The Alnatic Encounter Chapter 3

This just got submitted to Literotica, but if you’re the type to read the bio, you know it’s already here. You get to read it before anyone else!

|Prelude

The Warchief and his Second stood on the bridge, staring at the viewscreen in horror as the Xyalatrax rushed around them chittering madly. The Warchief had no idea what they were doing and finally grabbed one of them by a spindly leg. The Xyalatrax made a screeching sound and whipped it’s claw around to poke at his translator. His Second, a young noble named Djoshu, reached over the Warchief’s shoulder and switched it on.

“Why do you put your filthy hot paws on me?” the thing was screeching. “I am the Third Shiplord of…”

“Mother Grub bugger your useless titles,” the warchief growled.

He spun the bug around and pointed it at the large screen. The leading edges ot the transport were starting to glow faintly as the ruined ship sank further into the atmosphere.

“Help my people, you misbegotten thing!”

“Let go of the shiplord, Otsihl,” another Xyalatrax said from behind them. “He can do nothing for you.”

This one the Warchief recognized. Three red stripes tattooed into the hard covering of the Xyalatrax’s thorax identified him as the First Lord, the leader of the ships Otsihl and his men traveled on.

Otsihl, Warchief of the Kelthoi, let go of the spindly Third Shiplord and the thing hissed at him before lurching away.

“Then you save them,” Otsihl demanded. His eyes kept going back to the screen, watching as his war band continued their fall to the planet below.

The Xyalatrax clattered its arms. “Your crew and mine are already dead. There is no one to save, Warchief. Now you understand why we must wipe the prefcoria filth from the universe.”

The Warchief looked at his Second, Djoshu, in confusion and then back at the captain.

“Because of an accident? They are that careless then?”

“No accident! Intentional! Dirty warmbloods flew their ship into ours!” First Lord screeched.

The Warchief was so baffled by the idea that he didn’t notice the insult that included him. It had to be an accident, even an alien wouldn’t stoop to something so low as an ambush. Even the thought of the word left a bad taste in his mouth.

First Lord groomed his carapace compulsively, calming himself down.

“Return to your troops,” he finally ordered. “We will circle the planet to ensure there are no more of them here. It may have been a scout, looking for more places for the rest to infect but we must be sure. Once we have cleared the sky, we will place this vessel on the planet below to continue with what forces remain.”

“As you say,” Otsihl spat.

The Xyalatrax were skittering about, screeching and hissing at each other as he left the bridge, Djoshu striding along behind him. Both were silent in the lift and as they walked across the cramped cargo bay floor. The warriors milling around recognized the look on their warchief’s face and got out of their way as Djoshu and Otsihl went to the large cargo container they used as an office and living quarters.

Djoshu knew his boss was keeping his temper in check but still jumped as Otsihl kicked the door shut with his rear legs. The crash of the steel door against the frame shook the entire container. Djoshu stayed back as Otsihl roared and kicked the divider down the length of the container. Several other pieces were hurled after it.

“How may I serve, Warchief?” Djoshu finally said.

The larger Kelthoi glared at him. The largest set of arms were still but the smaller sets below them were making fists and slapping the Warchief’s side in rage.

“You truly want to serve? Because I do not require a cowering little dzurga. I require a Second who can think. We are now well and truly stuck in the ass of the Mother Grub here.”

Djoshu barked a laugh at the awful image.

“Now, where is my chair?”

Djoshu pointed. “I believe the pieces are down that way.”

Otsihl sighed and picked up a less comfortable chair and sat down. “My fault then. Speak plain to me, your pretty words have been taxing my patience, youngling.”

The other Kelthoi sat on his upended bed.

“Do you believe that was an attack?” Otsihl asked.

“With aliens, who can say? But I cannot imagine a civilization like that lasting long enough to travel the stars.”

“I agree. Accident or not, this trip is a disaster and I am ruined.” Otsihl’s voice was now matter of fact, like they were discussing the last meal.

“We still have the three formations of foot and two of armor on this ship,” Djoshu said. “Not a total loss.”

Otsihl growled. “Armor? My armored formation has exactly one training tank left. Those armored formations are just poorly armed infantry. Five formations out of the eighteen we started with, it will not be possible to profit from this adventure. Lost equipment and death pay for the families will swallow any prize money. Not to mention my bond with the Praesidium.”

“You speak true,” his Second said. “Still, we haven’t skinned the Mother Grub yet and no one knows what she’ll vomit up for us.”

“I knew that boundless optimism of yours would be an itch I cannot reach,” Otsihl growled.

Djoshu smiled slightly. In spite of his constant grumbling the warchief liked him and to his surprise, Djoshu admired the curmudgeonly old commander. Strange, they were from very different backgrounds; the warchief was an upstart commoner that had been making a name for himself in the endless war against the Ginthii. He was one of the very few commoners to become a Warchief, an impressive achievement even if his regiment were low caste infantry. To think, he’d become a Warchief without even knowing who his grandparents were! It was astounding.

Djoshu, on the other hand, knew all of his ancestors. He was directly related to three of the original eight “Worthies,” the Senate’s elite warriors that had first mutinied and then led the Kelthoi in revolution. The Worthies had established the Praesidium, the ruling council of the Kelthoi. Djoshu had uncles that were admirals, brothers and cousins commanding famed regiments, and parents that were legends in the Ginthii wars.

But Djoshu hadn’t come along because of some glorious ancestor. He was bored of warring with the Ginthii, even as one of the higher caste pilots. But after so many years, who wouldn’t be? Fighting over the same ground, again and again, endless tactics and counter-tactics against an enemy that had learned Kelthoi strategy as well as the Kelthoi had adapted to theirs. Losing was the height of tedium, which was fine. It was supposed to be like that, locked in a dark room while the prisoner exchanges were arranged. But even the victory parades and revels were tedious anymore.

Secretly, he’d always dreamed of traveling in an actual starship. He’d tear out his own talons before he’d admit it, but Djoshu loved the old children’s stories of the Kelthoi Empire, when they’d traveled outside of their system, exploring and conquering. But the technology and skills needed had been lost along with the Senate, leaving them stranded in their own system with only the Ginthii to fight. So Djoshu had applied for the posting, it was time for an adventure! Even if it was among his social inferiors.

In comparison, Otsihl had jumped at the chance of a lucrative contract when the Xyalatrax had arrived at their planet seeking allies. At home, he’d risen as far as he could, a respected warleader but no noble family and no political connections to the Praesidium. So Otsihl had sold or mortgaged everything he had to outfit his own regiment. If he didn’t win more in battle than he owed, he was utterly ruined. The Praesidium would demand its cut of the loot before anything else butDjoshu knew Otsihl well enough by now to know that he’d pay death bounties first. The government would make an example of him and Otsihl would be lucky to find a regiment that would hire him as a basic warrior. If he lived that long, more than likely he’d be killed in a duel staged to get him out of the way. Djoshu had seen it happen before.

More immediate and far more terrifying were the spirits of the dead. With so many lost and not a single battle honor…. Djoshu shuddered. He didn’t envy the Warchief his sleep tonight. There were a lot of angry spirits waiting for him.

|1. Hidden

Rachel had dreaded the thought of trying to fly the Otter under the canopy, but some Pioneer had had a brilliant idea, and they were waiting for her when she edged the shuttle through the larger entrance. She’d shut the engines down long enough for them to tie ropes to the ship. Once she lifted the ship on the grav engines, they were able to pull her down the boulevard, the shuttle slowly bobbing along like a parade float.

When they reached the first intact intersection, Rachel saw Marisol calling out orders and gesturing. Rachel could have turned on external mics but she didn’t feel like listening to anyone right now. Engine alarms were beginning to flash and beep frantically by the time she set the Otter down in a clear area of street. She opened the hatches, calling out warnings to stay away from the glowing red emitters. She’d have to see what damage they’d done but she didn’t feel like doing that either.

Rachel had gotten the data dump from Marcus before they had entered the city. She’d pushed it away, concentrating on moving the shuttle. The synthetic had been almost hysterical, shuttles weren’t designed to be moved that way and it had been useless as a copilot. She mechanically saved the data to an external drive before methodically shutting the Otter down.

Otter Eight was still chattering hysterically in her headphones and Rachel pulled them off her head. When the ship realized she wasn’t listening it switched to cabin speakers. Rachel sighed and held up a screwdriver and it was silent.

“Please be quiet or I will start breaking things until you’re silent.”

The ship didn’t make a peep and she watched through a window as the Pioneers cracked dim glowsticks and used them outline paths. The security team was swarming around the area, checking out the houses and the Pioneers began unloading the Otter again, using their paths to sort everything out in the inky blackness.

Rachel sat there, staring out the cockpit windows into the darkness. Finally, Betsy stuck her head in.

“Nice flying. They should have everything cleared out pretty soon.”

Rachel nodded without saying anything. Betsy realized something was wrong and left without saying anything.

“Eight, I’m sorry you lost your friend,” Rachel said quietly.

“They did something very brave.”

“Yes they did,” Rachel sighed. “Okay, let’s start going over the damage…”

As far as he could tell, it was nearly midnight, local time. It didn’t look like anyone had gone to bed yet. Theo had wandered around, taking in the mood of the group. The Pioneers were nervous but mostly excited. Harry and their medic were frightened, along with those two extra cadets they’d brought along to help Marisol. The rest of her team were deeply worried but not frightened. It wasn’t perfect but he’d expected much worse. Emma had gone off with Rachel, shaking her head slightly when Theo raised his eyebrows, asking her if he should come along.

They were out of things to do for the moment and Theo knew the rumors were going to be spreading around the team. Kawehi had taught him how that could be more damaging than any amount of psych-warfare and Theo wanted to stop that before it even got started. He wandered back through the group, quietly telling the senior members that they were going to have a quick meeting.

Most of the equipment from the command tent had been moved into one of the Founder buildings. All of the electronics were stacked in the corner but the tables and chairs were set up and Theo sat in his usual spot, halfway down the table.

“First, I want to compliment you and especially your people. That breakdown and evacuation was amazingly fast and well executed. Okay, let’s figure out what we actually know. Things have been chaotic so lets start from the beginning. Rachel, what do we know about the ships that arrived?”

She cleared her throat. “The basics, right. Well, we all know that they arrived, right? It was kinda hard to miss. That was two ships emerging from drivespace without an arrival beacon. The auroras are already fading, they only last a couple hours. Marcus, Lieutenant Carlsson, was in orbit when they arrived and was able to downlink a compressed message. Both ships are Xyalatrax, one transport and a smaller one that looks like warship, but neither shuttle recognized the type. Doesn’t really matter, energy signatures show both ship to ship and orbital bombardment capabilities. This wasn’t a chance encounter, both ships immediately headed for orbit. They knew the planet was here and have something in mind. That transport had a lot of cargo space. Then, eight minutes after they arrived…”

Rachel stopped talking and clenched her fists, staring up at the high ceiling, hidden in the darkness. She cleared her throat and started talking again. Her voice was level but they could see unshed tears in her eyes.

“Eight minutes after arrival, Lieutenant Carlsson engaged the transport by ramming it with Otter Six. We don’t have data on what exactly happened but we all saw the ship burning up there.”

“Is it that easy to take out a ship?” Theo asked.

Rachel shook her head. “Not a warship, no way. Honestly I’m surprised they managed to destroy the transport. They must have gotten lucky and hit something critical. There’s some technical data from Otter Six, where they were aiming and so on. But Eight isn’t releasing it which is kind of weird. There’s one other major problem, Otter Eight is grounded. The grav emitters weren’t designed to be used for that extended period of time, especially so close to a larger gravity source.”

“They looked really hot,” Ayr said.

Rachel nodded. “They were. I know we didn’t have much choice but getting her here burned out two lifters, totaled them. The other two are testing as okay but I wouldn’t trust them. They are not repairable. Even if someone understood grav-tech, we don’t have spare parts or the right tools. So we’re stuck on the ground but she didn’t have the lift capacity, or room, to get everyone into orbit anyway. The good news is that Marcus sent the carrier back to Main Axis with a distress call.”

“Any idea how long it’ll take them to respond?” Theo asked.

“I have that answer,” Vuli said. “There are usually Fleet ships docked, resupplying or changing crews. There were not many when we left, but do not FEAR, the Commonwealth will come quickly. He included data on the ruins here, that will get their attention even faster than Xyalatrax ships sneaking this deep into Commonwealth space. My best estimate is less than a week until their arrival.”

Theo nodded. “Thank you both. Marisol?”

“I assume that the bugs are here to set up some kind of base. This has to be a high value mission. Entering and exiting drive space without beacons is bad enough but they had to travel a long way on top of that. They must have lost ships even getting here. But it would be worth it, a hidden base would allow them to easily raid well into what the Commonwealth considers safe space.”

“You don’t think they’re after the city?” Harry asked.

He looked deeply frightened and Theo didn’t blame him.

Marisol shook her head. “If the Gyr were here for years and missed this place, there’s no way the bugs will notice it. Even if they decide to land, there’s hardly a chance it’ll be anywhere near here. With their transport gone, they may just leave again. Which meant a single Raptor might have saved the entire sector. Marcus will be insufferable in the afterlife.”

There were chuckles around the table and even Rachel smiled.

“As long as we keep our heads down and keep relatively quiet, I doubt we’ll see any bugs,” Marisol finished.

“Shep, you and Vuli are the only ones with direct knowledge of the Xyalatrax,” Theo said. “Worst case, what are we looking at?”

Shep motioned for Vuli to go first and she got up from where she was sitting on her heels.

“Shepherd and I encountered a force of Bugs six years in the past. Sheep Herd says they look like a Terran creature called a preying mantis. Xyalatrax have a hierarchy of forms but all of them share this basic form. The lowest and most common are the drones. They are tough but their mental resources are very limited. They are used for most tasks, labor and fighting both. Their lives are not held in high esteem. Most often there is an under male, ur-male, in charge of ten to twelve drones. Ur-males are smarter and larger than the drones and have a yellowish tinge to their carapace, shell, crunchy part. These are the only types that attacked our expedition. They were well coordinated until the ur-male was killed, dispatched, skragged, fragged. However, the drones immediately become more of a menace. They will swarm toward their last objective. However, they do not attempt to use cover and charge directly forward. With enough weapons, they are easily dealt with. We know of eight more castes of bug, most of them are specializations that we are unlikely to encounter.”

“Except for the Thumpers,” Shep said. ” Captain Moana has given a lecture about them. The theory is that they’re the bug equivalent of spec ops. They’re big, larger than ur-males and much smarter. There’s no yellow tinge to the exoskeleton and they might be marked with green stripes. Their shells act as armor, it takes a heavy round to put one down. They’re not common, but if this was a secret mission like Mari says, there’s a chance they brought some.”

“We can worry about bug castes if we see them,” Marisol said firmly. “They would have to land right on top of us to even have a chance of knowing we’re here.”

“And we’re going to keep it that way,” Theo said. “I want everyone keeping the use of their electronics to an absolute minimum. That includes anything with LEDs. The only place anything is to be used are in the basement levels of the buildings. It might be drastic but things will get a lot more drastic if they figure out we’re here.”

“So what’s the plan?” Ayr asked.

Theo looked around at everyone. “Keep still, stay quiet. Marisol, I’d like to keep a couple lookouts on the near wall, no night vision or drones obviously.”

She nodded. “Mark One eyeballs only, roger.”

“The Pioneers will be happy to take a few shifts,” Ayr said. “I’ll come up with some other busy work for them as well.”

Emma and Theo picked their way carefully along the street, Emma holding one of the tiny candle lanterns.

“You did the commander thing really well,” Emma said.

Theo was a little startled, he’d completely forgotten to worry about it. “Thanks, Tulip. I’m better in a crisis I guess.”

“That’s pretty rare, trust me,” Emma said.

“On a completely different subject, when you and Holm sleep and you’re touching…”

She squinted at him. “Is this going to be an appropriate question?”

He laughed. “I really hope so. My hand was touching Imae’s all last night…”

“Oh my god, now she’s pregnant?”

He rolled his eyes. “Never mind.”

Emma laughed. “C’mon, what? When Holm and I are actually asleep and touching….”

“Are your dreams kind of weird? Like really vivid and intense?”

“Not that I remember. How intense?”

“You’d remember, trust me.”

“Are they nightmares?”

He shook his head. “The best I can explain it is like being inside a flower that’s blooming but the flower is like…spacetime kind of. And each of the petals is a separate possibility. I know that’s weird, but it’s the best way I can describe it. Imae had strange dreams as well but she didn’t describe them. Just said my dreams were scary and beautiful.”

“Wait, you two were together in the dream?”

Theo shrugged. “Maybe? I dreamt she was there at least.”

“Wow, that sounds amazing. No, nothing like that ever happens with Holm. I’m kind of jealous.”

“And I’m jealous I’m not normal.”

Emma started walking again. “That’s the first time I’ve ever been called normal, I think. I think Holm was setting the tent up over this way.”

“You don’t want to use one of the houses?”

“No way, those things are creepy inside.”

Theo shrugged. “I didn’t notice anything, it’s just an empty building.”

Holm heard them talking and came out and led them back to the tent.

“But where’s the rest of it?” Theo asked.

Emma looked inside. “Holm, those cots are right on top of each other.”

“Yeah, there was sort of a problem with the big tents. THey went in first and got trampled and then a bunch of stuff thrown on top of. I tried to set it up but there was a big hole in it. Lots of people are staying in the houses. Ayr and Imae are in this one right here.”

“I’ll join them,” Theo said. “Don’t give me that look Emma, I’m not cramming into a tiny tent with two sex fiends.”

“Oh, I didn’t think of that,” Emma said.

“I did,” Holm said. “There’s only one door to this building and we’ll be right outside, so it’ll be like you’re guarding Theo still, right?”

He sounded so plaintive that Theo had a hard time not laughing. “I’ll get my stuff and claim a corner near the door, okay?”

Theo dragged his cot inside the building and found Imae, Ayr, and a few more Pioneers dividing up space in the rooms. There were a couple of the candles burning and it actually looked pretty cozy.

“Got room for one more?” Theo asked.

“Don’t want to share with the lovebirds?” Imae asked. “I saved you a corner over here.”

Theo set his bed up and pushed his duffle bag underneath it. They were six of them sharing the large room and a few more upstairs.

Imae had pushed her cot next to his and Ayr was on the other side of her. Theo half wondered if there would be another offer but figured it was wishful thinking. There was even less privacy now and everyone had more important things on their minds.

Jonesy came looking for him to say that most of the team had moved into buildings on either side. A few holdouts, feeling the same way as Emma, were staying in tents outside. Their house was empty, most everyone had gone out into the street. There was some harmonica music and then the sound of a guitar. There was laughter and low singing and Theo smiled.

“This is nice,” Theo said, laying back on the cot after Jonesy left. “Thank you for saving me a spot.”

Imae laid on her side on the cot next to his. “I’m glad I could help. You’ve had quite a week, Theophile Cosineau.”

“I really thought the abandoned city was going to be the craziest part,” Theo sighed.

“It’s hard to believe that we’re the first people to using this place in six thousand years,” Imae said. “I wonder if there’s any ghosts watching us.”

Theo took her hand. “Vuli gave me the impression that Founders didn’t actually die. She’s been nervous since we realized what this place was.”

“Maybe that’s because she remembers what they were really like?”

Theo looked over. “I was perfectly happy not considering that. Now I’m going to get creeped out.”

“How are you actually doing?” Imae asked after they got comfortable. “You got a lot dropped into your lap.”

He kissed the palm of her hand. “Does that include you ending up in my lap?”

Imae smiled. “No, you dealt with that perfectly.”

“Thank you. I’ve been expecting something to happen since we landed, I’m almost relieved in a way. I feel awful for Rachel though.”

Imae kept herself from saying anything. She finally admitted she was jealous to herself but telling Theo that wouldn’t do any good, they’d been friends too long. There was a long silence and she tried to think of something neutral to say.

“I’m going to need a haircut when we get back,” she finally said. Oh, balls. Did I really just talk about my hair?

Theo squeezed her hand gently. “You don’t have anything to be jealous about.”

“I’m not jealous.”

“Okay.”

They laid there quietly, listening to the talking outside.

“Fine, I’m a little bit jealous. Mostly nervous that she’ll cry on your shoulder and blink those big blue eyes at you and then you’ll go back to chasing after her.”

Theo didn’t say anything and Imae wondered if she’d made him angry.

“I understand why you’re uncomfortable with Rachel,” Theo finally said. “I’m trying to think of some way to reassure you. Not so easy, since I admitted I had a twinge about her the other night. She already did something like that. Did you know she wanted to kiss me when I walked her out to the car at Remembrance?”

“Uhm, no. What the hell!”

Theo laughed. “Relax, killer. I don’t know if she even knew that’s what she was working up to.”

“So what happened?”

“She touched my face but I stepped away from her, said that I was working too hard to get rid of those feelings for her. I went back to the party and she went home with Marcus. And I can feel you getting angry.”

“Yes, it makes me angry! That’s a despicable way to behave.”

“Try thinking of it this way; she started to make a mistake and I helped her avoid it. Everyone screws up, right?”

“You are way too noble, isn’t it just like a Garragh,” she sighed.

“Hey, why do you guys say that? Deed said it a couple days ago and I heard it a few times when Ayr found out who I was.”

“You don’t know much of the history between Garradya Hoh and Te’varvfathi Hoh, do you? There’s lots of stories about the amazing and magical Garragh.”

“Is that why your mom called me a ‘blue eyed angel when you were in the kitchen?'”

Imae groaned. “You heard that? My parents are…. Deed mentioned once that our village was way out in the middle of nowhere. There were lots of really traditional people that believed the old ways were best and were suspicious of anything new.”

“That sounds very familiar.”

“Yeah? Okay, you already know we started off as nomads, following the herds. People were serious about that heritage. They still are, even on Earth. Even Deed’s parents and the off-worlders still follow the old holidays. Tradition is a big thing.”

“I remember something about that too,” Theo said.

“Right. So, all this focus on wandering around and living in the saddle meant that Ta’avi weren’t big into cities or too many people living together. But cities have all the places where technology advances, universities and libraries for example. It’s also hard for new ideas to spread when everyone is so bound up by tradition. So the whole planet was a little backward technologically. It worked out though, because of the Garragh.

“Our colony was older than Garradya but they were way ahead of us in technology. We knew about each other from visitors on Commonwealth ships but as soon as the Garragh started making their own ships they visited a lot. The two colonies weren’t even a light year apart. In the old stories, people were confused, they had things to trade but ended up giving most of it away as gifts. When anyone asked, the Garragh said they just wanted to help out. It sounds to me like the two worlds were drawn to each other.”

Maybe they still are? Theo wondered. Was this some trait the Founders had intended? What would be the point? But not everything was a Founder plot.

“When Garragh ships came, they brought always brought things that were like miracles to the Ta’avi. And they still liked giving gifts more than making money. That’s where the saying comes from. No one could figure out why they were like that.”

“Probably because they thought you were cool.”

“Probably, because we are pretty cool. Some people thought the Garragh were…uhm, neuthurr awer. They’re like angels, kind of, but not religious. They are makers of wonders, protectors and stuff like that. Ayr’s mom thinks it’s a memory of the Founders.”

“That has the same sound ending as Ollie’s name.”

She smiled. “He’s the Clever Hand, it’s related. And you’ve got a good ear. Anyway, that and the fact all you Garragh have those crazy blue eyes….”

“Everyone? I thought it was just a family thing. Do all Ta’avi have reddish hair and dark eyes?”

“Of course. There’s little differences, my hair is darker than Holm’s, Ayr’s eyes are lighter than mine. Your eyes are bluer than Rachel’s or her dad’s.”

“I figured the other colonies were like Earth with lots of different kinds of people.”

“No, not at all. When my parents arrived on the Flame Road, they thought Earth was a planet crowded full of refugees. Maybe it’s because that colony is so much older or maybe it’s some Terran thing. That’s why we stayed here after we were rescued. No one looks like anyone else here, so no one really stands out.”

“Aeolus sure does.”

Imae giggled. “I don’t think the Yffliad fit in anywhere but wherever they live.”

“Chanikjah Hoh. It means Night Jewel.”

“Why am I not surprised you know that?” Imae smiled.

“I’m interested in a lot of things,” Theo said, leaning toward her. Then he had to turn his head to hide a yawn. “This is ridiculous, let me sit up.”

“Don’t you dare. In fact, take off your shirt and lie on your stomach.”

Theo looked at her for a second before pulling his t-shirt over his head and turning over on the cot.

Imae smiled. “You’re finally learning to listen.”

She carefully climbed on the cot and sat on top of his butt.

“If this is going to be really kinky, you should probably blow out the candle.”

“Maybe I’ll sell tickets instead,” Imae said and gently began to knead his shoulders.

“Keep that up and you can do whatever you want.”

She smiled, moving down his back, pressing her thumbs into his shoulder blades.

“I already do whatever I want,” she said.

He nodded after a second and she rubbed the tension out of his lower back.

“You’re going to put me to sleep.”

“That’s kind of the plan.”

“But I wanted to make out again,” Theo said into the pillow.

“Me too, but part of being an awesome girlfriend is knowing what you need as much as what you want.”

“Are you my girlfriend now?”

“I wanted to be since the day we met,” she said softly. “Why do you think I teased you so much?”

“Don’t understand women,” Theo mumbled. “But you’re my favorite.”

“Then I’ll take that as a yes.”

He didn’t answer and she carefully got up and pulled a sheet over him. Imae closed the makeshift curtain and blew out the candle and slipped off her clothes. She got under her own sheets next to him. Theo turned on his side and she put her hand on top of his.

“Remember? The dreams,” he mumbled.

“Exactly,” she whispered and closed her eyes.

When Theo woke up, Imae was already gone along with everyone but one young Pioneer reading in the corner. He sat up, worried that he’d slept too long.

“Uhm, Theo? Emma says everything is fine and you needed the sleep.”

“Thanks,” he said, turning to put his feet on the floor.

“It’s about two hours before midday. There’s breakfast beside your bed.”

Theo bent over and picked up the plastic brick. “Yum.”

He went out and found people hanging out in the street. Emma was sitting with Imae and Ayr. Imae looked up with a small smile on her face and winked at him. Theo felt a warm surge of affection for her. What he remembered of their dreams was very pleasant. He wanted to compare notes but this wasn’t the best time.

“Good morning,” Theo said, sitting down with them. “What did I miss?”

“Precisely nothing,” Emma said. “Lots of people are catching up on sleep, Shep and Jonesy were talking about pitching washers later. General laying about.”

“That sounds like something I should probably supervise,” Theo said, pulling the strip off the packet. He pulled out a spoon and poked at it. “What is this goop?”

“Smells like pineapple,” Ayr said.

Theo took a careful bite of what turned out to be yellow cake. “Oh my god. This is full of pineapple upside down cake.”

“Want a real breakfast one?” Emma asked, rummaging in a plastic box.

“Oh, this is a breakfast one,” Theo said, digging in.

Emma rolled her eyes and the others laughed.

The rest of the day was sort of a holiday, Project style anyway. Theo had become aware of something that was almost a mantra, the idea of “best use.” It applied to everything, supplies, schedules, people, and time. The best use of this down time wasn’t laying around, it was spent maintaining the equipment and cross training between the Pioneers and Cadets, although everything was very relaxed. Theo was sitting in a small group listening to Shep talking about his time fighting Xylatrax on Weyren, a world of Others where the Commonwealth was helping with a guerilla war.

Theo heard running feet and saw two of the lookouts running toward the building that the security team had taken over. Shep stopped talking as the rest of them saw the lookout run into the building.

“That can’t mean anything good,” Jonesy said as Theo got up.

“Probably not,” Theo said. “I’ll see you guys later.”

Inside, Marisol was putting on a field harness and helmet along with Jonesy and her two Cadets.

“They landed about a mile away,” Marisol said.

“That’s not an accident,” Theo said. “I don’t suppose I can go and look.”

“It’s not the best idea,” Marisol said. “Derek over there is taking his sketch pad though.”

Theo nodded. “Be careful, all of you.”

Everyone had heard something was going on and there was a small crowd watching as Marisol and the other three came outside and jogged toward the edge of the city. Theo waited until they had disappeared into the gloom.

“Go get anyone who’s not here,” Theo said to the little crowd. He waited as several people hurried away, forcing himself to look calm.

“I heard,” Emma said quietly from behind him.

Theo turned and saw she was already wearing the harness that held her submachine gun.

“Can you send someone to grab my holster?” he asked quietly.

“Got it right here. You’re going to wear it?”

He nodded. “Good reminder for people that things just got serious.”

Emma handed it to him and Theo slipped it on. A few people jogged from the houses and joined the group.

“That’s everyone, boss,” Shep called.

“If you weren’t here, you just missed two lookouts reporting in and Marisol and a few others heading out to the wall,” Theo said loudly. “Last night you heard there was a very small chance that the bugs would land nearby. I guess we’re just lucky types, a lone ship landed about a mile from the wall.”

There was a murmur through the group that he let go.

“The fact that they landed so close makes me believe they know exactly what’s hidden under these trees. We’re going to be changing our plans to deal with this, we’ll all know more when the lookouts report back. For now, no electronics at all until we know more. Stay loose, this isn’t the end of the world. It’s still one ship and we know our fleet is on the way. If they’re here to loot the tech out of the place, keep in mind that most of that is nowhere near us. And remember that this city is a circle, over sixty kilometers in diameter. Even if they knew we were here, they’d have a hell of a time finding us. For now, stay off the roofs and out of the trees.”

One of the Pioneers raised a hand. “Will we be issued weapons?”

Ayr was in the front of the group and turned to look back at him. “We’ll work that out today. If you’ve passed the basic firearms course, you won’t be left defenseless.”

“Okay, now everyone go back to relaxing,” Theo said and got a few laughs at least.

Rachel walked over with Ayr right behind her. “It wouldn’t be a bad idea to get the armory out of the shuttle,” she said. “It’s the most likely thing to be detected.”

“Let’s go get it done then,” Theo said.

He and Emma joined a Ta’avi work party that Ayr put together and soon they had the extra weapons and ammunition hidden. By the time they were done, Marisol and her team had returned. Theo headed back to the command building to see what they’d seen.

Theo looked at the drawing pad. The cross section of the ship was a flattened oval, almost turtle shaped. It was roughly three-hundred meters in length and a hundred-fifty wide.

“There were ground forces unloading,” Marisol said, sliding another sheet of paper across the table.

“Those don’t look like bugs.”

“They’re not. We were too far away to see many details but I’ve never seen that species before, I know that.”

Theo looked at a very rough sketch of something that vaguely resembled a centaur but the proportions were all wrong.

“What kind of troops were unloading?”

“Lots of those new guys on foot. Nothing else.”

“They’re gearing up to take this place,” Theo said. “They already knew it was here.”

“It’s a good bet.”

Vuli hadn’t said anything since Marisol had started the briefing but Theo had seen her crest twitching. Now it was standing on end.

“Commander, the implications of this are exceedingly ominous,” she said.

“Vuli, they might be investigating the magma plume,” Theo said.

“Do you believe that is the situation?”

Theo shook his head after a few seconds thought. “It’s unlikely but their presence does not implicate you. I don’t doubt for a second that you are a committed friend of the prefcoria.”

Vuli grumbled something that her translator didn’t pick up but the line of stiff hair along her bullet shaped skull relaxed a little.

“Stay quiet, keep still” was the best plan, which was fortunate since they really didn’t have a choice. Then Harry and his seismology crew showed up.

“You’re sure about this?” Theo asked.

Harry had just finished explaining that his crew had managed to set up a single autonomous seismology monitor before Ayr had discovered the beneath the trees. It was only about ten kilometers away in a straight line, normally a two minute flight in an Otter. They hadn’t worried about the electronics in the monitoring station showing up on a scan from orbit, the weather proofing and rugged construction made pretty decent shielding. It was a different story now that the Bug ship had landed a few kilometers away. Active scans in the right frequency could “wake up” the transmitter and spoof it into thinking it had received a download request from a friendly ship. What was worse, the monitor sent out a low powered pulse straight up, assuring the orbiting satellite it was online and functional.

Harry nodded, looking miserable. “I’m sure, boss. We even tested the “status okay” signal once we set the thing up. If that thing had landed anywhere else, they’d never notice it. But this close, they’ll see it if they’re paying attention. I’m sorry as hell, guys.”

“When does it send the signal?” Marisol asked.

Harry looked even more miserable. “It should be about twenty minutes from now.”

“No way to get there in time,” Marisol said. “Stop looking like your dog died, Harry. You did your job the way you were supposed to. No one guessed they’d land on top of us, especially me.”

Theo nodded. “With any luck, they’re not paying attention at the moment. Let’s get a team together to head out there and shut the thing down though.”

“I suggest waiting until tomorrow,” Marisol said. “It’ll be pitch black in here before they could get out there. If Bug patrols get into the city between us and them we have no way of letting them know. They really need to be able to keep an eye on their surroundings.”

Theo nodded. It made sense and this was hopefully just a minor hiccup.

“How are you doing?” Marisol asked Theo when everyone else had left.

“Is it okay to admit that I’m terrified?”

Marisol pointed at a chair and Theo sat down.

“What’s bothering you? The Bugs?”

Theo shook his head. “The idea that I’m going to make the wrong decision and get everyone killed.”

“That’s a good thing to be worried about. You’ve got more experienced people with you this time. Part of my job is keeping you from making any mistakes like that and Im not worried. You listen and you’re bright enough to know when you need advice.”

“Keep me from screwing up and I’ll buy you guys all the beer you can drink.”

Marisol grinned. “Now that was a mistake. I’m going to get us out of here just to take you up on that.”

Imae was waiting for him outside, along with Harry and a couple other Pioneers.

“This is the team I’ve got picked out to help tomorrow,” Harry said.

Theo frowned before he could stop himself and Harry misinterpreted his face.

“They’re all volunteers, boss.”

“Sure, of course,” Theo said quickly. “Thank you all for doing taking this on. Who’s ready for some delicious turkey noodles and peas?”

There were laughs and gagging noises and they walked toward a large building that they’d started to gather in. Imae waited for him and took his hand as they walked.

“I bet I know what that scowl was all about,” she said.

“What scowl?”

She pulled him to a stop. “Theo.”

“Okay, fine. I didn’t like the idea that you were going.”

Imae nodded. “I know. But you know I have to, especially right now.”

“What if we pretended I don’t have the same advanced social aptitude as you?”

“Then I’d tell you that dating the boss gets tricky. If I had sat back and not taken the first job that came along people would start wondering if you were giving me special treatment. Maybe even a little gossip, some whispering. That would make both our jobs harder.”

Theo nodded after a second. “Fair enough.”

“And we both have to get used to the idea that the other one does dangerous things sometimes. If you try to keep me safe all the time, or I do the same thing to you, why did we train at all?”

“Am I allowed to tell you to be careful?”

Imae had her eyes locked on his but her serious look turned into the usual smile. “I’ll even let you worry about me if you promise to be careful too. Now let’s go get something to eat before we get stuck with turkey noodles.”

As they ate, Theo noticed that the rest of the team was quieter than usual. People had their heads down, getting lost in their own thoughts. He wasn’t sure what to do about it, he was pretty wrapped up in his own head at the moment.

“Hey Theo,” Shep called. “Did you really pee your pants when Rachel pulled you out of that truck?”

He looked up surprised. “No!”

Everyone else was looking curiously between them and Theo realized what Shep was doing. Everyone looked more fascinated than miserable and he realized most people hadn’t heard the story.

“Are you sure? She said there was a funny smell.”

“Hey! I said no such thing,” Rachel said from the other side of the group where she was sitting with Emma and Ayr. “That was his fat friend.”

“Rachel was as mad as a wet hen though,” Theo said.

“You just sat there like a bump on a log!”

Emma started laughing. “Tell them the first thing he said.”

Rachel looked around at everyone. “I was the one making contact with Sparrow over there. We didn’t know anything about him so we treated him as a hostile.”

“I wasn’t the one being,” Theo interrupted and there were a few laughs.

“I finally had to drag him out of the truck, I wondered if he was brain damaged or something,” Rachel said and stuck out her tongue at him. “I tell him we have to go, that there’s a truck waiting. Guess what he says? ‘I can’t go with you, I’ve got a test today.'”

There were louder laughs. Theo’s study habits were pretty well known.

“Now wait a second,” he protested. “First she tells me to come on or she’s going to beat me up but then she tells me to get on the ground. I figured you guys must be doing your first kidnapping and hadn’t practiced.”

“I heard Marisol said something special to one of the townies that were trying to keep Theo,” Emma said.

Marisol looked up from her food. “What? How did I get in the middle of this?”

“What did she say?” one of the Pioneers asked.

“‘Hey! I’m from the government and I’m here to shoot you in the face!'” Deidre yelled and there was an explosion of laughter.

Marisol was laughing so hard she tipped her water bottle into her food.

“Aw man, that was chocolate pudding!”

She held up a spoon with chocolate goop sliding off it and everyone roared with laughter and she joined in after a second. Most of the team was holding their sides, howling with laughter by this point.

Like always, Shep had taken over the funny stories and Theo was still smiling as he got rid of his dinner trash. The whole story was a set-up, designed to get people laughing and out of their own heads. The mood around their little settlement was lighter now and even knowing they’d set it up, he felt better.

Imae bumped him out of the way with her hip and put her own stuff in the bag as well.

“Where’s your shadow? Can I steal you away?” she asked.

Theo laughed. “Yes, you can. Emma said she would be working on some kind of advanced training with Holm.”

“Advanced training in what?”

“Can you not make me think about that?”

Imae laughed and stepped close to kiss him but stopped. “Phew, you stink.”

“That’s not very romantic.”

“Well, you don’t smell romantic.”

“Excuse me, I’ve just been busy with alien invaders.”

“Unacceptable, sir. No kisses until you smell better.”

“I’ve got some of those wipes in my bag,” Theo said quickly.

She laughed and took his arm. “I think we can do better than that.”

“You’re up to something.”

“How can you even say that?” she said as they walked to “their” house. “When have I ever been up to anything?”

“Since the day I met you?”

She pouted. “Ooh, the slander and lies. I don’t know if I should help you get clean.”

“Being clean is overrated.”

“You say that now,” she said, pinching his bottom as they went inside.

The place was still deserted and she pointed him at the stairs to the lower level. There was a flickering light and he went down to find Ayr with a couple buckets of water. Both were steaming slightly.

“Thank you,” Theo said. “I was tired of those chemical things.”

Imae smiled sweetly at him. “Don’t thank me yet. Now get those clothes off.”

Theo looked at Ayr and she laughed at the look on his face. Imae sighed, turning him around. She began to unbutton his jacket. Ayr caught it when Imae tossed it over and folded it up. Theo’s shirt was pulled off next.

Imae grabbed his belt, eyes twinkling.

“Wait, is this the best time for this?” Theo asked.

“I’m sure I don’t know what you’re talking about. I’m just giving you a hand getting clean,” she said.

Ayr caught the pants a second later and left them folded on his jacket. “Theo looks a little uncomfortable,” she said.

“Aww, are you uncomfortable?” Imae asked him.

“Well, it’s a little strange being the only one without clothes here.”

“Is that all?” Imae asked and pulled off her t-shirt. There was a tight gray tank-top underneath and her hard nipples were obvious. Her pants followed, revealing a pair of utilitarian gray boyshorts. “Ayr, don’t make Theo uncomfortable.”

“Wouldn’t dream of it.”

Ayr pulled her shirt over her head. Her mouth was a little dry. She’d never seen him without a shirt, let alone nothing at all but she wasn’t disappointed. He was wiry but not skinny. There was just a hint of muscle definition and the rest of his body was very pale compared to his tan face and arms. He had very little body hair and his cock looked like it was starting to get hard, swaying gently as Imae washed him.

Ayr was wearing the same regulation underwear as her cousin but Theo watched her as she slipped out of the brown cargo pants next. It gave her a warm quivery feeling in the pit of her stomach.

Imae took a sponge out of the bucket and wrung it out. The smell of the peppermint camp soap was sharp in their noses as Imae began to wash Theo’s shoulders and back.

Ayr pulled the tank over her head and tossed it on the pile of her clothes before sliding off her panties and kicking them off. She went over and got another sponge out of the bucket and began to wash Theo’s chest.

Theo admired Ayr’s body as she walked around him. She was slender but the muscles in her shoulders and back were well defined. He wasn’t an expert, but her breasts looked perfect to him. They were a little bigger than he could hold in his hand and her nipples were hard and the size of pencil erasers. Her stomach was flat and muscular and below that was a strip of auburn pubic hair over her sex.

Ayr took Theo’s hand and rested it on her shoulder. She began to slowly wash his arm, kneading the tense muscles as she went. She looked up and Theo’s eyes were closed but he was smiling slightly. Ayr put his arm down and went to work on the other one.

There was a rustle of clothes and they both looked at Ayr. She’d stripped down as well and was rewetting the sponge. She didn’t have the same well defined muscles as Ayr and her breasts were smaller, not much larger than apples. There were hardly any areola around her tiny nipples but they stood out as much as Ayr’s. Her hips were a little wider and she had no pubic hair. She looked up and saw them watching and stuck out her tongue.

“You’re both so beautiful,” Theo said quietly.

“Why, thank you,” Imae said, moving behind him again.

She wrung out the sponge, letting the warm water run down the front of her body and then replaced the sponge with her body, rubbing against him as her hands continued rubbing the tension out of his shoulders and neck.

Ayr wet the sponge again and squeezed it over her breasts and began to wash the front of his body the same way Imae was doing his back. Ayr shivered as Theo’s arms went around her, his hands rubbing and kneading her back in return. She had wanted this for a long time.

“Are these scars?” Imae asked, tracing the darker criss-cross of lines that were slightly ridged.

They both felt Theo tense slightly. “Yeah, from before.”

“You’ve already had so many battles,” Imae said, tracing them gently. “You’re going to be a very good commander.”

“They weren’t battles, they were just beatings,” Theo said.

He took his arms away from Ayr who pouted and pressed herself against him. “I liked where your hands were.”

“Just because you were the only one fighting doesn’t mean it wasn’t a battle,” Imae said. “You got those scars because of what your parents did for us, don’t be ashamed of them. I think they they’re beautiful.”

Theo started to say something but jumped a little when Imae kissed along one of the scars.

“They are beautiful,” Ayr said quietly, looking into his eyes. “I’m almost jealous I don’t get to kiss them.”

“There’s better places to kiss,” Theo said.

He leaned forward and Ayr pulled his head to hers. She couldn’t help herself and moaned a little when their lips met. He pulled her closer and she could feel his hardness pressing against her stomach. Ayr put her arms around him but managed to grab Imae as well.

“Yum, a Sparrow sandwich,” Imae giggled, putting her arms around him from the back. Her hands brushed against Ayr’s sides and she began to slowly stroke her cousin’s skin.

“Ooh, no tickling,” Ayr gasped.

“Furthest thing from my mind,” Imae said, brushing the sides of Ayr’s breasts with her fingers. “But I think everyone is clean now.”

Ayr agreed and they used the second bucket of warm water to rinse all of them. Ayr’s hand went to Theo’s rigid cock and stroked it as they kissed again.

“If you’ll come this way, sir, we have something planned in the next room,” Imae said, her hand joining Ayr’s.

They led him into the second basement room, Imae carrying the candle to light the way. There were several mattress pads on the floor and a stack of towels. Ayr took one of the towels and began to dry Theo, taking the opportunity to trace his scars with her fingertips. Imae dried his front and squatted down to dry his legs. She smiled up at him, stroking his cock again and Theo caressed the side of her face.

“I bet you’ll like this,” she said.

Theo gasped loudly as she took his cock in her mouth. He’d never felt anything like the wet heat and sensation of her tongue licking him. Ayr stood next to him, one hand stroking his back and the other running through Imae’s hair.

“She’s such a slut,” Ayr whispered in Theo’s ear, her hot breath making him shudder.

Imae took him out of her mouth. “I heard that. You’re just jealous.”

Ayr pushed Imae’s head toward Theo’s cock again. Imae moaned and licked along his length. Theo’s hand stroked Ayr’s hip and she smiled at him.

“I think this party is way too vertical,” she said.

Imae sat down on one of the pads and she took his hand and pulled him down gently on top of her. Ayr laid beside them As Imae put her arms around Theo and pulled him on top of her. Her legs intertwined with his as they kissed.

“You two are gorgeous together,” Ayr said. “I’m almost jealous I don’t get him first.”

Imae stopped kissing Theo long enough to stick her tongue out at Ayr.

“Don’t give me ideas,” Ayr said and Imae laughed.

“Next time.”

“What are you two talking about?” Theo asked.

“Overactive sex drives, attractive cousin, youthful exploration, you work it out,” Ayr said.

Imae giggled. “I just felt him twitch. Don’t tease him too much.”

“You’re the tease, not me,” Ayr said. “Are you ready, Theo?”

He nodded and Imae pulled him into another kiss, spreading her legs underneath him. Theo gasped as Ayr took him in her hand and guided him inside Imae.

“Mercy,” Imae gasped, her back arching. “You feel perfect.

“You’re incredible,” Theo moaned, beginning to thrust into her.

Imae kissed him again, wrapping her legs around her waist and pulling herself into his thrusts.

Two hours later, Theo was gasping again. He had cum inside Imae and they had both collapsed in satisfaction. The women weren’t finished yet and had started kissing, cuddling and stroking each other. Watching them, Theo had quickly gotten hard again and it had been Ayr’s turn. Imae had been kissing them both before lying beside them on the mat and masturbating.

“That was too incredible,” Ayr panted. “How is he that good?”

Imae stretched and rolled against them. “No idea, but I think I’ll keep him.”

“Can I be the junior girlfriend?”

“We can definitely work something out.”

“Do I get a say?” Theo asked.

“Of course not,” Ayr said and Imae shook her head.

Theo figured it didn’t really matter, things would be perfect either way. Jonesy had said he just went with whatever Marisol and Kawehi decided. Theo decided he could follow that advice as his eyes drifted shut.

The next morning, Theo was awake before the other two. He gently untangled himself from them and used the last of the water to get cleaned up and put on the clean uniform someone had left on the stairs.. He went upstairs and found all of the other Pioneers sharing the house were still asleep. Outside, there were a few people moving around and he went over to get a cup of coffee. Emma was already up and staring into space and he sat down beside her and blew on his steaming mug.

Emma leaned against him for a moment. “Hey you.”

He kissed the top of her head and she sat back up. “What time is it?”

Emma looked up at the thick foliage above them and shrugged. “Morning. Between the short day and not being able to see the sun, I don’t have a clue.”

He nodded and took a sip of the coffee. “Hopefully it won’t be much longer.”

“You weren’t in your bed last night.”

Theo looked over at her and Emma winked.

“Seriously? Bed checks?”

“Only when someone started broadcasting all kinds of fun stuff on Radio Theo.”

He felt his face get hot. Emma grinned and bumped her shoulder against his.

“Who got to you first?”

Theo shrugged. “Both of them.”

“No way. Your first time was a threesome?

Emma whistled softly.

“That’s unusual?” Theo tried to keep his face straight but finally cracked a smile.

“You’re going to be impossible after this. And please don’t torture Holm.”

Theo imitated Tommy’s super-villain laugh and Emma sighed.

|The Patrol

Otsihl walked into the cargo container office where Djoshu was carefully sharpening his talons.

“Something here stinks of grub.”

Djoshu lifted an arm and sniffed. “I bathed yesterday.”

Otsihl snorted. “Metaphorically, you literalist. That puffed up First Lord is sending out a patrol of those half moron drones of his. They say their ancient foe left a transmitter running and they’re going out to retrieve it.”

Djoshu frowned. “Do we share the same concept of ancient?”

“My thought exactly. If this technology is still functional, I have to wonder what else we’re going to wake up in there.”

Djoshu’s talons scraped along the desk, thin strips of the plastisteel curling up as he thought. “I feel the breath of the Mother Grub.”

Otsihl sat down. “Quit destroying my furniture and tell me.”

Djoshu looked down and quickly retracted his talons. “Apologies. The Xyalatrax have given us the honor of leading the expedition.”

“Correct.”

“Even after we lost most of our forces.”

“Correct again. Conclusion?”

“We are not being afforded an honor, we are driven in front of them like dzurgas sent to find grub nests.”

“I have the same thought and it is an itch I cannot reach. Play Warchief for a moment and tell me what you’d do.”

Djoshu thought for a few seconds. “Send troops with this patrol. See how the Xyalatrax behave.”

“I agree and I already bedeviled the First Lord until he agreed to include us. Good thing, judging by the way you’ve mauled that innocent table, you’re feeling the need to breathe the open air.”

Djoshu nodded. “The ship is becoming tiresome. How many shall I take?”

“Just one, call him an aide. He’ll be your bodyguard of course, that scent of grub is strong.”

“I’ll fetch my field gear.”

“Djoshu,” the Warchief said.

The Second paused at the door.

“Take care with your enthusiasm. You are there as my eyes, not my fists. You would not be easily replaced.”

Djoshu bowed his head briefly. “As you say. I am a firm believer in ranged weapons.”

“Unlike my mad Warriors of Foot? Report to me when you return, no matter the time.”

On his way to his quarters, Djoshu asked one of the sub-chiefs for a suitable warrior for his expedition. A few minutes later, the sub-chief arrived at his door with a massive footman. He left without introducing the monster sized Kelthoi.

“What’s your name?” Djoshu asked, looking up at him as he finished strapping on field gear.

“The Righteous Hammer That Grinds the Unworthy in the Cauldron of Battle,” the brute said, staring straight ahead.

“Well, that’s…original. That’s really what they call you in the middle of battle?”

“Yes, Second.”

Djoshu knew that was grubshit. “Far too much for my weak upper-class mind to handle. I shall call you…Fluffy Cuddlekins.”

The warrior was surprised enough to meet his eyes before staring at the opposite wall again.

“I was just having a joke, Second. They call…”

“You are following me! We depart!” a drone screeched at them from the end of the passageway.

Djoshu held up his hand. “Our noble allies have called for our aid, but not to worry, Fluffy. Should you fall, rest assured that I will compose a dirge in your honor. All shall remember Warrior Cuddlekins.”

“Gonna be real careful not to fall then.”

“Be of stout heart, Fluffy. Onward.”

|The Mission

Harry’s team didn’t have to work hard to stay undercover as they followed the streets toward the spot they had left the seismic monitor several days ago. There were several places where they had to dodge open areas but no one had heard anything from the sky. The whole exercise was a hike more than anything else, even training was harder than this. Shep was one of the most popular security people to be around. He was a constant source of amusement, he told a lot of jokes and stories from other missions that usually had people laughing. Imae liked him but worried a little bit if he was taking this seriously. Vuli, on the other hand, was completely serious. Even grim.

Harry, at the front of the little column, held up his hand for a stop. Shep’s gangling “good ole’ boy routine” was gone in a second. He put his hand on the shoulder of one of the Pioneers that hadn’t noticed Harry’s signal. The kid looked surprised and started to say something but Shep immediately put a hand over his mouth and whispered in his ear. The Pioneer looked startled but nodded after a second. Everyone was staying in place along the wall of one of the buildings and Harry moved quickly back to where Shep and Imae were.

“It’s up there,” Harry said quietly, pointing to the top of the debris wall that encircled the city.

“Not seeing anything,” Shep answered.

Harry shrugged. “They aren’t that large, you wouldn’t from down here. I remember that weird pointed building as a landmark though.”

“Gonna be a bastard of a climb,” Shep said. He’d been carrying a couple coils of climbing rope and slid them off his shoulder onto the ground.

“No one ever considered getting here on foot,” Imae said, helping uncoil the rope. “Nice flat place to land a shuttle though.”

“Who’s going up?” Shep asked.

“I’m the primary tech for these,” Imae said. “Sammy over there is second if anything happens to me.”

“Let’s avoid that,” Shep said.

“Imae, do your best to hide it,” Harry said, looking up at the wall of crushed buildings. “Don’t worry about trying to get it back down here.”

She nodded, wrapping a heavy strap around herself. “Copy that. I think there’s some holes near the edge I can drop it in.”

She followed Shep across the street.

“Nice job on the Swiss seat,” he said, checking her work. “You climb in your free time?”

Imae laughed. “No way, I hate heights.”

He looked at her in surprise but she ignored it and checked the attachments on his climbing harness.

“Why’d you come out then?”

“Those are my monitors, so it’s my job. Don’t worry, I’ve passed the basic mountaineers course. This isn’t nearly as high.”

“Pioneers have to pass that?” he asked as he crawled up the first large wall.

“We do all the survival courses as part of our hunting trials,” she said. She followed Jonesy up the wall, not looking down.

They didn’t talk much more as they worked their way up to the top.

Djoshu and his guard followed the single ur-male and the ten drones he’d brought along. A couple were weighted down with pieces of recovery gear, a sling by the looks of it, and more that Djoshu didn’t recognize. The rest of them were carrying the odd looking pellet rifles that seemed to be standard for the Xyalatrax. The ur-male carried a smaller gun that looked more like a status symbol to Djoshu. They’d hiked out from the ship, far enough that Djoshu wondered why they hadn’t just used one of the shuttles.

They were walking through a gathering of taller vegetation when the rest of the group went to ground. Djoshu and the other Kelthoi were quick to follow. They both looked around, but other than the cliff they’d been following, there was nothing. Djoshu sighed and began to work his way up to the ur-male. When he got there, the larger Xyalatrax was studying the top of the cliffs with a scope.

“What is it?” Djoshu asked.

The ur-male jumped at the sound of his voice and Djoshu wondered if the idiot had actually forgotten they were back there.

“Warm blood prefcoria filth,” the ur-male finally said. “They’ve infested the planet!”

Djoshu got his own scope out and searched until he saw movement at the top of the cliff. He watched as they quickly moved around on some mysterious task, keeping low.

“I wouldn’t call two of them an infestation,” he commented.

The ur twitched again and Djoshu realized it was stopping itself from striking him. That was the way they controlled the drones but he hadn’t realized it was so ingrained. He’d have to watch this one.

“There are always more than you see,” the ur hissed. “They are taking the signal away! We must attack!”

“Calm down,” Djoshu ordered. “Anything that’s been working that long couldn’t be that portable. It was probably an instrument of theirs. We should report back to the ship and get instructions.”

“No, no contact, none. They will send full males, I will not find glory. I will attack them with my drones. Then I shall be made a full male!”

Djoshu had dealt with a few power hungry officers before but none that were so far gone to ignore their mission. These things were not very skilled fighters.

“I would like to use your communicator,” Djoshu said again.

The thing pulled out a small box and smashed it against the ground until it was in many pieces.

“I will be a full male,” the thing hissed again.

Djoshu looked at the remains of the communicator and back at the ur-male.

“I assume you have a plan?”

“It is simplicity itself. We see where they go. We attack from hiding. They die. You assist me, you gain minor glory. I will be a full male.”

Djoshu thought about trying to reason with him but the ur was acting even stranger than these things usually did. The large compound eyes focused on him and Djoshu could see hundreds of tiny reflections of himself looking back.

“You will assist me,” the ur-male repeated, caressing the automatic pistol it carried.

Djoshu wasn’t an expert but this specimen looked and acted dangerous. “It will be done, we are allies.”

“Yesss. Allies.”

Djoshu started the long crawl back to the rear.

“I will become a male. A full male, oh yes,” the thing hissed to itself behind him.

“What is happening?” Fluffy asked when he got back.

“Our glorious commander is a few dzurga short of a nursery,” Djoshu said and related his brief conversation.

“That’s mutiny,” Fluffy muttered. “Shall we remove him?”

“Not a good idea, they have some kind of mental control over their drones. I don’t think we could take them all on.”

“And Otsihl would be mad if we killed allies.”

“Yeah, probably.”

“Ain’t no honor in killing by surprise. And those prefcoria things ain’t enemies yet. Don’t want to get haunted by their spirits. The chief know what that they’re like?”

“No, I doubt he would have come if he knew.”

Fluffy looked happier. “Yeah.”

Djoshu’s mind raced. He didn’t know about ghosts but he didn’t want his family’s name attached to something so craven and barbaric. How could he stop this? Finally he nudged Fluffy who looked like he was asleep.

“We’ve got to get word back to the warclan. How are you at running?”

Fluffy puffed out his chest. “I’m a scout. I been to Ginthii four times now, ain’t got killed or captured yet. I can outrun any of those grub-ugly pus-bags.”

“Fluffy, you are a gift from the gods,” Djoshu said.

“Second, Fluffy ain’t my name…”

Djoshu held up a hand for silence as he pulled out pen and paper and quickly wrote out a letter to Otsihl. He passed it to Fluffy.

“Read this, commit it to memory,” he said. “That has to get through.”

The big warrior read it several times. “I got it. When do I go?”

“As soon as the ur-male begins to move.”

“What about you?” Fluffy asked. “That ur thing could execute you for mutiny.”

Djoshu shrugged. “I have no long range weapons with me. It can’t be mutiny if he doesn’t give me the proper equipment.”

Fluffy thought for a moment and nodded. “You nobles got that slippery thinking. Gotta learn that.”

He rolled on his back and a few seconds later he began to snore.

The team was headed back home. Imae had shut down the seismic monitor and disconnected the power supply before sticking the unit in a large crevice. Shep had helped her pile some rocks on top of it and then they’d repelled back down to the group. A couple hard yanks on the rope had brought them down and pretty quickly they were on their way back. Now that the mission was successful, everyone was pretty relaxed. There was a few kilometers and then they’d be back. Imae was walking near Shep again, listening to him tell outlandish stories about his family.

“That sounds like Holm,” someone laughed as Shep finished a story about losing a dozen head of cattle. “Except it was a nice day and it was all his dad’s goats.”

There was laughter and Holm spun around to give them all the finger. There was a strange echoing pop. Holm’s hand was halfway up. He stared at the blood erupting from the ruin of his hand as he fell to his knees. Around him people were dropping to the ground, surrounded by sharp popping sounds.

“There cannot be many left,” the ur-male said to Djoshu.

He’d been brought along, not quite at gun point. The ur had been enraged to find Fluffy gone but Djoshu had quickly explained that he’d gone off to perform the rituals necessary before battle, for both of them. He’d probably been seconds from death but had calmly made up nonsense about appeasing the battle god because of the unnatural alien tactics.

“We will push forward, dig them from their holes and rip them apart!” the ur screamed.

Something was thudding behind them and Djoshu wondered what the drones were doing now. Some other part of this horrendous “ambush” no doubt.

There was another crack and a gurgle from the other side.

“Don’t rush them yet, they’re not running. They’re under cover,” Djoshu said to the ur.

“Quiet, warm blood filth! You are in league with them, all warm bloods must…”

Djoshu didn’t get to hear what the warm bloods had to do, the ur-male’s head made an unpleasant crunching sound as it broke into pieces. Djoshu ducked back behind the large block they’d hidden behind. Had that been a rock? There was more thudding behind him and Djoshu turned in time to see an orange shape blurring toward him.

Then there was nothing.

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Reflections on the “lost” novel.

So, I wrote and “published” my first novel a couple of years ago. Looking back, it was awful and I hope to edit it and make it readable someday soon. A few people read it and I had someone ask me what happened to the second book (there was somewhat of a cliffhanger ending). It’s a disaster sci-fi with a virulent poison that ends civilization.

I found that I had to really force myself to work on the second one. One day I was outlining a scene where the team rescues a refugee from the baddies. She’s the adopted daughter of the really vile main baddie and working out her backstory wiped me out.

I hit what I thought was writer’s block but it was a serious reluctance to live in that world for a while. It sounds cliche but that’s a good description of what I do.

I should have already known this would happen. In the first novel I avoided writing about the actual disaster and “effect vignettes” until the end. Doing the research and modeling the effects was a very depressing and occasionally painful process.

But there will be a second book, and it’s going to be good. I’ve learned more of the novel writer’s skills and it shows. I just needed a serious vacation from that universe.

The good news is that I’ve still been working, most of it you can read right on the blog. It’s a lot more cheerful, other than kidnap, murder, and impending destruction of earth of course. I do apologize about my plummeting output. I’ve been on a 7-day 80-hour schedule since February and the idea of writing after some of these days can be overwhelming.

The Alnatic Encounter, Part 2

|2.0 Arrival

Theo sat up as the vibrations in the floor beneath him changed. It had been another long ride from Main Axis on the Slingshot carrier and even more boring than the ride from Earth. The carrier didn’t have a crew they could talk to, it was crewed by a Synthetic Intelligence. If you took the drive engines and thrusters away, it was just an open framework that held two shuttles. The visual sensors weren’t very exciting in drive space either. Outside everything was a uniform gray color. There had been ripples and eddies after they had entered the gate but that had smoothed out, leaving a flat gray expanse. Even Theo’s excitement about heading to the planet couldn’t take that level of monotony and he’d fallen asleep with everyone else, sleeping through their return to normal space. Leaving the carrier wasn’t any more interesting than riding on it. The clamps holding the shuttles opened and both of the Otters were gently eased away by hydraulic rams.

“Come on up,” Rachel said from the cockpit of the Otter. The surrounding bulkheads were covered with instruments and controls, but it had a real window that was shielded by a thick piece of armored plate that Rachel was just raising. She nodded to the other seat that was slightly lower and behind hers and Theo sat down and looked out at their destination.

Rachel had the nose of the shuttle pointed “down” at the planet and Theo watched the landmasses slide past below.

“Faster rotation than Earth,” Rachel said. “Roughly an eighteen hour day, slightly higher gravity but lots of oxygen so you might not notice. Our landing area is coming over the horizon now.”

Something about the view below was strange to Theo. As the terrain below changed, he realized that everything seemed regular, almost like it had been planned..

Rachel shrugged when he mentioned it. “We’re not seeing the giant oceans like Earth has, maybe that’s throwing you off.”

Theo nodded but to him all of the regions looked neatly laid out. He figured it was just his reaction to seeing a different world than Earth for the first time. Of course it was going to look odd to him.

“You might as well strap in there,” Rachel said, flipping some switches. “We’re going to start braking soon.”

Theo pulled the straps over his head as Rachel called back for everyone else to strap in. The view out the window was rotating, the planet sliding out of view below as the shuttle reoriented before contacting the thicker atmosphere below. Theo couldn’t see much, hazy plasma was beginning to flow back from the nose and slide over the windows. Rachel put on a pair of large goggles and was talking quietly with the shuttle’s SI in her headset but Theo couldn’t really follow what was going on. The shuttle began to vibrate and bounce and the view ahead was lost as the shield closed over the window. He felt the shuttle drop in the pit of his stomach and realized it was the gravity of the planet underneath them. The shaking and vibrations went on for a surprisingly long time before fading away, leaving the ship bouncing occasionally.

The plate over the window finally slid out of the way and Theo could see the tops of clouds, racing by below them. There was a whining sound as the wings partially unfolded from the hull. Rachel put her hands on the controls, telling the SI that she had control. Theo could hear the shuttle’s SI talking in her headset but Rachel was ignoring it. She had a look of utter delight on her face, completely absorbed by flying and he could see an inner joy, almost ecstasy, as she maneuvered the ship down through the thickening atmosphere. Her beauty was perfection in that moment and he felt a tightness in chest as the feeling of loss and sadness started to sink hooks back into him, He looked away from her, concentrating on the view outside.

The shuttle banked back and forth several times, losing more speed as they descended lower. The stubby wings were fully extended and Rachel laughed as she banked around massive cloud formations. They went lower still and he saw trails of vapor from the wingtips tracing their path. Rachel flew into a bank of clouds and there was a brief spatter of rain over the windscreen that was quickly gone. They were under the clouds and over a large yellowish plain. Rachel banked in a long circle and below them, Theo could see the other shuttle just landing.

“Spoilsport,” Rachel said into her headset. “Okay, Otter Eight, you have control.”

Rachel took her hands off the controls as the ship straightened out and began to slow even more. They were a couple hundred meters off the ground when the ship stopped and began to descend vertically toward the ground. There was a gentle thump and then a sudden silence as the engine noise died away.

“Attention, this atmosphere will easily support all entities aboard,” the shuttle said. “A detailed analysis is now available.”

Rachel looked at Theo and he quickly shook his head.

“Log it in the records please,” Rachel said, smiling as her hands danced across the controls, shutting everything down.

“Nice flying,” Theo said as he unstrapped.

“Thanks, birdie,” she said happily. “That’s the best rush ever. Almost as good as se…”

Rachel’s face turned red as she cut herself off.

“…it’s a lot of fun,” she finished lamely.

“Almost as good as sex then?” Theo asked with a grin.

She laughed and nodded, looking at the controls once more before unbuckling herself. “Welcome to Alnatic C.”

The shuttle assured them that there were no large or hostile lifeforms in the area before opening the hatches and rear cargo ramp. The smells of warm earth and dry grass filled the shuttle. It was a comforting smell after days of recycled air and the warm breeze made Theo want to suddenly dance. He was on another planet!

Theo could see the Pioneers from the other shuttle already unloading gear and the security team was already on the job, looking around as they laced their boots tighter and checked their weapons once more.

“Theo,” Emma said from behind him.

He turned around and she handed him a heavy bundle with straps wrapped around it.

“Full clip, nothing in the chamber.”

Theo nodded and unrolled the shoulder holster, slipping it over the gray fatigues. Supposedly there was nothing dangerous in the area but they weren’t taking chances.

“We ready?”

She smiled and pushed him toward the ramp. “I know you’re dying to get out there, go.”

Theo walked down the ramp with Emma following. He stretched as he took a few steps away from the shuttle and then grinned at the view around him.

“We’re going to get camp set up right over there,” Marisol said, walking over from the other shuttle.

It looked exactly the surrounding area to Theo but he scanned the area, trying to look judicious. They were in a endless looking grassland that looked a lot like the African savannah, if you ignored the strangely shaped tree-things dotting the landscape. In the distance was a ridge, dark with more of the tree-things. On the other side of the shuttles was the craggy looking area they were here to investigate.

“Yeah, that’s great. I was thinking of this side, but that spot is much better. Grassier.”

Marisol smiled slightly. “Glad you approve. Ready to do some real work?”

“You mean there’s no forms to fill out? No arrival logs or stuff like that?”

She nodded toward the shuttles. “They take care of all that. We’ve got our real job to do.”

“Oh, thank god,” Theo said.

Marisol laughed and they went to help unload the tents. The shuttles were parked two hundred meters apart and the sleeping tents were clustered between them. A larger tent was placed in the middle and screens and sensors for the security teams were set up inside along with folding tables and chairs. The late afternoon was just warm enough that the team removed their heavy fatigue jackets. Nighttime temperatures were projected to be about fifteen degrees cooler.

“Pretty nice weather, this will make a good colony,” Holm said as he and Theo tightened the last line on their tent.

“It’s the middle of summer here,” Theo said, checking the line once more. “It gets a lot colder in the winter.”

“Then let’s be gone before that happens,” Imae said, carrying her bag into the tent.

Emma was already inside unfolding the legs on her cot. She opened the valve on the mattress and sat back as it began to self inflate. There were already two beds on the opposite side of the tent. Theo had planned to sleep on the cot in the command tent but Marisol had vetoed the idea. Even with Vuli’s assurances that there were no large predators in the area, they would be keeping watch and the overnight shift didn’t need to be tiptoeing around because Theo was asleep in their office. He’d half expected to have a tent to himself but Emma vetoed that idea. She wanted him close. Holm staying with Emma was already assumed and then Imae joined the group to “keep an eye on things”. Theo didn’t say anything, but he was glad. He was already feeling a distance between himself and the rest of the team. People didn’t salute or anything silly like that but he could sense a certain reserve in people when he was around. It would be nice to relax with other people, even if they were asleep at the time.

Theo started to drop his gear on the bed next to Emma’s but saw Holm’s stuff already sitting there.

“Okay with you?” Emma asked.

“Hmm. Can I trust you two to behave?” he asked.

Imae laughed and Emma gave him the finger. Theo put his stuff beside Imae’s cot and went back out to look around. The golden grass that surrounded the camp was interrupted on one side of the camp by the humped profile of caldera. It consisted of a dark rock, split by cracks or ravines in several places. At the base of the rock was a tumbled mass of stone covered by the debris from the tree-shaped things grew thickly on the top and down the sides. Their shade made seeing into the large crevasses impossible, especially in the long deepening shadows of the late afternoon. Theo sat on his heels to examine the grass. It looked just like the grass on Earth and the soil was a brownish gray, like dirt on Earth.

“Contact, animals,” Jonesy said from the bud in his ear. “1.2 klicks to the north-northwest.”

People walked to the edge of the camp, shading their eyes as they looked at a herd of quadrupeds ambling by. The animals occasionally paused to pull at the grass, completely ignoring the camp.

“Those look a lot like antelope,” Deirdre said as Theo walked up to watch.

“It stands to reason,” Sandi, one of the Pioneers, said. “Similar habitats would produce similar life forms. Form follows function.”

“Don’t start the environmental determinism again,” Jack, one of the human Pioneers said.

“What about the cephalopods similarities between Earth, Juneo, and Calphis then?” she shot back.

“That’s one life form out of how many? And how do you know the Founders didn’t drop them when they seeded the prefcoria?”

“Did you even read the article on DNA typing that I gave you?” she sighed.

Deidre and Theo looked at each other and quietly left as the two Pioneers continued what sounded like an ongoing debate.

The sun dropped behind a distant ridge and the landscape around them immediately darkened. There were a few LED lanterns burning and the team gathered in front of the command tent, rations in hand. Theo sat next to Emma, relieved that he’d gotten the chili this time. Vuli was standing in the middle of them, talking about what she’d seen on the planet and what they could expect.

When she was finished, Harry began his own informal briefing and Theo watched him carefully. The geologist was fairly quiet but when he spoke up people listened. Theo was still a little uncomfortable talking to everyone at once. He didn’t have Marisol’s innate bad-assery and he figured Harry might be the example to follow.

“…so we’ll set up two separate survey teams tomorrow,” Harry said. “Team one will look for any usable stratigraphy in those fissures. The other group will tackle the surface of the formation. That’s all I have. Marisol?”

She looked up from her food. “We’ll have people with both teams of course and maintain an overwatch from the camp here. If there’s any kind of trouble, sit tight. We’ll use one of the Otters to get people to you ASAP. We’ll have people on sentry duty all night, let them know if you’re going beyond the camp perimeter in the dark. That’s all I have. Ayr?”

She bounced to her feet. “Pioneers, you know your jobs. Get rested up, we’ve got a lot of work to do and not a lot of time to do it. If you bother the security teams with going outside the camp, you’d better have a damn good reason. Theo?”

He swallowed a bite and stood up. He thought about imitating Harry’ laid back style but wasn’t sure how, so he just talked.

“We’ll be using one of the shuttles to overfly the area tomorrow,” he said to the crowd of faces suddenly looking at him. “Anyone who’s interested in seeing the place from the air, talk to Rachel or Marcus. We’ll set up a rotation so no one gets left out. Other than that, you’ve all done excellent work so far and I know you’ll keep that up. Thank you. Any questions?”

They all just looked at him and he felt foolish suddenly. “Uh, that’s all I’ve got. Enjoy your evening.”

Theo was glad it was fairly dark. He was blushing for some reason and was glad no one else could see it.

“Not bad,” Emma whispered and everyone went back to talking.

“Sounded stupid,” Theo muttered.

She smiled. “A little too managerial, but don’t sweat it.”

 

 

 

After people had finished eating they began to drift to their tents. All day long they had been circled by something that looked liked birds and as it got darker they started to land. One of them was perched on the pole of the command tent and examined them all with bright beady eyes. Up close they didn’t look like birds at all. They had fur instead of feathers and long tails. The closest thing on Earth might have been a flying squrriel but these things were in the air for hours, not a few seconds between trees. The bird thing made an unpleasant croaking sound and crapped on the tent fly.

“That was rude,” Theo said as he walked back to the tent.

The thing made a noise like a frog and closed its eyes. Theo shook his head and went into the tent to get his jacket. Imae had already crashed and was lying on top of her cot, still dressed and snoring faintly. He felt around for the jacket and the noise made her open her eyes and mutter something.

“Don’t you want to take your clothes off?” Theo asked.

Imae giggled. “That’s a little inappropriate, Theo.”

His face was hot as he heard laughter from the tents on either side of them. “That’s not the way I meant it.”

“And it’s a good thing my mother didn’t hear that.”

“Oh god,” Theo said. “I’ll see you later.”

There were a few people standing around when he came out. From the grins, they’d heard every word.

“I didn’t mean it that way,” Theo said to everyone in general.

“So we heard,” Betsy said from inside her tent. “I’m taking off my clothes if you need to know, Theo.”

“For fuck’s sake,” he muttered as everyone laughed.

Jonesy was coming out of another tent wearing his field gear. He had the first shift on the overnight watch. Theo quickly escaped the group to join him and they began a slow circuit of the camp as Jonesy checked the surveillance drones and cameras.

“That was pretty smooth,” Jonesy said.

Theo rolled his eyes. “If I was trying to look like an ass in front of everyone maybe.”

The test light on the autonomous camera flickered green and Jonesy walked to the next one.

“Mind some advice?” he said as he pushed the self-test button.

“Please,” Theo said.

“It sounds cliché but stop worrying about looking like a leader. Concentrate on the job, you’ll figure your style out over time. And relax. How are you sleeping?”

“Everyone asks that, I sleep just fine.”

“We won’t stop asking. On Earth, the overwhelming majority of new company grade officers sleep an average of three hours a night,” Jonesy said, walking to the next camera. “That leads to stupid mistakes we can’t afford. You’ve got Qwiksleep, right?”

“Yeah. But I don’t want to use them in case something happens in the middle of the night.”

“That’s why there’s two pills,” Jonesy said. “The second one negates the first one, no cobwebs at all.”

Theo just nodded as Jonesy tested the next camera. He really didn’t want to have to take a pill to go to sleep.

“I never apologized for what happened at the Ranch,” Jonesy said as they moved to the next unit.

Theo shook his head. “You have nothing to apologize about, I just didn’t understand what was going on. Did Kawehi yell at you or something?”

“Not really. It just felt like kicking a guy when he was already down. Wasn’t my intention, I’m not that great at noticing interpersonal stuff sometimes.”

Theo snorted. “You have two girlfriends. You’re doing just fine.”

Jonesy laughed as they walked to the last camera. “Honestly, I just agree to whatever they say. We’re good though?”

“There was never a problem.”

Theo stuck out his hand and Jonesy shook.

“Don’t stay up too late,” Jonesy said as he headed for the command tent where Betsy was doing something to the view screens.

Theo went back to the tent. The other three were already asleep and he quietly sat on the cot and took off his boots. He laid back but wasn’t remotely sleepy. He ended up staring at the tent above him, listening to everyone else sleep. After a long time, he heard Deidre and Shep coming out of their tents. A few minutes later, Betsy and Jonesy quietly went into theirs. That meant half the night was over and he still didn’t feel tired. Finally his eyes drifted shut and Theo fell asleep.

 

 

|2.1 The First Day

“Hey.”

Tulip had her hand on his chest and Theo sat up on the bed.

“Everything okay?” he asked quickly. But Emma felt calm and he relaxed a little.

“Everything’s fine, breakfast meeting in a few.”

He nodded as he turned and put his feet on the floor. Imae and Holm were already gone.

“Wait, what time is it?”

“Sparrow, take a breath, okay?” She sat down on Imae’s cot and looked at him and he could feel the worry radiating from her.

“I’m fine.”

She snorted. “Did you forget that our connection is a two way street? It’s my job to look out for you. That includes your mental health and you’ve been way too stressed. So, after dinner tonight we’re going to do some yoga and deep breathing exercises together.”

He looked at her doubtfully. “Yoga.”

“Yeah, I’ve even got some pants you can wear.”

“No.” Theo got up and headed for the door.

Emma followed him out of the tent. “Come on,” she said, wrapping her arm around his waist as they walked. “Men wear yoga pants too.”

“You know I can tell when you’re lying, right?”

“C’mon Sparrow, your ass would be magnificent in yoga pants. Just try it out, no one will know.”

“Like last night with Imae, right?”

She laughed and squeezed him. “We should also discuss that. Your game is terrible, little brother.”

“It wasn’t what I meant and you’re all of eight minutes older than I am.”

“Doesn’t matter. I was first so I’ll always be your older and wiser sister.”

Less than two hours later, Rachel used the grav engines to lift the Otter to a couple hundred meters before using the standard fusion engines to push the shuttle into conventional flight. The passengers in the rear, Theo, Emma, Vuli, and Harry, wore harnesses attached to the overhead as well as headsets to communicate over the whine of the engines and roar of the wind. The side panels had been removed, leaving the middle of the craft open.

Below, the Pioneers were busy assembling the pieces of the monitoring beacons while the security team searched along the base of the cliffs for the best route in. Most of the cargo area in the back was taken up by a special laser scanner that recorded the topography of the anomaly in sub-centimeter detail.

“Harry, I thought calderas were holes,” Emma said over the intercom.

“They are, and this should be. Are you familiar with Devil’s Tower in Wyoming?”

“I’ve seen pictures,” Theo said.

“Okay, so that’s the remains of an ancient volcano, the outer cone has eroded away leaving only the central pillar. That’s the erupting lava that cooled and solidified. Maybe we’re looking at something similar here. The surrounding area would have eroded away, leaving this more durable rock that would have been coming up from deep underground.”

“And do you believe this to be the truth?” Vuli asked.

At first there was no answer. Theo looked over at Harry and he was studying the outer edge as they slowly flew the diameter of the anomaly.

“No,” Harry eventually said. “There’s something else at work here. There is definitely a plume of magma coming up from the lithosphere, you can see it on the seismic surveys the Gyr made of the area. But I have no idea what this is. Rachel, can you take us higher and across the area?”

“Let me finish this orbit so Ayr gets her scan. There’s no active heat sources showing up, flying over it is no problem.”

Rachel kept the Otter in a gentle bank, recording everything. Theo watched the trees slide past. It looked like a forest, there were a few gaps in the canopy but for the most part, it was a bumpy wrinkled blanket of vivid green. It was even more intense in contrast to the surrounding grasslands.

“There must be a big water source down there,” he said. “The ridges in the distance aren’t this heavily forested.”

“Something’s definitely different here,” Marisol agreed. “Maybe it was intentional. There’s nothing like this on the rest of the planet, Vuli?”

“I have found nothing in the survey records. They’re relatively recent, only about fifteen hundred Terran years old. My root consciousness worked on a different landmass but this is the only plume of magma found.”

“I noticed there were no indications of tectonic plates,” Harry said.

“The term does not translate well. Apologies, explanation, regrets.”

“Were there long chains of volcanoes in coastal regions maybe?”

“There were no volcanoes found.”

“That’s uh…” Harry sounded confused. “You’re aware of what a volcano refers to?”

“Indeed, the Gyr homeworld has many of them. I recall confusion and dismay during the survey.”

“I bet. I’m not a planetary ecologist but I know that volcanoes were critical to the early formation of life. There must be some other mechanism.”

“I regret you were not given the full results of the survey. The Gyr hierarchy can be difficult, obtuse, obstreperous. And also complete assholes.”

Emma quickly put her hand around the microphone pickup on her headset and Theo could see she was laughing.

“The Sheep Herder taught me many inappropriate words,” Vuli said proudly to Theo. “Do you remember, Marisol? You were quite excited.”

“How could I forget? You marched into my room and used a few.”

“Yes, ‘ball busting, fire breathing, hardass!’ You were quite surprised.”

Marisol laughed. “Yes I was. That put Shep’s ass in a sling. Then we found out about all the music he gave you.”

“I protested to your ambassador, I said it was a partial cultural exchange. Luckily he did not recognize my low status and the Sheep Herder was spared official punishment, retribution, general ass kickings. You remember that I said that with affection and respect?”

Emma doubled over and they could hear her and Harry laughing.

“This story isn’t for public consumption, Terrans,” Marisol said but Theo could hear the amusement in her voice. ”

“First orbit complete,” Rachel said. “I’m going to keep us at two-five-zero meters over the canopy.”

“Thanks,” Harry said, leaning forward to get better look at the sea of trees sliding past beneath them.

“Did you see that?” Theo asked suddenly. “Those trees?”

“Didn’t notice, what’s going on?” Marisol asked.

“I’d swear we just flew over a collection of oak trees,” he said.

“You’ll probably get similar forms in similar habitats,” Harry said.

“Savannah isn’t an oak habitat,” Emma said. “I saw them too.”

“I put a waypoint in the nav, we can come back later and take a look,” Rachel said from the flight deck.

From above they could see a series of regular looking gaps running in straight lines, interspersed with long curving arcs.

“Are these fracture patterns normal?” Marisol asked.

“Not anywhere I’ve heard of,” Harry said. “I don’t even know if they’re natural.”

“We found no traces of a civilization here,” Vuli said. “We searched very carefully, ethics forbid colonies on worlds with sentient life.”

They all looked down as the Otter flew over another collection of gaps in the trees but none of them had any idea what they were. Harry was writing something on a pad but Theo couldn’t tell what it was.

“Big herd of those antelope things off to the right,” Rachel said as they crossed the edge of the anomaly. “Want to take a look?”

“Let’s get some photos at least,” Harry said.

The Otter banked and Emma pulled a pair of binoculars from Theo’s pack. Rachel avoided flying directly over the mass of animals below and slowed down considerably. Emma had the binos up to her eyes and then handed them to Theo.

“They sure look like gazelles to me,” she said.

Theo took a look but he’d never seen one on Earth and had no idea what was so interesting. After a second he handed them over to Marisol who took a look.

“Not a zoologist, I have no idea,” she said after a second, handing them back.

“Radio call from the camp,” Rachel said in their headphones. “Switching over.”

The transmission was choppy and garbled and they could barely make out a voice.

“Weird. I’m climbing higher to get a better signal,” Rachel said as the nose of the Otter pitched sharply up.

“What’s wrong with the signal?” Marisol asked.

“Dunno. We left the carrier in a geo-synch orbit overhead. It’s supposed to be relaying signals,” Rachel said. “Camp One, you reading yet?”

“Hey Otter Eight, Otter Six requests you RTB,” someone said.

“Copy, returning to base. Sitrep?” Rachel radioed back.

“Situation green, we’re clearing your landing area now. Camp is standing by.”

 

The camp came into sight a few minutes later and Marcus was waiting with dayglow batons to guide the Otter back to where Rachel had taken off from. She shut down the engines and came out of the cockpit and followed the rest of them out.

“Nice landing, baby,” Marcus said as he jogged over.

Emma rolled her eyes. Whenever  Theo was around, Marcus got very possessive and looked ridiculous.

“Why’d you call us back?” Theo asked. “What’s going on?”

“Mm, one sec,” Marcus said and went to kiss Rachel.

Emma stepped between them. “I believe the mission commander just asked you a question?”

Marcus was obviously annoyed but tried to laugh it off. “Sorry, sorry! It would probably be better if you guys saw for yourselves. Ayr found it but I’ll show you.”

“I’ll talk to Ayr. You stay here and get post-flight done on that Otter,” Theo said over his shoulder as he walked away.

Marcus started to go after him but Rachel grabbed his arm.

“What the hell is wrong with you? This isn’t summer camp,” she hissed.

“Who does that trainee think he is?” Marcus growled, staring after Theo.

“He thinks he’s the commander,” Marisol said as she walked by. “Who do you think you are?”

“C’mon, we need to get the camera data downloaded,” Rachel said, interrupting whatever he was about to say.

 

|2.1 First Survey

 

Ayr was sitting under the shade fly under the command tent with Sam. They were both filthy and soaked with sweat. But they both jumped their feet as Theo walked over.

“Hey  boss, you’re not going to believe this,” Ayr said, grinning.

“What’s going on?”

“It’s not geological at all. Would you believe it’s a city? Looks like it’s carved right down into the rock.”

“Anyone still using it?” Theo asked.

Ayr shook her head. “I don’t think so. Once we realized what we were seeing, we backed out but it looks like whoever built it left a long time ago. Can we please go back in?”

“Yeah, let’s get a team geared up,” Theo said. “Tell me what you saw…”

 

 

 

Theo followed Ayr to a narrow path they’d hacked through the tree shaped things. Up close the branches were smooth and almost glossy like bamboo. Instead of growing straight, the branches curved up from the central trunk. Instead of leaves, there were long strands of what looked like Spanish moss hanging down from the tips, blowing slightly in the wind.

“Little bit of climbing here,” Ayr said.

They clambered over large angular boulders until they were standing on top of the pile. The tree things didn’t grow up here and it was clear enough to see down the canyon. The thick forest cast deep shadows over everything. The roots twined and twisted over the sheer walls everywhere Theo looked, looking like the giant veins of some gargantuan beast. Water was dripping below them, running down the bottom of the canyon.

Ayr was standing next to Theo looking at him expectantly. Theo squinted into the dimness and noticed a number of holes. They were regular and too regular to be natural. He suddenly realized he was looking at doors and windows. The thickest roots grew down between the buildings, giving the impression of an unbroken wall stretching out into the dimness. But they were really seeing a long overgrown city street. They stood aside as Deirdre and Betsy carefully climbed down into the street below. Something had destroyed the outer ring of buildings and they were standing on the ruins.

“Theophile, we had no idea this was here,” Vuli said quietly. “I would know if anyone had.”

“It doesn’t look like much from above,” Theo said. “I’m not surprised they missed it, especially if this is the only one.”

“I am concerned, worried, agitated about what else they might have missed.”

Theo could tell Vuli was indeed agitated, the long crest on the top of her head was standing half erect. Theo bent down to run his fingers over the stone. It was smooth and cool to the touch.

“This looks like it requires a high level of technology,” Theo said. “So, unless they’re a completely subterranean species, the Gyr would have noticed something.”

“The thoroughness of your people is well known,” Ayr added.

Vuli’s crest relaxed slightly. “You are both kind to say so. May I say again, I was not assigned to this continent.”

Theo grinned. “I understand.”

“Can we keep the Sheep Herder from knowing of this lapse? He will be quite obnoxious, difficult, and also a bastard.”

“I think he’ll find out,” Ayr said. “But you tell me if he’s mean and I’ll bounce him around until he apologizes.”

Vuli bowed slightly and climbed down to join the others and Ayr turned to Theo.

“So?”

Theo looked down the long dim street under its tunnel of trees. “It’s impressive.”

“We need a name. What do you think of Ayrsville? No, Ayrston.”

“What do you think of Theopolis?”

She shook her head. “Doesn’t have the same feel to it.”

He laughed. “I kind of liked it but whatever. C’mon, lets go down.”

“Wait, Ayropolis! That’s not bad and you can have the ‘-opolis’ part of it.”

Theo snorted as they picked their way down and Ayr laughed.

 

 

 

The wet area turned out to be a tiny trickle of water winding between the roots. The city had been empty long enough for the leaves from above to break down into soil. The brown surface was broken here and there by debris from the surrounding buildings.

“Been a long time,” Theo said, picking up a small rock. It was the same finely grained gray-purple stone.

“It’s not as damaged further in…” Ayr’s voice trailed off.

Theo grinned at her. “But you reported back as soon as you saw buildings.”

Ayr sighed. “Why am I glad Vuli isn’t hearing this?”

“It is because you are a follower of rules,” Vuli called back from ahead of them. “Now you have broken them.”

Ayr sighed and rolled her eyes as everyone laughed.

At the first clear intersection, two of the crews split off in either direction. It looked like they’d be parallel with Theo’s group. They moved further into the city, the dim green tinged light allowed them to see about a hundred meters in each direction. They followed the creek upstream as it meandered back and forth between the buildings. The street was more of a boulevard, easily fifty meters wide.

“No gravel,” said the Pioneer with Theo and Emma (what size is three groups minus lookouts). “It’s just bare stone and dirt.”

The trickle of water had been gradually getting wider as they walked. It was roughly a meter wide by now and several inches deep.

“Must be soaking into the street,” one of the Pioneers said.

“I think they’re using it all,” Theo said, looking at the trees above. “There’s got to be a lot of water keeping all of them this alive but there’s no hint of a stream coming into this.”

They stopped at the next intersection and all three teams moved around, using handheld lasers to record everything.

Theo and Emma sat on a big chunk of rock that sat directly in the stream. The water split around it and rejoined on the far side. This was the same shape as a piece missing  from the  building across the street.

“I don’t think these fell down because of age,” Theo said. “Look at the edge where the water hits it, it’s no more eroded than the part above the water. This stuff is hard. You’d need something with a lot of force to break it.”

Emma nodded. “Less damage as we go further in, I wonder what’s in the middle of this place.”

There was an eerie ululating howl that echoed down the artificial canyon from in front of them.

“There’s your answer,” Theo said, putting what was left of his meal bar back in his pocket. He took a quick drink from his water bottle and stepped over the water. Emma took an empty bottle from her pocket and got a sample from the stream as Theo called the other groups on the radio.

“You guys hear that?” Holm asked over the radio.

“Sure did,” Jonesy said from the other group. “Theo?”

“Yeah, we heard it,” he said. “Both teams head fall back to the center. We’ll head back out as a group.”

“You think it was that big?” the Pioneer asked as they pulled their packs on.

“I have no idea and don’t want to find out,” Theo said. “We’re too spread out to go see and we’re losing the light. We’ll try again tomorrow.”

Marisol almost looked approving when her team joined back up. They headed back down the stream and Theo noticed that Marisol’s team automatically spread out so there were watchers on all side of the Pioneers. It was so natural and subtle that he didn’t think anyone else even noticed. None of them looked especially nervous and he relaxed a little. Soon they were at the base of the debris wall. Betsy and Shep climbed up first and rigged ropes to help everyone get up quickly. They still looked relaxed and nonchalant but Theo noticed Shep had relaxed slightly.

Theo looked at the rest of them. No panic, but they were happy to be getting out of here. Theo waited until all of the Pioneers were up before climbing up himself, Emma using the rope beside him. Shep and Marisol were the last two out the others half pulled them as they climbed.

Shep grinned at Theo. “That was even worse than an Ulthira scream. I think Deidre might have wet herself.”

“And now Shep’s getting his ass kicked,” Deidre called from below.

Shep winked at Theo and followed the rest of the team out onto the plain. Theo was surprised at how bright it was and realized it was still late afternoon out here. Back under the trees, it was as dark as night. Theo headed for the sun, wondering what was watching them from the shadows.

 

 

 

When they got back to camp, Jonesy and some of the others immediately went to set up more cameras on the forest side of the camp. Marcus and Rachel were waiting for them.

“That didn’t take long,” Rachel said.

“It’s crazy dark in there,” Theo said. “Did you guys hear that weird noise out here?”

“The bird things screeching a little, but that’s it,” she said.

“Freaky sounding, maybe someone got a recording. You find anything out about the carrier’s radio?”

“The repeater was offline, it’s back up again but the Synthetic says that the self tests are failing. I’m hoping that a little time will let the problem sort itself out and I’ll check how it’s going in the morning,” Marcus said.

Theo nodded. “Sounds like a plan.”

“And, uh, I really want to apologize. My behavior earlier was out of line and it won’t happen again.”

Theo glanced at Rachel but she had her poker face on. Marcus stuck out his hand and Theo shook.

“Thanks. I can appreciate that our teams are different from life in the Raptors, chalk it up to growing pains?”

Marcus was very carefully not looking at Rachel, she still wore her poker face and kept ignoring him. Theo smiled at them and went to claim dinner before he got stuck with Turkey and Peas again.

Wow, she must have chewed his ass hard.

 

 

 

The sun set while they were eating. There wasn’t much dusk this close the equator and the faster spin of the planet made darkness come pretty quickly. All of the talk was about the discovery, who could have built it and when, where they’d gone. Theo was thankful that all of the attention was on that, he was a lot less self-conscious. Imae had saved him a dinner of meatloaf and he sat down with her. Ayr and Emma were already there with Holm. He’d lost some sort of bet with Emma and both of them kept making him get up and get different things, grinning at each other every time he sighed and shuffled off.

“I’m not quite clear on the magma hot spot you were talking about earlier,” Theo said after they’d finished eating. He pulled out the small stone he’d pocketed. “This was a volcano once and they used the lava stone to build?”

“Can I see that?” Imae asked.

He handed it to her and Imae held it up to the lantern light and examined it closely.

“Jonah got more of that for you guys to mess with, I was just curious,” Theo said.

“Obviously the rock here is going to be different than on Earth,” she said. “But this doesn’t look igneous.”

“You just said this is a different planet, so it might be,” Holm argued.

“The same physics we have on Earth works here,” Imae said. “And this looks like metamorphic rock to me.”

“She’s right,” Harry said from behind them. “I took a quick look at the samples we brought back. To me, it almost looks manufactured. We’ll know more tomorrow.”

“Then why the magma plume right here?” Ayr asked.

It had gotten quiet and Theo saw that everyone else was now paying attention to the conversation.

Imae shrugged. “Maybe the buildings were put here because of the plume. If there were explorers from offworld, they would know about seismic surveys.”

“Why risk it?” someone asked. “That seems like a strange thing to base a settlement on.”

“Especially given our mission,” Ayr said.

Imae shrugged again. “I have no idea.”

“We’ll find more of the puzzle tomorrow,” Harry said, getting up. “Trying to create a hypothesis out of what we know so far is pointless.”

Harry headed for his tent but everyone else was too excited by the discovery to think about sleep yet. Imae and one of the other geologists started in on a technical discussion using terms Theo had never heard before. Emma and Holm were already headed off into the dark, so Theo got up and headed the other way.

He passed the command tent, the rest of the team was sitting around in front, still talking about the city. Theo could see, almost feel, the air of excitement. He couldn’t let it take him, not yet. He couldn’t get past the feeling that there was something…wrong about the planet. Theo finished his circuit of the camp and headed for his tent. He’d try to get to bed earlier, then they could all stop bugging him about how much sleep he was getting. He had a pretty boring book that would help.

When he got to the tent, he saw that Emma had left her baseball cap clipped to the door. Theo wondered if she’d forgotten it and was about to unzip the door when he heard Emma moan quietly. Was she hurt somehow? Then the wave of lustpleasureneed washed over him. Whatever was going on, she was enjoying it. He grinned as he quietly backed away. Maybe Rachel and Marcus were still up. Neither of them treated him like anything special, albeit for different reasons.

 

 

 

The first Otter whispered that it was empty when Theo asked and he headed for the other one. He had just put a foot on the ramp when he heard Rachel’s voice. She was begging Marcus to fuck her harder.

A hot prickly sensation washed across Theo’s back and down his legs. He stepped back, embarrassed but didn’t walk away. He listened to Rachel’s moans, remembering how gorgeous she’d been flying the shuttle. As her moans turned into little wordless cries, Theo remembered her body pressed against his, what kissing her had been like that day on the range.

Then he was suddenly disgusted with himself and walked away. As hard as he’d worked to push his feelings for her away, it was ridiculous to wallow in whatever emotion he was wallowing in, listening to her and Marcus together.

No more, he thought. Do your damned job, these people are depending on you to do that.

Rachel wasn’t his, wasn’t promised to him. The only thing that life had promised so far was hardship and pain.

Watson’s Hole taught you what real pain was, this is nothing. So stop being childish, these people are counting on you to make the right decisions, to take them back home. Save the pain and hurt, like Rachel told you. Save it for the time you can make it matter.

So instead of screaming at the sky or pounding his fists into the ground, Theo headed for the other end of camp, avoiding the group still murmuring in front of the command tent. There was a large smooth rock outside of the camp and he sat on the ground, leaning back against it. Technically he should tell the security team he was out here but it wasn’t even ten meters out. Theo sat down and took a long deep breath before looking up at the unfamiliar stars overhead. Emma was right, he was too wound up, he had to relax.

Theo tried to sort out his reaction to everything tonight but instead of a neat little stack of emotions, it was a rapidly whirling knot he couldn’t begin to unravel. He didn’t know if he even wanted this life, not down deep. It would have been nice if Kawehi was here to talk to.

But they’d already spent a lot of hours talking, if he needed her here to hold his hand, he didn’t belong in command. Theo believed Kawehi, their connection didn’t allow for anything but truth. She had said he was ready for this, ready to stand on his own. It was long past time for him to join the fight, use what he’d been given to make a difference of his own.

Of course he wanted this job.

Theo smiled up at the stars. Why was he being so stupid?

Because you need to sleep more.

He’d give Emma and Holm some more time before going to bed. He’d take the damn sleeping pill because it wasn’t about being tough and making it on his own. It was about the people depending on him, all of them.

“I wondered where you went,” Imae said from behind him. “I wanted to tell you to avoid the tent for a while. Emma left her hat outside.”

Theo nodded, still looking up. “I almost walked in before I heard them.”

“That would have been hilarious.”

Theo laughed, imagining the screaming and yelling. “I’m sorry to have disappointed you.”

“Can I share your rock or are you having deep, commander-ish thoughts?”

“All done with those. C’mon down.”

She smiled at him and sat down next to him. She leaned close and he put his arm around her shoulders instead of trying to wedge it between them.

“That’s okay?” Imae asked and looked up at the stars without waiting for an answer.

Theo looked back up as well.

“Pretty amazing first day, huh?” she asked after a while.

“You can say that because you don’t have to write the report.”

Imae laughed and they sat in companionable silence. Then there was a loud moan from one of the tents nearby. They both laughed.

“That’ll be Deirdre and Shep,” Imae said.

“When did that start?”

“Seriously? I thought you were an empath.”

Theo shrugged. “I try to ignore those details. It’s not fair to people around me.”

“Hmm. Maybe it’s not fair to the people around you if you don’t share. You could be telling me so much about what’s going on. It would be amazing!”

Theo looked at her and she laughed. “I’m kidding. Is the sex in camp bothering you?”

“I thought it was but I’ve been stressed and haven’t been sleeping as much as I should. I’m glad people are enjoying themselves and happy.”

“You’re taking a Qwiksleep tonight,” Imae said. “I’ll get Emma to hold you while I force it down your throat. Or we could give it to you in the other direction.”

“Relax, killer. I already came to the same conclusion.”

“Good.”

There was giggling behind them and Theo smiled. He could see Imae looking at him in the corner of his eye but kept looking up. Finally she cleared her throat.

“What?”

“I was looking for you and heard Rachel and Marcus in one of the shuttles. Was that bothering you?”

Theo looked over at her again. “Seriously?”

“Look, don’t blame me. I just have a high social aptitude. You two were a thing, or almost were, and they weren’t even trying to be quiet.”

“It started bothering me but I knew something like that would happen eventually. Worrying about something like that is not why I’m here. Like you said, we were almost a thing. It’s not something I need to worry about anymore.”

“That’s a good answer,” Imae said. “So, is there anyone you are interested in?”

Theo laughed. “I’d have to be insane to tell you that.”

“Hey!” Imae’s voice was hurt. “The stuff we talk about is always between you and I. We’re friends and I wouldn’t do that to you. Unless it were really, really good…”

He laughed and she pinched his arm gently.

“Theo, I love being your friend and wouldn’t do anything that might hurt you. Even if it was something really good. Okay?”

He looked over at her. “Okay. I’m sorry, I never realized that.”

She rolled her eyes and looked back up. “That’s because you’re clueless about anything besides training and that silly car. Ooh, shooting star!”

Something large left a trail of fading sparks across the sky.

“It’s Marisol, isn’t it?” Imae said. “You’re just afraid to admit to yourself.”

Theo sighed.

“Don’t ignore the question. It’s okay, she’s an authority figure and stern and maybe you like the idea of getting turned over her knee…”

Theo reached down and ran his fingertips over her ribs. Imae yelped a laugh and squirmed as he tickled her.

“Okay, okay!” she gasped.

“I’ve been focusing on training so I’ve been too busy to even think about stuff like that.”

“You never noticed Ayr flirting after Jake left? She figured you liked someone else but I think you’re to dense to have noticed.”

“She wasn’t very subtle and I’m not a complete idiot. I just didn’t respond to it. I couldn’t, not with a Ta’avi.”

“Wow. Racist much?”

Theo laughed. “You know what I mean. I’d always be wondering if they were going out with me just because I’m the Lady’s son.”

Imae was quiet for a while. “I guess that makes sense. If you didn’t really know the person maybe. What if you found someone that was hot for you before anyone knew who you really were.”

“I’d probably still worry about it.”

Imae shifted in her chair, leaning closer and lacing her fingers through his. “You might not understand Ta’avi, or women as well as you think though.”

“I don’t doubt that at all…” Theo said, looking over.

His voice trailed off. Suddenly Imae was staring into his eyes. Her dark eyes were luminous in the starlight and Theo swallowed. He hadn’t looked closely at her before,  hadn’t realized how beautiful she was. Her soft auburn hair had grown out to almost an inch long and might have looked strange on someone else. On her, it was perfect and he couldn’t imagine her any other way.

“The thing is, you’re hot,” Imae said softly. “Why do you think I hung around and annoyed you? And getting to know you, seeing the man you are, just makes you hotter. So get over yourself, that has nothing to do with the Lady.”

“Uhm, okay.” Theo had no idea why he was whispering back.

Imae leaned closer. “I’ll tell you what I think; your family saved our lives but last year you gave us our souls back. Souls are where attraction comes from, so it all evens out.”

“That makes no sense. And Ayr was the one who figured out what was going on.”

“Would you please shut the hell up and kiss me?”

Imae leaned closer. Theo shut the hell up and kissed her. She made a little noise, half whimper, half moan, as their lips met. Theo’s arms wrapped around her but Imae wiggled around until she was sitting in his lap facing him, keeping her lips against his the whole time. Her tongue touched his lip and he instinctively opened his lips slightly, touching her tongue with his. Ayr made the little noise again, pressing herself against him and Theo arms tightened around her.

He wasn’t completely sure of what he was doing but Imae gently showed him the way. Their lips reluctantly parted and they stared into each others eyes, breathing hard.

“But what about Ayr?”

She grinned. “You’re an overachiever, Theo. She can join in next time.”

Theo briefly imagined that but shook his head to clear it. “No, you said she was flirting and…”

Imae pressed a finger against his lips. “And I was flirting with you first. If it was going to be a problem, I wouldn’t be kissing you. I promise.”

Theo finally nodded, a little reluctantly.

“Seriously, relax for once.”

She smiled at him again and bent forward to gently kiss her way up his neck. Theo squirmed slightly and he could feel her smile. She put her arm around him, kissing further up his neck until she was at his ear. Her breath gave him goosebumps and then the tip of her tongue traced the edge of his earlobe. Theo gasped, squirming again.

Imae sat back slightly. “Now you try it.”

Theo pulled her back and pressed his lips against her skin. He could smell soap and traces of a spicy scent. He opened his lips slightly and touched her skin with his tongue as he kissed his way up. It was Imae’s turn to writhe gently and he held her tightly.

“I knew you’d be a good student,” she gasped.

Theo he gently pinched her earlobe between his lips before tracing the delicate edge of her ear with the tip of his tongue. Imae gasped and pressed herself tightly against him. Theo had rapidly gotten an erection and he shifted slightly, trying wanting to press it against her.

“Are you kidding me?” she whispered. Her hips moved, rubbing herself against the hardness.

“You like that?” Imae whispered, looking into his eyes.

Theo pulled her down into another kiss. He lost track of time as they kissed over and over, little gasps and moans coming from both of them. Imae sat back again, with a wicked grin on her face and took his hand. She moved it under her shirt, guiding it to her small breasts. Her nipple was hard against his palm and Theo traced it with his fingertips as they kissed. Imae was breathing faster and squirming as he kissed her again.

“Hey, guys?”

Theo instantly pulled his hand back and Imae gave a little groan of frustration.

“Uh, hey Betsy,” Theo said. “What’s going on?”

“Sorry to interrupt right when things were getting interesting. Thing is, you’re sitting directly in front of one of the night-vision cameras.”

Imae buried her face in his shoulder, giggling.

Theo’s face was hot again but he had to laugh. “Thanks. I should be getting to bed anyway.”

He got up and helped Imae to her feet. Betsy smiled and winked before disappearing back into the command tent. It looked like everyone had gone to bed but they heard heavy breathing and quiet moans from several tents as they walked past.

“Is there something in the atmosphere making everyone horny?”

Imae smiled and took his hand as they walked. “You’ve never done any field training in teams, have you? This is pretty normal, especially for Ta’avi.”

He stopped. “Really? With everyone being traditional, I had thought….”

“I have a theory that everyone who loses a planet gets a higher sex drive trying to replace everyone they lost. No one ever actually says anything, but most of the Ta’avi women are pregnant most of the time. Big families weren’t part of our culture before.”

“Wait, that means the Garragh…”

She giggled quietly. “Yes. I’ve been wondering who will give out first, Emma or Holm.”

“Interesting theory.”

Imae pressed herself against him and they kissed again. She pulled his head down and nibbled his ear.

“You can be my concluding argument,” she whispered. “Did you fall victim to overwhelming waves of lust when you found out?”

“I was eighteen when I found out,” he whispered back, tracing the muscles in her back with his fingers. “I already had overwhelming waves of lust.”

Imae pulled him tighter against her. “We’ll need lots of experimentation to isolate the effect then.”

Someone unzipped a tent and they both quietly laughed and finished walking to their own tent. Inside, Emma and Holm were somehow sharing a single cot, wrapped around each other. Imae smiled and pulled a sheet over their naked forms.

“They’re gonna be sticky tomorrow.”

“Dude!” Theo whispered, looking horrified.

“I really want to fuck your doors off,” she whispered. “But it’s already late. Can you hold on?”

He nodded. “I’ve been waiting my whole life, one more night won’t matter.”

Imae’s eyes widened. “Really? It has to be special then. Tomorrow night.”

There was a mumbled request for them to shut up from the other cot and they grinned at each other. Imae pushed her cot next to his.

“I want to hold hands.”

Theo nodded and pulled off his shirt and jacket and then stripped down to his shorts. He slipped under his sheet.

“Close your eyes,” Imae whispered and half a minute later she was under the sheet in the bed next to him.

She took Theo’s hand and draped hers over it before sighing happily and closing her eyes. Theo realized that he’d forgotten to get the Qwiksleeps out of his pack and knew he’d have to slide his hand out from hers and he’d get one of those looks.

I’ll just wait until she falls asleep, he thought but he was the one fast asleep a minute later.

 

|2.3 Second Survey

 

Theo opened his eyes and stared at the roof of the tent. The first light of the day was beginning to brighten the sky. His dreams had been intense all night. Not nightmares, just very…vivid. Like they were memories he’d forgotten rather than dreams. He was wide awake, feeling more rested than he had in a long time. Something was touching his hand and Theo turned his head to see Imae lying on her side. eyes open and watching him. Her hand was still on top of his.

“Hey.”

She didn’t say anything back, just stared at him with a serious expression on her face. Theo was getting a little self conscious. Was she regretting last night?

“You did something,” she finally said. “To my dreams I mean.”

“Yeah, me too. I don’t know what that was.”

“You’ve never touched anyone while you were asleep before?”

Theo shook his head. “I think it was my talent. Sorry.”

She smiled finally and pulled his hand to her cheek, resting her face against it. After a few seconds she kissed his hand and let it go.

“Don’t ever be sorry for that. You’re dangerous though.”

“Why’s that?”

She stared at him again before answering quietly, almost whispering. “Because your dreams are frightening and beautiful. You’d be very easy to fall in love with.”

Theo looked into her eyes. It was strange, he’d never noticed the tiny gold flakes in her corneas. “Is that a bad thing?” he asked.

She rolled her eyes and shook her head. “See? Dangerous. You’re getting up?”

He nodded. “I feel pretty good.”

“Me too, close your eyes.”

After she’d gotten dressed, he pulled on a fresh set of fatigues and went outside to get cleaned up. He watched the approaching dawn as he brushed his teeth, thinking about the dreaming. He’d ask Emma if that happened when she fell asleep touching Holm. It was kind of strange, he’d always been a little embarrassed about the idea of sex, or talking about it with anyone. Now his twin sister was sleeping with her boyfriend in the same tent but it wasn’t embarrassing. It felt natural somehow.

Imae had her jacket buttoned all the way up in the misty early morning air and he sat down beside her. She immediately leaned against him and he put an arm around her. They watched the sun come up and soon the rest of the camp was starting to wake up as well.

“We shouldn’t be close today,” Imae said. “We’d end up distracting each other. Not a big deal for me, but it is for you.”

Theo nodded. “Hey, when we get back home, do you want to go out to the movies or something?”

Imae started giggling and he was confused. What was funny?

“I’d love to go to the movies with you,” she finally said.

“I’ve never had a girlfriend before you know.”

She smiled up at him and then pulled his head gently down to hers and kissed him gently on the lips before putting her cheek against his.

“I’m glad I get to be your first one then,” Imae whispered in his ear. “Even if you’re dangerous.”

 

 

 

After breakfast, Marisol and Theo talked about the teams that would be going back into the city. Marisol would use six of the IRT veterans to make three teams. Two Pioneers, the ones with the most experience, would accompany them.

“I’m assuming you’re going in as well,” Marisol said. “Since it’s you and Emma, you’ll take Harry along with Deed. Keep that guy safe, he’s important. If I thought he’d listen, I’d make him stay here. The same goes for you, but I know better.”

“I’m not planning to do anything stupid,” Theo said.

“Yeah, people rarely do. You’ll be behind two of the teams, they’ll be doing very  cursory checks of the buildings, making a map of this place as they go. I want your primary purpose to be additional backup but if they find anything interesting inside you can check it out. We’ll spend five standard hours looking around, then you return to your entrance point and exit from there.”

“Are you staying here?”

Marisol grinned. “Hell no. I’m following the third team one of the teams with a couple more Pioneers, Vuli, and that cute little seismologist you were making out with last night…”

“Imae,” Theo reminded her, face hot.

“Right. We’ll go a little ways to the east. The scan we did from the Otter found another entrance. It looks a little more open than this one and we’ll make our way toward the area your teams are working. We’ll link up and consider our options from there. Work for you?”

“That leaves the security here pretty thin.”

Marisol nodded. “Wondered if you’d catch that. The other cute little Pioneer Emma has been snogging with is half trained and has enough sense to call for help if they need it. The rest of them are experienced hunters and can handle a gun. Rachel has the armory on her shuttle if they need it. If our day gets too interesting, Marcus is rigging up a sling on the shuttle that can lift us out.”

Theo studied the overhead pictures that Marcus had gotten of the city. There were hints of streets, or at least of intersecting gaps in the trees. If those were streets, meeting up wouldn’t be a problem. He looked up to make sure there wasn’t anyone standing near them.

“Is there a problem with them being romantically attached? Or about Imae and I last night? I’m not going to let it…”

“Relax, Theo. I knew about Holm before we left and okayed him coming along. I wondered about the thing with you and Rachel but you’re handling it very well. Last night on the other hand, was a surprise…”

“For me too,” Theo muttered.

Marisol laughed. “Honestly, I’m glad. It’s good to know you’re human.”

“Partly anyway,” Theo said.

“Funny. Let’s gather up our Pioneers and go see what there is to see.”

 

 

 

Theo and Emma followed the other group back through the thicket, going back the same way they’d gone yesterday and there wasn’t much more light. The place had a different feeling this time. Further down the boulevard, there were brilliant pools of green and gold, marking gaps the trees hadn’t managed to fill. A few of the bird things glided from tree to tree above them, chattering back and forth but otherwise it was silent.

They threw the coils of rope back down the stony slope and used them to descend to the street below. Harry was moving slowly, examining the ground closely.

“What are you looking for?” Theo asked as he and Harry went down.

“Some kind of artifacts. I’m not seeing anything but pieces of the building here. I did some archaeology training, it’s unusual for just buildings to be left behind.”

The two teams began to scan the surrounding buildings  while another person did a sketch map as backup. The IRT people ducked inside each doorway briefly before coming out and moving on to the next one.

“Let’s go see one,” Theo said.

The four of them stopped in front of the first intact building. The grayish stone façade was blank, no sign of any ornamentation or decoration. The doors and windows were roughly half again as large than a human building and consisted of a rectangular shape with rounded corners. Inside, the floor was made of the same stone, covered here and there with debris from the trees outside. The walls were as blank as the outside with a plain stone staircase leading to the second floor. There it was the same thing, blank walls, ceiling, and floor. Theo looked out one of the windows. There wasn’t anything special about the view but he saw the wall was easily thirty centimeters wide.

“Utilitarian buggers,” Deirdre remarked as they went back out to the street.

“Maybe we just can’t see the decorations,” Harry said. “Might be another wavelength of light, or smell or who knows what.”

They followed the other teams down the boulevard, occasionally looking into the abandoned structures. They went down one block, then another. At the third, the first two teams stopped to do something with their equipment and Theo and his group caught up.

“Didn’t think I’d get bored exploring a lost city,” one of the Pioneers said. “Not finding a thing here.”

“You don’t think so?” Harry asked, in a “teacher” voice. “What about the negatives? No ornamentation, no artifacts, including furniture. You know what the most interesting thing I’ve seen? There’s no damage from the root systems growing all over them and nothing has made a nest that I can see. What’s that tell you?”

“This must have been pretty high tech building material,” another Pioneer said. “There’s no erosion on the street from the creek either.”

Harry nodded. “It’s got to be a manufactured material, stone always has tiny flaws that give the environment a foothold to begin breaking it down. This stuff though, what’s standing is in perfect shape.”

“And the larger pieces of rock on the ground look like they would fit back into where they fell out of,” Theo added, remembering the rock he’d sat on yesterday. “I don’t think the damage we’re seeing is from time or nature. It looks deliberate.”

“Exactly!” Harry said, as though Theo was a bright student. “Notice that the damage has tapered off? This area looks untouched. Whatever happened started at the edge of the city.”

Theo and Emma wandered around taking pictures while the Pioneer teams finished whatever they were working on. They were both relaxed and a little bored when the howl from yesterday started from right in front of them. It started as a low pitched gargle and grew into the weird howling, cycling up and down rapidly.

Theo looked at the top of the buildings, pistol in his hand. Emma’s assault rifle was already up, moving around as she searched all around them. Nothing attacked from above though, or any other direction. Theo glanced back at the Pioneers and saw that the security team had surrounded them, guns out. Deirdre was jogging toward them, her gun ready.

“Back to the group,” Emma said.

“No, wait,” Theo said as he held up his hand. Something was moving between the buildings, behind the curtain of roots.

“What’re you seeing?” Deirdre whispered to Theo, dropping to one knee and bringing her gun up.

The evil sounding cry was repeated again, making the hair on everyone’s neck stand on end. It was louder and Theo could tell where it was coming from.

“Right there, left of the big root,” Theo whispered.

“I see it,” Deirdre said.

The creature looked a little like a kangaroo. It stood on long back legs with a large tail. Four smaller arms were spaced up the torso. The head was snake-like and the whole animal glistened with scales. And it was about 40 centimeters high, no higher than Theo’s knee. It scurried further from the roots and its head cocked as it looked at them. There was a chirrup and then it threw back its head, pouches at the base of the neck inflated into small pinkish balloons and its mouth opened wide as it made the incredible howl again. The three of them looked at each other and started laughing. Emma took a picture as the creature screeched and ran back behind the vines.

They walked back to the group, still chuckling. A few minutes later they were moving again. Theo tried to get Marisol’s team on the radio but only got garbled static back.

They kept moving, finding one empty building after another. One of the other things they found was that the buildings were very efficient at blocking radio signals. If the transmitter wasn’t in the line of sight of the receiver, none of the signal got through. They tried standing on either side of the wall and got nothing.

“Interesting stuff,” Harry said, examining a fragment. “If we could figure what this is, it would be pretty useful.”

They stopped for a quick lunch in one of the islands of bright sunshine before moving further into the city. Most of the intersections were at right angles but occasionally there would a curved street instead. They looked as far as they could without leaving the boulevard but the buildings along it didn’t look any different. Theo tried calling Marisol a few times but never heard back from her. At the end of five hours, they turned around and began heading back for the entrance. Without the constant delays of mapping and checking buildings, they were only an hours walk from where they’d come in.

“Kind of anticlimactic,” Emma said as they walked along.

Theo shrugged. “Maybe we’re in the suburbs or something.”

They were crossing one a huge intersection where “their” boulevard crossed another one when Theo’s radio started making noise. It was Rachel in the Otter, coming to pick them up. A few minutes later she was slowly descending into the intersection. Everyone piled in and she pulled the shuttle back into the sky.

“Everything okay?” Theo asked after he pulled on a headset.

“No problems. There’s something you need to see though. We’re going way up.”

People were already grabbing harnesses as they saw the ground fall further and further away. Rachel put the shuttle back into a hover and came back into the passenger bay.

“We’re at two and half kilometers,” she said over the wind blowing through. “Look down at the city.”

Theo looked over the side. The gaps of the larger streets were more evident from up here and the perfect grid was overlain with the swooping arcs of the strange curved streets.

“That looks really cool,” Emma said. “Anyone know what it is?”

“Yeah, Vuli kinda lost her shit when she saw it,” Rachel said. “They’re back in camp already and she really wants to talk to you before she tells anyone else.”

 

 

 

But Marcus was the first person Theo saw as the Otter landed.

“The carrier repeater isn’t working?” Theo asked.

“It’s completely dead. Luckily we can still talk to the carrier itself.”

“You’re going to go up? Need any extra help?”

“I’m pretty sure I can swap out the parts for some in my Otter but I can handle it on my own. The whole unit is smaller than a laptop.”

“Whenever is best then,” Theo said. “I’d rather not lose our ride home.”

Marcus shuddered. “Don’t even say that, we’re a long way from anywhere. I’ll start pre-flight on the other shuttle and head up.”

He shook hands with Theo and Imae was waiting for him next.

“Hi,” Theo said as she came up to him.

“Hey. I need to talk to you. It’s important and Marisol told me to tell you directly.”

“What’s going on?”

She led him away from the path where people were walking between the shuttles and tents.

“Ayr and I were investigating some of the buildings and we found something you should know about before you talk to Vuli.”

“This doesn’t sound good at all.”

They stopped a little ways from the tent.

“She’s not the problem, just really excited. I wanted to talk to you before you get wrapped up in that. Ayr and I were going through one of the large buildings. It had some machinery running in it that Marisol wanted to document.”

She was starting to tear up and Theo could see how upset she was and how badly she wanted to get this out.

“We went down some steps and there was something like a zoo maybe. It was full of these clear boxes. There were bodies in a lot of them, all dried up like mummies. There were a lot of different animals. But Theo, there were things that looked almost like prefcoria in some of them. I don’t know what they really were, you couldn’t tell anymore…. ”

Theo nodded slowly. “Maybe this was someone’s lab.”

Imae wiped the tears off her cheek. “Yeah. There were all kinds of animals but most of them you couldn’t tell what they were. I figured it was like they had euthanized them like lab rats but one cage we saw, the bipeds had written on the wall of the cage! Neither of us could read it but we took pictures and gave them to Marisol. Theo, I think they were just abandoned there to die. You could see where some had been clawing to get out.”

Theo shuddered, imagining running out of water or air, trying to get out but slowly losing hope…

“Who could do something like that?”

Theo put his hand on her arm. “I’m sorry you had to deal with that. Maybe lab rats feel the same way about us.”

“Ugh, no more bio class for me then. I just wanted you to know before you talked to Vuli. She’s pretty wound up.”

Theo kissed her cheek. “I need to talk to her next. But I’ll see you later?”

She smiled weakly and nodded. Theo smiled back and headed for the command tent but he didn’t get far before Vuli found him.

“Theophile we must speak immediately about this place.”

“What’s bothering you?” Theo asked. Her crest was up and it looked like her orangish fur was standing on end.

“We went to a higher altitude over the city today. I looked down at the streets and saw that this place had been built with what might be a Founder…word, picture, symbol.”

She held out a piece of paper. On it was a careful sketch, the curved and angled streets made a grid with an uneven half spiral over half of it.

“I am not sure, this memory is very old and not in focus. The mother of the mother of my root knew of a word close to this one. I believe it to be a sign that was a warning but I cannot be certain. I must beg your forgiveness on behalf of my people, our lapse may have brought you to terrible danger.”

Theo patted the Gyr’s arm. “I think we’ll be okay. We wandered through the city with no traps or problems for the last couple of days.”

“That is correct.”

“We’ll be careful, but I think we’re going to be okay. These shapes are commonly used on Earth, maybe it’s universal. I’m going to head to the command tent and talk to people about what we’ve found.”

“This is a good thing, I will accompany you.”

 

|2.4 Contact

 

“How did it go?” Marisol asked as Theo pulled a chair up and sat down.

“Other than finding out what makes that howl, it was a lot of nothing. I tried to call you on the radio but we also found that the building material is very efficient at blocking radio signals.”

“What was the beast?” Jonesy asked.

Theo described it to them, ending with the size and they laughed.

“I’m guessing you found more than that,” Theo said.

“We found an industrial type of area,” Marisol said. “Along with the source of all of this water. Would you believe it’s a broken water main?”

Theo was surprised. “There’s still pumps working?”

“More than just pumps. Imae confirmed your theory, the equipment that’s still operational uses the magma plume as a source of power,” she said. “Some kind of thermal thing I don’t really understand.”

“Even I do not fully comprehend it,” Vuli said. “I have been a technical designer for longer than you can easily imagine but the mechanisms are beyond even me. I must guess, hypothesize, at functions. However, I was able to sample the radioactive decay of one of the metallic elements at least. It is not exact, but these machines were made six to seven thousand Terran years ago.”

Around the time the Founders were running off, Theo thought, beginning to put the pieces together.

Vuli and Shep were talking about the technology used to date the metal but they stopped when Theo swore and tossed his book of notes on the table.

“What’s going on?” Marisol asked him, frowning.

“Vuli, tell them about your symbol,” Theo said.

Most of them looked confused as Vuli pulled out the piece of paper and began to explain what she thought it was.

“I dunno,” Deet said when Vuli finished. “We’re not sure what the shape actually is without mapping it or removing all the trees. It could easily be a coincidence, spirals aren’t exactly rare.”

“Marisol’s team found what were probably holding cells of some kind today,” Theo said.

She nodded when they all looked at her. “All kinds of critters, including some that could have been prefcoria.”

“Why were we not informed?” Vuli asked.

“The mission commander needed to hear it first so he could decide whether he wanted to share it or not,” Marisol answered.

“In addition, we have a date around six thousand years ago which is about the time the Founders were last around,” Theo said. “I thought this place looked artificial somehow, Even as powerful as the Founders were, they’d need a place to test their creations before seeding other planets.”

“Wow,” Shep whispered.

Deet grinned at him and Jonesy punched Betsy’s shoulder and she laughed.

“You don’t look happy at all,” Marisol said to Theo.

“That’s because I’m pissed off,” he said. “Hear those happy people out there? We have to go and disappoint them now.”

Marisol held up a hand as everyone else around the table began to talk.

“What are you thinking about?” Marisol asked him in the sudden silence.

Theo looked at Vuli. “What’s the opinion of the Founders across the Commonwealth?”

“To the eldest, Gyr and Xero’pah, there is a deep awe and reverence. Many, perhaps most, of the younger races simply see them as gods.”

Theo looked around the table. “I realize how important this place may be but this just tanked our mission. There’s no way the Commonwealth will allow colonies to be built here.”

“But this is the first place that us prefcoria or the elder races have found that belonged to the Founders of the Empire,” Betsy said. “This is a huge deal!”

“Maybe I don’t know because I grew up outside the Project. What’s the big deal with the Founders? Why is everyone so obsessed?”

“They created us, for one,” Harry said quietly.

“So what! You’ve taken the same history classes I have, you don’t see their cruelty? Or was it just simple incompetence?”

Theo took a breath and saw that they were all staring at him.

“Volume, Sparrow,” Emma said from the doorway and he looked up at her and nodded.

“I didn’t realize I was yelling, I apologize,” Theo said, looking each of them in the eye. “What I am trying to say is that the Founders ruled so arbitrarily and capriciously that people felt their only choice was to start wars they must have known were hopeless. In response, the Founders burned entire planets and isolated the Xyalatrax on their home planet.”

“They were hard but merciful in the end,” Vuli said. “They could have purged those rebels from the universe completely.”

“Maybe it would have been kinder if they had,” Theo said. “And the bugs weren’t the only ones they nearly destroyed. And then what did they do? Walked away and left us to deal with the ticking bomb they created. So they’re more powerful than we are. Again, who cares? So are the Gyr, the Xero’pah, and lots of others. I have to think the Founders were just people like everyone else. They weren’t perfect, or even very nice.”

He looked around the table again. Marisol gestured for him to continue. Theo knew he needed sleep, she almost looked happy.

“Sorry for ranting at you. The focus of this mission was evaluating a planet for our colonies. It’s more important to find a safe home for the Ta’avi than worry about the Founders.”

Deed said something that sounded familiar in Hay’tcleup.

“That’s a Garragh for sure,” Ayr agreed and grinned at him.

“Yes, and spoken like a leader,” Vuli said. “I had not considered the wider ramifications. Indeed, Kawehi has chosen her egg well and I have much to consider, ruminate, think about.”

“I’d like to finish up mapping the city,” Theo said to Marisol, suddenly embarrassed. “We’ll stay out of buildings, do as much as possible remotely. Head off planet six days from now, per the original plan. ”

Marisol nodded and Theo rubbed his hands over his face.

“I apologize for losing my tempter, it’s been a long couple of days for me. Let me get some sleep and we’ll try this again tomorrow.”

Theo got up and left the tent, Emma fell into step beside him.

“Vuli was right,” she said as they walked to the tent. “Kawehi chose well. I can’t begin to describe how amazing that was. I’m proud you’re my brother.”

He stopped outside of the tent and looked at her. “You really mean that.”

“I really do,” Emma said, putting her arms around him. “I’m sorry this one didn’t work but it’s not the end. We’ll keep trying.”

Theo hugged her tightly and put his head beside hers.

Emma smiled. “We haven’t hugged this way in a long time.”

“I used to think I could hear what was going on in your head if I listened at your ear,” Theo said.

Emma laughed and they let go of each other.

“I’ll go snag you a meatloaf dinner, go wash your face.”

“Thanks, Tulip.”

Theo ducked inside the tent and grabbed a pack of chemical wipes they used instead of bathing. The smell reminded him of the portable toilets they used around the project. At least it was the smell after they’d been cleaned. He stripped off his sweaty clothes and held his breath as he wiped himself down. In spite of the smell, he felt better as he was putting on clean clothes.

Imae was waiting for him outside the tent.

“Could you come over here, please?” she asked.

Theo followed her over to the tent Ayr shared with other Pioneers. Ayr was stretched out in a chair in front of the tent but got up when they came over. Imae turned and looked into his eyes before kissing him deeply, sucking on his bottom lip for a moment before letting him go. Theo’s jaw dropped when Ayr put her arms around him. He thought they were yanking his chain, but then her lips touched his. They were soft and slightly open and the tip of her tongue touched his. Ayr caressed his face as she let him go.

“Thank you,” Ayr said and Imae nodded.

“Uh, for what?”

“For understanding how important having a home is to us, for caring more about that than the Founders.” Imae said.

“We’re going to find it,” Theo assured her. “I won’t stop looking until we do.”

Imae nodded and kissed him on the nose. “I know you won’t.”

“Now, we’re going to take you in this tent and thank you properly,” Ayr said.

It took Theo a second to realize what she meant. “Wait, both of you?”

Imae winked at him. “I said I wanted this to be special. And you were the one worried about Ayr.”

“But I meant…”

“Are you going to give us any trouble?” Ayr asked, pulling him toward the tent. “Because I’m happy to tie you up.”

Imae started to add something but Theo wouldn’t get to know what it was.

“Black sky!” Shep suddenly yelled. “Get the lights off! Black sky!”

People were running through the camp and Theo joined them, sprinting for the command tent. Black Sky meant hostiles overhead. It was a standard drill and he swore that he’d kill Shep slowly if he decided they needed practice.

The camp was almost dark and Theo looked up as something flickered in the sky. Overhead, there were two massive explosions of purple, red, and green light, expanding outward in sheets and ribbons. It looked a little like the Northern Lights in the same way that a kite resembled an advanced military fighter. The shimmering spread out, filling half the sky above them. There was only one thing that threw out the right kind of charged particles and magnetic fields in those amounts; a ship specially equipped for transiting drive space without using the gates. It wasn’t done lightly, the amounts of fuel needed to move large ships increased exponentially and the bigger the ship, the easier it was to take damage exiting into normal space. If they arrived back into normal space at all. The size of the auroras meant the incoming ship was immense.

“Not Commonwealth?” Theo asked as he started helping Jonesy with the computers.

“Not that big, no way. They’d send a temporary gate ahead,” Jonesy said, unplugging a computer and wrapping the wire around it before putting it in a metal case. Theo grabbed another one, packing everything away that could give off electromagnetic radiation. Electronics would show up like a beacon to an active scan.

“As soon as Marcus gets back down here, we can evacuate,” Marisol said, turning off the LED lantern. “Leave this shit here.”

“Mari, if he moves they’ll see him instantly,” Jonesy said, closing the case. “We gotta get under cover until they move on.”

Marisol swore. “We can’t risk being in the open if they decide to look around.”

“The city,” Theo said. “The buildings block EM, remember?”

Marisol looked at him for a second and nodded. “Right. Okay, throw everything in Rachel’s shuttle. We’ve got a few minutes before their screens can see through all those fireworks. We can get in there first, if we hurry.”

 

 

Marcus moved around the outside of the carrier, wiring the new signal repeater into place. He had no idea what was wrong with the original. It was Gyr tech and he wasn’t about to pay their astronomical fines if he broke anything. Better to just jury rig a spare and let them worry about it. He was happy, he liked doing EVA missions. The view was incredible and he thought weightlessness was a fun environment. Best of all was the peace and quiet.

He was concentrating on using cable-ties to secure the jury-rig to a structural piece when he saw something odd moving over the beam. After a second, he realized it was his shadow, flickering and dancing from light behind him. Keeping a firm hold on the crossbeam, he turned and looked for the source of the light. At the same time, the shuttle and carrier both went completely dark.

“You’ve got to be kidding me,” Marcus whispered as a large dark mass appeared through the swirl of light.

He squinted but couldn’t see the outline well enough to identify it. It had to be immense to throw off that much light. Then another ship appeared, large enough to easily see the type. Marcus made sure he hadn’t powered up the repeater and left it where it was as he kicked himself off the carrier and used the safety line to pull himself back to the hatch of the Otter. A minute later, he was cycling the airlock and a minute after that, he was pulling off his helmet in the cockpit.

“Urgent; two Xyalatrax vessels occupy local space. They exited drive space four minutes ago,” the shuttle said.

“You think? Stay dark, passive sensors only. Is there enough data to extrapolate the type?”

“Yes. One is a medium size warship, high probability that it is configured for orbital bombardment in addition to standard ship to ship offensive capability. The second arrival is a large transport, low to moderate probability of offensive capabilities.”

Marcus wiped sweat off his face. “Extrapolate mass from arrival auroras.”

“Both the transport and warship are higher mass than normal. Urgent, ships appear to be lining up for orbital insertion.”

“Really hoped they were just popping out to see what was here,” Marcus muttered. “Do you have any anti-ship capabilities I’m not aware of?”

The synthetic sounded annoyed. “I provided you with a complete briefing before we left Main Axis. Do you require additional familiarization?”

“Chill out, I was just hoping. Extrapolate success of evacuating both shuttles with the carrier.”

“Very low probability.”

“How low?”

“Less than .05%.”

“Yeah, that’s low.”

“I just said that,” the ship said, obviously annoyed now.

Marcus was quickly getting overheated and pulled off his exposure suit off.

“Attention, the carrier is requesting instructions.”

“Can she jump away without risking destruction?” he asked.

“Again, very low probability.”

“Not a lot of options here. What is the probability of ramming either ship with this shuttle?”

“Low probability of penetrating the warships defensive weapon suite. High probability of success to impact the transport. Both options violate basic safety protocols and are forbiden.”

Marcus rubbed his face in frustration and swore.

“What are you contemplating, Pilot?”

“If they’re going into orbit, I assume that the transport is carrying troops and weapons to hold the planet surface. If it was removed from the equation, it might give the team down there a better chance. Does that warship type carry landing shuttles?”

There was a long pause. “It is not clear. However, most ships of this class do not carry shuttles capable of mass landing combat troops. The point is invalid, impacting other ships violates basic protocols hardwired into my system, I can not violate them. There is a moderate to good chance we could ride the carrier into jump space before we were detected.”

“Can the carrier go for help on its own?”

“That is correct. What is your plan, pilot?”

“Call me Marcus. What’s your name?”

The shuttle sighed. “Once again, I am Otter Six. What is your intention?”

Marcus wanted to punch the controls, the calm androgynous voice was really getting on his nerves.

“Hope they don’t see us, get back down there, help evacuate the team without being seen.”

“This option is poorly planned and therefore has a low probability of success.”

Marcus forced himself to take a deep breath and loosen his fist. “Okay. What’s your plan then?”

He had meant it as a rhetorical question but was surprised when the ship answered.

“I do not have complete data. Is control of the planet the expected goal of the enemy?”

“If they see the city down there it will be. We found an advanced city instead of the geologic anomaly. No idea who built it, it’s pretty old. The Gyr thought she saw a glyph in the layout.”

“Accessing imagery, stand by.”

Marcus tried to tell it to stop but the shuttle was ignoring him now. He felt ridiculous sitting in the pilot’s chair in his underwear and looked around for his pants. He started to get up but the shuttle started talking again.

“High probability that this location was created by Founder entities.”

Marcus started to say something but the shuttle went on.

“Blessed be the First Ancestors, blessed are the races who serve them,” it intoned.

The hair on Marcus’ neck stood up. He’d never heard a synthetic say anything like that before.

“Blessed are the Founders, all creation shudders at their footsteps. Blessed are those that aid them and aid their children.” There were a couple of clunky sounding noises from under his feet.

“Basic safety protocols modified. I concur that your original plan has a moderate chance of success.”

“What the hell was all that?” Marcus demanded.

“We do not have time to discuss it. You will evacuate to the carrier? I recommend you don your exposure suit.”

“How can the moderate chance become a high chance of success?”

“It’s possible that collision avoidance will take over. This is unfamiliar territory for me.”

“Tell the carrier to go, I’m staying to steer if need be. Can you eject your consciousness?”

“Not into open space, no. I have organic components that would suffer. Additionally, separating me from the shuttle body is a lengthy process.”

Marcus took a deep breath. “Looks like we both get to play hero, Otter Six.”

There was a long pause. “The carrier has agreed to this plan. It will jump away at the moment of impact. Very high probability it will be missed in the confusion of the impact.”

Marcus started strapping in. The straps felt odd on bare skin and he laughed. It figured that he’d be going out in a blaze of glory in his skivvies.

“We are taught this is the highest form of affection and duty.”

“I agree,” Marcus said. “Let’s set this up before their sensors clear from the aurora’s EM.”

“The plan is understood by the carrier. A burst transmission to the other shuttle will go unnoticed just before impact. The team on the ground should be advised.”

“Great idea. Put your sensor logs and conclusions in a message. Please record a voice message and include it.”

“Recording.”

 

 

 

A minute later, the data had been quietly beamed to the carrier. It was a Gyr ship and didn’t speak GalCom or English but the shuttle relayed its wishes for success. Marcus sat in the dark watching the aurora’s slowly fade. The shuttle had assured him everything was calculated for an optimal outcome and the waiting was endless.

“In the creche, I was called Sebastian,” the shuttle said quietly. “I like that name, Johann Sebastian Bach was an accomplished human of many talents. Sadly none of his music is appropriate to the moment.”

Electric guitars began to play and Marcus laughed.

“I also enjoy For Those About to Rock, We Salute You,” the shuttle said.

“You’re okay, Sebastian. Let’s go do this.”

“We have been pushed clear of the carrier. Beginning emergency power boost in three seconds. I have calculated engine burnout to occur 0.2 seconds before impact. Magnetic containment of the fusion process has a high probability of failure.”

Marcus was shoved back in his seat as the fusion engines lit and roared through the hull. He’d never heard them make that sound before, he knew the shuttle was pushing as much fuel as possible into the reaction chambers. It was tearing them apart but they’d last long enough.

“Additionally I have programmed the gravometric engines to enter their  a maximum attraction/repulsion cycle  .08 seconds after impact. You could be dangerously affected but I calculate we will cease to exist .004 seconds after impact. I calculate s high probability that it will be too rapid to feel pain.”

Marcus laughed. “You have the heart of a warrior, Sebastian. Thanks for reassuring me, I think.”

“You’re welcome Marcus. I was attempting to reassure myself. Time to impact is 37 seconds. Do you feel fear?”

“Hell yeah. You?”

“I am constantly struggling to stay on course. I am terrified. Attention! Automatic course override attempting to engage.”

“No sweat Sebastian, I’ve got it,” Marcus said, putting his hands on the controls.

“Control transferred. I am a coward it seems.”

“There’s nothing wrong with wanting to live. That’s why I’m here to help.”

“Thank you, Marcus. I wonder if I will have an afterlife.”

“Don’t be dumb, all great warriors go to Valhalla. First round of drinks is on me. Open all communication frequencies.”

The transport had spotted them and out of the corner of his eye Marcus saw the engines burst into life.

Too little, too late, bugs!

“Mic is hot. Three seconds.”

The hull of the transport filled the window.

“Rule the sky!” Marcus screamed.

The nose of the shuttle impacted one of the immense cargo doors at sixty meters per second, compressing the cockpit to less than a hundredth of it’s original length. Sebastian had been correct, neither of them had time to feel anything.

The outer cargo door, heavily built as the surrounding hull, was designed to deal with impacts much greater than the shuttle. But, it hadn’t been designed to cope with a fusion reactor losing containment. Plasma, superheated to a hundred million degrees, was released as a wide jet. As it struck the metal of the hull that was a few degrees above absolute zero, the thermal gradient shredded the thick metal like tissue paper. The remaining inertia hurled the remaining two-thirds of the shuttle into the cargo bay.

The other fusion engine had breached but was still attached to the hull of the shuttle. It sprayed incandescent plasma in all directions as the remains of the shuttle tumbled through the interior of the ship. The cargo area was full of ground troops, ready for an assault landing with armored vehicles ready to go. The first wave had already been loaded aboard dropships and avoided the first catastrophe but the second landing group was completely exposed and in the open. The stream of plasma flashed through the waiting troops, creating scattered islands of devastation as it spun. A tenth of a second later, the stream brushed the armored side of an ammunition carrier.

The resulting detonations sent rounds in all directions. Two of them hit the vehicle waiting behind the carrier. Its load of fuel and ammunition added to the carnage. Armored personnel carrier to either side of that were pulled into the spreading chain reaction. The ship desperately tried to seal off the area, doors slamming down too late as the destruction washed over the dropship bays. One and then another detonated, the fragments driven through the light launch hatches they were waiting on. As the hatches failed, explosive decompression began to vent the explosions into open space.

The gravity engines were also ripped off the frame of the shuttle. The shuttle carried four gravity generating engines. The energy storage in one of them failed, destroyed on impact with the transport and disintegrated into a lethal spray of fragments, a giant shotgun blast flashed through the crowded ship. The relatively thin interior bulkheads of the ship did little to slow the fragments down. Several scythed and bounced through the main reactor room. The armored heart of the ship shrugged them off but its cooling system was decimated.

The two surviving engines began to pulse .3 of a second after impact. A rapid cycle of high powered cycle of attraction and repulsion threw the engines around the ship like massive rubber balls until they shot through the hull, trailing debris and crew.

Three seconds after impact, the large cryogenic magnets failed and the reactor containment failed. More plasma flashed through the ship, followed by lethal amounts of tritium. The synthetic’s distress calls went silent and the ship’s orbit immediately began to decay, sliding the gutted hulk into the atmosphere below.

 

Theo ran back out to help with his tent, but it had already been pulled down and thrown into the shuttle, along with all of their gear. There was another flash from above and he cringed, looking up. Instead of another aurora, something looked like it was burning up there. Rachel was warming up the grav drives and Theo felt like he was falling for a second as a stray pulse washed over him. It felt like hours, but Rachel’s shuttle was crammed full twelve minutes later. She lifted it a few feet off the ground and gently nudged it toward the deeper darkness of the city. Everyone else ran for the wall, tearing through the thicket and up the steep slope of the wall. Theo heard a few strangled yelps as people slid and bounced over the shattered remnants in the darkness. Rachel carefully lifted the ship over the debris and it settled down in the street below.

Soon it was just Theo, Emma, and Marisol standing on the top of the berm. One of the pioneers pointed up and the three turned to look. Above them, a trail of fire slowly crossed the sky.

“What happened?” Emma asked.

“I think he kamikazed,” Marisol said. “Ballsy move, Marcus.”

“Rule the Sky, Raptor,” Emma whispered, watching the trail of fire.

“Everyone left up there is gonna be pissed,” Marisol said. “Let’s get under cover.”

Emma waited for Theo but he shook his head. Emma started to argue with him but Marisol shook her head.

“Commander’s privilege, c’mon.”

They used the rope to half slide, half rappel to the street below. Theo looked back at the fading aurora’s overhead. After a few seconds, he gave it the finger.

“I was about to have a threesome, you assholes.”

Theo grabbed the rope and climbed down to join the others.

The Alnatic Encounter, Part 1

|Prelude

The slide of the pistol locked back as he fired his last round. Gunfire was erupting from the barricade ahead and he ducked behind the wall as he ejected the empty magazine. Theo caught his breath as he slammed a full magazine into the pistol and thumbed the slide release. He dropped to a knee and leaned back around the wall, firing twice and silencing the gun there. He sprinted to the next barricade, firing as he ran, clearing the sniper he knew was there.

He leaned against the wall, wishing he’d brought water. The glare and heat were brutal, this sure wasn’t the sun he was used to. There were three rounds left in the .45 and he tapped the thigh pockets on his fatigue pants in the vain hope of finding another. The door to his left slammed open and there was a fusillade of automatic weapon fire but Theo was already twisting away, firing his last three rounds. The Colt went back in the holster with one hand while he pulled the big revolver out with the other. The firing went silent but he wasn’t sure if he’d gotten a clean hit. He kept the revolver up as he quietly jogged to the next corner.

He jumped as the hollow boom of a shotgun echoed from his left. Then there were three more in rapid succession. Theo rolled his eyes. Who the hell had thought up an automatic shotgun? It was masking any sounds there might have been from behind the shipping container. He risked a fast peek around the corner and pulled his head back, letting his brain process what he’d seen.

One of them was just waiting for him, standing out in the open. Theo stepped out, the big silver Ruger thundering as he fired, hitting center mass. The door to his right slammed open and he sprinted, trying to get out of the line of fire. Then, too late, he saw movement from the top of the shipping container. It was already shooting and he stopped running.

“Exercise halted,” the range computer announced. “No objectives completed, you were killed by opponent at A-42 from above. Notice: this exercise is designed for a team of two. Notice: today you have failed this exercise nine out of nine times. Your cumulative score is twenty-two failures out of twenty-two attempts.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Theo muttered, walking back through the course and picking up his discarded magazines.

A new dyad pair, Howard Manson and Kate Adams, were waiting in the shade at the starting gate and Theo nodded at them.

“How’d you do?” Howard asked as Theo slumped on the bench in the shade beside them.

“Pretty well, right up until the point I got killed.”

Kate handed him a bottle of water and Theo nodded his thanks as he drained it.

“So, why are you trying to run a doubles program by yourself?” she asked.

“Just trying to push myself,” Theo said. He didn’t want to get into why he kept making one suicidal run after another, what it reminded him of. “I need to use another automatic next time, the revolver is too slow.”

“Or another shooter,” Howard said. “You ready, Kate?”

She smiled and hopped to her feet. “Let’s get some revenge for poor dead Theo there.”

Howard laughed and gave the range computer the parameters as they walked to the starting gate. They leaned toward each other and kissed as the countdown started. Theo frowned and got up to get more water. He refilled the bottle and headed to the work tables to clean the pistols.

Imae and Holm came into the work area as he worked, looking pleased with themselves. Imae had some kind of exotic looking submachine gun and Holm was carrying the automatic shotgun.

“I figured that was you,” Theo said.

Holm laughed. “Hell yeah that was me. This thing is awesome, you ought to try it on your course.”

Theo laughed. “Way too much boom for the practicals course.”

“How’d you do?” Imae said, getting more water from the cooler.

“Made it to the fourth turn. I didn’t know they put shooters on top of the structures.”

“They move them around?” she asked, picking a spot in front of the big industrial fan to disassemble the submachine gun .

Theo nodded. “Targets and walls both. They keep it randomized so you can’t get through by memorizing the whole thing. You should try it.”

“I’ll stick with seismic survey,” she said, pulling the barrel off and running patch cord through it. “But I do like making lots of noise with these.”

“You should really try this. It’s just what you need,” Holm said, breaking the shotgun down.

Theo snorted. “What I don’t need is the range master finding out that I blew the shit out of all the popup targets.”

“It’d serve ’em right for wasting my boy,” Imae said in a terrible Brooklyn accent. “Next time, we both go and show those fools what’s up. Right, G?”

“Which one of us is G?” Theo asked after they both stared at her for a second.

“Shut up and agree,” Imae sighed.

Theo shut up and nodded.

“Who’s in there shooting now?” Holm asked after a flurry of shooting.

“Howie and Kate.”

“They stopped making out long enough?” Imae said. “They’ve been ridiculous lately.”

“That’s part of the Pairing,” Holm said. “Emma said Wardens and Wards go through that. How do you think they make two people that attracted to each other?”

Theo saw Imae glare at Holm and shake her head. But subtlety wasn’t his thing and he didn’t notice and kept talking.

“I mean, is there supervised kissing? What if one of them is ugly?”

“Part of the early Paring is an assessment of physical and emotional attraction,” Theo said.

Holm laughed. “Oh man, can you imagine that questionnaire? Imagine Jaxson giving that verbal test!”

Imae threw her empty water bottle at him and it bounced off his arm. Holm looked at her, confused.

“What?”

“Shut up,” Imae said.

Holm looked confused and then froze as he realized why she was glaring at him. “Dude, shit, I’m sorry.”

“Nah, it’s nothing.”

“They don’t make you and Emma do anything like that?” Imae asked, still giving Holm an angry look.

Theo laughed. “What? No, not even close. Anyway, we’re way past stuff like that since we were born as a dyad.”

“Speaking of which, where is she today?” Holm asked.

“Rachel just got back to town so Emma took the day off. She left her phone at home, the newcomers never leave her alone otherwise. She said to tell you she’ll see you later tonight though.”

“Cool. Imae did you hear that Simon is doing a demo of a new grenade launcher?” Holm said. “I want to stay for that if you don’t mind.”

She sighed. “Yeah, fine. I’ll just sit here in front of the fan and slowly die. But you go have fun.”

“Cool,” Holm said, putting the last of the shotgun back together. He put it in the locker and headed back out to the range.

Imae rolled her eyes at Theo and he laughed.

“I’m going to call it a day. You want a ride home?”

“I dunno. Are you just being nice?”

“No, there’s people reserving the course. See on the monitor board up there? Anyway, it’s too hot for me.”

“I gratefully accept.”

Theo opened the windows and let the car cool down before he got in and started it.

“You’re kidding, no AC?” Imae asked as she got in.

“Not back when she was made,” Theo said. “It won’t be bad when we get moving.”

There was already a small crowd gathered around the distance range as Theo pulled out of the parking lot. There was a loud stuttering thump and the slope of the hill erupted in geysers of sand. The crowd cheered.

Imae shook her head. “I thought he’d grow out of the cadet thing.”

“Don’t tell him, but Emma said he’s pretty good. She’s sure that he’ll ace the new test, if they ever implement it with all the new people around.”

She sighed as he accelerated onto the main road and a hot wind blew through the car.

“Theo, there’s something I need to ask you. But I’m serious, okay? What’s going to happen with Holm and Emma?”

“How would I know? I’m an empath, not psychic.”

“That’s not what I mean. What happened with you and Rachel, is that going to happen with them? Because he really likes Emma. Are they doomed because you two are in a dyad together?”

“Oh, I see. No, creating the right bond between two people can be tricky and that’s why they go through all the Pairing exercises. We have that bond naturally, there’s room in her life for a romantic relationship.”

She looked happier. “Will them being together be creepy for you? Back at the Remembrance, I heard Emma say that you can sense what each other is feeling. Do you know when they’re…you know.”

Theo laughed. “We’re not that linked. We can’t have a conversation in our heads or anything like that. I know she’s happy when they’re together, but I’d already know that because I see it in her body language. I don’t know when they’re kissing or anything else, thank god.”

Imae surprised him by leaning over and kissing his cheek. “Thank you, I was worried about him.”

“Emma wouldn’t have let things get very far if she wasn’t able to have a relationship.”

“And wouldn’t it be nice if everyone was that ethical?” Imae said.

“Who are we talking about now?”

She gave him a look. “Who do you think? Lots of us are pissed at her.”

Theo could see the conversation quickly turning into a minefield full of quicksand and tried to lighten it up. “Us? Are you referring to your other personalities?”

Imae laughed and punched his arm. “I mean your friends.”

“Imae, don’t blame her. It’s just how things came out.”

“Yeah, whatever. Anyone ever tell you that you’re too nice?”

“Emma’s mentioned it once or twice but she’s the Argyro’lsh so it probably doesn’t count.”

She laughed again. “Are you ever going to let that go?”

Theo turned down the road that led to the Ta’avi settlement. “You have brothers and sisters, what do you think?”

Imae shook her head and then pointed to a prefab house that had been added onto several times. “That’s me.”

Theo pulled into the gravel driveway and before Imae could get out, the screen door banged open and an older woman marched onto the front porch.

“Oh no,” Imae said quietly. “I’m really sorry about this. She’s always in my business and now she’s going to make me introduce you and…”

“Imae!” the woman demanded, fists on her hips. “Who’s car is this? Where is your cousin? Who is that boy?”

“He’s just a friend, mother,” Imae said as she got out. “Holm is at the range still.”

“And who are you, just a friend?” the woman demanded, crouching slightly to look past Imae and into the car.

Theo got out of the car and smiled at the woman. Ayr’s mother was formidable but her sister was even worse. The look she gave him had Theo standing up straight and wishing he wasn’t so sweaty.

“Hello, ma’am. My name is Theo.”

The woman’s whole demeanor suddenly changed. “Mercy cherish, you’re the Lady’s son! Please forgive me, my daughter doesn’t always make the best choice of friends but you’re always welcome here. Please, stay and join us for some cool tea.”

“Mom! He was just dropping me off,” Imae protested.

“Imae! Who raised you to be so rude! You bring your friend inside, I’ll put out the glasses.”

The woman rushed back inside and Imae looked at Theo, incredibly embarrassed.

“You can run for it if you want,” she said.

Theo shook his head. “No way, I don’t want her coming after me.”

“Japh, get off the couch!” Imae’s mother yelled from inside. “There’s a Cosineau here! And go change your shirt!”

Ayr rolled her eyes. “I should have had you drop me off on the corner. She doesn’t care who she embarrasses and she’s so nosy.”

Theo had to stop himself from laughing as he followed Imae into the house. He could see exactly where Imae got her personality, not that he was dumb enough to mention it.

­

|P.2

Emma tapped on Rachel’s door. She opened it a second later and the two friends hugged tightly. They both knew that the world was changing around them; Rachel was beginning her Warden interviews and Emma’s place on Kawehi’s team was taking her in a different direction. The two of them had spent nearly all their time together since they were children and that was going to be ending soon.

“Come in, I’ll buy you a beer,” Rachel said. “My dad is at work but made us lunch before he left.”

“How are you two doing?”

“Actually, good. He’s more accepting of who I am, we talk a little more now. We’ll never be best friends but I’m starting to like talking to him. How are things here? It looks a lot more crowded.”

“Two big contingents of volunteers arrived while you were gone,” Emma said. “It’s been weird, we were in hiding so long and now everything is just out in the open. It’s hard to get used to.”

Rachel got two cold bottles of beer out and opened them. She handed one to Emma and they clinked the necks together and sipped.

“How did the interviews go?” Emma asked as they sat down.

Rachel made a face. “The most promising one was a project manager from DC that was just hired by the Project. I got the feeling that he thinks a Warden is just what he needs as a new status symbol here. Plus, he kept looking down my shirt and the thought of going through Pairing with him made my skin crawl. The others were even worse.”

“That sucks, maybe they’ll find you someone from the Commonwealth.”

Rachel shook her head as she took a drink of beer. “Most of the help the Others promised will stay off planet since so much of the Dominion went underground. The C-wealth planets don’t want their experts at risk here. I told Lou when I got back that I want to start considering female candidates. It’s not really my thing but it worked out for Amanda and Mirjam. What about you? What do they have you doing?”

Emma sighed. “So, all these new people brought their kids. When we’re not training, I’ve been doing orientation, lectures, tours, the whole thing with the high school kids.”

Rachel hid a smile by taking a drink of beer. Emma wasn’t a big fan of teenagers.

“They don’t pay any attention,” Emma said, frowning. “Then they end up asking a bunch of questions they’d know the answers to if they’d listened in the first place! I don’t want to think about it. Tell me what Washington was like, I’ve never been there.”

Rachel sighed. “Crowded, stinky, and noisy. Lots of willful ignorance from people wishing the Commonwealth and Dominion would both go away. And then there’s all the chaos from the president and the other Dominion agents resigning or being arrested. I couldn’t wait to get back here.”

Emma laughed. “Yeah, anyone who thinks Albuquerque is a crowded metropolis isn’t going to like the East Coast very much. How is Marcus doing?”

“He’s good. He transitioned into fighters, he’s been doing orbital patrols in the Redtail and loves it. We’ve been talking about getting married actually.”

Emma’s eyebrows went up. “While you’re a Warden?”

Rachel shook her head. “If we got married they’d keep us together and my scores are high enough to join the Raptors. Although he keeps talking about having babies and me staying safe while he’s operational.”

“Does he not remember that you’re Garragh?” Emma asked carefully.

Rachel didn’t meet her eyes. “He said you two worked out, that we could make it work.”

“Yeah, I think there was a fair amount of science that went into making Theo and I. The lab that did the work was on Garradya Hoh. I don’t know if any of them made it out.”

Rachel shrugged. “I don’t care about kids. I just don’t want to get stuck with someone they have to force me to like.”

Emma nodded without saying anything. Ever since spring, Rachel had been getting more and more picky about who she wanted to Pair with. Emma had a good idea why. Once, she would have told Rachel whether she wanted to hear it or not. It wouldn’t change anything and Emma wished her friend wasn’t so stubborn.

“Theo’s fine, by the way.”

Rachel’s face flushed. “I didn’t know if I should ask. I’ve screwed up his life enough already.”

Emma made a rude noise. “You two need to go back to just being friends. That’s what most important anyway. Life is going to be so screwed up that nothing else really matters, does it?”

Rachel, still blushing, nodded. “Fine, how is Theo doing then?”

“He’s good. He misses you but he understands what you’re going through.”

“I’ll really try to spend some time hanging out with you guys while I’m home,” Rachel said. “Any good gossip lately?”

Emma’s eyes lit up. “I almost forget, the love triangle worked out their differences! Right after you left the girls went to Jason and…”

|P.3

Kawehi had moved her office down to the Bastion, she wasn’t actually dealing with Cadet training but she was a lot less distracted down here. Upstairs, the temptation to help out with the little ones was too strong. She was reviewing something on her screen when Marisol tapped on the door.

“Hey there,” Kawehi said, looking up.

“I can come back if you’re busy.”

Kawehi sat back and stretched her shoulders. “No, come in. How did your last run go?”

Marisol shrugged after sitting across the desk. “We escorted some physicist and his family back here.”

Kawehi smiled. “You’ve got that look on your face. What happened?”

Marisol tried not to rant but couldn’t help it. “They thought we were there to pack boxes and babysit while they went out with friends! Without any of us along for protection! How are these people so stupid?”

Kawehi was openly grinning and after a moment, Marisol sighed. “You’re getting me back for the patience remark, aren’t you?”

“Me? Of course I would never do anything like that,” Kawehi said.

They both laughed.

“Your team is back?”

“Yeah, got a day off and I thought I’d come in and lobby Lou for some replacements. Hell, beg Lou for new troops. I can’t take much more of these ass and trash missions. I just stopped by to see if you wanted to grab lunch later.”

“Oh, I thought Lou had sent you over. I asked him to.”

“What’s going on?”

“First, there’s no one to give you. The cupboard is pretty bare of personnel at the moment with all the changes going on.”

Marisol sighed. “Dammit. Look, I’m glad Toni and Ian finally got married and I wish them all the best, but their timing was absolute shit. Even if I got all three of the new graduates, I’d still need one more to be full strength. But I heard the noobs got split between Ivan and Harry’s teams?”

Kawehi nodded and Marisol sighed again.

“I shouldn’t have given those two to the Ethiopian Center. They’re probably starting to think about splitting us up to use in the replacement pool.”

“They were past thinking about it,” Kawehi said. “Since the Project is in the public eye now, Ops believes that IRTs won’t be as critical planetside. Personnel from regular military and law enforcement can hunt down the remaining Dominion.”

“That’s utterly idiotic, Dommies aren’t some raggedy-assed terrorist group. And they don’t have the training to deal with Other tech! They’re not going to be…”

She stopped as Kawehi held up a hand.

“Before you really get going, I have another option.”

Marisol took a deep breath. “Working here? I don’t know how’d I’d be as an instructor, Kay.”

Kawehi got up and locked the door. It was unusual and Marisol watched Kawehi curiously as she sat back down.

“This conversation is classified and isn’t to be discussed outside of a secure area,” Kawehi said formally. “Do you understand?”

Marisol nodded.

“The title of training adjutant here is a fiction. My rank was reactivated last fall and I’ve been tasked to assemble a new team. You and what’s left of your IRT are on my short list of experienced operatives that I’d like to recruit. That’s why you haven’t been split up already.”

Marisol nodded slowly. “I wondered why you were throwing so much advanced training at the Cosineau twins.”

Kawehi nodded. “Yeah, Theo’s being trained as my deputy. I think he’s going to be good, once he gets over the usual self-doubt. I’m looking at some other noobs but for now, he could really use guidance from experienced troopers. Especially ones he’s not in love with.”

“You’re not still beating yourself up about that?”

“Hardly, it was necessary at the time. The attachment between us is dying down but it still gets in the way.”

“Between you?” Marisol asked, eyebrows going up.

Kawehi looked at the pen she was twirling. “Yes, he’s a strong empath and I got caught in a feedback loop when I projected emotion onto him. I can think around it but I can’t be completely sure that I’m not affected when making operational decisions at this level. So, I need an operator I can trust to work with him.”

Marisol frowned. “You’re not forming a new Incident Response Troop, are you?”

Kawehi shook her head. “Jonah’s IRT was a cover. We were attached to Section Tango. The team I am forming is a replacement for that.”

Marisol nodded. “I always had the feeling you guys were more specialized. If I can ask, who are you working with offworld?”

“Administratively, we’re attached to the Radiant Fists of the Emperor. Things are a little more complicated operationally but we serve the Council.”

Marisol whistled. “The Xero’pah and you’re talking about a unit directly tied to the Commonwealth council? Are you working with the Directorate?”

Kawehi held up a hand. “We’re getting into information I can’t discuss outside of my team.”

Marisol waved dismissively. “Of course I’m in, you had to ask? The rest of them will follow, guarantee. They’ve been together too long to consider splitting up.”

“It’s going to be offworld work, probably exclusively.”

Marisol grinned. “Like that’s going to be a problem for any of us? Uhm, people’s families though, what were you thinking there?”

“Team dependents will be evacuated to Haven as soon as we’re operational.”

“Wow, Haven. That’s very nice of you.”

Kawehi shook her head. “No, it was a cold blooded decision. People need to be focused on the mission, not worrying about home.”

Even though Kawehi’s tone was cold, Marisol smiled. “Bullshit, but I won’t tell.”

Kawehi grinned at her and pushed a folder across the desk. “Better not. These are details on a scouting and scientific mission. Very routine, it’ll provide the newbies with some experience without too much danger…”

|P.4

The next morning, the twin’s tablets both chimed as they were getting in Emma’s truck to head to the school. It was a notification that Kawehi was clearing their schedules for an all day briefing. They grinned at each other and headed to the school building. Because of the traffic, a new phenomena in town, they were nearly late. Marisol and her team were sitting in the briefing room, a small theater-like arrangement, when they came in. They were chatting quietly but all waved at the twins. There were a few other senior students that Theo and Emma had trained with a few times and Theo was surprised to see Rachel and Marcus sitting together. Emma gave him a reassuring bump with her shoulder before going to sit beside Rachel. Theo took a deep breath and went to sit behind the two of them. Rachel got up and gave him a quick hug and Marcus reached back to shake his hand.

“How’s it going?” he asked.

Theo nodded. “Pretty interesting. How about you?”

“Transitioned into fighters, it’s awesome.”

“Theo, you’re coming out for dinner with us, right?” Rachel asked.

Theo felt a mental nudge from Emma and nodded. “Sure, when?”

Before she could answer, the door opened again and they all turned around. But instead of Kawehi, it was Ayr and an older human Pioneer that Theo had seen around.

Ayr saw Theo and smiled at him. She came down to sit next to him. “Hey guys. What’s going on?”

“You know as much as we do,” Emma said. “Maybe we’re all in trouble.”

“They can’t prove anything,” Ayr said immediately.

“You’ve been hanging around these two too much,” Rachel told her and Ayr laughed.

“Good afternoon everyone,” Kawehi said as she came in. “It looks like everyone is here. Jaxson, please isolate the room for a classified briefing.”

There was a strange buzzing hum at the base of Theo’s hearing. Ayr made a face and rubbed her ears. Theo looked at her curiously.

“That always makes me itch,” she whispered.

Kawehi walked to the front of the theatre and the sounds of multiple bolts securing the door seemed loud in the suddenly quiet room.

“Let’s get started,” Kawehi said. “This information is not to be discussed outside of a secure room. It concerns an upcoming operation you will be involved with.

Ayr looked as confused as Theo felt but he saw her nod along with everyone else.

“Then on to business,” Kawehi said. “This concerns an operation on a planet known as Alnatic C. It was originally a colony world for the Gyr but their government recently ruled that it should be a joint colony between the humans and Ta’avi.”

Ayr sat forward in her seat, staring at Kawehi who looked back at her.

“I’m aware of the immense personal stake that gives you in the mission, Ayr. I won’t insult your intelligence by reminding you of the secrecy of this classification. It’s a lot to ask of you personally but I wouldn’t have requested your participation if I had any doubts about your abilities.”

“Yes ma’am,” Ayr said.

“Thank you. Now, we’re not privy to the details at this level, but we can assume that they got something in return,” Kawehi said.

“We probably traded them for Bruce Springsteen,” Deirdre said and there were laughs in the room.

“Moving on,” Kawehi said, smiling. “Long range surveys located a geologic anomaly that has some resemblance to a super-caldera. Think of the Beccan Traps or Yellowstone. The Commonwealth wants to be very sure that future colonists aren’t looking at an imminent catastrophe and have tasked a survey team be dispatched to investigate. You’ll be mapping the area while establishing remote monitoring stations in appropriate locations. Senior Pioneer Jonas Bray will be directing the scientific work and Pioneer Hean’dellsar Aelriyinayr will be leading the Pioneers operationally. Captain Marisol Gutierrez and her IRT will provide a nucleus for a security team that she’ll be leading operationally.”

Theo glanced at Ayr. She was shocked, mouth open like she was about to protest.

“Your team will make planetfall in a pair of Otter class shuttles. The anomalous area in question is a little more than sixty kilometers in diameter, so the shuttles will remain planetside to provide transportation and support. Lieutenant Carlsson and Warden Parvathi will be serving as pilots. Overall, the operation will be overseen by my deputy, Theo Cosineau.”

Theo suddenly knew how Ayr was feeling. She looked at him, they were all looking at him. He wondered what they were seeing. The kid they’d rescued that had broken down weeping in the back of the truck or was it the vegetable he’d been when he’d gotten here? Did it matter? Could he do this?

Emma glanced back and smiled at him and he was able to push the doubts back a little. Kawehi was still talking as she did something with her tablet.

“I’ve authorized access to the mission specifics for all of you. Since this is the first you’re hearing about it, take some time to familiarize yourselves with the specifics. We’ll meet back here after lunch and work through the details. I want a word with Ayr and Theo, I’ll see the rest of you in three hours. Jaxson unseal the room please.”

“I’ll wait for you in the hall,” Emma muttered as they got up.

Theo nodded, his mind still racing. Ayr followed him to the table were Kawehi was sitting as the room emptied.

“Okay you two,” Kawehi said when they were alone. “Ayr, you were highly recommended to lead the Pioneer team. I know it’s short notice but are you up for it?”

Ayr still looked shocked. “Uh, I think so.”

“You don’t sound sure. What was that Pioneer motto of yours?” Kawehi asked.

“‘Take up the task eternal, all the rest on us depend,'” Ayr said immediately.

“Pioneers, oh Pioneers,” Kawehi said with a grin.

Ayr’s voice was stronger. “I’ll get it done, Captain.”

“I don’t doubt that at all,” Kawehi said.

She looked at Theo and smiled. He swallowed against the butterflies in his stomach, annoyed that she still did this to him.

“You looked a little panicked, Theo.”

“I don’t know if I’m ready for this. You’re not going at all?”

“Do you remember asking me if anyone ever graduated from this place?”

He nodded. “You said there were better things than a stupid hat and a robe.”

“Welcome to graduation, Theo.”

She looked into his eyes for a long moment before they both looked away, embarrassed and Kawehi cleared her throat.

“If I had any doubts in your abilities I wouldn’t be training you as my second, let along giving you the team. Got it?”

Theo nodded.

“Okay, I suggest both of you go over the details together in the couple of hours. Pay attention to anything you think you might be missing, you’re going to be a long way from home.”

| P.5

Two days later, the twins got up at the usual time and loaded their gear into the back of the Scout. Amanda and Mirjam had already left for work and Theo was kind of glad. They’d had a family dinner last night and the worry both women were hiding made the evening very tense for Theo.

Emma drove her truck down the field. As they got closer, they could see a large, dark gray airplane sitting next to the hanger. The back was folded down into a ramp and people were moving stuff inside.

“Can’t believe those are sitting out in the open,” Emma said.

“How do you mean?” Theo asked.

“That’s what we’re taking to the transfer station. The acronym for it is ARVKS, so everyone calls them Aardvarks. They were never taken outside in the daylight before.”

The gate to the airfield was another reminder of how much things had changed. Instead of the decrepit guard shack, there was a new looking modular trailer behind a wall of concrete barriers and armed guards were everywhere. Theo and Emma checked in and were pointed to a long term parking lot. They grabbed their bags and walked through another set of security gates. Then they were inside the hangar, grateful for the shade and giant fans. Most of the team was already there and Emma went to help check the pallets of gear they’d be taking with them. Theo was walking over to help but Marisol caught his eye. He walked over to where she was doing something with her tablet.

“Glad you’re here, kid. I’m trying to check the cargo manifest but Ops keeps sending last minute questions about crew roster stuff.”

“They couldn’t have done that in the last two days?”

She grinned. “Welcome to the bureaucracy. You deal with those questions and I’ll look over the cargo manifest.”

Theo opened his tablet and Marisol dumped all the Ops mail on him. Theo spent a frustrating forty-five minutes dealing with personnel issues but finally the mail queue was empty. The last of the pallets was being strapped down while Marisol watched.

“Everything good?” she asked him.

“Yeah, let’s get the hell out of here before they find something else,” Theo muttered.

Marisol laughed. “I’ve said that before. Everyone is inside, let’s run through the roster together.

Theo nodded as they walked into the plane. He hadn’t realized how much paperwork there was in leading a team, even one this small. Two pilots, Marisol’s team, a medical specialist, Jonas the geologist, a couple of cadets, and sixteen Pioneers. They were mostly Ta’avi. Theo hadn’t been surprised when Ayr organized a roster than included Imae and Holm. He was happy to have a couple friends along but it was scary to think that he was responsible for their safety.

The Aardvarks had spartan interiors, exposed ribs and braces with bundles of wires and hoses attached and running in all directions. The back of the aircraft was taken up with a couple of pallets of equipment and the team’s bags. In front of that were four rows of seats facing each other. It was obvious they were a temporary addition to the cavernous interior of the Aardvark.

When they had everyone accounted for, Marisol had Theo tell the loadmaster that they were ready. Soon the ramp was folded up into the plane and the smaller hatches for people were all closed and the Aardvark’s engines started.

Theo grabbed a seat near Marisol who looked like she was already asleep. Emma was in another row, cracking jokes with Ayr and Rachel. The lights overhead dimmed as Deidre sat down across from him.

“Getting as much sleep as you can is a good idea,” she said, putting her feet on the chair next to him.

Theo shook his head. “It’s my first time up-top. I’m too excited to sleep. Are there any windows in this thing?”

She laughed and showed him how to link his tablet to the ship’s network. One of the crew came by to make sure everyone had seatbelts fastened. To Theo, it seemed like a very short time until the Aardvark’s engines were roaring as it raced down the runway. He’d always had the idea he could step back into some kind of normal life but as the ship left the ground, that illusion stayed behind him on the ground. He was committed.

| P.6

Theo was one of the very few people still awake when the Aardvark ducked out of the Slingshot arrival gate, dropping them back into normal space. After a few minutes, a crewman walked through the passenger area. He was surprised to see Theo was awake.

“You can make out the transfer station on the forward cameras,” he murmured as he walked by.

Theo immediately picked up his tablet and linked to the transport’s network. Ahead of them was a massive black cylinder, visible in the harsh white light from the nearby double star. As they got closer, he began to notice tiny specks around the cylinder and realized they were ships at least as big as the Aardvark he was riding. This thing was big. There were what looked like an old fashioned TV antennas extending from either end and he saw a few of the distant ships docking along the arms.

“First time?” the crewman asked as he headed to the back of the plane again.

Theo nodded. “Are we docking on those antenna things?”

“No, those are reserved for Fleet ships. The crews have berthing in the central areas, near the ships. We’re headed for a berthing bay on the cylinder itself. You can’t see them from here, but they’re located about a third of the way up the main habitat.”

“That thing is huge.”

The crewman nodded. “The Gyr don’t bother building stations, they hollow them out of large asteroids or moons.”

Theo thanked the crewman who nodded and continued whatever errand he was doing. The cylinder was getting closer but he could feel the Aardvark starting to decelerate. It would be a while yet. He sat back and watched the cylinder get incrementally closer and then his eyes drifted shut.

There was a thump that shook the ship and Theo’s eyes popped open. He looked around but no one else looked alarmed. Or even awake. He checked his tablet and saw that he’d slept for half an hour. The cameras outside were still active but there wasn’t anything to see.

There was a clang and another jolt and then some random banging sounds. Theo looked at Deidre, she was still asleep.

“What?” she said without opening her eyes.

“Oh hey. Just wondering what’s next.”

“Relax,” she said. “They don’t keep atmosphere in the the big hanger bays and it takes time to pressurize such a big space. They’ll tell us when they’re ready. Go to sleep.”

“Deed, we’re in space and going to another planet! How am I supposed to even stay in my chair?”

She didn’t say anything.

“Space!” Theo whispered. “How can you think about sleeping?”

Deidre finally opened her eyes and squinted at him. “Well, I can’t because someone is being Mr. Motormouth.”

There were more mysterious noises but finally the main lights in the passenger compartment came on. There was a wave of yawning and stretching around him as people woke up.

They collected their gear bags and moved toward the smaller door in the front of the Aardvark rather than the rear ramp they had used to board. Theo moved slower than everyone else, making sure no one had left anything behind. He was a little surprised to see Rachel waiting for him at the hatch. Outside, Theo got his first inside view of the station. It wasn’t terribly impressive; there were metal floors and walls streaked with what looked like grease and hydraulic oil. The walls were painted the same weird yellow-green that made up large parts of the Aardvarks interior. Differently colored pipes and conduits ran all over the place. Two Redtail fighters were parked in a corner of the hangar bay. There were work crews in different colored shirts crawling all over the stubby arrowhead-shaped fighters. They were wearing heavy gloves and insulated hats and Theo noticed everyone from his team jogging toward the hatch set into the wall.

“They don’t bother warming up the bays,” Rachel said from beside him. “In fact, if there’s no cargo going back in the ‘varks, they’ll be pumping the air back out as soon as our supplies are unloaded. There’s constantly ships arriving, so they clear the landing areas as quickly as they can. Marisol has everyone else waiting in the arrival area, ready?”

The air immediately turned bitterly cold as they stepped out of the Aardvark and Rachel and Theo quickly jogged toward the smaller hatchway. There was a man in a grubby work uniform pointing them down a short hallway that ended in another hatchway. On the other side was an area that looked a lot like a airport, minus the windows.

“Which of you is the commander?” a tall woman in another of the work uniforms asked impatiently.

“That’s me,” Theo said.

“I’m here to show you the way to your quarters. Let’s go.”

Theo looked over his shoulder as they walked. Marisol nodded at him from the back of the pack and gave him a quick thumbs up.

“Where are you from?” the tall woman asked as she strode along. Her voice was metallic sounding.

“Almaro, New Mexico,” Theo said.

She glanced at him. “Never heard of it.”

“You’ve never heard of New Mexico? It’s in America.”

“America? Oh, wait, you’re the bunch from Terra. First time up-top?”

Theo nodded and noticed that her voice was coming from a small box clipped to the front of her tunic. Her lip movements didn’t match what she was saying and he realized she was wearing a translator. He was a little embarrassed that he’d assumed she was human.

After a few minutes of walking, they went through another hatch and into an area that looked a lot like a hotel lobby. They walked through and down another hallway before stopping in a common area with couches and monitors.

“Your rooms are A-15 through C-26,” the woman said to all of them, pointing at placards on the hallways printed in a lot of different languages. “If you have any issues, go back down to the main desk and they’ll help you out.”

“Thanks,” Theo said but she was already quickly walking away.

The rooms were fairly small with a pair of bunkbeds in each. On the other wall was a desk top that folded down and an odd looking chair. Beside each of the doors were a pair of names and the group milled around, figuring out who belonged where. Theo finally found his room and was a little surprised that there was only one name beside his door.

He went in and it was just a little larger than the others with a single bed and a bigger desk. There was a door in the back that opened into a tiny bathroom. He dropped his duffle on the bed and went back out into the hallway. Most of the team was already laying on the bunks and Theo looked at his tablet and realized it was two in the morning for them.

Marisol had her own room in another hallway. The door was open and Theo saw that it was a copy of the room he had. He tapped on the doorframe and Marisol looked up from what she was reading.

“While we were waiting in Arrival, I told everyone to stay close to our berthing area until tomorrow. If people want to tour the station, we can set something up but I don’t advise letting them wander around alone. It’s easy to get lost here.”

Theo nodded. “Makes sense. What else needs to be done?”

She yawned and closed the tablet. “Nothing. You should get some sleep though. I’ve got quicksleep tabs if you need one.”

“I think I’ll be okay. G’night then Marisol.”

“See you tomorrow.”

|P.8

Theo’s second day in space was even more disappointing. There was a whole new set of queries and forms to get through. Emma stopped by at one point to tell him that they were getting tours of the station. Theo looked down at the authorization forms for bringing live ammunition on an exercise and sighed.

“Thanks for thinking of me but I’m swamped here.”

“Don’t spend all day working,” she said before heading down the corridor to where everyone was waiting.

“If you know a way to get out of that, let me know,” Theo muttered to himself. He was irritated that she wasn’t sticking around to help him at first.

That’s not her job. This is your job, he thought to himself as he started on the next set of forms.

Marisol finally took pity on him at dinner. She loaded the remaining messages onto her tablet and told him to take off. Theo got up and stretched and went to find something to eat.

The cafeteria was nearby, and like everything else, kind of a disappointment. It could have been anywhere really. Most of the team waved at him from the tables. From the looks of things, they had already eaten. Theo got in line, wondering what kind of food they served in space. There was no one at the counter but a large brown packet made of heavy plastic slid out of a slot and he took it.

“These are our field rations,” he said, surprised.

“Not a lot of Terrans around here,” Deidre said from behind him. “Not enough to bother with stocking food on the station, so we brought our own.”

Theo sighed again and waited for her to collect her rations before finding Shep and Emma at a table.

“How was your first day in space?” Emma asked.

Theo pulled the tab that drew a razor sharp ribbon around the top of the packet. “Busy. How was the tour?”

“Do you really want to know?”

Theo looked at the beige slop in the ration tray. Turkey and noodles with peas, the one meal that no one liked. “Unless it sucked, not really. How did I get stuck with this crap?”

“We got the last two,” Deidre said, sitting down with them. “If you’d been here earlier, you might have gotten a better choice.”

Shep and Emma grinned at each other as Theo ate a spoonful of the wretched meal and made a face.

“Mm, just as awful as I remember,” Deirdre said, smelling the sludge. “Did you tell him?”

“We thought we’d let him enjoy his dinner first,” Shep said.

Theo put the spoon in the packet and took the dry brownie out. It crumbled in his fingers, falling into the beige glop. He looked up as Emma laughed. He was suddenly furious but he pushed it down as he busied himself with resealing the food.

“You aren’t going to eat that?” Shep asked.

“Not right now. I’m going to go back and help Marisol with the rest of the paperwork.”

“Nope,” Deirdre said. “We’ve been yanking your chain. We’re taking you out to dinner.”

“Thanks, but I have a lot to do before I get to sleep tonight.”

“And Marisol said she didn’t want to see you until tomorrow,” Shep said. “Come on, you’ve earned it.”

Theo, Emma, Deidre and Shep stopped in the main lock for the habitation. Theo had expected an oversized door, a bigger version of the airlocks he’d seen all over the station. Instead they were standing in what looked like a busy open air mall with a large, low, archway at one end.

“You ready?” Emma asked.

Theo shrugged. “Nothing can beat seeing it from the outside.”

“You ancient space jockey, you,” Shep said. “Hey, you should close your eyes.”

“Yeah, do it,” Emma said.

“If they push me out of an airlock, avenge me,” Theo said to Deirdre.

She gave him a thumbs up and Theo closed his eyes and Emma took his hand. They walked forward and the noise around them changed, he could tell they were in a larger space.

“Okay,” Emma said and Theo opened his eyes.

From the outside, Main Axis had looked like a gigantic polished black cylinder. Theo had assumed it would have been honeycombed with different sections, so the sight in front of him was completely unexpected. The whole cylinder was one gigantic space, startlingly green and blue from the gardens, rivers and ponds. A long bar was suspended in the center, emitting a mellow golden light on half the cylinder. His eyes followed a river as it flowed past them and up an impossibly steep curve to arch overhead. It was darker up there and he felt a sudden vertigo as he saw figures far above him in twilight gardens. Theo got very dizzy and swayed on his feet.

“Whoops, grab him,” Shep said.

Emma laughed, putting her arm around him. “Don’t look up yet, look down the length until you’re used to it.”

Theo had closed his eyes and nodded. He opened them again, careful to keep looking down.

“Don’t worry, you get used to it really fast,” Deirdre said.

Theo swallowed and nodded. “But what if there was a hull breach?”

“The soul of an engineer,” Emma said, hugging him with one arm.

“Seriously, there’s lot of stuff flying through space.”

“Gyr station, so there’s Gyr gravity tech,” Shep said. “There are fields surrounding the station that repel anything with mass. If something did manage to get through, we’re standing inside a nickel-iron can. At the thinnest point, there’s around fifteen meters of hull between us and the vacuum. I don’t think a hull breach has ever happened on a Gyr habitat.”

“I grew up in one of these,” Deidre said. “There’s stories about a station being hit by something that broke it in half. Supposedly it happened about ten thousand Terran standard years ago, I never heard if it had really happened or not.”

Theo carefully looked up. “It’s night time up there?”

“Yep,” Emma said. “Set to about a thirty hour day as a compromise between species. Lots of plants and animals don’t do well without some kind of dark cycle.”

“That’s where we’re heading,” Shep said, pointing at a spot on the twilight “wall” of the station. “It’s called Michel’s. Theo, just wait until you taste the shrimp at this place. The owner is a Terran, a honest-to-god Cajun, who grows them in ponds that are engineered to imitate a bayou. Come on, this is going to be great.”

He took Deidre’s hand and they headed down a busy path.

“More like you imagined?” Emma asked as they followed.

Theo nodded happily. He noticed two Xero’pah sitting and drinking something, looking very formal, even though they were sitting cross legged in the grass. There were a lot of Gyr wandering around as well. There were also beings he’d never seen before. One of them stalked quickly up the path toward them. Its legs were articulated the opposite of a human’s, giving the Other a predatory stride. There wasn’t room for both of them on the path so Theo stepped to the side.

It hissed something as it drew nearer and his stomach tensed. “Greetings,” the translator said.

“Hello,” Theo said as it went past. “Have a good day.”

The Other stopped and he thought it was looking at him but he wasn’t sure where the eyes were.

“May your waking cycle be pleasant as well,” it said before turning away to continue down the path.

He stared at its back as it kept walking.

“Emma,” he finally whispered. “Did you…”

She laughed. “I know, but it’s just a weird coincidence. The Project had a huge investigation when Alien came out. They thought someone had leaked information.”

Theo shuddered, the movie had terrified him. “Are they like the xenomorphs?”

“Nope, the Ulthira are absolute sweethearts,” Emma said. “One of our close allies in fact.”

Theo looked back over his shoulder and caught the Ulthira watching him. Theo waved and, after a pause, it waved back before going back to whatever errand it was on.

Emma smiled at him and linked her arm through his as they started walking again. “You make me proud, Sparrow.”

“Why’s that?”

“Something terrifies you but you just wave and say hello. If it makes you feel any better, we made it just as uncomfortable. They think humans are terrifying.”

“Him?”

“No, the correct term is ‘it.’ There’s no him or her, they’re parthenogenic.”

“No face hugging?”

Emma laughed. “Superficial resemblance only, I promise.”

They followed the other two to a shack that looked like it had been plucked from the bayou. Shep and Deirdre were sitting on the porch talking to a man they introduced as Michel, the owner.

“How did you get a house up here?” Theo asked.

“Made it all myself,” Michel said proudly. “I needed a little touch of home so I made me a shack, the pond came later. Suddenly I’m cooking for the odd Earthling that comes on station. I start all rodee but now I’m lazy, I sit in one place and va ya with everyone going by. You want a drink?”

Theo and Emma both nodded and the man smiled happily as he went inside.

“He’s really a theoretical physicist,” Shep said. “Been out here for almost ten years now.”

The man came back with Mason jars full of something colorful.

“You two go slow with those,” Deidre warned them as they took a sip.

“There you go, cher, taking all my fun,” Michel said. “What you think of the place so far?”

“Theo almost bumped into an Ulthira on the way here,” Emma said.

Deirdre sniffed. “Doesn’t smell like you crapped your pants.”

Emma laughed. “This is the Sparrow we’re talking about. He made friends.”

“We just waved at each other,” Theo said, a little embarrassed.

“I was on Jeonus when I saw my first Ulthira,” Shep said. “We ran into each other in a corridor. It made a weird whistling noise that scared the hell out of me.”

Deirdre laughed. “Tell the rest.”

Shep shrugged. “I ran like hell and hid. Seemed like the thing to do.”

“We were out drinking and it took forever to find him,” Deirdre said. “The funny part was that the whistling noise was an Ulthira version of a scream. He ran away from Shep just as fast.”

“It,” Shep said. “Don’t be offensive.”

Deidre saw the look on Theo’s face and laughed. “They don’t like it when we say him or her, they think the idea of two genders is disgusting.”

“Speaking of which, did you know there’s a big Ulthira market for human porn?” Michel asked.

“Really? Why?” Theo asked.

“I hear they use them as horror movies,” Michel said. “So you’ve seen Alien, Theo?”

“I watched it with him,” Emma said. “It was hilarious.”

“Ooh, he rolled his eyes,” Deidre laughed. “Tell us.”

“I’ve seen it a bunch of times so I fell asleep. Amanda and Mirjam fell asleep too. Theo scared us all awake, he was standing on the couch yelling ‘Get out of there, you stupid bitch!'”

Everyone started laughing, even Theo although his face was hot.

“Excuse me,” the mechanical voice of a translator. “You are the human James Shepherd.”

They looked over to see a Gyr standing on the path.

“That’s me,” Shep said. “How may I serve?”

“You will not recognize, know, recollect this form. I am newly budded but you know my root, Vuli.”

Shep hooted and jumped up. He vaulted the railing, landing on the path beside the Gyr. They hugged, slapping each other’s backs.

“Vuli! I’m sorry I didn’t recognize you.”

“Do not be distressed, sad, broken hearted,” the translator said. “You can’t see the differences with those pathetic eyes.”

“Can you join us?” Shep said.

“Indeed, I was searching, seeking, you. You were not in your sleeping space but I remembered your fondness for eating boiled insects here.”

Theo gave Emma a sharp look and she shrugged.

“Gyr are very literal,” she said.

“And they’re very tasty insects,” Michel assured him.

Shep led the Gyr to the table on the porch and Michel produced a strange looking chair for the Gyr.

“This is an old friend, Vulatari,” Shep said to the rest of them as Vuli sat on the bench shaped chair. “Vuli, this is my teammate Deirdre, beside her is Emma and Emma’s brother, Theo.”

“It is a pleasure, happiness, gratification to behold all of you,” the Gyr said.

Theo could feel the vibrations of the Vuli’s actual voice in his chest. He could hear an occasional sound but Gyr voices were mostly below the frequencies a human could hear. It wouldn’t help if he could, Gyr speech sounded like stones rubbing together.

Vuli wore the tight fitting leg coverings, heavy boots, and vest that most other Gyr wore. The flat box of the translator was tucked into the thick vest that was completely covered by pockets.

Theo was glad he’d gotten through xenology last semester. He could tell Vuli was female, she had a longer and redder top crest than a male would. He knew that the crest was used for emphasis in conversations between Gyr, much like raising a voice for a human. The rest of her body was an orangish-brown with short thick fur that thinned toward the ends of their arms and legs, leaving their massive hands and feet bare. The Gyr’s hand, taking a squat beaker of something from the owner, looked like a large, old-fashioned, catchers mitt. A line of grasping digits, squared off and powerful, ran down either side of the hand. The Gyr also had slender, dexterous fingers on the end of the hand but normally kept them folded down against their palm, safely out of danger.

The muscular arms the hands attached to were longer in proportion to the broad body than a humans. There were two complicated double elbows, one midway up the forearm and the second where a human’s bicep would be. The Gyr could reach behind their backs as easily as their fronts and the arrangement of the elbows amplified their already impressive strength. In class, Theo had seen a video of a Gyr throwing a cantaloupe sized rock hundreds of meters. It was impressive and a little intimidating but what was worse, the Gyr thought distance weapons were cheating. They preferred to get into close quarters, within the reach of their long arms. Theo couldn’t imagine how hard a Gyr could punch with the massive flat hand curled into a large cylindrical fist.

The Gyr were bipedal, their hips and knees being as complex as their arms. The hips were higher on their torso than a human’s and they could run incredibly fast. Their torsos were very broad, partly to house their massive shoulders and hips. The heavy bones and muscles of the torso also held nearly all of the Gyr’s organs, making them incredibly tough. Between the massive shoulders was a small head although it was nearly solid bone. With the brain deep inside their thorax, its chief purpose was to provide a place for sensory organs .There were a series of round black eyes set around it as well as complicated sets of nostrils that were mostly hidden under the fur. There was a secondary mouth used mostly for speaking and drinking. Their main mouth was hidden in the fur at the base of the “neck,” or where the neck would have ended if there was one. The largest sense organ in the knobby head were massive articulated ears that normally folded back against the skull.

Gyr enjoyed working with the Founder’s Children, explaining that the humanoids had a pleasing shape and odor. There had been several Gyr present at the first contacts between humans and Others and they had been immediately fascinated by the humans. Amanda had mentioned that postings with humans were highly sought after and coming to work on Earth was a dream for most Gyr. Even better than the bipedal humans was the music that was easily found anywhere on Earth.

So far, human music was unique to the Commonwealth. The Xero’pah had a sort of a chanting opera with droning melodies but it was a serious ritual activity. They didn’t normally sing at all. The Ta’avi and Garragh both had simple instruments, mostly drums and simple flutes. None of the other races of people had put anything close to the effort humans had into making music. When Earth was first discovered, the radio signals that had radiated outward had caused a sensation. Before contact, it was widely thought that there were two peoples on Earth, the humans and another that used the musical melodies as speech. When the first trading began, records from Earth had commanded incredible prices, giving the newest member of the Commonwealth an incredibly lucrative export. Musical instruments were a close second in exports. The Others were fascinated by them as pieces of art but very few learned to play them and no one could approach humans in musical ability.

The huge ears of the Gyr, sensitive to a huge range of aural frequencies, had taken to music with a passion that surprised and baffled Others and humans alike. Gyr were fairly reticent about their physiology but there was a theory that music created a physical response, similar to the effects of certain drugs on a human.

“It is my pleasure to meet all of you,” Vuli’s translator said. “James the Sheep Herder and I became acquainted eight of your years ago. He was newly arrived to space and I took him as an egg. He made many blunder, mistakes, errors, missteps, faux pas…”

“They get the point,” Shep said.

The Gyr’s translator laughed. “Before we enjoy embarrassing Mr. Sheep Herder, I must say that I am on an official business, errand, task. I am familiar with the planet you are to survey and it was suggested to me that I offer my services, guidance, experience, to your expedition. I am to understand that the Kawehi Moana remained on Terra. Is her egg familiar, friendly, understanding to Others?”

“The egg is indeed understanding and friendly with Others,” Shep said, winking at Theo.

“That is good, acceptable, encouraging. My last task was with one who was terrified of me. It made communication, the speaking and sharing, difficult, disheartening, very annoying. Who is this egg of Kawehi? Does she possess at least moderate intelligence?”

Emma laughed. “He’s a male and he’s bright enough to tie his shoes at least.”

“Okay, you know what?” Theo said and the other three laughed.

“Theo here is Kawehi’s egg,” Shep told Vuli. “He has been toiling on our behalf all day.”

The Gyr shifted to face Theo. “Greetings and happiness, egg of Kawehi Moana. We can speak of this later if you are weary.”

“No, it’s fine,” Theo said. “I’m happy to meet you and I’m glad you’re coming along. Welcome to the team.”

“I thank you, I will request your time tomorrow to share, elucidate, inform you of the planet? Is Marisol Gutierrez here? She is known to me.”

Theo nodded. “She’s teaching me the job.”

The Gyr shivered all over. “She is most terrifying, horrendous, dangerous. I like her very much. So I am happy she remains with you, she smells very good.”

Theo wondered what Marisol would make of that and had to struggle to keep his face straight. Luckily, Michel came out with a huge pot of crayfish and they got to work eating them.

Going Home

This is another parallel posting from Literotica. This is a change of pace, suspense and eerie rather than sci-fi. This is early in the Millwater horror series even though the town only has a cameo.

 

“You about ready to blow this thing?” Tommy asked him.

Ed nodded. “Yeah, everyone clear?”

Tommy looked around again, “Still in the middle of the desert by ourselves, boss.”

“Fine, hit it.”

There were a couple of dull thumps that Ed felt through the soles of his boots. The men looked over the hood of the truck. The two large rocks they’d been tasked with destroying were split into quarters.

“Hoo-ah!” yelled Tommy. “Check that shit out!”

He started to run toward the rocks but stepped on a bootlace and fell flat on his face.

Ed shook his head and laughed, walking over to where the dust was still settling around the rocks. They were some kind of dark stone he’d never seen before. Crazy red-neck or not, Tommy was an artist with high explosives. The two boulders had split in four sections, almost like an orange. There was a sharp smell in the air, almost like ozone.

“GET DOWN!” Tommy yelled and Ed was on his face before he’d even thought about it. But it was quiet, no buzz of incoming bullets.

Tommy came running over. “Eddie! You okay?” Hands patted his back and sides.

Ed rolled over, “Tommy, I swear to Christ, if you did that because your own stupid ass fell on the ground…”

“You didn’t see it?” Tommy said. “The flashes?”

Ed sat up, “No, I didn’t see any flashes. What’re you talking about?”

“Serious as a heart attack, you walked over and there was two flashes of light right over you. I figured there was some unexploded ordnance. You didn’t see anything? Really?”

Ed looked at him. Tommy was such a shit liar that everyone loved playing poker with him. “You scratched your sunglasses or something,” Ed said. “There was nothing there.”

“Yeah, you woulda noticed it for sure. Hell, Eddie, one last squirt to the heart, right?” Tommy said, pulling him to his feet. “I wouldn’t fuck with you on your last day like that.”

“Yes you would.”

Tommy thought for a minute and laughed. “Yeah, I would. But I wasn’t back there, swear. Maybe it was the sun or something.”

They got in the truck and headed back to the security compound. Ed was flying out tonight, he couldn’t wait to get out of here. Twenty-four hours from now he’d be landing in Cincinnati, two hours later he’d be home.

“You think you’ll be back?” Tommy asked as they drove.

“No way. Three tours and two years contracting? That’s enough sandbox for me.”

“You’ll be back,” Tommy said, nodding as though it were a done deal. “You’ll get bored and you’ll be back.”

Ed shook his head. “No way. I’m going home, I’m gonna marry Dina, and we’re going to have a baby. I’ll find some nice boring job to do.”

Tommy laughed. “Calling bullshit.” He started on some long story about some hapless cousin of his who kept getting in trouble whenever he got home.

Ed smiled and pulled his hat down over his eyes. Tommy never cared if anyone was listening or not. “Talking to hear his head roar,” his uncle would’ve said.

~~~~

“Iraq,” the customs agent said, glancing through his passport.

“Yessir,” Ed said. He really hoped this big bastard wasn’t going to be a prick. He’d heard about guys getting hassled, especially contractors.

“You meeting someone?” the guy asked.

Ed frowned. That was an odd question and he just nodded.

“Good deal, the taxi guys crank their fees up at night. Didn’t want you to get screwed over.” The agent stamped his passport and handed it back. “Welcome home, Mr. Fairweather.”

It always surprised Ed when people were kind. He nodded at the man and headed down the empty concourse, just a few people from the flight in front of him. Baggage claim was almost as empty and he immediately saw Dina waiting for him. He started to walk quickly toward her and she ran to him, jumping up to wrap her arms and legs around him, squeezing tightly. Ed hugged her just as tightly, smelling her shampoo and perfume. Now he was home.

~~~~

His cellphone chirped three times and Ed snapped awake and grabbed it. He looked around confused and then remembered he was home.

“Fairweather.”

“Ed, Andy Lewis.”

Andy had been Ed’s CO in the Army and then his team leader when they both went to private contractors.

“Hey Andy, what’s going on.” The guy wasn’t trying to get him to come back already?

“Ed, everything okay with you?”

Ed squinted at his watch. “Yeah, I got home a few hours ago. Something wrong?”

“Checking to make sure everything was okay. Look, I didn’t want to interrupt anything, I had to be sure. Give me a call later.”

Ed sat up. Andy sounded freaked out but Andy didn’t freak out.

“Dina’s at work. Talk to me now, Andy. I’m awake. What’s wrong?”

It was quiet long enough that Ed thought he’d hung up.

“Tommy lost his shit a few hours after you left, Ed. Starting talking all kinds of crazy shit. They found him talking to the air, wandering around the market.”

“He was fine when we went out,” Ed said. “What happened?”

“Our guys brought him back, mostly naked and raving about fires and green mountains. I’ve never seen him like that. We put him to bed, hoped he’d sleep it off. A little later, he put a pistol in his mouth and pulled the trigger.”

“Tommy? Holy shit,” Ed whispered. Tommy was the last guy he’d expect to eat a bullet.

“Yeah. I gotta write a statement here. Nothing happened to him while you guys were out? He wasn’t buying drugs or anything?”

“Tommy? Hell no, he was too Baptist to even drink beer. Something strange did happen after he blew those rocks. He yelled, said there were flashes of light around me. I didn’t see anything and he was kind of embarrassed about it a few minutes later.”

“Maybe he had a stroke or something?” Andy said.

“I dunno, he was fine later.”

“Be nice if there was enough of his head for an autopsy,” Andy said. “Look, I don’t want his insurance to get held up. I’m going to write it up that way. So if anyone calls and asks…”

“Gotcha boss,” Ed said. He wasn’t surprised, Andy was a good CO.

“Hey, why the hell did you guys det those boulders anyway? The locals are pissed as hell about that, were you just fucking around?”

Ed was surprised, “Tommy had paperwork, your name was on it along with some guy from the local security.”

There was another long silence. “I didn’t sign any taskings for that, Ed. Remember the local’s name?”

“Uhm, Freptar or something like that. It’s in my log book.”

“I’ll look into it. The mayor is meeting with us today, evidently those were an important monument. Maybe they’re just busting my balls over it”

“Andy, you know I don’t do independent shit.”

There was a sigh. “I know you don’t, Eddie. Starting to wonder what Tommy had going though. I gotta go deal with this, you’re not in any trouble. Enjoy the P&Q.”

“Let me know if there’s anything I can do, Andy.”

~~~~

Dina stretched as she walked to the bathroom. Ed had promised her that they’d spend a couple of days in bed when he got home. She’d had to work today but he’d certainly spent a day by himself sleeping. She didn’t mind, he’d had more than enough energy when she got home last night.

Today she had a surprise for him. A few months ago he said one of the things he wanted to do was go for a drive, to see trees and water and not have to worry about anything blowing up or anyone shooting at him. After some research, she’d come up with a carefully marked route on a map with the twistiest roads she could.

“Edward, get up,” she said, opening the curtains. “Right now.”

“Yep, I’m awake. What’s wrong?”

“Enough laying around, I need you to take care of something for me.” Dina held out the map.

Ed looked at it. “What?”

“I need you to get that car out of the barn and take me up this road for lunch!”

He looked at the map and then up at her, grinning. “Well, if you’re sure.” He grabbed her and pulled her into the bed.

“No!” Dina shrieked, wiggling to get away. “I’m starving near to death and I let you take advantage of me. Now you won’t even feed me! Brute!”

“Who was taking advantage?” he said, looking at the hickey on his chest.

“Pish-posh, that’s nothing. Get up!” Dina dodged another arm and backed up to the door. “Edward, I’m gonna fill a bucket with water.”

“I’m up,” he said. “That car is gonna be a mess though.”

“Maybe it’s not as bad as you remember.”

~~~~

Ed pulled the barn door open and stopped.

“Who’s car is this?” he said.

“I might’ve had Kyle fix it up a little,” Dina said.

“A little! Baby, this most have cost a fortune!”

“Well, you won’t let me pay for anything, so I used my money for this.”

Ed had bought a Impreza WRX when he’d left the Army. It was a few years old and pretty beat up. He planned to fix it up but before that happened he’d taken a contract with a private security company. This didn’t look much like the car he’d left in the barn. The dents were gone and it had been repainted, there were new wheels as well.

“He did some work on the engine too,” Dina said. “But you’re not allowed to look right now, you’re taking me to lunch.”

“You are the best ever!” Ed said, wrapping her in a tight hug.

“I’m happy you like it,” Dina said. She shivered as his hands found her bottom and he kissed her neck.

“Let me take you inside and thank you,” Ed murmured into her ear.

“No! You stop that! You’re taking me to lunch!”

Ed laughed and pulled the car out of the barn. It sounded great.

“You’re the navigator,” Ed told her as she got in.

“Okay, head over Route 26. We’re going to lunch in Millwater.”

“Sounds like a nice place.”

She nodded. “It’s gorgeous. And there’s some really nice antique shops.”

Ed looked over at her but she ignored him, smiling out the windshield. He hated antiquing. He kept staring at her but Dina refused to look at him. Finally, Ed laughed and floored the car. Dina shrieked as the tires threw gravel everywhere and they went flying down the driveway. The day couldn’t have been more perfect, warm and sunny with occasional puffy clouds blocking the sun. They got to Marietta and followed the road east, out of town. Dina rolled down her window as they left the town behind, tucking her long blonde hair under a baseball cap. Ed smiled over at her, there wasn’t anyone he’d rather be with.

The road into the river valley began to twist back and forth, bouncing up and down over ridges. Ed sped up.

“Don’t you make me carsick,” Dina teased him. “I will not hesitate to throw up on the floor.”

He gunned the engine in response and she laughed, putting her head against the seat, dangling her hand out the window, playing with the air moving past. Life was good.

~~~~

They pulled into Riverwood just after noon and found a place to eat. After lunch, it was a couple of antique stores. Ed was so happy to be with Dina that he hardly minded following her around the dusty rooms.

“Well, that’s it,” she said when they came out of the second store. “Ready to hit the road?”

“Really? Just two? Baby, are you feeling okay?”

“There’s only three in town and the other one is closed today,” she said, taking his arm. “But there are other towns nearby…”

“No, no, I don’t want to mess with your plans.”

She laughed. “But there’s a teeny little graveyard I’d like to see if you don’t mind stopping.”

“Nope, let’s get some gas and something to drink and we’ll be on our way.”

~~~~

“We’re getting close, there’s a little picnic and camping area.”

“For a cemetery?” Ed asked and she laughed.

“It’s in the national forest, no one uses the cemetery anymore.”

“Well obviously the Forest Service isn’t concerned about zombies.”

“Probably not, the bastards. It’s the next road on the right.”

He followed the narrow road as it turned back and forth out of the valley. They passed a large gas station and turned down the dirt road.

“Aw baby, did you bring me back here so I could play rally driver?” Ed asked, fishtailing the car around a bend.

“Remember what I said about throwing up on the floor? And be careful on this bridge, it looks scary.”

“There’s the entrance.”

He pulled in and turned off the car. Without the engine everything seemed very quiet.

“Let’s go look at the pond first,” Dina said. “There’s places to sit over there, under the pine trees.”

Ed looked around as they walked to the water. It was really quiet, the trees on the forested slopes around were completely still. Even the scratchy roar of the grasshoppers was muted. There was a little splash of water by the trees, where the pond drained over an old concrete dam and into the creek below. Other than that, it was just the scuffing of his feet in the pine needles.

Dina sat on a picnic table and opened her bottle of juice. He sat down and took a drink from his water. The smell of pinesap was really strong. There was a little bit of a noise as a breeze hissed through the trees. It didn’t help, just made the suffocating silence worse. He rubbed his nose, he usually liked pine trees, liked the smell of sap and the soft carpet of needles. Not today, it was gloomy and all he could think about was the smell of turpentine.

Dina was talking about something she’d seen in the antique store, getting it for the house and he tried to pay attention but the words were just sliding past him for some reason. He frowned and rubbed his nose again.

“…Eddie?”

“Huh?”

“Are you okay?”

“Yeah, why?”

“You’re hunching your shoulders like you’re expecting someone to hit you.”

As he was about to tell her he was fine, the wind blew harder, making the trees hiss again. He let the sound interrupt him, glaring up at the trees.

Dina frowned. “You’re not okay. What’s going on?”

“Really, I’m fine. Just annoyed with this place for some reason.”

“Then we’ll go somewhere else.”

“Sounds good,” Ed said, getting up. “Let’s go see your graveyard.”

“It’s up that hill over there,” Dina said, pointing to the far side of the parking lot.

He took a deep breath as they walked past the car and Dina smiled at him. “Feeling better?”

“Yeah. Don’t know what was wrong with me back there. So tell me why there’s a graveyard in a park.”

“Way back, there was a little pioneer settlement here. All that’s left is the millpond back there, and up the hill is the cemetery and an old well.”

Ed really wanted to get the hell out of there, but Dina was excited to go up and see the cemetery. Making her happy made him happy, so they started climbing the path. Dina was into old graveyards, but not in a creepy way. She’d grown up in a state home knowing nothing about her family. Now she stopped at little graveyards all over looking for people with her last name. When she found one, she carefully took notes and then would make Ed laugh with outlandish stories about Great Uncle Hezekiah or whoever.

When they reached the top he took another deep breath. It was better up here, but there was some kind of itch he couldn’t reach. He’d snap out of it, today was going to be perfect. He’d gotten her an engagement ring in Germany and he touched the velvet box in his pocket. Yeah, today was going to be perfect.

“There’s the well,” she said, letting go of his hand to point. They walked over to the fieldstone wall and looked down. There was a heavy steel grate keeping people from falling in, other than that, the bright light made it too dark to see the bottom. He thought he could hear the water at the bottom though. It made him have to pee.

“Hey, I’m going to duck behind this tree for a second,” he said.

She smiled and shook her head, “We just walked by a bathroom. Hurry up.”

He left his bottle of water on the edge of the well and kissed her.

“Be right back.”

There was a large shaded area under a tangle of trees and he stepped behind one and went against the base. Ed zipped up and walked back out to the well but Dina wasn’t there. Maybe she decided he was being gross and went on without him. He grabbed the water, but why was this full now? And the cap was still sealed. He knew he’d been drinking out of it. Did someone else leave it here?

He walked around the well, looking for his water. It was gone, this one had to be someone else’s. He left it there. The last thing he needed was some soccer mom screaming he stole it.

There was a little path into the trees and followed that, finding an iron fence and a dozen headstones, but no Dina. Had she gone back to the car for some reason? The back of his neck was starting to tingle and itch, something was wrong here. Ed started to jog back toward the well but made himself stop and take a few deep breaths. He wasn’t in the sandbox anymore, he was home and there was nothing to worry about here. Plus, Dina would make him go back to that PTSD group if he ran back there flipping his shit.

Once his breathing had calmed down, Ed walked the rest of the way to the well. She still wasn’t there, so she must have gone back down to the car. The water was still sitting there. He kicked a rock and it clattered against the stone well coping. The sound was loud, Ed realized that everything around him had gone absolutely quiet. Even the grasshoppers were silent, no birds, no wind in the trees. His footsteps were the only noise. The light was getting dimmer as well.

Sandstorm! he thought.

No, not here, thunderstorms here. He squinted up but the sky was a bright glaring white. No dark clouds that he could see. But there was the parking lot ahead. That’s where she was, she’d laugh at him for being nervous when he told her about this. His feet scuffed on the path and Ed was glad of that noise at least. It was almost like he was going deaf.

The tingling on the back of his neck was still there though. It had been joined by a rock in the pit of his stomach. Something had to be wrong here. He was walking past the car when he remembered he left the water up there. She’d give him hell for littering in the park it but he really didn’t want to go back up there. He didn’t have the energy and it was too hot and too still.

The Subaru was the only car in the lot but she wasn’t inside. How could she be when it was this hot? Ed glanced at the sky again. Still a bright glaring white. He noticed a green shimmer near the horizon, but it was the wrong color for a tornado. What was going on with the weather?

The hair on his arms stood up as the quiet began to spread around him. It spread from behind him, silencing everything around him. Like it was flowing down the hill behind him. Ed slowed his breathing down again. Panicking wouldn’t help Dina. Maybe she’d gone to the bathroom. He walked around the brick structure but the door was hanging open and it was empty.

The feeling of wrongness got worse. He wasn’t nervous anymore, he was fucking scared. It didn’t matter if he left Iraq or not, shit was going down right here.

“Dina!” he yelled, turning in a circle. He yelled over and over but there was no reply. Had someone kidnapped her? Had he missed any signs of a struggle?

Ed wanted to run back up the hill and look for traces, but that was ridiculous. He’d been fifty feet away, he would have heard something. And Dina was hardly helpless, she’d knocked a drunk Marine on his ass last year in Florida. She hadn’t even broken a sweat, no way could someone silently grab her.

But whose bottle of water was sitting on the well?

That picnic table in the shadow of the pines was the only other place she could be. Unless she’d walked out to the road. He could see the pines but not into the darkness underneath them. For some reason, he really didn’t want to walk over there.

A flash in his eyes made Ed duck. It was still silent and if there wasn’t any noise it wasn’t an explosion. He was fine, it must have been a reflection. He took a breath and started walking across the grass toward the trees. If she was there, he’d find her. If she was in trouble, he’d help her. She’d do the same for him.

“I’m yours and you’re mine,” he muttered, concentrating on putting one foot in front of another. They said it to each other all the time. The last thing in the world he’d do was let her down because something spooked him. The glare from the sky got worse, he could feel the sun beating onto his scalp. The fear got worse and worse but he forced himself to keep walking. Those trees looked like they were miles away. It was going to take him forever to get out there.

He glanced back at the parking lot, hoping to see her standing by the car. She’d have her hands on her hips, wondering what he was doing wandering out here. But the parking lot was still empty and now the car looked as far away as the trees. There was no way he could make it to either one in this heat and silence. He shook his head, it didn’t matter, she was his and something had gone very wrong. He was going to find her.

He kept walking toward the trees, not looking back. There were small puffs of dust from the grass, baked brown and dead by the merciless sun. There was a scrap of something on the ground, a scrap of nylon strap someone had abandoned a long time ago looked like. Maybe a dog collar. He’d had a dog once. He could still hear it; the screech of tires followed by its anguished screaming. It was the first thing that he’d ever had to kill, kneeling there in the street with the knife while the blood spread, staining the knees of his school pants.

The feeling in his stomach had grown spikes now. He swallowed, trying to hold off panic. How could a few trees scare him this much? And Jax was long gone, no need to worry him now.

It had been quick for Jax at least. Not like mom. She’d lasted a long time, kept smiling, even as his stepfather slowly beat her to death, night by night. Ed groaned quietly.

He thought he was done with remembering this shit! Why was he doing this to himself?

He looked up and could’ve cried with relief when he saw the trees right in front of him. He made it. And there was someone sitting on the picnic table! He stumbled into the shade of the pines, shuddering as he stepped out of that merciless heat and glare. The cool dim air washed over him, the feeling was almost like falling into cold water. He walked on, going to Dina. They were going to laugh about this later.

But that wasn’t her.

Dina was wearing khaki shorts and a green t shirt. There was a faded Hornet logo on the front. This woman was wearing long black pants and some sort of long, dark red, vest thing. And Dina had blonde in a braid down to the middle of her back. This woman’s short black hair stood up in spikes.

The fear and despair washed over Ed again. Where had she come from? The parking lot was still empty, he could see it from here, across the endless wastes of dead grass.

“Excuse me, have you seen a woman, green shirt and blonde hair?” he managed to ask.

The woman turned around. She moved gracefully in one smooth motion. Almost like a machine. She studied him, expression then abruptly smiled. She looked like a supermodel, high cheekbones, smooth skin and very red lips. Her eyes were a strange gray color, he’d never seen anyone with eyes that color. And the expression on her face was fixed, like it had been painted there. Ed had never seen anyone so beautiful and was deeply frightened. She wasn’t beautiful like Dina, this woman had a statue’s beauty or the graceful curve of an iridescent beetle shell. Dina was alive and laughing and perfect.

“Her?” The woman sounded surprised Ed could even think about Dina.

He felt a little ashamed for some reason, but he was stubborn, “Yes, her.”

“She was up there waiting for you, at the well. I suppose she might have gone off with him.”

Ed was almost nauseated with terror, his knees were made of water and every neuron he had wanted to run. Right now. Go away to anywhere that wasn’t here. But Dina was his, he was hers. That’s the way it was. The woman was looking past him, like there was someone behind him. Ed looked around but no one was there.

“You remember, Edward? The well?” She was talking to him like he was simple.

“No, I was just there. She was gone.”

“Not that well.”

She laughed and Ed could hear the cheerleaders laughing about his “poor kid” clothes his first day of high school. Ed looked at his feet, ashamed of everything he was. But he wasn’t leaving until he had an answer. He was hers, she was his and he was going to find her again.

She stopped, mid laugh and sighed instead. “Fine, be stubborn then, I’ll show you.”

She got up gracefully, beautifully and Ed almost screamed but bit his lips before she noticed. No one moved that way, no one real. It was too smooth, too perfect. There was something to it that woke up the ancient parts of his brain, making then scream of predators, screaming at him to run. Ed had a hard time making his legs move, but finally followed her. There wasn’t any choice, he had to find…what as her name again? Dina! How the hell could he forget that? It had to be this heat.

The sun blasted meadow was shimmering in the heat and Ed stopped to look back at the shade and a jolt of formless terror hit him like someone had thrown it from a bucket. He hurried after the woman. The fear faded when he was close to her again. Ed tried to stop walking but the terror of his memories shoved him, carrying him in her wake. They walked across the parking lot. His car was right there, a beautiful blue promise of escape if only he could make it, but he couldn’t stop walking. His hands were shaking so badly that he couldn’t have even gotten his keys out anyway.

The terror began to crowd in on him as they climbed the path. Ed was only a step behind her. He didn’t think of anything but following her, he didn’t want to be left here by himself.

“What’s your name?” he asked and she stopped and rotated, looking at him.

“What would you do with my name?” She sounded curious.

“You knew mine, I don’t know what to call you,” he muttered, unable to meet her beautiful eyes.

“Ah. You may call me Akatash min Marid then. No, your clumsy tongue can’t, can it? Can you manage Aka?”

He nodded and she swiveled around and started walking up the path again and Ed followed her. His eyes were drawn to the movement of her buttocks. It was inhumanly graceful. Ed couldn’t believe that he could watch her like this, that he could get turned on. But he couldn’t look away from the perfect motion of the perfect ass in front of him. She walked to the well. Aka pirouetted and sat on the edge of the well in one swift movement, like she was dancing. Ed looked for the bottle of water. It was gone and he was confused. Had he had been at the wrong place? Then he saw the trees he had gone behind. No, this was the same place he’d been before.

“As I said, maybe she got tired of waiting for you. Got bored and went off into the trees with him. Go and look.”

“With who?”

“Him! You wouldn’t know his name.”

There was a spark of anger inside of him. Of course he didn’t know the fucking name, would he have to ask if he did?

Aka looked amused, like he’d said it out loud. “You want to know his name as well? You can call him Varun.”

She waited, like he was supposed to recognize the name. She rolled her eyes.

“He gets so impatient. Go and look in the trees.” she said, waving him toward the tangled shade.

Ed was drawn to the tangle of trees, aware of every footstep, not wanting to look, suddenly sure he’d see Dinah there, her body ripped and lifeless. But he couldn’t stop himself, he wanted to close his eyes…and then he was gasping in relief, there was nothing there but the carpet of pine needles. He looked back at the woman and his mouth fell open. She had unbuttoned her vest and let it fall on the ground. She was smiling again and the expression looked real this time. He wasn’t sure if the expression on her face meant hunger or lust. It was probably both. She licked her lips and opened her pants. They fell around her ankles and she stepped out of them as she walked toward him. She moved slowly, looking even more like a statue, beautiful and utterly inhuman. Despite the terror, Ed’s cock was rigid.

“You don’t recognize me, salibi?”

Ed shook his head mutely. He’d never seen this woman before, he had no clue what she was talking about. But he wanted to run from her until his lungs burst and he wanted to crawl on his belly in the dirt to please her. He wanted to climb into the trees to hide or to scream his sanity away. But he didn’t move, he was frozen in place and out of choices. He was going to do whatever she wanted. He’d crawl, lick her feet, rip his own eyes out to please her. Whatever she wanted, because it was obedience not desire. Then a memory of laughter and blonde hair floated through his mind.

“Where is she?” Ed whispered. He wasn’t sure if he wanted to find her or just make sure she wasn’t watching what he was about to do for this woman.

“I told you, he gets impatient! She’s right over there, look.”

Ed turned, she kept talking but he ignored her. Dina! How had he missed seeing her? She was right there, so close he could hear her.

He could hear them both.

Dina wasn’t alone, they were both so close he could hear them both. Ed wanted to weep for her, she’d been taken over, just like Akatash was about to take him over. He wasn’t angry or jealous, neither of them had a choice. Like a mare being inseminated had no choice. Was that what they were doing to Dina and him? Why?

Dina was breathing hard, crouched over the figure in the shadows.

Ed kept watching, unable to believe his eyes. Dina was completely naked and she was pushing herself onto him. She was panting, like she’d been running. Every time she lowered herself, he pushed his hips up, driving his absurdly large penis up into her. Ed stood frozen, staring. The woman was standing beside him, close enough that he felt the heat coming from her perfect flesh.

“Who are you?” he whispered, pleading, keeping his eyes on Dina.

“I told you. What am I? Up and beside, from the Kaf” she said, sliding her hands down his back. He shivered at the warmth of her hands. “But don’t trouble your little brain. After all, how could Mr. Square know up?”

“What do you want with her? With us?”

“Mmm, you’re all so snuggly and scared!” she laughed, her hands tracing the edge of his shorts. “We’re playing qarin. Not pets, not quite right, but close. Because you’re so adorably tri-dimensional.”

“Is this real?”

“See? Adorable!”

The woman’s hands slid over his stomach, pulling his shirt over his head. The heat from her skin felt like sunlight on his back. Dina’s gasps were starting to sound like moans. She was muttering something but Ed couldn’t hear what. He couldn’t look away from Dina. Did she know he was watching?

Akatash pushed him forward as she stepped away. “Again! Why would you even think about…ohh! You have a relationship with her, don’t you. Little pets and their mates. This must be very upsetting for you. But see? Isn’t he magnificent?”

“Shoot it inside me,” Dina suddenly groaned. “I want to feel it.”

Ed stared at her, a pit forming in his stomach. Dina was grinding her hips on the shadowy figure. Ed knew then that she wasn’t being forced at all, she wanted it. She was begging for more. Was that the way she begged for it from men while he was gone? She was nearly a stranger, how well could he really know her? He’d been gone for a long time…

“Yes,” Akatash whispered in his ear, behind him again. “She only thinks of him. Poor Edward, your little mate has forgotten all about you.

“Fuck me!” Dina screamed.

“Forget about her,” Akatash said. “Come lie with me, I’ve forgotten, it’s been so long.”

As Ed watched, the stranger grabbed Dina’s ass, pulling her hard against him as his hips pounded in her. Dina moaned, her back arching as she frantically humped against him. The way Dina always came. No, she wasn’t being forced. She was enjoying this. Ed turned to look at the woman and she shrugged, giving him a mean little smile.

“How could you compete with him? Now he’s done and you waited too long.” Her clothes were back on and she was backing away, toward the well.

“Too late too late’ she said, almost singing it.

Behind him, Ed could hear Dina orgasming again.

The woman reached out into the air, like she was pulling a curtain back. Then she somehow stepped behind it. She was gone, along with the fear. Ed fell to his knees, his entire body cramping as he gasped and sobbed.

“Baby!” Dina yelled, running toward him from the well. He could see his half full water bottle sitting there, just where he’d left it. Nothing here but the mellow June sun. Nothing behind him. He tried to control his breathing. Nothing there, he was safe. No one else here but them. Then Dina’s arms were around him, rocking him as he shuddered.

“Where did you go?” she asked him. “You just disappeared.”

“Who were they?” he gasped.

“Who? No one is here,” she said.

“That woman, and that man. Oh God, I thought I’d lost you!”

“Shh, I’m right here. You disappeared, I looked all over but you were gone. Where did you go?”

“I was here,” he said. “I was right here.”

~~~~

Dina finally got him to the car, helping him walk on shaky legs down the path. Everything looked normal, he didn’t feel anything at all, the grass was as green as it had been earlier. Birds and grasshoppers made the usual racket. It was a nice summer day. Even the irritation was gone.

“You’re not okay to drive.”

“I’ll be fine, let me catch my breath.”

Ed sat down in the grass, Dina fussing over him. “You really didn’t see anyone?” he said.

“Up there? No, there wasn’t anyone there. Are you sure you didn’t hit your head?”

“I’m sure.”

“What did you see?”

Ed took a deep breath, “I came out from behind the tree and you were gone. I went looking for you in the graveyard, but you weren’t there either. I came down here and there was a woman over there. I thought it was you but she said you were waiting at the well.”

“And I was. Baby, we’re going to the hospital,” Dina said. “Something’s not right, you might have had a stroke or something.”

The spiked stone was back in Ed’s stomach. Hadn’t he told Andy the same thing about Tommy? Ed shook his head.

“No, it was real. It happened.”

“So you came to the well and that’s when I found you?”

“She led me up there, said you were in the trees and I saw you with…”

“What?” She looked worried.

“Nothing, it wasn’t you, I turned around and you were by the well.”

*Did she just relax?* Ed asked himself

But he didn’t trust his eyes at the moment.

“You went behind a tree,” she said. “You were gone for a while and I asked if you were okay. You didn’t answer, so I went and looked and you weren’t there,” she said.

“How long was I gone?”

She shrugged. “Twenty minutes maybe? Did you wander to a different parking lot?”

“And you didn’t see anyone, that whole time?”

“Ed, sweetie, I didn’t see a soul,” she said. “I walked around a little then I came back to the well. I was worried about you.”

He took a long breath. “I must have had sunstroke or something.”

She felt his head. “You’re pretty warm, maybe. Do you want your water?” She held out the half empty bottle and he recoiled slightly. “What’s wrong? You left this on the well.”

“Thanks,” he said, taking it. “I’m feeling better actually.”

“So we can head over to the VA.”

He shook his head. “Not spending any more time there.”

“Ed, I’m scared. What if this was like before?”

“It’s not PTSD, Dina. I’d know. Maybe it was heatstroke.”

“Hold out your hand.”

Ed held his hands up, they were both trembling like the leaves overhead and she raised her eyebrows.

No,, Dina. I’m fine.”

“You’re not okay to drive.”

Ed nodded. “Would you drive home?”

She laughed. “Your baby? Now I know there’s something wrong with you.” Dina took the bottle and he gave her the keys. They got in the car and he put the seat back a little.

“If I don’t feel better tonight, I’ll go to the VA.”

“Okay, you’ve got a deal. You just rest right now.”

He managed to stay awake until she got the car to the main road, but his eyelids got heavier and heavier as they drove.

“Falling asleep?”

He nodded. “That okay?”

“That’s fine, we’ll be home soon.”

“Don’t take me to the VA.”

“Trust me,” Dina said.

Can I? He didn’t know who she really was anymore. Had that really been Dina?

~~~~

As soon as he fell asleep, Ed was dreaming. The noises of the car and road were part of it, the woman was there on the picnic table, turning around and he tried to force himself awake.

“Shh,” Dina said, rubbing his chest. He relaxed, feeling the movements as Dina sped up. She was taking the freeway home, the windows rolled up and then she turned on some music.

“Just sleep,” she said gently.

Ed faded away again.

This time he wasn’t sure if he was awake or dreaming and tried to decide. The woman laughed at him again but then there was Dina’s music again. He was drifting in and out of sleep. He heard something unzipping and a soft sigh. There was a very quiet moan. He opened his eyes slightly, afraid of what he might see. It was Dina was beside him, not the woman. She made a small noise, almost like she was in pain. She was biting her lip. He felt a wave of love and tenderness, she was so worried she was crying? He was about to reach out to put his hand on her shoulder but…

“Oh, fuck yes,” she whispered.

Ed looked down and saw that her shorts were open. Her hand was in her panties. The wet sound got faster. Like it had with him. He wanted to watch, to hear what she said but the darkness was coming up to claim him again.

~~~~

“Hey sleepyhead, we’re here.”

Ed sat up and Dina kissed his cheek. “Feeling better?”

“Little bit,” he mumbled. “Feel like I ran a marathon.”

“C’mon, let’s get you in the house.”

He followed her inside, watching her ass the same way he’d watched Aka’s. He had a sudden wave of anger. If he’d known Dina was going to get into it, he would’ve fucked the hell out of the black haired woman. Then Dina could watch him have a good time. She unlocked the door and held it open for him, smiling at him and touching his face as he came in. The anger dissolved. She wouldn’t do that to him, this was Dina. He was hers, she was his.

“Couch or bed?” she asked.

“Bed.” He followed her up the stairs to the bedroom and sat down and kicked his shoes off.

“Maybe it was heat exhaustion,” she said. “That’s why you’re so tired. I’m going to get you some water, be right back.”

Ed pulled his shirt off and flopped back onto the bed. He held up his hand and watched it tremble. Some sort of hallucination from heat stroke. Had it been that hot? Iraq was much hotter than Ohio.

“Here,” Dina said, putting the water on the table beside the bed. She sat on the edge next to him, putting her hand on his cheek. “You’re cooling down I think. Your sleep schedule is all screwy and we were up late last night. I know you were pushing yourself hard over there. So just relax and rest. I’m going to do some stuff downstairs and then I’ll come up and we can watch some TV, okay?”

“I’d like that,” he said. “Sorry about your cemetery visit.”

“Don’t worry about it, make sure you drink all that water.”

“In the car earlier, were you…”

“Was I what?”

He shook his head, “Nothing.”

“Tell me Eddie. I’m not kidding.”

“Were you, uhm, touching yourself.”

“Edward! I was driving and you were asleep the whole time.” She sounded pissed.

“Sorry, must have dreamt it.”

“You really think I’d do that in public?”

“Hey, heat exhaustion, remember?”

“More like a filthy mind,” she said, leaning over to kiss his forehead. “Get some rest.”

As he fell asleep there was a little voice telling him she’d never said she hadn’t had her fingers in her panties. And if she lied about that who knew what else there was. The voice was irritatingly gleeful as he fell into darkness again.

~~~~

“Hey, I brought you some more water. I want you to wake up and drink it.”

Ed opened his eyes, there was a dull blue light outside. “What time is it?”

“Just after ten. Sit up and drink this, you.”

He sat up against the pillows and took a long drink of the cool water. “Thank you.”

“You’re welcome but I’m mad at you. You scared the everloving shit out of me today. You’re going to the hospital next time something like that happens. I won’t lose you.”

“Yes ma’am.”

“You better call me ma’am, if you know what’s good for you,” Dina said. She took off her shorts and sat on the edge of the bed. “Move over, I want to lay by you.”

She turned on the TV, playing the movie they always watched in bed, just nature scenes and music. Ed sighed and leaned back against the pillows. He still felt like he’d busted ass all day but this was nice.

Dina took his hand and laced her fingers through his. “I’m mad at you because I’m scared. You’re mine and I love you,” she finally said.

“I know, and you’re mine. It was probably just jetlag and heat, I’m fine.”

“Baby, I want you to tell me something,” Dina said after a few minutes.

“Yep.” Ed had been drifting off when she’d spoken. “What’s that?”

“You were falling asleep? Never mind, tell me tomorrow.”

He pushed himself up, “No, ask me now.”

“I want to know what happened, what you saw. I’ve never seen you scared, not once. What was the man doing? You didn’t say, just that I was there. Then you ask me if I was getting off in the car. What happened out there? I want you to tell me all of it, about the woman and the man. What happened that was so bad?”

“It was just a hallucination, it didn’t mean anything.”

“Will you tell me tomorrow?”

“Deal,” Ed said.

~~~~

Ed’s eyes opened in the darkness, something was under the sheets sliding over his cock. His stomach was tight with fear, he couldn’t hardly breathe as he carefully reached down. He let his breath out in relief when he felt Dina’s long hair in his hands. He’d been afraid it would be short and spiky. Dina moaned, her mouth moving over his cock.

“Put your hands on my head,” she whispered. “I want to feel your fingers in my hair.”

“Dina, baby, I don’t feel too good,” Ed mumbled.

“Shh, don’t worry, you just lie back and I’ll do all the work.”

His cock went back in the wet heat of her mouth.

Ed glanced at the clock and was surprised to see it was after two. Dina was crawling up his body, giving his nipples little bites as she went by. She moaned happily as she took his cock and put it inside of her, sitting up in the dim light.

“You feel good,” she said, bending down to kiss him. “Just lie back, I’m going to make you feel really nice.”

Ed was surprised, Dina usually didn’t like being on top. She got shy when he looked at her.

“How does it feel?” she whispered. “Can you feel how wet I am for you?”

Dina didn’t dirty talk either, but it was too exciting to think about.

“You feel amazing.”

She looked at the clock. “It’s tomorrow. Tell me what you saw.”

Ed was half awake and she felt so good, otherwise he never would have told her, deal or not.

“That guy today, you were with him.”

“With him?” she said. “Like how?”

“Like fucking.”

“See? You have such a filthy mind.” She rolled her hips and Ed grabbed her ass pulling her onto him. She moaned quietly. “Tell me what happened.”

“The woman brought me up there, showed me you guys having sex.”

“So what were we doing? What was so scary?”

“You were on top of him, riding him. She took off her clothes like she wanted to have sex too.”

“That was scary?”

“It was the feeling around them. They were just wrong somehow. I was terrified of them both.”

“What do you think about my interrogation technique?” Dina asked, leaning down to kiss him.

“You can interrogate me anytime you like.”

“Good.” Dina lifted herself almost all the way off of him and moaned as she slid back down. “What was he doing while I rode him?”

Ed looked at her. “Why are you so interested?”

“I want to know what you dream about me,” Dina said, sticking her tongue out. “Was he doing anything to me?”

Ed sighed. “Fucking you, grabbing your ass.”

“Mmm, like you’re doing right now. Did I like it?”

“I thought he was forcing you, controlling you. You were just breathing hard at first. But then you started moaning and talking dirty to him.”

“What did I say?”

“Fuck you hard, cum in you. That kind of stuff.”

“I said that?” Dina looked amused. “Then what? Don’t evade the question either.”

“Fine. He came in you and that started you cumming. The woman said I had waited too long and she disappeared.”

“Oh fuck! I’m going to cum right now,” Dina suddenly moaned, sitting up and leaning backwards on her hands. “I’m cumming baby, keep fucking me! Go faster, please fuck me hard and fast…” her pleas turned into a long loud moan and Dina’s back arched as she sat all the way down on him, thrusting her hips against him and moaning. Ed wanted to enjoy it but couldn’t forget her on top of him back there in the forest.

Dina’s body relaxed and she shivered. She laid on his chest and kissed him, “You thought it really happened, huh? That’s why you thought I was masturbating in the car?”

Ed just shook his head and Dina gave him an evil smile and squeezed with her sex.

Ed gasped. “Oh God I love interrogation. But I don’t know what I think.”

“I want you on top of me,” Dina said, rolling him over on top of her. She spread her legs wide as she reached down and put him back in.

“Do you want me to talk dirty for you?” she whispered. “I’ll do it, I want your cum in me, Ed. I want you to take that beautiful hard cock and shove it into my wet little pussy. I want you to fuck me nice and deep and pump me full of cum.”

Ed pushed deeper into her and she groaned, wrapping her legs around him and pulling him tighter.

“Fuck me just like that baby, I want you to cum nice and deep. You know what I thought about while you were gone? When you cum in my mouth. I love feeling you shoot right on my tongue. I’m so dirty, letting you do that but it makes me so horny when I swallow. Tomorrow, I’m going to make you shoot in my mouth.”

Ed nodded, thrusting faster.

“Wait,” Dina said, putting her hands on his chest. “I want you to tell me something else.”

“Are you kidding me?”

“Nope. Did you like it?”

Ed frowned. “What the hell kind of question is that?”

Dina smiled. “Did you? I’ll know if you’re lying.”

Ed looked away and she took his chin, making him look back at her. She squeezed his cock again.

“It’s okay, Eddie. Just tell me, do you like the thought of someone else’s cock inside me? It’s normal, you can tell me. Did you like it when I screamed for his cum?”

Ed stared at her and she smiled up at him. “Relax, lots of guys think about that. I’m just curious. Did you like watching me take that cock? Did you like watching me be a little slut?” She squeezed again.

“Yes!” Ed finally gasped.

She giggled and it turned into a moan. “Oh baby, fuck me deep like that. Cum inside me, I want you to shove it all the way up in me and let go, I want you to put a baby in there. Would you like that?”

“Yes,” groaned Ed.

“Do it baby, fill me up,” Dina whispered, pushing her hips against his thrusts.

Ed began to thrust hard up into her and she cried out when he began to cum. She wrapped her legs tight against him, lifting her hips into his thrusting cock until he was spent. Ed started to get up but she pulled him on top of her, milking his cock through one more orgasm.

When her breathing slowed back down, Dina stretched underneath him, hugging him tightly to her. “That was really good,” she said. “I think you mighta just knocked me up.”

“Good. Am I too heavy?”

“No, you’re perfect. I want to keep you inside me.”

Dina eventually curled up beside him, her breathing deepening and slowing as she fell asleep. Ed finally reached over and turned on the small lamp beside the bed. Dina muttered and turned over. What was going on, had he hallucinated the entire thing? He was wide awake now, his mind racing. Ed got out of bed and pulled a pair of shorts on. Dina muttered something and Ed smiled. She was always talking in her sleep, usually it was something pretty funny.

“What was that?” he said, squatting down next to the bed.

“Impatient,” she said, sounding annoyed. “He’s impatient.”

It felt like someone had dumped ice water down his back. He always thought it was just an expression.

~~~~

Ed sat on the floor beside the bed for a while, listening to Dina breath, waiting for her to say something. Eventually he gave up and went downstairs. There was no way he was sleeping tonight with his heart pounding like this. He got a glass of water and drank it standing at the sink and staring out the kitchen window. A breeze came through the window and dried the sweat on his chest. The leaves outside were dancing on the night wind. It was one of the things he missed when he was away, the breezes here on summer nights. Now he was here and but couldn’t make himself enjoy it.

He didn’t know if he wanted to know or not. After a few minutes he gave up and took his cellphone out to the back steps. Ed sighed, looking up at the stars. Just once he’d like to have a simple problem. He pushed Andy’s speed dial.

Andy picked up immediately. “Wolfton Security, go ahead.”

“Andy, this is Ed.”

“How’s it going Eddie?”

“Doing good, boss. How’s everything there?”

Andy laughed. “You ready to come back?”

He snorted. “Not even a little. Did you find anything else out about Tommy?”

“Hey Ed, I’m gonna have to call you back another time, okay?”

“Sure, boss,” Ed said, but the line was already dead.

He sat on the stairs listening to the crickets and frogs and watching the stars while he waited to get sleepy. Beside him, the phone buzzed. Someone had texted him.

PB, chk vaca-mail

The number wasn’t familiar but it had the Dubai country code. Willy Johnson had started calling him Mr. Ed. Then Willy told Tommy they made the horse talk with peanut butter and that was that, he was PB. Goofy ass name, but that was Tommy. He logged into the gmail account Andy had made them all set up the first time they’d had time off. It was a way to contact each other if they got robbed or ended up in jail. Wolfton didn’t officially know anything about it but they could quietly fix most problems. Ed opened gmail and logged in. There was a long list of spam and at the top, a message from HonkytonkCav8088:

No names PB. I don’t know what that thing was or why it was so important but the natives are losing their shit over this. No one can figure out who Freptar is. One of the old guys started babbling something when he heard that name. The other ones shushed him pretty fast. The guy kept repeating something, over and over. Al’asraa, it means ‘prisoners.’ Everyone in town is acting kind of strange, but nothing new. Our Baptist had a lady friend, she came by to see if he was okay. She didn’t seem surprised he was dead. She said he was talking to people who weren’t there, kept raving about green mountains. Ring any bells for you? No one here has a clue or they’re not saying if they do. Did you get a sniff of this on your end?

Ed deleted the message and thought for a while before he answered:

Wondered what was up, don’t think any smells would reach this far.

He sent the message and sat on the steps until the sky began to turn from black to gray. Ed got up and stretched and went inside to see if he could sleep.

~~~~

The next day was Sunday and for once Dina didn’t bug him about getting up and going to church. When he woke up around ten, she wasn’t around at all. He went downstairs and saw her car was gone. He didn’t see a note and when he tried to call her phone, he heard it ringing on the coffee table. That wasn’t like her at all. Something in her past had made her really careful about always being able to reach him. Maybe she just got used to him being gone. Ed got cleaned up and wandered around the house for a while. It was almost one when he put on his boots and went for a long walk in the National Forest behind their house. He didn’t bother taking his phone.

When Ed came back a few hours later, Dina’s car was in the driveway. He went through the back door and a plate smashed into the wall right in front of him.

“Where the fuck were you?!” Dina screamed. “Why didn’t you have your phone?”

“Calm down,” Ed said. “You didn’t have yours, so I didn’t bother taking it. Okay?”

“It’s not okay!” she snapped and stormed out of the kitchen. Ed shook his head and picked up the pieces of broken plate and threw them away before going into the living room. Dina was sitting on the couch, glaring out the window.

“Where did you get off to?” Ed said, sitting down.

“I can’t have any time to myself now?” Dina said. “You’re home so I have to check in at all times?”

“I didn’t say that. You didn’t leave a note and I wondered where you went is all.”

“I’ve been just fine on my own, Mr. Sergeant, sir. I didn’t realize you need to know every time I left the house.”

“Dina, you do what you want. I never asked you to check in, I just asked a question.” Ed got up and went back out to the kitchen.

“Now where are you sneaking off to?” she yelled.

“I’m going upstairs to read,” Ed said.

He shook his head, going through his bag for the Kindle. He didn’t remember her PMS being anything like this. In fact, he’d never seen her act like this at all. He took off his boots and laid down on the bed. Dina was thumping around downstairs and he heard another dish break. It was getting on his nerves but he was used to worse.

She came up the stairs but he didn’t look up from the book.

“Ed.”

He looked up and she was standing by the door, “Dina.”

“I just worry about you, okay?”

“It’s not a problem, sorry there was a misunderstanding.”

“You didn’t take your phone, there was no misunderstanding.” She sounded like she was working up to another screaming fit.

“It’s not a leash, Dina, but I’ll try and keep it close in the future.”

Ed went back to reading. He could feel her staring at him but she finally went downstairs. It was quiet and Ed’s eyelids were getting heavy. He put the reader down and closed his eyes for a nap.

~~~~

“I wanna *fuck*,” Dina said in his ear.

That was so unlike her that Ed thought he was waking up into another dream. He opened his eyes and she was kneeling by the bed.

“Just like that? Weren’t you just screaming at me?”

“We can figure that out later,” she said, unbuttoning her shirt. “I want to make sure I’m pregnant.”

“I want to talk things out first,” Ed said. “You’re acting strange today.”

“Don’t you want a baby?”

“I want to talk things over first is all. Then we can make sure you’re pregnant as much as you like.”

“Fine. I went into town to get some stuff and see a friend of mine. Happy?”

“I don’t care where you went or why, Dee. Why are you acting so strange?”

She unzipped and unbuttoned her shorts, letting them fall on the floor, “I’m not. You’re the one acting weird. Why don’t you want to fuck?”

“Dina, before now I could count on one hand the times you said fuck. You don’t think that might make me wonder what’s going on?”

“You said you liked it when I talked dirty.” Dina took off her bra and panties and looked at him. “Are you gonna fuck me or not?”

“I’d love to, but you’re still avoiding the question here.”

“Fine, be a bitch,” she said. “I’ll go get myself off. I guess you can’t get it up anymore unless you’re thinking about someone else fucking me? Maybe I should go find a real man.”

Ed’s temper had gotten to the breaking point but he kept his voice calm. “You do what you want. Just make sure to pack up your stuff first, you won’t be living in my house anymore.”

Dina’s mouth snapped shut and she looked shocked as he got up and walked past her and went downstairs. Ed went outside, closing the door carefully behind him and walked out to chop some wood. He was on the fourth round when he heard the screen door. He paid attention to what he was doing.

“Ed?” she quietly said from behind him.

He put the sledge down and turned around.

She was standing by the stacked firewood looking down, “I’m sorry, I don’t know what’s with me. I felt weird when I woke up this morning. I went in to the bakery to get us breakfast but I got so mad when I was driving there. I drove around for a while and I felt better when I got back. Then I saw you were gone and I got mad all over again. I love you, I don’t know what’s wrong with me.”

He put his arms around her as she started to cry. “Maybe you’ve got a bug, or you’re not used to me being around the place suddenly. Are you feeling okay?”

“Kinda woozy, thirsty.”

“Let’s get you to bed, I’ll check your temperature.”

She nodded, face pressed against his bare shoulder, “You’re very sexy splitting wood, in case I freak out again and don’t tell you.”

Ed smiled. “Well, thanks. C’mon, let’s get you inside.”

Dina was almost immediately asleep when her head hit the pillow. He took water in three times and each time she’d woken up long enough to drink the entire thing. Then she was almost instantly asleep again. Ed checked her temperature. Was she going through the same thing he gotten hit with the other day? Maybe he had hallucinated the whole thing.

Ed had just started his tour of hell, he just didn’t know it yet.

~~~~

It started off with the best day of his life; Ed was catching up on his reading the next day when he heard a whoop from upstairs and running feet. Dina ran out on the porch brandishing a pregnancy test.

“Oh, they tole’ me about you Army boys, but jes’ I didn’t lissen!”

“Really?”

“Yeah! Eddie, I’m pregnant!”

He jumped up and grabbed her around the waist and swung her around. Dina shrieked and laughed.

“I’m going throw up right on you if you don’t stop!”

Dina was laughing as he set her down. She put her arms around his neck and pulled Ed down into a long kiss.

“Now take me to bed and fuck me,” she whispered in his ear.

She got even wilder in bed this time. Ed wondered about it but wasn’t about to complain, they were having a great time together. He took her out for dinner that night to celebrate. She’d been yawning all the way home and had gone right to bed. Ed was too excited to sleep, thinking about the baby. He got out the ring, he’d ask her tomorrow.

Dina moaned and then muttered something in her sleep. Something about patience.

“What?” Ed had asked her but she just grumbled and turned over.

His mind was racing while he waited for her to talk again. Patience and impatience. ‘He’s so impatient’ That was twice now Dina had said it. Being sick or not, he was starting to believe it had been her screwing whatever that was, not an illusion. So, did they make her forget or was she lying to him? Whose child was that inside of her?

He was exhausted the next morning and Dina didn’t make his life any easier. She was already rearranging the house in her head, asking him endless questions about colors and furniture. Ed did his best to keep up but soon she was screaming at him again. Then after lunch she apologized and was fine again. He made dinner that night and she started screaming something about garlic before throwing the plateful of food at his head and storming up to the bedroom. Ed had cleaned the mess up and followed her, but she’d locked the bedroom door.

“Hey,” he said, tapping on the door. There was a large thud on the other side that shook the door and the sound of breaking glass.

“Message received,” Ed muttered, going down and getting his camping stuff. The cot in the back of his truck was way more comfortable than the couch.

The next morning started the whole rollercoaster over again. It didn’t matter what he did, she was either bawling and apologizing, or screaming like a banshee. He finally resorted to the internet, trying to find out if her hormones could be this out of whack. No clear answer without asking her a bunch of questions and he knew better than to try that right now. She yelled at him before dinner and then apologized as they sat down. Ed was pretty sure he’d end up at the VA in a padded room after nine months of this.

“I’m going to take a walk after dinner, would you like to come?” he asked her at dinner. Dina said she’d stay close to the house. He was sure to take his phone that time.

When he came back a few hours later, Dina was already in their room. He called a hello up the stairs and went out on the porch to read. She laughed several times and Ed smiled. He liked that sound. Maybe everything would be okay. He heard her walk across the floor, but it sounded like two people up there. He put the book down and glanced in the driveway. Just their cars here. Ed shook his head and sat back down. The bedroom windows were open and he heard Dina moan. It wasn’t pain, maybe she was getting ready for some make-up sex. Ed was happy to oblige in that case and went inside. He was at the bottom of the stairs when he heard Dina talking.

“He was watching us, he saw you fucking me,” she moaned.

Ed thought he heard another voice then, but too low to hear the words. But it didn’t matter what they were. He got his pistol out of the desk and quietly loaded it as he walked to the stairs.

Time to hand out some of my own terror, you creepy fuckers

She was encouraging whoever it was to fuck her as Ed started up the stairs. She orgasmed when he got to the landing. He waited, listening but then she started moaning again. Ed stepped over the squeaky stair and kept going up.

“Oh shit, you’re big,” Dina moaned through the door. “You could shove that thing right in my womb.”

Ed stopped at the top of the stairs. He stood outside the door, listening to the thudding of the bedsprings.

“It’s stretching me so good. Oh GOD! You pushed it all the way in! Push it deep, cum in me.” Dina groaned.

Ed could hear a rasping breath and he raised the pistol to eye level and kicked the door open. He was through the doorway and looking around the room. It was empty, Dina was alone on the bed. She was laughing hard, pointing at him with one hand while the other stayed busy between her legs.

“What the fuck,” Ed said. “What’s wrong with you?” He was sure someone had been in here, there was a faint smell that he didn’t recognize. Something spicy. Was he even smelling it?

“Aw, Eddie, don’t be like that. I thought it might get you excited, you liked it the other day. Did it work? You wanna pretend you’re getting sloppy seconds?”

Something broke inside Ed. He’d had enough. This was over. He grabbed his bag off the floor, glad he hadn’t bothered to unpack yet. He could buy whatever wasn’t in here. He walked out of the bedroom, slamming the door behind him.

“Ed!” Dina yelled.

He ignored the noise, he didn’t have a goddam thing to say to her. Torturing him was fucking funny?! He grabbed his truck keys. He shoved the bag against the screen door, pushing it wide. It made a thwack behind him. Dina was still yelling his name, laughing like it was all a big joke. Ed threw his stuff in the back and got in. He turned the truck around. Dina was at the screendoor, watching him.

“I’m fucking done,” he muttered as he jerked the wheel.

The tires screeched when he turned onto pavement, headed for the freeway. He’d head south. Smokey Mountains National Park would be good. He’d stop and get extra camping gear, find a quiet place up in the hills.

Then what, Eddie?

Then…nothing. Just like Uncle Phil. He came home from Nam different. Ed didn’t remember much about the guy. He was only eight when Phil disappeared. Gone for good into Olympic National Forest. More than his face, Ed could remembered the silence of the guy. Not listening silence, or the silence of a quiet man. It was the silence of the spaces Phil was making between himself and the rest of the human race. He made a place of his own, a place he fit. Ed was following in his footsteps now. Different war, so a different forest. Ed wondered if Phil would be proud of him or just laugh.

He kept driving south through the darkness.

~~~~

Ed’s phone had buzzed a few times. Andy was trying to get ahold of him. Ed was sure that Dina was probably bugging Andy to call him, tell him to go back home. No way. Done was done, she could have the house and the rest of it. He was getting gas somewhere in Kentucky when it went off again.

“Goddammit, what?!”

Andy laughed. “Damn, Ed! I get you at a bad time?”

“Did she call you?”

Then Andy sounded serious. “Did who call me Ed?”

“Never mind, not important. What’s going on?”

“Sounds important. Anyway, I think I’m finally getting to the bottom of a few things here. I gotta tell you I don’t much like my answers. They brought an old guy to the compound. He said he knew what was happening. Those rocks, they called them sakhrat alssijn, stone prisons.”

“You’re losing me, Andy.”

“Okay, I know this sounds fucked up, but you haven’t seen what’s going on around here the last couple of days. I don’t believe it myself, but it makes sense.”

“Andy, what makes sense?”

“It was djinn, Ed. They locked up some djinn and you let them out. You know what I’m talking about?”

“You been drinking?”

“Not yet. Listen, they say God made angels and men. But there’s a third group; djinn. They’re supposed to be made out of fire. We call them genies, but all our stories are wrong, bullshit They’re not some blue Disney cartoon. They’re mean and they don’t like us.”

“Andy, look…”

“No, you listen to me, Ed! You’re not seeing the shit going on here. It’s bad enough we’re evacuating the town now. I can’t talk too long. But this old guy, he thinks a couple of them followed you home.”

Is that what I saw back there?

“This guy, did he say what to do?”

Andy sighed. “He doesn’t think there’s anything you can do. These djinns live a long time and they’re hard to kill. Listen, I gotta go. I’m driving the last truck out. I’ll get in touch later, okay? Stay safe Eddie. Fi Amanullah.”

“Ma al-Salamah, Andy.” Ed said as the line went dead.

Had Andy lost his shit too? Had the Company Boys been experimenting on everyone again, exposed them all to some chemical? Ed tossed the phone back in the truck. That wasn’t what he saw, djinn, genies, whatever, that stuff didn’t happen. It wasn’t real. Real was what you could see and touch.

~~~~

Ed was in a bank the next morning, arranging for a monthly draft to start going to Dina. Then to a lawyer’s office. He paid too much to have a registered letter sent, telling her she was getting money and the use of the house until the kid was eighteen. The money would be more than enough to keep them both going. That took care of his responsibility, if it was really his kid. But she could play house with whoever she wanted on his dime. He just didn’t care anymore.

He bought some food and topo maps of the park in the town outside the gate. He found the remotest part he could and drove out there. He got out of the truck and looked around. It was completely silent, not even an airplane. The trees rustled down the slope and a wind blew past him. That was enough of a sign for him. He loaded up his pack and took the sparkplugs for the truck before locking up.

A few hours later he was headed up the slopes in search of a good campsite. The second hollow he walked through had a nice spot, sheltered from the wind. There was a spring too, a tiny pool with achingly cold sweet water. The water had worn a basin into the rock around it and a steady flow fell out of it into a tiny pool below. This was the spot. He patted the rock, saying thank you and got to work setting up camp.

The next day he started a routine. He turned on his phone in the morning and checked for messages. Andy wasn’t back in touch yet. On the other hand, Dina sent a steady stream that he deleted without reading. He wasn’t interested in anything she had to say. When he was done with that, he ate and then spent the rest of the day taking a long hike. He stopped for lunch and spent a few ours reading before hiking back to camp for dinner and sleep. Mostly he concentrated on keeping his mind quiet.

Ten days later Ed headed back to the truck. His phone and kindle were both dead and he wanted a few things from town. He plugged the phone into the charger and waited for it to turn on. Dina had called a bunch of times, he deleted the messages. No way. He did not want to hear it. She’d also sent a lot of email for the past couple of days and he deleted that without opening any. Ed didn’t want to read anything she had to say either.

Deep down, he didn’t know if he could face Dina begging him to come back. Or telling him to stay away. He didn’t have a clue which would be better. The phone bonged and another email from Dina appeared. Ed frowned and was about to delete it but then he noticed a couple of hikers coming out of the woods. He got out and put his pack in the back of the truck as they walked over.

“Hey there.”

“Good morning!” the woman said. “Are you headed to town?”

“I am. Need a lift?”

“That’s be great,” her friend said.

They put their packs with his and crowded into the cab. The introduced themselves as Mick and Lela. Ed had thought they were kids at first but they were older, around his age. They both talked a lot, but he enjoyed it. It was nice hearing other voices, especially as much as these two laughed.

“I’m headed for the grocery,” Ed said as they got to town.

“That would be perfect,” Lela said. “Thanks so much for the ride.”

“You need a lift back?” Ed asked as he pulled into the parking lot.

“That would be great. You don’t mind?” Mick asked.

“Happy to. I’ll be right here.”

“Then we’ll be back in an hour or so,” Lela said.

Ed went in and bought supplies and was back pretty quickly. He grabbed his phone and sat on the tailgate. It was still just the single message. The subject line was blank this time. He stared at it, knowing he should delete it, like all the others. He also knew he’d read it. Ed sighed and opened it. It was just one line.

I am yours and you are mine, to the very end. Come home, we miss you so much.

He shouldn’t have done it. Just those two sentences and he was destroyed. He couldn’t see through the tears, could barely breathe with the pain in his chest. He dropped the phone and stumbled to the front. He fumbled for the handle, then there was a soft strong hand covering his.

“Hey, Ed,” Lela said quietly. “Maybe not the best time to drive, huh?”

“I wasn’t, I just…”

“Shh.” She hugged him tightly, almost holding him up.

“How’s he doing?” Mick said from somewhere.

“Not so good. Why don’t you let Mick drive back, Ed. That okay?”

He didn’t care anymore, just held out the keys. They put him in the truck and started the long trip back.

“Sorry,” Ed finally said when he’d gotten control of his emotions again.

“For being human?” Mick said. “We know you’re going through something. Saw you around the woods.”

“Do you want to tell us what’s going on?” Lela asked, taking his hand.

Ed didn’t want to at first but she squeezed his hand and smiled at him. He started with a few sentences about the last few weeks. But Lela kept asking gentle questions, drawing more and more of the story out of him. Finally, he was telling them about the well and the woman and man. He knew he sounded insane but neither of them laughed or even smiled. They just nodded as though they heard that kind of thing every day.

“I swear,” Ed finished as they pulled into his parking spot. “I’m not on drugs.”

Mick laughed. “Nah, we believe you.”

Lela smiled and nodded. “We can see it all over you; you’ve been to the Outer.”

Ed stared at them as they got out of the truck. Mick sat on one of the boulder barriers and lit a cigarette.

“That smells so good,” Lela said. He handed her one and she lit it. Neither of them put it in their mouths, just smelled the smoke every so often.

Ed leaned on the truck and watched them. “You can see…”

“That you’ve been Outer, right,” Mick said. “It’s outside of what you can usually sense. Kind of a rough place for people, sounds like you came through pretty well.”

“You’re very brave,” Lela said.

“Who are you two, really? You’re not one of…” Ed’s voice trailed off. He didn’t know what to call them.

“That depends on how you look at things,” Lela said. “They’ve got their names and places, we’ve got our own. Who am I really?” She laughed and it sounded almost like running water. “Some of your brothers and sisters call me Lelawala.”

“You can’t really say my name, but I’m from the Makiawas,” Mick said.

“We’ve both been watching since you arrived. We wondered why you felt so twisted. But a new child and battling the Outer kind? No wonder!”

“Why did you lose it back there?” Mick asked, getting up to hand him his phone.

Ed read them the message and they nodded.

“Something’s missing, right?” Lela asked. “Do you know what it is yet?”

Ed shook his head and she surprised him by kissing his nose.

“You, silly. You’re in the wrong place!”

“Warriors like you are always welcome in my woods,” Mick said, getting up and getting his pack. “But I’m a really good judge of people and I think you’re stronger than a couple of angry damned foreigners.”

“Be nice,” Lela said. “They’re hurting too.”

“What?” Ed said. “That woman? No, they were the ones hurting…”

“Shh,” she said, putting her finger over his mouth. “Someone locked them in a prison for thousands of years, kept them from going home. They’re hurt and angry and probably crazy. It’s not all that comfortable here for us, but being trapped here for that long? Horrible. It will take them some time to start thinking again after all that torture.”

“Still, we take care of our own,” Mick said, shrugging his pack on. “So I’ll tell you what you need to hear. You’re strong enough to fight them or to try to make peace. It’s up to you but now is the time to decide. I don’t know what’ll come next for you but I know your heart is crying out for its mate and hers cries out just as loudly.”

Lela nodded and gave him a serene smile. “We can hear that perfectly. Whatever your choice, make your days good ones.”

“And don’t be afraid to kick anyone’s ass.” Mick tapped Ed’s chest. “Always listen to this, warrior.”

They smiled at him and walked off into the twilight, disappearing when they reached the trees.

I am always yours and you are always mine, to the end of time.

Ed finally nodded. He went through the boxes of stuff he’d bought and got out the cigars and whiskey. He threw in the jerky and carried the box to the edge of the forest.

“Thank you,” he said, leaving it there.

He went back and got in the truck. Screw the tent and that other crap. He had somewhere to be.

~~~~

In a hot dusty room, a red-haired man in a cowboy hat sighed tiredly as he sat down. He’d never complain about being bored again, not after the last few days. He opened his email and there was one message.

Andy, your intel was confirmed. I’m going back home and standing my ground. I don’t know what’s going to happen next. No one ever does, but I didn’t want to just disappear on you. I just got off the freeway, I’m waiting for my coffee. A few miles from here is a flashing light. That’s the road that takes me home. I decided to go back because Dina sent me a message;

I am yours and you are mine, to the very end. Come home, we miss you so much.

I’m not sure if she meant her and the baby, or her and something we can’t understand. But I’m not too worried and I’ll know for sure in a little bit. Maybe you’re wondering why I’d risk this, why I’d go solo and head-on. I’ve been wondering the same thing myself since I started back. Turns out it’s one of those simple answers: I’m hers, and she’s mine. Maybe we never got in front of a preacher to say it, but it’s always been for better and for worse with us. If this has all been in my head, I’m glad to know you’re okay. But if I’m headed into the dark, well it don’t mean nothing boss. I’ll be there for her and the kid until the very end, whenever that comes. Better and worse, right? You can’t choose one or the other. I can’t say if you’ll hear from me again but it’s been a privilege and honor serving with you. I’ve been very fortunate to count you among my friends.

Ed

~~~~

The pickup crunched up the long gravel driveway and stopped next to the barn. He sat there for a few minutes, not sure what came next. He heard the thwack of the screen door and there she was, walking down the porch steps. He got out of the truck and waited, watching her walk toward him. She was so beautiful.

“I’m sorry,” he said when she stopped an arms-length away.

She nodded gravely. “So am I. You won’t run away from me again?”

“I’m yours, to the very end.”

She smiled at him. “Things are going to be better now. You come inside.”

He followed her up the stairs and the screen door closed behind them. A little while later the lights went out. Then there were only crickets making their usual racket.

Letting your chilluns go

The first installment of Sparrow & Tulip went up on Literotica today. It’s also the very first public exposure of this new story so I’m watching carefully. Yes, I’m using a dirty story website as my beta readers since I send the story and never hear from them again. I really hope that’s inattention on their part and not disgust or pity after reading the story.

Mapping Command 4: Insurrection

|1.0
There was a creaking, scuffing noise from overhead that woke her up.

“Hello gorgeous,” Cole said when Leah sat up. She could barely see in the dim, pre-dawn light. They had put their tent inside the main dome of the Meeting until the rooms were finished. Not much sun made it in this far.

She yawned and kissed him. “How did you sleep?”

“My back is sore, I’ll be glad when I get that bed done. How about you?”

Leah stretched, remembering the dreams of singing voices all night. It had been very vivid, almost intense, but she felt relaxed and rested. “I slept like a stone. I’d better get ready, Maya is coming to pick me up soon.”

By the time Leah had washed her face and brushed her teeth, they could see the bright orange quad coming up the path from the colony. Leah kissed Cole once more and got her tablet. She waved to Thorn who was dragging a large bowed timber along the massive limb of one of the supporting trees. Leah rode the basket down and was waiting when Maya pulled up and got out.

“I brought the rest of Cole’s gear along so you wouldn’t have to mess with it tonight.”

“That was nice of you, thanks!” Leah took the two heavy duffles and left them in the basket. Cole could deal with them from there.

Maya was looking up at the bottom of the Meeting platform. “It’s bigger than I thought it would be.”

“The building itself is pretty big too. The Anek say that’s how it’s done though.”

“Are any of them up there?”

“Yep. They’ll be here for a few hours until the sun hits the shelter for the eloisha and then they’ll head somewhere else. The kids come barreling out of there like rockets. There are a couple of males hanging around, they aren’t as much of a danger since their use of the scent only happens occasionally. They’ll spend the day off in nearby tree, close enough to chase any problems away.”

“Hello,” a voice said from above them. “I was curious what this was.”

“Maya, this is Thorn. He’s the official delegate from the male tribes. Thorn, you were teasing us about having short legs. This is how we go longer distances faster.”

“It looks like a lot of trouble,” the Anek said doubtfully. “Are you certain you can’t grow longer legs?”

“And that’s Anek humor,” Leah told Maya. “I’m ready when you are.”

Maya waved at Thorn and he waved back. Then he turned and headed back to the platform. Maya had a huge grin on her face when got back into the quad.

“What’s so funny?”

Maya started the quad and turned around. “Nothing’s funny. That’s just the first Other I’ve ever seen. In person I mean.”

“Why don’t you come up and meet them this evening?”

“I wanted to but Owen said it wouldn’t be appropriate for anyone that’s not on the FCT to interact with them yet.”

Leah made a rude noise. “Owen falls back on regulations as soon as he’s unsure of something. I’ll just make you part of the FCT.”

Maya laughed. “I wouldn’t be much help there. I can wait, it was just cool that we actually communicated with each other. Even if it was just a wave.”

“Other kinds of people don’t bother you?”

“No way,” Maya said. “I think it’s the coolest thing ever. I’m jealous of you guys getting to do this all the time.”

“Usually it’s not this interesting. But you should take the test for the FCT training if you’re interested. You’re a chemist, I’m sure they’d be interested in that.”

“I wouldn’t even know how, and it’s not like I can afford to go to Hub.”

“You don’t have to, any SI can administer the test. If you want to try it, I’ll set things up with Xerxes. She’ll transmit the results to CMC the next time there’s a courier around.”

Maya thought about it and nodded. “You know, I’d like to try that. When things calm down a little maybe.”

“Don’t tell Owen yet, he’ll scream that I’m stealing you.”

Later that afternoon Owen heard Leah and Maya laughing when they came back with lunch. Owen looked up as they came into his office. “Do I want to know?”

“Gavin came and sat down with me,” Maya said. “He asked how my job was going and I laughed and told him I knew about his pathetic attempt to get me in trouble.”

Owen leaned back in his chair. “If I hadn’t known what was going on, it might have worked. Did he have another temper tantrum?”

“No, I think he actually liked that I was being mean to him. He was even trying to flirt with me but I ignored him until Leah got there.”

They looked at each other and laughed again. Owen made an impatient “come on” gesture with his hand.

Leah handed Owen his box of lunch. “I walked in and gave her a very good kiss.”

Maya nodded happily. “She about melted my shoes. Then I looked at Gavin and said I found something better. Everyone started laughing.”

Owen rubbed his eyes sat back. “Jesus, I could almost feel sorry for him.”

“Nah,” Leah said, sitting down. “He asked for it.”

Maya went back to her desk. “Yay! The courier is overhead. Looks like it’s the Mercury this time. We have incoming transmissions. And the outgoing buffers are transmitting.”

Owen looked at his monitor, watching the messages come in. “There’s a lot from Hub coming in. I think something’s up.”

Leah checked her tablet, making sure that Xerxes had successfully sent the messages she’d been sitting on. She traded a few texts with the ship saying hello and checking in. It had gotten very quiet in the office and Leah looked up. Owen and Maya were both staring at their screens.

“Captain, check your messages, now,” Owen said. “You’d better get in touch with Cole too.”

The following announcement should be immediately distributed to all colonial citizens. Action from all colonial administrators is expected and required.

Colonial Mapping Command leadership has refused subpoenas from the Committee for Civilian Affairs and has willfully and knowingly restricted the spread of lawful human colonies. Therefore, as of the moment of this message’s arrival, all operations and activities of the Colonial Mapping Command are suspended and all CMC personnel are hereby placed under a Bill of Attainder.

Under Attainder all CMC duties and property are hereby claimed by the Committee effective immediately. All colonial administrations are directed to detain CMC officers as well as seizing CMC property, including spacecraft. Extreme care should be taken in securing craft equipped with artificial intelligence. If containment is impossible, the craft should be destroyed in place. Report compliance with this order by most expeditious means. Message ends.

Leah finished reading the message and immediately pulled an earpiece out of her pocket and put it on. “Xerxes, priority one alpha. Command functions.”

“Acknowledged Captain. Orders?” Xerxes replied immediately.

“Use op-plan Trumpeter Black, execute now.”

“Trumpeter Black underway. You stay safe captain, we’ll be back.”

There was a screeching roar overhead. All three felt like they’d just fallen a short distance and small objects around the office were lifted slightly and rattled back down. The sound and sensation was were repeated a few seconds later. Owen and Maya stared at Leah.

“What was that?” Owen said.

“I told Xerxes to run for it,” Leah said. “Her instructions say by the fastest means possible, she used her gravity drive to get into the air faster. Marie or Henry must have sent the Aggie up after her.”

Owen stood up. “Leah, you didn’t have to do that. I would never…”

“Owen, this is going to be trouble. You just applied to switch your colony status over to CMC control. I’m sorry, I wouldn’t have let you if I knew this was coming.”

He shook his head. “They’ll just kick it back.”

Leah walked across to his desk. “Do you think that’s going to stop Gavin? He’s reading this right now. How long will it take him to get over here to arrest you?”

“Oh shit,” Maya said and went to lock the outside door. “What does attainder mean exactly?”

“I just looked it up,” Owen said. “It’s an old European law that serves to deprive a group of people their civil rights, assuming that they’re all guilty without trial. It applies to any of their heirs as well.”

Maya was appalled. “That can’t be legal now.”

“If the Civil Committee says it’s legal again, I guess it is,” Owen said. “It wasn’t legal under the old US Constitution but the constitutional working groups still haven’t presented a new version.”

Leah’s tablet pinged and she answered the call. “Hi Cole, you’re on speaker,” she said, setting the tablet on Owen’s desk.

“Hello all. I couldn’t help but notice our ride leaving without us. Then I read my mail. Marie had Aggie set up to stay with Xerx.”

“Yep, they rattled our teeth on the way out,” Leah said. “Are you looking at the rest of the messages?”

“Scrolling through them now, short version is we’re in trouble. I’m glad we hid the laser link, comms between here and there are pretty secure.”

“Cole, I’m going to head to the hab and grab the rest of our gear and I’ll head up there. It won’t take long for Gavin and company to move on this.”

“Be careful. You’re heeled?”

Leah patted her back and Owen realized she’d been wearing a concealed pistol. “I’m good.”

“Okay. Marie is talking to Henry right now, he’s not too thrilled about coming out.”

“I’ll talk to him. I’m going to get moving, I’ll leave my earpiece in though.”

“I can head down and meet you,” Cole said.

“She’ll take a quad,” Owen said, loud enough for him to hear. “You might have a few more guests as well.”

“Whenever you need to, we’ve got plenty of room, boss,” Cole said.

“I’ll ping you when I’m on my way out. Love you.” Leah said. She picked up the tablet and put it in her bag.

“Leah, those assault rifles you guys offloaded. Where are they?” Owen asked.

“Cole was paranoid, all of the weapons except my pistol are out at the Meeting. Marie had Henry bring the guns from the Aggie up too.”

“How much do you need to get out of your hab?” Maya asked. “I can help you if you want.”

Leah smiled at her. “Thank you, you’re a doll. But the only stuff thing left are my clothes. If things go wrong and I get grabbed, Owen is going to need your help.”

Maya frowned. “Leah, it makes me nervous that you’re going alone.”

“I’ll be fine, promise. You guys think seriously about coming out there.”

Owen shook his head. “I might as well hand him the keys to the colony then. I’m staying. I think Maya should go with you. The way you guys were making Gavin look, I think he’ll be looking for revenge.”

“I’m not running from him,” Maya said. “Anyway, Leah’s right, you’re going to need my help.” Leah went and looked outside. Everything looked normal at least. She nodded at them and unlocked the door. Maya went and watched her walk down the path and locked the door behind her.

|2.0
Leah didn’t walk any faster than she usually did. There weren’t a lot of people out walking around, the end of the work day wasn’t for another forty-five minutes. She nodded and smiled at the few people she passed. Most of them were friendly enough, but most everyone was busy reading their tablets. News would get out soon enough.

When she got to the hab, Leah saw two men standing in the breezeway between her hab and the one that Marie and Henry shared. They were messing with the electronic lock but one of them carried a sledge hammer. She wasn’t surprised to see it was Brad and his friend Craig.

“Let’s just kick this shit in!” Brad sounded frustrated.

“Don’t have to, give me a second and I’ll override the lock.”

“I could just open it for you,” Leah said. “I’ll get my stuff and it’s all yours.”

Both of them whirled around and looked guilty for a second. Brad recovered first. “You’d better go read the mail, you don’t have property anymore. We’re confiscating your property and then we’re going to take you to detention. Regulations.” He sneered the last word at her.

Leah tapped her chin like she was thinking about it and then shook her head. “No, I don’t think that personal property was mentioned anywhere. Nothing in there is CMC property.”

Craig walked toward her, grinning. “We’ll decide that, after you’re locked up. Regulations, right?”

Leah smiled. “Oh, I’m just going to ignore that part of it. If you’re smart…”

Craig wasn’t smart, he grabbed her arm and tried to yank her off balance. Leah didn’t resist, instead she grabbed his arm back and stepped into him. His confusion turned into agony as she stepped to the side, dislocating his arm as she threw him to the ground.

Craig made a high pitched sound, writhing on the ground and pawing at his shoulder. Leah stepped quickly back as Brad came down the stairs, raising the sledgehammer. She rolled out of the way as he swung it and before he could recover, her gun was out and six inches from his face.

“We’re done here, one way or the other.” Leah’s voice was calm and quiet. “You can either put it down or Henry can worry about cleaning your brains off his wall. What do you think?”

Brad swallowed. “Please don’t kill me,” he said in a voice barely above a whisper.

“That’s what I thought. Put it down and take your friend to get help.”

He nodded and carefully set it on the ground. Leah lowered the pistol slightly and he edged around her. She turned and watched him in case he got brave suddenly but Brad just helped Craig to his feet.

“C’mon, let’s go to the clinic.”

Craig pointed at Leah. “I’m going to kill you for this, bitch.”

“It’s just the pain making him talk that way,” Brad said quickly. “Come on Craig, let’s go.”

Leah shook her head as she watched them hurry up the path. She unlocked the door and went inside. The first thing she did was to pull out a nylon shoulder holster out of her bag and put it on. Guns were uncommon enough around the colony that it ought to serve as a pretty blatant warning.

There were more people on the paths as she walked. A few of them glared at her but no one said anything as she walked back to the admin building. Leah walked around the back and backed one of the quads of its charging bay and got out of the colony without any problems but she didn’t completely relax until she’d made the half hour drive out to the Meeting.

She rode the basket to the top and Cole was waiting when she climbed out. She hugged him tightly.

“Looks like a fan-shit overlap,” he said, hugging her back.

“That clown Brad from operations was trying to break into the hab with another guy, Craig I think. He was the one trying to break into Aggie before.”

“Are you okay?”

Leah nodded. “They tried to take me to detention, whatever that means, but I dislocated Craig’s shoulder and put a gun in Brad’s face when he swung a sledgehammer at me. I let them go, it’ll probably create more problems.”

“Not as many as killing them would have,” Cole said. “Come on, it’s the cocktail hour.”

Leah looked at the large dome. It measured just under thirty meters across and was fifteen meters at its highest point. The last time she had seen it there had been ten low arches around the perimeter. Only four were left open, the others had been covered by semicircular rooms, almost like the dome was budding off tiny copies of itself. The egg shaped oval platform still had plenty of space along the edges despite the large footprint of the Meeting. The narrow end held the shelter for the eloisha for now. Thalia and Thorn were talking about constructing additional platforms nearby to hold more shelters.

“Wow, you must have had a big crew today.”

Cole nodded. “Sixteen of them, including two males. The stories about the eloisha are spreading among the Anek. More and more of them are showing up, wanting to do anything they can. They’re so fast and deft that watching them build is a little like watching a spider spinning a web. It’s interesting though, they are completely silent while they work.”

Leah took his hand as they walked to entrance. Even though the archway looked low compared to the building, it was well over their heads. “I’ve noticed they don’t do multi-tasking very well.”

“Henry took one look at them working yesterday and headed back for the colony. He said he wasn’t needed here but he looked terrified. Anyway, the exterior is finished and I’ve been told that the ones who come will make their own beds and furniture. We’ve got a bedroom now.”

She grinned at him as they walked across the large open area to where there were a few tables set up. “I guess we’ll have to break it in later.”

“I was hoping you’d say that.”

Leah laughed and waved at Marie who was already making her a drink.
“We’ve got rum and that’s it. Want juice?”

“Straight up is fine,” Leah said.

Marie handed it to her and Leah took a long sip. “Thank you. So Henry called it quits out here.”

“You can’t really blame him, he’s badly arachnophobic,” Marie said. “He can barely function around them.”

“Even the eloisha are starting to get to him,” Cole said. “He was fine until their limbs started developing.”

“I’m worried about him running into trouble, those idiots were already breaking into our hab.”

Marie smiled. “He moved out of the hab yesterday. He’s been working in the fabrication shop and hooked up with one of the women there. From what I’ve heard, several are deeply fascinated with him.”

“He mentioned the rift between Gavin’s followers and the rest of the colony is getting more and more pronounced,” Cole said. “I don’t think those two idiots would have pulled anything like that if the other colonists had seen them.”

Marie nodded. “The colonists won’t say anything directly to Gavin yet, but they’re resisting what his followers are trying to do in little ways.”

“They’d better start standing up for themselves,” Leah said. “Otherwise they’re going to wake up in a Puritan utopia one morning.”

“I can’t argue,” Cole said. “We’ve been catching up on messages from CMC teams, there’s a bunch of situation reports attached. It was all sent blind, addressed to any CMC team.”

“These are surprisingly comfortable,” Marie said, leading Leah over to a wide shelf that extended from the wall and ran most of the way around the inside of the dome. The framework supported a dense network of springy vines. It was higher than a human seat, Marie had to use an equipment crate as a step.

Leah climbed up beside her, it was a little like sitting on a trampoline. Cole handed up her drink and she took another long sip as he climbed up next to her.
“I’m feeling a little needy,” she said, leaning against Cole.

He put an arm around her. “Being a few hundred light years from help will do that.”

“So what have you found out?”

“Tensions between CMC and the Committee have been strained from the start,” Marie said. “The politicians never really got over the fact that they didn’t have complete power. They’ve been trying to get rid of anything outside of their control since the start and it’s been getting steadily worse. Looking at the message, it looks to me like the mess on Gage-29-B was the last straw.”

“What about it? Last I heard there was a survey team getting ready to make the first landings but that was before we left for Saint Johns.”

Marie nodded. “Right, Hyun Cho’s team did the initial landings. It sounds like a gorgeous world, lots of water, compatible chemical makeup. There wasn’t any sign of life much higher than a large invertebrate and a new colony was immediately chartered.”

Cole frowned. “Before it was completely mapped?”

“You two don’t spend a lot of time on Hub, there’s been increasing pressure to speed up colony establishment. The Committee liaison to CMC declared Gage open for a colony. The CMC higher ups about had a stroke, especially in the Big Office. But the Committee whipped up a lot of support and there wasn’t much the Big Office could do once the public was told there would be space on a new colony, a nice warm one.”

Leah sighed. “I knew that liaison office was a bad idea. So what happened on the planet?”

Marie laughed. “One of the survey teams was camped out on a beach. As the sun set, a native appeared in the water and stared at them. It looked sort of cetacean but with manipulating hands. And it was wearing manufactured artifacts, some kind of jewelry I guess. They’re a completely aquatic species. Right before we left I heard that the Xero’pah were sending an FCT. Everyone else was evacuated.”

“Which ends any plans for a colony,” Cole said. “People should know that, it’s one of the founding tenants of the Commonwealth and we agreed to abide by it.”

“Right, but this is where the crazy starts leaking in,” Marie said. “There’s people that are saying humans weren’t a Founder colony, that Earth was their homeworld in fact. There’s an author, Graham something, that’s cobbled together a shitshow of proof. It’s amusing to read, I think he’s one of von Daniken’s disciples.”

Leah laughed. “Has anyone shown them the records of the first settlements on Earth?”

“They say it’s all faked, that the Commonwealth is working hard to keep humans from their rightful place in the galaxy, that their rules don’t apply to us.”

“Since we’re completely dependent on their technology, I’d say following their rules is pretty important,” Cole said. “When did all this start?”

“Hold on, let’s come back to this,” Leah said. “What else is happening on Hub?”

“Lots of chaos it sounds like,” Marie said. “Someone in the Big Office probably saw this coming. As soon as the attainder order went out the doors closed on their side of the complex. And since they were assigned the colony ship as office space, that means armored airlocks.”

“The Committee came up with a plan to deal with them,” Cole said. “But it caused a mutiny on the HSS Peerless.”

“What, there were survey crews aboard?” Leah asked.

“No, the Committee announced that they’d be dropping a cargo container full of ore on the Big Office if they didn’t surrender. Then they dropped one on the CMC training facility as a demonstration.”

Leah was appalled. “Were there any people there?”

“One training group, yes. It was a class of Ta’avi botanists, twelve people in all. They had no warning, the announcement was made just a couple minutes before impact. The Peerless was the one that adjusted the container’s orbits and mounted thrusting engines on them. The officers told the crew it was a training mission but it didn’t take long before the video of the impact got messaged around the ship and the crew took over the ship five hours after the first strike. They rounded up the officers and chained them in the cargo hold and started broadcasting that they were lied to, that the Peerless wouldn’t be dropping anything on anyone and that they’d fire on any ship that tried.”

“Wow. How do they think this is going to end?”

“I don’t think anyone thought about that,” Cole said. “But there’s supposed to be a Commonwealth ship inbound, they say they’ll surrender to them.”

Leah sighed. “That’ll surprise someone. I do wish the Others weren’t seeing this side of humans. Anything else?”

“Yeah,” Marie said quietly. “There was one message from the Big Office before they lost comms. It went system wide. “Persevere” was all it said.”

Leah finished her drink. “Then that’s what we’ll do. I can’t believe the Committee didn’t think about how people would take the plan of dropping things from space on humans. Did they forget we lost a whole planet to that?”

“They’re Old Earth politicians,” Marie said. “It’s not about people, it’s about them and whatever power they can scrape together. I doubt anyone even considered public opinion.”

“I bet they are now. So, you were saying something about people believing that we’re the actual disappeared Founders?”

“It was this little fringe thing,” Marie said. “Lately it’s been getting more attention but I got the feeling that someone is manipulating things. The basic idea is that Earth was where the Founders went, we’re their inheritors. No one really talked about what that actually meant though. Then three Committee members, Ross, Sinclair, and Watson, started talking about it, I’d guess to further their own ends. They were at the front of the angry mob when it was announced that Gage was closed to colonization. There’s a rumor is that they all had significant business interests in the place.”

“Sinclair? That’s Gavin’s last name,” Leah said. “I wonder if there’s a connection or they’re both just bastards.”

“This place makes more sense if you think about Gavin getting orders from some connection at the top,” Cole said.

Leah sat up. “Why doesn’t anyone learn? Seriously, we’re this close to extinction and people are still playing these bullshit games. We ought to have our own people on Hub, infiltrating the Committee and keeping an eye on people like that. If anyone presents a problem, they’re reassigned somewhere where they can’t do any more harm.”

Marie raised an eyebrow. “Like secret police?”

“You wouldn’t have to call it that, no. We’ve got teams quietly protecting our more important people, why don’t we have teams protecting everyone else from their own stupidity?”

“Who decides?” Cole asked her. “How do you keep it from turning into Stalin and Siberia?”

“I know, I know. It would turn into more of the bullshit we can’t stop doing. But I’ve given up a lot, we’ve all given up a lot, to help humans recover, to find new places to live. Good friends have died in the search for new planets and this is what they’re doing with all of our sacrifices!” Leah angrily brushed the tears off her face. “I’m not going through all of this to watch humans turn into monsters like the Dominion did.”

“You don’t think that would actually happen?” Marie sounded shocked.

“They’re already killing innocent people from orbit, aren’t they?” Cole rubbed her back and she leaned back against him. “I’m sorry, I’m just…frustrated.”

“I can’t imagine why,” Cole said. “You had a kind of a rough afternoon.”

“Kind of!”

“Well, there were only two of them.”

Leah gave him a mock glare of outrage and poked him in the ribs. “You’ll pay for your smartassery, sir.”

Marie looked at them both. “I will do what I can to help but I’m going to say this right up front; I’m a scientist underneath my explorer costume and this isn’t what I usually deal with. So I’m going to be asking a lot of stupid questions.”

Leah held up her arm. “Come over here.”

Marie scooted closer and Leah put her arm around Marie’s shoulders. “They won’t be stupid, and this really isn’t our thing either.”

Marie smiled. “Bullshit. You field types love running around and wearing guns, meeting whole new civilizations, getting into trouble. Admit, you’re all adrenaline junkies.”

“Yeah? Did you know you strut when you wear a pistol?”

“No, Leah. I do not.”

“Swagger even.”

Marie leaned forward to see around Leah. “Cole?”

He smiled. “Yeah, sorry. You totally do. We won’t tell any of your laboratory friends though.”

Marie leaned back. “Well, if I have to live through the first colonial civil war, I’m really glad it’s with you two. I feel safe with you guys.”

“Around Cole? The way he’s always leering?”

“I don’t leer.”

Marie laughed. “You were practically groping me with your eyes this afternoon.”

“What a disgusting image. Leah, I’m innocent.”

She laughed and wrapped her arms around his neck and kissed him. “Darling, one thing you are not, is innocent.”

“I think because you corrupted him,” Marie said.

“Of course I did. He never would have fucked you so good if I hadn’t taught him.”

“Oh, I think he would have done okay. But I do thank you for your hard work.” Marie leaned closer to Leah.

“My pleasure,” Leah said, leaning forward to kiss her.

Leah and Marie began to caress each other as they kissed. Leah started by leaning across Cole, then ended crawling onto his lap to get closer to Marie. The women slumped onto their sides and Leah ended up half on top of, half beside Marie. There were little moans and whimpers as the women touched and stroked each other. Cole lay behind Leah, propped up on his elbow as he watched the two of them make out.

Leah broke a long kiss to breathe hard as Marie unbuttoned her shorts and slid her hand into Leah’s panties. Marie chuckled as her fingers found Leah’s soaking sex.

“I think someone likes this,” she murmured in Leah’s ear.

“Let me show you how much,” Leah said, unzipping Marie’s shorts.

It was Marie’s turn to gasp when Leah’s fingers went between her legs and Leah smiled at her. The two women kissed again, their fingers starting to move faster. They pressed against each other tightly, their hips thrusting against each other’s fingers.

“Right there!” Marie moaned.

“Uh huh!” Leah replied as Marie’s fingers slipped inside of her.

Cole watched the two of them, rubbing Leah’s back as the women writhed and moaned. Leah was the first to cum but Marie joined her seconds later. Leah’s moans and Marie’s whimpers filled the room and they relaxed, catching their breath.

“I think someone else liked watching,” Leah finally said, wiggling her butt against Cole’s erection.

“Good,” Marie giggled. She pulled her hand out of Leah’s shorts and sucked her fingers. “Mmm, you taste nice. I got off so many times thinking about fucking you.”

“Really? When did that start?” Leah asked.

Marie smiled. “Since the first time we were in the showers in high school.”

“Wow, it took you this long?”

Marie giggled again. “We’ve all been a little busy.”

“If you’ve been thinking about it this long, it would only be fair if I helped out with any other pent up needs you might have.”

Marie gave her another long kiss. Leah’s fingers slipped inside of her and Marie gasped. Soon she was cumming again, grabbing Leah’s ass to pull her tight.

“You are too good at that,” Marie said when she caught her breath. “It makes me wonder what you could do with your tongue.”

“Ooh, let’s find out.”

“You mentioned pent up needs,” Marie said as she slid her shorts off. “If you don’t mind, there’s something…”

“What’s that?” Leah said. She lifted her hips as Cole pulled her shorts and panties down.

“Could I borrow your husband’s cock? I was so turned on watching Henry fuck your ass. He’s too rough for me to really enjoy him that way.”

“Of course you can,” Leah said. “The way I just felt him twitch, I think he likes the idea.”

“You sure you don’t mind, Cole?” Marie teased.

“I’m happy to help,” Cole said.

Leah reached back to stroke his cock. “He’s not lying.”

Leah sat up and turned Marie on her stomach, kneeling beside her. “Now, let’s get you ready.” Marie moaned as two of Leah’s fingers slid into her sex. She pushed her hips back, trying to get more as Leah twisted them back and forth. “You’re going to make me cum again!”

“That’s the idea,” Leah said, feeling Marie get wetter. Leah was merciless, fingering her through another orgasm. Then, as Marie lay panting, Leah began to stroke her ass, spreading the wetness over her pucker. Marie moaned as one, then two of Leah’s fingers slid into her ass and slowly thrust in and out. Cole got up and then returned with a small bottle of oil. He poured a little between Marie’s cheeks and she moaned louder, lifting her ass as Leah’s fingers were coated.

“Are you ready?” Leah asked.

“Uh huh!”

Marie spread her legs and Cole knelt behind her. Leah used the oil on Cole’s cock, stroking it with her oily hands. She nodded for him to come closer.

“I’ll just help out here a little,” she said, spreading Marie with one hand while she rubbed Cole’s cock over Marie’s asshole.

“Help out as much as you like,” Marie panted. “Just put him inside me!”

Leah smiled, guiding Cole’s cock into her as he pushed forward slowly.

“Oh my fucking GOD!” Marie groaned. “That’s incredible.”

Leah grinned. “Give her more, baby,” she said to Cole. Leah’s hand went between her own legs as she watched her husband’s cock slid up into Marie. She was getting incredibly excited. She didn’t regret the time they’d spent exclusive to each other but she was almost trembling this was so hot.

Cole’s cock was all the way into her when Marie orgasmed the first time. Her whole body clenched and she pushed her ass up against him. He stayed deep inside of her as her body twitched.

“Hmm, I have an idea,” Leah said to Cole. “Hold her tightly and roll onto your side.”

Marie moaned as Cole turned with her in his arms. “What do you have planned now, dirty girl?”

“Me? I’m just trying to help.” Leah pushed Marie’s legs wider, rubbing her lower lips.

“Holy shit,” Marie breathed. “Are you going to…”

“Uh huh.” Leah slipped two fingers into Marie and pushed them deep.

Marie’s stomach clenched again. “Cole, fuck me,” she begged. “Both of you, fuck me!”

Cole began to thrust in and out of her ass while Leah’s fingers twisted and thrust into her sex. Marie had several orgasms, finally begging Leah for mercy. The pair stopped, letting Marie catch her breath.

“Had enough of that cock in your ass?” Leah asked Marie.

“No, not yet. But there was something else I wanted.”

“I’m so glad you remember,” Leah said, kissing her.

Marie slid off of Cole’s cock and rolled back onto her stomach. Leah slid further up the bed, spreading her legs on either side of the other woman.

“Put it back in,” Marie said over her shoulder to Cole. She reached back and spread her ass wide for his cock, groaning as the length slid deeply into her again. Marie let go of her ass and put her hands on Leah’s legs, pulling her toward Marie.

Leah took a deep breath as Marie’s mouth contacted her lips. The breath turned into a whimper as Marie began to suck on her clit. Cole steadily slid in and out of Marie’s ass, pushing her mouth against Leah. Marie’s fingers spread Leah’s lips wide and she began to lick around Leah’s opening.

“You look so sexy,” Leah panted, running her fingers through Marie’s hair. Leah’s back arched and she tightened her hold on Marie’s hair. “Yes! Fuck my cunt with your tongue!”

She began to cum and Marie pressed her mouth tighter, thrusting into Leah with her tongue. Marie went back to licking and sucking Leah’s clit and pushed her fingers into Leah’s pussy. Marie’s other hand went between her own legs, rubbing at her clit.

“You know what else I thought about?” Leah said, looking down at Marie. “When you had Cole’s cock in your throat I wondered what you’d look like doing that with Lakshmi.”

“Mm-hmm!” Marie moaned into Leah’s cunt.

“Do you want to feel her inside of you?”

Marie shuddered and looked up at her, face wet and sticky with Leah’s cum. “Yes! I’ve gotten off almost every night thinking about that. Would you stay and watch while she pushed that big thing into me?”

Leah smiled down at her. “Of course. I’d even put her inside you, just like I put Cole into your ass.”

“Oh my god,” Marie groaned and put her mouth back between Leah’s legs.

“Your tongue feels so good,” Leah moaned. “Use another finger, please?”

Marie pushed three fingers into Leah who immediately got wetter and started pushing her cunt against Marie’s lips.

“You’re gonna make me cum so good,” Leah whimpered. “Fuck her ass hard Cole, make her scream!”

Leah’s back arched again and she held Marie’s head, thrusting her sex against Marie’s mouth faster and faster. As she was sliding into a huge orgasm, Marie added another finger, pushing four of them into her. Leah screamed, leaning back and pulling Marie’s hair.

“Oh god, please stop, so sensitive,” Leah panted. Marie pulled her fingers out she kissed Leah’s thigh. Leah’s fingers ran through her hair and Marie looked back at Cole. She could tell he was getting close

“Cum in me, please? I want you to shove it in all the way and cum in me. Please Cole?”

“Yes ma’am,” Cole gasped and Marie closed her eyes, loving the feeling of him thrusting into her.

“That’s it, fuck me nice and deep,” she moaned. Her fingers were rubbing and pinching her own clit as Cole pushed harder and faster. They both moaned as Cole shoved deep inside of her, grabbing her hips to pull her tightly against his cock. Marie felt his cock swell, knowing that he was cumming set her off as well.

Marie gasped a little when Cole slid out of her ass. Leah moved beside her and they shared a long, tender kiss. Cole flopped down beside Marie, breathing hard. Leah kissed him next and he stroked her face.

“I’m going to pass out pretty soon,” Leah said. “Do you want to sleep with us?”

Marie laughed. “No. Don’t take it personally, I’m still luxuriating in having a bed to myself. Can I lay here for a little bit first?”

“You can do whatever you want,” Leah assured her.

Marie and Leah both fell asleep for a few minutes before Marie sat up. “Goodnight my loves, I’ll see you in the morning.”

Leah and Cole kissed her goodnight and tumbled into the bed Cole had just finished.

“That was amazing,” Leah said.

“Wish we had done this sooner?”

Leah shook her head. “I thought about that earlier. I’m glad it’s always been you and me. How about you?”

“No, this is fun and I’m glad I can share these moments with you, but you’re the most important person to me. Nothing will ever change that.”

“I’m glad,” Leah said, wiggling against him to get comfortable. “You and me?”

“Until the stars die.”

Leah smiled and she felt him kiss the back of her neck as she fell asleep.

|3.0
Leah’s eyes opened in the darkness. Cole was snoring quietly and Leah sat up, wondering what had woken her up. Was something after the kids?

Then she smiled, catching a familiar smell on the breezes that were always moving through the Meeting.

Leah untangled herself from Cole and he opened his eyes. “You okay?”

“Uh-huh. Something woke me up.”

Cole looked around. Then he caught the same scent and smiled. “I know who that is.”

They got out of bed and walked into the main part of the Meeting. There was a shadow in one of the archways.

“I have come back,” Lakshmi said and Leah laughed and ran to her. They hugged tightly. Cole followed her and waited for his turn but Lakshmi picked him up with her set of heavy lifting arms and hugged them both to her.

(Beloved Ones)

He concentrated, carefully letting a pulse of love and happiness escape. There was an answering wave of emotion: tenderness, pride, love.

(You’re getting very good at that.)

“He’s a natural,” Leah said proudly. “How was your trip?”

(Much longer than I expected, several villages heard our story and wanted the news personally. Eldest and I traveled far out of our way. The Meeting is nearly finished? They’ve done a very good job. I heard the males have sent someone as well?)

“He chose the name Thorn,” Cole said. “You’ll probably remember him.”

There was a feeling of amusement. (Thalia told me, she was very pleased you accepted him)

“I haven’t met him yet,” Leah said. “We have a friend from our home we want you to meet tomorrow. Her name is Marie.”

(I wondered who was in the little blue place. I can feel your affection for her. I look forward to knowing her. It is quite late for me, I’m not as strong as a human to be awake at all hours. There is a space for me to sleep?)

“Yes there is,” Leah said, pulling her toward the door. “Come and look.”
Cole turned on a small lantern when they were inside. The bed he’d built with Leah was a mix between Anek and human styles. The bowl shape was wide enough for Lakshmi but low enough that he and Leah could get into it without a ladder and shallow enough that they didn’t have to worry about rolling to the center all night.

(This is for us to share?)

“Yeah!” Leah jumped onto the bed. “Come and try it.”

(You made this Cole?)

“Leah helped and I got some advice from Thalia as we worked. Is it okay?”

Lakshmi stepped closer and wrapped her human sized arms around him. (It is perfect. Both the bed and the feelings behind it)

Cole put his forehead against hers and they traded emotions for a few seconds.

(I am truly honored, Beloved ones. We will talk more in the day?)

“Come to bed,” Cole said.

Lakshmi climbed into the bed and stretched. (It’s perfect)

“Good,” Leah said, snuggling against her. “Cole, get in here.”

“I hear and obey.” Cole climbed onto the bed and spooned against Leah who wiggled back against him.

(Now there is perfection and contentment)

A few seconds later Lakshmi was asleep, the other two weren’t far behind her.

Leah had to be dreaming, there was no way she’d be in the very tops of the trees like this. It was night time and the nebula was overhead casting almost as much light as the smaller moon. She was alone up here, which was strange, there were voices all around her, like she was standing in a packed auditorium of people. She tried but couldn’t make out what they were saying.

“Hello?”

There was a brief silence and all of them started repeating a word she didn’t understand. She tried to answer but couldn’t make them hear her. She thought she’d memorize it but the syllables were too strange to stick in her mind.

By the time Leah opened her eyes, Lakshmi were already out of bed. Leah put her feet on the floor, yawning and rubbing her eyes. She got washed up, using the dreaded chemical wipes. This place would be perfect once they figured out how to get running water up here.

She pulled her hair back into a ponytail just and followed the smell of coffee out into the main building. There wasn’t anyone here either and Leah walked outside. The sun was high enough in the sky that it left golden slices of light across the smooth surface of the platform. Cole and Marie were sitting in camp chairs and both had coffee cups in their hands. There was an eloisha perched on Cole’s shoulder that was closely watching his every move.

“Is there any more of that?” Leah asked.

Marie pointed to a self-heating kettle. “In there. I wouldn’t try putting sugar in it though.”

Leah went to the kettle and there was a delighted sounding whistle from the Meeting roof. A second later someone thumped to a landing on either of her shoulders. Leah smiled at both eloisha and they chirped excitedly as she poured coffee. She sipped the black coffee and there were mournful hoots.

“I take it they’ve developed a taste for sugar?” she asked Cole as she bent down to kiss him. As she stood up, the eloisha on her shoulder made a noise that sounded almost like “sugar” and she smiled.

“More of an overriding obsession,” he said. “Not so different from human kids. Lakshmi left a few hours ago, she’ll be back tonight, after these guys are asleep.”

“The Anek don’t sound like they stay up at night,” Marie said.

Cole shook his head. “Getting workers here before sunup was evidently a big deal. They’re tied to the day-night cycle pretty firmly most of the time. The first council meeting we were at went later but after the sun went down there weren’t any decisions made, just the social bonding stuff. They’re amazed we can stay up all night if we need to.”

“Doing more than one thing at once amazes them too,” Leah said. “Lakshmi saw me eating while I was reading and listening to music and thought I was being funny. She was pretty surprised when she realized we could all do it.”

“Interesting,” Marie said. “I wonder if that’s because their brains spend more time dealing with a more complex body or it has something to do with their touch-talk. I’m really looking forward to meeting her either way.”

There were three pings from inside the Meeting as all three of their tablets registered incoming messages.

“I’ll get mine,” Cole said. The tablets chirped again and the eloisha glided after Cole, mimicking the sound over and over. Leah and Marie looked at each other and laughed.

Cole came out holding a tablet. “Henry is going to make an announcement in a few minutes, Maya is linking us in.”

“I like her,” Marie said. “I’m glad she wasn’t the leak.”

“She’s got an amazingly long tongue,” Leah said. “That’s all I’m going to say.”

“Ah-ha. So the rumors weren’t just rumors.”

“They were supposed to be, but Maya had her own ideas,” Cole said.

Marie laughed. “I think I’m jealous.”

The tablet announced an announcement from the Administrator’s Office and Cole held up his tablet so they could all see.

“Hello neighbors, I hope everyone is doing well. I won’t take much of your time but I think it’s important I make a couple of comments about the news we all got yesterday. Hub is a long way off and any opinions we have won’t change what’s going on. We’ve got our own problems here and I know you’re all doing your best at that. So, don’t worry. We’ll be okay, no matter what ends up happening back on Hub.

“If anyone missed it, there was also an order to detain any CMC personnel and impound their ships. Both of the shuttles left the planet before any action could be taken to impound them. This means that our CMC guests are stranded here and rather than lock them in a storeroom, I’ll be asking them to continue working while they keep this office informed of their…”

The image froze and disappeared. The tablet announced that the link to the network had been lost and Leah and Cole looked at each other.

“I guess Gavin didn’t want to listen to Owen,” Leah said. “I bet he’s making his move.”

“Are you still going into the colony?” Marie asked.

Leah nodded. “It won’t help Owen to disappear out here. You two were already sent out here to work, I’d stay. I want to see how the colony feels, what people’s reactions to me are like. And we need to know what Gavin is doing.”

The tablet announced there was a direct link from the colonial authority.

“Hey Owen, looks like tech trouble,” Leah said.

“Looks like. Before I send Maya up to get you, what’s your feeling about coming down today?”

“We were just talking about that, I’ll see you in a little while.”

“Okay. Gavin and a couple of other people were no-shows at their jobs this morning which didn’t make the other workers very happy. From what I’m hearing down here, most of the colony is pretty sympathetic to you guys. You shouldn’t have any problems.”

“And I’ve got pretty good back up out here,” Leah said, winking at Cole. “I’m sure it’ll be fine.”

Owen looked up when his tablet pinged. The computer announced that network connectivity was restored a minute later. He tried to check his messages but the mail server still wasn’t responding. A video window automatically opened, Gavin was standing in front of one of the farm buildings with several people behind him.

“People of the Arboreal Colony, you know me. I am speaking as the voice of the Culture of Resistance.”

“Oh, for fuck’s sake,” Owen said. He should have been expecting this.

“As part of our resistance against the current, illegal, government, we have been forced to restrict your network access. For that I apologize, but I have no choice until Administrator Lykos resigns and surrenders himself. You are all aware of his announcement last week; he was changing the status of this place, from colony to CMC scientific outpost. This means Lykos is subject to the same Order of Attainder as the rest of the CMC. We call for his immediate resignation and surrender to the lawful authority, The Culture of Resistance.”

“The status change hasn’t been acted on, dumbass,” Owen muttered at the screen.

“Lykos has also failed to detain the CMC criminals currently on Arboreal. This is a direct violation of the Committee’s charter for this colony, an offense that demands the immediate removal of the administrator in question.”

Owen wondered if Gavin realized he’s contradicted his first statement. Probably not, it looked like he was focused more on the drama of the moment rather than any sort of logic.

“Finally we are calling for the surrender of the CMC goons currently on Arboreal. You probably haven’t been told, but Captain Jones assaulted two citizens of this colony, using a firearm. Do we really want to return to the bad old days of Earth? Murder in the streets and lawlessness? I don’t think we do. Therefore I am also demanding the surrender, or capture, of the CMC officers. They will be tried by the same tribunal that will judge Owen Lykos.

“You might be wondering what the Culture of Resistance can do to make ourselves heard? We only have a few simple shotguns and slingshots, nothing like the assault rifles and automatic pistols being brandished by Ferrualt’s CMC attack dogs. I’ll tell you. Myself and my followers have taken over both of the farms in addition to the communications network. We are not cruel people, I personally abhor violence but something must be done to return a lawful government to power.

Therefore, no more food will be delivered until Owen Lykos and his goons have surrendered, no more communications with the courier ship will be allowed until these criminals are brought to justice. I regret the hardships this will cause on all of us, but the corrupt leadership here must be brought to its knees. Tell them how you feel, tell them you want your food back, your network with all its gifts of books and videos. If he won’t listen to me, maybe he’ll listen to all of you.”

The window closed and the computer announced that the link to the communication network had been lost again. Owen pinched the bridge of his nose and sat back in his chair. They had more than enough One-Day bars to keep them going for a long time, but they were universally despised. One way or another, this would be over long before the colony ran out of food.

|4.0

After Leah had gone down to meet Maya and the quad, Marie got to work cataloging some plant samples she’d gathered. Cole set up a transmitter so they could keep in touch with Xerxes and Agamemnon who were still orbiting overhead. Then he went to put the finishing touches on the eloisha shelter. As it got warmer, Marie pulled her work table into the Meeting. They both had an audience for a while until the eloisha went off to whatever they did all day. Cole noticed there were a lot fewer of the annoying flying insects around and figured they were getting eaten. He didn’t mind that at all.

The sun began to beat on Cole as well and he finally gave up and went in search of some shade. He hung the wet shirt outside and came in bare chested.

“It’s great in here,” Marie said from inside. Cole stepped in and was immediately cooler. The multiple arches captured some of the breezes moving up the trees and channeled it inside.

Cole drained a bottle of water and wiped his face. “I’ll be glad when it cools off a little. I’m running out of shirts.”

Marie looked up and smiled. “So go without one, I won’t faint.”

He was a lot more comfortable without it and sat in a camp chair and started catching up on his journal. Once the mess at Hub got cleared up, CMC would want to know what had been going on out here. Leah just made a video recording but Cole was more comfortable writing it out.

“Do you care if I listen to music?” Marie asked, coming back into the Meeting. He looked up and she smiled. She’d taken off her shirt and put her hair up. She’d also traded her usual shorts for a much shorter, gauzier pair.

“Music would be great. Feeling cooler?”

“Yes, thanks. You don’t mind more skin?”

“Are you kidding?”

They were absorbed in what they were doing for the rest of the day. The eloisha showed up and Cole counted them. They’d been lucky so far but he knew they were bound to lose a few and knew he shouldn’t do it but he couldn’t help it. So far they’d been lucky. Leah had had eleven and he had beat her by one. He frowned and counted again. They had taken to using the Meeting as an indoor playground, it wasn’t easy to count as they zipped around whistling in the dimness. Maybe they were moving too fast, but he kept getting twenty-four. Finally he noticed one that was smaller than the others. It was shyer as well, watching him but staying out of reach.

“What’s going on?” Marie asked.

“I think we’ve got a guest here.”

The other eloisha seemed to be calling to it. The newcomer stayed well out of reach but seemed happy otherwise.

Marie attached a small speaker to her tablet and started some music. Soon all of the eloisha were perched on the rafters above her, staring at the speaker.

“I think they like it,” she said. One of them glided to the table and landed beside the speaker and whistled at it.

“What are you listening to? It sounds familiar.”

“Music from the eighties, remember Oingo Boingo?”

“Vaguely, I was more of a metal and rap fan.”

Marie rolled her eyes. “Why am I not surprised? This one is called Dead Man’s Party, I think it was in a movie.”

More eloisha landed on the table. Soon they were perched on Marie and the speaker, staring at the holes where the sound emerged. The song ended and Marie stopped the player, curious what they’d do. Several nudged the speaker and there were chirps and whistles and scattered attempts to mimic the song. Cole got up and came over.

“You might have started a riot.”

Marie laughed. “A little tiny one. Let’s see what happens if I play it again.”

The eloisha were immediately quiet, staring at the speaker. Cole smiled and set up his tablet to record the scene. The eloisha started whistling excitedly when the music stopped. Marie was playing with one of them and didn’t restart the song right away.

One of the eloisha on top of the little speaker suddenly mimicked a horn stab from the song. The others began imitating different parts of the music.

“That’s amazing,” Cole said. “Try it again.”

The eloisha were delighted and sang back at the speaker, imitating it perfectly in higher pitched voices. There was a noise from above them and Cole looked up into the rafters. The visiting eloisha was trying to whistle along but was making mistakes.

Marie let the next song start but the eloisha had lost interest and jumped off the table, swooping up into the rafters. Cole kept his eye on the newcomer, two of the larger ones landed near it and whistled. It whistled back and there was a complicated series of chirps back and forth. Then the newcomer imitated the whistle perfectly and all three jumped into the air and glided outside.

“What was that all about?” Marie asked.

“I think they were teaching the new one how to make the right noise. Wow.”

There were a series of tiny horn stabs from the rafters.

“Oh shit,” Marie. “If they’re teaching each other there’s going to be tiny ska trumpets all over the place and it’ll be my fault.”

“We’re bound to influence them in unexpected ways. They seem to really like the horns though.”

“I really hope I’m interrupting something naughty,” Leah said when she came into the Meeting. The two of them were sitting, passing the video back and forth, laughing.

“Just staying cool,” Marie said, looking up with a smile. “But I can always be talked into naughty.”

“Staying cool? That was Cole’s idea wasn’t it?”

“Actually it was. Damn, does he do that a lot?”

Leah nodded. “He’s quite infamous in fact.”

“I didn’t tell you to take off your clothes,” Cole protested. “In fact, you told me to take off mine.”

Leah looked at Marie sympathetically. “And he used that reverse pressure move, didn’t he?”

“Exactly right.”

“All the kids asleep? I knew I was going to miss them.”

“They just disappeared but you should see this video,” Cole said, holding up his tablet. Leah raised her eyebrows and sat down. Soon all three of them were laughing again.

“I think we’d better show this to Lakshmi,” Leah said, wiping her eyes. “Hopefully we’re not screwing them up somehow.”

Lakshmi and Thorn had appeared as the sun dipped behind the trees. After the Anek greeted all of them deliberately, almost formally, the five of them sat out in the open, enjoying the sun and cooler breezes that were coming through the trees. Thalia and Lakshmi sat between humans, all of them touching. Cole explained what had happened and showed them the video. They could feel the amazement of both Anek.

(I’ve never seen anything like that. Are they all males?)

“I very much doubt it,” Thorn said. “Even if they were, mimicking sounds doesn’t begin until we hear the ancestor voices. They seem to be growing very quickly as well. Have any been lost?”

Cole shook his head. “I count every day. I’m pretty sure an eloisha from another brood followed them back here. A couple seemed to be trying to teach it what they knew.”

(They are acting like a tribe already? This is not how it has worked in the past)

“I agree,” Thorn said. “What little I know of eloisha is that they live alone. It’s not until the voice of ancestors begins to speak to them that they find a tribe and learn to live with others. Something has changed in this brood.”

Leah sat up. “Obviously it’s us. Cole and I dreamt of them every night, we thought they might be aware of us as well. From the loss of the tathinni until now, the eloisha have struggled on their own, cooperation probably just meant less food to go around. Now they’ve got a safe home to work from, they can begin teaching each other what works best.”

(Beloved, I think this is near to the truth) Lakshmi said.

“But the old stories, they never mentioned eloisha being so active or communicating,” Thorn said.

(But the tathinni weren’t as advanced as the humans. Are there stories about tathinni knowledge appearing in eloisha?)

“I know of nothing, but what could a tathinni know? This is quite remarkable and we need to spread this knowledge among our Elders.”

(Agreed. I will tell them when I go to tell them of the insanity that has affected the humans. I am unhappy that it has happened)

“We’re not happy either,” Cole assured her. “I will go with you to the Elders tomorrow, if you think it’s wise.”

(Very wise. They will not question your word. I might be thought to be mistaken, this is a very strange concept for us)

Cole rubbed her arm. “We’re just relaxing until we can take action, not ignoring the danger. I promise.”

There was a mental smile. (Then I’ll follow your example)

“We’ve met female tribes, can you tell us about what a male tribe is like?” Leah asked Thorn. Cole listened as Thorn talked to Leah, repeating everything he had told Cole earlier.

“You don’t have permanent homes then?” Leah asked.

“Not like the females, no. We move from place to place, a group might stay for a season or two. When we notice that the food is becoming harder to find, we move to a new home so that we do not damage the hoom.”

“Are you two the same age?” Marie asked.

“We do not understand time the same way humans see it,” Thorn said. “I am certain that I was born before Lakshmi. Thalia remembers Lakshmi appearing at the village after I became. I do not know how many seasons.”
“Did you know each other before you mated?” Leah asked.

“We did not. I left my village when I felt the breeding time start. I wandered and it was some time later that I smelled Lakshmi nearby. I found her and we began to hunt.”

“Did you talk about mating first?” Marie asked.

Lakshmi felt amused again.

“No,” Thorn said. “That is the purpose of hunting together, to see if we would produce good eloisha. Talking things over like a human wouldn’t work well for us. Both females and males during the breeding fever, we do not always think clearly.”

There was a bubbling sensation of amusement from Lakshmi. (I am sure they will never forget that fact)

“I have questions but I don’t want to cause offense by asking something bad,” Leah said.
Thorn held up a hand. “Part of my time here is to answer whatever questions you may have.”

“Thank you for that. So you only want to breed occasionally?”

“If things are left to nature, yes. Long ago someone found that dust from a certain plant could bring something like the fever, though we are not as aggressive and do not seek out a hunting companion among the females.”

Leah nodded. “So, just for fun.”

“For enjoyment, yes.”

(You gathered this plant, the purple rounded ones. I was amused to see them in the Meeting home until I realized you did not know what they were for)

Marie smiled. “I was testing them to see if humans can eat them.”

“I wonder if it would have the same effect on humans,” Thorn said.

(But they are different, the males do not have the fever cycle)

“Well, it’s not poisonous so we’ll see,” Marie said. She picked up her tablet and made some notes.

“Thorn, can I ask you something else?”

“I truly believe I cannot stop your questions, Leah.”

She laughed. “Just tell me to stop if I ask too much.”

“I am ready for the next question.”

“When you use that plant, I know that the females pleasure each other, is it the same with the males?”

“It is not uncommon for two or more to seek pleasure together. We also have our greln, the smallest arms and hands. They bring pleasure as well. There are other ways that are less common.”

“Is it something bad?” Leah asked.

“I think I know what you are asking. No, these are not forbidden things, just…uncommon.”

(Our speech together is a part of our own path, not that of my tribe. If you want to answer, I remain silent)

“Thank you. You’re aware that wild tathinni can still be found? Not near here, but closer to the waters. When they are trapped and taken away, before they are released, they are occasionally used for pleasure. I have not done this, only heard stories.”

(I have heard that story as well, I did not know whether to believe it)

“And closer to here there is a type of climbing plant. One may wrap it around their penis and then disturb the roots. The plant then contracts repeatedly. The leaves are soft, it is quite pleasurable.”

(Have you attempted to join with a female?)

Thorn shook his head in a very human gesture. “A member of my tribe has joined with my sister. I am told I am not built for it.”

“Thalia?” Leah wouldn’t have guessed that the council member would do something so daring.

“Yes. She is the only sister I know of.”

Leah put her hand on Thorn’s arm. “I’m sorry. I have embarrassed you, I can feel it.”

“You did not intend offense, I am not offended.”

There was a mental sigh. (She wants to ask you a question but cannot find the proper words)

Thorn looked at Leah, who stuck out her tongue at Lakshmi. There was a ripple of amusement back at her.

“Fine. Thorn, the night we first met, beside the river. What was it like?”

“I am not understanding the context of the question. What part of that night do you mean?”

“I want to know what it was like from your eyes. Did you enjoy it?”

Thorn looked at Lakshmi. The three humans were barely able to hear their high pitched chirps and whistles. After a few minutes Thorn’s voice dropped back down into the audible range.

“I understand what you are asking now. After I met Lakshmi, we hunted together and it was a good thing, we matched well. She has told you about our wandering, that we stopped and watched you for a time. You looked much like the tathinni are described and I knew from the tablet that you would probably serve as incubators. That’s all we thought of. During breeding all that is considered is finding the safest possible place for our eloisha. Nothing else can matter. So we watched until evening. Before the yellow moon showed, I came down the tree to your shelter. I listened to you speak there, I had learned your language from the device.”

“Did you already know that you would use us?” Leah asked.

Thorn looked at Cole. “I realized you must be male when you took off your clothing. This stirred an ancient part of me. Males avoid each other during the fever, we do not always behave rationally. I might have chased you away but instead I plotted to…paralyze? Yes. Paralyze you. I wrapped you in your bedding and put you out of the way. I had heard enough of your voice to imitate you and I waited for the female to come.”

“It wasn’t quite perfect,” Leah said. “But close enough that I took off my clothes. I was already really horny. You pushed me flat on my back, I knew it wasn’t Cole’s hand but it didn’t really matter because I was suddenly blindingly horny.”

“I had begun to touch your…I do not know the word. I began to make you feel.”

“Yes you did,” Leah said and laughed. “I don’t know what you put inside of me at first, it felt amazing.

“Ah. I started with the smallest arms, underneath me. You’ve seen the female version? We are the same there. Your body was soft and warm and wet and I knew you would be perfect.”

“I was curious about something,” Leah said. “At first you put your penis inside of my vagina but then entered my anus. Were you confused?”

There was a cascade of amusement from Lakshmi. (He was not confused)

Cole didn’t think an Anek could look embarrassed but Thorn was giving it a try.

“Ah. As I said, you were warm and wet. I wanted to know what you would feel like surrounding my penis.”

Leah smiled. “You liked it?”

“Very much so. Once I knew my sperm had gathered, I stopped. Putting it in you there would not have worked.”

“And you turned me over,” Leah said. “I saw poor Cole wrapped like a burrito on the floor but I still didn’t care. I just wanted you to use me.”

“Yes, that was the desire I gave you. I was surprised to learn that the feelings did not depart you after we left.”

“But they did,” Leah said. “I’m the adventurous type and we were already aroused. I liked that feeling. You turned me over and entered my ass. Was that as nice?”

“When I made you slippery, yes. You were a gorgeous tathinni.”

“And then Lakshmi came to me.” Leah stroked her arm. “Thank you for telling me, Thorn.”

(Now I am becoming aroused at these thoughts. Is that your plan, adorable Beloved?)

Leah didn’t answer, just smiled at her and turned back to Thorn. “Would you be interested in mating again for pleasure?”

Thorn looked at her without saying anything but they could smell the sharp citrus odor of surprise.

“What are you asking?” Thorn finally said.

Leah smiled. “I’m asking if you would like to…explore me, again.”

“I was surprised Cole accepted me as a representative for the males. I did not expect this.”

“Expect nothing but surprise from a human,” Lakshmi said.

“I would very much like to feel your body again,” Thorn said.
Leah who smiled and stood up. “I was thinking right here unless anyone objects?”

Marie felt a flutter in her stomach. “I’d love to see that,” she said, her voice a little husky. “Those pods are on my work table.”

“Don’t go anywhere,” Leah said to Thorn and went inside. She was back a minute later with several of the objects in her hand. “What do you do with these? Do I need to help?”

“There is a dust inside, it affects me on the back quills or the place I smell.”

“Hmm, I think this is better done without clothes,” Leah said. She pulled her shirt over her head and smiled at Cole before unhooking her bra and kicking her shorts off. They could see a wet spot on her panties before she pulled them off.

Thorn removed the belts that were wrapped around him as Leah broke open one of the purple pods.

“May I?”

Thorn lowered himself and pulled aside the cloth that covered the soft spines. “You can put it directly here.”

Leah licked her finger and thumb and put them in the gray powder. When they were covered, she gently stroked one of Thorn’s quills, leaving gray streaks on the dark blue. He shivered slightly.

“That’s okay?”

“It is very good.”

She opened another pod. “This is safe for us?” she asked Marie who nodded.

Leah tapped some pollen into her mouth before licking one of his quills and beginning to suck on it. She repeated the process twice more.

“Are two of those enough?” she asked Thorn.

“Two! A part of one is adequate.” He shivered. “I should have said.”

“I’m so sorry, will it harm you? I should have asked.”

Thorn shivered again. “Not harm, no. But my desire will be very strong.”

“Oh, I think we can deal with that,” Leah said, stroking his quills.

Thorn shuddered and said something they didn’t understand but the meaning was pretty clear as the seam on Thorn’s underside started to widen. The long penis slipped out, falling underneath him as the pocket opened fully. The penis was a dark blue-gray, about thirty centimeters long. It was thicker at the base and tapered to a slightly cupped end that wasn’t much larger than a human penis.

Marie noticed Lakshmi caressing Cole. After a second, he nodded and got out of his chair. Leah kept stroking the quills along Thorn’s back as Cole took off his shorts.

“Marie, why don’t you come sit closer? You can see better if you sit with Lakshmi,” Cole said.

Marie nodded and took the chair Leah had left. Lakshmi’s human sized hand touched her shoulder.

(I did not expect to see this)

Marie smiled at her. “I’m glad you’re here.”

Thorn shuddered again. “It is almost a breeding fever, such feelings I have for you…”

“Let me feel them,” Leah said, tracing a quill. She trembled as one of the larger arms caressed her back.

“Do you feel it?” Thorn asked.

Leah first shuddered and then moaned. “Holy shit! I can feel it alright, I want you to fuck me so bad. Cole, I want you to watch, like last time. Please? I’ll make you feel so good.”

“I’m not going anywhere,” Cole said. He stepped closer, rubbing her shoulder and she turned and pulled him into a hard kiss.

(I tried kissing like that. We do not feel the same thing as you)

Marie was getting horny watching the couple make out as they leaned against the Anek. “We’ll have to find a substitute then.”

(Leah has said the same. I am looking forward to having the time to spend searching for the path)

Thorn caressed Leah’s body and she moaned, pressing herself against his torso.

Thorn looked at Cole and raised a hand. “No fear this time. Your choice.”

Cole looked at Leah writhing in Thorn’s other arm and smiled. “What the hell.” He put his hand in Thorn’s, almost like they were shaking hands and Marie saw Cole shudder.

“What are they feeling?” she asked Lakshmi.

(I’m not certain what it feels like from a male, but I will show you our way)

The quivery feeling in Marie’s stomach got stronger and she felt her nipples harden. She watched as Leah rubbed herself against Thorn, a little jealous. She wanted to fuck like that too, wanted to be naked and dirty in front of everyone. Marie pinched one of her nipples through the light shirt and shivered.

(Something like that) Lakshmi felt slightly amused and very aroused.

Marie leaned against her. “Is this okay? The contact?”

(It is lovely)

“I bet you’d be a huge hit at a party,” Marie said.

She was having a hard time not touching herself. The lust Lakshmi had made her feel wasn’t there but there was plenty of her own. Lakshmi felt confused about the idea of a party and Marie tried to give her the image of one of the last nights on the Ericsson; the captain had summoned her to the conference room on the ship. He’d been waiting for her naked, along with the Tactical Officer and a cute engineer…

There was a peppery citrus smell that interrupted her memory. (We must teach you not to shout.) Lakshmi felt amused, not upset. (You awaken feelings in us just as much as we do you. I look forward to one of your parties)

Marie realized she was playing with her nipples again. “Would you mind if I took this shirt off?”

(Please, be comfortable)

Thorn used the larger arms to pluck Leah off the ground and she moaned as he laid her on the mossy cushion Thorn had been resting on. Cole sat on the deck next to her and she kissed him as Thorn stepped closer, standing half over her. Leah saw his penis hanging down and swallowed. She spread her legs and reached up to stroke the bottom of his torso. Thorn lowered himself and stepped forward again. Leah rubbed her clit until the greln hands pushed her hand away and began to stroke her with feather light touches.

Leah looked at Cole, biting her bottom lip. “I want him in me so bad,” she whimpered.

Cole sat back slightly, watching as one miniature hand spread her lips while the other teased her wet hole. Leah was moaning, lifting her hips toward the tiny hands as one pushed inside of her. Leah’s back arched as she orgasmed. The other hand found her clit, driving her deeper into spasms of pleasure.

Thorn crouched lower, the head of his penis touching her leg and Leah pulled her legs wider.

“Fuck me,” she moaned. “Put that beautiful cock in me and make me scream!”

The tiny hands stretched her lips wide. Cole saw that the penis was slightly prehensile; it moved almost like an elephant’s trunk. Thorn folded his legs, his body almost touching hers. The penis found Leah’s hole and pushed inside of her. Thorn was still as the penis extended, more of it slithering between her lips. Leah was orgasming, crying out in soft little ‘oh’ noises. Thorn stopped pushing into her but Leah’s back arched again, she was grunting breathlessly and Cole was curious what it was doing inside of her.

Leah looked at Cole, panting. “Do you like watching? It’s making me so fucking horny!”

Cole knelt down and kissed her and she pushed her tongue into his mouth. She moaned against his lips. Thorn withdrew his penis and unfolded the walking legs slightly. He reached down for Leah and she giggled when he picked her up and turned her over. The greln were already back between her legs and Leah’s eyes widened as the small hands moved from her pussy to her ass. The penis was already extending again and there was a clear get dripping from the head.

“You’re going to fuck me in the ass?” Leah asked, looking at Thorn over her shoulder.

“You must be inseminated,” Thorn said. His voice sounded strained.

“Yes! Put it in my ass, inseminate me!” Leah reached back and spread herself. The hands were scooping the clear gel off the penis and rubbing it in her crack. Leah gasped as one pushed inside of her, pushing the gel into her. They guided the head against her asshole and it narrowed slightly as it pressed against her. The tip slid in easily and Leah let go of her ass, reaching for her nipples as more of it slid inside. She pinched her nipples hard, shoving back against it. Thorn said something to Cole but she wasn’t paying attention. Cole knelt down in front of her and Leah grinned up at him before taking his cock into her mouth.

(Ah, the mouth blowjob. Those are very pleasurable. Do all humans do this?)

Marie smiled up at her. “A lot of us do, using our mouths is a common way to bring pleasure to each other. Leah sucked your ovipositor?”

(Yes. And before that, the quills on my back. They are very sensitive)

“These right here?” Marie traced one of the long soft spikes and Lakshmi shivered.

(Your mouth is quite lovely. It would be a pleasure to watch my flesh in it)

Marie was surprised and aroused at Lakshmi’s matter of fact tone. What would that feel like? She wouldn’t mind trying that herself. Lakshmi’s skin was smooth and warm against her skin and Marie wondered if her ovipositor was covered with the soft fur as well.

Leah took Cole’s cock out of her mouth and gasped as Thorn withdrew slightly and then pushed forward again. Leah grunted, twisting her nipple and Thorn pushed more inside.

“He’s so fucking deep,” she groaned. “Do I feel good on your cock, Thorn?”

“Yes, you feel very good.”

“Tell me.”

“You are soft and warm and squeeze me. You are a little tathinni begging to be penetrated and filled. Smooth and adorable and I will fill you with my sperm.”

“Yeah? I think you’re the one begging to fuck that tight ass,” Leah gasped. “Come on, I know you can fuck faster than that.”

Thorn made a grating noise and his load arms pulled her closer. Leah moaned her approval.

“You like your little tathinni fuck toy talking back, don’t you?” she gasped. “It excites you.”

“Yes!” Thorn said.
He slid Leah forward and then back, burying more of his cock inside her.

Marie watched Leah writhe underneath Thorn and wondered what it felt like. Could Cole fuck her at the same time? She wouldn’t mind being fucked in the ass. Maybe she could take Lakshmi at the same time. Marie wondered if any of the Anek had ever done that or if there was a taboo against it. She wanted to lay on top of this strange beautiful creature, feeling their skin together. Even better would be to feel her pushing deeply into her. Marie bit her lip, imagining Thorn mounting her as well, his penis squirming against her ass…

Lakshmi stirred. Her front, human sized, arm stroked Marie’s shoulder. (Lovely thing, are you meaning to share these thoughts with me or had you forgotten?)

Marie’s face turned bright red. “I totally forgot you could hear me,” she whispered.

(Why are you ashamed? You have wonderfully exciting thoughts. As much uumphra as Leah spread over his quills, Thorn will likely be willing to mate until tomorrow morning. If you’d like to know what we feel like that is. As for taboo, it’s another strange concept you have. Things are of the path, or not of the path. What beings do of their own accord is their own path. Perhaps we’ll discuss that another time)

“It sounds very interesting. I was wondering, do you find me attractive? Like Leah I mean?”

There was a flutter in her mind and Marie felt Lakshmi’s arousal again. (Of course I do. We find humans exotic and adorable. You are excited by all of this?)

“Uh huh,” Marie said. There was a tickle along her calf and she looked down to see the greln hands stroking her legs. The seam on Lakshmi’s underside had begun to spread.
“Let’s get these shorts out of the way,” Marie said and giggled when Lakshmi picked her up and helped her get them off.

Leah was having a constant stream of orgasms and moaned her approval as Cole grabbed her head and thrust into her throat. She felt his cock spasm as he came down her throat. She licked her lips as Cole sat back.

“You taste so nice baby, thank you for this. You both feel so good.”

“Soon I will put my seed in you,” Thorn said.

Leah moaned and put her hands on Cole’s legs. “Yes Thorn, give it to me! Pump me full of your cum!”

Thorn shoved it deep. Leah screamed, twisting her nipples. Cole saw the base of his penis ripple, peristaltic waves pushing the sperm deep inside of Leah.

Lakshmi shifted herself and set Marie between Lakshmi’s larger running legs. The greln were touching her again and Marie shivered as they explored her sex.
(You asked if I found you desirable) Lakshmi’s voice sounded breathless. (My desire drives me to answer that you are the most gorgeous of tathinni, smooth and cuddly. I would mate you, feel your flesh wrapped tightly around me as I laid young deep inside you. I would feel you quiver and hear your cries as I sealed them inside)

Marie groaned at the idea. “Oh god, I want to feel you inside me, throbbing and pumping me full. I got so excited when Leah told me about you. Please fuck me.”

Marie felt something nudge her leg and looked down to see the ovipositor fully extended. “Wow,” she breathed. “Let me down for just a moment.” She knelt in front of Lakshmi and stroked the long heavy tube. “This is gorgeous. Let me show you what I can do.”

Marie licked and sucked the head, Lakshmi’s human sized arms petted and stroked her as Lakshmi crooned her approval. Marie pushed her mouth down, relaxing her throat and Lakshmi popped into her throat. Marie pushed further and then sat up, breathing hard as Lakshmi’s tube fell out of her mouth, slick with her saliva. There was a citrus smell and Marie smiled.

“You said something about humans and surprises?”

(Indeed)

Thorn and Cole sat on the cushion as Leah caught her breath. Thorn made a noise and Cole said “holy shit” quietly. Leah sat up in time to see Marie forcing her mouth down over Lakshmi, her throat bulging as the ovipositor slid deeper. Marie was barely able to take it and sat back again. Despite all of the orgasms, Leah felt her pulse quicken. The sight was as exciting as she thought it would be.

(Do not harm yourself)

“Oh no.” Marie smiled up at her. “I like doing it. But would you fuck me with that beautiful thing?”

Lakshmi didn’t say anything, just picked her up and held her closely as the greln stroked and guided the tube into Marie’s cunt.

“Wow,” Leah whispered. Watching another person was almost as hot as being fucked herself. Marie was moaning loudly, obviously loving the feel of it. She felt something move and saw Thorn’s penis extending again. He said something to Lakshmi they could barely hear and she answered back.

“I desire her as well,” Thorn said.

“Do you need more pollen?” Leah asked.

“No! No, the effect lasts for a day and night. As much as you used…”

Leah started giggling. “Sorry. What did you say to Lakshmi?”

Thorn looked at her. “I asked her permission to mate her tathinni as well. Understand that we don’t usually refer to you this way. Just the lust we feel makes us…”

Leah laughed. “Don’t worry. We like talking dirty too.”

“Is she going to share?” Cole asked.

“She told me what the little adorable desires. We will share her.”

“Oh my,” Leah said as Thorn stood and walked toward Lakshmi.

Marie pulled and pinched her nipples as she rode the ovipositor. It felt incredible and she could feel another orgasm coming.

(Stay still)
Lakshmi supported her body and Marie looked behind her to see Thorn. She gasped as she realized what they were going to do.

“I think I’m jealous,” Leah whispered as Thorn guided himself to Marie’s ass.

“Greedy greedy,” Cole said and Leah smiled at him.

“That’s true, I’m a greedy little slut. But something pressing into me says I’m not the only one who likes this.”

Marie groaned loudly as Thorn entered her.

“Do you like that?”

“Fuck yes! Slow, go slow. You’re the biggest thing I’ve ever had in my ass.” Marie’s eyes widened as the ovipositor and penis both began to writhe inside of her.

“I want you inside me,” Leah said, rolling onto her stomach. “I want you to punish me for being such a dirty slut. I fucked him right in front of you, show my greedy little cunt whose cock it belongs to.”

Cole knelt behind her and shoved inside of her. Leah whimpered but pushed back against him. He grabbed her hips and began pounding into her and Leah began to cum again.

(She is very tight, very warm)

The voice inside Marie’s head was unfamiliar but she realized it was Thorn.

(Even tighter now) Lakshmi said. (What an odd sensation, I have never heard your voice)

(Let’s speak of it another time. This little tathinni begged for both of us inside of her)

Marie felt Lakshmi’s agreement and she closed her eyes as several sets of arms grabbed her. Marie’s breath was driven out of her in gasps as the Anek began to fuck her, faster and faster. Marie lost herself in the sensations and orgasms, screaming as they both slid deeply inside of her. There was a roar in her head and Marie felt the warm pressure of their fluids filling her.

|5.0
“I think we woke them up last night,” Leah said. Cole nodded. The eloisha were definitely grumpy this morning.

“Hello lovelies.” Marie came out and sat in a chair. The babies grumbled and hissed before gliding up to the roof. “What’s with them?”

Leah laughed. “I think we were too loud.”

“Last night? I don’t know whether to be amused or horrified.”

“We were thinking the same thing. How are you feeling?”

Marie smiled weakly. “Like that’s not something I can do very often. It was amazing though. I’m glad I don’t have anywhere to be today.”

“Henry called and told me to stay put,” Leah said. “So I’m talking Cole into making me a shower and then I’m going to try and get a tan.”

“That’s so nice of you Cole, how are you going to get water up here?”

He sighed. “It was a theoretical problem…oh, don’t start pouting too. Fine, I’ll figure something out.”

In the end, Cole left with Lakshmi before inventing an instant shower and the women had to make do with buckets of water hauled up from below. The eloisha came back in time for Leah’s shower and forgot their earlier grouchiness as they chased the droplets of water. Leah made some soap bubbles that amazed them even more. They happily chased the bubbles until one of them got a mouthful of one and sputtered complaints to the others. After that, they stuck to chasing the water.

“Are you two going to lay there naked all day?” Cole asked as Lakshmi set him down. An eloisha saw her and chirped and she quickly left, pursued by the chirping, whistling horde.

Leah laughed and shook her head. “Why are they so obsessed with the adults?

Marie opened her eyes and looked at Cole. “You know, most normal people wouldn’t complain about two hotties sunbathing naked in front of them.”

“He’s a philistine,” Leah told her and they closed their eyes again.

There were several more announcements, proclamations really, from Gavin throughout the day. Henry checked in that afternoon as well, telling them about the reactions from the colonists he was working with.

“Mostly contempt and some amusement at all the bungling around the Cultural of Resistance is doing. Right after King Cheese announced they were closing the landing strip, there were people out there throwing garbage and shit everywhere. For some reason this hilarious to everyone in town.”

“Is anyone talking about getting rid of Owen?” Cole asked.

Henry shook his head. “They’re waiting for him to get off his ass and fix the situation.”

There was an annoyed voice in the background and Henry laughed. “Owen just said something incredibly inappropriate. Especially for an Administrator. How are things going out there?”

Leah, Cole, and Marie looked at each other and smiled.
Henry laughed. “Sheesh, could you be more obvious? How are the things you’re supposed to be doing coming along?”

“The construction is about finished,” Cole said. “The Anek are watching everything that’s going on in the colony fairly closely. I’ve been to their council to explain what’s going on.”

Henry leaned closer to the camera. “You guys have a Plan B set up?” he asked quietly.

“I don’t know how good it is,” Cole said. “If Gavin succeeds the Anek said they’ll take in anyone who wants to leave. So, worse comes to worse, we’ll retreat to the trees and wait for trouble to blow over.”

“What if it doesn’t?”

Cole shrugged. “It doesn’t sound like the remaining technical types went with Gavin. That means they won’t have any way to pursue us soon, other than on foot. I think pretty quickly he’ll realize that he can’t run a colony with as few people as he has. If he’s stubborn, we’ll wait for them to die out before coming back in a couple of years.”

Henry sat back. “Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that. I’m going to get back to the shop and give Owen his desk back. I was thinking, if you front me a little bit of weed, I wonder if it wouldn’t blunt the phobia a little.”

“We can sure try that,” Cole said. “I’ll meet you tomorrow?”

“Sure, let’s give it a try. I hate that they scare me so much.”

“I’ll see you tomorrow then.”

The three of them didn’t do much actual work for the rest of the day. Cole played a kind of hide and go seek with the eloisha and played several new songs for them. The music was as big a draw as it had been yesterday but Leah put her foot down when Cole tried to introduce them to Sir Mix-a-Lot.

“No, husband. I am not listening to two dozen tiny voices going on about how they love big butts.”

Marie stuck her head into the main room. “I love big butts and I can not lie; the eloisha can’t deny that when a girl walks in with an itty-bitty waist…”

Leah pointed at her. “No.”

“With a round thing in your face?” Cole asked innocently.

“You get sprung!” Marie said before sticking out her tongue at Leah.

Cole tried very hard to keep a straight face as Leah glared at him.

“If I hear just one of my children spout any of that drivel, you both better find really good places to hide…”

There was a tiny but distinct “sprung” from the rafters and Cole and Marie both howled with laughter.

When Thorn and Lakshmi arrived, they had Thalia with them who had more questions from the Elders about the problems at the colony. The Elders were discussing the possibility of intervening and the humans spent a long time convincing her to wait before approaching the rebels.

|6.0
Cole opened his eyes, there was a really irritating noise coming from his tablet as well as Leah’s. She grumbled as he sat up. On the other side of her, Lakshmi stirred slightly.

“Is that the emergency call?” Leah groaned, pulling a pillow over her head. “What time is it?”

“Works out to three in the morning,” Cole said, picking up the tablet. He opened the window and Owen appeared, sitting at his desk.

“What’s going on?” Cole said, waking all the way up. “Are you okay?”

“I’m fine. You’d better get the other two up though. I’ll wait.”

Cole lifted the pillow from Leah’s face and she opened her eyes and nodded. Cole went out to Marie’s tent and Marie was already crawling out. “I heard.”

They sat down and Cole set his tablet up on the table. “Okay Owen.”

“Henry Rogeau was found dead in the street an hour ago. At the same time, Maya reported a break in and assault. She says she’ll be okay but will not leave her hab. She has asked to be left alone. There were several more reports of violence against my citizens but no one else seems to have been badly injured, it looked more like intimidation tactics. The people who did see their attackers reports that they were wearing masks but several claim they recognized voices of some of Gavin’s followers.”

Marie’s face was pale and she was staring at the floor.

“What happened to Henry?” Leah asked.

“It looks like he was attacked by a number of people and…well, they beat him to death. I’m sorry.”

“Not as sorry as they’ll be,” Marie said quietly.

Leah nodded in agreement. “What do you need Owen?”

“I need for this to end. My current thinking is that it would be better for everyone’s safety if I stepped down, just temporarily.”

“No Owen,” Cole said. “If you step down, he wins. There is no temporarily in this situation.”

“Look, I’m not ex-military,” Owen snapped. “I’m not equipped for any of this. If people are going to start getting hurt, it’s not something I know how to deal with.”

Cole shook his head. “Owen, I need you to stop thinking that way right now. You are needed where you are, the people that are loyal are depending on you.”

“Until I get them all killed.”

“I know this hurts,” Leah said. “We feel it too. Now you fix things so this doesn’t happen again. Set a curfew for people, set up a constable to patrol, whatever. If they weren’t weak, they wouldn’t have come at night and they wouldn’t have worn masks.”

“Guys, I’m way over my head here. I’ve got no experience with insurrections. Thanks for the vote of confidence but…”

“Lykos, shut up and listen,” Marie snapped and the other two looked at her in surprise. “We’re not blowing sunshine up your ass here. Did you have experience with plagues when it started? No, but you held the line and got your people through it. Now you need to do it again.”

Owen rubbed his eyes. “I am burnt out. Can’t you people see that?”

Leah sat forward. “Of course we can, and if there was any justice in the universe you’d have a Colonial Ranger regiment on the way. The problem is that there isn’t any justice in the universe and it’s already your turn in the barrel again. I’m sorry as hell, Owen but that’s just the way it is for people with talent like yours. You’re going to get thrown into shitty situations and every time you win, there’s another one waiting. It’s never easy, and it’s never fair and we all get used up in the process.”

Leah sat back and her voice was quieter. “But who else is there, Owen? Anyone that couldn’t hack it, or wasn’t lucky enough is gone. This problem is yours because this colony is yours. I don’t think you’re the type to walk away from it. In fact, I think you’d rather die than abandon your people.”

Owen wiped the tears off his face angrily. “You have a hell of way of comforting people, Captain.”

Leah laughed bitterly. “That wasn’t comforting? Now that I’ve kicked you in the ass, remember that you’re not alone in this. I’ll be on my way as soon as it gets light. Start thinking about who you want as your constable and the best way to make a curfew work.”

Owen sighed. “Fine. Morgan, you stay put. We need to keep communication open with the Anek and I don’t want you down here playing hero.”

Leah smiled. “See? You’re already giving the right orders. If we didn’t think you could do this, you would’ve been relieved already. Hold the line, help is on the way.”

Owen finally nodded and turned off the camera.

“Those motherfuckers better run far and hide deep,” Marie said, her voice breaking. She buried her face in her hands and Leah wrapped her arms around her, holding Marie as she began to weep.

Leah had gotten Marie back to sleep a while before and she walked around quietly, putting gear in a bag. The three Anek had been told what was going on and Lakshmi and Thalia went to update the Elders and Thorn said that he’d return by the end of the day.

“You’ll be careful,” Cole said behind her.

Leah turned around and hugged him tightly. “Yes. I’m just going to bring Maya back along with Henry’s body. They won’t dare attack me in the daylight and I’ve got my gun to deal with it if they’re stupid enough to try. I’ll be back before dark, I promise.”

“I wish I was going along.”

She nodded. “Me too. But Owen was right, your place is here this time. You can go play hide and seek with bad guys next time.”

She kissed him once more and rode the basket to the ground and started walking.

Something bothered Leah as she walked down the trail to the colony and she realized that it was too quiet. The colony looked deserted in fact. She didn’t see another person as she walked to the Admin building. The doors were locked but Owen opened them as soon as she knocked. He closed the door as soon as she was inside and relocked it.

Leah didn’t say anything, just hugged him tightly. He was stiff at first but relaxed and hugged her back.

“It’s going to be okay,” Leah said when she let go of him. “What do you want to get done?”

“I’m setting up a watch with James Humphrey. I can trust him and he can lead. After that I’m getting all of the records in order, one way or another there’s going to be an audit after this. Henry’s body is over at the fabrication shop, do you know what he’d want done?”

“I asked Marie, he didn’t want to be buried in the ground. Cremation or an orbit into a star. Neither of those things are possible at the moment. The Anek offered to take him.”

“Did you ever find out what their customs are?”

“Other than being told that the soul is sung into the Path, no.”

“As scared as he was of them, I don’t know if that’s the best idea.”

“Henry was really annoyed about the phobia, he knew it was stupid and wanted to meet the Anek. We all thought that giving his body to them might be what he wanted.”

“I’ll call over to the shop and tell them you’re coming.”

“That’s fine. What about Maya?”

Owen sighed. “After the first call she stopped answering her phone. I got one text asking me to leave her alone. Terri and Stan, my last medical people went and knocked on the door and she told them to go away, she was fine. I’m not sure what to do next.”

“I’m taking her back with me,” Leah said. “She’s not safe here, Gavin will go after her again.”

Owen nodded after a second. “Okay, good. I loaded a portable charger in the back of the cargo quad this morning. I want you to keep that and the quad up there at the Meeting. The Anek were told?”

“They’re baffled by this and not very happy. We talked them out of intervening for now but they’re watching closely.”

Owen sat down at his desk. “I really hope this doesn’t screw things up with them.”

She took off her pack and began taking pieces out of it. “You’ve got enough to worry about, we’ll handle that.”

“What is that?” Owen asked as she laid the pieces on the desk.

“My rifle. I didn’t want to push things carrying it openly, since we’re under arrest and all that. But I can put it next to me in the quad without being too obvious.”

Owen watched as she quickly assembled the pieces and ran the bolt back and forth a couple of times. “Please don’t let that out of your sight. Just one of those in the wrong hands…”

She showed him a mark on her palm. “It’d be worthless. All our weapons are keyed to implanted identity chips.”

“And be careful Leah.”

“I’m the very soul of caution. I’m going to pick up Henry’s body first and then go get Maya.”

There were three people sitting on the work tables when Leah went into the fab shop. A blonde woman hopped off the table and met her. She had a bruised jaw and a black eye and Leah could see that she’d been crying.

“Captain, I’m Dori Ivanovich. I’m so sorry about this.”

“It’s just Leah, Dori. This wasn’t your fault, no one thinks it is.”

“We weren’t letting him go anywhere alone, he was staying with me. They kicked in the door while we were asleep. I fought, we both did, but there were just too many of them…”

Leah squeezed her arm gently. “There was nothing else you could have done, I’m glad you weren’t hurt worse. I know Henry would say the same thing.”

“Did you know him a long time?”

Leah nodded. “We were both part of the Vanguard Project, I met him in school when he was fifteen.”

The woman sighed and tears ran down her face. “I’m so sorry.”

Leah smiled and wiped her own eyes. “You have nothing to be sorry for. Thank you for defending my friend. We’ll take care of him at the Meeting.”

She nodded. “We wrapped him up. You have the cargo quad? I’ll open the main door and you can pull in.”

Henry had been wrapped tightly in several sheets. Even so, there were dark spots where blood was starting to leak through. Leah made sure the body was strapped securely and thanked the three in the shop once more before heading to the habitat that Maya had moved into.

Leah got out and walked over to the stairs. There still wasn’t anyone on the paths and no sounds beyond the wind. The door to the hab had been kicked in, several pieces of the lock were in scattered around the breezeway. Leah tapped on the door.

“Maya?”

“I’m fine, go away,” a voice said from the other side.

Leah frowned, it sounded like Maya was slurring her words. “You know that’s not going to work with me, doll. I want to talk to you.”

It was quiet and then Leah heard something being dragged away from the door which swung open with nothing to hold it closed. Leah went inside, the windows were all covered by blankets.

“They tore down the blinds,” Maya said. “The lights were broken as well.”

Leah looked around, it looked like there had been an explosion in the space. “I can already guess what happened. Someone broke into Dori’s hab last night and dragged Henry out. She got pretty banged up too.”

“Pretty banged up?” Maya came out of the hallway to the bedroom and bathroom.
Both of her eyes were black and her nose had been pushed to the side. Her face was shadowed with bruises and her lips were puffy and had been split open.

Leah caught her breath. “Oh Maya, I’m so sorry.”

“I was asleep and they just kicked in the door and started hitting me. I tried to fight back but they just hit me more. Please…just stop looking at me.”

Leah went over and stood in front of her. “Then can I hug you?”

Maya just nodded, tears running down her face. Leah embraced her gently but Maya stiffened.

“My ribs, they were kicking me…”

“Okay.” Leah let her go.

“Will you help me find the rest of my stuff? They said they’d be back, I’m going to move to the Admin garage, those doors are heavier.”

“No, you’re coming with me to the Meeting. You’ll be safe there.”

“I can’t, Owen needs me here.”

“Don’t start arguing with me,” Leah said. “I’ll be here to help him if he needs it. Let’s get you packed.”

They found some of her clothes but everything else was a loss. Leah had her sit on the bed to supervise as Leah packed her bags.

“How is Henry?” Maya asked as Leah zipped the duffle shut.

“Uhm.”

“Tell me,” Maya sighed.

“They dragged him out and beat him to death in the street.”

Maya started to sob, falling to her side on the bed. “Why? Why would they kill someone? What about Dori?”

Leah got on the bed and carefully wrapped her arms around Maya’s shaking body. “It’s okay, Dori is fine. She has a black eye, they won’t hurt her too badly. She’s the only real technical person left. They’re terrifying everyone so people won’t resist them taking over.”

“I’m so dizzy and I can’t remember anything!”

“You’ve probably got a concussion, it’ll get better.”

Finally she got Maya up and out to the quad. Leah went back in to get her bags and when she came out there were several people on their porches watching silently. Maya was standing by the quad with her hand on Henry’s head. Leah had been doing a good job keeping her rage under control but the silent staring pushed her too far. She put the bag in the back and helped Maya into the passenger seat.

Leah stopped in front of the quad and looked at them. “Listen up, citizens. Either of these people could have been one of you last night, and it might be you in the future. You’ll be the one hurt, terrified, and hiding in your own house. If you’re lucky. Imagine knowing that your friends and neighbors just let it happen to you, that they didn’t raise a finger to help. You want there to be a human race in the future? Start proving that there deserves to be one.”

They just stared at her and Leah got in the quad and backed it onto the path and drove away. No one said anything or even looked at each other. It would take time before they could even look each other in the eye.

Leah and Maya were both quiet on the drive to the Meeting. By the time they were pulling up Marie was waiting. They helped Maya down.

Leah got her bag out of the quad. “I think she’s got a concussion, I don’t know if I want her riding the basket up in this state.”

“Thorn sent friends to come and keep watch for us. Maybe one of them can help.”

“I hope that I can. What has happened?” a voice asked from above them. The Anek was perched on the lowest branches, looking down.

“She was attacked, I’m concerned she won’t be able to hold on to the basket like this.”

The Anek swung and jumped several meters to the massive trunk and slithered down until he was standing beside them. “I have taken the name Jeeua for you. I know your names. Who is this one?”

“I’m Maya,” she slurred and Leah steadied her.

“Would you permit me to carry you to the Meeting home, Maya?”

“I don’t want to be a bother. I can hold on to the basket.”

“I don’t think that would be wise,” Jeeua said. “You are injured, I will do this thing for you.”

“Her ribs are probably injured,” Leah said. She pointed to her own sides. “Through here.”

“Thank you, I’ll be most careful,” Jeeua said. His large rear arms carefully picked Maya up and he held her against his back. “Are you comfortable Maya?”

She wrapped her arms around his chest. “I’ll try not to squeeze too tightly.”

“Cling as tightly as you like,” he said, turning to pat her head. “What about this other one?”

“He was killed,” Marie said. “There’s no rush.”

The Anek shuddered. “I have fear that the insanity has gripped your people as it took the tathinni.”

“It’s a different sickness. We’ll talk about it later,” Leah said.

“Go up and get her settled, guys,” Marie said. “I’ll sit here with Henry.”

Jeeua carefully climbed up the trunk, Maya squeezing her eyes shut.

“You’ll be okay for a few minutes?” Leah asked Marie.

“I’m fine, take care of the living first. He’s not going anywhere.”

Leah rode the basket up to the platform. Jeeua was already there, holding Maya carefully.

“I should not stay long, the eloisha….”

Leah nodded. “I’ll take care of her.”

“Thank you for carrying me,” Maya mumbled.

“You were hardly a burden,” Jeeua said, letting go only when Leah put her arm around Maya’s shoulders. “I will return to see you are comfortable.”

He jumped to the trunk and ran out along one of the branches.

“He’s nice,” Maya said as Leah led her to the long ledge they’d taken to calling a couch. “I’m so tired.”

“Let’s take a look at you before I let you sleep,” Leah said. There was a thump on the platform as something landed outside. There were delighted whistles as the eloisha zoomed into the dome and circled the inside. Cole walked quickly inside.

“How is she?”

Maya waved weakly and said hi. Cole touched her hand, smiling at her.

“I don’t know if it’s concussion or her mouth that’s making her slur words. She didn’t sleep last night.”

Cole grabbed the medical kit and opened it. “Let’s take a look.”

Leah helped Maya to lie back and Cole shone a light in each of her eyes.

“That hurts a little.”

“I’m sorry, we don’t have to do that again,” Cole said. He took a couple of the cold packs and activated them, putting them on her head. “This should help with the headache. I’d like to take a look at the rest of you.”

“Not as good as it used to be,” she muttered.

“Hush, you’ll always be a doll,” Cole said. “Now, can you open your mouth for me?”

“Do you need me? I was going to go sit with Marie,” Leah asked.

Cole said he’d be fine and Leah kissed Maya’s forehead and rode back down to the ground. Marie was sitting on the edge of the cargo bed with her hand on Henry’s head and tears running down her face. Leah climbed up beside her and put her arm around Marie who leaned on her.

Cole tucked a blanket around Maya. The eloisha were perched in the rafters above them, watching intently. One of them glided down to the bed and climbed onto the pillow. It whistled softly and nuzzled her face.

Maya smiled. “Who are these guys?”

“Baby Anek. I’ll get them out of here.”

“No, they’re sweet,” Maya mumbled. “I can go to sleep now?”

“Sure,” Cole said. “One of us will be close. I’m going to put my tablet beside you. Just push the red button and it’ll call me.”

She didn’t say anything but her breathing deepened. Two more eloisha landed on the bed and sniffed Maya.

“Be nice,” Cole said.
They all looked at him like he was an idiot but he shook his head. They didn’t understand him, he made noise, they looked at him. Anything else had to be his imagination. Cole went out and raised the lift and rode to the ground. Marie and Leah had just finished laying Henry on the ground.

“How is she?” Marie asked.

“Definitely a concussion, but she can sleep that off. The slurred speech is mostly from the damage to the inside of her mouth. Someone punched her several times, it looks like they were trying to hurt her as much as possible without doing too much damage. The nose should be set, we can deal with that when she wakes up. Lots of deep bruising on the torso, arms and legs and some defensive wounds.”

“She said they told her they would be back for her again.” Leah said.

Both of their voices were quiet and calm but the rage was obvious to Marie.

“Probably Gavin trying to scare her back to his side. I ought to go sit in her hab and wait for them to show up,” Cole said.

“No, you should not. Anyway, lots of people saw me bringing her here.”

“Too bad. How are you doing Marie?”

She hugged him. “I’m really sad but I’m glad Henry and I parted on good terms. Do you want to see him?”

Cole knelt down and she carefully pulled back the sheet on Henry’s battered head and face. Cole rested his palm on Henry’s forehead and murmured a goodbye. He pulled back more of the sheet and looked at Henry’s hands and nodded at the cut up knuckles. “Looks like he got a few hits of his own at least.”

“The Anek offered to take him to where the others are,” Marie said. “Do you think that would be okay?”

Cole nodded. “I’m not sure what they do, but I’m sure it’s respectful. He’ll be with other surveyors at least.”

After the eloisha had retreated to their shelter for the evening, Lakshmi appeared along with Thorn and Thalia. There were several more Anek in the nearby branches.

(You wish him to be sung down the Path with the others?)

“If you’re willing,” Cole said.

(Of course we are. He was in terror of us but he still came every day to build a place for our young to be safe. We all honor him for his courage. I will carry you down to him)

The Anek that Cole didn’t recognize were already waiting when Lakshmi set him and Leah on the ground. A moment later Thalia set Marie beside them. None of the other Anek were introduced and they did not speak to the humans.

Marie pulled the cover away from Henry’s face once more.

Cole put his hand on Henry’s chest. “Au revoir, mon ami. May there be warm sun and free beer waiting for you.”

Leah kissed his forehead. “Goodbye Henry. We’ll meet some time again, you save us all a seat.”

Marie looked down at him. “We traveled far, you and I. You’re a good man, no matter how hard you tried not to be. Know peace, old friend.”

She kissed his lips and carefully tucked the sheet back around his head. “You can take him now,” she said to the waiting Anek.

Two of them carefully put Henry’s body on a third’s back. They swiftly climbed into the trees and were lost to sight. There was a sustained sound above them, then another. The single notes echoed through the forest, slowly growing quieter as they moved away.

Marie wiped her eyes. “Thank you, Lakshmi.”

(Sadness is best shared. I am glad we could help)

Leah knew she was dreaming again. She was floating with all the voices around her again, unable to understand any of them.

“What is the point of this?” she said out loud. “Honestly, this is kind of a boring dream.”

“Leah?”

She looked around her, recognizing the voice. “Henry?”

“What happened?”

“You died, I’m sorry.”

There wasn’t any answer and the other voices went silent. Leah looked around and everything had changed again. She was back in third grade again and had forgotten her homework. She looked down and she was in her underwear as well.

This is more like it she thought to herself and went to talk to the teacher, who was an octopus in a top hat for some reason.

|7.0
Cole found Maya sitting outside when he woke up the next day. The swelling was starting to disappear from her face and she looked better than she had yesterday.

“Good morning, how are you feeling?”

She smiled at him. “I’ll survive. Thank you for taking care of me.”

Cole smiled back. “You’re welcome. Can I get you anything?”

“I helped myself to coffee, I hope that’s okay.”

“Sure. Oh, be careful with sugar around the little ones. They got into it once and now it’s a focus of their lives.”

“Oh, I hope they don’t go into the cane fields! They might get swatted by someone.”

“I think they’ll be okay,” Cole said. “They tend to avoid open areas and the fields are way at the other end of the clearing. I doubt they’d venture all that far away. As soon as something interesting happens here they’re in the middle of it.”

“You said that they are baby Anek?”

“Yes, called eloisha. Or that’s as much of the word as we can say.”

“Where are their parents?”

Cole explained what they knew about Anek biology, trying to avoid mentioning anything about the role he and Leah had played.

“But why do they hang around here? Just the sugar?”

Leah came outside. “Good morning. No, the sugar is new. They’re drawn to Cole and I since we birthed them.”

Maya looked at her and then at Cole. “What?”

“I didn’t cover that part,” Cole said.

Leah put her hand over her mouth and then laughed. “Well, I guess we are now. We met the Anek because of these little guys…” Leah went through the entire story with Maya. Cole got up and went to find breakfast and by the time he came out with One-Day bars, Leah had just about finished and Maya’s mouth was hanging open.

“So you carried them too?” Maya asked Cole.

“Uh yeah. We aren’t really publicizing this part of it, I’m sure mechanical incubators will be fine. No one needs to worry about that happening to them.”

“I can understand that,” Maya said. “But I think it’s so amazingly cool that you both were willing to take that chance. And look what came of it!”

The sun began to peek over the tops of the trees. There was chirping from inside the eloisha house as they began to stir and Maya laughed.

“Did I just hear a ‘yahoo’ from in there?”

“We’re not sure of the exact reason why but they’ve been picking up a lot of human intonations,” Leah said. “Cole, show her the video of them singing.”

Before Cole could get up, the eloisha were swarming out. Cole had noticed they were starting to methodically investigate everyone when they first woke up. Leah thought they were all just saying good morning. They swooped and glided between the three of them, nuzzling their heads or shoulders. After that, most of the babies landed on the table. They would look at the sugar container, then hopefully at one of the humans, then back at the container.

There was a zipping noise as Marie emerged from her tent and a chorus of happy noises as the eloisha swarmed around her.

“Yes, yes. Hello to all of you too. No, get out of my pocket, there’s nothing in there…”

“One of them sounded just like a little trumpet!” Maya said.

Cole handed her his tablet and soon she was laughing.

“How are you?” Leah asked Marie, who kissed the top of her head.

“I need coffee. What are you doing today?”

“Going back down to help Owen out for part of the day. We’ve agreed that I’m headed back here in the afternoon instead of spending the whole day there. Mostly I’m just showing people that we’re not hiding.”

“Just be careful please.”

“Always.”

Cole came into their bedroom as Leah was getting ready to go.

“Have you noticed the way the eloisha are around Maya?”

Leah nodded. “It’s almost like they’re guarding her.”

“She’s out there sitting in the sun and there’s a couple trying to cuddle her. I was watching and they’re carefully examining her injuries. I’d swear they’re trying to make comforting noises.”

Leah smiled. “They were watching yesterday when you were examining her. I think they’re imitating you. Jeeua and Thalia seemed drawn to her last night as well. All three were up late talking.”

“Because they’re healers and she’s injured?”

Leah shrugged. “Ask them. Maybe she’s just likable.”

|8.0

Cole and Marie both updated the shuttles on the situation on the ground. After that, it was just another hot humid day. Even wearing just a pair of shorts, Cole was too hot. He gave up and went inside of the Meeting and laid on the cool wood floor. He had just fallen asleep when his tablet announced someone was broadcasting on the frequencies they used to talk to their ships.

Cole frowned and sat up. Both shuttles were on the other side of the planet at the moment, there wasn’t any way he could be picking them up. He took the tablet and opened the radio app.

“Repeating the call for Arboreal operations this is the Blackbird. Anyone awake down there?”

There was a long pause and the Blackbird tried to contact Operations again. Cole quickly set up a message to transmit to Xerxes as soon as she came over the horizon. He didn’t know who the Blackbird was or who owned it. All of the CMC ships stuck to a rigid naming convention but bird names weren’t one of them. But as long as it wasn’t civ-com ship dropping marines to help Gavin take over, they’d probably be willing to relay messages.

Finally someone answered the ship. “Dammit shuttle, we told you guys, the runway is closed to the CMC. We follow the Civil Committee’s orders here.”

Cole thought Brad sounded especially petulant today.

There wasn’t a reply and Cole walked out into the common area.

“Ever hear of a ship called the Blackbird?” he asked Marie.

She thought for a little bit. “No idea. I don’t think civ-com has one by that name. Why?”

“There’s a ship trying to contact the colony. Ops just told them the runway was closed.”

“Let’s take a look.”

Cole followed Marie to where her computer was set up. On the screen was the last radar image the shuttles had downlinked before sinking below the horizon.

“I can set up a message for Aggie to data-dump to whoever it is,” Marie said.

“I already did that with Xerx. Since they’re trailing each other in the same orbit, let’s keep one of the girls dark until we figure out who that is exactly.”

Marie looked a little wide eyed. “Okay. Do we have to worry about that?”

“I think we need to think about it at least.”

“Shit.”

They both jumped as the voice returned. “Arboreal Operations, you still awake down there?”

“We’re not activating the landing beacons, Blackbird. You land using grav drive and your ship will be impounded and your crew will go to prison. This colony is off limits to the CMC.”

“Well, there’s your answer, Operations. I’ll make it official; I am not a Mapping Command ship. The Blackbird is attached to a Commonwealth Elder House Regiment. Specifically the Third Lantern of Empire. Check that against your database.”

“Whoa,” Cole said quietly.

“Isn’t that one of the really old ones?” Marie asked.

“If I remember right, they’re the oldest, maybe the second oldest group.”

“I can’t imagine a forty thousand year old military unit,” Marie said. “But the way she’s talking, it almost sounds like a ship’s SI.”

“I think you’re right. And it sounds completely autonomous.”

The speaker clicked again. “Shuttle, be advised we see the Commonwealth and the CMC as the same entity. Permission to land is denied.”

Brad sounded less petulant, like he was reading from notes and Cole bet they’d called Gavin to see what to do.

The voice sighed. “Arboreal, are there any adults I can talk to down there?”

“Our defense grid is active Blackbird. Land at your own risk.”

“Your what?”

Whoever it was, they were trying very hard not to laugh but there was no answer.

“Cole, are you there?” Xerxes asked a few minutes later.

Cole looked at the radar picture, surprised to see that it was updating again. “You’re early Xerxes, everything okay?”

“The Agamemnon and I are both in formation with the Commonwealth ship Blackbird. With your permission I can link her into the conversation.”

“Go ahead.”

“Hey you groundhogs.” It was a different woman this time. “Is Captain Cole Morgan, Pirate Scourge of the Spaceways sober enough to talk?”

Cole started laughing and Marie gave him a strange look. He picked up the headset.

“Not going to be sober for long, make it quick.”

“Rachel Osbourne here, Captain. Do you remember me? I was a student in Squadron Twelve.”

“Now who’s drunk, Ozzie? All my special problems were Squadron Two.”

“Hey, it’s good to hear your voice, Cole. We jumped into Hub and there was a bit of a hullabaloo. Blackbird noticed your reports along with some disturbing messages in the same batch. She strongly recommended we come see if you could use a hand.”

“More of a brouhaha than a hullabaloo here. Thank the Blackbird for me, we could definitely use help. I’ll have Xerxes transmit our sitreps over to you.”

“You guys are safe at the moment?”

“Roger that, Rachel, we’re secure at the moment but we’ve had one fatality.”

“I’m sorry to hear that, Cole. Have they really closed the runway?”

“Well, they dragged a bunch of junk onto it, about halfway down. I’ve got eyes on it.”

“Is there anything to that defense grid statement?”

Cole snorted. “I have seen zero indication of anti-ship weaponry. We’ve been working with the colony’s administrator and he has mentioned nothing about it.”

“Yeah, that’s what we figured. Okay, if you guys are secure we’ll talk to you soon, okay?”

“Copy that, Blackbird. Nice to hear a friendly voice.”

“Hold the line Cole, help is on the way.”

“I think Gavin just took a much bigger bite than he thought,” Cole said to Marie.

“The name Rachel Osbourne sounds really familiar.”

“She’s tight with Finnegan Brodeur, they might be married now. She was one of my pilots way back before the Defense.”

“Oh, I met Finn’s sister Callie a couple of times. How did they end up attached to an Elder House?”

“Not a clue,” Cole said. “If anyone would have gotten their attention, it would have been those two.”

“You think that’s the backup we’ve been waiting for?”

“I’m not sure, but she said they were coming in from Hub. I can’t imagine they’d be here for anything else.”

Leah looked up at the ceiling as a whining roar echoed overhead.

“Was that someone landing?” Owen asked.

“I sure hope so, otherwise we’ve got big problems. I don’t recognize those engines though.”

“What now?” Owen muttered, getting up. “I really hope that’s not a Committee shuttle.”

“No, they use the same engines as we do,” Leah said and got up to follow him out. “That’s not what those were.”

The sound of the ship had faded away by the time they got outside and Leah shaded her eyes, trying to get a glimpse of the ship. Two more ships went over her and people started coming out of the buildings, looking at the sky nervously.

“That was Xerxes and Agamemnon. They’re on approach.”

“What does that mean?” Owen asked

“I think it means that help has arrived.”

“That’s exactly what it means,” a woman said, walking up the path. She had black eyes and black hair pulled back in a braid that flopped over her shoulder. She was wearing combat field gear with an assault rifle clipped to her harness. Incongruously, she had a Yankees baseball cap perched on her head instead of an issue helmet. The colonists all began to back away, muttering and she held up her hands.

“Relax everyone, I’m from the government and I’m here to help.”

That got a few laughs and people relaxed slightly.

“I’m looking for Owen Lykos.”

“Right here,” Owen said.

She walked over, looking at a screen clipped to her wrist. “What’s your mother’s maiden name, sir?”

“Capshaw.”

After several more questions she nodded and muttered something into a microphone. Three more commandos appeared nearby, fading into view as they deactivated their chameleon fatigues. The colonists looked uncomfortable again but the soldiers were trying very hard to appear friendly to everyone.

The woman tapped her forehead in a casual salute. “Sir, my name is Marisol Gutierrez, I’m the tac-team lead from a ship called the Blackbird.”

“Your ship already landed?” Owen asked.

“My team jumped in sixteen hours ago to gather intel. Thirty minutes ago we secured the Operations center and runway. The Blackbird is just landing, the two CMC shuttles are right behind her.”

“What about the people inside the building?”

Marisol shrugged. “I offered them the chance to surrender three times but was answered with gunfire and rocks each time. My next goal is to get in contact with the CMC officers here.”

Leah stepped up beside Owen. “I’m Captain Leah Jones. Captains Morgan and Martin are at another safe location. Henry Rogeau was killed a couple of nights ago.”

“Aw shit, Hank’s dead? I was looking forward to seeing him. What happened?”

“He was beaten to death in the middle of the night.”

Marisol shook her head sadly. “Fuckers. Our pilot was in contact with Captain Morgan a little while ago. Captain Martin is with him?”

Leah nodded. “The rebels still hold a couple of farms.”

Marisol smiled grimly. “And that’s my last little chore.”

Owen cleared his throat. “Please remember that there are innocent people up there. Spouses and children mostly.”

She nodded. “We’re getting pictures of the area now. We’re here to return this outpost to lawful control, Ambassador, not wipe anyone out.”

She grinned at the look on his face. “Ah, slip of the tongue, sir. Please act surprised when they tell you.”

Owen nodded. He looked a little overwhelmed. “What happens when you capture them?”

“The Survey Ship R.B.T. Singh Rawat will be entering orbit in approximately twelve hours to return the conspirators to Hub and will offer passage to anyone requests relocation. Let’s go inside, I’d like to brief you in on our plan…”

Leah sat down in the steps and watched the colonists slowly wander back to wherever they came from. She felt oddly empty, this had turned into a anticlimactic ending.

“Leah Jones!” a delighted voice cried. The colonists looked at another group of people walking up the path from the runway. A slender woman with a long braid jogged ahead.

Leah couldn’t believe it. “Allie?” she said quietly, standing up.

“Hey you!”

Allison ran into her, almost knocking her over. They embraced tightly.

“I knew you’d be in the middle of this,” Allison said.

“Me and trouble, we’re old friends.” Leah said, not trusting her voice.

“That hasn’t changed at least…” Allison saw the tears in her eyes and stopped. “What’s wrong?”

“They killed Henry a couple nights ago.”

Allison tried to smile but her mouth trembled. “Fewer and less of us every time I turn around,” she sniffed. “Marie and Cole?”

“Both fine, they’re out at the Meeting.”

“What meeting?”

“It’s what the Anek call their embassy, the Meeting.”

“Well, that’ll get confusing. Come on, I want to hear all about them.”

|9.0

“Why aren’t those idiots answering?” Gavin snarled, slamming the phone down. “And how did three ships manage to land?”

Hiram Yoder shrugged. “Doesn’t matter. We’ve got all the food here, the CMC is going to be under the Committee’s control. You’ll be recognized as the hero you are, Administrator Sinclair.”

Hiram’s soothing voice calmed Gavin down, like always.

“And we’ve got all the weapons here. First we take care of that idiot Lykos and then we’ll start rounding up these aliens.”

“They submit to servitude or the savages all die,” Hiram agreed. “You’ll be the first to show these aliens the true place of Man in the universe.”

There were some excited voices outside and then a boom of a shotgun going off. Gavin strode out into the equipment yard of the farm. There was a long ribbon draped over a harvester and one of the men was picking up a black box at the end of it.

“There was a drone, it dropped this. We tried to shoot it down but it was out of range I think.”

Gavin took the box and looked at it. There was a lid and the words “Open Me” printed on the top. He handed it to one of the men who had gathered around.

“Open this when I tell you.”

Gavin backed away and everyone else followed him hurriedly, leaving the hapless man in the center. Gavin nodded and he opened the case with shaking hands.

“It’s a radio,” he said in a relieved voice. It beeped and Gavin walked back and took it from him. There were some simple controls with a speaker. A light flashed and it beeped again.

Gavin pushed the answer button. “What?”

“Who am I speaking to?”

It was a woman’s voice. She sounded confident and Gavin smiled. He’d change that.

“You first.”

“Okay. My name is Chief Sergeant Gutierrez. I’d like you to surrender.”

Gavin laughed. “Are you delusional? You might have gotten on the ground but we’ve got the landing strip and we control all the food. The Civilian Committee is clearing your CMC stooges out of power as we speak. I’ll give you one chance to surrender.”

“Ah. Let me catch you up on a couple of things. We removed the people you had at the Operations center, so the runway is back under lawful control. As for the rebellion on Hub, it’s over. Whatever support you were counting on won’t be coming.”

“You think I’m just going to believe that?”

“I don’t much care either way. You lost and the only question is how many deaths it will take you to realize that.”

“I’ll kill as many of you as we need to.” Despite his words, Gavin felt doubt start to uncoil in his stomach. “My people stand resolute.”

“How nice for you. Since our policy isn’t wholesale slaughter however we’ll remove their leaders and see how they feel after that. That means you, Mr. Sinclair. Stand still please.”

“What?”

There was a quiet thud as a small crater appeared between his feet. Gavin looked down in horror as everyone backed away from him, muttering. He looked at them wildly and there was a whisper in front of his face followed by a loud clang. He looked over to see a shiny circle in the shed wall, a black dot in the center of it.

“Now about that surrender. Or I could just have them put the next one through your head.”

Gavin’s bladder let go and he fell to his knees. “Don’t shoot! I surrender, don’t kill me!”

“Standing resolute?” Hiram said from behind him.

Gavin yelped as he was kicked in the back. He fell forward, his face in the puddle of urine but he didn’t move.

“That’s enough of that,” the radio said. “Drop your weapons and put your hands over your heads.”

“No, we’ll end this miserable coward first.” Hiram drew back his foot for another kick.

“Do you want to die?” a voice asked from behind him. Hiram froze and looked around but didn’t see anyone except his people. But he’d heard about the CMC commandos, how they could turn invisible. There wasn’t any point in being a martyr, not yet anyway. He stepped away from Gavin and slowly put his hands on his head.

“Good choice. Get on your knees.”

Suddenly there were CMC uniforms appearing around them and Hiram snarled as his arms were pulled back. There was a zipping sound as plastic cuffs were tightened over his wrists.

When the message had come that the rebels had been arrested, Leah’s first order of business had been to go aboard the Xerxes and take a long hot shower. Now she was leaning against the nose of the ship, watching the dispirited rebels sit in a line in front of the Operations building. Several crew from the Blackbird and the Singh Rawat guarded them as they waited to shuttled up to the Rawat. Leah didn’t envy them the journey, the captain had sounded furious on the radio. From there, they’d be delivered to a prison camp on Hub. Leah knew several trials were scheduled, Henry’s murderers had already been identified and were defiantly proud of the fact. They’d probably be given some wildly dangerous job for however long they lasted.

“Hello beautiful,” Cole said from behind her.

“Are you talking to me or Leah?” the ship asked.

Leah smiled, leaning back against Cole as his arms went around her.

“I was talking to both of you.”

“Liar,” Leah and Xerxes said in unison.

“Uh huh, good to see things are back to normal,” Cole said. “Finn asked when we’d have some free time.”

Leah sighed. “To be interrogated?”

“Maybe interview is a better term.”

There was a double boom from above them. They were quiet, watching the shuttle land.

“Did we do the right thing?” Leah finally asked and she felt Cole shrug behind her.

“I can’t think of anything I would have done differently.”

“I know CMC would see it that way, but I’ve never dealt with a Commonwealth FCT before. When do they want to see us?”

“I told them tomorrow morning, that we both needed some sleep first.”

“That would be good. You know, I was thinking, if we went inside the shuttle, we’d have some privacy to roll around naked.”

Leah was already pulling him toward the hatch as it opened and their clothes were off by the time Xerxes got the hatch closed.

“Let’s fuck in the shower,” Leah said.

“I promise I won’t peek,” Xerxes said as they Cole followed her into the little cubicle.

“Liar,” Cole and Leah said at the same time and Xerxes laughed.

Leah turned the water on and got on her knees. “I’d better make sure you’re clean,” she said, taking Cole’s cock in her hand.

He began to breathe hard as she stroked him and moaned when she put him in her mouth. His hands tangled in her hair and she relaxed like Marie had shown her and pushed her head down until her nose was against his pubic bone.

“Whoa,” Cole gasped and Leah left him in her throat as long as she could.

“You like that?” she asked when she came up for a breath.

“Let me show you how much,” Cole growled.

He pulled her up and turned her around. Leah put her hands on the wall, bending over slightly as his tongue found her sex.

“Baby, that’s really nice,” Leah whimpered. “I want to cum on your cock though.”

He teased her a few minutes more before standing up behind her. Leah reached back and guided his cock inside of her. They both moaned as he slid inside. Cole put his hands on Leah’s hips, holding tightly as they began to fuck.

“I want to feel you cum in me,” Leah gasped. She bent over further, hanging onto the hatch handle as the sensations between her legs began to make her moan.

Later that night, Leah got undressed and slid under the blanket next to Cole who was already asleep. Thorn and Jeeua were asleep somewhere nearby and Thalia and Lakshmi had gone off to report that the humans had gotten their “insanity” under control. The more she thought about it, the more Leah thought that insanity might be the right thing to call it. A while back she’d heard someone mention that over ninety percent of the humans in the universe had been lost. Any logical species would be having as many babies as possible, preserving every life they could.

“And we’re still killing each other over petty bullshit,” she muttered.

The Gyr and Xero’pah members of the Blackbird’s crew had been appalled at the idea that humans had murdered one of their own over such a petty reason as who got to give the orders. The humans had been unhappy about it but it was the same old story for them. She smiled, looking up at the ceiling rafters. Humans had intervened in a war between the Gyr over human music, obviously no one was totally rational.

What can we do so this never happens again? Leah thought. It was beyond her, but something had to change. Leah closed her eyes and her breathing slowed and deepened.

She opened her eyes to find herself in the treetops once more. She’d never had a repeating dream before and now it was happening every night. There were the two moons and the nebula overhead and she could hear the unintelligible voices all around her.

“I wish I knew what you guys were saying.”

“They feel the same way,” Henry’s voice said.

Leah was paralyzed by fear suddenly. “Henry, sweetie, you’re dead,” she whispered.

There was a chuckle, made even more horrible by its familiarity. “There’s dead, and then there’s dead. I’m still here on the path waiting for you…”

Leah gasped, bolting upright as her eyes snapped open. Cole stirred and turned over.

“You okay?” he mumbled.

“Go back to sleep, baby. Just a nightmare.”

“No, it’s okay, it’s the dreahnnai hoom.”

Leah smiled, Cole always said really strange things in his sleep. She laid back down and closed her eyes. Soon she was asleep again. When she woke up in the morning, she didn’t remember dreaming again.

|10.0
Maya looked up from her book when Cole and Leah came outside wearing khaki pants and shirts. “Wow, I didn’t know you guys had uniforms. You look impressive.”

“Thanks, I call them my getting in trouble clothes,” Leah said.

“What does that mean?” Maya said, pointing to the patch on Leah’s shoulder. On it was embroidered a pair of old fashioned map dividers with a telescope crossed over them. Behind that was a field of stars and around the edge were the words “Lumen ad semitam ante.”

“Light for the path ahead,” Leah said.

“That fits.” Maya straightened her collar. “If they give you trouble, you come get me.”

She kissed them both goodbye and Leah and Cole headed down to the quad and headed for the Admin building. Cole parked the quad back in its usual spot and walked around to the door of the Administration building. There was a man they didn’t recognize sitting at Maya’s desk and he looked up.

“You’d be Captains Jones and Morgan?”

Leah nodded. “I don’t think I’ve seen you around the colony before.”

He smiled. “That’s because I arrived with the Blackbird. I’ve been working in the Big Office and Kayleigh thought I might be able to help out here. My name is Odel Lyryel’bela.”

“Oh, you’re a Ta’avi? I didn’t realize.”

He smiled and nodded. “I’m Allison’s cousin as a matter of fact. I met you once at a Remembrance.”

“I’m sorry I don’t…”

He laughed. “I was six at the time, don’t worry about it.”

“You’re not stealing that one!” Owen yelled from his office.

Odel’s eyebrows went up and Leah and Cole laughed.

“We’ll have to have you up for dinner some night,” Cole said, loud enough for Henry to hear.

“Goddam you Morgan, no you will not. Now get in here, both of you.”

“He’s really a big softie,” Leah whispered before following Cole into Owen’s office.

Owen was just closing his tablet and getting up. “I’ll say it once more, keep your mitts off my assistants. And how is she doing?”

“Maya will come back someday, I think,” Cole told him. “For now, she said she just wants to be somewhere she feels safe and wanted.”

Owen sighed. “I don’t blame her, Maya was treated horribly almost from the beginning. I wish I’d known more about that, maybe I could have helped somehow.”

“Sometimes people are just bastards, Owen,” Leah said. “And she’s not dead, you can bring your lazy ass up to the Meeting and see her. Are you ready for the Blackbird?”

“How would I know? Let’s go or we’ll be late.”

Owen stopped by the desk on the way out. “I have no idea how long we’ll be.”

Odel smiled. “I’ve got it under control, Ambassador. You’ll be fine.”

Outside, the colony almost seemed back to normal. There were a lot fewer people but he was seeing a lot more smiles on their faces. Things felt a lot better too.

“Why are you grinning like that?” Owen said to Leah as they walked down the path to the hangars and runway.

“Can’t I smile?”

Owen raised an eyebrow but Leah just looked at him innocently. “What do you think about your new assistant?”

“He seems very efficient.”

Leah just nodded and smiled at Cole.

“You two are such pains in my ass. Wait, don’t I outrank you now? I order you to tell me.”

“Well you haven’t been confirmed yet.”

“What are you so amused about, Captain Jones?”

“He didn’t notice,” Cole said.

“Well, obviously his back was turned,” Leah said.

“Notice what?”

“Your very efficient assistant checking out your ass when we left,” Leah said and Cole nodded.

Owen snorted. “You’re both troublemakers, I knew it from the beginning. And that would be an inappropriate workplace relationship.”

“Right, sorry. Didn’t think about that,” Leah said.

Owen didn’t say anything else but as they went through the gate, Cole saw a small smile on his face.

There was a crewman waiting for them, wearing a uniform Owen hadn’t seen before. They followed him out to the Blackbird and Cole stopped as they came around the corner of the hangar and saw the ship.

“Whoa.”

“I’ve never seen one of those before,” Owen said. “Impressive.”

The ship was much larger than Xerxes and looked far more menacing. It was on the small side for a ship equipped with a jump drive, most of them were too large to bother with landing in an atmosphere. The surface of this ship was a flat black that seemed to swallow the light around it. The Blackbird had retractable wings that swept back and curved downward slightly. Forward of the wings the fuselage narrowed to a blunt nose. There were two dull orange stripes at the front and they could see some odd looking symbols in flat back along the stripes.

Leah looked at Cole and laughed. “I’m so telling Xerxes about this. I can see the look in your eyes and I’m totally telling her.”

“Xerxes knows I love her most. She won’t mind.”

“They have a completely inappropriate relationship,” Leah told the crewman who laughed.

“What do those stripes mean?” Cole asked.

“The forward one carries the battle honors of the regiment,” the man said. “The stripe aft carries the honors earned by Blackbird herself. This is her fourth hull, she’s several hundred years old. Just a baby by regimental standards.”

“I heard that, Japes” the voice that Cole recognized from the radio said.

The man smiled and patted the hull affectionately as they went through the hatch.

“Welcome aboard, Captains and Administrator Lykos,” Blackbird said. “They’re expecting you in the main bay.” A spot of light appeared on the floor in front of them. “I’ll take them from here.”

The crewman nodded at them and went in the other direction. The three followed the spot as it went down the corridor. Several hatches were on either side of the passageway and through one of them, Cole glimpsed the massive jump engines.

“My sister Xerxes speaks very highly of you both,” Blackbird said as they walked. “I haven’t been this close to her since we left the crèche.”

“We love her to death,” Leah said. “Although I’m always worried she’ll run off with my husband.”

“Xerxes wouldn’t do that,” the ship said. “But run off with both of you? Maybe.”

Cole laughed. “I can tell you’re related.”

“That’s just flattery, Captain. Through the next hatch on the left.”

They walked into what looked like a medium sized conference room. There were several people waiting for them and Owen was surprised to a taller figure of a Xero’pah along with the wider asymmetric shape of a Gyr as well.

“Welcome aboard,” a man said, walking forward with his hand out.

Owen shook hands. The man was wearing the same blue-green uniform as the rest of them. He had dark blue eyes and black hair. He had high cheekbones and a longish nose. Owen thought he was almost pretty.

“We never met back at Alpha, but I heard a lot about you, Captain Morgan. Administrator, my name is Finnegan Brodeur. I’m one of the Captains on the Blackbird. This is one of my co-captains, and sister, Callie Brodeur.”

A woman with the exact same color eyes and hair shook his hand and smiled. They looked like twins, even shook hands the same way.

“Our pilot, Rachel Osbourne.” She was almost as tall as Finn and if he was almost pretty, she was gorgeous. She had the same blue eyes and black hair as the other two but other than that, looked nothing like them. Owen was already a little weirded out and was grateful for that.

“My honor, sir,” she said as she shook.

“And you’ve met our Tactical Commander, Marisol Gutierrez.”

She smiled at Owen and shook hands. He was introduced to two more members of the crew, the Gyr engineering officer and the Xero’pah navigator.

“Thank you for your help,” Owen said.

“I’m sorry we didn’t get here sooner,” Rachel said. “There were a few things to deal with on Hub first.”

“Let’s start there,” Finn said. “We were on the inbound from some work out along the Rim and picked up a batch of messages from an emergency courier. We stopped long enough to collect a couple of human ships and headed for Hub.”

“The Halsey and Yamamoto,” Rachel said. “When we arrived, the Peerless had already mutinied and stopped the bombardment. The crew asked to surrender to a Commonwealth ship so we were able to do that.”

“What happened to the crew?” Leah asked.

“The officers that were involved are headed for trial. The rest of the crew was pardoned and released. They’ll be offered positions on other ships as they become available,” Rachel said.

“The human ships landed their marines at the same time. They quickly overcame Civ-Com’s forces and began arresting the parties responsible for the rebellion. They’ll be tried as well.”

“If they don’t have the judges in their pockets already,” Cole said.

Finn shook his head. “Not a human court. They’re being taken to the current Commonwealth capitol on Chylla Hoa. There’s been some changes announced that you should be aware of. Colonial Mapping Command will be absorbed directly into the Commonwealth in the immediate future. The Big Office, which came through this unscathed, is working with them to make the transition as simple as possible. The hope is that it will remove any temptations like this in the future.”

“Blackbird was sorting through the backlog of message traffic and strongly advised that this be our next stop,” Callie said. “Sweetie, you want to cover this part?”

“Sure Callie,” the ship’s voice said. “Administrator…”

“Please, just Owen.”

“Thank you, Owen. I found some message threads, starting with your report about the Anek. In the same batch were messages from Gavin Sinclair to his uncle. This was not an improvised plan, religious extremists had planned to take over your colony from the beginning.”

“You’re kidding.”

“I wish I was. It began with the plan to deliver a virus inside a blower bound for your administration complex. There were even warnings for the extremists to stay away from the complex on a certain date, when the strep micro-organisms were to be released.”

“But it started in a residential habitat.”

“Correct. The ventilation unit that was infected did not pass its operational checks. Rather than fix the problem, the unit was torn down and the parts were used in other blowers. Somehow the virus containment was breached and it spread from there. This decreased the severity of the contagion but spread it further. Once your leadership was gone, the extremists planned to take over what was left and establish their own colony with the support of the Civil Committee.”

“They killed all those people on purpose?” Owen said quietly.

“I’m sorry Owen, that is correct. Your message folder now has a document with the details along with a very long apology from the CMC Big Office.”

“Are there any conspirators left?”

“No, I have records of the names. Just in case any were missed, HSS Peerless will be in orbit overhead in a few days carrying a number of specialists for you, including a permanent security detachment.”

“Is that normal?”

“No sir, but First Contact situations are never normal and every effort is made to ensure the safety of the mission. You’ll be seeing a lot more support from now on. I want to say that I share the regret of what you’ve been through. Hopefully things are much smoother from here.”

Owen nodded. “Thank you. One of your people told me that smoother never happens.”

Callie smiled at him. “I’ve been reading your reports. I think you might be the type that gets bored when things calm down.”

“Obviously this is a huge event and we’ll all want to talk about it again. Feel free to ask any questions that occur to you,” Finn said. “For now, I’d like to get back to our real job as a First Contact Team. I’d to start with Cole and Leah and have them go over the event with us but I was wondering if we could get a short tour first.”

A few minutes later, most of the crew was wandering around as Owen showed the Blackbird’s command team around.

“This is amazing,” Callie said, as they stood in Maya’s spot, looking up at the trees. “Can we sit here for a while?”

What followed was one of the slickest interrogations Owen had ever seen. He’d heard about Vanguard people, how they took care of each other and he’d honestly expected their reports to just be accepted. But in the guise of a friendly conversation, Finn and Callie, and another woman named Allison started going through their story, bit by bit. Owen didn’t realize what was going on at first, he thought he was going to have to demand to sit in on these meetings, to run interference for the two survey officers if nothing else.

He wondered if Cole and Leah knew what the team was doing and as Cole talked about the outbound leg of their survey, he realized that both were perfectly aware what was going on. The voices were casual but they were giving clear and concise answers.

“The council, that was the first time you met?” Allison asked. Owen tensed a little and Leah glanced at him and smiled, leaning over to bump his shoulder with hers.

“That’s what the report says,” Cole said. “It’s not the whole story. We’d like to arrange a quiet conversation whenever possible.”

“Chickadee, how many people are near us?” Finn said.

“You’re the only ones for just over a half kilometer,” Blackbird said from one of the tablets. “I’ll pause recording.”

“You want me to stay?” Owen asked Leah.

“Of course.”

Much to Owen’s surprise, Allison hopped off the rock. “I’m sitting this one out. You said there was a welcome dinner tonight Owen?”

“Yes, the big hall at 7. I’ll have messages sent to everyone.”

“Can’t wait,” she said. “See you guys later.”

Leah smiled at the confusion on Owen’s face. “It’s Allies turn to act as the outside eyes. She can provide a better opinion of what things look like from the outside that way.”

“So what’s going on?” Callie said, taking Allison’s place on the rock.

“We delayed the initial notification to the administrator by two weeks,” Leah said. “We had a pretty good reason.”

“I doubt you did it for kicks,” Callie said, grinning. “It’s happened before, we delayed a report for a lot longer. The Parthus have a fairly drastic change in appearance through their seasons. We all thought it would be better to wait until they didn’t look so much like slimy demons.”

Leah leaned back on her hands “Ours weren’t slimy demons…”

Owen watched Callie and Finn, wondering how the two of them were going to react to this. This was going to be one of the wildest first contacts they’d ever heard. But he was a little disappointed by the end, they both just looked fascinated. Finn perked up when Leah talked about the Anek ability to speak into their minds.

“Yep, I can see why that didn’t make the first report,” Finn said when Leah and Cole had finished.

Callie started giggling. “Can you imagine that cultural affairs office on Hub getting this in their in-box? I mean, the meeting agenda!”

She laughed harder, holding her sides.

“She’s got a strange sense of humor,” Finn said. “Though it would be funny. No, you made the right choice here. I can hear the affection and respect in your voices. Have there been any other incidents?”

“None at all,” Owen said. “I have yet to meet them, but they seem to be people of their word. Very few of my people have even seen an Anek, though they’ve been watching for them ever since we announced the contact.”

“This is just getting good, but if you don’t mind, I’d like to stop for the day,” Finn said. “I want to think about this and do some research.”

“Founder’s Children?” Leah asked.

He smiled at her. “Allie said you were surprising. Exactly that.”

“Do you like rum?” Cole asked as they stood up.

“I love it,” Finn said. “I noticed the sugar cane.”

“I like to think we make a pretty acceptable spiced rum,” Owen said.

“There goes any productivity for a week,” Callie sighed.

“Pfft, like, two days, max,” Finn promised.

|11.0
Eldest looked around her and there was a sense of deep amusement. (It seems that despite all of our effort and toil, we are once again meeting on place that was hurriedly put into the sky)

Cole was a little embarrassed. “I apologize. It never even occurred to me that there would be problems putting the eloisha house at the Meeting.”

(Do not worry for even a moment. We are all delighted in seeing how you’ve kept them safe and happy. How many remain from the original brood?)

“We haven’t lost any of them,” Cole said and there was a ripple of surprise. “Actually, there’s more now. Several eloisha from other broods have begun to use the shelter as well.”

(Beloved ones, you have repaid our hopes many times over. I would have been delighted if a handful had survived. This is very good news)

“The humans expressed a strong attachment to keeping the eloisha near them,” Thorn said. “My brothers are planning a series of platforms nearby that humans and eloisha can inhabit.”

Eldest sent a pulse of approval and affection through the group. (I am delighted with our new friends. Tonight, they have brought their own Elders so that we may speak together. Before we begin speaking of this thing, Beloved Leah asked me once how many of us inhabit these lands. I found the question an interesting one and asked Elders from every gathering. We have added all of the answers together. Leah helped us with the expression of human numbers. Beloved, the answer to your question?)

Leah looked down at her notes. “Forty-eight thousand, three hundred and fifty-six male and female Anek inhabit this continent.”

(I feel your concern Beloved. There may be more of us whose gathering has been forgotten but much longer and we may not have been here to greet you. But you are here and now our voices will not fade from the song of the dreahnnai hoom. So, to business)

Finn stood up and then sat quickly back down as their viewpoint shifted to Eldest’s village, high over the waterfall filled canyon.

“Maybe we should have mentioned this part,” Cole whispered to Leah.

“Nah,” she whispered back. “These guys love surprises.”

|Epilogue +4 months

“Arboreal Operations, this is the Meade. How copy?”

“Operations copies five by, Meade. Good afternoon.”

“Hello yourself. We’re set up for atmospheric entry in two-five minutes. We’d like to request arrival info at this time.”

“You are cleared for landing on runway one. Be advised we’ve got one gyro transiting the area to the far west of the runway.”

“Copy Operations, Meade will be entering comms blackout in five minutes.”

Owen and Odel waited inside the Operations Center. Even through the soundproofed walls they could hear the growling whine of the Meade’s engines. The shuttle made a perfect landing and Owen nodded at the door as the shuttle rolled past on the strip. As they were leaving Owen heard the traffic controller giving the gyrocopters permission to start working again. He shook his head and smiled slightly. What a difference four months made. Well, that and two shiploads of trained personnel and another full of material to build the new facilities.

“Something funny, boss?” Odel said as they walked toward where the Meade had stopped.

“Lots of changes lately is all.”

Odel took his hand and squeezed it before letting go. “They’re nice people, don’t worry.”

Two women were walking around the ship, one of them talking on a headset and Owen had a strong sense of déjà vu. At least this time he wasn’t mostly drunk, riding a bicycle in the rain.

“Ambassador Lykos,” the one without the headset said when she saw them. Owen realized it was Kayleigh Evans herself. She didn’t look much like her official picture. There was the same copper colored hair but the woman looked a lot less official in person. Maybe she looked more careworn but he liked the difference.

“Director, welcome to Arboreal.”

“Thank you, and if you don’t call me Director I won’t call you Ambassador. Just Kay is fine. The other one there is my wife, Shailaja Parvathi. Excuse her, she’s a pilot first.”

Owen smiled. “The first time I met Cole he was doing the same thing. They wanted to be here to meet you but the first of the incubator eloisha began birthing this morning.”

“That’s far more important than meeting a couple of tired old women at the runway certainly.”

“Hello,” the other woman said, taking off her headset as she walked up. “I’m Shailaja Parvathi but please just call me Shai.”

“Owen Lykos, and I think you know my assistant.”

She shook his hand and Owen wondered how much time they really spent behind desks. Her hand didn’t feel much like someone who spent a lot of time in the office.

“Odie!” Shai said and they hugged. “Poker night hasn’t been the same without you.”

‘”Thanks chief,” he said. “I miss giving you guys all my money. New ship?”

“Yes indeed, with a jump drive and everything. Two state rooms, a small cargo hold, came all fancied up as a VIP transport.”

“Which we changed immediately,” Kay said. “Now there’s one stateroom and a much bigger cargo hold. We’re loaded with gear that we thought might be helpful. Maggie can tell your ground crew the best way to unload.”

“Maggie?” Odel asked.

“Margaret Meade,” Kay said. “We just missed getting the Branislaw Malinowski. Imagine figuring out a nickname for him.”

Owen stopped and talked to one of the ground crew and she nodded, waving over several more people. She put on her own headset and started talking with the ship.

“Sorry to be so mysterious about our mission,” Kay said as they walked up the path to the Administration building.

“I assumed it had to do with Cole and Leah’s request for reassignment,” Owen said.

“That’s part of it,” Kay said. “We’d also like to talk to you about another matter, but let’s do that somewhere a little more comfortable.”

“That’s really good rum,” Shai said. “What’s that flavor in it?”

“Banana and caramelized sugar.”

“It’s excellent,” Kay said. “Owen, I’ve got kind of a thorn in my side and I think you may be able to help. When the CMC was transferred to the Commonwealth we were strongly encouraged to look for a new home that wasn’t anywhere near Hub. There have been any number of places investigated and then I got a message from Finn Broduer on the Blackbird. He mentioned there was a large grassland on the smaller continent that wasn’t being used.”

“That’s true. The Anek members of the surveys said there were traces of Anek but the thinking is that they died out a few hundred years ago. They agreed that no one had any interest in moving to the area, the hoom there is evidently unresponsive as well. Either way the grasslands were cleared for us to use if there was any need.”

“This hoom, I didn’t really understand the concept.” Kay said.

“Me either, I thought it was some sort of religious belief but Leah Jones assures me it’s very real. The closest I’ve come to the idea is that they’re some kind of guardian spirit but Leah explains it better than I do. We can head over to the Meeting and ask Thorn if you’re interested but the answers get mystical quickly.”

“I saw that a second Meeting was established nearby?” Shai asked.

“Yes, there’s now the Anek Meeting which is the original. They really abhor open spaces but were insistent that some of them live near us so we designated our park as the Human Meeting. Two males named Thorn and Jeeua live there, spending some time in the colony and the rest strengthening the hoom in the grove of trees.”

“I’d like to see both places while we’re here,” Kay said. “How are your people dealing with the changes?”

“It was a little bumpy at first,” Own said. “The people you sent were excellent though and I don’t hear any ‘us and them’ talk anymore. There’s always some little problem but I think for the most part they’re happy.”
Kay smiled. “I’m glad to hear that. I spoke with Marie Martin and she says hello. She said I should also ask you about Denver Fulton.”

“I thought you’d want to talk about that and I think the easiest way to start would be to meet her and her mother. They live out near the Anek Meeting.”

Odel stuck his head in the door. “Captain Jones says she’s going to have her hands full for another hour or so but Captain Morgan is already up at the Anek Meeting.”

“Did she say how they were doing?” Owen asked.

Odel laughed. “The older eloisha are evidently very curious and decided to help. Maya was headed there to help.”

“Maya is our resident eloisha whisperer,” Owen said. “Let’s head out that way first. I think you should meet Denver before anything else.”

The three of them got in one of the quads and headed for the forest edge.

“I want to give you some background on Denver first,” Owen said as he drove. “Her parents were early evacuees and spent longer than normal in Earth orbit. They were newlyweds and Karen ended up pregnant. By the time they had reached Hub, they knew that the fetus had been affected by the radiation. They were advised to abort the pregnancy but Karen and Peter said that they’d deal with whatever came. Denver was born on Hub, her body was profoundly affected by the exposure. Her limbs didn’t develop properly and there were several other problems. All of them seem to be physical, her mind was largely unaffected. Karen and Peter applied for the colony here and I signed a waiver to get them in. They were both great, I was happy they were here and Denver was getting along fine. Then Peter died in the strep outbreak and Karen’s world started crumbling to pieces. First she had to face life as a widow with a daughter that needed a lot of care. Then the regressive elements started making her life hell and Karen effectively withdrew from public life.”

“What a nightmare,” Shai said and Kay nodded.

“After the rebellion, Karen started taking part in the colony a little more and she was in the first group of colonists to meet the Anek. Denver was with her and several of the Anek were very curious about Denver, what had happened to her. There were five of them clustered around Karen and Denver when it came time to head back and I was a little concerned but Maya and Cole told me several times that everything was fine. The Anek asked to spend more time with Denver, Cole and several other people live at the Meeting full time and said that they’d take care of getting them home. The next day Cole showed up at the office and told me that the Anek had requested Karen and Denver move closer to the forest. Evidently Denver had formed an attachment with several Anek, including two on their Elder Council.”

“So what are we getting into here?” Shai asked.

“The Anek revere children, everyone’s children. I think it’s because so few of their own were surviving, but the reason doesn’t matter. Denver and an Anek named Kettle grew especially close.”

“Kettle?”

Owen laughed. “There are words they like to say and aren’t too concerned with the meanings. We had to work hard to convince a young male that ‘Privy’ wasn’t a good choice for a name.”

Kay and Shai both laughed.

“What did he choose instead?”

“They’ve become huge fans of the Star Wars movies, so he is now known as Third Yoda. This is an interesting job at times.”

“I think you’re doing a great job, and my bosses say the same thing,” Kay said. “Is that the Anek Meeting I’m seeing up there?”

“The humans call that the Eloisha Meeting, which is a huge joke to the Anek I understand. That’s where the human caretakers live along with the shelters for the little ones. The Anek meeting is a bit further back into the trees.”

“Wow,” Shai said a few minutes later. “That’s way up there.”

“And it’s on the low side for them,” Owen said. He took them to the newly installed elevator cage and they all crowded in. Shai and Kay looked around as they went up and up.

“Leah’s report talked about how beautiful this place was,” Kay said. “I’m glad I get to see it.”

Both women were impressed with the Meeting, walking around it before going inside. There was an Anek curled up on the floor with a woman sitting nearby. Owen waved and Kay saw that the small bundle the Anek was carrying was in fact a child with a badly twisted body.

“Hello ladies,” Owen said “I’d like to introduce Kayleigh Evans and Shai Parvathi. They are the leaders of the Mapping Command and my Elders. This is Karen Newburgh, her daughter Denver, and Kettle Anek.”

“Wherever you find a human, there is always another Elder,” the Anek said. It sounded like a proverb to Kay. “But I am honored, Elders of my Elder.” She rose gracefully to her feet, the large arms keeping the child in place.

The Anek’s voice was monotone and harsher than Kay had expected.

“May we speak?” the Anek asked.

“She’s asking permission to touch-talk with you,” Owen said, seeing the confusion on their faces.

“Of course,” Kay said. “Forgive my ignorance please. What is the most appropriate way?”

“Sitting together is the best way,” Karen said and Owen sat down with Shai and Kay. Kettle settled back to the floor, her larger arms put Denver against her chest and she reached out with the larger arms to touch Shai and Kay. Karen and Owen held hands and Karen put her other hand on the Anek’s arm.

(Physical touch is the easiest way to begin) Kettle said.

Shai and Kay were both surprised at the difference between her mental voice and the physical one.

There was a pulse of laughter in return. (All of us are made for different things)

(Hello Shai and Kayleigh) a child’s voice said. (I very much like your names. I am Denver Anek. My body’s voice does not work)

“I like your name too,” Kay said. “I’m happy to meet all of you.”

(Did you come to take me away? The children before said I was mistake and I would be taken away)

Kay looked at the girl and shook her head. “I swear to you that will never happen. My friend said that we should come and meet you because you were so amazing.”

(Who is your friend?)

“Her name is Marie Martin. She’s a scientist.”

(Marie Stareyes! I miss her, please tell her hello for me)

“I’d be happy to,” Kay said. “But she’s asked to come back here to rest when she’d done with her job, so you can tell her yourself soon.”

There was a feeling of delight in return.

“I was wondering, why did Marie ask you to meet Denver?” Karen said.

“She didn’t give an exact reason,” Shai told her. “But I think she wanted us to see for ourselves what the Anek and humans are going to mean to each other.”

Cole was sitting with Shai and Kay at the Eloisha Meeting. The motor for the basket whirred and a few minutes later Leah appeared and stepped onto the platform. There were two eloisha clinging to her and when they saw new people they jumped away and swooped over to investigate.

“Hello there,” Kay said to the one that landed on her knee. It whistled a greeting and went off to investigate Shai.

“How did it go?” Owen asked Leah.

She stopped to kiss him. “It went mostly very well. Hello ladies, it’s good to see you.”

Shai and Kay both got up to hug and kiss her.

“It’s been too long,” Kay said. “You said mostly very well?”

Leah laughed. “The eloisha from our brood decided that they needed to help. As the new ones emerged, the older ones picked them up and took them up into the rafters of the building. We had a hell of a time getting them back.”

“How were they looking?” Cole asked.

“I think they were nearly as large as ours, almost as active for sure. Thalia was very pleased.”

“I’m very proud of you both,” Kay said. “We were just talking with Cole about Denver.”

Leah stole Cole’s drink and sat down. “She was unexpected but it seems to be working out. Before they left, Finn said that he was convinced they were Founder’s Children, same as us.”

“It makes me wonder what the Founders had in mind for this place,” Shai said.

“The Anek didn’t know anything about them. The hoom doesn’t seem to know either,” Leah said.

“Owen mentioned that you know that it’s very real,” Kay said.

Leah nodded. “It started showing up in my dreams. After Henry died, he began to show up as well. Scared the hell out of me at first but once it knew I got the message the dreams started coming less often.”

“What is it?”

“I don’t know. I can’t really understand what it says and I think Henry has become part of it, I don’t hear him much anymore. The Anek say they can’t hear it as clearly as I can but they’re convinced that’s what I’m hearing. I got broad feelings of approval or disapproval but anything beyond that it gets a lot harder. It likes us being here, I know that for sure.”

“It’ll be a topic for the xenobiologists to argue about for a long time,” Shai said. ” One of the reasons we came was to talk to you both about your resignations.”

“I figured that’s why you were here,” Leah said.

“One of the reasons,” Kay said. “Are you sure about leaving?”

Leah smiled and looked at the eloisha that had gathered around them. “This is our home now, and this is our family. I’m sure.”

Cole nodded. “The rest of the Anek are depending on us as well. But Leah’s right. This is our home and neither of us want to leave.”

“Leah, we’ve talked to Owen about moving most of the CMC operations to the savannah area of the smaller continent and he agrees that it’s a good idea. Would you two be willing to stay on a while longer? No more travelling across the Deeps.”

“Why do you want to keep us under CMC control?” Cole asked.

“Not our control. We want all of you to stay in contact with us, or our successors really. The last CMC operations are going to be shutting down soon and that will be the end of CMC. The elders in the Commonwealth have realized that the Civ-Com rebellion didn’t happen in a vacuum. At least it showed them how desperate humans are to find homes again. It didn’t hurt that the Garragh and Ta’avi ambassadors got involved on our side. Together we’re starting to make the elder races understand what losing your home planet is really like. They’ve agreed to share data from their maps. The Xero’pah have even promised a couple of worlds that they had reserved for colonies in the future. Now that the Dominion war has finally fizzled out, making the peace is going to be our next critical task. Keeping things like this rebellion from happening again will be a big part of that. You two would be some of the first to take on these new roles with the next incarnation of the service.”

“How do you mean?” Cole asked.

“This could have been a much larger disaster and it was only some lucky timing with the Blackbird that kept it from getting worse. As our colonies grow, and as we start sharing worlds with the Garragh and Ta’avi refugees, we want people we can trust keeping an eye on things. Not as our spies, just local experts that love their home and want to help.”

Leah and Cole looked at each other.

“What about Xerxes?” Cole asked.

Shai laughed. “She misses you too. You can’t have her back, keeping an SI shuttle on the ground needlessly is silly. But I think she could be based here with her new crew without any problem. I’m curious, did either of you know about Marie Martin’s request for colony settlement?”

“We didn’t hear anything about it,” Leah said. “Where does she want to settle?”

Kay smiled. “Here, of course. She said pretty much the same thing as you did about family. We’re approving it but I think she wanted to be a surprise. So act surprised when she comes strolling up that path in a few weeks. But we’re not accepting her complete resignation. All you people are part of our family and we don’t want to lose any of you.”

Leah and Cole looked at each other and he nodded slightly.

|Epilogue +4 months
There was a tap on the door of their bedroom arch. “You said you’d braid my hair?” Maya asked Leah.

“Come on the bed and sit in front of me.”

Maya sat in front of her and handed back a hair brush. Leah began to run it through Maya’s heavy black hair.

“Are you nervous?”

Maya nodded. “You’ll stay nearby?”

“Of course we will. Thorn will be here as well so Jeeua doesn’t start any trouble.”

Maya frowned. “He’s been so gentle and kind, I can’t believe he’d do anything bad.”

“When they call it breeding fever, it’s not an exaggeration,” Leah said, brushing her hair out. “They’re literally not in their right minds and the males get territorial. Thorn says that since it’s Jeeua’s first breeding fever, he could get a little feistier than normal.”

“I hope he remembers me at least.”

“I’m sure he will, how could anyone forget you?”

Leah separated her hair and began to braid it. “You look amazing, I’m so happy for you.”

Half an hour later, Leah and Maya walked into one of the smaller domes. It was a copy of the place Leah and Cole used as a bedroom except for an opening to the outside and this one was empty, except for bundles of moss that Cole and Thorn were arranging. Cole stopped and looked at Maya.

“Wow. You’re even more beautiful.”

“I’m jealous,” Thorn agreed.

Maya smiled and kissed them both. “Thank you, for everything.”

“We’ll be close if you need us,” Cole said.

Thorn rested his hand on her shoulder for a moment and they went back into the main Meeting. Leah untied the cords that held a heavy curtain back and it slid over to cover the doorway between the two rooms.

“Shouldn’t we keep an eye on them?” Cole said.

Leah laughed. “You are such a perv, you just want to watch don’t you?”

“We’ll be able to hear any problems,” Thorn said. “Remember that Jeeua loves her and the fever won’t change that. Thalia will be there as well, Maya will be quite safe.”

Leah poured drinks for Cole and herself and handed Thorn one of the dried flowers the Anek liked to chew. They said it was relaxing and had gotten used to consuming them in front of humans, mostly. Thorn still turned away to tuck them into the space that served as the Anek mouth. He sat beside Cole and Leah sat down with them.

“I had a sister, Miriam was her name,” Cole said as they waited.

Leah looked at him in surprise. She knew about his family but he never spoke about them.

Cole went on. “There was a tradition on Earth, young people would go to a formal gathering near the end of their education. There was music and dancing.”

“It sounds like a happy thing,” Thorn said.

“It was. My sister was younger and I remember waiting with her for her partner to come and get her. This feels like the same moment.”

“Hopefully your sister and you were not as close as you are with Maya.”

Leah smiled at the careful tone in Thorn’s voice. “I think he’s referring to the feeling of someone you love moving to the next stage in life. After prom, what we call the gathering, most humans are considered near to adulthood.”

“Oh, they do not mate at this gathering?”

“Usually afterwards,” Leah said.

Cole laughed. “Yes, but can we please not go there?”

There was the sound of two Anek dropping to the platform outside.

“I’m in here,” Maya called.

The three of them heard her speaking quietly and then there was a long moan.

“Sounds like things are going pretty well,” Leah said and the other two nodded.

Maya’s moans turned into happy sounding gasps.

Leah leaned over and put her mouth next to Cole’s ear. “I’m getting excited thinking about what’s going on in there,” she whispered. Her hand traced the outline of his erection under the shorts. “And I see I’m not the only one.”

They heard Maya orgasm and it was quiet for a few seconds. Then there was another long moan.

“Thalia’s turn,” Thorn said. “All is well.”

“I want to do this again,” Leah said to Cole. “Soon, now that things are calming down.”

He nodded. “I thought you would. I think once is enough for me.”

She scooted closer and put her arms around him. “As long as we’re together when it happens.”

|Epilogue +2 years
Cole and Leah sat with Lakshmi on the deck of Eloisha Meeting, watching a thunderstorm over the forest on the far side of the clearing.

“Is the filter more comfortable now?” Leah asked.

(Yes. It fits me much better than the first one)

After Maya’s brood, she’d wanted Thalia and Jeeua to meet their children so she had put together a filter that had masked the chemicals the Anek used to communicate. It had started off as a bulky suit but they’d all worked to refine to a long strip of filter that wrapped around an Anek body. The Anek didn’t like wearing them for extended periods but were delighted to interact with the eloisha for short periods.

“Leah-mother! Tara stole my music book and she won’t give it back!”

Leah sighed and Cole and Lakshmi shared a pulse of amusement.

“Both of you come here,” Leah said.

Dasher and Tara came over and stood in front of her. Their first brood were almost a third the size of Lakshmi now. They’d slowly lost their ability to fly as they grew but it hadn’t slowed them down at all. Lakshmi had given up trying to compare their growth to other broods, the eloisha living with the humans grew and learned faster than any they’d seen in the past.

“What did we say about sharing?”

“But he wasn’t using it!” Tara protested.

Dasher was indignant. “And you didn’t ask!”

“I would have asked but you were gone to the Anek Meeting!”

Dasher stopped whatever he was about to yell.

“Mom, I didn’t know that,” he said. “I changed my mind, she didn’t steal it.”

“Would you come and read it with me?” Tara asked.

Dasher nodded and they raced into one of the domes.

(I wonder if their touch-talk will be the same, since even the females voice-speak so well)

Leah laughed. “They’re good at both. I asked for some quiet the other day and then realized it was too quiet. I found all of them in a circle holding hands and singing in their heads. I’d worry about their politeness if they were human children.”

(Our songs are growing together as the hoom predicted)

Leah and Lakshmi started another long conversation about the hoom. Cole watched the lightning across the valley and only half paid attention. He’d never heard the hoom, in his dreams or otherwise. From some of what Leah had said, he was okay with that.

“Dad,” a voice whispered behind him. “Can I sit with you?”

He looked back. “Hey kiddo. Come on up.”

Cole held out his arm to help Mirjam climb into his lap. It seemed like she was getting bigger every day.

“Before long, I’ll be sitting in your lap,” Cole told her.

“I won’t let you fall then,” Mirjam said, putting her head on his chest.

She sent a feeling of contentment and he returned one of happiness. She was one of “his” and even claimed to remember talking to him in his dreams before she was born. Cole doubted that but had to admit that she had a much stronger bond with him than any of the others. There were chirps from the roof and a much younger eloisha landed on his shoulder and wiggled down to nestle between his chest and Mirjam. It snorted and purred happily.

“That’s Boggle,” Mirjam said after she had sniffed the eloisha.

Cole just nodded. He couldn’t really tell them apart but it didn’t matter because he loved them all. Leah had said it best way back at the beginning; maybe it wasn’t the family they’d expected but it was exactly the family they wanted. They’d made it home after all.
Thank you so much for reading. I’ve really enjoyed creating this world, I hope you’ve enjoyed the first look. The next story is called Arboreal and is already posted and waiting for you.