The Epherium Chronicles: Echoes
By T.D. Wilson
Carina Press, Harlequin Ltd.
EDF Dreadnaught Armstrong
Orbit Around Cygni 4
Friday, February 21
Earth Year 2155
Captain James Hood struggled to maintain his uncomfortable stance at attention next to his
uncle, Commander Jonathan Hood, the leader of the new Cygni colony. Hood had never felt this
nervous about anything, especially on his own ship, but this situation bordered on the unique.
Hood’s ship, the Armstrong, was getting a group of visitors. The type he’d never expected to see
unless they were rudely unannounced and carrying weapons.
Hood was sweating. He noticed it in his shirt now, tucked inside his deep royal-blue dress
uniform. The sensation was unnerving, but outwardly he didn’t let it show. He couldn’t. Plus, he
knew the others standing with him in the large aft docking bay of the Armstrong felt the same
way. Situated in the center of the docking bay was a large alien transport craft—a Cilik’ti craft,
to be more precise.
Hood rotated his head just enough to the right to catch a glimpse down the line of people
standing with him. Earth’s representatives to this meeting were not a seasoned group of
diplomats. Most of the thirty people arrayed to meet the Cilik’ti delegation were officers from
the other EDF ships that had arrived a day after the Armstrong’s desperate battle to save the
Cygni colony. They understood military protocol, not diplomacy. In fact, Hood had served or
helped to train most of them over the past several years. Diplomatic engagement was never in the
But Hood’s thoughts didn’t dwell on the other officers or even their roles in this ragtag
diplomatic envoy. Instead, his gaze passed over his uncle, who was clad in his light gray EEF
uniform to the next in line, his new aunt, Gina Hood. Dark black hair fell neatly on her
shoulders. Standing not quite ten centimeters shorter than her husband, Gina wore a light blue
pantsuit with a blue-trimmed gray jacket that accented her thin frame and provided a pleasing
complement to her husband’s attire. Like his uncle, Gina still looked the same age as she had
when the colonists aboard the Magellan had left Earth almost twenty-five years earlier. The
sleeper cell technology used for the long journey, called Embrace, had slowed down the
colonists’ aging process. Standing close together, he was certain few onlookers could tell who
was the older of the Hood males in the line.
Happy as he was to see his uncle and aunt standing next to him for this meeting, Hood’s
heart rate truly started to increase when his focus reached the next person in line. Lieutenant
Commander Jillian Howard, his uncle’s XO aboard the Magellan and second-in-command of the
Cygni colony, stood in a stout attention as she admired the Cilik’ti ship’s arrival. No matter how
many times he saw her, Hood felt an air of excitement. It had started when he was a kid just
visiting the Magellan’s training facility before the colony ship’s voyage. It wasn’t any different
Ever since the battle defending the colony, Hood had spent most of his time directing the
repairs of the Armstrong. What free time he had left, he spent with Jillian, and for Hood, it was
time well spent indeed. His vision faded out everyone around her and his eyes soaked in her
radiance like a sponge. Slowly, they followed the outline of her slightly freckled face and filtered
down to her silky neck. Unlike the other women EDF officers in the line, Jillian’s strawberry
blond hair was tucked in her usual ponytail that hung down just below the collar of her uniform.
He loved the smell of her hair. It was intoxicating.
Hood looked back up to her face and found Jillian’s hazel eyes now staring in his
direction. Her face tensed slightly enough that it didn’t draw anyone’s attention and she darted
her eyes back toward the Cilik’ti ship. Hood didn’t understand what that meant. The two had
developed such a playful demeanor even during their meetings over the past few weeks. Instead,
he just smiled at her.
Finding his vision still locked on her, Jillian added a curt, but emphatic nod this time
toward the Cilik’ti ship. Her gesture and the rather loud hiss from the Cilik’ti shuttle access door
clued Hood to pay attention. Gotcha, he mouthed.
Jillian rolled her eyes and just shook her head, but Hood could see the smile sprouting on
her face. That was all he needed.
Hood returned his attention to the Cilik’ti ship and what had started to exit the large craft.
Four tall and powerful-looking Cilik’ti warriors filed out of the shuttle, clad in deep green armor.
They were members of the N’lan, one of the Cilik’ti Shi. Each Shi was like a clan or tribe in the
Cilik’ti culture. A culture Hood was barely beginning to understand.
All of the warriors carried a long rod, which Hood recognized as longer forms of the
Cilik’ti warrior pulse lance, their preferred weapon in battle. Their powerful hands clasped the
metal lances in tight grips, holding them vertical and perfectly still while they descended the ten-
meter ramp to the floor of the docking bay. Once the warriors took their positions beside the base
of the ramp, a familiar figure appeared in the doorway of the shuttle.
Kree, the Cilik’ti worker and scientist who’d acted as an ambassador to the colonists on
Cygni, stepped onto the ramp. In one of his four small appendages, he held a short, thick rod
with a pale white ball on the end. The device was a translator and in recent weeks, the impact of
that device on relations between the N’lan and humanity was without measure. Communication
between the Cilik’ti and humans had never been formally established, even during the war. The
primary reason had lain with the form of telepathy the Cilik’ti used to communicate with
members of their own race. That method, unfortunately, didn’t work when the Cilik’ti had tried
to communicate with humans on the Pluto Outpost in their first encounter almost twenty years
During his first few weeks on Cygni, Kree had studied the colonists and made a
surprising revelation. He could read surface thoughts and emotions from them. Based on his
discovery, Kree had constructed the device to translate his method of telepathic communication
to verbalized speech, and vice versa.
Hood smiled as he watched his new friend walk down the ramp, but what appeared next
from the shuttle nearly took his breath away. Another Cilik’ti, this one towering almost five
meters in height, stepped onto the ramp with refined grace for its size. The huge Cilik’ti was clad
in dark cloth garments that draped over its head, neck and carapace. Large streaks of red flowed
across its carapace and down its legs, almost like elegant tattoos. Four large arms extended from
its upper torso, each ending in long three-fingered hands. Clutched in one of its hands was
another translator device.
The great Ut’liss, chief elder of the Hal’ta N’lan, had arrived. The Hal’ta was the ruling
body of the N’lan Shi, and Ut’liss had served as its most prominent member since before Kree
had been birthed. In addition to the Hal’ta’s purpose to direct and guide their Shi, they were
responsible for the Shi’s survival and longevity. Members of the Hal’ta were the only ones of the
Shi capable of reproduction. All offspring birthed by a member of the Hal’ta were separated into
different castes, depending on their genetic profile.
Even though this meeting was to be short and for all intents and purposes, an
introduction, Hood knew he had to be ready if negotiations made rapid progress. He’d spent
several hours with Kree to understand more about the Cilik’ti culture, including a crucial
element—protocol. The Ota, like Kree, were the workers of the Shi. They were laborers,
scientists, architects and engineers. The four members of the N’lan honor guard were Bal’ta.
They were the warriors, but in many of the Shi, they were the creators of beauty. Many Bal’ta
had been gifted with the ability for artistry, while others could create music. No human had ever
heard any version of Cilik’ti music, but if it furthered the relationship with the N’lan, Hood was
open to volunteer. He had a compilation of music he’d collected over the years, and perhaps both
sides could benefit from a culture exchange.
Ut’liss stepped off the ramp and bowed her hooded head at Kree. Together they turned
and walked toward the human contingent arrayed before them. They stopped a few meters short
of the line, and the globe on Kree’s translation device started to glow a faint purple. “Teribinam.
This one offers you greetings and wishes to present to you the Great Ut’liss Hal’ta, high elder of
the N’lan and Second of the Great Council of the Shi.”
Hood stepped forward and performed a slight bow in a gesture of respect. “Teribinam,
Great Ut’liss. I am James Hood, captain of the EDF Armstrong, and I welcome you and your
entourage aboard my vessel.” He could feel the gaze of Ut’liss’s three pairs of eyes on him. He
completed his bow and looked directly into them, just as Kree had instructed.
Ut’liss returned the bow, and now the globe on her translator device began to glow. “You
honor Ut’liss Hal’ta, Captain, and you honor the N’lan. Ut’liss Hal’ta thanks you and your
people for receiving us.” The voice from the globe was still monotone, like Kree’s, but the pitch
was lower and the words were bold and full of confidence. “Ut’liss Hal’ta commends you on
your victory in the K’rveen, Captain. Very few have continued to draw breath after a
confrontation with the Chi’tan.”
“The honor is ours, Great Ut’liss Hal’ta.” Hood kept his tone confident and voice steady.
Any wavering now could send a bad impression. “The Chi’tan were formidable foes both in
space and on the planet surface. Both sides fought bravely and at great cost.” Hood glanced at
Kree and then returned his gaze to the N’lan’s chief elder. “There were many sacrifices during
the K’rveen. I believe it was those sacrifices that showed us both how our people are alike and
have brought us here today.”
Ut’liss didn’t speak in response, but gave a slight nod of her head in agreement. Kree did
Hood was relieved. Things were going well, and he needed to take the next step. He
looked to his right and gestured to his uncle. “Great Ut’liss Hal’ta, I would like to introduce you
to the leader of our colony here on Cygni 4. This is Commander Jonathan Hood, my uncle, and
his wife, Gina.”
Jonathan and Gina stepped forward next to their nephew and repeated the same respectful
bow he’d performed earlier. “It is a tremendous honor to meet you, Great Ut’liss Hal’ta,”
Jonathan began. “When my people set out for this planet almost twenty-five years ago, we knew
there was a potential to meet a sentient alien species. We were asleep for so long. Much has
changed since the day we left our home world. We knew nothing about our conflict with the
Cilik’ti Shi.” Jonathan glanced at his wife and then at Jillian. Both gave him encouraging smiles.
“When my survey team encountered Kree in the canyon, we uncovered more than just a new
alien species. We brought to light the opportunity to bridge different people together.”
Jonathan’s trembling hand edged toward his wife and found hers. He interwove his
fingers with her own and gently squeezed. “Great Ut’liss, I’m not a warrior. My people and I are
explorers and we journeyed here to find a new world where our people can thrive. When the
Chi’tan came to annihilate us, I put on armor and picked up a weapon to defend my home and
my people. I would only imagine that in my place, you would do the same.” He looked over at
Hood and smiled. “As my nephew has already said, all of us have made sacrifices. I saw more
than I could’ve dreamed when I witnessed the blood and bodies on the battlefield. The courage
of brave soldiers to defend people they barely knew was testament to their resolve.”
Jonathan let go of Gina’s hand and stepped in front of his nephew. Knowing the protocol,
Hood wanted to stop his uncle but he froze. Any fast movement would be viewed as a threat and
far worse than Jonathan’s alteration to Hood’s script for the meeting. He had to trust in his uncle.
Instead, Hood watched the N’lan guards. They were passive. Despite his uncle’s bold move, they
didn’t seem alarmed.
Jonathan halted less than a meter from the towering leader of the N’lan Shi. Ut’liss was
huge compared to the large Chi’tan warriors he’d faced during the battle on the planet below. He
stiffened as he gazed up into her sets of faceted eyes. “Together, we can honor their sacrifices.
Regardless of the differences between our people, I believe we can build a foundation in this
system. One built on trust and respect, not fear and uncertainty.”
Hood tried to find a semblance of comprehension of his uncle’s words in Ut’liss’s face,
but he only saw Jonathan’s reflection in her eyes.
“My people on this planet are ready to make that step, Great Ut’liss Hal’ta. We are
willing to work side by side with your people to uncover the mysteries of this new world and
build a future. I know this wasn’t what you envisioned in this brief meeting, but I invite you take
that step with me.” In a slow and uneven motion, he extended his hand toward Ut’liss.
Ut’liss’s gaze lowered to Jonathan’s hand. Then she turned her head toward Kree. Kree’s
eyes met Ut’liss’s and neither moved for several moments. Without warning, Ut’liss swung her
head back toward Jonathan and her translator globe glowed. “The history between humans and
the Shi has been a grievous one. The N’lan have heard your words, Commander Hood.” She
looked up at the rest of the EDF contingent. “The N’lan have heard all your words. Events
during the K’rveen have proven to the N’lan and the other Shi that humans are not a threat to the
Shi way of life. They must be accepted and embraced.” The leader of the N’lan raised her
translator device above her head. “The N’lan value life in all things, and it took these sacrifices
to remind the N’lan who we are. The Chi’tan and their allies have used our values and our honor
against the other Shi to further their own agendas. They clouded us with fear and suspicion to
justify horrible acts committed against innocent species.” Her gaze found Jonathan’s welcoming
eyes. “Never again,” her translator globe echoed.
Hood watched in awe as Ut’liss lowered one of her large hands toward his uncle’s
outstretched hand. The exhilaration inside him wanted to leap from his chest, but he held it in
check. Out of the corner of his eye, Hood caught a glimpse of Kree. The Cilik’ti worker’s legs
twitched as if he was suppressing the urge to run around the docking bay in excitement. Ut’liss’s
response to Jonathan’s overture was a sight few had even dared to conceive.
Centimeters before Ut’liss’s hand reached Jonathan’s, the leader of the N’lan stopped.
Jonathan didn’t move, but waited on Ut’liss. In an unexpected reversal, Ut’liss retreated from
Jonathan and raised her head to the ceiling.
Hood had seen this before when his people had first met Kree in the caves on Cygni.
Kree had been conversing with other members of the N’lan via a telepathic connection. Since
none of the other members of the N’lan delegation moved, Hood surmised that Ut’liss was the
only one involved. Ut’liss stood motionless as if locked in a trance. After several moments,
several of the other EDF officers began to look at each other, unsure what was happening. With a
mystified expression on his face, Jonathan lowered his outstretched hand to his side.
Without warning, Ut’liss moved and her body slacked. Jonathan backed away from the
huge Cilik’ti, but Ut’liss regained control and stopped her fall short of where he was standing.
In a display of grace and elegance, Ut’liss’s composure returned, but before she rose to
her full height, Jonathan’s concerned face met hers at his level. Neither moved for a few seconds
and there was little Hood could ascertain of what had happened.
“There is no cause for concern, Commander.” The words were almost whispered from
the translator device still clutched in her powerful hand. Ut’liss turned away from Jonathan and
hastened back toward the Cilik’ti shuttle. “This meeting is over,” her translator announced.
Hood’s and his uncle’s heads turned to Kree, but their friend seemed as perplexed about
Ut’liss’s actions as they were. Hood’s heart sank when the N’lan guards moved forward and took
flanking positions beside their leader’s path. The meeting had accomplished so much more than
he’d hoped, and he didn’t want it to end. Hood silently pleaded to Kree to persuade the leader of
his Shi to come back and continue.
Before Kree could move, Jonathan called out after Ut’liss, “Great Ut’liss Hal’ta! I
sincerely hope my gesture has not offended you.”
At hearing the words of the colony’s leader, Ut’liss stopped. She didn’t turn back, but her
translator glowed an intense red. A single word thundered throughout the docking bay: “Ota.”
Ut’liss had called Kree by his caste name. The Ota were the engineers, builders and servitors of
Kree skittered over the metal deck and stopped at Ut’liss’s side. Ut’liss turned her
massive head in his direction, her faceted eyes even brighter red than before. Kree stood
motionless for a few seconds then gave a respectful bow to the leader of his Shi. If Ut’liss
returned the gesture, it wasn’t noticeable to Hood and the others. Clearly, their brief conversation
was over. Ut’liss walked onto the ramp and headed toward the hatch of her shuttle.
Kree exited his bow and quickly returned to where Hood and his uncle were still
standing. “The Great Ut’liss Hal’ta wishes to convey her condolences,” Kree began. “As was
stated previously, this was only an introduction. Other matters have taken precedence and the
meeting is now concluded.”
“Matters such as what?” Hood asked, still confused.
“The N’lan have been summoned to a Shi council to discuss the outcome of the K’rveen.
Great Ut’liss Hal’ta, as the Chief Elder of the N’lan Hal’ta, must prepare.” K’rveen, the ancient
Cilik’ti right of cleansing, was a form of honorable trial by combat used in cases when the
livelihood of a Shi was in danger. In this case, the N’lan had seen no threat from the humans at
Cygni and had refused the trial. As the leaders of the Cilik’ti Shi council, the Chi’tan had
accepted the challenge of the K’rveen. When their attack failed, the Chi’tan and the rest of the
council had been bound by honor to acknowledge the colony and, in retrospect, humans in
Gina stepped next to her nephew. “Kree, what about the Chi’tan? They won’t come back,
Kree shook his triangular-shaped head. “The Chi’tan are bound by the result of the
K’rveen. They must accept the outcome and agree to the terms set forth by the Shi named when
the K’rveen was called.”
Gina didn’t understand Kree’s explanation. “So the N’lan had to set the terms of the
K’rveen, even though they didn’t believe it was necessary?”
“That is correct, Ms. Gina. The calling of a K’rveen is a lengthy process. There are many
rules, some of which this one does not fully understand.” Kree’s translator changed color, now a
deeper blue, signifying a more serious tone. “Once set in motion, the K’rveen is bound by honor.
If the Chi’tan do not agree to the outcome, they will lose their standing among the other Shi.”
Hood looked at the faces of his aunt and uncle. They seemed satisfied with Kree’s
answer, but Hood felt something was wrong. It wasn’t that Kree wasn’t telling the truth, but
rather there were details he wasn’t offering.
The ramp of the Cilik’ti shuttle retracted and the boarding hatch closed. “Aren’t you
going with them, Kree?” Hood asked.
“No, Captain Hood,” Kree’s translator device stated. “Great Ut’liss Hal’ta has directed
this one to stay here and continue any dialogue until a more formal gathering can take place.”
“Very well,” Hood said. “I’ll have my people set up living quarters for you.”
The deck officer signaled the members of the delegation that the Cilik’ti shuttle was
about leave the ship. Hood saluted the officer and escorted Kree, Jonathan and Gina through the
docking bay hatch. After the hatch was sealed, the docking bay was depressurized. Hood stood in
silence near the docking bay window and watched the Cilik’ti shuttle lift off from the deck and
exit the ship.
Kree turned and delivered a reverent bow to Hood. Hood smiled at the gesture of respect
and saluted his new alien friend. If anyone had asked him a few weeks earlier about the
possibility of a peaceful engagement with the Cilik’ti, Hood would have said they were insane.
Now, he’d just witnessed the impossible. Despite the success, an unsettled feeling passed over
him. It was just too good to be true.
Behind Kree’s large chitinlike carapace, Hood noticed his aide, Petty Officer Jared
Martin, exiting the elevator lift and walking toward them. Hood stepped past Kree, greeted
Martin and explained what he needed. Despite acknowledging everything Hood requested, the
young man’s eyes never left the Cilik’ti standing patiently behind his CO. Hood sensed his aide’s
uneasiness, but he had confidence Martin could take care of the details.
After dismissing Mr. Martin to his duties, Hood said goodbye to his aunt and uncle. Their
shuttle was already prepped and ready. They needed to return to the planet surface, and he had a
ship to run. Even with the major repairs complete, there was always an issue demanding his
attention. He watched them board their shuttle from the docking bay hallway and waved one
final time. There was a weird feeling in the back of his head that he might not see them again,
but he dismissed it. He’d felt it before. Once when his Magellan had first left Earth on its journey
to Cygni, and again when he’d left the planet after seeing them at the colony. He was being
overprotective and he knew it. If anything, he would be having lunch with them tomorrow down
on the planet. He already had Gina’s invite.
Hood felt a presence next to him. He turned to find Jillian Howard also waving goodbye.
“You aren’t going with them?” he asked.
“Nah,” Jillian replied. She looked up at Hood. “Things were getting pretty slow for me
down there. Besides, I volunteered for a Helm rotation.” She stiffened into attention and saluted
the Armstrong’s captain. “That is, if you’ll have me, sir,” she voiced in her sweet Alabama
Hood couldn’t hold back his laughter and returned her gesture with a casual salute.
“Come on, I don’t want you to be late for your shift.” The pair started to walk toward the
elevator lift when Hood’s comm band buzzed. Rolling his eyes, he answered, “This is Hood.”
Commander Raf Sanchez’s voice was easy to recognize over the channel. “Sir, our
resupply convoy just arrived.”
Hood had been expecting his XO’s call about the convoy. It was about time too. They
were behind schedule. The ships were due well ahead of the meeting with the N’lan. “Good, tell
the transports headed to the planet to make landing. We’ll put the others in the pattern for our
resupply and any personnel transfers.” He was about to close the channel, but a thought came to
mind. “Oh, and tell Styles to get his butt over here for dinner this evening. He can bring a few
bottles of his wine he’s been holding on to. It’s the least he can do for being late.”
“I’ll pass the message along, sir, but the Cestus isn’t here yet,” Sanchez said. “She was
acting as the jump tail and hasn’t arrived in system.”
“Okay, inform me when she does and—” Hood started, but was interrupted by another
incoming call. He sighed and answered it, “This is Hood.”
This time it was the higher-pitched voice of his communications officer, Lieutenant
Juanita Wells, which came over the channel. “Captain, I just picked up a signal over the relay
beacon. It’s a distress call from the Cestus. No explanation, but their coordinates put them right
at their last jump point.”
At least a dozen possibilities crossed Hood’s mind, but a jump failure that disabled their
space-fold drive was the one that seemed most likely. Whatever the case, he was sure Styles
wouldn’t broadcast their status in the open. “Lieutenant, contact the Ishtar and have her link up
with the Gresham. I want them ready to go in five minutes.” The Gresham was the primary
repair vessel that had arrived with the original reinforcements sent by Admiral Tramp. Hood had
already witnessed the Gresham crew’s skill in repairing the damage to the Armstrong and they
were listed as one of the best for repairing failed space-fold drives.
Hood released his comm channel with Wells and returned to Sanchez’s. “Commander,
looks like there’s a situation with the Cestus, probably a jump failure. I want you to rotate the…”
His comm band beeped again. It was Wells again. This time he merged the two channels. “What
is it, Lieutenant?”
“Sir, the Cestus’s message just changed. It was garbled before it cut out, but it said
they’re under attack.”
Hood felt the blood drain from his face. “Lieutenant, tell the Ishtar and the Gresham to
stand down,” he replied grimly. “Notify all commands to deploy in defensive formation Alpha
and put the colony on high alert.”
“Aye, sir,” Wells said and dropped the channel to issue the order.
Hood looked down at Jillian, whose face echoed his own feelings. “Commander, secure
us from our moorings and have Mr. Whitaker do an emergency spin up on the space-fold drive.”
Hood jogged toward the elevator lift, and Jillian followed close behind. The Cestus was out there
alone, disabled and facing Cilik’ti or God knew what. Blast it, his friend was out there. “We’re