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.

Mapping Command 3: Rebellion

|1.0
Leah looked at Cole. He smiled at her and nodded. She took a deep breath and tapped on the habitat dome door. A minute later, Owen Lykos opened the door.

“Good morning.” He sounded suspicious. “What went wrong?”

“Hi Owen, I was hoping to steal you for a couple of hours,” Leah said. “We were going to head up to that spot we were at the other day.”

After a couple of seconds he nodded. “Sure, let me get my boots.”

A few minutes later Cole was driving the quad to the meeting lodge site.

“So what’s going on?” Owen asked.

“It’s going to be easier to show you,” Leah said.

“You’re not making me feel better. Henry and Marie are okay?”

Cole nodded. “We had dinner with them last night. Marie found some interesting biological samples on the last day of their survey. She’s going to ask you for some lab time.”

Owen snorted. “All but two of my science specialists are dead. She can have all the lab space she wants. It’s been two weeks since they arrived, do you think you’ve got more help coming?”

Leah leaned forward to hear Owen and Cole better. “A few more people at the very least. If we could get some sort of jump capability on our ships, they’d already be here. A few will likely be on the Ericsson unless she’s hauling shuttles bound for somewhere else. The Pathfinder class can only carry three shuttles and the extra crew starts stressing their life support systems pretty fast so it’s not always easy getting a ride out of Hub.”

“I heard the Gyr were going to start installing equipment so the shuttles could use the slingshot gates,” Cole said. “But they said they’d get started ‘soon’ so that could mean tomorrow or a couple of centuries.”

“Really?”

“One of the many interesting issues dealing with a race of immortals,” Leah said.

Owen looked back. “I heard they’re not really immortal?”

Leah shrugged. “Their natural lifespans are ten times that of a human and they bud off new Gyr that carry the same memories as the parent. They might as well be. Marie mentioned there were two other teams that had arrived, both had already put in for warp transport when they left in the Aggie. I’d bet one of them is already hitching a ride with the courier drone. As soon as we file the report, there will be plenty of new faces.”

“If Gavin and his Puritans haven’t overthrown me by then.”

“Puritans?” Cole asked.

“Yes. Back during prep there was a mix-up with the New Plymouth colony. They got a bunch of ours and we got some colonists that were expecting a very different life. A lot of them are pretty angry about it and don’t mix very well with the rest of us, what with the beer drinking and card playing. I’ve had to deal with two separate requests to build stocks in the common. The rumor is that Gavin will let them start mandatory church services if he’s put in charge. I’m sure stocks are on the agenda as well.”

“We’ve got to get that report done,” Leah said. “Sooner that this place changes status, the better.”

Owen nodded but didn’t say anything else until they’d gotten out and were walking next to the massive trunk of the tree.

“Be right back,” Leah said, walking around one of the buttress roots.

Owen looked up at the framework of timbers between the three foundation trees. “Holy…you’ve made incredible progress up there.”

Cole laughed. “I haven’t done very much, there have been five Anek builders working on it.”

“Are those logs bent?”

Cole nodded. “If you go up there, you’ll see the Anek wove them together too.”

“Are they that strong?”

“No, they do something to the wood to make it soft temporarily. Henry’s hobby is woodworking and he says it almost looks the wood has been steamed. They have whole towns in the trees, it’s one method they use to keep them up there.”

“One method.”

Cole nodded. “The females seem to have a natural knack for engineering. I’m told the males are more into spiritual and environmental issues but there’s a lot of mental static around these conversations.”

“What do you mean by that?”

“The mental communication isn’t like trading ideas, it’s literally a voice in your head. You don’t need a translation but some concepts just don’t translate.”

“Amazing. Where did your work crew go?”

“They were forced to leave when these guys showed up,” Leah said as she came back to the quad. There were several eloisha gliding along with her, using her head and shoulders as launch pads to get to the nearby tree. They were already grown to the size of sparrows.

The eloisha chirped happily when they saw Cole and three of them landed on him briefly before launching themselves back into the air, whistling and chirping to each other. They seemed drawn to Cole and Leah and one of the Anek “carpenters” had confirmed they were Cole and Leah’s broods last night.

“These are called eloisha, they’re immature Anek,” Leah said.

“Are they dangerous?”

“Not at all,” Cole said.

“They’re very curious though,” Leah said. “Don’t wear anything shiny or they’ll steal it.”

Owen held up a hand and one them landed on it and looked at him.

“Cute little buggers. Why did they chase your work crew away?”

“You remember that they use a scent communication?” Leah said. “Those chemicals are toxic to these little guys until their last stage of development.”

“So they’re on their own at birth?”

“Pretty much,” Leah said. “They’ll spend a few years growing, the ones that survive will eventually make their way to Anek settlements and join the community there. One of the many problems they’ve been having is the high predation rate of eloisha. Those large fliers you see around the colony? They eat a lot of eloisha.”

Cole blew a puff of air at one that was hovering and it hooted, riding the gust toward the tree. “The adults try not to spend long around the young, in spite of leaving them to the forest for years, they’ve still got fairly strong parental feelings for them.”

“That’s got to be rough. How long do they have to wait for these little guys to move on?”

“We’re figuring that out at the moment,” Leah said. “The eloisha are active from first light to later afternoon. Our tentative plan is to start work before dawn and stop when they start appearing. Then after they roost, we’ll go back to work until it’s too dark. They’ve got some limited artificial lights, we’re planning to get a few flood lights from the colony to help. Cole is planning a sort of coop for them to gather in, there’s another large invertebrate predator that attacks them at night.”

“I’m surprised they made it as far as they did with all these issues,” Owen said. One of them landed on his shoulder and examined his face. He turned to look at it and the eloisha hooted and pushed off into the air again. Owen laughed and it made a noise back that sounded almost like his voice.

“That’ll be a male,” Leah said. “They seem to be natural mimics. Remember I said that their reproduction cycle was complicated? One of the key elements, a symbiote, was affected by the meteor impact that made the colony. It seemed to create some kind of insanity or sickness and the Anek lost them all. They’ve been trying to invent a better method for the last few hundred years but nothing has been working very well.”

“They’re cute,” Owen said. “I’m glad we’re keeping them safe. So construction will be delayed some?”

“Once the basic platform is up, the humans can keep working during the day on smaller projects. I was thinking we’d steal Henry and Marie as they’re available to help. After you announce the news I’m guessing we’ll get a few volunteers.”

“Probably. I’m guessing you didn’t bring me up here to show me this.”

“It’s related to the eloisha,” Leah said. “They’re attracted to me and Cole for a reason…”

Cole was impressed that Owen didn’t interrupt, just listened as Leah told the whole story, from setting up that fateful night beside the creek, to the first official meeting with the Elders.

When she was done Owen sighed. “I knew there was something else. I’m not an idiot, I could see there was something more but I thought I could trust you.”

“I’m sorry we misled you,” Leah said. “I knew what your first reaction would be.”

“You mean placing you both under arrest and locking down my colony?” Owen snapped. “You’re goddammed right I would! How do I know that you two aren’t still under their control? Are you just setting us all up to be incubators? For fuck’s sake Captain!”

“They’re not being controlled,” Marie said from above them. “They’re exactly who they were before.”

Owen looked up. “And I suppose the other one of you is around here somewhere with a gun? I’ll have an unfortunate ‘accident’ if I don’t go along with this?”

“Henry doesn’t know about this. I don’t trust him,” Marie said, hopping off the root and holding out her hands. “They thought you’d wonder, so they brought me up here. I’ve never even seen an adult Anek.”

“And I’m supposed to just take your word for that.”

Marie shrugged. “I don’t care if you do or not, Leah wanted you to have some reassurance though. I know these two, Administrator. I’ve known them both for a long time and they would both die protecting your colony.”

“But they can make you feel things, so they could be lying to you as well. For that matter, you could have already been influenced and made to forget about it.”

“They’re not gods. And feel things is a little bit of a stretch,” Cole said. “The communication through touch is fairly simple for them. Creating a physical response is much harder.”

“Honestly, how am I supposed to believe that? Now that I know they can create emotions…”

“Not emotions,” Leah said patiently. “Physical responses. Lust isn’t an emotion, it’s a physiological reaction.”

Owen shook his head. “Not good enough. I’m seriously considering arresting all four of you for endangering my colony.”

“I’m sorry Administrator,” Marie said quietly. “You don’t have that authority. We’re functioning as a First Contact Team and nothing takes precedence over that. You’re welcome to take any precautions you like with your colony but we are beyond your authority.”

“I understand what’s going through your head,” Cole said. He sat on the edge of the root. “But if they wanted to take us all as incubators, they would have done it already. You couldn’t stop them. Not because they take over your mind. Physically they’re way stronger and faster than we are. Even with modern weapons you would have a very difficult time stopping even one of them. Think about the fact that they pleaded for our help instead of just taking what they needed.”

“They seem to be amazed at the power of our minds as a matter of fact,” Leah said. “More importantly the Anek are highly ethical. In our first meeting, it was declared taboo for any Anek to use unwilling humans as tathinni, as ‘incubators’ as you called it.”

“Unwilling humans,” Owen said. “You really think anyone will do this willingly?”

“I will, and happily,” Leah said. “I spent too much time in the Van Allen radiation, I’m sterile.”

“We both are,” Cole said.

Owen looked at Marie and she shrugged and nodded. “It’s happened to most, maybe all, of the Vanguard. There’s bands of radiation around nearly every planet with a magnetic field and shielding can only do so much.”

“That’s not why you went along with this the first time,” Owen said.

Cole laughed. “Uh, no. Like Leah said, it was a surprise. A happy accident. They weren’t thinking straight, we were already focused on our…evening plans, so it was easier to influence us. I don’t know if I’d go through it again, but I’m glad I did it once.”

“Why don’t you meet one of them, Owen? I think it would clear a lot of things up.”

“I’m supposed to leave that to the FCT, only when diplomatic ties are formalized do the Administrators meet with Other civilization delegates.”

“Yay, so you read the manuals,” Leah said. “So what? Those are written by Committee members along with the Cultural Affairs department. Neither of them have anything to do with first contacts. It would help if you sat down with Anek.”

Owen sighed. “It doesn’t change the fact that what happened here could have gone so badly I don’t even want to think about it. Is there anything else I need to know here? Anything at all, Captain.”

“No, Administrator.”

“All three of you, listen. You’re not out on a mission by yourselves right now. There a lot of innocent people that can’t just jump in a shuttle and run away if things go wrong.”

“I have never run away.” Leah’s voice was dangerously low.

“Shut up. You wanted me to be in charge, I’m terribly sorry if I’m not your ideal puppet but you’re going to listen. We’re stuck on Arboreal and frankly, things here are fucked up. Gavin and his friends could destroy this place with this information. Did you think about that?”

“How hard would it have been to keep this information from you, Administrator?” Leah said. “Part of the reason we waited was to see if we could trust you.”

“It’s why we asked you to come out here,” Cole said. “We’re figuring he’s hacked your tablet at the least. Xerx and Aggie take care of ours but we’re still using your network. Assume he’s gotten into anything with a microphone in fact.”

“Oh shit, the quad has a sound pickup…”

“…and is behind that giant buttress root,” Leah said. “We tried it out already.”

“Xerx analyzed a piece of the bark,” Cole said. “There are a lot of metals present, her theory, based on a cross section, is that there’s an EM field generated by the movement of water up and down the trunk.”

“That sounds like it would take a lot of water.”

Cole grinned. “This is a lot of tree. Of course they’re not really trees the way we understand them, why would they be? Either way, we’re pretty safe from prying eyes out here.”

“Owen, I’m sorry we didn’t tell you at first, but we didn’t know you and we weren’t willing to risk the Anek over a mistake.”

The administrator sighed and rubbed his eyes. “Yeah, I understand what you were doing, I’m just going to have a lot of nightmares about all the things that could have gone wrong.”

“The thing to remember is that they didn’t,” Marie said.

“Owen is an avowed pessimist,” Cole explained.

“Speaking of which, remember that I’m making the announcement tomorrow at noon. You can figure Gavin will be using this issue somehow.”

“I don’t understand that,” Marie said. “Arboreal is going to have a big boost from the status change. Better access to supplies, more access to specialists and support teams. Life if going to be better.”

Owen smiled. “Your naiveté is heart-warming. A better life is not what Gavin is after, it’s power. If he held a coup and became Administrator while this was still a backwater colony the Committee on Hub probably wouldn’t pay much attention. When Arboreal changes status, we’ll move from the Civil Committee’s control to being run by the CMC. He’s smart enough to realize he won’t be able to strong-arm everyone once that happens.”

“I requested a security team since he could interfere with the FCT work,” Leah said. “But it’s two more days until the courier drone goes over and then another couple of days for transit, half of another day to get to the proper people, get a team together and get them in transit back here. We’ve got at least a week, probably two, before we get any real support.”

“All four of you need to realize that you are in his way as much as I am. It doesn’t matter if you’re CMC or not, Gavin and his people are as much a danger to you as they are to me.”

Cole nodded. “That’s why I think we should hang around the colony today for the announcement. We’ll visit Xerxes and come out tomorrow afternoon. I need to see the reactions to get an idea of what people are thinking. And you could use some backup.”

“What about the Anek?” Owen asked. “Getting this built is important.”

“Cole and Leah are both military specialists,” Marie said. “I’m science, so I’ll stay here.”

“And we’re not sure when the Anek are coming back,” Leah said. “They work on their own schedule.”

“I need to get back to the colony before there’s another uproar,” Owen said. “You want a ride, Captains?”

|2.0
Owen dropped Cole and Leah at the field and they walked out to their shuttle.

“Hey! That’s a restricted area!” Brad yelled from behind them.

They stopped and turned around. Brad was standing in the doorway of the operations building, waving them back.

“When did this become a restricted area?” Leah asked him.

“It’s always been restricted. It’s a hazardous area, machinery moving around, stuff like that.”

Leah and Cole looked around. The area was completely silent and nothing moved. Owen had mentioned that he’d had to ground the colony’s gyrocopters since the lack of technicians or machinists meant they weren’t being maintained.

“Looks safe enough to me,” Cole said. “If you really need authorization for us to visit our own ship, I’ll come in there and show you the exact regulation.”

Brad sneered. “Yeah, well, regulations are changing now.”

Leah laughed. “You halfwits are going to try and take on the CMC?”

“What do you mean?”

Cole smiled at the sudden look of uncertainty on Brad’s face. “We’re governed by CMC regulations. We don’t answer to colonial authorities. Do you need me to point that passage out as well?”

“Stay right there. I’ll contact the administration office.” Brad shut the door.

“Come on,” Leah said and they walked across the open concrete to the shelter where Xerxes and Agamemnon were parked.

Henry was already there, arguing with a couple of technicians.

“What’s going on?” Leah asked.

“Aggie called me and I just got here. These two were trying to break in,” Henry said.

“No, I told you we weren’t breaking in!” the older technician protested. “Operations sent a work order to link these two AIs into our comm network.”

“No,” Henry said. “You’re not authorized access to either ship.”

“Sir, if you don’t comply, we’re going to call security,” the other technician said. “It’s an order from Operations.”

“Let me save you a headache,” Cole said. He opened a document on his tablet and held it up. “You have zero jurisdiction over CMC equipment, your Operations department has zero jurisdiction over our movement or access to our ship.”

“I don’t care what that says. We’ll let security will sort it out,” the technician said.

The older one rolled her eyes. “What security, Craig?”

“I’ve had enough,” the younger one said. “I’m reporting you and all the rest of this bullshit to Operations.”

He stalked out of the hangar.

The woman shook her head. “Captain, I’m sorry. I didn’t know about the regulations, I got thrown into this when the technical people died. I usually work construction, habs and that kind of thing.”

“Sorry for the mix-up,” Leah said. “You don’t have to worry about either of these ladies from now on. They’re in touch with us and we’ll arrange anything they need.”

“You didn’t hear this from me, but Craig and his friend in Operations were already planning to lock you up if you don’t let them inspect the ships,” the tech said, picking up her bag. “Things are getting weird around here.”

“If they manage to detain us, don’t be around these two ships,” Leah said. “The SI is hardwired to immediately get off into orbit if we are incapacitated, no matter what’s in the way.”

“Where they start screaming bloody murder,” Henry said. “It happened on New Plymouth to a CMC team that got thrown in the stocks for wearing pants or swearing or something. The Rangers that arrived from Hub weren’t amused.”

The tech nodded. “I’ve heard nothing good about that place. Brad, the guy in ops probably came up with it on his own. Wouldn’t be the first time he did something like that. I gotta go back to patching roofs but I’ll stop by the Administration office and give Owen a heads-up.”

Leah thanked her and followed Cole inside of the ship. He was unhooking latches on a locker set into the floor.

“Hi Miss Xerx, did anyone try and access your systems?” Leah asked.

“No Leah, I heard them say they’d start with Aggie. I’m concerned about the communications interference created by the planet. If they had begun work on this ship, I would have had no choice but to depart the planet if neither of you were available.”

“Pretty girl, I don’t want you to hesitate,” Leah said. “We’ll take care of ourselves until you can get us help.”

” I understand and will comply. But I don’t like that order, Captain. ”

“Why don’t we move her to visual range of the meeting lodge?” Cole asked as he pulled two bundles out of the floor. “It would be simple to run another laser link out to her. Anything in the open environment that would harm you, Xerx?”

“I have not detected anything yet, Cole. I think this plan has merit, Leah.”

“Let’s do that, then,” Leah said. “Would you discuss it with Aggie please? I think you two would be better off together.”

“She’s discussing it with Captain Rogeau now,” Xerxes said. “Once you are clear, I can begin moving to establish visual contact with the area you indicated on the map.”

“We’ll be in the immediate area until this evening or tomorrow morning,” Cole said. “I’ll message you when we’re moving back to the meeting lodge area. Continue with the restricted access plan in the meantime.”

“Understood, Cole. The Agamemnon has received instructions to follow me to the new parking area. I note that you have accessed the weapons locker, Cole. Both of you be careful, please.”

After Leah and Cole promised that they would be careful they left the ship and walked back across the concrete toward the Operations building.

“Let’s warn them that she’ll be moving,” Cole said, heading for the door. Leah smiled, knowing that the weapons they were now carrying provided their own warning.

Brad and Craig were talking as they walked in but were immediately quiet. Everyone in the room stared at the side-arms and assault weapons the two of them carried.

“Wanted to let you know, both shuttles will be moving to new parking areas,” Cole said.

“Then I need to know where and when you’re moving them.” Brad said. “That’s in the regulations.”

There was a beeping alarm from outside as the Xerxes powered out of the hangar and turned in place. She pulled ahead and waited as the Agamemnon completed the same maneuver. They both rolled down the runway, leaving the operations building behind.

“Just about now,” Leah said.

“Who’s driving them?” Brad demanded, staring out the window.

“They’re SI controlled, they’re driving themselves,” Leah said. “You won’t have to worry about trying to access them now. Since they’re outside, both shuttles have armed their security turrets, I’d recommend everyone keeps their distance. The stunner rounds aren’t pleasant at all. We’ve got to get to work now.”

No one said anything, just stared as they turned and left.

“Security turrets?” Cole asked as they walked to the Admin building. “Stunner rounds?”

“If they don’t know about SI controls, they’ll believe anything at the moment,” Leah said and Cole laughed.

There was a system wide message posted to their tablets as they walked down the path to the colony. Owen had announced a mandatory meeting for all residents after lunch.

“Let the games begin,” Leah said.

|3.0

Leah and Owen met Henry in Owen’s office. They kept working through all of the material that had to be included in the initial report. Since the intervals in courier contact were far apart, there were a ton of other messages as well. Everything from requesting the status change from colony to scientific outpost/embassy to requesting specialists and equipment. Owen carefully encrypted everything before uploading it to the colony’s servers for transmittal.

Cole sat back and stretched. “I really need the bathroom, be right back.” He went into the outer office where Maya was sitting at her console.

“Seems like there’s suddenly a lot going on around here,” she said, smiling at him.

“Too much if you ask me. Sorry, too much coffee,” Cole said. He was hoping she’d be busy with something else when he came out but she’d gotten up and was waiting for him beside her desk, standing between him and Owen’s door.

“You wouldn’t be trying to avoid the question, Captain?” she said in a teasing voice. Maya was shorter than average, Cole guessed she was a meter six with breasts and hips that were large on her petite frame. She had long black hair and dark eyes and her golden brown skin reflected her Central American heritage. She was wearing the khaki shorts that most colonists wore, although hers were shorter and fit more snugly. Instead of the t-shirts that most people wore, she was wearing a tight white oxford shirt with the sleeves rolled past her elbows and the top three buttons undone. She gave him a lazy smile and unbuttoned the fourth button. “Can I have just one little hint?”

“Hmm, one little hint. Okay, some changes are coming and Owen will be letting everyone know at lunch today.”

“Come on, I figured that out on my own. That’s not much of a hint,” she said with a trace of a pout.

“It was only one button,” Cole said, giving her his classic fighter pilot grin.

She smiled and looked down, undoing another button. She looked back up at him, pulling her shoulders back slightly to open the shirt and expose the white lace of the bra underneath. “What does two buttons get me?”

“Hmm, a little more I guess. He’ll be filing a request to change Arboreal’s colony status.”

“Really? To what? Did you guys find something important?”

Cole winked. “I don’t think you have that many buttons, but you can try to change my mind if you’d like.”

She laughed. “I heard rumors about CMC officers, are you all this naughty?”

“Some of us are even worse. I should get back in there before they start wondering what happened to me.”

“Before your wife finds you out here trying to get me out of my clothes you mean.”

Cole give her the cocky grin again. “True, but only because she’s a lot better than I am at getting pretty girls out of their clothes. Gets embarrassing, you know?”

Maya smiled at him. “You’re doing just fine so far, sexy.” She reached over and opened Owen’s door for him without moving. As he squeezed by, she pushed herself against him and her hand brushed his crotch. “Mmm. Maybe we’ll talk about more hints later.”

“Can’t wait,” Cole murmured and went back into Owen’s office.

The other three were going over the data. Cole sat back down and Leah glanced at him and back at Owen’s screen and then gave him a longer look. “I know that look. What are you up to?”

“What makes you think I’m up to something?” Cole flicked his eyes at the door and shook his head slightly.

Leah smiled and looked back at the screen. “You’ve got that bad-boy look on your face.”

Owen looked up at him and then at Leah who smiled innocently at him. “I don’t want to know,” he muttered, looking back down. “I think we’re good on this one, I’m going to send it to the message queue.”

Leah held up her hand without saying anything and reached over and selected the special encryption option and entered a ten-digit number. “There, let’s just get rid of this comma and put one down here.”

“What are you…”Owen glanced at his door. “Oh. You’re a grammar nazi on top of everything else? Okay, that’s done. Next, I want to talk about this biological EM interference. Henry said he had a few ideas…”

As they talked, Cole texted Leah a long message. She looked down at her tablet and read it and then looked at him.

ruthless and evil, it’s perfect. go for it!

There was a tap on the door forty-five minutes later and Maya stepped in. “Excuse me Owen. Brad called from operations. Both shuttles were moved to new parking areas and he’s concerned that unscheduled arrivals won’t be able to land.”

“There were some questions about maintenance this morning,” Leah said. “Both of them were moved to the auxiliary area halfway down the runway. He must have finally found a regulation that he could use.”

“That should be fine,” Owen said. “Are they taking up too much space there or something?”

“I’ll go ask him,” Maya said. A minute later she was back. “He’s…being Brad. He wants you to go look and personally okay it. I told him you’re busy but he’s kicking up a fuss. Do you want me to go take a picture or something?”

“That would be an idea. Cole, you should go too, that way you can move them around if there’s a problem,” Leah said. “Work for you, Owen?”

“I think Brad is just being a little overcautious…” Owen started to say. His tablet chimed and he looked down and frowned and read the message. “But let’s nip this in the bud. You don’t mind, Cole?”

“My legs could use a stretch actually.”

“Could you guys give me the room, I’d like a quick word with my assistant,” Owen said. They got up and filed out of the room.

“Maya, you know there’s some big changes coming. I’d like you to be ready to assume more responsibility…” they heard Owen say as the door closed.

“What are you two up to?” Henry said quietly.

“She was trading cleavage for leaked intel,” Cole said. “It’s a good opportunity to do a little counter-intel since she’s feeding data to the troublemakers.”

“You’re kidding.”

“No, it’s the best way to deal with a mole, tell them what you want your opponents to hear. Haven’t you read any spy novels?” Leah said.

“That’s not what I meant. How much cleavage are we talking?” Henry whispered.

Leah rolled her eyes and Cole laughed. “Got a peek of her bra.”

“You lucky bastard. Let me know if you need me to play a role.”

Leah raised an eyebrow. “Even seducing Gavin?”

Henry shrugged. “I guess he’s cute enough, in a brutish sort of way. Why? You think he goes that way?”

Cole and Leah laughed and Henry looked outraged. “Bitches, I’m fucking sexy, don’t you think I couldn’t turn him! I’d have to read up on how it works but…”

Please stop,” Leah laughed. “Far be it from me to doubt your skills. Cole, if you don’t see her nipples before lunch I’m going to be disappointed in you.”

“I’ll do my best, Captain.”

“And I expect details,” Henry said.

“And pictures,” Leah said and Henry nodded quickly.

The office door opened and Maya came out, smiling. “Are you ready to go, Cole?”

“Yes ma’am,” he said. Leah winked at him and followed Henry back into the office as Cole followed Maya outside.

“What was that all about?” Owen said when they sat down. “Keeping him away from Maya if she’s digging hard might be a better idea. She’s probably not above making some serious attempts at finding out. Like, the naked kind.”

Leah waved a hand. “Then she’s got her work cut out for her. Cole was a fighter pilot and usually got panties moist just by smiling. We think she’s leaking data to Gavin, correct?”

“Right. Why do you ask?”

Leah smiled and Henry did his best French villain laugh.

Owen’s eyebrows went up and he shook his head. “I don’t know if I want to know. You people are beginning to frighten me.”

Henry spoke up first, surprising Leah. “Look, first contacts are too important to risk because you’ve got some malcontents. If we can start disrupting them now, it’ll make the job of the security team easy. The less disruption, the better. Right?”

“It’s a nice day, let’s take a shortcut through the park,” Maya said. Cole shrugged and followed her. There was no way this was a shortcut but it was secluded. Cole put his hand in his pocket and switched the tablet to record mode. He didn’t know about pictures, but if she was playing games, an audio record would be useful. He let Maya do the talking as they walked. Mostly it was the usual gossip; who was sleeping around, who had cheated at the poker tournament, that kind of thing.

“We can cut through here,” Maya said, taking the path into the trees and Cole followed her into the dappled shade. On Earth this would have been a grove of pretty good sized trees, but these were just saplings. At some point in the future they’d become the gargantuan specimens of the forest.

“These have grown three meters since we arrived,” Maya said, patting one as she walked by. “I hope I get to see them reach full size. What’s the big forest like? I wish we could go see it but it’s off limits.”

Cole was surprised, she actually sounded curious. “Beautiful actually. The trees get even larger further away from the colony and the really big ones generate their own microclimates, moving the air around. It can get rough to move around in places between them, the roots come to the surface and wrap around each other. If you don’t mind me asking, I got the idea that the colonists didn’t like the forest.”

“That’s just people like Gavin and his friends. Lots of us love them, when I saw the first pictures of the planet I immediately signed up for the colony. Gavin thought he’d be able to come here and start a lumber business.” She laughed. “Even if a saw could get through the bark, how would you cut down a skyscraper? What would you do with it when you cut it down? Did you see different kinds of animals while you were out there?”

“A few of them, but we weren’t actually looking too closely on that pass, just making maps. Our preliminary reports will be available on your net, probably by tomorrow or Friday.”

She stopped and looked up. They were standing near the base of the largest group of trees in the grove. “Are the animals interesting? All we see around here are those giant flyers and some insect looking things”

“Some of them are spectacular for sure.”

“I can’t wait to read it. Hey, I want to show you something.”

Cole raised his eyebrows and she laughed. “Not what you’re thinking. It’s my favorite spot in the park.”

She led Cole off the path a few meters. Roots from the largest tree came to the surface and wrapped around several house sized boulders. There was a spring between them somewhere, Cole could smell it and hear the water trickling.

“I like coming here to sit,” Maya said, pointing to a smooth rock covered in dappled sunlight.

“I can see why, it’s gorgeous.”

She sat on the rock and looked at him. “And pretty private. So, those hints about what’s going on. Want to negotiate?”

“I’m tempted to say yes, but my conscience is getting the better of me. By the time we get back to the office it’ll be lunchtime and everyone will know.”

“I don’t mind. I just like knowing a secret before everyone else. So let’s talk about what I can I do to get a little more data here.” She unbuttoned her shirt and leaned back.

Cole shook his head and she frowned. “Why not?”

“I told you, it wouldn’t be fair. As much as I’d like to see what’s under that shirt, I’m not going to mislead you. Tell you what, promise you’ll stay quiet until the meeting and I’ll tell you. But I don’t want you to steal Owen’s thunder.”

“Oh, that’s why he’s keeping it such a secret? I mean, I know he doesn’t like me, but I wouldn’t do that to him.”

“Why do you say he doesn’t like you?”

“Well, you know what it’s like being in a new place, right? Maybe not, were you ever a refugee or a colonist? I got left in a group of people I didn’t know. You have to start all over and finding someone you like and trust is the most important thing, to me anyway. When I got here, I noticed Owen right away. I really liked him but he just ignored me. It was kind of rude, but I got over it. He probably thought I was just hitting on him because he was the Admin. But I like working for him, he does an amazing job for us.”

“You ended up partnered with Gavin, right?”

“If you can call it that. Mostly he hangs around his drinking buddies and just comes home to screw and sleep. But I guess people put up with worse, he leaves me alone most of the time and I’m not too lonely.”

“Maya, I’m surprised you didn’t know this already, but Owen is gay. Maybe it’s not common knowledge.”

Cole almost laughed at the look on Maya’s face.

“Ohhh! That’s why he keeps to himself, I never would have guessed. Oh my god! I thought he was just being stuck up! But there’s a couple of guys here that are gay, more that are bi, he’s never hit on anyone at all. Not that I heard anyway.”

“Finding a partner isn’t as important to some people. He seems pretty married to his job, right? After the outbreak this place has gotten a lot trickier to run and there are people making it harder on him.”

“Now I feel awful, I had no idea.”

“But I don’t know if it’s common knowledge or not,” Cole warned.

“Oh, I never tell any of the secrets I find out! That would be so bad!”

Cole raised his eyebrows again. “Never?”

“No! Well, if there’s something I can’t stand to keep to myself, well, it’s kind of stupid…”

Cole smiled. “I’ll trade you that secret for mine.”

She laughed. “Okay, but you’d better keep this to yourself. When I was little we lived way up in Alaska, my dad was a geologist. There weren’t any other kids my age and so I had imaginary friends. I called them invisible, they weren’t imaginary to me.”

“I understand, my dad was Air Force in Germany but my mom was a German national and we lived off base. So I didn’t really fit anywhere.”

“Then you know what it’s like. There were other kids around when we moved to Montana but I was kinda chubby and got teased.”

She pulled her legs up and wrapped her arms around them. “Since I already had my invisible friends, I just kept to myself. When I went away to college, I just got in the habit of writing them letters. I guess it’s more of a journal really. I know, it’s stupid.”

Cole shook his head and sat beside her on the rock. “I think that’s a pretty smart way to deal with things.”

Be careful you’re not getting played here, Morgan, Cole thought to himself.

She sniffed and wiped her eyes. “Then I was the first one from my town to qualify for the colonies, my degree was in chemistry. I had some friends and my parents were on the list too. But then the attacks started and I don’t think any of them made it to the emergency evac ships.”

“Yeah, they didn’t manage to get enough of those ships off Earth before the rocks started falling. Then the fighter attacks on the way to Hub took out even more.”

She glared at him. “Don’t you dare say anything bad about the defenders! What were they supposed to do? Even the Commonwealth couldn’t stop the Dominion, what were humans in tiny fighters supposed to do? A lot of them died saving the rest of us you know. Now everyone acts like an expert and blames them…”

“Maya. I wasn’t saying a single bad thing about them, I promise. I know how bad they wanted to get everyone to safety and I know the pilots in the Defense think the same thing. There just wasn’t enough time is all I’m saying.”

“Sorry. I hear people bad mouth them and I get so angry… Anyway, I got to Hub and then there were more than a few people who wanted to be ‘friends’ but I’m not an idiot, I know I’m not a chubby shy kid now. Well, on the outside anyway. Growing up, I already learned not to trust people who wanted to be ‘friends’ to try and get something out of me. So I stuck to myself and started writing to my oldest friends again so I wasn’t so lonely. I don’t even put them in emails, it’s just text I put in a folder.”

Suddenly things started making sense to Cole. “Maya, do you let anyone else read your letters?”

“God, no! Some of it, well, it’s silly. I always keep my tablet password locked.”

Cole watched her carefully, he was pretty sure she was being honest. Still, the Mati Hari routine, trying to trade some skin for data didn’t really fit here. And ending up with Gavin after being careful around people before? Was anyone ever that lonely?

“Anyway, we should get to ops before Brad has a meltdown,” Maya said. She let go of her knees.

“Yeah, well, Brad pissed me off this morning,” Cole said. “He ordered a maintenance crew to access our ships without asking us.”

“CMC property? On whose authority?” Maya said. “Owen wouldn’t do that!”

“Someone mentioned he went off the rails sometimes, I guess he was showing initiative. I ordered the shuttles to move and I know Xerxes is too smart to be in a dangerous place on a runway. But I don’t mind letting him sweat a while.”

“Ooh, he makes me so mad,” Maya fumed. “He’s always trying to order me around, even after hours. Or he’s hinting he wants to hook up when Gavin’s not around even though they’re supposed to be friends.”

“I’m kind of surprised you ended up in that crowd,” Cole said, helping her to her feet.

Maya shrugged. “Gavin was charming at first, I liked him when we were first setting up. When we found we were going to be on the same work schedule he talked about hooking up. I didn’t know anyone else and I was pretty lonely. I’d already tried with Owen, I figured Gavin wasn’t too bad. He’s okay, but yeah, his crowd is kind of rough.”

“Okay, I owe you one secret. Promise me you won’t write any letters before lunch?”

She looked at him like he was an idiot. “That’s something I do in the evenings. I’m not that lonely. Are you really going to tell me?”

“Yep. While we were out last time we were contacted by sentient natives.”

Maya’s eyes got very big. “No!”

“Truth. Owen is announcing that the status of the colony is changing to scientific mission. They’re in trouble and asking for our help.”

“Wow. But now we’ll have to leave since they’re sentient?”

“Only if you want to. We’ve been working with Owen so he can remain the administrator. CMC will want to leave people here if they want to stay, outposts use the same kind of support staff.”

“That’s amazing!” Maya hugged Cole who laughed and hugged her back. She stepped back and looked at her open shirt and then at him. “You know, you could’ve traded a lot for that.”

“Nope, I told you it wouldn’t be fair.”

She gave him a funny look. “Thank you Cole, that was really sweet of you. I’m impressed that you turned down a peek at some really spectacular tits.”

Cole laughed. “I bet they are, but it wouldn’t be as fun if I cheated.”

She buttoned up her shirt. “And your wife’s are probably just as good.”

“I won’t lie, they’re also spectacular.”

Maya grinned and shook her head. “Come on, let’s get to the landing strip. Did she know I was trying to get secrets out of you?”

“Of course. She said she’d be disappointed if I didn’t see at least a nipple.”

Maya laughed. “I should’ve known.”

They continued on through the forest and were almost out when Cole stopped. “I’ve been wondering something and I can’t think of a diplomatic way to ask.”

She stopped and faced him. “So don’t be diplomatic, just ask.”

“You said you avoided people that wanted to be friends for physical reasons, but before…”

Maya smiled and started walking down the path again. “I see what you’re asking. First I’m the little shy girl with no friends and suddenly I’m offering you a look at my rack. Well, there’s two things at work there; I’m using my available resources to get what I want.”

Cole laughed. “Fair enough.”

“The other thing, well, you hear about CMC officers and how you guys party. I’m tired of a few thrusts from Gavin before he rolls over and starts snoring. I wouldn’t have traded a fuck for a secret if that’s what you’re wondering. But you’re hot and flirting with you is fun. If it led to a little adventure, so much the better. I’m a little disappointed I didn’t tempt you, I would’ve liked showing you my tits.”

“What makes you think you didn’t tempt me? I just have a really strong conscience.”

She looked at him and smiled as they followed the path around the park to the operations building. She was quiet until they were almost there.

“Wait. Now I want to ask you something and no bullshit. Was this walk a ploy to get me out of the office?”

“I don’t think so, but sending me along was.”

“And you got really interested in my letter writing. Goddammit!”

Cole saw tears in her eyes.

“I’m not stupid. You guys think I ‘m a leak, don’t you? That dirty motherfucking son-of-a-bitch hacked my tablet, didn’t he? He’s been using me all along for his ‘Culture of Resistance’ bullshit!”

“I think that’s probably what happened,” Cole said gently. “If it’s any consolation, I believe you.”

“I hate people so much,” she said as she wept. “And those assholes in Operations will know I was crying and that’ll be all over the place and…”

“Tell you what, let’s walk back. We can deal with Brad after lunch.”

They headed back up the path and Maya sniffed as she kicked a rock across the ground. “I should have known Gavin was just another asshole out to use me, I should know how men get by now. Now I’ve got resign and I really liked this job, and I was good at it. I’ll talk to Owen and transfer to one of the farms. God I hate farming.”

“What do you think about letting me help you out?”

She looked at him and wiped her eyes. “Why? What do you want from me? Don’t think you’re getting in my pants.”

“Okay, relax. First reason is that I don’t want you to get hurt over this. You were tricked and that’s no reason to punish you, you did nothing wrong.”

“I was stupid.”

Cole shrugged. “Even if you were, that’s hardly a crime. I think you were lonely and making the best of things. Second, I’d try to help anyone in this situation, so don’t start with the sex thing. I know how you women get.”

She smiled a little through the tears and swatted his arm.

“There’s a third reason but it’s a little selfish. We have to deal with Gavin and if you’re interested in helping us with that, I think we could help you get some revenge.”

“How much revenge?”

Cole smiled. “People will be making fun of him instead of listening to him after we’re done.”

“Really? Then I’m in. Hell hath no fury and all that.”

“I’m still working it out, but it’ll be fun. We’ll sit down with Owen and Leah after lunch and talk this out.”

|4.0
“…so there’s going to be some big changes in the way the colony is administered,” Owen said. “I’m still working on the details with Cole and Leah but I’m going to work very hard to keep disruptions to a minimum. I can answer a few questions now but if I don’t get to yours, submit it on colony net and I’ll post answers there.”

Not surprisingly, Gavin was first on his feet. “Administrator, how long have you kept us in the dark about this situation?”

“Kept you in the dark? No one was kept in the dark, Gavin. Leah notified me a few days ago, we’ve been working on some administrative issues since then.”

“And you think that’s responsible leadership? We all should have known, immediately so we could take steps to protect ourselves!”

“Protect yourself from what, exactly?”

“The aliens! Are you simple or just criminally negligent?”

There was a mutter from the audience at that but he ignored them.

“You don’t need protecting,” Leah said. “They’ve been observing your colony since you arrived. If they were going to be hostile, it already would have happened.”

Gavin sneered at her. “No one asked you a question, CMC stooge.”

People were turning in their seats, looking at him now.

“I’ll ask her then,” an older woman said. “Excuse his rudeness please, Captain. You’re sure they’re not hostile?”

“No ma’am, they are not. Very much the opposite in fact.”

“Thank you.”

Brad jumped to his feet. “How are we supposed to believe anything the CMC tells us? They’re not accountable to anyone here, how do we know there’s aliens at all? Maybe they just want to grab the colony for themselves!”

“All four of us you mean?” Leah asked and there were some laughs.

“No one’s talking to you. This is a colony meeting, why are you even here?”

“Because they’re the experts on this, Bradley,” Owen said, rubbing his eyes. “And colony-wide meetings aren’t closed, never have been. Next question please, Andy.”

Another of Gavin’s supporters shouted over the man, demanding to be told how they could best defend their land from the alien menace. The meeting quickly turned into a shouting match and Owen nodded toward the door. He left with Maya and Cole and Leah followed them out a minute later. A few other people got up to leave as well but everyone else was on their feet, shouting at each other.

Leah told Owen they’d meet him back in his office. They hadn’t had a chance to eat and she and Cole were going to grab a bar from the hab. As they walked down the path, Leah shook her head. “Owen is a goddamn saint. I would not have had that kind of patience.”

“You and I need to have a serious talk with Owen,” Cole said quietly.

She chuckled. “But did you see nipples?”

“Even better.” He stopped and hugged her closely. “Not around the tablets,” he whispered in her ear and she squeezed his ass. “Somewhere secluded with no comm-net. There’s a good spot in that forest park.”

There were a couple of whistles as some colonists walked past.

“You keep blowing in my ear like that, there’s gonna be trouble,” Leah announced and there was laughter from the passersby.

Cole opened the door and looked at Maya and nodded. She got up without saying anything and left with him. A few minutes later Leah went into the admin building and leaned on the doorframe to Owen’s office.

“I’m tired of being inside, let’s go for a walk,” Leah said, walking in.

“Kinda busy here at the moment. Go walk by yourself.”

“You’re neglecting your body, Administrator. Do I have to order you to get some exercise?”

He looked at her curiously. “I guess not. Where are we going?”

Maya and Cole were waiting just inside the forest and Maya led them off the path to her rock.

“God, this is gorgeous. You’re right Leah, I need to get out more,” Owen said. “But this isn’t a chance meeting.”

“We already know there’s no tablet access in the trees,” Leah said. “And you’re right, it’s pretty. Cole, you said it was urgent that we all talk.”

“It’s about me,” Maya said. “Administrator Lykos, I want to apologize to you. I was careless and that has made your job much worse. I was talking with Cole earlier. I figured out you didn’t want me in the office before but I thought you just didn’t like me. I didn’t realize that everything was my fault.”

“Go a little slower, Maya. What are you apologizing about?” Owen asked.

She started tearing up again. “You thought I was blabbing secrets, but I wasn’t. Not on purpose. I admit I like to know what’s going on behind the scenes but I’d never tell anyone else. I just write letters to friends but they’re not real people. I never send them anywhere.”

“Oh for fucks sake, are you kidding me?” Leah said. “That asshole hacked her tablet.”

She sat beside Maya and took her hand. Maya looked surprised but smiled at her.

“It wouldn’t be hard as the network and system admin,” Cole said.

“Administrator, I’ll resign if you want, I didn’t think it was against the rules but I was stupid and careless with information.”

Owen shook his head. “You got played, kiddo. I’m sorry about that but you’re a great assistant, I don’t want to lose you over this. I wasn’t kidding before, I’m going to be depending on you a lot more in the future. I can think of a lot of unpleasant things to do to Gavin Sinclair however.”

“I’ve got a plan for that,” Cole said. “You could arrest him, but then he’d be a martyr for his followers.”

Leah laughed. “I know what you’re thinking, magnificently sneaky man. We destroy his credibility across the colony and ensure no one ever listens to him again.”

Maya wiped her eyes. “And it sounds like fun.”

Leah and Cole began to explain what they were thinking about. Owen looked at the three of them and shook his head. “Okay but I want my assistant back from the dark side when this is over.”

The four of them walked back to the Administration building. Leah and Maya walked a little behind the other two. They looked like they were whispering and laughed several times. There were several dour looking people waiting at the doors of the administration office.

“Absent again, Administrator,” a hatchet faced woman in a long dress and hat said. She looked surprised when he held up a hand for her to stop talking.

“Hold on, Elizabeth. You three, go away. You’re all going to be useless to me until you get this out of your systems. I’ll see you tomorrow.”

“Or maybe a couple of days from then,” Leah said, leaning back to check out Maya’s ass and the group waiting by the doors looked at each other, scandalized.

Owen shook his head. “No. One day, so get your hormones down to a manageable level and be here bright and early. Sober and fully clothed.”

Leah looked at her watch. “We’d better get started then.”

Owen rolled his eyes at the little group waiting for him.

“Galactic Playboys,” he sighed, unlocking the doors for them. “Come on in, I’m sure you have some complaints to file.”

Cole made drinks when they got to the hab and Leah rolled a joint and sat down with Maya. Cole brought the drinks and went to get food.

Leah looked at Maya. “Before we tear it up, let’s figure out where we’re at. Did Gavin ever mention we had a meeting?”

“Once, kind of. He said you were bugging him while he was out working.”

“Nothing about approaching me last week? Okay, I need to explain this. The first meeting was scheduled at his office but he didn’t show. I finally tracked him down to remind him of it. He said he was busy so we ended up sitting at a table in the park and talking. I was…well, really horny. Not for him specifically, but he saw I was hot and bothered and got the idea I was trying to hook up. He came to find me last week and tried to set something up between us.”

“What an ass. And why would you bother with him when you’ve got that waiting for you?” Maya said, pointing at Cole.

Leah shrugged. “You know how it is, heat of the moment and all. He looks like he’s hung and my imagination ran with it.”

“Oh, he’s big enough but he doesn’t have a clue what to do with it.”

“All for the best then,” Leah said. “Like we said, the first part of Operation Jackass is spreading the rumor Cole has the hots for you.”

“What rumor? She’s a doll,” Cole said, putting a plate down with cheese and fruit.

“See what I put up with?” Leah said and kissed him when he set the other food down.

Maya ate a piece of banana. “You know, I think a rumor will be too subtle for Gavin and most of his friends are already hot for me. Just remove any doubt and make the rumor that we snuck off into the park today for some fun.”

“It might work better, but I don’t want to make your life here any more difficult than it has to be,” Leah said. “Cole mentioned the Puritan contingent here.”

Maya shrugged. “I really don’t care. It’s too late to be respectable anyway. There are a couple women that call me a slut because I was single when we landed and fooled around with a couple different guys. After Gavin they just ignored me. So I’m beyond caring about my reputation and keeping the first contact safe is the most important thing.”

“Hmm, you’re wasted as an admin assistant,” Leah said.

“Not a lot of need for chemists yet.” Maya smiled as Cole came and sat down beside Leah. “It’ll be a fun rumor, your husband is hot and your neighbors are obsessed. I’ve heard them talking about watching him work out. So let them be jealous of me, it’ll get them talking and spread the rumor further.”

Leah nodded. “You’re going to be good at this. Okay, that’s what we’ll say. What else do you think?”

“I was wondering, did you really tell him to try and see my nipples?”

Leah laughed. “Yes. I’m incorrigible. But he told me he failed, he’s going on report.”

“He was too much of a gentleman, that’s why he failed.”

“Then you’re forgiven,” Leah told Cole and leaned over to kiss him.

“So, people already saw us walking around together and I’m sure they saw Cole and I go to the park earlier. I’ll leave here in a while with messed up hair and a smile on my face. It’ll get people talking even more that you were here too. We’ll probably turn into a scandal.”

“She’s a natural,” Cole said to Leah. “Now remember there’s a second part of the plan. Let’s figure some ideas about that this evening.”

“That’s going to be my favorite part but I wanted to ask you something first, about the CMC. Are the stories true? The ones about all you guys fooling around together I mean.”

“It’s not just Mapping,” Leah said. “But the answer is yes, most people are pretty playful and affectionate. A lot of us grew up in a really liberal environment, so we tend to have relaxed views about sex. The other part of it is the danger of the job. It makes for really strong bonds.”

“Are there extended marriages and poly-families, that kind of thing?”

“Honestly, I’m not sure. Until recently we stayed monogamous, we’re kind of new to this part of it ourselves.”

“Really? Why did you change your minds? If that’s not too personal.”

Leah shrugged. “I guess we just got to a point where we were ready to try it with some good friends. Does the idea bother you?”

“Bothers me because I’m jealous maybe. There’s so many prudes here. There was a mix-up with New Plymouth and a few families are Neo-Puritan. Owen got them to sign our charter finally. They wanted us to sign theirs, it was quite a meeting. It doesn’t matter, they still manage to make things uncomfortable for anyone they don’t approve of. That’s why some people here really don’t like you two. Just the rumors about CMC, helped along by Gavin of course.”

“From what I’ve seen, CMC aren’t the only ones getting frisky,” Cole said. “I hear it’s a physiological reaction to losing so many humans. Whatever the reason, bed hopping isn’t uncommon on Hub or Sanctuary. It’s been the same way most of the places we’ve visited.”

“I just ended up in the wrong place I guess,” Maya said. “Leah, you weren’t there when I was talking to Cole about my life. I was an ugly duckling until college and found out I really liked sex. I’ve always liked the idea of an extended family. I’m glad people are loosening up about that kind of thing, I just wish people weren’t so old fashioned here.”

“I will never understand why some people are so obsessed about what other people are doing in their bedrooms,” Leah said. “Haven’t they even met CMC crews before? And what do they care?”

“Welcome to the human race,” Cole said. “Did you never hear about that?”

Maya laughed and Leah finally smiled.

“It’s disturbing is all.”

“I grew up outside of the project,” Cole told Maya. “I was a little surprised by the attitude at first but it certainly doesn’t affect anyone’s ability to do their job. If anything, the close bonding makes them better.”

“That’s kind of why I asked,” Maya said. “If there were details I needed to know for my ‘confession’ letters later. I know you guys don’t know me very well, I’ll make a story up. It’s not like he’s very smart.”

Leah looked at Cole and raised her eyebrows. She laughed when he nodded quickly. “If you’re interested in us, we’d love to spend some time with you,” she said.

“Okay, good,” Maya said, immediately standing up.

Leah laughed. “As long as you’re sure.”

“Oh, I’m sure. Bedroom or right here?” Maya said.

“Bedroom,” Leah said, pulling Cole to his feet. Maya followed them and unbuttoned her shirt, letting it fall off her shoulders.

Leah pointed Cole at the bed. “I want you to watch me.”

Cole sat back against the pillows and Maya smiled at him. She reached back and unhooked her bra and pulled it off. Her breasts were larger than Leah’s and looked even larger on Maya’s small body. Her dark upturned nipples crinkled as they watched.
“She’s gorgeous,” said Leah and Cole nodded.

“So are you,” Maya said, unzipping her shorts.

“Thank you,” Leah said, getting up and standing close to her. Maya reached down and pulled Leah’s shirt over her head and then they kissed. Leah’s hands ran down Maya’s back and over her ass. Maya moaned against her lips.

“It’s been so long since I’ve had a decent fuck.”

“Yeah? Then let’s take care of you first.”

Maya gasped and pushed her hips toward Leah as Leah’s fingers went between her legs.

“Her panties are soaked,” Leah said to Cole.

“I’ve been horny since you started patting my ass,” Maya said and pulled Leah back into another kiss.

Cole leaned against the headboard as the two women made out. Maya was trying to push Leah’s shorts down as Leah fingered her. Maya had Leah’s shorts over her hips when Leah made her orgasm the first time. Maya clutched her tightly, whining as Leah’s fingers stroked her.

“Oh fuck, that’s so good! You’re making me cum, please, yes! Right there, oh you beautiful…YES!”

Leah held Maya as she came and then guided her to the bed as she caught her breath. Maya laid on the pillows beside Cole and Leah licked her fingers as she watched. “She tastes good too.”

Maya pinched her large, dark brown nipples. “That is so hot, I want to do everything with you two.”

“Everything covers a lot,” Leah said, pushing her shorts off.

“I hope so,” Maya said. “Get up here, I want to taste you.”

Leah laughed and slid her body over Maya’s. Her fair skin and smaller breasts made a lovely contrast to Maya’s. They kissed and Maya slid lower, pushing Leah higher on the bed. Leah kissed Cole and then moaned against his mouth.

“Oh fuck that’s good,” she moaned. Cole looked down to see Maya’s head between Leah’s legs, her tongue and fingers busily exploring her sex. “Oh baby, her tongue is so long…oh shit, I’m cumming, I’m cumming!”

Leah pressed her lips down on Maya’s mouth as she orgasmed.

“You were too far away to really see how long,” Maya said as Leah caught her breath. “Sit up and put your cunt on my mouth, now.”

“She’s a dirty girl,” Leah said to Cole.

“Better do what she says.”

“Uh-huh!” Leah pushed herself up and Maya grabbed her hips, pressing her mouth to Leah’s sex.

“Ohhh fuck!” Leah said. “Her tongue, holy shit, it’s so deep! OhfuckI’mcummingagain!”

Cole moved down the bed, watching as Leah humped Maya’s mouth. Leah leaned back, her back arching as she screamed out another orgasm. She fell to the side, panting.

“I think she liked it,” Maya said to Cole. “You want to try me next?”

Cole kissed her and she moaned, pressing her body against his. He could taste Leah’s cum in her mouth and on her lips. Her tongue pressed into his mouth and Cole realized why Leah had been so surprised, Maya had the longest tongue he’d ever felt. Cole ran his hand over her breasts as he kissed her and licked her face clean. Maya reached for his cock and opened her eyes and glared at him.

“How are you still wearing clothes?”

“Apologies,” Cole said and she helped him pull them off.

“That’s better,” she said, gently touching his cock with her fingertips.

“You can play with it later,” Cole said, kissing his way down her neck and over her chest. Maya’s nipples were very sensitive and Cole was amazed when he found he could make her orgasm just by sucking them.

“You’re killing me,” Maya gasped finally and pushed his head lower. Cole licked his way over her stomach and Maya spread her legs wide, lifting her sex toward his mouth. “Please, please, please,” she whimpered as he teased her. She groaned as Cole spread her lips and licked along the length of them. Cole traced her opening with his tongue and Maya grabbed his hair, pulling him tight. Cole pushed his tongue inside of her and Maya’s legs clamped around his head and her body arched, taut as a bowstring. Her sex got wetter and wetter as he ate her through several orgasms. He only stopped when she pushed him away, gasping for mercy.

Cole rolled onto his back and grinned at the ceiling.

“You look very pleased with yourself,” Leah said.

“He does look a little smug,” Maya said, lifting herself on her elbows.

“There’s a fun way to take care of that,” Leah said, leaning over him. One of her nipples rubbed against his face and he sucked it into his mouth.

“Don’t be bad,” Leah said, after letting him suck and nibble. She went lower, licking along his shaft. Maya met her there and they put their mouths on either side of his cock and then began to kiss. Cole groaned. He didn’t know if the sensation or the visual was better.

Maya looked up at him. “Don’t cum yet. I want you to rail me good.”

“He does that very well.” Leah said.

“Good. Jackass’s cock is too big to be much fun and I want to be fucked hard and fast with this beautiful thing.”

“I want to see that,” Leah said, pulling her up the bed. “Cole, you heard her. Spread her legs and rail her.”

“Please,” Maya whimpered as Cole pushed her onto her back. “Make me scream.”

Leah took Cole’s cock and slid it up and down Maya’s slit. “Are you ready?”

Maya nodded, spreading her legs wider. “Uh-huh, put him in me, please.”

Cole pushed as Leah put his cock against Maya’s opening, making her moan as half of his cock slid into her. Maya lifted her hips as Cole thrust again.

“Come on, pound me into the mattress,” she whispered and her eyes went back in her head as he pulled back and began to ram her, over and over.

Leah kissed her and Maya groaned into her mouth as the first orgasm hit her.

“I want both of you, get on my mouth, I want to eat you while your husband fucks me with this magnificent dick!”

“Happy to oblige,” Leah said and knelt over her face. Maya began to lick Leah’s thighs and outer lips.

“She’s gonna make me cum so hard,” Leah said to Cole.

“She’s amazing,” Cole said. Maya was squeezing and massaging his cock with her cunt as he fucked in and out of her.

“Both of you, cum in me,” Maya gasped. “I want to feel you cum in me.”

“Such a pretty girl and such a dirty mouth,” Leah said, pulling Maya’s mouth back to her sex. “I want to watch that dirty mouth on you baby, I want to push her head down while you cum in her mouth.”

Maya moaned and Leah grinned at Cole, reaching down to tweak Maya’s nipples. “Ooh, I think she liked that.”

Leah pinched harder and Maya screamed into Leah’s sex. She bit Leah’s clit and then began to fuck Leah with her long tongue. Leah grabbed Maya’s tits as her hips began to thrust back and forth.

“Fuck her,” Leah gasped. “Fuck her hard. Pound your cum into her tight little hole.”

Maya moaned agreement, lifting her hips into Cole’s thrusts. Cole groaned, slamming into her and holding tightly as he shot his cum deep inside of her. Maya’s body tensed as she came and she pressed her tongue hard against Leah’s clit, making Leah cry out as well. After a few moments they collapsed onto the bed, breathing hard.

“Damn, if I had known it was this fun, I would have gotten you a dirty girl like this a long time ago,” Leah panted.

“Uh-huh,” Cole gasped.

Maya laughed. “Okay, I think I have a good journal entry.”

“Already?” Leah asked. “I thought you said everything.”

“Oh god, we might have to space that out over several nights,” Maya said.

“That sounds like fun,” Leah said, sliding down her body. “But I can’t let you go home all messy like this.”

“What? Oh fuck, you’re going to…” Maya’s head went back as Leah’s tongue found her sex.

“Yes I am,” Leah said. “Cole, you should make sure I didn’t leave any in her mouth.”

“Good idea,” Maya said, pulling Cole down into a kiss.

|5.0

“Where were you?” Gavin demanded when Maya came through the door.

“What do you care?” she said. “I don’t ask you where you’ve been.”

“I heard that you were hanging around with those two CMC clowns.”

She rolled her eyes. “Yeah? That’s because they’re working with my boss. I heard something about you too.”

“What’s that?”

“You were trying to get in Captain Jones’ pants and she shut you down.”

“Bullshit, she told you that?”

“Doesn’t matter who told me. Is it true?”

“No, I said it’s bullshit. They’re going to be saying all kinds of shit about me now that I stood up to them.”

Maya shrugged. “Whatever. I’m going to go write. Are you going to the bar?”

“Got my own meetings. What are you writing?”

“Letters to my friends. Why?”

Gavin immediately held up his hands. “No reason. I’ll leave you in peace then.”

“Don’t wake me up when you come home.”

~~~~

It was early morning two days later. Leah stopped the quad underneath the lodge and Cole got out. There were some sounds from high overhead, the Anek were already at work by the sounds of it and the sky was barely turning gray.

“I’ll see you later,” he said to Leah. “Be careful today.”

“I’ll keep my eyes open, promise.”

They kissed and she wheeled the quad around and headed back for the colony.

Cole put his pack on and got in the hand cranked basket they’d rigged as a temporary measure.

“What a strange device.” Cole looked up, there was an Anek above him, looking down.

“I’m a few arms short to climb the tree,” he called up.

She climbed lower, the motion reminded Cole of a documentary he’d seen about Capuchin monkeys. “I am offering to carry you up.” she said.

“I happily accept,” Cole said and she gathered him up in the thick bearing arms.

(Hello Cole) There was a flash of an endless vista of treetops that he recognized. It was the youngest of the Elders.

(I’ve chosen a name for you to use, Tallia. This is acceptable?)

“It’s very pretty.”

(This is close to a word we have for a flowering vine. I enjoy the smell of the flowers.)

She hopped onto the platform and set him down carefully. The floor was already in place. There were eight large timbers connected high overhead that would form the meeting lodge.

(You look impressed.)

“I am. This work would take us much longer.

There was laughter. (As you said, you are a few arms short. We will stop soon, the eloisha will be awake when the sun looks over the trees. I would like to take you to a place nearby. A male has come and would like to speak to you if you are willing)

“I noticed during the meeting that you were the only one that spoke much of the males.”

(I am one of many that feel that the differences between males and females are not barriers, just complimentary ways of looking at the world)

Cole really wished Lakshmi was around. He didn’t feel any bad intent from Thalia and he finally nodded.

(You are uncertain about males. Understandably so, but they are quite different when not in the breeding fever. You will be safe, I promise you this)

“Then I’m ready when you are.”

She swung through the trees and Cole realized that Lakshmi had probably been holding back on their trip home.

They moved up vertically as well. The mammoth trees had branches at different heights, all of them with differently shaped leaves. It was probably the most efficient way to use sunlight. They crossed the level of the third canopy and Thalia angled toward a trunk, slowing to a walk along one of the main branches.

(He will meet us at the join) Thalia pointed ahead to where the branch joined the tree trunk.

Cole was still surprised at the scale of the trees. Where the branch met the tree, there was a broad space that could have easily held a couple of habitat domes. In the middle there was an Anek waiting for them. A few bundles and a strangely shaped pole were neatly arranged nearby.

Thalia made a whistling noise that quickly climbed out of Cole’s hearing. In return there was a low thrumming noise.

(I have made the sounds that announce us and indicate we will not battle him for territory. He promised the same and welcomed our approach. It is an old formality)

Thalia stopped and Cole stepped forward and extended his hand. “I’m Captain Cole Morgan, Colonial Mapping Command.”

One of the Anek’s human sized arms reached out and touched his hand. “This is the ‘handshake’ we have seen on the device.” The oddly shaped hand enfolded his and shook three times and let go. “Are you aware that males do not touch-talk except in certain instances?”

“No, I wasn’t told that.”

“We make it up for it by a better mastery of the sounds around us. I have chosen the name Thorn. It means the sharpness of the branch?”

“That’s correct,” Cole said. “Were you in the group that found the injured humans?”

“Yes, I was also keeper of the device. To be honest, we call it a name that means ‘scale of bark.’ No offense intended.”

“None taken. We refer to them as tablets, an archaic name that refers to the objects that humans first wrote on.”

“Ah, the writing,” Thorn said. “I’ve been curious about that. I would enjoy a discussion of your adaptation in the future. I am very curious how a civilization without memory works.”

“The team of Elders would provide a better answer than I could. They know the story of our civilization far better than I do.”

Surprisingly, Thorn laughed. “So you do have limits, Captain Cole. I wondered if you would attempt an answer to a question that badly spoken. Thank you for meeting me so quickly. My sister-friend Thalia has said before that the male Anek were not represented well at your first meeting. This is my fault but I judged the moment was too soon for us to meet again.”

“Again…so that was you beside the river that night?”

“Thalia, you should have said. This was not done well.”

(It was done very well, thank you) Thalia said in their heads. (If I had told you who this was earlier, you would still come?)

“Yes, of course,” Cole said.

(And of that, I had no doubt. But you would have been…stressed, unhappy during the trip and that would have flavored this conversation. I can feel Cole’s surprise but none of the feelings he might have had otherwise)

“This is how the females are. They turn their faults into virtue and our virtues into fault,” Thorn said to Cole.

Cole laughed. “I think our people might have a lot in common.”

“I don’t understand why you’re both amused. And what virtue do you have, Thorn? Other than crawling into the shelter of the sky people and making them tathinni, I mean.”

Thalia’s physical voice was smoother than Lakshmi’s but it still was intimidating. Worse, the Anek’s faces didn’t really do expressions well and she sounded pissed. He could hear her laughter in his mind though.

Thorn’s laugh sounded remarkably human. “You leave me without defense, sister. However, it is an opening to begin to speak of our unfortunate meeting. I cannot ask you to forgive or forget what was done,” Thorn said. “So I am concerned my part in our meeting will cause your people to fear and scorn the males and want to know how I can keep this from happening.”

“No, that issue is not part of the story my people are told,” Cole said. “Lakshmi explained why it happened but didn’t attempt to excuse either of you. My partner and I accept that mistakes happen. We also trust that something like that will never again.”

“Thalia shows me the thoughts behind your words and I am humbled. If you are willing, I would like the opportunity to tell you of my half of the People.”

“Of course.”

“Thank you, Cole. Please, sit if you are more comfortable that way. You already know that my brothers and I live apart from the females, only meeting during the breeding fevers. Friendships are rare, but they do exist. It was not always this way but no stories are known about the time when we diverged. I think it has something to do with the tathinni sicknesses but I have no proof.”

“How do friendships like you two happen?” Cole asked.

(An accident. We share a mother and Thorn confused my scent for hers when he was becoming. He was wounded and found me. I kept him safe and helped him heal)

“I’ve heard of other relationships where proximity and cooperation over time create relationships as well.”

“That’s common for humans,” Cole said.

“So the device told me. Beyond our outer differences, males and females have different talents and ways of living. We do not form the lodges and permanent places to live in the same way. Males form groups but we tend to wander more than the females so our ties are much looser. This is part of why I asked Thalia to meet with you. Stories and news between the males does not flow as easily as between the females. In my kin group there are four that have not been contacted with news of the humans yet. They are absent from us while they compose their songs.”

“Songs?”

“It is a complicated thing to explain. Our minds are mostly different from the females. They value mechanisms and building, shaping their world through cooperation. We value more the essence of the world, your word is chemistry I believe. Of course there are males who build.”

(And females who sing)

“I heard you singing at the council,” Cole said.

(That is singing for the pleasure of it. Very different.)

Thorn made a motion with his hands. “Our song is for the dreahnnai hoom, sharing their wisdom and asking what questions they will answer. To become fully ourselves requires a time apart, avoiding others in order to learn hoom, the song. These missing four are living apart in silence while they learn hoom. My fear is that one or another will enter breeding fever and another mistake will be made. I do not feel it is likely, but this event is far too important to risk.”

“What can we do then?”

“Thalia carried a question to her Elder sisters, if a male would be allowed to live near the lodge you are constructing.”

(Our decision is that this is a meeting place for all, male and female, Anek and human. However, the humans must choose as well)

“Of course we would welcome the males,” Cole said immediately.

(I said that would be his reaction) There was no mistaking the smugness of the thought.

“Would there be ill feelings if I was that male?”

Cole shook his head. “Like I said, we understand the mistake. You are welcome there.”

(And I predicted that correctly as well)

“So you did, we know you are pleased with yourself. I can assure you Cole, I will not feel the breeding fever for another two seasons, you will be safe from me. I will warn off any males who come near that are in their fever. It will not be necessary for long. The hoom has already begun to shift, to include you in the song.”

(We have felt it as well. I think that soon there will be a mighty harmony)

Cole had assumed that the dreahnnai hoom was just a system of belief but the matter-of-fact assurance in their voices made the hair on the back of his neck stand up for some reason.

~~~~

Henry set a framework of louvers into the side of the eloisha house to test the fit. Two of them were intently watching him and Henry nodded at them as it slipped into place. “You’ll have a safe place to sleep soon.”

They whistled at him and Henry smiled. Both of them glided over and began to crawl over the louvers. Henry watched to make sure they fit and then went and began to smooth down the pegs that would hold the frame in place. The inside was simple, several boxes with small holes with large slabs of bark lining the wall. The louvers had been surprisingly complex, especially with the pieces of wood the Anek left for him. He didn’t really mind, it had been too long since he’d been able to work with his hands like this.

There was a thump as Cole and an Anek landed on the deck. Henry swallowed and made himself walk over. A few seconds later another, smaller one landed. It took everything Henry had not to scream and run.
“Henry, this is Thorn,” Cole said. “He’ll be staying here for a while.”

“We must not stay.” Thalia said as an eloisha swooped past.

Thorn said something to her that was so high pitched Cole could barely hear.

“We will return after they have settled to sleep,” Thorn said.

Both of them leapt into the trees and quickly disappeared.

“You okay?” Cole said.

Henry nodded. “I’ll be fine. I was just putting the finishing touches on the eloisha house, take a look.”

“They really bother you?” Cole asked as Henry showed him how the louvres pegged into place.

“Yeah. I know they shouldn’t but their shapes make my skin crawl.”

“I’m sorry about that. Have you ever tried dealing with it?”

Henry shrugged. “Some, but not much. It won’t matter really, I’ll be gone with the Ericsson in a couple of weeks. I was planning to stick closer to the colony until then.”

~~~~

Gavin didn’t notice Maya was gone until he was almost dressed. He’d been pretty hammered when he got home and collapsed into bed without thinking about it. She usually slept on the couch when he went to bed drunk. She was always complaining about his snoring.

When he went into the main room of the hab, he was surprised to see that she wasn’t asleep on the couch. She wasn’t in the other room they used as an office either. He shrugged. Maybe she’d gone into work early or something.

Gavin got his tools and was headed out the door when he finally noticed the note on the table.

I’d do this face to face but I’m tired of dealing with your shouting and tantrums. I’m not interested in partnering with you any longer. You’ve constantly embarrassed me with the way you act (drunk AND sober). I’m tired of you making me look bad at work too. Don’t come and argue with me about this, my mind if made up. The hab is all yours, I got all my stuff out already.

“Are you fucking kidding me?” Gavin said. “You stupid cow eyed bitch!”

He balled up the note and threw it at the wall but the paper was too light and landed on the table instead. Gavin roared, picking up a chair and throwing it across the room.

“You don’t know how good you had it, babe!” he yelled. The tool bag was the next thing to hit the wall. By the time he was done, the habitat had been torn apart. Gavin stood in the middle of the mess, wild eyed. There was a knock on the door.

“Fuck off!” Gavin yelled. Whoever it was didn’t knock again.

“Let’s just see how long you have a job when I drop this on your tablet,” Gavin said. He set the table back on its legs and sat down. He opened his laptop and called up the file he’d made a while ago. It would incriminate Maya for a series of small thefts and vandalism. The best part of it was that it was set up to appear on his weekly security scan and he’d be the one to tell her idiot boss.

“Hope you enjoy cutting sugar cane,” he laughed, leaving the file on her tablet. “And while I’m thinking about it, let’s see what you’ve been telling your pathetic ‘friends’ lately. And I know all about your super secret ones. Stupid bitch.”

Gavin copied the last couple of letters and started reading. His mouth fell open when he started reading but he was smiling by the time he finished. “Game over. You, your moron boss, and his CMC goons. Game over, bitches.”

Thanks for reading! Everything comes to a conclusion in the next installment: Mapping Command: Insurrection

Mapping Command 2.0: Diplomacy

This is another installment of the Mapping Command redux series. No bit plot changes, a few extra lines here and there, lots of typo fixing. If you’re new to the series this is the sequel to Mapping Command:First Contact. I’d recommend reading that one first. If you’re a Mapping Command veteran, welcome back aboard. There are two more chapters in this series; MC:Rebellion and MC:Insurrection. As always, I’m interested to hear what you think.

|1.0

Cole was trying hard to pay attention to what they were saying but the scenery was making it difficult. Below was a massive chasm with a river at the bottom, just visible through the trees. Waterfalls thundered over the edges of the precipice on all three sides, filling it with mist and rainbows. There were tiny structures in the branches of the trees, spider webs in the sun. Then you realized that the gossamer webs were actually bridges that rivaled any bridge on Earth. The bumps scattered along the branches were massive lodges, nearly as large as stadiums but far more beautiful, reminiscent of Gaudi’s buildings, and the wispy horsetails of the minor falls were as easily as big as Niagara had been. He began to truly appreciate the titanic scale of the forest and miles deep chasm far below…

(…Cole?) the one he thought of as “Eldest” said.

He took a deep breath. “I apologize, would you repeat that again?”

There was laughter in his mind and he smiled, despite his embarrassment.

(I must take you to this place, I would enjoy seeing your face.)

He felt amusement from the other Elders and as another one spoke, the scene of waterfalls was replaced by the view from a tree, taller than any around it and the endless expanse of treetops to horizon, mist catching the golden rays of the sun…

Goddammit Cole, concentrate!

There was more laughter.

(We are pleased you find our home beautiful. I was speaking of the…chemistry? Yes, chemistry of your bodies. I am not able to find any of the harmful interactions that occur with our chemistry. The young could live among the humans with no ill effects)

The scene shifted again as another spoke, tree trunks vanishing into the distance, blurred by mist and Cole reminded himself that he wasn’t any of these places. Instead he was sitting on a platform that had been quickly constructed above “their” clearing beside the river. He was surrounded by Lakshmi’s people, all of them touching as they spoke. Instead of names, each seemed to have a different mental landscape view. When they spoke, the point of view shifted to the one speaking, including their feelings about what they said. It was the most distracting and stunningly gorgeous meeting he’d ever attended.

And the most important he thought and pinched his hand.

(…but I think that before any agreement can be made, we must include the males. They have as much of a concern here as we do)

That was the youngest of the Elders, Cole had gotten the idea that she was something of a radical. She often argued different views of the others, especially about relationships among the males. He was still a little apprehensive about meeting the males but these Elders had all assured that he would never be harmed.

(Yes, and we will not move from this place until we speak with the others. However they view the issue, the survival of our people will be carried on. Even if we must…***)

The voices dissolved into a sort of mental gibberish. Cole had first noticed it when they had attempted to discuss concepts of time. It seemed like there was only so much he could grasp of what they were saying. Beyond that, the concepts and words just didn’t make any sense.

Cole was suddenly sitting high over the chasm.

(Enough. These matters would be addressed if the path leads in that direction. We are agreed in three things; the gathering of humans as tathinni is far from the path for all, there is nothing of balance to it but whatever is agreed between a human and the People is their own path and not our People’s. Next, the agreement with Cole and Leah stands. We will meet with their Elders but they are…****…and will always be Beloved of the People. Last, a meeting place will be chosen near the wastelands where humans live. A permanent place will be built there and humans and People will dwell there as they will. Cole, do you understand and agree?)

“I do, and thank you for putting up with my ignorance of your ways.”

There was some smiling and amusement at that. Then he caught a familiar smell a second before Lakshmi climbed onto the meeting room, cradling Leah on her back.

(Elder ones, forgive the intrusion. Leah awoke and asked about your discussion. I will leave her and depart)

(Remain with us, this concerns you as well)

Cole got up and kissed Leah, ignoring the Elders as they stared.

“How’s it going here?”

Cole smiled. “You would not believe what this is like. I’m glad you’re here. I think we were just wrapping up. Come on.”

The humans sat down and Leah smiled at everyone. “Hello beautiful Others. I’m sorry I slept through all of this.”

(It is nothing, we saw that your celebration was strenuous)

There were hoots of appreciative laughter and Leah blushed. Cole smiled and she poked him in the ribs.

(I have something to say) It was the youngest of the Elders and Leah gasped, holding tight to Cole as they shifted to her landscape.

“Sorry, I should have mentioned that. But just wait.”

(Now that the three are here I would like to propose…####)
The mental static went on for a while and then there was a sense of agreement.

They shifted to the canyon and the voice of the Eldest.

“Holy shit! Tell me that’s a real place,” Leah whispered.

“That’s Lakshmi’s real home,” Cole whispered back.

“We’ve got to go there!”

(I will take you) Lakshmi promised.

Leah closed her eyes and smiled as the “landscapes” shifted for each Other that spoke. Cole tried to listen but he could only grasp an occasional concept.

“What’s an eloisha?” Leah whispered.

“That’s what they babies are called for the first part of their life.”

“And dreahnnai hoom?”

“As far as I can understand, it’s a spirit that inhabits some of trees. Not the whole forest, Lakshmi laughed her head off when I asked, no idea why.”

“Like a nature god?”

“Not god, a supervising spirit that runs things. More like the old hippy theory about Gaia.”

“Wow, you’ve been busy,” Leah said.

“I’m starving,” he whispered back and she laughed.

After another hour the council began to break up and the Others stretched, hanging from the platform or swinging into nearby trees. The eldest of the council came over and put her hands on Leah and Cole’s heads.

(I sense that you did not grasp much of what was said. It concerned how our people will be told, who will go to the distant lodges and inform them of what has happened. We also will request that you find a place where we may build a meeting lodge together. I feel that this place is distant from your home lodges, the young one you have named Lakshmi will accompany you and aid you in finding a suitable place. We wish to remain within the forest, but on the edge of the wastes you inhabit is acceptable to me)

Cole nodded. “I was going to suggest that. Being too far away from the buildings there would cause some problems.

There was mental laughter. (I’m certain that I face the same problems with my distant sisters. They will come there in time. Lakshmi will also show you a way of summoning us should there be problems before the lodge is built. I have enjoyed our time with you greatly and I look forward to speaking again)

“So have we,” Leah said. “I can’t wait to see your home.”

(I am pleased you find it beautiful. There is one more thing we will speak of)

The Eldest arranged herself in front of them and they joined hands. (This time together has given me an understanding of your minds. You may find in the coming weeks that you will learn us better through my youngest sister, Lakshmi. But I must make something clear to our new human friends. You both showed great love for our people in joining your path to ours. The word will be spread among all of us that you are now Beloved of our all people, male and female alike. Now there will always be a home for you among us, we will defend you and cherish you as our own)

“We are deeply honored by that,” Leah said. “I am so happy that we are able to help.”

There was a sense of hesitation, almost embarrassment. (I have a question that I wanted to ask privately. The incubators Cole spoke of, we respect the certainty that they will help. As I got to know your minds better, I felt a sense of curiosity about matters of pleasure. Is this common among your people?)

Cole laughed. “Many of us. You want to know if there are more of us that will want to carry your children?”

(That is the way of it. I am hesitant to ask yet more of you, but many of us sense a great change, a flowering if you like, between our peoples. The eloisha shared your minds as they grew. Deep in my mind, I know that they will be different, that something new has begun here. Others will notice and they will inquire, wanting the best for all our little ones)

Leah stroked her hand. “The curiosity is common among my people. I can’t say for certain how many people will want the same thing, but I’m sure there will be others. Even if no one else is interested, I want to carry more,” Leah said.

(Why are you so sure? The pleasure?)

“That helps but there’s a more important reason for me. In places that we travel, there is a kind of invisible called radiation. It poisons most life, often slowly. Cole and I were both exposed to the light during the fight for our home and in our searches for new places. Neither of us are able to create new life.”

Eldest caressed both of their minds. (This is the very deep sadness I feel inside you, more than the loss of your home. I believe this is why you were so willing to forgive the foolishness of young Lakshmi and so willing to love our people as your own)

Leah wiped her eyes. “I had much the same thought. It must have been difficult letting them go, even when your tathinni helped.”

(When they grew among the tathinni there were losses but only a few and we accepted that. All life strives. I think the dreahnnai hoom chose you, perhaps you were the only ones who could understand our anguish as fewer of our eloisha became Anek)

“Then I’m grateful to them,” Leah said.

(As are all thinking things, in their own way. All of us must eat soon, so I will go and hunt. We will return here and stay for the night. All want to remember this place that our people were saved. I will return soon)

|2.0

Leah sat on the edge of the stream, dangling her feet in the water. Three of the humming bird sized eloisha were chirping and whistling as they landed on her head and shoulders, jumping off again to circle and dive around her and Cole. Cole was on his back beside her, feet in the stream as he stared up at the trees. One of the babies discovered Cole’s shirtless stomach made a good trampoline and soon all three found a new game, leaping off Leah’s head and bouncing off Cole and back into the air, hooting with tiny voices.

“Not what I thought an afternoon with the kids would be like,” Leah said, watching one of the eloisha as it began to wrestle a button on her shirt.

“Better or worse?” he asked.

“Better, now that I’m here. Why do the Anek go away to eat?”

“You can ask Lakshmi, but I got the feeling that it wasn’t something they do the same way we do.”

“I’m glad they didn’t punish her, I hope there’s no hard feelings against her.

“I don’t think that’s how they do things. They feel like she’s a little bit of a goofball but a very lucky one. They like luck.”

“We’ll have to teach them poker. They’ll have whole new ways to cheat. It’ll be fun.”

They chatted occasionally, watching the shadows shift through the trees as the day went on. Leah got meal bars out and handed one to Cole. Their “triplets” sniffed at the bars and chirped. They looked at the bar and then up at Leah with a sense of surprised disgust before gliding up into the trees.

“I felt the same way the first time I ate one,” Cole said. “I wonder what they eat.”

“For now, they chase tiny creatures in the tree tops,” Lakshmi said from above them.

“Hey you! Want to come down and sit with us?” Leah said, looking up.

“You need time together and I did not want to disturb the young.”

“Does sitting by the water bother you?”

“Not in daylight.” Lakshmi swung down and padded across the clearing. She sat behind them, touching each lightly.

Cole wondered what was running around out here that he didn’t know about.

(Bad memories of tathinni, some things that are mostly elsewhere. Deep water holds a creature that will eat us, given a chance. Boogey Man? Yes. Your words are wonderful at times)

“Everything is okay with you and the Elders?” Leah asked.

(Yes, I have become the human expert)

“Well, yeah.” Cole said and Leah laughed.

(You must return tomorrow?)

Leah nodded. “Since we ‘just’ met, the colony leader must be informed.”

(I can move faster than you. If I carried you, we could choose a place for the Meeting Lodge on the journey. I have a place in mind. Then I will go to a nearby settlement and tell my story. Shall I return then? I feel a sense of belonging with you)

“We’d like that very much,” Cole said. “The Anek live in family groups?”

(Not family in the sense of our children, though those that have almost become Anek often seek out their mother, or fathers if they are male. We group ourselves by friendship and affection)

“I’m glad you feel that way about us,” Leah said. “Are you done…hunting?”

Lakshmi laughed. (Yes, we have all fed ourselves. Thank you for being polite, that is one of many things we will have to learn about each other. As the others finish their hunt they will return to the meeting place to enjoy time together. They will even stay awake in the dark, singing and telling tales, all the things that strengthen our bonds. They have invited the three of us to take part)

“You want to go, don’t you?” asked Leah.

(It is a great honor to be invited.)

“Then we happily accept.”

That evening, Cole and Leah sat among the Elders, baffled by most of what was going on but enjoying themselves anyway. There seemed to be several things going on at once, a sort of song, a counting game that may have been part of the song or not, smells that went back and forth that must have been a different kind of conversation, and a chirping chuckling hum that moved in and out of hearing. The chaos was fun at first but became overwhelming after a while.

“I’m sorry, I’m getting a headache,” Leah finally said to Cole.

“Me too. We don’t mean to cause offense but this is a little much for us.”

(What part of it bothers you?) Lakshmi asked, feeling concerned.

“All of it, I’m sorry,” Leah said. “Our little brains aren’t set up to take all of that in at once.”

Eldest was amazed. (You can hear ALL of our voices?)

When Leah and Cole described what they were feeling, there was the faint citrus scent that indicated surprise. The feelings of awe and amusement washed over them.

(We only listen in one way at a time, part of the game is dashing from one thing to another in our mind…I see you cannot quite grasp this but be assured your “little” brains are quite amazing. We’ll concentrate on touch talk for you. Sisters, let us show them all the places here that we know)

After that was a sort of virtual slideshow of the planet and it was long after dark before anyone wanted to stop. Lakshmi took Cole and Leah back to her nest, behind them Cole heard the Elders start to chatter again.

|3.0

(Goodbye for now, Beloved.)

Leah hugged her. “We’ll see you in four days at the meeting lodge place.”

(Agreed. Burn the plant I showed you if I am not there.)

Lakshmi leapt to a tree, already ten meters off the ground. She whistled a goodbye and rapidly ran up the rough bark and into the lower branches.

“That was fun,” Cole said, putting on his pack.

“You’re a sick man,” Leah grumbled, putting her own on.

“Did you even open your eyes?”

“I closed them five minutes into the first trip. That was terrifying.”

“We had to have been going forty, fifty kilometers an hour through those trees!”

“Yes, I know.”

“And those jumps!”

“Cole.”

He smiled and kissed her forehead. “Sorry.”

“I’ll take the long way next time, you and Lakshmi can go Tarzaning through the trees by yourselves.”

“I’m starting to realize that we’re damned lucky the Anek are friendly.”

“I know, the colony wouldn’t have lasted a week if they didn’t want us here. As strong and fast as Lakshmi is I don’t think technology would make a difference.”

“So we’re going to see Owen first.”

“First thing.” Leah walked through the trees and stopped. “Hey, this is our campsite from last time. Let’s stop here for a few minutes and get on the same page.”

“Right.”

They climbed up on a massive root and sat down, looking out over the river valley and colony.

“Changing this over to a scientific mission is going to shake things up some. But I think Owen should stay in charge. I don’t want Hub sending some bureaucratic favorite out here to take charge,” Leah said. “He’s done an amazing job keeping these people together and functional, especially after losing that many.”

“It’s amazing, considering what he started with.”

“What do you mean?”

“The Admin of New Plymouth was related to Committeeperson Ross who went and preempted all the specialists for Arboreal. Owen got stuck with what they didn’t want and they filled out the rest of his people with the people no one else wanted.”

“How do you know that?’

“Background research, I found out just before we left.”

“Why didn’t you tell me?”

Cole smiled. “What would you have done?”

“I would have scheduled a meeting with Ross.”

“To punch him out.”

“Exactly, I can’t stand that fat, sanctimonious fuck.”

“And that’s why.”

Leah laughed. “Thank you for saving me from myself, husband.”

“You are welcome, wife. Honestly, I forgot until we started planning, it didn’t seem that important after the outbreak here. But I agree, Owen deserves a chance to run the show. I get the feeling he’s pretty good.”

“I agree.”

Maya, Owen’s assistant, tapped on his open door. “Leah and Cole from the survey team are here. They’re back early and they said it’s urgent but didn’t say what it was.”

“Okay thanks.”

He looked back at the screen and then back up when he realized Maya was still standing there. “Just message them that I can meet with them whenever.”

“They’re waiting outside.”

“Oh, why didn’t you just bring them in?”

“They won’t tell me what it’s about though.”

“Maya, they’re both CMC officers. They don’t need to tell you anything. Hell, they’re not required to tell me anything. Bring them in.”

She went to get them and returned with Leah and Cole.

“Sorry to barge in Administrator,” Cole said.

“Seriously, call me Owen. There’s not enough of us left to say that I’m administrating anything. Sit down, what can I do for you?”

“We’re here in an official capacity,” Leah said. “For the moment, this info is for your ears only.”

“Uh oh. Maya, could you close the door please?”

Maya looked disappointed but nodded and left.

Owen sighed. “I don’t suppose this is wonderful news and you don’t want people dancing in the streets prematurely.”

“You want the good news or the bad first?”

Owen leaned back in his chair. “I knew things were going too smoothly. Let me have it, Captain Jones.”

“Administrator Lykos, I have the duty and privilege to inform you that my team made contact with a group of sentient Others two days ago. They were representatives of a culture native to Arboreal.”

Owen stared at them for a few seconds. “You’re serious.”

Cole and Leah nodded.

He sighed and rubbed his face for a few seconds before leaning back in his chair. “Of course this is an inhabited planet. There wasn’t much else left to go wrong.”
Owen turned and reached down to open a bottom drawer. “You know, the night I heard the name of your ship, I half considered telling you to go away. My grandparents were Greek and I knew Xerxes was going to be a bad omen.”

“Wow, that’s got to be some kind of record in grudge holding,” Leah said.

“We all have our gifts,” Owen said, rooting around in the drawer. “How did the surveys miss them?”

“I’ve been trying to figure that out myself,” Cole said. “First guess, this clearing was the only place they were able to land. The natives are tree dwellers and don’t usually venture into the open. Whatever it is in the trees that’s messing with the wireless signals would have messed with electro-chem scans too. They’re about two-hundred years behind us, tech wise, so there’d be no EM radiation to pick up on, if the tree interference didn’t completely mask it.”

Owen sat up holding a glass bottle full of a dark liquid. “Being the colony admin here has been a shit-show from day one and this is the perfect ending. Now, is that it, or is there even more? Let me guess; we’ve settled in a graveyard of their most beloved emperors.”

“Uhm, nope. They refer to this area a wasteland.”

He pulled the cap off the bottle and looked at it. “And it’s taboo to settle here and they’re pissed as hell.”

“Your pessimism is top notch, but no,” Cole said. “They were very happy to talk to us.”

“Doesn’t matter how they feel. CMC will order the evacuation of my colony. I’ll be lucky to ever get offworld again.” He tossed the cap in the recycle bin and closed the laptop. “I think I can skip peanut and banana crop quotas. Want some rum? We make it ourselves.”

“Well, yeah. But before we get tore up, don’t you want to hear the good news?”

Owen pointed the bottle at Leah and raised his eyebrows. She nodded and he got three glasses out of the drawer. “Good news always makes me nervous, but if you must.”

“Cheer up Owen,” Leah said. “The good news is that they really want us to stay. I mean, really want us to stay.”
“Why? Do they plan on eating us?”

Cole laughed. “No. We sat down with them and talked…”

“Wait, how could you talk?”

“A traveling band found your missing survey crew. One of them was still alive and gave them a tablet and showed them how to use it before he died. They’re adept at….”

Owen held up his hand. “Stop there for a second.” He poured an inch of rum into each of the glasses and pushed them across the desk. He picked his glass up and Leah and Cole did the same.

“To Adam Kennedy, Anders Hallstadt, and Regina Martinez. Ad astra, per aspera.”

“Sic transit gloria exquisitores,” answered Cole and Leah and they all drained their glass.

“Never heard that part,” Owen said, pouring another round. “What’s it mean?”

“So passes the glory of the searchers,” Leah said. “It’s tradition for the survey crews that are lost.”

“That’s nice. Did they happen to mention where the bodies were?”

“They took them and performed their ceremonies for honored dead. It’s a taboo subject, but they’ll discuss it with us if we want.”

Owen shook his head. “It’s as good an end as anything else these days. Why do they want us to stay?”

“They’re in big trouble and facing their own extinction,” Leah said. “We can help them without much trouble. Their population has been crashing because of a complicated issue that interfered with breeding generations ago. What they need from us is pretty simple, incubators and a safe place to raise the young.”

“They already requested a permanent meeting place,” Cole said. “We have a tentative spot nearby. Our contact would also like to meet you, soonest. She’ll set up a meeting with their Elders. Do you think you could handle a science mission and diplomacy instead of a colony?”

“It would be a dream job, but let’s be realistic Captain. First Contact with a friendly race of tech users? This will go to someone with more connections than me. Anyway, I’m not a tech type and I haven’t done any diplomatic training.”

“The Big Office will keep you here if you want to stay,” Cole said. “You’re already familiar with the planet it doesn’t require a techie. CMC really likes simple ‘best fit’ situations.”

“Guys, I know you’re CMC and not that goddamned Committee, but you have to know that assignments like this don’t get handed out to people like me. I’m a refugee, wasn’t anyone important on Earth. I wasn’t part of Vanguard and I don’t know anyone who was.”

Leah spoke up. “Now you do. First of all, they owe you. You got screwed over royally by Hub and it’s not a secret. We know that Shai and Kayleigh…”

“Wait, you’re talking about the Director of Colonial Mapping Command and her wife? Shailaja Parvathi and Kayleigh Evans?”

“Of course. We were friends back before the Diaspora even started.”

“And you got sent here?”

“Shai assigned us personally. I told you, that outbreak isn’t a secret.”

“That’s true,” Cole said. “There’s a whole new crew of janitorial and hull cleaning techs because of that.”

“I thought they’d forgotten all about us. Honestly, I was surprised to hear you were coming at all.”

“Until someone invents some kind of ansible, communication is going to suck with the colonies. No Owen, I guarantee Kayleigh and Shai keep track of every single outpost and colony and worry about all of you. Kayleigh is really going to want the simplest solution. Believe it or not, they hate the bureaucracy that’s taking over Hub as much as you do.”

“Oh I believe it. You really were both part of the Vanguard Project?”

Leah smiled. “My parents met at Almaro. I was born into the Project, graduated from Armstrong High and everything. I tested into the Advisors and Engineers.”

Owen looked at Cole who shrugged. “I’m a newbie, they stole me from the Air Force two years before Announcement Day.”

“Cole is modest, he trained a lot of the Raptors.”

Owen’s eyes widened as he made the connection. “Holy shit, you’re that Captain Morgan aren’t you?”

“I’d really like to keep that quiet,” Cole said. “Please. That part of my life is done. This part is way more fun.”

“Then before I officially forget who you are, I want to say thank you. I can see you’re embarrassed now, so I’ve already forgotten.”

“So, poof, now you’re politically connected,” Leah said. “But it’s probably not what you think it is. Just as much, or more, hard work and sleepless nights. But there’s a lot less interference doing it. Owen, we both know you can handle it, you’ve kept a crew of leftovers together after a tragedy that would have ended most colonies. If you want to run this, and I hope you do, we’ll send our own private messages to the Big Office saying you’re the best candidate.”

“So what are they like?”

“Sort of centaur like, a little bit spider like, but not either really,” Leah said. “Hard to describe, but they’re utterly amazing people.”

“You like them a lot.”

Cole nodded. “Owen, they took care of our sick without question. They communicate with voices partially, but there is a way they can touch you and you hear their voice. You also can feel their personality. Diplomacy is going to be interesting, they don’t seem to lie and there’s absolutely no wiggle room in what they say because you can feel their intention.”

“I think they’re wonderful,” Leah said. “Healing is almost a religion to them, one of their biggest sins is chasing a wounded thing away. Which is another big reason they don’t want us to go.”

“What do you mean?”

“We told them about Earth, they didn’t have a concept of separate planets and couldn’t figure out where we were coming from since they saw us falling out of the sky.”

Owen rubbed his eyes. “Cultural Affairs on Hub is going to utterly lose their shit over that. So, they found out about Earth and…”

“And they realized that we’re all wounded. Which is true, isn’t it? They’re concerned about us and want us to be whole.”

“They’re going to experiment on us, aren’t they?”

Cole and Leah both laughed. After a second Owen did too. “Okay, that was a little over the top, I admit. So they’re going to try to heal us?”

“I got the impression they want us to rest and heal ourselves,” Cole said. “That’s not to say they won’t try to help at some point. Leah is right, they’re incredibly likeable. Gentle, curious, a sense of humor, They could easily be another ‘best friend’ race like the Gyr.”

“And I’m pretty sure they’re Founders’ Children,” Leah said. “Just not a humanoid branch.”

“Okay, let’s keep this to one raft of mayhem at a time. That whole theory is completely over my head anyway. You said they’re behind us technologically?”

“The Anek are at about the level of the steam engine.””

“Anek?”

“They don’t use names like we do. In the conversation they asked me to come up with a name to refer to them. I thought of the goddess Lakshmi and Leah came up with Anek Haath, many hands. They have ten different limbs.”

“You two named an entire race? Holy shit, Cultural is going to crucify you.”

Cole snorted. “I’m CMC, not some parasitic bureaucrat so they’d have to leave their safe cozy offices. I’m not worried. Anyway, I didn’t name them, they have their own name but it’s a feeling and an odor, not a word. Cultural can spend ten years flailing around for translation and you know what? It’ll come out as ‘People’ because individualistic races always do.”

“My boyfriend was Indian, you know they don’t actually think Shiva, Parvathi and all the rest really had lots of arms, right? Those are their aspects. You’ll get Cultural wound up about that too.”

“Owen, you know what they’d start being called otherwise?” Leah asked. “People living high in the trees with multiple arms? Spiders. I know, because Cole and I both started thinking of them that way. Cultural can sit and spin because these are wonderful people, they shouldn’t be called monsters. I bet Hindi speakers won’t mind, if they even think about it.”

“Okay, okay. Just be ready for that fallout is all I’m saying. You were saying they had steam engines?”

“No, they’re about that level of tech,” Leah said. “They don’t need steam engines; they provide the motive power themselves. They’re immensely strong. For example, one carried us from the meeting place to the place they want the permanent embassy. I was worried both of us were too heavy and she thought I was making a joke.”

“They’re also fast,” Cole said. “We probably traveled a hundred kilometers in three hours. If they had a problem with us none of you would be here.”

“What do you think?” Leah asked. “I think you can handle it, you’ve been asking questions like a pro.”

Owen smiled. “I want to run it. In fact, if I had a straight bone in my body, I’d probably be trying to kiss you right now.”

“What, you don’t think my husband is cute?”

“Uhm…anyway. Here’s to the Arboreal Scientific Mission.” Owen lifted his glass. They echoed him and drank.

“There’s still going to be a million details to work out,” Owen said.

“Probably more. But we can help and remember we’ve got help on their way. A lot of them have experience in this kind of stuff,” Leah said. “Hub will find an FCT somewhere to help us out.”

“So first we finish the rum,” Cole said. “And then I want to know the reason Owen ducked the question about me being cute.”

Leah sighed. “He’s a typical pilot, has to be adored be everyone.”

Owen laughed and poured another round of rum.

|4.0
Cole had partly dissembled the mule in front of their hab. He had started out planning to replace just the worn bearings in the bot’s “hips” but the more he took apart, the more he found wrong. He’d finally just decided to give the entire unit an overhaul.

Leah came out and sat on the bottom step watching him work. “I have cold water for you.”

Cole looked up from the electronic innards and smiled. “You are the best and most beautiful thing in the universe.”

Leah pouted at him. “But not the multiverse?”
She couldn’t keep the face very long before she started laughing.

“Well, if n, the given value for Leah, is infinite…”

“Yes?”

“Then I could be a very happy man,” Cole said.
He sat on the step beside her and taking a long drink of water.

“I can’t help but notice you dodged the question.”

“Yes ma’am, it’s the key to domestic bliss.”

She laughed and poked him in the ribs. “So, are their machinists going to come after you for tearing apart their toys?”

“I sure hope not, they both died.”

“Damn. Owen’s doing an amazing job but he’s running out of time here.”

“That’s why I’m doing my part to hold off entropy. If there’s time, I might tear down another one that stopped working.”

Leah looked at the collection of parts spread out on a tarp next to the robot and then at Cole’s greasy hands and smudged face. “You’re delighted you get to take something apart, aren’t you?”

“Maybe.”
“Admit it, you like getting all greasy and dirty.”
Cole leered at her. “Are you propositioning me?”
Leah laughed. “If you’re able to put all that back together, I’ll think about it.”
Cole went back to work and a few minutes later, Gavin came down the path. He stopped when he saw Leah.
“Hey there.”

“Hi Gavin, how are you?”

“I stopped by to see if the relay modification worked.”

“I’m sorry, we ran into some issues with other things and I didn’t have a chance to try it. This is my husband, Cole. I don’t think you’ve met. Cole, Gavin is the network guy I met with before we met.”

“Yeah, hi.” Gavin glanced briefly at Cole who was standing up and putting out his hand. He ignored him and went back to undressing Leah with his eyes. “Maybe we should have another meeting, I had some ideas for software mods.”

Leah got angry when she saw Gavin snub Cole. CMC might have relaxed social rules, but no one was ever rude like this. Not for long anyway.
“I’ll get my tablet, you can transfer them and I’ll take a look.”

She got up and went inside.

“You really know what you’re doing there?” Gavin said, looking at the collection of dissembled parts.

Cole looked up. “Wouldn’t have torn down a working mule if I didn’t”

“Hope so. So are you guys CMC ‘married’ or married for real?”

Cole carefully unscrewed a battery relay. “Married back on Earth, if there’s a difference. We met at Echo-Alpha.”

“Yeah? I was there myself, I was in the first wave of volunteers right after Announcement Day. Graduated with class number one of the Colonial Guards.”

“Cool.”

“You’re a Pioneer, right? What class?”

“I was recruited from outside, just did a familiarization thing, we didn’t have class numbers.”

“Oh, okay. You were one of the tech weenies we saw around.”

Cole looked up, tired of the condescending dismissal in his voice. “Actually, no. I arrived two years before Announcement Day. I was a flight instructor and a squadron pilot. After the Defense ended, I transferred to work with my wife.”

Gavin smiled, it was pretty obvious he didn’t believe Cole. “Oh okay. You were a real live Vanguard Raptor then? What did you fly?”

“Red Tails with Squadron 22.”

“Uh huh. And you were a Nightingale during the Defense.”

Cole nodded. “Yep. Not fun times.”

“Sorry, I should have told you his last name,” Leah said from the doorway. “I didn’t know you were into that stuff. This is Captain Cole Morgan.”

Gavin laughed and shook his head. “No, no way.”

Cole pointed a screwdriver at his tablet. “Look it up. My service records are part of the heritage wiki.”

Gavin scrolled around and then looked at Cole and then at the tablet again. “Uh, okay. Sorry about that, Captain. It’s an honor.”

“Just Cole, that part of life is over. Leah, I’ve got to go over to the shop and see if there’s a new set of relays.”

“Okay, see you in a few minutes.”

Cole nodded at Gavin and walked away.

“Hard to believe he’s a legend. What’s really wrong with him?” Gavin said.

“Other than seeing Earth die with his own eyes you mean?” Leah said. “If you weren’t there I don’t think you’d understand. So, what are these mods about?”

Gavin looked her over again. “There aren’t any, just wanted to talk to you alone. We both know you were checking me out in the park. I was about to make my move when Admin pinged me and you took off. I came by to see if you wanted to pick things back up where we left them.”

“I didn’t think things were any specific place. If you’re interested in seeing if there’s chemistry, bring your girlfriend over for drinks tonight and we’ll talk about it.”

“Maya? Why would I do that?”

“You want us to share with you, right? You share with us back.”

“Nope. I don’t play that way.”

“Yeah, I didn’t think you would. Look Gavin, I know Mapping has a reputation for some crazy stuff and bed hopping happens. But it’s not just about getting your nut with someone’s wife. It’s more about the strong bonds between people doing a dangerous job and sharing affection. I apologize for giving you the wrong impression but I’m not interested.”

Gavin looked pissed and took a step toward her. Leah hopped off the step, facing him at a slight angle.
“I think you’re about to do something stupid,” she said softly. “Before you do, take a look at me and see if I look scared. And I’ll warn you, you’re a lot bigger than me and that means I can’t risk giving you a gentle lesson. I will break something.”

“Think I’m scared of you?”

Leah kept talking like she hadn’t heard him. “And if I hear that you’ve laid a hand on anyone else without their permission, it would be best if you started walking and didn’t come back.”

Gavin tensed, getting ready to make her flinch but Leah just relaxed more. Something made him take a closer look at her and he decided to back off. No, she didn’t look scared. In fact, he could tell she was really looking forward to fighting.

“Whatever. Fucking cock-teasing cunt,” he muttered, stalking away.

Leah stood there and watched him leave. She was glad Cole wasn’t anywhere he could have seen this. She didn’t want to try to explain to Owen why her husband had murdered his comms tech.

The next morning, Leah yawned and rolled over. Cole wasn’t in bed and she got up and looked outside. He was on the shared porch between their hab and the empty one next door doing Tai Chi in just a pair of shorts. Leah yawned again and went to make coffee. While she was waiting for it to brew, she looked out the other window and was amused to see that across the path there were two female colonists on their porch watching him intently.

A few minutes later Cole came in and she gave him a cup of coffee. “You should do that naked like you do on the ship.”

“Thank you, and why is that?”

“You had some admirers across the way.”

Cole looked out the window but the women had left.

Leah laughed. “Probably inside wiping the drool off.”

“Uh huh, right. What time is Owen coming by?”

“About half an hour, go get cleaned up.”

Owen looked up at the three mammoth trees. “I don’t think structural stability will be an issue. How high up will they put it?”

“About seventy meters,” Cole said. “Much lower than that and they’re not comfortable.”

“How will we get up there?”

“I was thinking a solar/wind mini-array powering a lift basket,” Leah said. “Lakshmi showed us that trees generate their own microclimes, there’s an almost constant updraft close to the trunk.”

“Interesting. There’s a good sightline to the colony up there?”

Leah nodded. “I was planning for a direct link laser to get around the EM interference.”

Owen nodded. “That works for me. When does all this happen?”

“Lakshmi, our contact, will meet us back here three days from now. She showed us a way to reach out to anyone nearby as well,” Cole said. He walked along the immense buttress root until he found a mossy plant. “You burn this, evidently they can smell this a long way off. You’ll need a hot flame, it’s hard to get going.”

Owen took a careful picture of the plant. “What does it smell like?”

“It’s not bad, kind of a spicy smell. Rub it on your fingers.”

They were walking back the quad when there was a double boom that echoed across the clearing. Cole shaded his eyes and pointed at a contrail.

“Wonder who that is?” Leah said.

Owen looked at his tablet. “Maya says it’s the Agamemnon.”

“That’s a Greek name, now you can relax. That’s Marie Martin’s ship. She’s been working with Henry Rogeau. I told you that help was on the way.”

“Stop looking smug Captain Jones. Otherwise you can walk back from here.”

“Sorry Mr. Administrator, sir.”

“That’s better.”

When they pulled back into the colony, there were a crowd of people standing around in front of the administration building. “What’s that all about?” Leah asked.

“Probably nothing good,” Owen sighed.

He pulled up beside the crowd, Gavin was standing on the porch with a couple of other men. “Administrator.”

“What’s going on, Gavin?”

Gavin made a point of looking at Leah and Cole. “We’d all like to know where you disappeared to with these two.”

“Disappeared?” Owen said, holding up a tablet. “That assumes I was out of contact.”

“It was set to emergency notify only.”

Owen walked up the stairs and Cole started to follow him but Leah put a hand on his arm and shook her head.

“Was there an emergency?” Owen asked, looking around.

“There’s a shuttle landing!” a younger man behind Gavin exclaimed.
Leah and Cole both recognized his voice as the one who had bluffed about having auto-guns when they’d arrived.

“That’s why we have a runway, Brad.” Owen said. “I thought we had covered this already Gavin, I serve as the Administrator but that does not make me anyone’s slave. I have the same rights here as you or anyone else.”

“And there must be continuity in the government,” Gavin said. “We’ve asked you to appoint a deputy before. Now we’re here to demand. In fact, I’ve already been elected.”

Leah saw most of the crowd looking at each other and guessed they hadn’t been asked to vote.

Owen shook his head. “Go read your bylaws again Gavin. That’s not how it works.”

“Then it’s time to change the bylaws!”

“Oh shit,” Cole said quietly and Leah nodded. She pulled out her tablet and messaged Xerxes, entering a short message to be encrypted and given a priority when the next courier drone passed overhead.

“We’ve covered this as well. You signed the accords like everyone else,” Owen said calmly. “You have the right to file a protest with Hub and request inspectors to mediate the situation.”

“Like your friends there?” Gavin sneered and most of the crowd turned to look at Leah and Cole. “It’s time to tell us where you snuck off to.”

“Bleeding Christ,” Leah snapped. “The guy has been busting his ass to keep this place running and you’re gonna bitch because he took the morning off to show us around?”

“It’s not week-end,” Gavin blustered.

“What was the last break you worked?” someone yelled. “Owen is in his office all the time!”

“And that’s why he needs a deputy,” Gavin said.

“I’ll choose my own deputy, thanks,” Owen said. “But if you’re looking to help out, we always need folks cutting sugar cane.”

There were a few laughs and Cole saw the crowd’s support for Gavin slipping away.

“Excuse me,” a new voice called. “Someone want to tell me where to park?”
It was Marie’s partner, Henry Rogeau. He had been born in Haiti and worked hard to cultivate his Creole-French accent.

“More mouths to feed now!” Brad said, throwing up his hands. “We’re gonna need us another Tea Party, CMC are invading like the Redcoats!”

“Redcoats!” Henry exclaimed.
He sprinted at the plastcrete base of the Administration hab and pushed off it, jumping to a rail, flipping over it to land on the porch. There were a few “oohs” from the crowd and he bowed slightly.

“Now, I beg your pardon, sir,” he said, his French accent thicker as he walked toward the kid. “I perhaps didn’t hear you correctly? Did you just imply that I am English?”

“No, that you were…” Brad tried to say.

“Non! Redcoats are English pig-dogs, no?”

“It was a metaphor!”

Laughter was starting to spread through the crowd.

Henry shook his head sadly. “Don’t you mean a simile?”

Brad stammered but no one was paying attention to him anymore.

“This isn’t over,” Gavin said quietly to Owen.

He shrugged. “I think we’re done for now.”

“Now, who can tell me where to park?” Henry yelled over the laughter and the crowd pointed at several ground crew hurrying away toward the field.

“What was that all about?” a woman asked Leah.

“Marie!” Leah hugged the slender woman. She was a bit shorter than Leah with large dark eyes and long black hair. “Owen has a bit of a power struggle going on. How was your transit?”

“Boring as ever,” Marie said. “How’s the survey going?”

Leah raised an eyebrow and smiled.
“Uh oh, I know that look.”

“Come on, I’ll introduce you to the colony admin, he’s a good guy.”

When they went inside, Maya was already Owen’s office. Leah tapped a bent finger against her lips and Marie nodded, recognizing the hand-chat as talks too much, asks too much.

“Owen, I’m sorry,” Maya was saying. “I don’t know how he found out you weren’t in your office, I didn’t say a thing to anyone. I was enjoying the peace and quiet when they just started to show up.”

Owen smiled at her “Don’t worry about it. It was hardly a secret since I drove out of here this morning.”

“And I’m sorry about Gavin. I mean, I agree that you need a new deputy. But that’s just because you work so much that I really do worry about you. But…maybe someone with more experience than Gavin has?”

“Thanks Maya, it’s on my list of things to think about when I get a minute.”

“Okay. Is there anything you want me to work on?”

“Actually there is. Take the quad down to the cane field and see if you can find out why they’re so far behind down there.”

“Uhm, sure. You don’t need anything up here?”

Leah rolled her eyes and Marie smiled.

“I just have a meeting. Maybe I’ll make it an early day after that.”

“Please do. You look tired, boss. Get some rest.”

Maya got her tablet off her desk and nodded at the two women.

“Welcome to Arboreal, Captain Martin. Hi Captain Jones.”

“Thank you, Maya. It’s a very pretty place,” Marie said.

Maya smiled and left, closing the door behind her. Almost immediately Cole came in.

“Henry will be here in a few. Aggie already parked herself next to Xerx. I wonder how many chess games they’re playing already.”

Owen waved them in. “We’ll need another chair, grab Maya’s.”

Leah sat down as Cole wheeled the chair in.

“Owen, I’d like to introduce Marie Martin. She’s an old friend and a kick ass xeno-biologist. We had to steal her from the research group.”

Owen stood up and shook hands. “Captain, I am deeply in your debt for rearranging your schedule to come here.”

“It’s Marie, and you’re very welcome. I’m glad I can give you a hand. My partner is Henry Rogeau, he’ll be along in a minute.”

“Great. While we’re waiting, you look like you have something to say, Leah.”

“Just that I think you need to be very careful around your assistant.”

“I already know that. I’ve had a few sensitive issues leak that had to be her. But right now, my hands are tied, especially with so few people. Disruptions don’t ripple through the colony now, it’s more like a tsunami. I reassign her, you can bet her boyfriend will start having ‘problems’ keeping the comm net up and I’ll have a ton of angry people. Their friends include the coordinators of two of my farms, I don’t want to think that would play out.”

“Phew,” Marie said. “I don’t envy your job. Hopefully we can help you get a few more colonists settled.”

“You’d think with everything that’s happened we would have grown up a little,” Owen said. “But we’ve just dragged our problems with us.

Henry came in and was introduced to Owen. Leah went and locked the front door and Marie looked at her curiously.

“Go ahead,” Leah said to Owen.

He looked surprised for a second, then smiled and nodded. “Marie, Henry, these two showed up with some news yesterday…”

“…so we’re setting up an embassy now,” he finished half an hour later. Leah figured she’d probably tell Marie all of it later, but Henry presented more of a problem. He had already asked for a transfer, he’d just come along with Marie when they’d heard about the Arboreal mission. Plus, he’d kind of been a blabber mouth at school…

“Damn,” Marie said. “When’s your next courier go through?”

“Another week,” said Owen. “Leah said some of you can stand in for an FCT until we get an answer.”

“Probably longer than that,” Marie said. “Jake’s team was on deck but they got briefed for some problems out rimward. The Brazilians are weeks overdue, even if they showed up today there’s mandatory stand down and debriefing.”

“Wasn’t Ian Holm just getting a new crew together?”

Henry shook his head. “They got mixed up in a Dominion ambush during transit. Last anyone heard, they ejected planetside and half the team was still missing.”

“That’s everyone?” Cole asked.

“Remember, the Committee stole two of our teams. They have them both out certifying a new planet.”

Cole sighed. “I wish one of the Elder House Regiments was still around.”

“Who?” Owen had never heard of anything like that.

“Elder House Regiments are old Commonwealth military units. Really old, they’ve been around since the Empire. His Imperial Lantern and Emperor’s Armored Fist are two famous examples?”

Owen nodded. “I thought those were joke names.”

“Don’t say that to them. Anyway, the Regiments all have their own contact teams that function like our FCTs. But with the Dominion starting to get active, any help from the Commonwealth will be a long time coming.”

“So, what are you saying?” Owen asked.

“Same shit, different planet,” Henry said. “That’s why we all do FCT modules in training.”

Marie glanced at Henry and back to Owen. “It could be worse, the Anek sound friendly and they’re pre-flight tech. That removes some complications but there are always more that pop up. And we’ve all had experience with other first contacts twice. I don’t think anyone besides Cole is a strong empath but honestly? Almost all of it is common sense.”

“She’s right,” Leah said. “Obviously we won’t be speaking for the Commonwealth or setting up any treaties, but they’re not interested in trade agreements and I have the feeling that they could push us out any time they chose to. What they really want is our help, and to know if they can help us.”

Owen leaned back in his chair and put his hands behind his head. “Okay, with all that in mind; Cole and Leah, I’d like you to focus on the embassy lodge. You can use one of the quads to get back and forth so you don’t have to spend all your time walking. Comments?”

Cole thought for a second. “With only three quads working, why don’t we stay out there?”

“If you want, that’s fine. I’ll probably be stealing Leah every few days to work on the proposal. You’re still good with helping with that? Thanks. Marie and Henry, I’d like you to run another short survey leg along the original track. That’ll complete the southern side of the map and give you a decent introduction to the area.”

Marie nodded. “I agree. Would you like us to find any other new civilizations?”

“See, we’ve hardly met and I can already tell that you hate me. Once you’re back, I’ll steal one of you to help me here and the other one will help on the embassy if it’s needed. Or one of the other ten things that will come up. But first, Leah and Cole, you’re due crew rest and you other two are probably due a couple of days to tie one on and stumble around.”

“I’m good to go,” Cole said and Leah nodded.

“And you’re not due to meet your contact until the day after tomorrow. You’ve got more than enough time to work yourselves to death. I also don’t mind that Gavin and his friends will all see you four wandering around.”

“You want I should stab him, boss?” Henry said, sounding like Peter Lorre.

“Weren’t you were French a minute ago? And no stabbing anyone, if I have to really say that. Now, all of you get the hell out of my office, I have real work to do.”

They got up and left.
“Damn, he’s good, why is he running a tiny colony?” Owen heard Henry ask as they were walking outside.

“Fake it til you make it, frog,” Owen muttered and called up a handbook on the alien contact checklists and began to read.

|5.0

“They put us in the hab across from yours,” Henry said. “You guys want to hang out later?”

Cole looked at Leah who nodded. “Sure, I’ve got a decent bottle of rum they make here.”

“That reminds me,” Marie said, “Wendy from hydroponics sent a care package along for you guys.”

“Excellent!” Leah said. “I could use a good smoke out at the moment.”

“Around eight?” Henry said. “Cool, we’ll see you then.”

Leah closed her eyes and sighed as the hot water ran down her back. There was a tap on the door. “Please come in,” she said.

Cole came in with two drinks in his hand. “Rum and fake fruit juice.”

“Yay. Get in here with me.”

“I was hoping you’d ask.” Cole was already naked and stepped into the spray.

Leah tasted her drink and then took a long swallow. “I thought shit was about to get pear shaped this afternoon. I sent a coded request for a security team to Xerxes, I’m half tempted to sleep out in the ship.”

“I’m glad Henry is such a lovable asshole, it was a pretty good distraction. I wouldn’t worry too much yet, a lot of that crowd was there for the entertainment. I don’t think Gavin has a ton of support.”

“Not yet anyway.”

He nodded. “Never underestimate the power of boredom. That will change soon enough. I wonder when Owen will tell them.”

“When he thinks everything is in good shape. He’s going to be very good I think.”

“I agree. Now, we’ve got two days off. What would you like to do?”

“I’d like to fuck, preferably a lot,” Leah said. She finished her drink and set the cup on the sink. “And sleep. Eat if there’s time.”

“Great minds think alike,” Cole said and put his drink beside hers. Leah smiled as he pushed her back against the wall and knelt down.

“Looks like you’ve got something on your mind,” she said as he put her leg over his shoulder.

Instead of answering, Cole licked along her lips and sucked her clit into his mouth.

“Holy shit,” Leah groaned and leaned back on the wall. “Your mouth feels so good baby, eat my pussy, I want to come all over your face. Yes, just like that…”

Leah was tingling before Cole was through with her. She tried to reciprocate but he refused to let her do anything except stand there while he toweled her dry. She collapsed in a chair and he brought them another pair of drinks.

“You’re magnificent,” she said, toasting him.

“And you’re gorgeous,” he toasted back. They sat and watched the hazy sun creep toward the treetops.

“It’s nice to see Marie, I missed her,” Leah said after a while.

Cole nodded. “Looks like she’s about at the end with Henry.”

“They have been out twice together, I’d expect it. I like Henry but…”

“He’s an asshole,” Cole said and she laughed.

“Yes, he’s kind of an asshole. The good thing is that he knows it and uses it to his advantage, like he did today.”

“I’m not saying I don’t like him. He’s just intense at times.”

“He tends to overcompensate around you. He was a transplant to the Project in his late teens and really wanted to be a Ranger.”

Cole sipped his drink. “I know, but none of that makes a whole lot of difference out here. You’d think he’d get over it.”

“He also had a serious thing for me for years. Then a gorgeous fighter pilot appears and we’re married a month later.”

“I’m surprised you never went out with him.”

Leah shrugged. “He was kind of an arrogant ass already, not really my thing.”

“So I’m kind of surprised he lasted two missions with Marie.”

Leah smiled. “I guess he’s really, really good in bed. Marie wasn’t the first person I heard that from. And don’t worry, I brag about you back.”

Cole laughed. “I really don’t want to know.”

“Liar.”

“Okay, in the interests of improving my game, what makes him good in bed?”

Leah sat up a little. “Your game doesn’t need any help, trust me. From what I’ve been told, he’s just as arrogant in bed and kind of rough. Some of our friends get off on that. I think it can be hot once in a while but not for two missions.”

“You really like that?”

“Do you remember fucking after my meeting with Gavin? That was incredibly hot and a little rough.”

“It was hot, but I don’t think I’d want that every time.”

“God no, I am so into making love with you. It’s just like…having a taste for horseradish sometimes.”

“Have you ever been tempted?”

“Would it bother you?”

“You are the center of my life. The only thing that would bother me is if you felt like you had to hide something. I’m madly in love with every part of you.”

Leah got up and came over to his chair. “I want to sit on your lap.”

He held his arms open and she sat to the side, legs crossing his lap. Owen kissed her head. “I take the question back though. I don’t want to make you uncomfortable.”

“I’m not. We’ve never talked about this kind of thing and I’d just feel better if we were touching. Plus I like being naked with you. Okay, ask me again.”

“Have you ever been tempted to get with Henry for some rough, dirty sex?”

She smiled. “Perv. Tempted as in thinking about going and actually doing it, no. I’ve fantasized about what he’d be like during personal play time a few times though, tried it with toys and my fingers.”

“Really. Well, if you ever need an outside opinion…”

“Mm, I’d love one. Let me ask you something back.”
“Sure.”
“If I did get with Henry, would you want to watch?”

“I don’t know if I could watch someone be rough with you.”

“Spicy food, remember. I’d be a willing, maybe eager, participant in it.”

“There’s part of me that likes it…”

“I know, I can feel it against my leg. It’s the rest of you I’m curious about.”

“You know that I never thought less of anyone who’s asked us to play, I just wasn’t interested in anyone else. If you had wanted to…”

Leah kissed the end of his nose. “I felt the same way, I still do. For me, it would be just another game for us to play. When I beg you to tie me up, I don’t think it’s because I’m a slave. It’s just fun. If we were to play with other people it wouldn’t mean I didn’t want you. You already know it’s you and me until the stars die. The thought of you in my bed for the rest of my life turns me on more than any fantasy.”

Cole leaned forward and kissed her. The feel of his lips made her heart beat faster, just like the first time he’d kissed her.
“You and me,” she whispered.

“Until the stars die.”

They began to kiss, gently caressing each other until Cole’s tablet pinged a few minutes later.
Leah picked it up. “They’re wondering where we are.”

“I guess we’d better get dressed then.”

She got up and looked through her case of clothes. “You know, this goes both ways.”

“What do you mean?”

“You mean to tell me that you’ve never noticed Marie eye fucking you?”

“When was this?”

She shook her head. “I love you madly but sometimes you’re really clueless. What about this shirt?”

“I like that shirt a lot.”

“I know you do. Should I wear it?”

“Of course.”

Leah bent over and kissed the top of his head. “Probably part of the reason she’s checking you out is all the bragging I do about you.”

Cole’s lips found her nipple and she sighed. “You’re getting me excited, we have to go.”

“Really? I guess you’ll just have to be horny all evening.”

“Mmm, someone named Cole likes playing with fire.”

Leah moaned as he sucked harder and nipped at her nipple and then jumped as his fingers found her wet slit. “Cole! What are you doing?”

“Sorry, just wanted to have a taste,” he said, smiling up at her and licked his finger.

Leah fanned her face and went to find a pair of panties. “You are an evil beast, sir.”

“Leah!” Marie said when she opened the door. “It’s been forever, I can’t believe you came all this way!” She kissed Leah on the cheek.

Marie was gorgeous. She had pulled her long hair back and it was in a thick braid that almost reached her waist. The tightly pulled back hair made her dark eyes seem even larger. Marie was wearing a long gauzy skirt and tight embroidered vest with a tight shirt under it.

“Settling in okay?”

“Yeah, these habitats are nice. Get in here. Hi again, Cole.”

He bent to kiss her cheek but she turned her head at the last minute and he ended up kissing her on the lips. Marie opened her lips slightly and Cole kissed her for a couple seconds longer than a casual kiss.

Marie smiled at Leah. “You’re right, he is a good kisser.”

“Oh, you have no idea,” Leah said.

“Hey there,” Henry said as they walked in. “They still don’t have the AC replaced.”

He was wearing a loose fitting pair of undyed linen pants and a guayabera shirt that was mostly unbuttoned.

“That’s okay, it’s nice and cool at night,” Cole said. “Let me show you how the fans work.”

Leah looked watched Henry as Cole showed him the control panel. He was a little taller that Marie, maybe Leah’s height if he stretched. He was slender and his light brown skin covered a nicely defined set of muscles. His eyes were a shade of hazel and he had incredibly long lashes.
When he patted Cole on the shoulder and bent over to feel the air coming out of the vent, Leah saw a glint inside of his shirt and remembered that he had pierced nipples. She wondered what he’d do if she tugged them with her teeth and felt her nipples harden a little.

Cole, damn your eyes for teasing me at the last minute!

“And hello again,” Henry said, coming over to kiss Leah’s cheek. “You look incredible.”

“This old thing?”

Leah was wearing a pair of black drawstring pants made of loosely woven cotton and a Mandarin blouse in red silk. The buttons were widely spaced and she usually only left one of unbuttoned when they were going out, just enough to tease Cole. But she’d decided to really push his buttons tonight and left the top two open, leaving the shirt open down to between her breasts. Underneath she had a black silk demi-cup bra that cradled the girls nicely and ended below her nipples. If you peeked, they weren’t hard to see. Yep, Cole was going to pay for torturing her. And it was exciting, feeling the silk sliding over her nipples.

“Don’t worry, you look nice too,” Marie said, patting Cole’s back. He was wearing his own set of drawstring pants and a white cotton pullover he’d gotten from the tropical colony on St. Johns. “Simple, yet classic.”

“Thank you Marie, it’s nice to finally be appreciated,” Cole said.

Leah laughed. “As promised, one bottle of rum.”

“Beautiful,” Henry said, taking the bottle. “I’ll get some glasses.” A few minutes later he was back with a tray, ice, glasses and a pitcher of juice.

“Wait until you taste this juice,” Marie said. “We brought it from Hub, it comes from Juneo Hoh. It’s incredible.”

“Anything is better than bug juice,” Cole said as they sat down. Henry made drinks and passed them around.

“And as promised,” Marie said, reaching into her case and pulling out a large block of marijuana. “Wendy’s finest ‘dro.”

Cole opened the bag and inhaled. “God, that’s amazing,” he said, handing the bag to Leah to smell and she nodded. “I’ll go get my vape.”

“But wait, there’s more,” Marie said, pulling out a large padded bag. “I thought you might appreciate this.”

Cole carefully pulled out an art-glass water pipe.

Leah whistled. “That’s amazing.”

“Helps to have friends in the lab,” Marie said.

“This is incredible,” Cole said. “We’ve got to try it of course.”

The other three laughed and they chatted as they sipped drinks and passed the pipe back and forth.

“Phew, I think that’s enough for me,” Leah said after her sixth hit. “Wendy outdid herself with this stuff.”

Marie sipped her drink and laid back on the couch with her eyes closed. “There’s one thing about the strain, wait until you feel the body buzz.”

This might get interesting Cole thought. Regular weed always made Leah horny, if this was one of Wendy’s crazy strains…

“Whoa!” Leah said. “My face is tingling.”

Definitely going to get interesting.

They caught up on the gossip and then Marie sat up. “You guys discovered another race! Lucky bastards, I can’t wait to meet the Anek. They sound amazing.”

“Oh, our descriptions don’t even do them justice,” Cole said. “Their physical form is a little startling at first, but it’s amazing how quickly you get used to it. They just exude a kind of calmness.”

“Most of them anyway,” Leah said. “We’ve only met one male and he was a little intense when we met.”

“Hostile?” Marie asked.

“Not exactly,” Leah said. “Just…intense.”

“So you’ve met with just the females?” Henry asked.

“There’s two genders, they only meet occasionally,” Cole said. “So far, mostly females.”

“Too bad you guys are exclusive, maybe you could have had fun for once.”

“Don’t be an ass, Henry,” Marie said. Cole and Leah carefully didn’t look at each other, knowing they’d start laughing if they did.

“Sorry, just kidding around,” Henry said.

“For the record, we’ve had plenty of fun being exclusive Henry,” Leah said sweetly, rubbing the inside of Cole’s thigh.

“Touché, madam,” Henry said, toasting her. “By the way Cole, did you know you’re famous?”

“What for?” Cole said cautiously.

“Your humble scribblings have graced the wardroom walls of the last three ships we transited on.”

“He means your ship drawings,” Marie said, rolling her eyes. “We saw your signature and I wasn’t surprised. You gave those ships souls.”

Cole suddenly realized what they were talking about. “Oh, okay. I’ve done six of those portraits so far. I didn’t know if they liked them that much.”

“Liked them?” Henry said. “Uh, yeah. The three we saw were framed and lit with their own special lights. We saw the first one on the Pathfinder with all the ghostly explorers in the background pointing. Then the one on the Xuanzang, the ship heading for Hub with the Chinese junks escorting it, that was incredible. But the one of the RBN Singh Rawat, my god, man.”

“It was my favorite too, flying away from Earth with all the gods and goddesses running alongside it, crying…” Mara choked up and waved her hands in front of her eyes.

Leah put her arm around Marie’s shoulders. “You should have seen the captain when Cole presented it to her. She’s a Singh herself, a very stern Sikh. But she had pretty much the same reaction.”

“What are the other three you’ve done?” Henry asked.

“My first one was for the Tenzing Norgay, the ship is against the stars and an outline of Everest in the background. Then I did one for the Lewis and Clark that’s a bit like the Pathfinder.”

“I made him put in Sacajawea,” Leah said.

“She did. I’m so happy I listened, it totally made the portrait. The L&C is approaching a Slingshot gate and they’re all beckoning her to go through. And the Magellan, he’s in the starscape behind the ship, looking ahead with a telescope.”

“You’re amazing,” Marie said.

“Thank you ma’am.”

“Do you ever do people?” Henry asked. “Or just spaceships?”

“Of course I do people. I have the best model ever, how could I not?”

“You have to show us! Do you have them with you?” Marie asked.

“Go get them,” Leah said. “Otherwise we’ll all forget.”

“Okay, back in just a second,” Cole said, getting up.

He brought the book back and they gathered around a table and flipped through it.

“That one is great,” Henry said, pointing at one of Leah on St. John’s. He touched her shoulder but it turned into a caress. Cole saw her nipples harden under the silk. Henry noticed as well, not bothering to hide the fact he was looking and Leah didn’t seem to notice. Or she didn’t mind, Cole wasn’t sure which.

“Oh, that’s absolutely beautiful,” Marie said when she turned the page.
It was a sketch Cole was still working on. Leah was sitting on rock, looking up into the massive trees with a half-smile on her face. There was a patch of sunlight on her face. Cole planned to add Lakshmi eventually.

Marie smiled. “You two, sheesh.”

“She’s right,” Henry said. “I bow to your ability, sir. Now, where are the naked ones?”

“In the book!” Leah said. “I’m even hotter without clothes.”

“Oooh, let’s see!” giggled Marie, flipping through the pages.

Cole thought about refusing, but watching Henry drool all over Leah was hot. And kind of fun but he wondered how far she’d push things. They hadn’t resolved anything and Leah tended to lose her head when she got horny. And she always got crazy horny when she was high. But it was the two of them forever, so he wasn’t too worried. Wendy’s weed didn’t hurt in helping him relax either.

Marie’s eyes widened when she turned the next page. “Cole!”

“That’s one of my best,” Cole said proudly.

He’d done it on St. Johns when they’d take a week at the beach. Leah had a flower behind her ear and was lying on her side, propped on one elbow. Behind her was a stretch of beach and a waterfall in the distance. She’d been teasing him all day before and Cole had poured every bit of his arousal into the picture, it wasn’t overtly sexual but every sensual line of Leah’s portrait was erotically charged.

Leah laughed. “Close your mouth Henry, you’ll catch a bug.”

“That’s absolutely amazing,” Henry said. “And I finally get to see what you look like under there.”

Leah laughed and they were soon talking about life on St. Johns. Henry was taking occasional peeks down her shirt, Leah acted like she didn’t notice but Cole could tell that she knew.

“So what do I have to do to get one of me like that?” Marie asked, pointing to the portrait.

“First I had to cock-tease him all day,” Leah said. “Then promise to do all sorts of dirty things to him.”

Marie laughed. “I’ll keep that in mind.”

“Baby, now that I made you bring that over here, I feel bad,” Leah said. “Would you go put it back so I don’t spill something on it while I’m trashed?”

Cole laughed. “If you’ll feel better, sure.”

“I should put the pipe over there too, I don’t think there’s anything like that for a few hundred light years,” Marie said. “I’ll follow you, Cole.”

Henry looked at Leah after they left. “Cole is a good man.”

“The best. I’m lucky.”

“It almost makes me feel bad about wanting to fuck the shit out of you.”

“Henry, you’ve heard me fuck Cole. Do you honestly think you could do better than that?”

“Wouldn’t know until I tried, would we?” Henry said, looking down her shirt.
He looked up, surprised, when she pulled it wider to let him look.

“I’d give you a chance, but you’d fail,” Leah said.

Henry reached out, pretending to go for her tit. He was surprised again when she leaned forward to meet his hand. He cupped her breast through the shirt.
“You sure about that?”

Leah bit her lip. “Maybe. Just one chance, so you’d better make it count.”

She looked him in the eye as she unbuttoned her shirt the rest of the way, letting it fall open.

“I don’t know how to thank you enough for bringing me this,” Cole said, rinsing out the pipe.

“I’m sure we can figure something out,” Marie said. She was tempted to jump him but didn’t want to screw up her friendships. They walked back across the walkway to the other hab and she looked up and gasped.

“What is that?”

“It’s called the Lesser Arboreal Nebula, we’re just far away to see all of it,” Cole said. “They have an amazing sky here.”

They stood and looked up for a few minutes and Cole was getting very aware of how close she was standing.

“I’m going to love working here,” she said finally. “I guess we should go back in and see what they’re up to.”

The lights had been turned down and the other two were missing. Cole followed Marie into the bedroom. Leah was breathing hard and there was a rhythmic wet sound. He saw her then, lying on the edge of the bed. Her shirt and bra were gone, her pants were around her ankles and her panties pulled down around her knees. Leah was gasping and grunting, fists clenched in the sheets while Henry sucked hard on one of her nipples. His other hand was busy between her legs. Leah was lifting her hips against his hand as it slapped against her pubic mound, driving his fingers into her wet sex.

“Holy shit,” Marie said quietly.

Leah’s eyes opened and she looked at Cole. Her eyebrows went up slightly and he could tell what she was asking him. She looked at Marie and the bed beside her before arching her back and cumming on Henry’s fingers. She groaned as he added a third finger.

Marie touched his arm. “I didn’t know you two were open now?” she whispered, looking worried.

“Evidently we are. You’re our first,” Cole said.

She smiled at him. “That makes me really happy.”

She unbuttoned the vest and slipped it off. The shirt underneath wasn’t only skin tight, it was translucent and Cole traced her dark little nipples through it.

“Do you want to stay in here with them?”

He nodded and she smiled. “It’s hot, isn’t it?”

Marie pulled his shirt over his head as he pulled her close. They kissed as she pulled him over to the bed and pushed him backward onto it. She laid beside him and Cole pushed her skirt up. Marie lifted her hips to help him, she wasn’t wearing any panties and moaned when his fingers touched her wet flesh.

Leah took a deep breath as Henry’s fingers pushed deeper into her. She was ridiculously wet, having someone else’s fingers in her was so dirty and hot. Leah looked over at them and smiled.
“Isn’t she gorgeous?” she whispered to Henry. Watching Cole and Marie make out while they undressed each other made it even better.

Marie smiled at her and whispered something in Cole’s ear and he turned to watch Henry pull Leah’s panties the rest of the way off. Leah’s eyes were closed as Henry pushed her legs wider with his knee.

Cole turned back to Marie, kissing along her jaw and neck to her shoulder. She pulled off her shirt and sighed happily as he kissed his way down to her breasts. His fingers slid over her sex at the same time his lips found her nipple, holding it as his tongue danced and swirled over it.
Marie was breathing harder, pushing her hips up to meet Cole’s stroking fingers. He began to tease her other nipple but she couldn’t take it anymore and twisted her fingers in his hair, pushing his head lower. She sighed happily when he put her legs over his shoulders, whimpering as he began to circle her hard clit with his tongue.

“Good idea,” Henry said and Leah looked over to see Marie arching her back, pulling Cole’s mouth tighter to her pussy. Leah pushed herself up the bed as Henry got between her legs.

“Ohh fuck,” Leah gasped as Henry shoved two fingers into her at the same time he sucked hard on her clit. She grabbed his head, forgetting all about Cole. “Do it, like that!” she groaned as he sucked.

Leah whimpered as his finger slid out but her head went back and she started cumming hard as he suddenly shoved three into her, fucking them in and out and tugging her clit with his teeth. Leah humped against his mouth.
“Suck me good, you’re gonna make me come so hard, fuck that cunt, c’mon…” She screamed as orgasm after orgasm hit her like a freight train.

Cole moaned and she looked at the other couple. Marie had him on his back, stroking his cock with the head in her mouth. She pushed down and Leah watched, fascinated, as she kept going until her nose was against Cole’s pubic bone. Leah could see her throat bulging before Marie came up and took a deep breath before taking it in her throat again. She had to get Marie to teach her how to do that. Leah wondered what she’d look like fucking Lakshmi and came hard on Henry’s face again. She groaned, lifting her hips as a finger pushed into her ass, twisting back and forth. He was turning out to be as good as she’d heard.
After another orgasm Leah pushed Henry away and she sat up and pulled his pants off. He was very hard and his cock looked huge on his slender frame. Leah began sucking and licking, determined to get it all in her mouth.

“Watch Leah fuck him,” Marie whispered in Cole’s ear before swallowing his cock again.

Leah gagged and gasped, then pushed her mouth down again. Henry’s head went back and he grabbed Leah’s head, thrusting hard into her mouth. Leah moaned, feeling him push into her throat. Then she had to breathe again, using her teeth on Henry’s cock to get him to let go.

“I’ve wanted to see your lips wrapped around my cock since the day we met,” Henry said, looking down at her. “I didn’t think it would take this long but you met that fucking flyboy.”

“The one buried in Marie’s throat you mean? Sounds like he’s making her cum pretty hard, I don’t think you can keep up with him after all,” she taunted him.

Henry wrapped his fingers in her hair, pulling her mouth down as he thrust hard again. Leah moaned, putting her hand between her legs. She was so wet.

“It’s okay,” Marie whispered in Cole’s ear. “She likes it and she’s right. You’re making me cum so good. I want you to fuck me now, okay? Get between my legs and push that beautiful cock all the way in me.” She took his hand and put it between her legs. “Feel how wet I am for you? Come on lover, fuck me nice and deep.”

Cole turned, leaning forward until Marie was back against the pillows. She took him in her hand, rubbing the head up and down her wet lips.

“Feel it? I’m gonna put you in, just…oh my god…”

Marie’s eyes rolled back into her head and Cole thrust into her. His cock easily slid all of the way up her cunt and she squeezed him, her body tensing as she came.

Henry pushed Leah back and flipped her onto her stomach. Leah pulled her legs up, getting on her knees. She gasped as he slapped her ass.

“Spread it.”

Leah reached back to spread herself. She moaned as he pushed the head into her and pushed back, trying to get more. Henry shoved himself in hard, pushing her flat on the bed. Leah came again as he began slamming into her, their flesh slapping together. She screamed into the pillow as his cock thudded into her cervix over and over.

I’m so going to regret this tomorrow, but right now… Another orgasm began to race through her and Leah groaned.

Marie was breathing hard, her cunt tightening as she watched the other two and orgasmed again. Leah opened her eyes and looked at Cole. She moaned as Henry speared into her again, keeping her eyes on Cole’s. Henry grabbed her hips and pulled her back against his cock. Leah imagined Cole finding her like this, furious. He’d come over here and shove his cock in her mouth, shoving it deep until her throat bulged like Marie’s… The orgasm was too intense this time and Leah collapsed into it, going limp and letting Henry pound her.

“She’s okay,” Marie said and kissed him. “And it gives me an idea.” She lifted one leg and put it on his shoulder, then the other. Cole looked down, watching his cock push deep. “Now fuck me hard Cole. Show that motherfucker how to pound a cunt!”

He pulled almost all the way and shoved back in.

Marie began to breathe harder, gasping out encouragement as he bottomed out deep inside of her, over and over.

“You’re making…me cum…all over…your cock…yes! YES!” Marie screamed as she pushed up against him and Cole fucked her even harder.

Henry pulled out and Leah looked over her shoulder and smiled. “Giving up?”

“What do you think?” Henry asked, pouring oil on his cock.

Leah’s stomach was full of butterflies. She didn’t know if she could take it that roughly in the ass but she wasn’t going to back down.

“Better make it good, because it still sounds like Marie’s getting a better fuck than me.”

Henry dragged her to the edge of the bed. Leah let her legs fall over the side. She reached back, spreading her ass. She wanted this, she wanted him to cum up her ass, right in front of her husband. Cole was looking down at Marie, slamming into her as Marie convulsed and moaned, over and over.

Henry pushed an oily finger up her ass and Leah grunted, pushing back. She gasped as he used a second finger, sawing them in and out a few times.

Leah looked back as he ran his cock up and down her ass crack. “I want it nice and hard,” she said. “Make me feel that cock.”

He put it against her ass and shoved. Leah gasped, reaching down to rub her clit. She grunted as he shoved again, forcing more of it into her asshole. Another shove and she was on the edge of an orgasm, feeling him sliding so deep inside of her.

“Fuck my ass!” Cole heard Leah wail.

“Look at them,” Marie said. Leah had her face in the sheets, Henry’s hands were clenched on her hips as he thrust in and out of her.

“I want you to cum nice and deep in me,” Marie said as she watched the other pair. “But next time, I want you to fuck my ass. I want to have my mouth between your wife’s legs, eating her while your cock makes me cum over and over. Would you like that?”

“Yes,” Cole gasped and she squeezed his cock, looking up at him.

“Good. Now fuck me nice and deep, I want you to cum so bad. I can’t wait to feel it, I’ve wanted to fuck you for so long. C’mon, faster, cum with me.”

He was breathing hard, fucking her with short strokes.

“Yes, just like that,” Marie whimpered.

He shoved hard once more and the feeling of his cum set her off and she squeezed him, wanting all of his cum. When her breathing had slowed, she moved her legs, pulling him on top of her and Cole kissed her neck and nipples.

“She never wanted to share you,” Marie whispered in his ear. “Now I know why, just give me one more, come on.”

Cole pulled all the way out and slid smoothly all the way inside of her again. Marie felt their cum run out and down the crack of her as. Her back arched as she pulled Cole into a deep kiss. Beside them, Henry was cumming in Leah as she rode out her own orgasm. Marie covered his face with little kisses.

“That was amazing, thank you,” she whispered in his ear. “When Leah catches her breath, take her home and hold her. She’s going to crash off the emotions and wonder if it was a mistake.”

He nodded and she kissed him once more.

Leah’s legs were wobbly and Cole helped her to bed. He got in beside her and spooned against her.

“Oh, don’t. I’m all sticky and goopy,” she protested sleepily. “You won’t want to cuddle me.”

“Don’t be an idiot. I’ll always want to hold you. Even when you’re goopy.”

“You always have such lovely answers. Thank you for this, I had fun. I hope you did too. I’m sleepy.”
“Me too,” Cole said and soon they were both asleep.

|6.0
There was a tap at the door the next morning and Cole opened it to find Henry standing here.

“Hey, c’mon in.”

Henry looked uncomfortable. “Uhm, are we good? I was spouting some rude shit last night.”

Cole shrugged. “I don’t think you had a hope in hell of winning.”

Henry laughed. “Marie says I didn’t. You are the champion.”

Cole shook Henry’s hand. “We’re good, really. Leah wanted to play a game and you made her happy. Marie is lovely, I think she had fun. All is well. We were just putting lunch together, come in. Where’s Marie?”

“Hanging back to let me apologize for being an asshole.”

“You’re a lovable asshole, come in and we’ll drink beer.”

The two couples sat around the table eating and trading stories.

“What’ve you guys got going on today?” Leah asked. “I was thinking of checking out the hot springs.”

“Ooh, yes,” Marie said.

“I’m hanging out here, drinking beer and listening to music with Xerx,” Cole said to Henry. “You’re welcome to hang out.”

“That sounds great, I’m tired of being hot. Can I ask Aggie to link in? I think she’s a little lonely, she didn’t like the SI on the Ericsson.”

The rest of the colony was in the middle of their work cycle so Leah and Marie had the place to themselves.

Marie sighed, leaning her head back against the cushion. “I love being in the field, really I do. But the idea of a hot bath whenever I want one is so tempting.”

Leah nodded, slowly lowering herself into the hot water. “All we need are some stud masseuses and we’d have the perfect spa.”

“Ooh, drinks with little umbrellas. Hey, I really want to ask you something.”

Leah laughed. “I know, you’ve been practically bouncing up and down all morning.”

“Have not. What changed your minds about being open? The weed?”

“We’ve smoked pot together before without anything happening.”

“Except you dragging Cole into a closet and having noisy sex that time.”

“Pish-posh. We just get carried away sometimes. It’s kind of a complicated answer actually. Will you swear this stays between us, for now? Not even Henry.”

Marie sat up. “Of course, and he’s a chatterbox, I know. This does sound like a complicated answer.”

“It started at the end of our first survey leg….”

As she told Marie the story, Leah had to keep herself from laughing. Marie didn’t interrupt her once, not a single question. She just sat there with her mouth hanging open.

“…then on the way back to the colony we both were constantly incredibly horny. It has to do with the seal she used to keep the plug in. I had a meeting with a guy in the comms section and ended up getting incredibly horny in front of him. I nearly dragged him off into the tall grass.”

Marie shook her head. “I can’t imagine what I would’ve done.”

“It was so fucking intense, but I didn’t want our secret to get out. When I got back, I told Cole what had happened and he got really turned on…”

Marie was actually breathing hard by the end of the story. “That’s fucking incredible. I don’t know what part of that is more amazing.”

“I thought that’s what you’d say. Look, I have a lot of serious questions and a xeno-bio is just the person to ask.”

“About the compatibility? Yeah, it’s got Founders written all over it. You’ll have to wait for any analysis that’s more in depth but I think they were as engineered as any of us. I was wondering, how are you guys doing this morning? He’s okay with it? I know he got tense a couple of times watching you last night.”

“He’s doing better than I am to be honest. I jumped the gun, we hadn’t actually talked it through the whole way and I have a little guilt about that and some other stuff.”

Marie floated over to the bench where Leah was sitting and sat next to her. “I thought you seemed a little…subdued, I guess. Did he say anything about that?”

“He didn’t even bring it up, just told me he figured it was coming and didn’t mind. He did he admit he got a little uncomfortable watching Henry be rough but I had warned him and he was pretty sure I could kick Henry’s ass.”

Marie laughed. “I’m pretty sure too.”

“He said you were helping him keep calm, so thank you. Not for getting him to let it continue, for helping him not…I don’t know. Not hurt or be uncomfortable.”

Marie put her arm around Leah. “You look sad, don’t be. Like he said this morning, everyone had fun. Everything seems back to normal today.”

“Marie, I have this feeling that I kind of dragged him into this. First there was the thing with the Anek. He was helpless on the floor and I saw him but instead of helping, I just wanted to be fucked more.”

“Weren’t they influencing you though?”

“Yeah, but then there was the meeting with that asshole Gavin.”

“But instead of jumping him, you went home and jumped Cole instead.”

Leah looked up. “Without the babies, I would have Marie. I would have been an absolute whore and fucked him without a second thought.”

“Do you think so? Without the babies inside you, you wouldn’t have had those feelings. Have you seen him since?”

“Yeah, two days ago.”

“Any temptations?”

“He knew I was checking him out and wanted to push the issue. The only temptation I had to avoid was kicking the shit out of him.”

Marie kissed her check. “So you see? I’m right. What was it like with…Lakshmi? When you were with her?”

“That’s totally different, it’s impossible to describe but we’re sort of in each other’s head. They’re both so sweet and kind and loving. The opposite of Gavin.”

“Now you’re making me want to try it even more,” Marie said. “And with us?”

“Well, I was high, but I wanted him to find me like that. Half naked with Henry on top of me.”

Marie smiled. “Yeah, wow. But tell me why you wanted that? To hurt him?”

“No! Because I wanted him to see how sexy it could be. I wanted him to fuck you right there.”

“Okay. So what would’ve happened if we hadn’t come back in?”

Leah smiled. “You had four more minutes, I was watching the clock. I would have come looking for him.”

“And if he had seen you and walked back out?”

Leah shuddered a little. “I don’t want to think about that. I would have gone after him.”

“But he happily joined in, playing your game and even worrying that you were safe. Think about your personalities Leah, it comes out in sex too. You’re the adventurer and he’s the protector. You two have always been that way.”

“I just don’t want him to think he’s got to worry or that he’s less of a man or something.”

Marie laughed. “You think I was kidding when I said that I haven’t been fucked that well in a while? No one there thought that Cole was less of a man and seeing the way you look at each other, I don’t think he’s worried. He said he’s not, did you believe him?”

Leah nodded. “He’s a terrible liar.”

“So this is all in your head, not his. Part of you two being perfect for each other is the dynamic of you charging ahead and him slowing you down, keeping you safe while you drag him into new things.”

Leah smiled and leaned over to give her a quick kiss on the cheek. “You’re a very wise woman.”

“Thanks, you just needed a push. You’re right, you need some time together, to reassure each other but I’m not worried.”

“You and Henry are okay?”

She sighed. “No, we’re not. Nothing about last night, we’re just at the end of our road, he’s going to head out on the Ericsson when we’re done here. It’s okay, we had a good run and breakup sex is lots of fun.”

“Really?”

Marie nodded. “Oh yeah. Last night I woke up really horny. So I woke him up to taunt him about not being as good a lay as Cole. We had some very fun hate sex.”

“You’re going to get me all horny again.”

“Yeah, I’m already horny again. I’m going to have a hard time getting back to the hab without my hand in my pants. Seeing Henry fucking you in the ass like that? I was already thinking about that but then I hear about sexy aliens, holy shit!”

Leah laughed. “I wondered if that would turn you on.”

Marie looked at her. “Are you fucking kidding me? That is one of the hottest things I’ve ever heard. I’m tempted to run back to the hab just to get myself off.”

Leah looked around. “We’re off-cycle. You can do it here.”

“You don’t mind?”

“I watched my husband do some wonderfully dirty things to you while your husband fucked me nearly stupid. I think we’ve broken that barrier.”

“Can I use the bench? I’d probably sink as I was about to cum.”

“Of course, and we should make sure you’re safe.” Leah got out and sat behind Marie. “I’ll keep my arms around you so you don’t float away. Don’t worry about Cole, you have to do all the work yourself.”

“Something tells me he wouldn’t mind,” Marie said, settling back into Leah’s arms. “Did he tell you what I said?”

“About what?”

“I told him I wanted him to fuck me in the ass, that I wanted to be eating you when he did.”

“You keep that up, you’re going to get Cole laid later.”

“I want the three of us to play.” Marie leaned back and sighed as she played with her nipples. “Did you like watching the two of us together? I really liked watching you two fuck like wild things…oh oh oh!”

Leah smiled as Marie gasped and shuddered.

“Keep holding me, I need more,” Marie moaned.

“Greedy.”

“Uh huh. Answer me, did you like it?”

“Yes, I want to deep-throat him like you did. Seeing that bulge in your throat was so hot, I thought…”

“What?” Marie panted, moving her hands between her legs. She exposed her clit, gently tapping it.

“I made myself cum thinking about how you’d look with Lakshmi in your throat.”

Marie’s back arched and she whimpered. “I want to try that so badly.”

“The Eldest mentioned there would be more of them that wanted to implant humans.”

Marie moaned, pushing a finger between her lips. “Tell me what would happen.”

Leah moved a hand to Marie’s breast, circling her nipple. “The male is first. He would begin to touch and you’d start feeling very good. Warm and relaxed, really wet. He’d be accessing your nerves, making you want him to keep going. One of their sets of arms is very small, just used for sex. They’re very sensitive and he’ll stroke your skin, making sure you’re ready for him.”

“Oh fuck” Marie moaned, her body tensing again.

Leah couldn’t take it and put a hand between her own legs. “He explored my vagina with the tiny hands, they’re very small, only a few centimeters across, he stroked me inside, learning my body. He seemed fascinated by my clit. They’re very sexual, he put his penis in my vagina out of curiosity, just to see what it felt like.”

“What’s it like?” Marie whispered.

“It’s kept in a pocket underneath their body. It felt large, and it’s prehensile.”

“What!”

“They don’t thrust with their hips, the penis moves back and forth on its own.”

“I want to get fucked like that so bad,” Marie moaned as she came again.

Leah began to rub her own clit and Marie wriggled, feeling Leah’s hand between them. “Your nipples are so hard against my back. What happens then? You said they put them in your ass.”

“The eggs use your waste, yes. He’ll pick you up and turn you over, pulling you underneath him. He wanted me to stay excited, he kept stroking my vagina with one hand while the other rubbed something slippery over my ass. Then he guided his cock into my ass.”

Leah was starting to breathe harder and she reached around, twisting and tugging on Marie’s nipple. Marie moaned, putting her hand over Leah’s.

“What’s it like?”

“It felt huge, it just kept squirming around, going deeper. I heard him think that the eggs had to be deep inside. It didn’t hurt, just stretched me and filled me so good. He pulled me tighter, like a man would, but held me still while his penis, it kind of rippled, I could feel it pumping my ass full.”

Marie leaned back hard, whimpering. “Then the female?”

“Yes, she picked me up and her egg tube was even wider but it felt so good and she was so gentle and loving. I wanted her babies so bad and I begged her to fuck me. She held me still, and I could feel them rushing out of her, feel them widen me a little bit as they passed through. She whispered beautiful things to me, telling me how wonderful I was. As she pulled out, her tiny arms pushed something into me and I felt it solidify, keeping their young inside.”

Marie’s body tensed again and she moaned loudly. Leah pinched her nipple hard and it made Marie cum even louder. Leah rubbed her clit faster, starting to cum. She pulled Marie tight, her hips pushing her wet sex over Marie’s lower back.

“How are you doing,” Marie asked after a couple minutes.

“Cole’s still getting fucked,” Leah panted. “But I’ll make it home.”

Marie turned around in her arms, kneeling between Leah’s legs. She smiled, caressing Leah’s cheek.

“I want to hear more about this, but I’m already having a hard enough time not pushing you back and licking your pussy right now. Maybe the three of us can be naked and talk about it.”

Leah’s eyes widened. “Oh my god yes, that would be amazing.”

“I think we’d better go find the boys before someone comes looking to see what’s going on.”

Leah laughed but she had a sobering thought as they dried off. Somehow she didn’t think it was going to be this easy telling Owen.