowed the highest honor of serving in the UA Naval Forces—something she looked forward to with great anticipation.

Lecture finished, it was time for her daily physical training. She entered the training room, her eyes widening once more when she saw the tall, elegant figure of Dr. Melanova standing in the center of the room. Charade immediately snapped to attention, saluting her mentor and waiting for the doctor to speak.

Dr. Melanova rewarded her with one of her rarely bestowed signs of approval. She actually smiled, a nearly infinitesimal upward twitch of her rosebud lips. Charade wanted to thank the doctor for such an honor, but she remained silent.

“Charade, child, good afternoon. I am pleased with how well you are progressing in your studies. The UASC is as well. Very pleased.”

Charade could scarcely comprehend what she had done to deserve actual verbal praise. She had done nothing unusual recently, nothing particular to garner praise from Dr. Melanova. Unless…her brow furrowed as she considered the slight twist in her training session the day before…

Sania, the newest technician in charge of maintaining the various computers and electronic equipment used in Charade’s education, entered the training room to run a routine check on one of the simulators. She jumped when a shadow moved at the corner of her vision, nearly tripping over her own feet. A hand reached out to firmly steady her, and a soft voice murmured, “Excuse me. I did not mean to startle you.”

Sania tittered as she recognized the test subject. “Ahhh, Charade, I’m sorry. I thought that your session had concluded. I did not intend to intrude.”

The slender, pale young woman smiled, an expression rarely offered and all the more beautiful because of that fact. Her skin’s coloring was similar to that of humankind, although it possessed a silvery sheen that made it gleam in certain light. “You did not intrude. I took a few moments for meditation, and now I am leaving.”

Sania regarded her as she left, feeling plain and frumpy next to the fey woman-child as she seemed to float from the room. Shaking her head ruefully, the technician turned to the task at head, already forgetting the brief contact between the test subject and herself…

As the door to the training room closed, a petite, slightly-plump young woman with short brown hair and clear violet eyes moved along the corridor. Her pace was deliberate, steady, showing no sign of feline grace. Her features were pleasant enough, but certainly would not cause anyone’s gaze to immediately fixate upon her face. As she passed the technicians gathered in the readyroom between the training room and the elevator leading to the private quarters, one of the techs gave her a surprised look.
“Sania, you ran those diagnostics already? Jeez, girl, you are as talented as your file indicated!”

The young woman chuckled, and Sania’s voice said teasingly, “Maybe you can learn a thing or two!” She winked at the tech before stepping onto the elevator.

Nearly a half-hour later, Sania exited the training room and passed the readyroom. She was puzzled when a particularly good-looking tech called out, “Jeez, Sania, you must be as silent as Charade to have gotten back into the training room without my hearing you.”

Sania merely raised an eyebrow before replying, “I’ll take that as a compliment,” her voice sounding exactly as it had the half-hour previously. Shaking her head at the eccentricities of some technicians, she stepped onto the elevator and returned to her private quarters, never noticing that Charade stood hidden in an alcove nearby, observing her conversation with the other Tech…

“Yes,” Melanova’s voice broke into her reverie, “We did observe your successful metamorphosis yesterday, Charade. The Tech you impersonated had no clue that you managed to cause her to trip and that your steadying arm was gaining the traces of DNA your body needed to shift into her form. And the other Tech believed that you were Sania Velanthey. You are entering the final phase of your training, child. Someday—someday soon, perhaps—you shall serve the noble purpose for which you have been trained. You shall serve the Hominid Tier well.”

Automatically, the ingrained response echoed from Charade’s lips, “Honor to the Hominid Tier, and Honor to the Universal Alliance.”

Another smile touched the rosebud lips of Dr. Melanova. “Yes, you shall serve very well indeed.”
* **
The Starglitter Hotel was no different than the thousands of other luxury hotels that catered to the multitude of species that inhabited the Explored Reaches. The plainly dressed woman blended easily with the throngs of Hominids about her, many of whom were here for less than legal purposes. It suited Charade’s own needs perfectly. She had tracked the highly placed traitor of the Hominid Tier this far, and currently wore the form of his Terran contact. A Terran Cleanser who would do no more “cleansing.”

Consulting with the Hotel’s automated Concierge system, she obtained access to her designated suite and directions from the overcrowded lobby. Glancing about to be sure she was not being observed, she made her way to the nearest bank of elevators without hurry.

Moments later, the plain woman stood in a dimly-lit corridor, regarding the large plastek door before her with furrowed brow. She held her five fingers to the suite’s Identiplate. Seconds later, the woman entered the luxuriously appointed suite. Suite 315.

He was seated on the readyroom’s single sofa, exactly as anticipated. Of slender build and slightly effeminate features, Colonel Shay Brayton regarded the woman for several silent moments. At last, he spoke.

“Captain Scheinen.” His voice was just as arrogant as his stance, though cordial enough. After all, she did represent those responsible for compensating him for his “trouble.”

“Colonel Brayton.”

The Colonel rose, beckoning the woman to follow him. She complied, allowing him to lead the way from the suite’s readyroom to the master bedchamber. There a computer scanned both of them for the known types of electronic recording devices as well as any sort of neural implants. The computer also acted as a distorter, ensuring that no one nearby could eavesdrop with high-tech equipment.

The Colonel waited for her to gesture before speaking. “All seems clear regarding the Shrylankan bombing as far as the Hominid Tier and Universal Alliance are concerned. The case has been closed, and I have not heard anything to indicate that anyone questions this. After all, no one could possibly have known that the K’miri Ambassador would be there that evening.”

“Tell me, Colonel, why you summoned me here merely to tell me all is clear regarding the Shrylankan bombing. That was surely not worth the risk of being discovered for a Terran spy.”

The Colonel shifted slightly, appearing both anxious and eager at the same time. “I have gotten wind of an extremely low-profile, high-class intelligence group funded by the Security Council. What I have heard about this task-force has been scarce—but I have uncovered a few interesting facts.”

The woman nodded to indicate he should proceed.

The Colonel unconsciously licked his lips as he continued, “Word has it that only the absolutely-highest clearance brass are even supposed to know about this task force. It’s a cross between a think-tank, an experimental research lab, and a commando unit.” Noticing that the Captain appeared only mildly interested, he rushed on to the most valuable piece of information.

“I think they somehow got their hands on a—live K’miri.”

The woman’s eyes widened predictably. “The most Defiled of the Impure?” Her voice rose audibly on the last word.

The Colonel nodded emphatically, obviously eager for the honor and wealth this bit of espionage would likely earn him from the Terrans. “Yes. Again, my clearance has not allowed me to learn much, but I believe they have a K’miri they are training to be some sort of super-assassin. How they got one of those low-tech, self-involved creatures to betray their culture by defecting to the UA is beyond me.”

The Captain’s eyes glittered dangerously, although the Colonel was oblivious to any change in her emotions.

“The only other thing I was able to glean—which cost me a pretty penny, I can assure you—is that some genius in the task-force has finally succeeded where no other has yet. He or she actually managed to decode K’miri DNA! I cannot tell you how this knowledge threatens the very core of our beliefs. It’s bad enough that it’s taking so effing long to Cleanse the remnant of that freakish species. Can you imagine what the bleeding-heart beast-lovers could do with decoded K’miri DNA?”

The woman sensed that the Colonel was holding something back. He hoped to intrigue her enough to drive up the price of his information. She decided to bite.

“No, I can’t imagine. Perhaps you can specify for me. For an added bonus of course.”

The Colonel’s greedy eyes gleamed as he continued, “The most dangerous of the SC could, for instance, authorize this task-force to go against every UA law and attempt to clone this K’miri’s DNA for nonmedical reasons.”

The Captain displayed suitable distaste, waiting for the piece de resistance. She was not disappointed.

“Or, even more illegal and abominable, they could meld this K’miri’s DNA with human DNA in order to create a more viable clone. A clone with the K’miri’s ungodly shapeshifting abilities and the more predictable loyalties of a human.”

The Captain became visibly disturbed. “Are you saying that the vaunted Universal Alliance’s Security Council would actually authorize and fund an illegal hybrid clone?”

“No, Captain Scheinen. I’m saying they already have.”
* * *
The Captain remained silent for several moments, a flurry of emotions crossing her face too quickly to be named. Finally, she broke the silence. “I want to know everything that you have uncovered concerning this….project. Now.” Her voice was now colder than subspace, her expression harsh and foreboding.

Colonel Brayton wet his lips. “Ah, I did mention how very costly this information was to obtai…”

In an instant she was upon him, inhumanly strong hands gripping his arms and immobilizing him upon the floor. The Colonel blinked up at her in dazed befuddlement as her arm pressed down on his throat. The other now gripped his right hand, his primary, in her left hand. Swiftly, the pressure on his hand increased tenfold, causing him to scream in agony. After a terrifyingly long moment, the pain lessened.

“Now then, Colonel Brayton, I am sure that you can tell my patience is at an end. If you prevaricate any further in an effort to drive up your price, I shall have no other option but to render your primary hand absolutely useless. Understood?”

“B… but you can’t do this to m…me! We’re on the same side! We’re equals!”

She cut off his words with a vicious squeeze on his right hand. He managed to bite down his cry this time, although sweat now suffused his entire forehead. Good. He feared her.

“Argument is futile, Colonel Brayton. All that should concern you is that, for the time being, I do outrank you. Understood?”

He slowly nodded, trying to ignore the burning fire in his right hand. How the hell could one Terran woman have so much strength?

“The rules here are very simple. I ask the questions. You provide the answers. No lies or half-truths. I shall know if you lie. Do not test me. And if you get the foolish idea to signal the hotel security system—do not bother. I modified the jamming frequency to prevent any such action.”

The Captain paused momentarily, easing the pressure in his hand a bit more and leaning slightly against his throat. “I repeat, tell me everything that you know regarding the K’miri DNA cloning project. Begin with how you learned about it. And be very careful that I believe you, Colonel Brayton. Now.”

His words spilled out in a torrent, his tongue nearly tripping in his frenzy to provide her with the information she wanted. He told her how, after hearing vague rumors concerning a K’miri member of the UASC, he had contacted an old classmate that owed him for covering up certain torrid scandals not long out of the Academy. That classmate just so happened to be a member of the task force who pulled the strings of the K’miri assassin. Her arm jerked violently at that statement.

Once again, he had the strong sense that her interest in this whole mess was much more than merely professional. He pushed that thought away and talked rapidly, struggling to satisfy her thirst to know and forcing himself to ignore the burgeoning discomfort each breath now caused. His entire throat was on fire with the need to draw in more oxygen, yet he still strove to spit out each word. Gradually, his voice became softer and hoarser, until his final words echoed in the still air.

“The K…K’miri assassin has a y…young, fully v…viable clone child. Dr…Dr. Li…anna…Har…lowe…” His words were abruptly choked off as his eyes lolled back into his head. He was dead.

The woman did not seem to notice. A single tear fell from her large green eyes, eyes that had seconds before been a merciless brown. Slowly, the rest of her features shifted, until a young, achingly-lovely woman knelt where the plain-featured, older Captain had been. Her shoulders shook as she stared at the dead Colonel. She stayed that way for over an hour, battling with inner demons. When she finally moved, it was to shake her head and leap to her feet in agitation.

She hadn’t meant to kill the Colonel—but it would have been necessary anyway. He knew too many secrets that he should not have known. He knew the truth behind the lies she had slowly begun to doubt while on her last few assignments. At first, she had suspected the murmurings against the UASC were due to the propaganda spread by the Terran Cleansers. Yet, she had begun investigating the claims that the Security Council was made up mostly of hard-nosed conservative Hominids every bit as fanatically devoted to their beliefs as the Cleansers of the Terran Tier. Some of what she had found indicated this could be more than just filthy lies spread by dissidents. Now—now she vowed to learn the truth for herself. Despite the thoroughness of her training—of her brainwashing, she could at times admit—she would not kill for any organization which was every bit as corrupt as the one it supposedly stood against.

Charade worked quickly, preparing the scene to appear as though the middle-aged Colonel had simply suffered a stroke while on his brief furlough. A shame the poor man had been so dedicated to his work. He should have rested more. The body would not be discovered for a day or two, which should prove adequate for her purposes. She would be long gone by then. She left him lying, unclothed, beneath the bedcovers. Disposing of the highly illegal distorter, she went over Suite 315 with clinical precision. Nothing would be left to indicate her involvement, or that of the UASC. Then, once more in the guise of Captain Scheinen, she returned to the Terran ship and began the journey she had made so many times before. Home.

Home, to the Old Terran solar system and to Callisto where she had been raised, to confront the mentor she had always held in such high regard. Home to discover the truth about something that she had never thought she would possess—a child…
* * *
After disposing of the Terran ship she had used to perfect the guise allowing her to breach the Starglitter Hotel, Charade journeyed back to the Earth’s Solar System in her own small, ultra-advanced starship. Ironically enough, it utilized the highly sophisticated cloaking device copied from the K’miri evacuation vessel in which she had sped to safety so many years ago. She was not apprised of just where that particular device had originated, however.

Emerald-green eyes blinked several times as she moved her gaze from the awe-inspiring sight of Callisto spread beneath her and focused on preparing to slip past the UASC’s dozens of safety measures. She had never tried to covertly infiltrate the airspace of Callisto before, but was confident that she could do so safely. At least, it was theoretically likely. The area around Whidbey Island was restricted for hundreds of klicks. Unidentified vessels were immediately fired upon. No questions asked.

The choked whispers of Colonel Brayton echoed through her mind, chasing the hesitation from her mind. “The K…K’miri assassin has a y…young, fully v…viable clone child. Dr…Dr. Li…anna…Har…low…”

She would track down this Dr. Harlowe, and then she would find out the truth of her own upbringing. And, more importantly, learn where her child was being kept, and whether it would be possible to get the child safely away from Whidbey Island. She’d be damned if she’d allow her child to go through the same cold, calculated brainwashing that she herself had been put through. No, her child’s life would contain love and laughter. Her child would know who its mother was, and that he or she was cared for. Her hands clutched convulsively at the starship’s manual controls before she gained control over her emotions.

Charade set the ship on autopilot and released the safety harness encapsulating her in the pilot’s seat. Stretching with a fluid, feline motion, she crossed the small cabin to where she kept the various implements used on her missions. Surveying the two compact cabinets and one rather large chest thoughtfully, she began withdrawing those items she thought would be useful.

The neutral voice of the ship’s computer broke into her reflective reverie, announcing that the ship would soon reach its designated destination. Charade grabbed the last piece of equipment she would need and then moved back to the pilot’s seat. Ignoring the safety web, she surveyed the murkier waters that surrounded the island itself. All seemed clear thus far, and she expelled a single forceful breath. Now, the truly challenging aspect of her personal mission would begin. Now she had to find her child—and get them both to freedom.
* * *

Stealth and complete familiarity with her surroundings had seen Charade to the second of three security checkpoints in the outer ring of the complex. Able to darken the pigment of her own skin to match the dark shade of her uniform, she had easily slipped from her own ship and into the loading dock secreted beneath the waters of the Europea Ocean. The operatives who patrolled the dock’s perimeter had never suspected that another soul was present.

Charade swiftly assumed the form of Sania Velanthey, careful to use the haircut and uniform style of the most recent photo provided in the databanks. Fortunately for Charade, the tech was currently away on furlough. She was due back the next day, so her appearance here now should arouse no suspicious. Sania had done well for herself in the years since Charade had first borrowed her identity. She had been promoted four times, and commended twice. Oddly, Charade felt a small measure of affectionate pride in the Tech. Rarely did she allow herself to feel such emotions.

Fortunately, Sania’s promotions and commendations had also earned her a security clearance high enough to access the area of the UASC facility where the most secretive of the task-force’s projects were housed. Two guards were posted at each side of the corridor, but they merely nodded at her as she approached. Apparently it was not unusual for Sania to be in this area. Charade breathed an inner sigh of relief as she once again touched hand to identiplate and had her retinas scanned. Again, a door slid silently open—and she entered.

Charade was shocked upon entering the portion of the facility that was affectionately termed “the Nursery.” Those words were even etched into the wall opposite the entryway; bright colors and soothing patterns making the surrounding area appear much softer than any other part of the UASC’s facility. Disquiet assailed her at this surprising sign of…of…generosity. Never in her own childhood had she been treated as a child. Rather, she had been expected to behave as a small adult, or suffer the consequences. Her environment had been stark and utilitarian in the extreme.

She slipped silently down the brightly decorated hallway, passing several clearly marked doors that held nothing of interest. She paused only when she came to a door marked with the name of the person she sought—Dr. Lianna Harlowe. Steeling herself for whatever she might encounter beyond that door, Charade lifted her hand and knocked almost hesitantly. When several moments passed with no answer, Charade skillfully hacked into the mainframe and opened the door. It seemed fitting that the skills she had been taught were now being wielded against those who had used her.

She found herself standing in a large room, obviously Dr. Harlowe’s office. While it was furnished with an adult’s taste, it was bright and cheerful in design. Comfortable but elegant furniture, lovely watercolor paintings upon the walls, and an antique teakwood desk near the prominent windows overlooking a pleasure garden below. Charade moved to the desk, hoping to find clues to her child’s current whereabouts.

Neat stacks of holodisks lined the top of the desk, with a few items of apparent sentimental value interspersed throughout the stacks. The holoscreen was currently on sleepmode. Charade moved to stand behind the desk, touching the holoscreen in order to deactivate the power-saving mode. She blinked slightly at the vision that leapt across the holoscreen, surprised. The computer holoscreen was set to default to the ancient K’miri flag. This Dr. Harlowe continued to surprise Charade. She seemed to be absolutely nothing like Dr. Melanova.

Charade turned from the holoscreen and desk, having found nothing of interest other than the holoscreen’s display. She considered sifting through the desk’s drawers, but knew that they would take time to break into. Her eyes caught sight of a door on the opposite wall. She approached it, curious. The door was simply marked, “Myriad.”

“What does that mean?” she asked softly, then regarded the door’s identiplate. Shrugging, she shifted her hand again and stepped through the door once it slid open. She found herself standing in a long, brightly lit corridor. The walls were covered with pictures displaying scenes taken from various children’s stories. She could not help but smile, although she felt a piercing pang of wistfulness. What she would have given for a bit of escape from the interminable lessons during her childhood.

Voices echoed along the corridor, the lilting patterns oddly musical. She could discern two separate voices, both female. They were too distorted for her to make out more than that. Legs suddenly trembling, she stepped down the hallway. Several doors lined the sides of the corridor, but she could tell that the voices came from further down the hall. She struggled to control her breathing.

A single door was set at the far end of the corridor. Charade was surprised to see dozens of hand-drawn pictures covering the large door from top to bottom. The ones near the bottom were nothing more than clumsy splotches of color splashed across paper. The farther up the door her eyes traveled, the more skilled the pictures became. The ones near the top showed surprising skill and a strangely moving beauty. At the very top of the door, prominently displayed in the exact center, she saw—herself.

She sucked air through her teeth, shocked to the core. The picture was not quite perfectly executed, but there was no doubting who its subject was. Her hand moved of its own volition to touch the red-haired, green-eyed figure depicted lovingly on the paper. It was Charade, down to the very special ops Naval uniform she now wore. Could it be? Could it be that they had denied Charade all knowledge of her daughter, yet gifted that same precious child with stories of her clone-mother?

Charade’s fury towards all involved in this project cooled by scant degrees. She considered that picture for a long, silent moment before those musical voices broke into her reverie once again. She shook her head to clear it, having reached a conclusion. She would listen to this Dr. Lianna Harlowe rather than killing her on sight. Her apparent kindnesses to her child earned her that much at least.

Charade’s hand moved slowly from the picture towards the identiplate. A swift matter of hacking the mainframe and the door swung silently open. The voices became much clearer, although their bearers were not immediately visible. Charade tilted her head, now able to sense the distorter nearby which prevented the conversations in this area of the Nursery from being eavesdropped on by either physical or mechanical means. That explained why the voices had been too muffled for her to hear, even directly outside the door she had just entered. Strange. Why would Dr. Harlowe wish to hide her conversations with the clone-child from her colleagues?

She relaxed slightly, relieved that the voice’s owners were not in the foyer she now stood in. She would like the opportunity to observe objectively before making her presence known. Entering the foyer fully so the door could swing shut, she turned and used Dr. Harlowe’s DNA to seal the room from the inside. Once finished, she slipped surreptiously through the outer foyer and approached an open doorway. The voices grew stronger still.

“…must remember to never reveal that you know about your mother, especially not to Dr. Melanova.”

“I know, Lia,” a sweetly-lilting child’s voice replied. “The other doctors are at odds over the Project. Dr. Melanova’s success with Mother means she’s stronger now.”

“Yes, Myri. That she is,” came a solemn reply. “She may even carry as much sway as me. If she finds out what I’ve chosen to teach you of your heritage, she may gain enough support to see me pulled from the Project.”

“Never!” the child’s voice thundered. “I won’t let them! They took my mother from me; they can’t take you, too. You’re the only one who cares about me as much as my abilities!”

“That’s not quite true,” the older woman soothed softly. “You know the Techs I trust care for you very much. They keep our secret from Dr. Melanova, a most difficult task in itself. And your mother…if we were allowed to tell her about you, she would care for you more than anyone.”

Charade’s gaze settled upon the two figures seated at the far end of the room. The taller of the figures was a middle-aged but lovely woman with golden-blonde hair and penetrating turquoise eyes. Dr. Lianna Harlowe, Charade’s mind whispered before focusing on the one she truly longed to see—a young girl of perhaps seven or eight years. Blazing red hair untamed by comb or brush; dazzling emerald eyes the exact shade of her mother’s; features that were striking yet did not quite fit her small face. Someday, however, she would grow into those features, becoming a near replica of her mother.

Charade tried to see the human influences that had supposedly been bred into her clone-daughter, but could find nothing that set her apart from herself. Those differences must be internal, her mind whispered, making her feel an odd sense of detachment. Then detachment faded and was replaced by amazement. My daughter!

“While I am very sorry that they keep you away from your mother, I am exceedingly grateful that they haven’t separated you and me.”

Charade’s eyes nearly blurred with tears at the love apparent in Dr. Harlowe’s eyes and voice. She could only feel gratitude that her daughter’s upbringing had not been as harsh and loveless as her own.

She must have made some infinitesimal sound, for the child glanced in her direction, jumping to her feet. Sudden fear danced across her face, and Dr. Harlowe stood swiftly as well. She moved to stand in front of the child, scowling sharply. “How the hell did you get in here, Tech Velanthey? The identiplate to this room is keyed only to Myriad and myself.”

So that was what Myriad meant. It was the child—her child’s—name. Charade could sense intense fear mixed with the doctor’s obvious anger. She was not sure how much the woman she thought was Sania had heard. She feared being taken away from the child more than anything else. As she should. Now that Charade had found her daughter, she planned to get her away from this place.

“Perhaps so, Dr. Harlowe,” she said smoothly, eyes moving from woman to child, and then back again. “However, you will find that it is hard to keep secrets from me, and harder still to keep from me that which is rightfully mine.”

Confusion swept across the woman’s face as she pushed Myriad farther behind her. “What are you talking about? You are assigned to Charade and not Myriad.” Her voice rose several octaves. “Now, HOW did you get in here?”

All at once the child flew across the room and towards the perceived threat to Dr. Harlowe. The feral look on the girl’s face chilled Charade to the bone. This must be how her own adversaries felt when looking upon her as she struck them down. How odd to see a smaller version of herself bearing down upon her.

“I won’t let you tell!” Myriad shrieked. “I won’t let you take her from me!”

“Myriad!” Dr. Harlowe cried. “Don’t hurt her!”

The warning came too late, for the girl had reached the figure of Sania Velanthey. As her hands moved out to strike against that figure, they found empty air. She stumbled, shock lighting her eyes as she spun around and found her adversary now on the opposite side of the room. A human could not move that quickly. It was impossible. Her eyes showed even further shock as that adversary suddenly began to—change.

Short, mahogany-colored hair lengthened and became flame-red. Clear violet eyes became emerald-green. Ordinary features became exotic and lovely. Well-tanned skin became silvery pale. Recognition lit in the child’s eyes as she choked out, “M…mother?”

Dr. Harlowe appeared much less surprised than her ward. She regarded Charade with a piercing turquoise gaze as she said simply, “So, you’ve come at last.”

Charade glanced at the woman warily, nodding. “Yes, and I won’t let you keep her from me. Nobody will ever keep my child from me again.”

Myriad raised a hand beseechingly, “Is it really…her, Lia?”

Charade frowned slightly as she took a hesitant step towards her daughter. How could she doubt the evidence of her own eyes?

“Yes, Myri, it is really your mother. I doubt that any other K’miri would have discovered your existence or could have gotten this far into the facility. I especially doubt any other K’miri could attain your mother’s DNA against her wishes,” she added dryly.

Myriad took a hesitant step of her own. “Mother!” she repeated, her tone this time welcoming rather than disbelieving. Charade crossed the distance between them in a flash, sweeping the child into her arms and embracing her tightly. Emotions that she had never dreamed of feeling before swept through her with the force of a tidal wave. Affection, pride, relief, protectiveness, and love. Love. How odd it felt to have someone to love after all this time.

“I knew you’d come for me,” Myriad said fiercely. “I knew it. Lia hoped you would, but she wasn’t sure like I was. I knew it.”

“Of course I came for you,” Charade said shakily, pulling back only enough to look into her daughter’s emerald gaze. “I am only sorry that it took so long for me to learn about you.”

“It wasn’t your fault,” the child said matter-of-factly. “After all, Lia could hardly tell you about me, or even give you clues. But we knew that you would find out, somehow.”
“Indeed,” Lianna said softly. “After all, you were trained by the best. And you are K’miri.”

Charade’s eyes locked with the doctor’s, each measuring the other. Charade found herself smiling slightly. It was the first time someone had used the term “K’miri” with her in an approving tone of voice.

“Yes, I am. As is—my daughter.”

Myriad hugged her mother once more, then stepped back. Her eyes held sudden fear. “D…do they know you’re here, Mother? They’ll be very angry and they’ll take me from both of you if they find out!”

Lianna stepped towards mother and daughter. “Does anyone know, Charade?” she asked urgently.

“No one knows that I am here—yet. And I don’t intend them to find out. I am leaving, with my daughter. I will not serve a faction who has thoroughly exploited me—and my child—and broken their own laws to do so.”

Lianna shivered at the icy steel in Charade’s voice. She had dreaded this day for many years, while yet hoping for it. Both mother and child deserved to be together. Both deserved the chance to return to their own people, if they so desired.

“While I share your opinion, Charade, it will not be so easy for both you and Myriad to escape. Precautions have been taken to insure that could not happen. While you have bypassed those that I can counteract, you still have to deal with those set in place by Dr. Melanova. The Security Council would not look kindly toward your going AWOL. They will hunt both you and your daughter. Would you take your daughter into such danger, knowing you would be hunted by Terran and Hominid alike?”

Eyes narrowing to emerald chips of ice, Charade’s grip on her daughter tightened. “What exactly do you suggest, Dr. Harlowe? That I go on as before, pretending I do not know about my daughter? Acting as assassin for a corrupt government that is not even truly my own?”

“The entire government is not corrupt, Charade. I know you must find that hard to believe, but there are good and evil in each society, in each government. If we can get both you and Myriad safely to Shrylanka, we will have proof of just how corrupt that Council has gotten. The Senate would have no choice but to act against the Security Council. A full inquiry would be held, and those in the Council responsible for sanctioning this would be punished. You—and your daughter—would be granted diplomatic immunity. You would be free to make your own decisions for the future.”

Charade’s eyes narrowed slightly, “You said that I would not be able to escape with Myriad. How then can I take her to Shrylanka without Melanova stopping us?”

Lianna smiled slyly, “There is nothing to stop my taking Myriad from the Island on an excursion, and nothing to stop your acting as one of my assistants. I assume your ship is nearby?”

Charade nodded in reply.

“The precautions Melanova has in place are only to insure that you do not leave this island with Myriad. They do not stop my taking her. If nobody knows that you are with us, the precautions will never be set into motion.”

Charade shook her head. “How do I know I can trust you? This could be a trap!”

Suddenly, Myriad squeezed Charade’s hand. “Mother,” she said softly, beseechingly, “You can trust Lia. She loves me—she loves you, too. She fought for you before, and has always fought for me. And she…she’s as much my mother as you are. She would never betray us.”

Charade’s eyes widened as she caught the double meaning behind Myriad’s words. She looked back at Lianna. “The human portion of her DNA—it came from you.” It was more statement than query.

Lianna nodded, a small, sad smile upon her face. “Yes, it did. Not nearly as much of my DNA as yours—K’miri DNA does not take well to human DNA—but it is there all the same.”

Charade made her decision quickly, asking, “What do we need to do?”
* * *

An hour later, Lianna and Myriad left the Nursery behind, followed by one of the Tech bodyguards who often accompanied the two on their excursions outside of the facility. The man was tall and dark-skinned. His eyes scanned the corridors they walked through as if he expected trouble at every turn.
Amazingly enough, they made it through the entire facility without incident. Charade’s unease grew with each step she took in her guise of the Tech bodyguard. His DNA had been gained while he slept in his quarters in the Tech area of the Nursery, with none the wiser. She expected an alarm to be raised at any time. The closer they got to the loading dock, the more nervous she became. It all seemed too easy. She had gotten in and out of the facility with entirely too much ease for her comfort. She gritted her teeth as she followed behind Lianna and Myriad. There was nothing she could do now besides hope for the best.

Glancing about furtively, Charade used her wrist console to tap in the commands that would bring her hidden starship near enough to the dock for them to board. No guards or Techs were near enough to notice as they stopped at the last docked ship and waited. Charade grew steadily more ill at ease.

Lianna sensed her disquiet, tightening her hold on Myriad’s hand. “How did you manage to get your ship here without being detected?” she asked softly.

The Tech’s lips quirked slightly as Charade’s voice answered just as quietly, “I made a few…modifications…to my starship which I am sure my superiors never suspected I would be capable of making.”

Lianna managed a tense smile, “Good. We will need every advantage we can gain if we are to have any chance of actually arriving at Shrylanka.”

Suddenly, Charade stepped to the edge of the ship they were standing by, nodding in satisfaction. “It’s here,” she said in a low tone of voice. “I don’t dare turn the cloaking off, so you will have to watch me and step exactly where I step.” Her concerned gaze moved to Myriad. “Can you do that, Myri?” Lianna’s endearment for her daughter slipped easily past her lips now.

“Yes, Mother,” the girl answered solemnly. “And I won’t let Lia fall.”

Lianna’s lips trembled with amusement as she nodded at Charade. “Go, and we will follow.”

Charade held her hand out to where she knew the entry hatch would be, finding the solid steel her touch encountered extremely reassuring. She keyed the opening sequence on her wristpad with her other hand and stepped inside the ship. She made the transformation to her own form as she stepped through, then turned to hold her hands out the hatchway. Lianna scooped Myriad up in her arms, grabbed one of Charade’s arms, and stepped safely through. Charade sighed in relief as she keyed the door closed and turned to move towards the pilot’s chair. Her jaw dropped open in disbelief as the chair spun slowly around and she saw—herself.

A slight sense of déjà vu struck her, reminding her of the picture Myriad had drawn and attached to the door of her classroom. She saw the same flame-red hair, emerald-green eyes, and silvery-sheened skin that had been depicted in that picture. With one difference—her mirror image held a laser in her hands.

“M…mother?” Myriad asked shakily from Lianna’s arms. Charade stepped in front of the two, sudden cold fear burgeoning in the pit of her stomach. “Who are you?” she demanded sharply.

A mocking laugh issued from the mirror image as she rose fluidly to her feet, weapon never wavering. “Do I look familiar, pet? I should, you know. The apple does not fall far from the tree, as our dear human compatriots would say.”

Charade frowned in confusion, “What the hell are you talking about?”

“Perhaps you’re more familiar with another human saying—like mother, like daughter.”

The woman’s image shifted slightly, the eyes deepening a shade or two, the red hair glinting with golden highlights. Her nose became a trifle longer, her lips a bit thinner. Those lips bore an unsettling smile as she regarded Charade’s shock.

“M…mother?” Charade stammered, shaking her head, “Wh…what do you mean? You’re…K’miri?”

“Well that should be rather obvious, I would think. And by mother, I mean your mother.”

“My mother died…”

“…aboard the K’miri vessel bearing the Kaz’k’miri all those years ago,” the woman finished in a slightly bored tone of voice. “All those poor K’miri souls were slaughtered, save for two. You…”

“And the traitor,” Charade finished in a near-whisper. “You.”

The woman gave a slight bow, “Brilliant deduction, pet. As brilliant as your dearly departed father, or so I am told. Isn’t that right, Dr. Melanova?”

“Yes, or at least I used to believe so, Zereen. Until she developed the oddest code of morals which I just couldn’t erase from her psyche, no matter how I tried.”

Charade’s eyes moved from the K’miri to that too-familiar voice which echoed from the doorway leading to the sleeping quarters of the small starship. Her eyes narrowed dangerously as she caught sight of Gina Melanova entering the ship’s readyroom with a laser in hand. The respect Charade had once felt for her one-time mentor had been obliterated, replaced with complete and total loathing.

“Melanova,” Lianna said bitterly. “How convenient. A Hominid traitor allied with a K’miri traitor. How much are the Terrans paying you for this?”

Melanova’s ebony eyes glittered dangerously as her gaze swung from Charade to Lianna. “Still the fool, Lianna, after all this time. The Terrans aren’t paying me a single cent. My employers are concerned members of the Security Council who have serious qualms at allying themselves with the K’miri.”

“You mean they find it far more profitable to fan the flames of discord between K’miri and Terrans,” Lianna corrected with gritted teeth.

Melanova smiled contemptuously. “No, they find it foolish that the Hominid Tier does not force the other members of the Universal Alliance to eradicate the Terran Tier once and for all. If we have to sacrifice a few K’miri lives here and there to make it easier to extract information from Terran spies and to hunt down each and every Terran Cleanser, so be it.”

“A few K’miri lives?” Charade exclaimed furiously. “There were hundreds aboard the K’miri vessel my family traveled upon. And hundreds more people—Hominid as well as K’miri—were killed in the embassy bombing on Shrylanka!”

The other K’miri, Zereen, spoke before Melanova could reply, “I tried to convince your father and those other fools not to meet en masse that day. I tried to convince them it was folly to align directly with the Universal Alliance. The fools were too stubborn to listen.”

“We could not allow them to destroy all we had worked to achieve for so many years,” Melanova broke in. “Your mother was wise enough to realize that our way had the only chance of succeeding. Stir up enough public hatred of the Terrans as they hunted down a single race, and finally the Universal Alliance would rise up and destroy them as they should have in the Terran War centuries earlier. She knew that only then would the K’miri be truly safe.”

Charade’s gaze moved to the other K’miri woman, a woman whose features were so like her own. “You killed my father—your husband, and our entire family. How can you live with yourself? What kind of monster are you?”

A brief flash of—perhaps regret or sorrow—flashed through dark green eyes, before being replaced with disdain, “You could never understand. You were not raised by K’miri. You do not know what it is to lose your homeworld, to be hunted at every turn by a civilization more technologically advanced than your own. This is the only way to end it all, at last. I won’t allow you or anyone else to make my sacrifices worthless!”

Melanova broke in once more, leveling her weapon upon Charade. “I stopped short of true brainwashing when training you, something I should never have done. We are going to rectify that lapse immediately, and you are going to resume your duties and forget about all of this.” Her glance moved to Myriad and Lianna as a smile spread across her rosebud lips, “I am afraid that my old colleague Dr. Harlowe is going to suffer a fatal accident on her excursion with Myriad, causing the poor child to block her memory of the past few hours. Then I shall head both sides of Project Masquerade, as should have been the case from the beginning.”

“I won’t let you!” a shrill voice suddenly screeched in rage. “I won’t let you!” With those words, Myriad appeared to vanish, leaving Lianna’s arms empty.

Melanova cried out in dismay, eyes moving about the readyroom wildly. Zereen wasted no time in moving with K’miri stealth to grab for the easiest hostage to overpower, Lianna. As Charade discerned the other K’miri’s intent, she moved with equal speed to confront her mother. She pushed aside her fear for her daughter and gave in to the rage.

Charade grunted at the impact as she crashed into her mother, causing the laser to fall to the floor and spin out of reach. She was not prepared for the strength Zereen displayed, grabbing both of her daughter’s arms and squeezing with a vice-like grip. Charade had never fought another K’miri. Yet while superior strength was not on her side, a mother’s fear for her child’s safety was. She used the added adrenaline fear gave her to break Zereen’s grip, making a double fist with her hands and bringing it down upon the woman’s arm. A sickening crunch echoed in the air, causing her mother to howl in pain and rage.

Although hurt, Zereen pivoted with leonine grace and delivered a powerful kick to Charade’s abdomen. Charade hissed in pain, temporarily dazed. She managed to block out the pain, exchanging blows with her mother at a pace that was dizzying to witness. Neither managed to connect solidly with the other, until a chance kick by Charade grazed the side of Zereen’s head, disorienting her. Charade pressed her temporary advantage, sweeping Zereen’s feet and knocking her to the floor. She spared a moment to glance toward Melanova.

Scant seconds had passed, and the doctor now advanced upon Lianna with the same intent of gaining a hostage to use against the others. She never made it farther than a single step towards her former colleague. A sudden angry cry distracted her, and the laser flew through the air and clanged against a wall. Melanova swung at the air around her, but aimed too high to hit such a small child. All at once she fell to the ground as that child—wielding a K’miri’s inhuman strength—knocked into her at full force. Myriad appeared in that instant, a terrifying mask of rage upon her face as she began kicking the prone Melanova repeatedly.

Charade quickly scooped up Zereen’s fallen weapon, using the butt end of it to knock the K’miri unconscious before calling, “Lianna!” The woman caught the laser as she threw it, steadying it upon the still form of the K’miri and nodding toward Myriad. Charade covered the distance to her daughter more quickly than she had ever moved before, grabbing the child’s arms and pulling her back from Melanova’s still form.

“NOnoNOnoNOnoNOnoNOOOOOOO!” Myriad howled in anger. “I won’t let her take me, I won’t I won’t!” She struggled to reach Melanova once more.

“Myriad, child, hush, it’s me. Your mother.”

Myriad stopped fighting at Charade’s words, turning to regard her anxiously. “Mother? Mother!” She threw herself in Charade’s arms and started sobbing.

Charade held her daughter tightly, overwhelmed with so many emotions she could hardly begin to name them. She glanced down at the woman she had once considered the most honorable and intelligent woman in the universe. How naïve she had been then. She shook her head slightly as she took Myriad to Lianna, passing the girl to the only other person either of them trusted. She ordered the ship’s computer to depart immediately, relieved beyond belief when it did so. Obviously, Melanova and Zereen had acted without help from anyone else on Whidbey Island.

Charade carried both Melanova and Zereen to coldsleep bunks, strapping each in and keying the entries that would keep both under until they reached Shrylanka. She stared down at the two women who should have meant so much to her, yet had betrayed her each in turn. Her gaze locked on Zereen the longest. Her mother. How horribly ironic it was that her mother had killed her father—had almost killed her own daughter. Charade bit her lower lip hard to keep the tears at bay. She could count the times in her life she had cried on one hand—before she had learned of the existence of her own daughter. Myriad.

Charade turned away from the two traitors and returned to the starship’s readyroom. There Myriad sat beside Lianna, safe and sound as when her mother had left them. She breathed a sigh of relief, relaxing visibly for the first time in hours. Lianna’s turquoise eyes met her own emerald gaze as she raised a brow slightly. Charade managed a small smile, moving to touch the woman’s shoulder hesitantly.

“Thank you,” she breathed warmly. “Thank you for giving me my daughter back—for taking care of her when I could not. Thank you.”

Lianna smiled affectionately. “I would have been mother to both of you if I could have been. For now, I will stand beside you both before the Senate. With the evidence we now have—you, Myriad, the ship’s archives of the incident just now—there should be no problem in convincing them to act.” Her smile turned vicious. “And neither human nor K’miri can withstand the truth serums. It should not take long to sort out exactly who among the SC was involved in this disgusting plot.”

Charade knelt down, holding her arms out to Myriad. “Would you like to see Shrylanka with me?”

Myriad smiled as she accepted her mother’s embrace. “I should like that very much, Mother,” she said solemnly. Then, “We are nearly the last of the Kaz’k’miri. Maybe we can finish what our family started.”

Charade smiled softly as she looked into the emerald eyes which so matched her own. “Perhaps—perhaps we can.”

“And then,” Myriad said with satisfaction, “then—the K’miri will find a new homeworld and live happily ever after.”

Charade and Lianna exchanged a rueful look at the child’s optimism. Lianna shrugged slightly, saying, “Perhaps I went overboard with the ancient fairytales.”

Charade shook her head emphatically, eyes softening as she regarded her daughter. “No, I would not have it any other way. Every child deserves a little magic in life. I should know.”

Although she could not keep the sadness from her voice, the joy she felt at having a daughter and hope for the future soon erased all traces of sorrow from her eyes. Now she could truly begin to live life, raising her daughter and steering her own course in the coming years. At long last, the masquerade was over.