Chapter One: Phryne

The blaring alarm startled me so badly that I jumped. Scalding hot coffee splashed over the steel rim of my cup and onto the array of datapads on my desk.

“Shit,” I muttered more out of frustration rather than fear. I’d woken up hours before my alarm was set to go off. I’d been doing that ever since our sky split open and genocidal bug aliens started pouring into our world.

That was over a year ago, yet I still couldn’t manage to remember to turn off my alarm.

I grabbed a cloth and dabbed coffee off the surface of the datapads. I’d spent the better part of two hours reading over various reports from the city of Nyhiem and nearly every surrounding settlement.

Three days ago, General Rouhr and Councilwoman Vidia – my boss- decided to make an ally of the giant tentacle-y plant thing that held us hostage not too long ago.

It’s sentient enough to hold a conversation, which was a huge surprise to me. However, I hadn’t had the opportunity to converse with it myself.

Honestly, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to.

A week ago, I was brainstorming ideas on how to kill the damn thing. Vidia and Rouhr might’ve been able to switch gears and take their tea with the thing but I wasn’t ready to do that. After all, the plant thing was smart enough to use advanced military tactics.

I should start calling it by its name, I supposed. The Puppet Master. Not sure who came up with that. It was clever when the thing was our enemy. It seemed a little rude now that the creature was our ally, but politeness wasn’t one of my strong suits. I was too direct for that kind of thing.

I get results.

Sometimes I have to be kind of a dick to get those results, but I didn’t lose any sleep over it.

The reports I’d been reading mostly consisted of various groups bitching about General Rouhr and Vidia’s decision to accept the Puppet Master as an ally.

I could understand their hesitation. The average citizen wasn’t privy to the details exchanged between their leader and the Puppet Master in that hole in the desert.

I, however, was privy to those details. In fact, I had that conversation and all others following carefully transcribed and sent over to me. That was what was on one of the many datapads strewn across my workspace.

Once the spilled coffee was wiped up, I got up to get ready for my day. I’d gotten a fair amount of work done but nowhere near as much as I wanted to have done by now.

Vidia often said that was one of my downfalls. I could do ten times the work of everyone else and still think I haven’t done enough.

I walked to my bathroom. My apartment complex was right next to the central government building of Nyhiem. It came complimentary with the job.

Damn good thing it did, too. My home was destroyed during the Xathi invasion.

I knew that didn’t make me special.

Plenty of other people lost so much more than just their home. In fact, my apartment was so nice in comparison to all of the emergency housing that I often felt guilty.

Whole families were crammed into an apartment the size of a shoebox. Here I was in my studio with my bathroom that bordered on luxurious in comparison to others.

Three people could fit in my shower. I consistently had hot water, a luxury many often went without.

As guilty as I felt for having things so many didn’t, I knew I’d earned these rewards. Even before aliens invaded my world I worked hard. Harder than anyone. It took years for me to get where I was now.

My first job after leaving the orphanage where I spent my childhood was an assistant to the security department in Fraga. Now, I was the security department.

Everything went through me, at least where the humans were concerned. I didn’t have authority over General Rouhr’s aliens. That was something that irked me but was simultaneously a relief.

Over the past few months, I’d gotten plenty of opportunities to work with the Skotan, K’ver, and Valorni soldiers. They were far more advanced than any human soldier could ever hope to be. They had better weapons and first-rate training.

However, even the mildest of our alien allies had an element of unpredictability that would not be fun to control. I didn’t envy General Rouhr when it came to that aspect of his job. No wonder he always looked somewhat disgruntled.

As I scrubbed my hair and skin with a bar of standard-issue soap that smelled like wax, I went over what I had to get done today.

Vidia wanted to do a press conference of some kind soon. I didn’t think it was a good idea. Not yet.

Things were still too volatile among the people. As of right now, the aliens were tolerated by their respective communities. Some people welcomed them with open arms. Some people were practically frothing at the mouth to expel all aliens from the planet.

Vidia wasn’t overly concerned with those people. She believed the anti-alien factions to be very small and spread out.

 However, based on reports I’d been reading over the last two days, I had reason to suspect the anti-alien mindset was more widespread than Vidia thought.

Then there was the matter of the Puppet Master. How was I supposed to work something like that creature into my security protocols? It’s not like I could fingerprint it and have it scanned into the systems. Naturally, the Puppet Master’s strengths would be in the defense department. Or as a spy. It still amazed me that something so big stayed hidden for so long.

My water pressure flickered, jarring me out of my thoughts. I’d been in the shower for too long. I was going to fall behind if I didn’t pick up the pace.

I stepped out of the shower, dried off and pulled on my work clothes for the day. I technically didn’t have a uniform but I wore the same dark, close fit pants and the same tactical shirt in different colors most days.

Today, I chose a thunder cloud grey shirt.

Before I left my apartment, I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror.

My chin length red hair was still wet. Hopefully, it would dry nicely. I didn’t spend hours primping in front of a mirror but that didn’t mean I wanted to look like a ragamuffin.

Lack of sleep had made my complexion look a little wan as of late but only I would notice something like that about myself. Light bounced off my sharp cheekbones making me look more angular than I really was.

I always thought my blue eyes were a little too big for my face but that came in handy when I wanted to shoot someone down with a withering stare.

Overall, I looked fine enough for work.

The walk to the central building was quick. I hadn’t made it to the elevators before two human males stepped up to me.

“Good morning ma’am,” the first said.

“Is there anything we should know for the briefing today?” The second asked.

I gave them a blank look. I had no idea who these two were.

“Are you trainees?” I asked.

“No,” the first said slowly. The second tried to subtly roll his eyes but I caught the movement. “I’m Tona. This is Skit.”

They said it like their names should mean something to me.

“We’ve met several times.”

“I meet people every day,” I replied.

“General Rouhr assigned us to your team after our work with the hybrid outbreak?” The other one, Skit, prompted.

“Oh.” A tight smile spread across my lips. “I remember now. It’s hard to forget the two guards injected into my squad without my approval or even my permission.”

My squad was hand selected to my specifications. It took the better part of a year to assemble my elite team. I was very selective. The interview process was extremely thorough.

“With all due respect, ma’am. We’re more than a pair of frontier guards. We wouldn’t be here if General Rouhr didn’t think we deserved it,” Tona said.

“Be that as it may,” I pressed, “General Rouhr isn’t your boss. You’re on my squad which makes me your boss. The only thing that matters now is that you do your job to my standard, not General Rouhr’s. Are we understood?”

Tona and Skit saluted to show their understanding.

“Good boys.”

I moved passed them and entered the elevator. The doors closed before the two of them could step onto the lift. I relished the final moments of silence before my work day truly began. There was a briefing in a few hours.

I still had a few details I wanted to smooth over.

I was planning on bringing up the anti-alien factions. New construction projects were popping up all over the settled land. Each project would need its own security detail.

We’ve already learned that anti-alien radicals had no issue disrupting construction projects.

That little nugget of logic was lost on me.

Why target efforts that would make life better for fellow humans?

Some of General Rouhr’s best soldiers were scheduled to be in the briefing today. Some of them spent a lot of time in the field lately.

Perhaps, they would offer insight into the behavior of the anti-alien group. Assuming any of the radicals were ballsy enough to openly harass a group of General Rouhr’s soldiers, that is.

The anti-alien radicals we’d interacted with thus far were that ballsy but also very stupid. It stood to reason that future factions would be less foolhardy especially since we were cracking down on punishments.

Whatever the case, this briefing was sure to be an interesting one. 

The blaring alarm startled me so badly that I jumped. Scalding hot coffee splashed over the steel rim of my cup and onto the array of datapads on my desk.

“Shit,” I muttered more out of frustration rather than fear. I’d woken up hours before my alarm was set to go off. I’d been doing that ever since our sky split open and genocidal bug aliens started pouring into our world.

That was over a year ago, yet I still couldn’t manage to remember to turn off my alarm.

I grabbed a cloth and dabbed coffee off the surface of the datapads. I’d spent the better part of two hours reading over various reports from the city of Nyhiem and nearly every surrounding settlement.

Three days ago, General Rouhr and Councilwoman Vidia – my boss- decided to make an ally of the giant tentacle-y plant thing that held us hostage not too long ago.

It’s sentient enough to hold a conversation, which was a huge surprise to me. However, I hadn’t had the opportunity to converse with it myself.

Honestly, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to.

A week ago, I was brainstorming ideas on how to kill the damn thing. Vidia and Rouhr might’ve been able to switch gears and take their tea with the thing but I wasn’t ready to do that. After all, the plant thing was smart enough to use advanced military tactics.

I should start calling it by its name, I supposed. The Puppet Master. Not sure who came up with that. It was clever when the thing was our enemy. It seemed a little rude now that the creature was our ally, but politeness wasn’t one of my strong suits. I was too direct for that kind of thing.

I get results.

Sometimes I have to be kind of a dick those results but I didn’t lose any sleep over it.

The reports I’d been reading mostly consisted of various groups bitching about General Rouhr and Vidia’s decision to accept the Puppet Master as an ally.

I could understand their hesitation. The average citizen wasn’t privy to the details exchanged between their leader and the Puppet Master in that hole in the desert.

I, however, was privy to those details. In fact, I had that conversation and all others following carefully transcribed and sent over to me. That was what was on one of the many datapads strewn across my workspace.

Once the spilled coffee was wiped up, I got up to get ready for my day. I’d gotten a fair amount of work done but nowhere near as much as I wanted to have done by now.

Vidia often said that was one of my downfalls. I could do ten times the work of everyone else and still think I haven’t done enough.

I walked to my bathroom. My apartment complex was right next to the central government building of Nyhiem. It came complimentary with the job.

Damn good thing it did, too. My home was destroyed during the Xathi invasion.

I knew that didn’t make me special.

Plenty of other people lost so much more than just their home. In fact, my apartment was so nice in comparison to all of the emergency housing that I often felt guilty.

Whole families were crammed into an apartment the size of a shoebox. Here I was in my studio with my bathroom that bordered on luxurious in comparison to others.

Three people could fit in my shower. I consistently had hot water, a luxury many often went without.

As guilty as I felt for having things so many didn’t, I knew I’d earned these rewards. Even before aliens invaded my world I worked hard. Harder than anyone. It took years for me to get where I was now.

My first job after leaving the orphanage where I spent my childhood was an assistant to the security department in Fraga. Now, I was the security department.

Everything went through me, at least where the humans were concerned. I didn’t have authority over General Rouhr’s aliens. That was something that irked me but was simultaneously a relief.

Over the past few months, I’d gotten plenty of opportunities to work with the Skotan, K’ver, and Valorni soldiers. They were far more advanced than any human soldier could ever hope to be. They had better weapons and first-rate training.

However, even the mildest of our alien allies had an element of unpredictability that would not be fun to control. I didn’t envy General Rouhr when it came to that aspect of his job. No wonder he always looked somewhat disgruntled.

As I scrubbed my hair and skin with a bar of standard-issue soap that smelled like wax, I went over what I had to get done today.

Vidia wanted to do a press conference of some kind soon. I didn’t think it was a good idea. Not yet.

Things were still too volatile among the people. As of right now, the aliens were tolerated by their respective communities. Some people welcomed them with open arms. Some people were practically frothing at the mouth to expel all aliens from the planet.

Vidia wasn’t overly concerned with those people. She believed the anti-alien factions to be very small and spread out.

 However, based on reports I’d been reading over the last two days, I had reason to suspect the anti-alien mindset was more widespread than Vidia thought.

Then there was the matter of the Puppet Master. How was I supposed to work something like that creature into my security protocols? It’s not like I could fingerprint it and have it scanned into the systems. Naturally, the Puppet Master’s strengths would be in the defense department. Or as a spy. It still amazed me that something so big stayed hidden for so long.

My water pressure flickered, jarring me out of my thoughts. I’d been in the shower for too long. I was going to fall behind if I didn’t pick up the pace.

I stepped out of the shower, dried off and pulled on my work clothes for the day. I technically didn’t have a uniform but I wore the same dark, close fit pants and the same tactical shirt in different colors most days.

Today, I chose a thunder cloud grey shirt.

Before I left my apartment, I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror.

My chin length red hair was still wet. Hopefully, it would dry nicely. I didn’t spend hours primping in front of a mirror but that didn’t mean I wanted to look like a ragamuffin.

Lack of sleep had made my complexion look a little wan as of late but only I would notice something like that about myself. Light bounced off my sharp cheekbones making me look more angular than I really was.

I always thought my blue eyes were a little too big for my face but that came in handy when I wanted to shoot someone down with a withering stare.

Overall, I looked fine enough for work.

The walk to the central building was quick. I hadn’t made it to the elevators before two human males stepped up to me.

“Good morning ma’am,” the first said.

“Is there anything we should know for the briefing today?” The second asked.

I gave them a blank look. I had no idea who these two were.

“Are you trainees?” I asked.

“No,” the first said slowly. The second tried to subtly roll his eyes but I caught the movement. “I’m Tona. This is Skit.”

They said it like their names should mean something to me.

“We’ve met several times.”

“I meet people every day,” I replied.

“General Rouhr assigned us to your team after our work with the hybrid outbreak?” The other one, Skit, prompted.

“Oh.” A tight smile spread across my lips. “I remember now. It’s hard to forget the two guards injected into my squad without my approval or even my permission.”

My squad was hand selected to my specifications. It took the better part of a year to assemble my elite team. I was very selective. The interview process was extremely thorough.

“With all due respect, ma’am. We’re more than a pair of frontier guards. We wouldn’t be here if General Rouhr didn’t think we deserved it,” Tona said.

“Be that as it may,” I pressed, “General Rouhr isn’t your boss. You’re on my squad which makes me your boss. The only thing that matters now is that you do your job to my standard, not General Rouhr’s. Are we understood?”

Tona and Skit saluted to show their understanding.

“Good boys.”

I moved passed them and entered the elevator. The doors closed before the two of them could step onto the lift. I relished the final moments of silence before my work day truly began. There was a briefing in a few hours.

I still had a few details I wanted to smooth over.

I was planning on bringing up the anti-alien factions. New construction projects were popping up all over the settled land. Each project would need its own security detail.

We’ve already learned that anti-alien radicals had no issue disrupting construction projects.

That little nugget of logic was lost on me.

Why target efforts that would make life better for fellow humans?

Some of General Rouhr’s best soldiers were scheduled to be in the briefing today. Some of them spent a lot of time in the field lately.

Perhaps, they would offer insight into the behavior of the anti-alien group. Assuming any of the radicals were ballsy enough to openly harass a group of General Rouhr’s soldiers, that is.

The anti-alien radicals we’d interacted with thus far were that ballsy but also very stupid. It stood to reason that future factions would be less foolhardy especially since we were cracking down on punishments.

Whatever the case, this briefing was sure to be an interesting one. 

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