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.

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.