by John R. Plunkett
"Now hear this," Sutherland's 1-MC, or public address system, announced. "All stations stand by for warp shutdown in thirty minutes."
May dodged a grav sled and hurried up to the passenger module. Activity in the hangar bay looked just as hectic now as it had at departure, only in reverse. Instead of going out the crates full of gear and supplies came in. Most ended up stacked; the rest went into shuttles. Accommodating Star's passenger module allowed Sutherland to carry only two Magallanes class freight haulers and three dual-purpose Geelongs. All five were being prepped for flight to get everything down that would be needed for the ground side base.
"'Scuse us!" a voice called. May hopped aside to avoid being trampled by two men carrying what looked like a foot locker. They maneuvered it through the passenger module's door and strapped it down in the suiting area just behind the cockpit.
"Hey, old man! Glad you made it!" Kit called, grinning broadly and waving enthusiastically.
"I am too," May replied, shaking his head. "It's a zoo out there, Kit. An absolute zoo."
"Hello May!" Star called. Her voice came not from any of the comm badges but the communications terminal in the passenger module's cockpit. "Ready to fly?"
"Always, darling." May slipped into the cockpit, kissed his fingers, and patted the console. Star giggled.
"We saved a seat for you up front, since you sat in back last time," Snowflake said. Shi sat just inside the cockpit, a data pad in hir hand, supervising the stowage of gear in the suiting area. From the look of things the room would be packed floor to ceiling by launch time.
"Oh, that's all right," May insisted. "I really don't mind riding in the passenger area. It's... relaxing." Truth was the cockpit without controls discomfited him but it embarrassed him to admit it.
"Coming through," Nova announced briskly. She, Lt. Takura, and a security ensign came aboard. Between them they carried four rifles, six pistols with holsters and belts, two autoguns, and plenty of spare charge packs for all of them.
"Somebody start a war and not tell us?" Kit commented.
"Are we going to need all that?" Snowflake asked, frowning.
"Starfleet regulations," Takura explained as she and Nova installed the weapons in a locker. "All away teams operating in unsecured areas shall be armed."
"Personally, I'd rather have weapons I never used than not have them and wish I did," Nova added.
"Amen to that," May put in. He'd been in situations where weapons were suddenly and unexpectedly required. Venturing into the unknown meant unknown dangers as well as unknown wonders. It made sense to prepare for all eventualities; just because Starfleet adhered to a policy of peaceful exploration didn't mean everyone did.
Renata and Kevin boarded. They both wore combat boots, BDU pants, fatigue jackets, and forage caps, though Renata's outfit managed to look stylish while Kevin's merely looked utilitarian. On top of that, Kevin carried all the gear.
"Take it aft," Snowflake directed, hooking a thumb in that direction, when Kevin tried to drop his load in the suiting room.
"Why?" Renata demanded, crossing her arms.
"Because that's what the manifest says," Snowflake replied, presenting hir data pad. "Anything not stowed according to the program goes out the airlock. If you dispute the loading program, which I remind you was approved weeks ago, you get bumped from the flight. If you don't like how things turned out you can appeal to Commander Blackthorn. I'm sure he'll get around to hearing your case in a few days. Or you can go see Ms. Narbalek, who will help you stow your gear and point you to your assigned seats. Your choice."
For an instant Renata looked prepared to argue. She changed her mind and, with a snort and toss of the head, marched aft. Kevin struggled along behind as best he could.
"You deliberately gave them the worst seats, didn't you?" Kit inquired once the reporters were out of earshot.
"Of course." Snowflake giggled. "Wouldn't you?"
"Well, naturally." Kit grinned.
"Where's Aurora?" Nova asked.
"Saying goodbye to Meriwether and George," Star responded with a particularly diabolical chuckle.
Snowflake rolled hir eyes. Meriwether and George were a pair of Chakat siblings in the ship's cartography department. They were young ensigns fresh out of the academy and, as such, not that much older than Aurora. The three of them had been practically joined at the hip since leaving Chakona. "Tell hir to pull it out and get hir ass down here or we leave it behind," Snowflake said sternly. Shi knew Star would repeat her words verbatim; in this particular case it seemed appropriate.
"Now hear this," the 1-MC boomed out. "All stations stand by for warp shutdown in ten minutes."
May glanced aft. Only a narrow corridor remained through the gear stacked in the suiting room and almost all the seats in the passenger area were filled.
A heavyset Terran man with swarthy skin and dark hair jogged up, a large case in each hand. "Howdy, all," he said a bit breathlessly but grinning broadly. "Snowflake. Kit. Nova. May." He nodded to each person in turn. "Sorry I'm late." He paused to wipe sweat from his brow. "Had a problem drawing my gear."
"Quite all right, Doctor," Snowflake replied. "Just slip your cases in here and we'll be on our way."
"Oh, I almost forgot," the doctor exclaimed as he wiggled one of his cases into the space Snowflake had reserved for it. "How are you today, Star?"
"Fine, thank you, Dr. Sanders," Star replied.
May's eyes narrowed. Though phrased politely and spoken with an appropriate tone Star's response lacked any deeper inflection. She didn't like Dr. Sanders and frankly neither did May; the man made a point of being outgoing but in what struck May as a phony, superficial way. Moreover, in conversation he tended to treat people who knew less than him as brain damaged. Star hated being patronized.
"Ready to go?" Dr. Sanders asked.
"Absolutely," Star replied.
"How's the system look?" the doctor wanted to know.
"Four terrestrial worlds, six gas giants, and two retrograde ice worlds," Star reported.
"Then at least we arrived in the right one." Dr. Sanders chortled. "Anything unexpected?"
"The outer two of the terrestrial worlds are habitable," Star replied. "Class L1 and L4."
May straightened up suddenly. L4 meant marginally habitable but L1 was the best one could hope for.
"If you say so." Dr. Sanders smiled benignly.
"Doc-" Snowflake began.
"You doubt my assessment?" Star inquired. Her voice sounded almost mechanical.
"Doc-" Snowflake tried, more insistently this time.
"The robot probe didn't see any class L worlds," Dr. Sanders said in the tone of someone explaining something complex to a small child. "If they had they would have flagged it. Now I'm sure that to you they might look like-"
Something happened. May would be hard pressed to express it in words but he felt it clearly, as if the universe had struck a bump in the road.
"Star!" Snowflake shouted. "Star, answer me! Star?" Shi waited; no reply came. "Blast!" shi exclaimed, stamping hir forepaw.
"What happened?" Dr. Sanders demanded, frowning.
"She left," May said.
"What?" Dr. Sanders cocked his head quizzically.
"She left," Snowflake said flatly. "That bump you felt was Star undocking and leaving Sutherland's warp field."
"What! Why?" Dr. Sanders' eyes widened. "Call her back!"
"I can't," Snowflake replied through gritted teeth. "She doesn't understand hyper-wave and this ship doesn't have a gravity compression modulator. When we exit warp we can try radio if she's not too far away. Otherwise we wait until she decides to come back."
"And how long will that take?" Dr. Sanders demanded, anger creeping into his voice.
"About as long as it takes for her to collect some evidence of her claim," May put in. "Doc, the reason she's along is because she sees things we don't. And she's smart. Maybe she's only six years old but she does have a degree in Astronautics. If she says a planet's L1 then maybe it's really L2 or L3 but not M or K."
"May, I appreciate what you're saying but there can't be any Class L worlds in this system," Dr. Sanders said in a tone he probably thought was reasonable. "The data from the robot probe was detailed and specific."
"Then maybe the data's wrong," Snowflake said.
"That's impossible," Dr. Sanders insisted. "The only way the survey data could be that far off is if somebody faked it."
May shrugged. "Personally I'd rather believe Star." He glanced at his watch. "No matter. We'll find out for sure in... three minutes or so."
Aurora trotted up. Hir mane and fur looked damp and her suit a bit untidy, as if shi'd showered and dressed hurriedly. "I'm here!" shi announced brightly.
"Enjoy cutting it fine, do you?" Snowflake rolled hir eyes. "Not that it matters now. Star's gone."
"What?" Aurora's jaw dropped. "Why?" Hir gaze fell on Dr. Sanders; hir eyes narrowed. "I bet I can guess," shi added disgustedly.
"I have to find another ship!" Dr. Sanders exclaimed, grabbing his cases.
"There aren't any other ships." Nova caught the doctor and gently but firmly disengaged his grip. "The landing was planned weeks ago. You know that. Now take your seat and wait like the rest of us."
"What happened?" Ranthe inquired, appearing in the passenger cabin doorway.
"Brainiac here dissed Star and she ditched us," Aurora explained shortly.
"So our takeoff will be delayed somewhat," Kit added.
"Don't worry, Doc, I'm sure everyone will be patient and understanding." Ranthe seized Dr. Sanders' arm and marched him into the passenger cabin. From the boos and catcalls ensuing May gathered that the good doctor was receiving the accolade of his peers.
"Might as well settle in," Kit sighed, entering the cockpit and taking what would normally be the pilot's station.
May took the seat diagonally behind Kit's. At least there he didn't feel like he should be flying. "Are you going to punish Star when she comes back?" he inquired.
Kit made a face. "I really should," he replied. "Running off isn't just inconsiderate, it's dangerous. But damn me if it wasn't worth it to take Dr. Sanders down a peg or two."
"The nerve," Aurora exclaimed, taking the seat across from May. "Treating Star like a kid."
"I'd be careful of that if I were you," May said. "You aren't exactly an old hand yourself." Aurora stuck out her tongue; May chuckled.
"Now hear this. All stations stand by for warp shutdown in one minute."
"Here it comes," Snowflake commented. Shi took the copilot's station, across from Kit.
The cockpit's forward view ports doubled as view screens. Right now they showed the swirling, hypnotic colors of Sutherland's warp field. The corners of May's mouth twitched up; he remembered once a fellow telling him the colors were what hyper-space looked like. May pointed out that if light didn't exist in hyper-space it couldn't be possible for his eyes- which used light- to see it.
May's smile vanished. Star's "eyes" sensed gravity instead of light. Gravity propagated through hyper-space just like it did through normal space. Did that mean Star actually saw hyper-space? In a weak moment he'd once posed that question to Dr. Eltjo Chakra, a- if not the- leading expert on hyper-spatial physics. Dr. Chakra replied at length. May left the encounter no more enlightened and with a headache from trying to wrap his mind around concepts that seemed to defy human comprehension. Star had to perceive hyper-space in some form because she navigated through it, though her star drive wasn't anything like the space warp drive Federation ships used. May tried asking her directly. After an hour he gave up; she couldn't seem to understand the question. The experience graphically illustrated how little his and Star's worlds overlapped. She was a person but she wasn't human. Talking to her on the communicator, for instance, it was easy to forget that. He wondered if that might be why she was so picky about who she worked with.
"Commencing warp shutdown now," the 1MC announced.
May blinked. For just an instant the room blurred. Some of the people flickered; they seemed to be composed of multiple overlaid images that weren't quite synchronized. Then it passed and once again everything was normal. Ordinary black space filled the view screen, in which Barnett 916-C formed a shallow arc across the bottom half. Its surface gleamed bright sapphire blue, interrupted only by the occasional smattering of cloud.
"Oh my God," Snowflake breathed.
Kit chuckled. "Star was right."
"Aurora to bridge," shi said, tapping hir comm badge. "What's the surface look like?"
"About ninety-nine percent ocean," Shiuandi replied. "Land consists entirely of scattered island chains. No moons."
"Is it an L1?" Kit asked.
"Absolutely," Shiuandi replied. "Be nice if there was more land but what there is... looks like paradise."
"Well, Kit?" Commander Blackthorn inquired. "We wouldn't be here if not for you. I'd say you've earned the honors."
Kit blinked. He looked across at Snowflake.
Snowflake shook hir head. "I'm still marvelling at how blue it is," shi said. "I can't think of a thing."
Kit grinned fit to split his face. "I was thinking the same thing," he said. "Captain, call it 'Blue Water.'"
"Very appropriate," Commander Blackthorn replied approvingly. "Blue Water it is. A pity Star missed it."
"Star didn't miss it," May said. "She saw it before any of us did."
"Really." Commander Blackthorn sounded bemused. "Mr. Shiuandi, scan the surface. We'll launch shuttles and beam down the away team as soon as you've picked us a good spot."
Prince Ares drummed the fingers of his right hand on the arm rest of the command chair, one finger at a time in sequence from thumb to pinky. His metalized claws rapped loudly on the hard plastic. His eyes remained fixed on the bridge's main view screen, which showed a tactical display. The Federation vessel had entered orbit and was launching recon satellites. Ares' ship, the Steel Lady, orbited above and ahead. Because of that the Fed ship would overtake and pass beneath them. The attack computer counted down to the point of closest approach.
"Sire, we must destroy them," Lord Scarface insisted. He reached out a hand as if to grip the prince's shoulder but jerked it back at the last moment. "We can't continue our investigations without them detecting us and we can't risk them unraveling the secrets of the Forerunner machine before we do!"
"We will not act rashly," Ares replied sharply. That he agreed completely with Scarface didn't change the fact that he utterly detested the man. "What do you suggest, Angel?" Ares added. Not that he didn't already know what she'd say, which was exactly what he would have said. Ares and his slightly older sister thought very much alike in tactical matters. He asked, in this case, because it would annoy Scarface.
"Wait, Sire," Angel replied, the tip of her tail flicking idly. "They don't know we're here. Though larger than ours their vessel seems to be intended for research, not combat. When they begin landing their investigation teams they will hold a steady orbit with their shields down, a perfect target. We remain cloaked and powered down, maneuvering close on lift-and-drive only. When the moment comes we fast-start the weapon systems by transferring power from the cloak."
"Princess Angel, I hesitate to point out that this brilliant plan of yours leaves us dead in space until the main power grid can be restarted properly," Scarface pointed out in a heavily sarcastic voice. He refrained from rolling his eyes but only just.
Ares' tail twitched. If I- or any other man- had suggested that plan, you'd have called it brilliant without the sarcasm, he thought. Scarface couldn't see women as anything but ambulatory reproductive organs, incapable of making any meaningful contribution except with the children they produced. Ares wouldn't care except that Scarface treated Angel that way, too. When he looked at Angel apparently all he saw were her ample breasts and generously flared hips. It never seemed to occur to him that she stood half a head taller, almost even with Ares himself, and that thick bands of muscle textured the skin on her arms, shoulders, belly, and legs. On top of that she possessed all the same augmentations Ares did: enhanced muscles and bones, dermal plating, plus metal reinforced teeth and claws. Did Scarface think Angel would hesitate to call him out in a duel simply because of her sex? Imagining her ripping Scarface into bloody rags almost made Ares purr; he crossed his legs to hide his stiffening organ. "We will execute Princess Angel's plan," Ares announced briskly. "See to it." He nodded to her.
Scarface grimaced but couldn't bring himself to argue with a man who was not only the vessel's commander but a scion of the Imperial family and possessed of a fearsome reputation on the dueling ground. "What I don't understand is why they're here in the first place," he groused. "The false data we sent their probe should have convinced them there wasn't anything of value to be found." He glared at Angel; she had, with the assistance of several planetologists- all female- prepared the false report.
Ares didn't bother responding. Why the Feds had come in spite of the false data really didn't matter now that they were here. That Scarface seemed to place more importance on assigning blame than dealing with the situation at hand was one of the reasons Ares disliked him.
"Sire, this attack plan will leave us dead in space," Scarface pointed out, moving up beside Ares' chair so they could speak more or less privately.
Since Scarface spoke in an appropriately deferential manner- and made a valid point in the process- Ares deemed him worthy of an answer. "If all goes well their ship will, at the least, be disabled and in no position to respond."
"If not?" Scarface persisted.
"Then, in all probability, we die," Ares replied as if it were nothing at all.
"This will be our initial landing site," Shiuandi announced. In place of her image on the cockpit view ports there appeared a long island, rounded on one end, forked at the other, and bent in the middle. "This is the largest single land mass on the planet. It totals about three hundred thousand square kilometers and includes a range of ecologies and terrain types. It sits right about forty degrees south latitude and that hemisphere's in summer phase so the weather ought to be quite pleasant."
"Oughtn't be too unlike Berdoovia and southern Flinders on Chakona," Aurora commented.
"If only we could get down to see it," Snowflake sighed.
"Since it looks like we'll be sitting here a while I'm gonna grab a bite," May said, unbuckling his seatbelt and rising. "Anybody else want something?"
"How 'bout meals all around?" Kit asked. "If that's okay?"
"No prob." May picked his way to the galley. The scientists in the passenger section seemed to be taking things in stride; most of them talked animatedly with their colleagues or bent over personal workstations. May figured the data streams coming in from Sutherland's sensors and the mapping satellites would be more than enough to keep everyone busy even if they didn't make it to the surface right away. "What's your pleasure?" he called. "Salisbury steak, fish and chips, or chicken fried steak?"
"Fish and chips," Aurora and Snowflake called.
"Chicken fried," Kit said.
May keyed in the orders, selecting Salisbury steak for himself. Out in the hangar bay a siren hooted and Mars lights revolved; the docking bay's outer door was opening. A force field kept the atmosphere inside but space wasn't the place to take unnecessary chances. May shut and locked the passenger module's outer door before collecting the meals.
Angel manned the helm station, to which she had also routed fire control. Her hands hovered over the console, occasionally making minute adjustments to Steel Lady's course but otherwise sitting perfectly still. Her eyes remained unblinkingly fixed on the tactical display. Every so often her tail lashed.
Ares's lips drew back from his gleaming, metal teeth. Unconsciously he hunched his shoulders and tightened his grip on the arms of his chair. His tail lashed constantly; Toshigans had come a long way compared to their feline ancestors but they hadn't forgotten the thrill of the hunt. Angel had the scent of prey in her nostrils... and so did Ares. He watched the icon representing the Federation vessel as if it were a mouse peeking from its hole. Just like a stalking cat the icon representing Steel Lady crept upon it, drawing closer and closer-
"Now," Angel said.
Chief Engineer Thornypaws touched a sequence of controls. The bridge lights flickered briefly; warnings flashed and alarms sounded from the engineering status panel. But one by one in quick succession all of Steel Lady's warhead launchers and beam projectors came on line. Angel fired them all at once.
Lieutenant Elsa Hartford, Sutherland's chief pilot, scanned her instruments and allowed herself a little smile. The ship conformed to her programmed course as if on rails. At the back of the bridge Lt. Shiuandi read off coordinates to the transporter crews. Elsa sighed, letting her eyes wander from the instruments for just a moment. Blue Water looked like such a beautiful planet. She hoped Commander Blackthorn would schedule shore leave. When she looked at her instruments once more- only a second or two later- she almost gasped. Sutherland was still on course but a strange energy reading had materialized directly astern. She reached for the controls to adjust the sensors but the strange reading grew rapidly before she could. "Sir," she reported, glancing over her shoulder at Commander Blackthorn, "I'm picking up a strange energy reading-"
Suddenly the main viewer changed from a map display of Blue Water's surface to a tactical. It showed a flashing red icon almost on top of the green one representing Sutherland. "Sir, a ship just appeared directly astern!" Shiuandi exclaimed, unable to keep the incredulity out of her voice.
Commander Blackthorn drew a sharp breath. Never before in his career had he faced a situation like this. The Federation had been at peace for fifty years; the only thing like combat experience most currently serving officers ever got was interdicting pirates and smugglers. Even then it wasn't at all unusual for an officer to attain command- as John Blackthorn had- without ever being on board a ship that came under fire. The order to raise shields sprang to his lips; his training was comprehensive, if not tested by fire. But shuttles were leaving Sutherland's docking bay and all four transporters were in use. If any of the shuttles happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time Sutherland's shields would tear them apart. Moreover, raising shields would break the transporter locks. Any persons still in transit would be lost, or worse. Never before had he been forced to make a command decision that would cost actual lives.
"Raise shields!" Blackthorn shouted. But it was already too late.
Steel Lady's energy beams struck with surgical precision, tearing away the armor protecting Sutherland's engineering spaces. An instant later the warheads detonated, smashing power conduits and drilling right through Sutherland's engine casing. Plasma, vaporized metal, debris, and bodies fountained into space as compartment after compartment explosively decompressed. Reaction, and the failure of her attitude controls, sent Sutherland tumbling end over end.
Angel lifted her hands from the controls. Weapons, maneuver drive, shields, and cloak all read zero power. "Fast start," she ordered. "They may launch message torpedoes."
"Yes Sire!" Thornypaws shouted as she initiated the fast power-up, forgetting in her excitement that Angel, instead of Ares, had given the order. Ares let it pass; Thornypaws- and the whole crew- had done enough in his service that he figured he owed them at least that much.
A heavy shock threw May off his feet. He cursed as gravy from his Salisbury steak went down his collar. An instant later the food- and everything else, including May- flew up in the air. He found himself thrashing about in free fall; the gravity grids had shut down. Fortunately gravity failure wasn't anything new for him, though it had been a while since he'd experienced it. He braced himself in the galley until things stopped crashing around. Screams and other noises emanating from the passenger compartment suggested that the scientists lacked May's experience.
"May!" Ranthe slid headfirst into the galley. "Are you all right?"
"Yes!" May shouted. "What the bloody Hell happened?"
"I don't know!" Ranthe replied. "The gravity went off and we fell out of the docking bay!"
May dragged himself to the cockpit. Aurora retched into an air sickness bag; Snowflake looked haggard but alert. Kit worked frantically at the instruments. Through the view ports May saw stars and Blue Water wheel past as the passenger compartment tumbled. The speed of it almost made him throw up. "What happened?" May asked.
"I don't know," Kit gasped. "May, we're in trouble. The accident slung us into a degenerate orbit and I can't raise Sutherland."
May swallowed convulsively. That meant they were falling toward Blue Water. Eventually- probably very soon- they'd strike the upper atmosphere. "Does this thing have any flight control?" he asked.
"It has a lift-and-drive," Snowflake said. "It's just meant for moving around on the ground when Star isn't there. We can't fly on it."
"Kit, let me in." May pulled himself over to Kit's seat. "Ranthe, you take the other chair."
Kit hesitated only a fraction of an instant before yielding his place. May pulled himself into the chair and strapped down. "Kit, get to the passenger section and strap down. Make sure everybody else is strapped down too. This isn't gonna be a smooth flight."
"Got it." Kit pulled himself out.
"Ranthe, pull up the map and find some land within our projected impact zone," May ordered as he activated the lift-and-drive.
"Got it." Ranthe's fingers flew quickly and surely over the controls. Nothing in her voice or actions suggested that she thought she might be playing out the last few moments of her life.
May cursed, struggling with the controls. He wished he could forget that without a hearty dose of luck they were all doomed. If he couldn't control the module's tumble it would either burn up in the atmosphere or skip off into space like a stone across a pond. Either outcome would be about as fatal; it was simply a matter of how long it took death to arrive.
"Eight minutes to atmospheric interface," Ranthe reported.
May panted raggedly, his lips drawn back with tension. Each time he thought he had the spin checked it broke away again. Damn, damn, damn!
"Four minutes to atmospheric interface."
Blue Water slid in front of the view ports and stopped. Unfortunately the planet crowded into the upper left quadrant of the ports and May needed to turn the skirt down. The module would probably survive an inverted reentry but no one on board would when it hit the ground.
"Two minutes to atmospheric interface."
Aurora sobbed in terror. May appreciated hir feelings but wished shi'd be quiet; concentrating was hard enough already. Getting the module to tumble in a controlled way was much harder than controlling it in the first place.
"One minute to atmospheric interface." Blue Water swayed drunkenly in the lower right quadrant of the view ports.
"Thirty seconds." May heard tension in Ranthe's voice now. With infinitesimal slowness the module's nose came up-
"Ten," Ranthe said. "Five. Four. Three. Two. One. Contact."
Something grabbed the module and twisted it. Aurora shrieked. Instead of flipping and tumbling the module stabilized, like a playing card dropped flat. May heaved an enormous sigh of relief; now at least he wouldn't die until the module hit the ground.
A map appeared on the view port. A chain of islands straggled diagonally across it; a set of concentric circles marked the module's probable impact zone. Bullseye lay in the middle of open ocean. May prayed feverishly; now he had to pilot a craft that flew slightly better than a brick to a landing on one of several fly specks of land without any real knowledge of atmospheric conditions along the way. Turbulence might spill them or a jet stream might sweep them off course, far beyond any hope of reaching land. Suddenly all that blue water didn't look so beautiful. It became the grasping fingers of Death reaching out to claim him.
White hot fire streamed past the view ports as the skirt burned away. Cabin temperature climbed rapidly. May smelled hot plastic; he wondered if any of the engineers had considered this eventuality when they designed the passenger module. He couldn't hear Aurora crying over the roaring wind. He couldn't hear Ranthe either. Gee forces crushed him down into his seat as he fought to keep the module more or less level. They were coming in too steep but he didn't think there was anything he could do to shallow their trajectory.
The fire cleared and the punishing deceleration faded out, though the module still twisted and swayed sickeningly. At least they weren't falling any more; atmospheric friction, having scrubbed away their orbital velocity, now held them at a constant speed. Not that it mattered much; May didn't need instruments to know that impact at the module's current speed wasn't survivable. That he'd die by having every bone in his body violently shattered instead of being incinerated like a bug in a blast furnace didn't reassure him in the slightest. Through the view ports he saw brilliantly blue sky and darker but just as intensely blue ocean. At least he wouldn't have to set down in the dark. "Ranthe!" he shouted. "Spread and diffuse the repulsors!"
"Got it!" Ranthe shouted back. Her hands flew swiftly and unerringly over the controls in spite of the violent motion. The amount of energy a repulsor consumed was a function of how far from the generator the force needed to project times the area over which it acted. To keep energy draw down to where a relatively small power pack could supply it the passenger module's repulsors focused at a short range- about two meters- and would only work effectively against dense material such as dirt, stone, or pavement. Spreading the beams would make them act against less dense material, such as water or even air. Repelling the air under the module would have the same effect as repelling the ground: reaction force would push the module in the opposite direction. Given sufficient force the module would hover or even fly- until the array burned out under the vastly increased load or the power pack ran out of energy. If Ranthe calculated everything just right the module would reach zero speed precisely at zero altitude and at no point would acceleration exceed what an organic body could endure. She figured that with a super computer and a team of technicians to run bench tests she could produce an answer in about a week. What she had was herself, the module's relatively meagre computing resources, and somewhere around a hundred and seventy seconds. Failure meant not wasted time and professional embarrassment but death, for her and everyone on board. But she'd been May's weapons officer for many years and an aviation engineer before that. Having lives- even her own- depending on her skill wasn't anything new. So long as she lived she'd do the best job she could. Professional pride wouldn't let her do anything less.
May risked a quick glance across the cockpit. Ranthe sat hunched over her controls, apparently oblivious to everything around her. The tracking display showed the module headed straight for as island shaped somewhat like a crab claw that earlier had been well off to the side. He offered a fevered prayer of thanks to the Odd Gods of the Galaxy; he was burning karma at a tremendous rate but if his luck didn't hold a little longer he might as well not have bothered. The controls became more responsive but less stable as Ranthe adjusted focus on the repulsor array. The dot representing their point of impact danced around the island, beyond May's ability to stabilize. Wouldn't it be a delightful irony for them to survive landing and drown twenty meters from shore-
They hit. May felt an explosion of pain, then nothing.
"Are you still here?" Ula demanded, poking her head up over the edge of the raft.
"No," Arwen replied. "I swam off into the Sea of Lights a long time ago."
Ula frowned. "You shouldn't joke about that," she admonished. "What if the Sister hears you?"
Arwen shrugged. "The Sister'll take me when She has a mind to. I can't imagine anything I say'll make any difference one way or another."
Ula didn't like that but she knew that arguing would be pointless. "You'll burn if you stay up here."
"Not if I keep wet." Arwen replied. She splashed water on the canvas she'd laid over her body to protect herself from the sun. A screen made of woven palm fronds protected her face without blocking her view of the sky.
"I don't understand why you have to look up all the time," Ula complained. "There's nothing there."
"The Sea of Lights is there," Arwen replied.
Before Ula could respond Lilis popped up beside her. "If she wants to stay up here let her," Lilis said, putting a hand on Ula's shoulder. "It's too crowed by half down below. Come on." Gently but firmly she tugged Ula below.
Arwen sighed with relief. She didn't care to answer Ula's question because she wasn't sure she could. She couldn't even explain clearly to herself why the sky fascinated her so much. She did know that her interest increased significantly when she noticed her vision starting to deteriorate. Maybe that brought home the realization that her time to study it was limited. Eventually she'd go blind and then she'd never see the Sea of Lights again until the Sister carried her away to it. On the other hand, it wasn't like there was anything else to do at the moment. The top of the raft might not be very comfortable but at least Arwen had it to herself.
Something flickered in the sky. Arwen splashed water on her face and blinked. Nictitating membranes corrected her vision in the air but even so she couldn't exactly see well. The flicker persisted, gradually elongating into a streak of white across the blue firmament. Arwen sat up, casting off the screen. The streak crawled across the sky, headed for the horizon. Arwen considered calling the others up but rejected it. Ula would call it an ill omen; she might even persuade the others to insist they turn back. Arwen couldn't have that, not after they'd come so far.
About a hand's length above the horizon the trail petered out. Arwen stared; the trail diffused slightly but remained, more or less, in place. A sharp pain in her face brought her back; she lay face down in the water for a while, hoping that her skin had only dried and not burned. When she glanced over her shoulder the trail was still there. She crawled to the edge of the raft and tasted the water. Yes, land was nearby.
"Everyone up!" Arwen shouted, slapping the water with her hand. A row of heads popped up, blinking in the bright sunshine. "We need to change course," Arwen announced. "Start pushing that way." She pointed straight at where the smoky trail would have intersected the horizon.
"Visual," Ares commanded.
On the main screen Sutherland tumbled away, still spewing debris. A handful of escape pods jumped free along with two large cylinders.
"They've jettisoned their warp cores," Angel reported.
"Any message torpedoes?" Ares asked.
"No, Sire," Angel replied.
Ares cocked an eyebrow at Scarface. "I think we can safely say they shan't trouble us any longer."
"So t'would seem," Scarface allowed.
"All systems on line, Sire," Thornypaws reported.
"Excellent." Ares caressed the arms of his chair with his fingertips. "Now we clean up. Tractor the hulk and push it into the atmosphere. Make sure it comes down in deep water. Everything else they left in orbit, push it down as well. If any shuttles escaped then force them into the atmosphere before shooting them down."
"What about the cores, Sire?" Scarface inquired.
Ares ear flicked. He'd been just about to cover that. "Sling the cores into an orbit that will drop them into the sun," he said as if Scarface hadn't spoken. "We don't wish to leave behind any debris that might give the Feds a clue about what happened. How many escape pods reached the surface?"
"Five, Sire," Angel replied. "Two came down in the water, the other three on land."
"How many survivors do you estimate?" Ares inquired. Steel Lady was a small ship with a small crew and a small brig. Attempting to handle a large number of prisoners could be dangerous.
"Eighty to ninety, total," Angel replied.
Ares's brow furrowed and his ears flicked back. That amounted to more than Steel Lady's entire crew. "What about the ones that came down in water?"
"No more than twenty-four," Angel announced.
Ares nodded. That, at least, was a more manageable number. "Deploy the hunter-sat constellation and set it to monitor the survivors who came down on land. It wouldn't do at all for them to launch a message torpedo when they think we aren't looking. We will collect the ones who came down in water after the cleanup operation is complete."
"If the Feds send another ship to find out what happened to this one, what do we do then?" Scarface wanted to now.
"Deal with it," Ares replied shortly. That wasn't really an answer; he knew it and Scarface did too. The simple fact was that even if he called in the fleet Ares couldn't hold this system against a determined Federation assault. Though he'd destroyed it the Federation vessel's arrival meant time was running out. If Ares didn't unlock the secret of the Forerunner machine before the Feds arrived in force he might as well have stayed home. If Feds succeeded where he failed... that didn't even bear considering.
As Star side-stepped into normal space close to the surface of Barnett 916-D she left a trail of blazing light through the air. A thunderous shock wave echoed from towering sandstone cliffs lining a wide, flat plain of wind etched hardpan. She descended, studying the ground beneath her. Without a doubt it bore the mark of running water. The air around her, though thin and cold, contained free oxygen. She came to a hover, then landed. Her splayed fingers sunk only slightly into the hard soil but left definite impressions. A sense of giddy excitement washed through her, enough even to disperse her annoyance at Dr. Sanders. She'd just joined a select and august company: those who had first set foot on alien worlds. "Houston, this is Tranquility Base," she announced in a perfect imitation of Neil Armstrong including static, heterodyning, and tape hiss. "The Gooney Bird has landed." Then a surge of guilt drowned her elation. Mom and Dad would be annoyed at her for running off. She was supposed to carry down the first load of scientists. She lifted off but caught herself before side-stepping. When Sutherland arrived in orbit everyone would see that she was right about Barnett 916-C but it might take a while for a team to come here. If she had to listen to Dr. Sanders' smugly condescending voice she might not be able to resist the temptation to accidentally step on him. Best to collect some evidence before going back. She scanned the nearby landscape- and found something far more interesting than bacteria or even lichen. So exciting was it that she side-stepped to it instead of flying even though it was only a couple hundred kilometers away. She found herself hovering a few dozen meters over a network of oddly regular mounds and lines in the brown, dusty soil. She didn't land; her weight would surely disturb the find. Nor did she scrape away the earth, though she longed to study some of the artifacts in greater detail. She wasn't trained in archeology; for a find of this magnitude leaving it to the experts seemed only prudent. In any case she didn't have to dig; her mass detector saw through dirt as easily as air. She could examine a great deal of the site without actually touching anything.
Suddenly Star realized that a lot of time had passed, far more than she'd meant to spend on this little jaunt. Fear chilled her innards. Mom and Dad would be livid and rightly so. On the other hand, she knew she'd made an important discovery. That might mitigate the inevitable punishment... but only if people believed her claim. Mom and Dad would but others- like Dr. Sanders- wouldn't. Just thinking about him made her livid; she clenched a fist and punched the ground a safe distance from her find. What did he think she was, a child?
That clinched it. It had been mercilessly drilled into Star that you never disturbed a scientific investigation except under the direction of a qualified expert. But she'd been through this rigamarole too many times before. The tiny people couldn't see what she saw so they dismissed it out of hand and acted as if she were making up stories. Only Mon, Dad, and other members of her family really believed... and Star knew in her heart of hearts that even so they didn't really understand. Therefore physical evidence was required, something whose veracity was not subject to interpretation. Star scanned the site thoroughly; she needed an item large and sturdy enough that she could carry, which somehow embraced her overall impression of the site, and could be excavated without disturbing more delicate relics. Finally she located something: a piece of corroded metal with a clearly recognizable symbol embossed upon it. Star held her open hand above the place where the item lay buried; tractor beam projectors in her palm lifted away the drifted dirt at a rate only a steam shovel could have equaled but with the delicacy of a horsehair brush. Finally, for the first time in uncounted years, the metal emerged into daylight. Star felt a giddy rush even more intense than when she'd first arrived. Her first real mission and she'd made an honest to God discovery, all by herself!
Using only her tractor beams- her fingers, even those on her manipulator limbs, were too large for such delicate work- Star gently prized the metal loose from the gripping earth. Once free she closed her hand around it without actually touching it; her tractor beams held it suspended. She put the displaced earth back in the hole; it would protect the relics still in place. Finally she moved a few kilometers away before side-stepping. No sense taking chances now. In shadow space the journey to Barnett 916-C took only a short time- though not, Star reflected ruefully, in the sense tiny people thought of it. They only had one word for time, a wholly inadequate state of affairs by her reckoning. Conversations with various experts reassured her that at least they had an inkling of other types of time, but only dimly. How they managed to navigate through non-Einstienian reality with such a limited world view she just couldn't understand. Apparently they built machines to do their thinking and perceiving for them.
Upon arriving at her destination Star immediately noticed something odd. She detected the characteristic emissions of an operating warp reactor but they emanated from a location near the planet's surface, not in orbit. That perplexed her; Sutherland was not, she had been led to understand, equipped for landing. She almost emerged in orbit but decided against it. Obviously plans had changed somehow, probably due to her absence. The immediacy and inevitability of punishment suddenly loomed large in her mind; her best chance to avoid the worst of it seemed to be presenting her find before the tirade got rolling. She side-stepped out right near the observed location, artifact in had, glib explanation at the ready.
"Sire, this one has the bridge crew!" Starshine exclaimed excitedly.
"Very good," Ares replied, nodding. "You've done well."
"Thank you, Sire!" Starshine practically glowed with pride. Behind her a squad of Toshigan soldiers- all busty, full figured females, incidentally- hauled somewhat disheveled looking survivors from the escape pod, which bobbed in the ocean just below.
Scarface made a small sound. Ares glanced at him, moving only his eyes. Scarface looked as if he smelled something unpleasant. He didn't at all approve of how Ares coddled the crew. Nor did he approve of the fact that Ares had chosen an all female crew for such an important mission. Ares' tail curled in amusement; he'd chosen an all female crew for entirely practical reasons. He had known that they'd be on their own for a long time; in fact they'd been here for two years already with no end in sight. An all male crew couldn't have endured that long without serious problems; by now half of them would be dead from duels or Ares having to kill them for disciplinary reasons. On the other hand, Toshigans settled quite comfortably into an arrangement where a few males ruled a large number of females; it was the social structure pioneered by their distant feline ancestors. Of course it wasn't so simple as that, a fact which seemed to elude Scarface. Steel Lady wasn't a large vessel; every single crew member was a qualified expert in one field or another, and often as not several. Ares simply couldn't afford to lose any of them and with the Empire so distant and the Federation so near replacing them wasn't practical. They were all intelligent, capable, and dedicated individuals; they responded better to praise and appeals to their pride than to bullying and violence. Ares treated them the way he did because to do otherwise risked failure of the mission, something he would not countenance no matter what the cost. That 'coddling' his women annoyed Scarface was merely icing on the cake.
Ares' eyes narrowed ever so slightly. Over the past two years he'd been forced to discard a great many preconceptions about his crew and himself. For example, his women weren't any less intelligent than men. In fact, they tended to be more careful, patient, and meticulous. They were less overtly violent but when called upon to fight they did so mercilessly. Modern weapons rendered strength and size pretty much irrelevant... and women weren't that much smaller and weaker. When presented with a problem women banded together instead of flinging themselves at it one at a time. Ares' gaze slid to Angel, seated at the sciences and electronic warfare station. It never ceased to amaze him how alike he and she were, out of all their twenty-seven siblings. In private moments he even found himself thinking that if he'd been born a woman he would have been her, and if she'd been born a man she would have been him. She benefited from all the same education he did- more, in fact, because women were expected to take up academic study where men- at least among the aristocracy- concentrated on military training. At times Ares felt decidedly superfluous; Angel commanded as well as he did and got along better with the crew. The only reason she wasn't in command was because of her sex. Sometimes Ares wanted to ask her why she put up with it... but he already knew the answer. She did it for the same reason he did: for the sake of the mission. Because the needs of the Toshigan Empire outweighed any personal considerations.
"Red alert!" Angel screamed, shocking Ares out of his reverie. On the main view screen the image of Fed survivors being pulled from their escape pod vanished, replaced by ocean and sky... and a sleek ship that had materialized, apparently out of thin air, hardly a kilometer distant. While the order to fire was still forming on Ares' lips Rainsong, at the weapons station, slapped the controls. All four of Steel Lady's beam projectors fired; two of them hit, tearing along the other ship's flank and belly. In an explosion of light and spray the intruder vanished, leaving only a venomous, yellow-green slick spreading across the surface of the ocean.
"Where did it go?" Ares demanded, leaping to his feet.
Angel hesitated an instant before responding. "I don't know, Sire. It vanished as it came. I couldn't track it."
"You don't know?" Scarface thundered, his expression livid. "You stupid-" He rounded on Angel, arm cocked to strike her.
Angel leapt to her feet, teeth bared, growling deep in he chest. Scarface fetched up short; his expression of shock and surprise was so comical Ares struggled not to purr. Two years on board and only just now did Scarface realize that Angel could turn him into hamburger without hardly trying. He glanced at Ares but found no support there. Angel was of royal blood and Scarface, however well connected, only a noble. Striking her would be an offense that could only be cleansed away with blood. On top of that, aside from being his sister, Angel was a person Ares respected above all but a handful of individuals, male or female. If it came to a duel, Ares decided, he'd let Angel fight. It would be the ultimate humiliation to Scarface and his family would never recover from the ignominy of his being killed by a woman.
Regretfully Scarface's common sense overcame his anger. He snarled wordlessly and stormed off the bridge.
"Take us up," Ares ordered, resuming his seat. "Angel, was that a Federation ship?"
"No, Sire." Angel sounded perfectly normal. "It doesn't conform to any known design."
"How did it manage to approach and withdraw with out our detecting it?"
"It... appears to have employed some form of cloaking system," Angel replied. Instead of speaking directly to Ares she stared at her instruments, her fingers working rapidly.
The sky remained mockingly empty as Ares directed Steel Lady through a sequence of evasive maneuvers. He gripped the arms of his chair so tightly his fingers left dents in the plastic. He wanted to attack something. Anything. He restrained himself with a supreme effort of will; outbursts of unreasoning violence only served his enemies.
"Sire, I've reviewed our record of the engagement," Angel said. "I believe we damaged the invader significantly."
"Not destroyed?" Ares inquired.
"Did we recover all the survivors from the last pod?"
Ares relaxed fractionally. If the invader could simply appear and attack them at any time there wasn't anything he could do that would make the slightest difference. He chose to act as if they'd driven it off for the time being but that it would eventually return. He planned to be ready when it did. "Take us back to Site A," he ordered briskly. "Notify Lord Scarface that I shall desire his assistance in interviewing our guests."
"You think the Feds brought it, Sire?" Angel ventured.
"Seems like rather much of a coincidence that it should show up just now, not so?" Ares replied, casually stroking his chin. "If the Feds do know anything I've no doubt Lord Scarface will persuade them to tell." Every member of Steel Lady's crew was a qualified expert.
Ever so slowly May opened his eyes. He found himself gazing at a vulpine angel, her head wreathed in golden flame. May sighed; he'd so hoped they'd make it down. But if this was the afterlife maybe it wasn't so bad after all. The angel was so beautiful and she reminded him of-
"May?" the voice repeated, more stridently. A hand touched his face.
May yelped. He felt pieces of broken cartilage grating together, flooding his whole face with searing, white hot agony. The hand jerked away but the pain receded only slightly. He moaned; blood frothed in his mouth and nose. I guess I'm not dead, he thought with momentary regret. Surely being dead wouldn't hurt this much. Nor would he have minded spending eternity with that angel.
"Excuse me." Another face- a flat, hairless, Terran one- shouldered the angel aside. "Oh, Christ," the face muttered. A hypospray hissed against May's neck; soothing coolness washed through him, quenching his discomfort. A hand grabbed his face and another his muzzle; a sharp tug set May's nose back in its proper position. Even through the painkillers he almost blacked out. The hands splinted and bandaged his nose and gave him another injection. The Terran face disappeared; hot glare stung May's eyes. He tried to look away; just swinging his head made his face ache terribly.
"May?" Something blocked the glare. May risked a glance. Ranthe leaned over him; her right arm hung in a sling and her face looked as if someone had worked her over with a rubber hose. Surely that explained her red, puffy eyes and the wet stains on her cheeks.
"Uhh..." Speaking vibrated May's nose and that hurt in spite of the drugs. Ranthe slipped her left arm beneath his shoulders and head, helping him to sit up. Gravity tugging on his nose made it hurt. Breathing made it hurt. Since he wasn't dead May found himself disinclined to stop and endured it as best he could.
"You smashed your face on the instrument panel when we hit," Ranthe said. "Snowflake carried you out. I broke my arm. Aurora broke both forelegs. Everybody in the passenger compartment got bashed up pretty badly... but no one died. No one died." She slipped her arm around May's shoulders and hugged him tightly. May noticed suddenly that livid bruises crossed his chest, conforming exactly to the pattern of the straps that had held him in his chair. He mumbled something unintelligible and slipped an arm around Ranthe. Not being dead felt damn good, in spite of the pain.
Now that he had a chance to take stock of his surroundings May found himself sitting on a towel spread on a shelf of broken lava. Dirt filled most of the cracks and hardy grasses grew in it. A dozen meters in front of him the shelf ended abruptly; beyond the escarpment and a few meters down waves lapped at a black sand beach. Long spits of land reached out around an incredibly clear lagoon, a shorter one on the left and a longer one on the right. In the distance ocean breakers foamed against a reef protecting the lagoon entrance. To his immediate right May saw lush fern jungle pressed up against the flow's boundary; vines and hanging limbs explored out onto the inhospitable rock. To his left May saw the passenger module. Of the skirt nothing remained and the metal underneath had melted. Carbon scoring coated the exterior and nearly every window had cracked or shattered. Enormous, jagged rips separated the hull into four distinct pieces. "Oh, God," May groaned. It didn't look like anyone could have walked away from it.
"May, you saved us," Ranthe said quietly. "I... I don't think anyone else could have ridden that thing down. If you hadn't... we'd be a streak of fire across the sky. Or a big smoking crater."
A great big splash in the ocean, more likely, May thought but didn't say. He shuddered, thinking of what might have happened. He pulled Ranthe closer, ignoring the pain in his chest. "I brought us in but you set us down," he said. "You saved us too."
Kit hove into view. He shuffled along somewhat unsteadily; bandages covered the left side of his head. A tear across the chest of his jump suit revealed more bandages. "Hey old man," he said, sitting carefully. He moved more like an old man himself.
"Hey, Kit." May's nose felt plugged up and he sounded funny because of it. "How are we?"
"Good and bad," Kit replied. Instead of staying on May Kit's eyes wandered across the lava flow, apparently without noticing much of anything. "Dr. Eikenburg says no one got hurt so badly he can't take care of 'em but we burned up an awful lot of medical supplies. The climate here's nice but we don't have enough food and shelter for everyone." Kit gingerly rubbed his forehead. "We can't raise the Sutherland, the survey probes, or any of the shuttles."
"I assume you've verified?" May asked. His head felt too heavy for his neck and his mental gears seemed to be full of paste.
"Yeah," Kit replied. "We tried the commo suite in the module and we set up a portable unit. Nothing in the sky is answering."
"What about Star?"
Kit shrugged. "No sign of her."
May tried to imagine a disaster that could have destroyed Sutherland and neutralized the satellites without killing them all. He couldn't. Or rather, he couldn't think of a natural one. The survey data couldn't be that far off unless it was faked, Dr. Sanders had said. "Someone beat us here," May said. "They want to keep Blue Water for themselves."
Kit leapt to his feet. He glared at May with such an intensely hateful expression that May couldn't even think of a response.
"Kit, it's not May's fault," Ranthe said sharply.
Kit turned away, scrubbing his face with a quaking hand. Tears leaked between his fingers. "I know," he gulped in a shuddering voice.
A sensation of icy dread froze May's guts. He suddenly realized a possible explanation for why his assertion had upset Kit so much. "Look, Kit, I'm sure Star's okay," he said, struggling to his feet. The world tipped and wheeled crazily; he would have fallen had not Ranthe propped him up. "She's smart, resourceful, and tough. She probably just doesn't know where to find us."
"I want to believe that," Kit replied in a voice so low May could barely hear it. "I so want to believe that." He looked at May; his eyes were red and puffy, his cheeks stained with tears. "But she's so trusting, May. She'd waltz right up to whoever it was. It wouldn't ever even occur to her that they might hurt her."
May couldn't think of a reply. Unfortunately Kit was absolutely right. If the others could destroy Sutherland-
"You're right," Ranthe cut in. "Star is trusting... but I think you underestimate how tough. You remember those tests we ran after the Stariionae attack? Starfleet concluded that four adult Stariionae had the same combat rating as a Balmoral frigate. Even though the four Stariionae, even taken all together, are only a fraction of the size. Because their beams and warheads are about twice as good as ours and their shields and armor two to three times as good."
"What are you saying?" Kit demanded suspiciously. May understood Ranthe's point- but he also understood Kit's reluctance to accept it. There was a certain comfort in hopelessness; opening oneself to hope meant exposing oneself to the possibility of it being dashed.
"Star is pretty much full grown and she's in excellent health," Ranthe said. "I think... anyone trying to kill her would have a devil of a time of it. Even if she just laid there, which I very much doubt. She might let someone sock her once because she wasn't expecting it but not twice."
For a long time Kit stared. May could see the struggle in his face between wanting to believe and fearing to renew hope. "Then- then she's lost somewhere. Alone and injured-"
"Kit, the best we can do for her is be here for her to find," May cut in. "We need to start thinking about the future. You sad we don't have enough food and shelter. Where do we get more?"
With a visible effort Kit turned and looked at the passenger module. Survivors lay haphazardly around it, on drop cloths or cushions salvaged from the wreck. Others shambled aimlessly about. The only point of organization centered around Dr. Eikenburg, who'd set up his equipment on crates. "The only food we have are emergency rations and the only shelter a handful of survival tents," he said. "That's not enough for everyone. All the buildings and supplies were supposed to come down in the cargo shuttles. We'll have to find food in the forest and build shelters..." His eyes unfocused for a moment as he thought. Suddenly he turned to May. "May..." His voice quavered. "I'm really not qualified to do this-"
"Don't give me that," May cut in. "You and Snowflake have been in charge all along. Darkstar endorsed you to be the general director of the Star Home project. Star Home is what it is because you made it that. You got us here in the first place. I mean, this mission was your vision and happened because of your commitment," he amended hastily. "Having made it this far I know you'll take care of us now. You can and you will."
Bit by bit Kit's expression firmed. "Okay," he said quietly. "May, lay down before your fall down. Ranthe... stay with him for a while. Right now I think he needs you more than anyone else does." He gave May's shoulder a firm squeeze before moving away.
"That was an incredibly noble thing you did," Ranthe commented quietly after helping May to lie down.
"He needed... something to keep his mind off Star," May muttered. He felt physically and emotionally exhausted and his face hurt. He felt himself slipping away, not to sleep exactly but into sort of a deep doze. "When I first woke up I thought you were an angel."
Ranthe brushed loose strands of his mane back from May's face. "You wouldn't say that if you weren't doped to the gills with painkillers," she said.
"I know," May replied. "But you make such a lovely angel. I really looked forward to spending eternity with you." He wasn't sure if he spoke that last sentence aloud or not. He did feel Ranthe's tears fall on his eyelids but his diluted consciousness failed to grasp the significance of it.
"Wake up, ape man," a gruff voice commanded. Commander Blackthorn lifted his head slowly. His skull ached; evacuation of the Sutherland's bridge and the descent of the escape pod had gone flawlessly. When the cat people arrived and pulled him from the pod he'd resisted. For his troubles he'd earned a butt stroke to the back of the head.
"My true name doesn't translate into your language, so for convenience I call myself Ares, thirteenth son of Emperor Greeneyes," the voice continued. It spoke Standard with a heavy, burring accent. "You may call me Master and God."
Commander Blackthorn blinked several times and his vision cleared. He lay face down on a metal deck with his arms strapped to a beam laid across his shoulders. The person addressing him appeared to be an enormous, humanoid snow tiger. His rounded ears nearly brushed the ceiling; Commander Blackthorn guessed his height at somewhere around two hundred and thirty centimeters. His square muzzle sported an incongruously pink nose; his eyes were pale, icy blue. Snow white fur decorated with dark but not quite black stripes covered his entire body. A long tail hung from the back of his pelvis and his feet resembled cat's paws but otherwise his body looked more or less humanoid- and incredibly muscular. Not a gram of fat marred the sculpted perfection of his form; his stomach looked hard enough to turn bullets and his biceps as big around as the commander's thighs. He probably weighed two hundred kilos in his stocking feet- and at the moment he wore nothing but a long yellow cloak made of something like silk and embroidered with an intricate design that looked very much like a Chinese dragon. A heavy clasp made of a translucent, yellow-brown stone secured the cape around his shoulders. Nothing whatsoever covered his hips or crotch; his male organ was built on a scale with the rest of him and, like a Terran's, not sheathed. He carried two weapons: a folding stock machine pistol with a 1cm muzzle and a vented barrel cover in a leather holster strapped to his right thigh and an enormous knife- more of a small sword- on the left. Both weapons had been blacked, then etched, so the designs showed in stark, bright contrast to the dark background.
"I hear you ape men are quick learners," Ares commented. "I propose a test. What do you call me, ape man?"
"Dumbshit," Commander Blackthorn ventured. Someone planted their foot in the small of Commander Blackthorn's back and hoisted sharply on the beam securing his arms. He screamed as his shoulder ligaments strained almost to the breaking point.
"It seems you require teaching aids, ape man," Ares said. He gestured with his left hand.
Two soldiers entered, a pair of voluptuous but quite muscular females with pale orange and black jaguar spot patterns. They wore gray ceramic body armor on their torsos; greaves reinforced with Kevlar or some such material protected their arms, legs, and hips. Though large by Terran standards they didn't even quite reach Ares' shoulder. Between them they carried Lieutenant Hali Bozeman, Sutherland's communications officer, a delicate young woman of Asian extraction. She'd been stripped naked; her arms were pinioned like the commander's and a metal rod tied between her ankles the forced her legs apart. A gag made of cargo tape kept her silent but terror flickered in her eyes.
"You leave her alone you-" Commander Blackthorn shouted. He got only that far before the person holding him jerked on his arms. This time the torturer threw in a deft twist that dislocated the commander's right arm with a sickening crack.
"Ape men do not speak unless they are so directed," Ares declared as Commander Blackthorn slumped to the deck, gasping and moaning. "Yet again you demonstrate your need for educational aids. I can't imagine how your people ever let someone as undisciplined as yourself command a star ship." Ares drew his sword, thumbing a control on the hilt. A shimmering force field appeared along the cutting edge. "Something you need to learn, ape man, in addition to a proper level of obedience, is that I need not inflict pain on you." He caught Lt. Bozeman's foot in his right hand. She struggled, to no avail; either of the two guards alone could have overcome her easily. She screamed- or tried to- when Aries lay the flat of his sword against her thigh and slid it downward. She twitched; the blade took a collop of flesh from the side of her knee. "Watch this closely, ape man," Ares ordered, setting the edge of the blade against the lieutenant's instep. Even that mild contact cut her flesh; a trickle of blood ran down the side of her foot. "You made this necessary by not learning quickly enough. This demonstration is for your benefit." He drew the blade in a quick motion as if slicing a roast. The lieutenant screamed; half her foot came away in Ares' hand, cut as cleanly as if by a microtome. The wound didn't even bleed much because the major blood vessels withdrew and squeezed shut. Not so much as a drop clung to the sword; it all ran off and fell to the deck. "Personally I find this sort of thing distasteful," Ares continued, kneeing before the commander and holding the severed foot so the blood draining from it dripped on his face. "Which is why my assistant, Lord Scarface, will perform the actual demonstration. Now listen closely, ape man, this is important. If you look away, if you close your eyes, if you speak out of turn, even if you pass out, the demonstration will be repeated in its entirety. If you wish to test my resolve, go right ahead. After all, it's only she who suffers. Or however many after her it takes for me to convince you that I'm serious." He dropped the foot on the deck in front of the commander and returned to the corner.
Someone stepped over the commander from behind. It turned out to be a male cat person, only the second the commander had seen so far. This individual shared Ares' powerful build but he wasn't nearly so large, only a bit taller than the two jaguar guards. He resembled a lion, complete with a long, brown mane framing his head. He looked somewhat older than Ares; an ugly scar started just above his right eye, curved around the outside of it, and ran down onto his cheek. Another scar started on his left cheek and ran down onto his throat. Instead of a cloak he wore an ornate metal breastplate decorated with red and black enamel. He took Lt. Bozeman from the guards and threw her face down on the deck. When she struggled to rise he kicked her until she lay still. He massaged his penis until it stiffened to erection, lubricated it with blood oozing from her severed foot, and rammed it violently into her anus. She screamed. So did Commander Blackthorn, but he did not look away.
May stirred his soup. Varicolored chunks floated in it that, with a little imagination, could be meat and vegetables. They all seemed to have about the same texture, like that of somewhat overcooked dumplings. Even so May's nose ached every time he bit down on one. He sipped some broth; it tasted the same as the chunks. Unfortunately that only left more solid matter to chew and didn't satisfy his stomach, which didn't give a damn about what problems his nose might be having. He crushed the chunks with his spoon in an effort to make them go down easier.
Ranthe walked up and sat across from May. "Reconstituted vegetable soup," she said with a conspicuous lack of enthusiasm. "Yum yum."
May started to shake his head but arrested the motion. Then he negated his caution by looking up suddenly. "What happened to your cast?" he asked.
"My arm's all better now," Ranthe replied, demonstrating by flexing and extending it.
"You healed a broken arm in an afternoon?" May asked.
Ranthe nodded. "With some help from Dr. Eikenburg's bone welding nanites." She rubbed her arm gingerly. "It still hurts like a son of a bitch, though."
"Then how come he can't fix my nose?" May demanded.
"The nanites don't actually regenerate damaged tissue," Ranthe explained. "They just... glue the bone together so normal regeneratives can do their job easier. If you try gluing cartilage together it doesn't heal right." She shrugged. "At least that's what I heard him tell Renata. She broke her nose too."
"How's the salvage coming?" May asked.
Ranthe stared at her soup, stirring it slowly. "Both message torpedos broke in the crash. The drive and electronics modules are fine but they aren't connected to one another." She didn't continue but May knew what she was thinking: the passenger module carried equipment for studying Blue Water but nothing that could fix the torpedoes. "It looks like we're lost again," she added.
May stared at his own bowl without seeing it. In his mind's eye he saw a Kilrath'i carrier, so huge it bulked in Fiora's Fury's forward view ports even at range. Interceptor fire, eerily silent and hauntingly beautiful against the blackness of space, lit the sky around him with dazzling color. Last in line, it seemed to take forever for the tactical computer to direct him onto the attack vector. For the ship immediately ahead of him it was forever; an interceptor neatly center punched it. Kass and Josa wouldn't even know what happened before they joined the expanding fireball Sweet William had become. The sight didn't affect May particularly. He was already so tense his body felt ready to fly apart and so scared he would have pissed his pants had not all his body orifices been closed up tight. He mashed the commit trigger so hard his thumb hurt. The rotary launcher in the Fury' weapons bay rippled off all eight of the heavy anti-ship missiles it carried. When the counter indicated all warheads away May slammed the stick hard over. He'd earned his pay for Beta Squadron; now he flew for Ranthe and himself. From the weapons officer's station beside him Ranthe shouted something; May heard the sound but not the message. Later it would occur to him that she might have been trying to tell him that the carrier's warp core had become dangerously unstable. May activated the Fury's warp drive as soon as the nose pointed toward open space; he'd calculated the jump before takeoff and had it queued up in the computer, ready to go. Behind him the carrier's warp core went super-critical, incinerating itself and the rest of the Kilrath'i squadron with the white-hot fury of an exploding star. The shock wave hit just as Fiora's Fury jumped into hyper-space. The drive overloaded but didn't shut down; if it had May and Ranthe would have ended up as dead as Kass and Josa. It randomized; instead of carrying the Fury to a pre-determined location it delivered the ship into normal space somewhere else, a point that could theoretically be anywhere in the universe, anytime in the past or future. Fortunately they arrived in a star system containing a habitable, and in fact very pleasant world- which turned out to be Chakona.
"Captain Walker isn't going to save us this time," Ranthe added. She dipped her finger in her soup and tasted it.
May forced himself to finish his meal though he suddenly wasn't hungry. Captain Walker eventually took May and Ranthe home; fortunately they hadn't displaced to the other end of the universe, just a few thousand light years. Now Keith Walker was dead along with his crew, executed by Star's father- her biological one- when he and his warriors attacked and destroyed the F.S.S. Isaac Asimov.
"How long do you think it'll be before Starfleet sends someone to look for us?" Ranthe asked.
The trip out from Chakona had taken a month and a half. Figure in how long it would take Starfleet to decide there was a problem and put together a rescue mission... "Four and a half months," May predicted. They'd be out of pre-packaged food and eating whatever the local environment could provide. May licked his bowl; suddenly the reconstituted soup didn't seem so bad. In a few weeks he'd probably be glad to have even that.
"I checked the passenger module's sensor log," Ranthe commented quietly. "It was receiving telemetry from the satellites right until the end. A small ship appeared from nowhere directly aft of Sutherland and opened fire right into her engine module. Then it shot down the shuttles and satellites."
"Oh," was all May could say. Having his suspicions and having them graphically confirmed were two very different things. He glanced up at the sky; Barnett 916 blazed low in the sky and would set soon. The claw-shaped island lay near the equator so there wasn't much difference in lighting between midday and late afternoon. Sunset would be fast and furious and Blue Water lacked any moons to break the night darkness. What had seemed so idyllic and beautiful only a moment ago suddenly looked dangerous and menacing. That innocuously blue sky hid an invisible enemy that struck without warning and with lethal effect. "Any life pods?" he asked.
"Four. The record doesn't say if any of them reached the surface."
May swallowed. His dinner felt like lead in his belly. Four pods out of a total of twenty. No more than forty eight of Sutherland's total compliment of one hundred and seventy five crewmen and sixty five civilian scientists made it out. Not counting the thirty six on the ground here, which improved the count at least a little. It didn't change the fact that at least one hundred and fifty six people had gone down with the ship.
"What I don't understand is if they were already here why didn't we see anything?" Ranthe demanded. "Why did they leave us alone?"
"We did see them," May replied. "They falsified the probe data. They didn't expect us to send a research team to check out a worthless rock. As for why they left us alone..." he shrugged. "Damfino. What could we do other than accidentally land on their heads?"
Ranthe looked away toward the horizon. "What if they come for us?"
"We do what we can," May replied. He thought of the four rifles and six pistols in the passenger module's weapons locker. Not much to speak of and overkill at that; of all the people here only he, Nova, Aurora, and Takura had the training to use them. Ranthe could do things with a targeting computer the engineers who invented it probably wouldn't believe but the only way she'd hit the side of a barn with a hand weapon was from the inside. If it came to that May would still put a weapon in her hands. She, like him, had actual combat experience, which no one else on the team did. The hardest thing about being a soldier was pulling the trigger when you knew there was a living, breathing, thinking, feeling person on the other end of the gun. Ranthe wouldn't hesitate to pull the trigger even if her chances of hitting anything were small. May shivered; if the enemy had air support- or came in any sort of numbers- or wasn't completely incompetent- things would get ugly fast. He'd done his share of killing over the years but space combat was clean. Impersonal. Colored dots moving in a holo-tank, just like a computer game. Even when your own ticket got punched most of the time you never knew it. Just like Kass and Josa. May frowned slightly, trying to recall what they looked like. He couldn't.
Nova walked up. She'd cut her jump suit down to a pair of trousers and belted it with a length of cord. A rifle hung over her shoulder; other than that she wore only a brassiere. "Why so glum?" she asked.
"I looked at the sensor logs," Ranthe replied.
Nova squatted at the third point of a triangle with May on a fallen Cycad trunk and Ranthe on her empty packing case forming the other points. "Yeah," she commented. "I did too."
Ranthe looked over her shoulder. All the emergency shelters had been set up. Dr. Penassi had a group of people weaving mats out of palm fronds from which to construct additional shelters. Another group had collected various nuts, tubers, and other plants and were analyzing them with hand scanners. They seemed quite unconcerned with the fact that they were now marooned on a primitive world umpteen light years from civilization with with an unknown but demonstratively murderous enemy lurking somewhere nearby.
"Why should they be upset?" Nova said, voicing the thought hanging in the air. "They're doing exactly what they came to do."
Snowflake and Kit approached. He'd crudely stitched his jump suit back together; shi wore hirs almost completely unzipped. Like Nova Snowflake wore a brassiere; the size of hir bust demanded it. "Everyone finish their soup?" shi inquired.
"Yeah," May replied, making a face. "I am absolutely finished with this soup, believe me." Nevertheless he'd emptied his bowl. Now wasn't the time to waste valuable supplies, regardless of his personal thoughts about them.
"I swear, the first thing I'm gonna do is find a supply of meat," Snowflake declared. "Even shellfish would be better than this."
"Did you look at the sensor log?" Ranthe inquired.
"Yeah," Kit replied. "Snowflake saw Nova in there and had a look. After that shi called me in."
"Has anyone else looked?" May asked.
"None of the scientists, so far as I know," Snowflake replied, settling onto hir belly.
Lt. Takura came strolling over. She carried a rifle and a pistol; instead of cutting down her uniform she'd shed it completely. A pair of black lace panties circled her hefty thighs and almost disappeared under her overhanging belly. A matching bra restrained her breasts, which looked like they'd hang almost to her waist if left to their own devices. She looked sexy, May supposed, if one liked pudgy, bulked up women with guns. And, of course, if one could ignore the expression on her face, which he most definitely could not. "Everyone enjoying their lunch?" she inquired.
"Not hardly," May replied.
"We were talking," Ranthe said.
"About what?" Takura inquired, taking a seat beside May on the log.
"The sensor logs," Nova replied.
"Ah." Takura nodded. "The sensor logs." She lay her rifle across her lap, stroking the receiver almost affectionately. "You've all seen it, then?"
"Yep." Snowflake nodded.
May looked at the people preparing food and shelter. He didn't for a moment dispute that what they did was important. But nevertheless it missed a critical aspect of the situation. "We can't stay here," he said quietly. "Whoever attacked Sutherland, they have to know we're here. They could pick us up any time they want. If we stay here, at least were sitting ducks. At worst we're helping them, by keeping ourselves neatly imprisoned."
"Considering the condition of the passenger module, getting off this island isn't a trivial matter," Snowflake pointed out. "How can we?"
"Build a raft," Nova said.
"Just a sec," Snowflake said, holding up a hand. "Assuming we find people who can build, sail, and navigate it- which I don't necessarily say we can't, considering the array of talent and equipment at our disposal- but even if everything goes perfectly it's not something we can do in an afternoon. Will our unknown assailants give us time to do it?"
"The alternative is to sit and wait for them to pick us up," Takura said. "I, for one, don't much care for that idea."
"How are the scientists going to react when we tell them we're leaving?" Nova wanted to know.
"They'll argue against it," Takura said. "If that doesn't work they'll simply refuse to leave."
"What happens to anyone we leave behind if the aliens come here and find us gone?" Snowflake asked.
"We have to take Aurora with us," Kit said.
"Moving hir with two broken forelegs isn't going to be easy," Takura pointed out.
"Why can we just zap hir with some of the nanites Ranthe got?" May wanted to know.
"Shi's going through a growth spurt," Snowflake replied. "Dr. Eikenburg is afraid that the nanites might create defects in hir long bones."
"I hate to say this," May commented, fingering his bowl, "But it seems to me that if any of us lives long enough for that to be a problem we're doing pretty damn good."
"There's something else, too," Takura injected into the heavy silence May's pronouncement. "What we're talking about here is no longer a civilian research project. It's a military operation."
"What are you getting at?" Ranthe demanded, her eyes narrowing slightly.
"I mean that given half a chance our scientists will debate until the sun goes cold," Takura replied. "For this to have any chance at all we need a clear and unequivocal chain of command. Furthermore, whomever's at the head of it must have absolute and final authority."
"Do you have someone in mind for this position?" Ranthe wanted to know.
"As a matter of fact, yes," Takura contained. "I was thinking about Mayuandi here."
May emitted a strangled sound. He felt as he'd been punched in the gut. "Why- why me?" he managed.
"I should think that's pretty obvious," Nova mused. "You're the only one of us who has both military training and combat experience."
"In space," May hastened to point out.
"Be that as it may, we're not exactly in a position to pick and choose," Takura commented.
"You have command experience too," Ranthe pointed out.
May blinked. "I do?"
"You've been my commander for years," Ranthe replied.
"But-" May swallowed nervously. "What about Takura?"
Takura chuckled, shaking her head. "Wouldn't work, Mayuandi. One requirement of being a commander is that the people commanded have to believe in you. I can tell just by looking that this lot would follow you to the gates of Hell and back. What am I to them? Someone they encountered from time to time who never seemed like she particularly liked them. Maybe I could earn their trust and respect over time but that we don't have. If we want to get off this island in a timely fashion we have to start now. Plus, it's going to be hard enough dealing with the scientists without us being at each other's throats as well."
May opened his mouth but closed it before speaking. His promise to Michael and Juliana Carson came back to him suddenly. He glanced at Kit, then Snowflake.... then Ranthe. At various times they'd all given him chances. He owed it to them to do his best, no matter what he himself thought. "All right," he said.
Snowflake let out a whoop. For an instant it seemed as if shi might throw hir arms around May and kiss him but Ranthe halted hir with an imperious gesture. Snowflake moved back and Ranthe stepped up in hir stead. "I understand that this is the point where the winsome maiden is supposed to give the hero a kiss," she commented, her tail swishing and a bemused expression on her face. "I realize I'm not so winsome as I once was but hey, we have to make do with what we've got, right?" She put her arms around May and kissed him passionately.
Ranthe's presence, and the import of her actions, banished any possibility of rational thought in May's mind. He could only sit helplessly while she pressed her body against his. Actually he'd have to say things were going well until the point she bumped his nose and he accidentally bit her tongue.
Steel Lady rested on a rectangular pad of rammed earth stabilized with plasticiser. The meter high wild grass that grew with such profusion on the central highlands marched right up to the edge of the pad on all four sides. Ares did not permit any construction within two hundred meters of it; the open space guaranteed clear fields of fire for the ship's antipersonnel weaponry. Angel had marked the proscribed region with stakes; any structure that encroached was burned down with the occupants barricaded inside.
Ares stood at the edge of the pad, listening to the grass blades hiss and murmur in the wind which blew constantly across the high prairie, facing the great mountain which the locals called Stone King. Enormous crags soared upward from the ancient volcano's jagged rim; with a little imagination they could be the points of a crown. Stone King anchored the plateau's northwestern corner; beyond him the land dropped precipitously to a jagged, inhospitable coastline. No other peaks challenged Stone King's rule; the highland prairie started at his foot and ran for a hundred kilometers to the east and south. There it came up against a line of smaller but no less impressive mountains lining the island's eastern coast and pinching off the plateau's southern edge. Though fearsome in appearance and the very devil to cross those crags combed moisture from the prevailing winds. Ancient- and more recent- eruptions had enriched the soil with loess and volcanic ash; generous runoff from the mountains made it ideal crop and grazing land. If not that getting in was so difficult, and the presence of some large, vicious predators, the region would have made a perfect spot for a colony.
"It's a beautiful place, isn't it," Angel mused, coming up beside her brother. Like him she'd left her cloak and wore nothing else- except her sword and pistol, of course. Toshigans of every social class fought duels and among the aristocracy assassination was a common method of social and political advancement. Royals, like Ares and Angel, wore weapons even with in bed with their lovers. Especially when in bed.
"Yes, beautiful," Ares agreed. As he spoke he looked at Angel, not the scenery. She and he looked enough alike to be twins, not merely siblings. The color and texture of her fur, her eyes, and the pattern of her stripes matched his exactly. Physically she was a female version of him... or he a male version of her. Some men found her size and physical power off-puting; to Ares it only made her even more captivating. Sometimes he wished they weren't brother and sister so he could marry her. Other times he was glad they were siblings; it eliminated sexual tension from their relationship. As a mated pair they could no longer be equals.
Angel took Ares' hand, raised to her face, and licked it. "I wish we could settle here," she said, drawing him into the tall grass.
"No you don't," Ares replied, though he allowed himself to be led. "You'd never be happy as the queen of a single, backward planet. Not when you could rule a galaxy of worlds."
"What makes you so sure that's what I want?" Angel challenged. She slipped her arms around his torso, pressed herself against him, and rubbed her cheek against his. Then she let go and sank to the ground, reclining languorously.
"Your soft spoken act doesn't fool me, dear sister," Ares said, laying down beside her. "Ambition burns in your heart just as it does in mine." He lay a hand on her chest, then cupped one of her breasts and squeezed.
Angel rumbled deep in her throat. She sat up suddenly, planting her hands on Ares' shoulders and pushing him down on his back. She draped herself across his legs, running her fingers through the soft fur on his chest and belly. Her other hand closed around his penis, massaging it erect. "What good does it do me?" she demanded. "I'm only a woman." She knelt over his pelvis, holding his shaft as she lowered herself onto it.
Ares drew a sharp breath as his peerless part entered Angel's body. He went in easily and completely; her sexual dimensions were as prodigious as his own. "You're not only anything, Angel," he said. "No man will ever break you to his hand."
"You're really so sure of that?" Angel asked, rocking slowly back and forth. The motion generated pleasant stimulation without pushing either of them toward orgasm; they could keep it up for hours if they chose.
"I couldn't." Ares slid his hands up Angel's thighs and squeezed her buttocks. Angel never asked him if she could have the superior position. She simply took it, as if it were hers by right. He'd never tolerate such presumption from any other woman. From Angel it aroused him like nothing else.
"How did the interrogation go?" Angel inquired.
Ares let some time pass. He really didn't care for torture, though he appreciated its application and wouldn't hesitate to use it where required. He'd come outside to clear his palette, as it were. "Easier than I expected," he eventually replied. "These Feds are weak and soft. Civilians and scientists, not warriors."
"This troubles you?" Angel commented. Ares could hide his true feelings from others but not from her.
"It's all too easy," Ares replied. "They built a great empire, though they don't call it one. If they found that strength once they'll find it again. I think their appearance of weakness is deceptive."
"Did they bring the strange ship?"
"Yes," Ares confirmed. "They call it Star. They didn't expect to find anything here, which is why they came. It's nothing but a training mission for Star. They know nothing of us. That we'd be here or that the Toshigan Empire even exists."
"What is this Star?" Angel asked. "Is it a weapon?"
"I think it could be," Ares said after a long pause. "The Feds have deliberately not made it one, I suspect out of fear for their own safety. They didn't make it themselves, they found it. They've been studying it for years but still don't really understand it."
"They don't have to understand it to use it against us," Angel pointed out. "Look at the Forerunner machine. I don't think we'll ever understand it. But we can use it."
If we ever figure out how, Ares thought. "They have two more of these ships but they can't be built. They have to be bred, like creatures. Raising one takes six years under ideal conditions. Over the projected timetable of the invasion they won't be able to field any significant numbers."
"The Forerunner machine could manufacture an entire fleet of them," Angel pointed out.
"Yes," Ares agreed. "For us or the Federation."
"How do we stop it from appearing suddenly and attacking us?" Angel wanted to know.
"We don't," Ares replied grimly. "Its ability to appear and disappear is a function of its star drive, which even the Feds don't understand. They told me how to build sensors that can track it but we simply don't have the equipment required. Also, there's a good chance it can see through our cloaking field."
"That doesn't leave us much," Angel pointed out.
"In one sense," Ares agreed. "On the other hand, it's not trained in the military arts. All we have to do is create a situation where it does not wish to attack us."
Angel suddenly stopped moving. Her fingers tensed on Ares' chest as if she longed to claw him. Had Ares been a hominid he would have laughed; that not being a feline behavior he purred instead. Not as a domestic cat does but as the tiger he resembled: a sort of whuffling sound he made only when exhaling. He and Angel thought so very much alike; he waited to see if she would arrive at the same conclusion he had. "If it were a real child," she eventually said, "You could take its family hostage."
"Quite," Ares agreed, rolling his hips. Even with Angel's weight pinning him he could move enough to provide some stimulation. "They happen to be on board the largest pod. I'm told Star can recognize them at quite a distance... and they apparently share a telepathic connection."
Angel rose suddenly to her knees. She turned about, presenting her buttocks to Ares, placing her knees to either side of his head. She lay down atop him, coiling her tongue around his penis and drawing it into her mouth. You think that I might be able to do some good with them? Her words appeared to form directly in his mind without passing through his ears, like a memory of her speech.
Yes, Ares thought in reply. He cupped her breasts, squeezing and fondling them. Her vulva glistened wetly, her labia still pouted from stretching around his penis. He licked them, then thrust his tongue as deep inside her as he could reach, reveling in her hot, sweet flavor. In one other area, besides gender, did he and she differ significantly: Angel had developed a powerful telepathic ability, while Ares could only send his thoughts to her and even then she had to be nearby. Ares had been told that most likely his psionic abilities lay in other areas. If so he'd never discovered them.
I suppose we should go get them. Angel sounded disappointed.
No need to rush. Ares dragged his tongue across her clitoris, then massaged it with his lips. He felt her shiver in reaction. The Feds on the ground aren't going anywhere. If this Star tries to rescue them the hunter-sats will notice and attack.
Angel didn't reply, at least not in any intelligible fashion. Ares found that he, too, had lost interest in the conversation. He applied himself diligently, letting the warm glow of pleasure push away his other thoughts. As he'd said, the Feds would keep... and he'd learned long ago that one had to take pleasure where one found it.
"This is gonna be rough," Meriel commented.
"That it is," Arwen agreed. She couldn't see them but she clearly heard the sound of breakers thundering against a not-too-distant reef. The sun had gone down only a short time ago but darkness fell quickly. Dawn and dusk were the worst times to attempt a landing because the tide would be at lowest ebb. If they tried standing off until midnight they'd probably end up being swept past the island. Under other circumstances Arwen might not have worried much about it; they still had a reasonable amount of food and the prevailing current swept them more or less parallel to the chain. This was where the thing from the Sea of Lights had fallen, though. She looked up; the lights weren't sharp points like they'd been in her youth. They'd become dull, fuzzy blobs. Two or maybe three more seasons and she wouldn't be able to see them at all. "It ain't gonna get any easier, so let's move," she continued. "That way." She pointed.
Everyone put their shoulders to the raft and kicked. It was exhausting, back-breaking work; the raft didn't like moving except where the current pushed it. Slowly, though, it did move.
"Stop," Arwen commanded. She slid to the raft's front edge, leaning out with her eyes closed, listening carefully to the echoing thunder of breaking water. To her ears those echoes painted a picture of the reef clearer than she could have seen with her eyes even in broad daylight. "Right." She pointed; everyone pushed once more. Slack tide made her job easier but low water sharply restricted her options. One wrong move and the raft would smash on the rocks. That wouldn't be a serious problem in itself; if things got bad she'd just tell everyone to swim for it. But then they'd be stuck here until they built and provisioned a new raft.
Surf caught the raft, driving it toward the shore. "We're committed now," Arwen said, clinging tightly. She let the waves do the work, with corrections to keep the raft on course. When the waves broke things would get dicey; the raft might flip over or be cast up on the reef. The channel entrance lay right where Arwen thought it did but it kinked; where it went from there wasn't so clear. "Watch-" she began.
Ula shrieked. Arwen looked; her eyes saw nothing but blackness and her ears heard nothing but surf. A fine network of sensors in the top half of her face detected the minute electrical discharges of neurons firing as a creature easily three times the length of a person came up from the rocks below. A continuous fin ran along its back and belly, joining at the tail. Other than a head it lacked appendages of any sort. Its mouth lacked teeth but sharp, bony ridges along its jaw would shear like scissors. The creature shot up in the blink of an eye; there wasn't time to act or even wonder who it might kill. As Ula felt it streaking toward her she did the only thing she could: she snapped it.
Every muscle in Arwen's body spasmed violently. The black water seemed to erupt with bright yellow and purple explosions. That was the problem with snapping; it could deter any predator if a person noticed in time but it didn't just affect the attacker. It affected everything nearby, even other people. Arwen went limp and slid off into the water, insensible.
"Here we go." Takura activated the autogun's control module. It traversed in a complete circle, elevated to about forty degrees, then returned to level. "Kit, do you mind?" Takura added.
Kit walked back and forth along the edge of the lava shelf. The weapon tracked him perfectly. Takura watched the readouts and nodded in satisfaction. "The diagnostics check out and it's receiving data from the other gun and the remote sensor pods. I've set it to fire on anything more than a meter long and sound an alarm if anything between there and twenty-five centimeters enters the fire zone. If anyone needs to go tinkle during the night take your comm badge or you'll wake up in the infirmary with one Hell of a hangover."
"What if we lose it in the bushes while taking a dump?" Kit wanted to know.
"Walk into it," Takura replied. "After it shoots you it'll sound an alarm we'll come get you."
"Wonderful," May grumbled. Taker grinned at him, not a very reassuring gesture considering her dental arrangements.
"Is there anything dangerous in the water?" Kit asked, looking down onto the beach.
"Dr. Favisham says no but we should keep away from the reef," Nova replied. "Nor does she guarantee that not nothing will crop up suddenly."
"Then let's go swimming," Kit suggested.
Takura looked up. The sun hovered just above the horizon, casting the sea and sky in stunning reds and golds. "I'll be dark soon," she pointed out.
"So? We wear hand lights," Kit replied. "It's been a long day, it's gonna be a longer one tomorrow, I'm beat, filthy, and stressed out. If we're stranded on a tropical paradise we might as well take advantage of it."
"I have to say I think that's the most sensible thing anyone's said all day," Nova put in. "And I sure could use a swim."
"But-" May struggled to articulate his feelings. He felt the weight of the situation crushing him. An unknown enemy that could strike any time. Aurora with hir forelegs broken.
Ranthe lay a hand over May's. He started; he thought she was shivering. Then he realized he was. He'd set Kit up as leader so he wouldn't dwell on Star's fate. Then everything changed and he found that onerous duty thrown right back into his lap. At least Kit was stressing about Star any more... and maybe, it occurred to May suddenly, that was the point of this whole swimming venture. May did need to be stressing over things he couldn't help, especially now that he was the leader. "I... forgot to pack my swim trunks," he said.
Snowflake slapped hir forehead. "Knew I forgot something."
"So we swim au naturel," Kit replied, ticking Snowflake's tummy.
"Sounds like a flimsy excuse to get us all naked," Ranthe commented.
"I've heard worse ones," Nova put in. "Here, twist my arm." She extended her hand to Kit. "Okay, I give," she said when he laid a finger on her wrist.
"How do we get to the beach?" May asked.
"There's a collapsed lava tube over here," Takura replied. "Snowflake, would you mind getting hand lights for everyone?"
"Not at all." Snowflake hurried off. By the time shi returned the sun had vanished. Within a couple minutes of its passing no trace of daylight remained. The jungle became a zone of impenetrable shadow lacking any sort of depth or detail. But the sky blazed with the light of a billion stars, dusting the ocean with silver.
"My God," Kit breathed. "I don't think I've ever seen such a beautiful sky."
"The one you see on a summer night in Dorado Park is pretty good," Snowflake put in.
"The best night sky I ever saw was during a camp out in Ngorongoro Crater," Nova said. "It was just full of shooting stars. So thick you could practically walk on them."
"Once I had to go service a weather station up above the arctic circle," Takura said. "During the winter, of course. Unless you've been there you can't possibly imagine how cold it was. I was sure my nipples would snap off and I'd never see my genitals again. But the sky... the Northern Lights were so bright you could've read a book by 'em. All those colors, dancing and swirling... I've never seen anything so beautiful in my life." She sighed. "What about you, May?"
"Well-" May shrugged. "I don't see the stars much except when there's a view port between me and them. I've... ended up spending most of my life on board star ships or space habitats. That's just not the same as all this." Now, for the firs time, it suddenly occurred to May that he might have been missing something all those years. "I think I'll just say that this sky is the most beautiful one I've seen."
"Good enough for me," Ranthe said, squeezing May's hand. "Where's this lava tube?"
"Over here." Takura set her hand light on wide beam and led the way.
Some time in the past a lava channel running under the shelf had fallen in, leaving a cleft in the rock as if it had been chopped by a giant axe. The rubble formed a steep but negotiable path down to the beach. May found that the jagged rocks, while offering excellent traction and abundant handholds, nevertheless presented grave risks to the unwary. By the time he reached the bottom his legs and feet would have been bruised and bleeding if not for his shoes and jump suit. "What now?" he asked, watching the modest waves break and foam on the gritty black sand.
"First off, everyone put their hand lights around their necks and snug them up so they won't come off," Takura instructed. "And make sure you leave them turned on. It's the only way we'll find you if anything happens."
"Turn off your light, May," Ranthe said as he unlaced his boots.
"Huh?" May looked up. "Takura said we should leave them on."
"Not while we're undressing," Nova replied. Ranthe giggled.
"Uh- okay." Somewhat sheepishly May turned off his light but left it around his neck. He didn't think he'd be able to find it again if he took it off. He couldn't fault the privacy offered by the darkness; except for occasional sounds he never would have known that five other people were stripping nearby. At times he had to hunt for the fastenings to his own clothing. "I'm ready," he announced. "I'm going to turn on my light now."
"Face the water," Ranthe commanded. Reluctantly May obeyed. Once he felt the water sloshing over his bare feet he forgot his pique. He waded out to calf depth and sat down. Warm water and flowing sand massaged him. With a sigh he lay back on his elbows.
"Turn on your light, Kit," Snowflake directed, then yelped. "That wasn't your light!" shi admonished sharply. Kit giggled.
May glanced over his shoulder and saw a quintet of lights bobbing toward him. Glare washed out whatever lay behind them. When the individuals passed him, however, side scatter from their lights the fringe of his own illuminated them clearly enough. He stared; he couldn't help it. Both Nova and Snowflake had large, firm breasts with prominent, well developed nipples. Even Takura didn't look half bad. He didn't notice Ranthe come up beside him until she kicked him in the shin. "Ow!" he protested, though she hadn't actually kicked that hard.
"May, you wouldn't have noticed if I'd set off a hand grenade in your lap," Ranthe said shortly. "Come on." She caught his arm and tugged.
"But-" May protested.
"I won't let you drown." Ranthe led May into deeper water. At about waist depth he found himself staggering as the waves hit him. They weren't high but they pushed him off balance. "Don't resist," Ranthe suggested. "Just... let them carry you." She put an arm around his shoulders. The sides of her chest, hips, and thighs pressed against his. She rocked him back and forth, in time with the waves. Their hand lights filled the water with a warm, cheery glow.
May said nothing, in part because emotion closed his throat and in part because he feared to. He wanted to tell Ranthe how beautiful she was, how much he appreciated that she'd stayed with him all these years. But he didn't want to break the mood. She wasn't usually this forward, at least not with him.
"See? You're getting the hang of it," Ranthe said. May floated, sort of on his back, his feet only just touching the sand. Sometimes a wave would splash over his face and he'd come up spluttering but that was okay too. Ranthe would giggle and lift him up.
"Ranthe..." May said.
"Yes?" Ranthe's eyes gleamed. Surely it was the salt water.
"I... don't mind being marooned here."
"You don't?" Ranthe tucked herself a little closer.
"Not-" May fell silent, realizing that what he'd wanted to say could be taken in a very unflattering way. But he'd started and couldn't just leave it off. "I'm sorry you got stuck here," he said. "But since we are here... I'm glad we can be together."
Ranthe only stared for a long time. She reached across her body and gently picked stray hairs from May's face. "You know," she said softly, "I think that's the most romantic thing you've ever said to me." She turned sideways; her breasts pressed against May's side and instead of her hip against his he felt her crotch. She leaned her face toward his-
May forgot his rhythm. When a wave broke over his face it caught him entirely by surprise. Reflexively he drew a sharp breath- and got water instead of air. Being an inexperienced swimmer he panicked. He thrashed wildly but there seemed to be nothing but water all around. He struck for the surface and rammed his nose into the bottom instead. He screamed in pain, loosing what little air he had left. Desperate, he opened his eyes. Salt water burned them and he couldn't see worth a damn except that the water in front of him was bright and fuzzy instead of black. Someone swam by. To May's seriously degraded vision it looked like Ranthe. At least it seemed to be a woman of about the right size. He grabbed her. His world blazed white, then went completely black.
Arwen awoke suddenly. She lay face down on fine sand. She listened carefully; surf thundered close by but the water around her stirred only lightly. Somehow she'd been thrown clear of the reef. She pushed herself up and winced; a nasty scrape ran the length of her right forearm. She looked around but sensed no one else. Nor did she sense any large predators in her immediate vicinity. That might change- quickly, as a matter of fact- if she didn't do something about her arm. She decided to go up on the beach and look for dried sea grass. Once she had the wound tied up she'd search for the others. The flavor of the water told her that jungle ran to the water's edge along most of the lagoon's border but one stretch seemed to be clear. She headed for that; predators walked on land as well as swimming in the sea and snapping only worked if you actually touched them. Arwen didn't care to get that close at least until she'd had some time to rest.
Some creatures splashed in the water. Arwen hesitated; they sounded big, as big as her or perhaps even larger. Then she saw light. Not pale, like the tentacle-flowers and other creatures that clung to underwater rocks, but as sharp and bright as daylight. When a beam flickered past her she flinched but it didn't affect her in any way. She'd never seen anything like it. At night nothing could make light so bright but fire and that didn't work under water. Superstitious dread filled her and she almost fled but caught herself. She rose to the surface and looked up; as her nictitating membranes slid in place the Sea of Lights came- more or less- into focus. These lights had that same cold quality. Excitement thrilled in her; maybe they were lights that had fallen! Then another thought brought her up short. Had they come from the Sister or the Father? If they came from the Sister-
Arwen floated just below the surface for quite some time. Then, very deliberately, she swam toward the lights. I've waited my whole life for this, she told herself firmly. Even if it is the Sister come to carry me away, well, that was bound to happen sooner or later, wasn't it? I'd never forgive myself if I didn't at least have a look.
The lights came from the creatures in the water. Arwen approached cautiously, creeping along the black sand floor of the lagoon where her natural color would tend to hide her. Her fear gradually gave way to perplexity and maybe just a touch of disappointment; the creatures wore lights from the Sea Above around their necks but other than that they seemed like ordinary land dweller folk. Considering how some of them cuddled together even the reason they'd come into the water was entirely prosaic. Arwen grinned; at least these land dwellers understood what her people had known all along, which was that in water was the only sensible place to have sex. No piece of furniture ever crafted by land or sea dweller could equal or even approach the gentle, enfolding support given by Mother Ocean. Arwen had enticed her share- or more than her share, to hear Ula tell it- of land dwellers down to the shore for the purpose of pleasuring herself with them. One even came back with her land dweller lover.
Arwen crept right up to one couple. The man floated while the woman supported him, a position which allowed her to place her hands on intimate portions of his anatomy. Because they seemed so focused on one another Arwen approached so close she could have reached out and touched them. But while Arwen looked at the woman's feet something happened. The man started struggled frantically; he kicked his companion in the midriff, driving her away and doubling her over, then dove headlong into the sand. He screamed, or at least tried to; air boiled from his mouth and nose. Then he came up, looking straight at Arwen from no more than an arm's length away. His light flashed her in the face, dazzling her. while momentarily stunned he caught her in a death grip. Arwen did the only thing she could under the circumstances: she snapped him.
May's eyes opened slowly. His nose didn't bother him any more even though it still hurt. His chest hurt worse and every breath felt like stabbing knives in his ribs. He moaned.
"Welcome back to the land of the living," Dr. Eikenburg said, leaning over May with a scanner in hand. The doctor was a lantern-jawed, thick-necked Terran whose body looked about as hard and solid as a fire hydrant.
"Wha... hap'n'd?" May gasped.
"We were sort of hoping you could tell us that," Kit put in, leaning over from the other side. "Near as I can tell you started drowning. When Ranthe tried to help you kicked her in the solar plexus and she almost drowned herself. Takura dragged Ranthe to shore and revived her while Nova searched for you. By the time she found you and got you out of the water you were dead."
"D- d- dead?" May stammered, his pupils dilating.
"Dead," Kit reiterated. "No pulse and no respiration. Nova and Takura took turns administering CPR while Ranthe went for help. By the time she came back with Doc here you'd come around. We strapped you to a stretcher, carried you to the medical tent, and here you are."
"Uhh." May stared blankly at the tent roof. All his memories of the swim were a nightmarish blur punctuated by vivid, frozen images. Most of those involved portions of Ranthe's anatomy. "How... long?" Speaking hurt; not just in his nose but his entire torso.
"Since last night and it's only mid-afternoon now," Kit replied. "Other than your heart and lungs stopping-" He rolled his eyes- "there wasn't anything seriously wrong with you. Between the nanites, anti-shock drugs, and regeneratives you recovered just fine."
"Which perplexes me because I can't figure out why your heart stopped in the first place," Dr. Eikenburg put in. "You weren't in the water more than a minute or so. Did you feel something grab or bite you?"
"Don't remember," May muttered. An image of him grabbing Ranthe flashed through his mind but he wasn't sure if it was real or he'd imagined it.
"That is strange," Dr. Eikenburg commented, rubbing his chin. A layer of stubble coated it, making him look even more fearsome. "I didn't find any marks on him. I would have said he probably got hit by a jellyfish or some such but that would show."
Someone took May's hand. He turned his head and saw Ranthe. Her hands felt funny; he realized suddenly that syntheskin coated her palms. "What... happened to you?" he managed.
Ranthe looked down in embarrassment. "I cut up my hands climbing over the rocks," she mumbled.
May blinked. He thought of the lava tube and couldn't repress a shudder. He'd gone down in mortal fear of slipping; the rocks looked like they'd cut him up like a bed of knives. He imagined scrambling over them at full speed while naked and grimaced. Frankly he was amazed that Ranthe had even a square centimeter of skin left. "Thanks." He squeezed her hand. To his surprise she bent over and licked his hand. He felt her quivering... and saw tears run down her nose. She gulped. "Don't- don't you dare scare me like that again!" she exclaimed. "I- I thought I'd lost you!" She clasped May's hand to her face, sobbing piteously.
"I think we've done all we can for now," Dr. Eikenburg said, rising to his feet. "Let's step outside." He guided Kit out. "Ranthe, a word," he added over his shoulder. "May's in no condition for strenuous activity."
May sighed. The doctor was right; even the thought of sitting up made his chest ache.
"May-" On her knees, Ranthe moved up to the edge of May's cot. "I- I'm so sorry," she gulped, massaging his hand in hers. "All this time... I never- I never-"
With a force that made him start in reaction May recalled Darkstar's words. Don't wait. Because one day you'll die... or the other person will. "Ranthe..." With an effort- and grimacing against the pain- he reached across with his other hand and gently gripped her face. "I..." As usual the words unraveled even as he tried speaking them. Any other time in his life he would have lapsed into silence but he couldn't afford that any more. "You... you make it all worthwhile," he said. "All of it. Being with you... makes it all right."
Ranthe gulped again. Instead of answering directly she leaned over him, gently nuzzling his face. She licked his chin, carefully avoiding his still bandaged nose. May sighed; his chest ached, his nose hurt, and he lay on a deucedly uncomfortable cot but euphoria lifted him above all of it. She cares, he thought dreamily. Darkstar was right. You open your heart... and there it is, right under your nose. He nuzzled her cheek in return. She slipped her tongue between his lips; he responded in kind. Her grip on his hand relaxed; he cupped one of her breasts. She pressed hard against his hand. Unfortunately that put strain on his chest and he gasped. She put her hand over his and applied pressure for him. After a moment she unzipped her jump suit and put his hand inside it.
Breathing heavily made May's chest hurt. The pounding of his heart made his chest hurt. He felt his penis stiffen to semi-erection; the effort drained all his energy. He let his head fall back on the pillow; he would have dropped his arm had not Ranthe held it up.
"Oh, May." Ranthe kept his hand against her chest and gently stroked his face. "I'm sorry. The doctor was right, wasn't he?"
May nodded. "Yeah. But... it's okay." He licked her nose. "I appreciate the thought."
Ranthe drew May's hand out of her jump suit and lay it against her cheek. For a long time she held it there, her eyes tightly closed. Tears leaked from the corners of her eyes. May felt them against his fingers.
May also felt the pressure of words built up inside him. So many things he'd meant to say but never worked up the courage. In his mind's eye he saw Darkstar glaring at him. Say it! shi commanded. May's lips quirked up. "Yes sir," he whispered.
Ranthe opened her eyes. "May?"
May licked his lips. Even now the old fear gripped him. Surely there couldn't possibly be a better time. His mouth quivered... and he sank back in silence. He grimaced, despising himself and his cowardice. He'd said things like this to Sundown. On many occasions, as a matter of fact. He'd done things with Sundown he'd never done before... shi was a hermaphrodite, after all. But to Ranthe, whom he surely owed more than to anyone else, he couldn't say a word.
"May?" Ranthe caressed his cheek. "Are you okay?"
"My chest hurts," May replied, despising himself even more for the evasion.
"I'll get the doctor." Ranthe rose- reluctantly- and turned away.
May felt himself sink into crushing depression. Things were going like they always did. Because of his fear he let the opportunity slip away. As Ranthe lifted the tent flap May had a sudden thought: what if this is the last time you see her? What if you had found her laying dead on the beach? "Ranthe!" he called. She paused, looking back. "Ranthe..." May swallowed, licking his lips. The fear came back, worse than ever. "I... I did it for you," he said in a rush. "I, I could have started over on Chakona easily enough. I'd already done it once. But... you had family. And friends. I... couldn't have you cut off from them like..." he trailed off.
Ranthe stood in the doorway for a long time. Finally she returned to May's side and knelt. "Like you?" she finished for him. She took his hand and squeezed it, hard. "You... you waited thirteen years to tell me that?" She laughed, a despairing, hysterical sound. "From you I guess I shouldn't be surprised." She grimaced and knuckled her eyes. "May... listen to me. You're not alone. You have friends. Kit, Snowflake, Nova, Star... Sundown and Swiftsure. Everyone at Star Home, practically. They care about you, you big dumb ox! They love you!" She broke down, sobbing. "And... I'm one of them, May! I'm... one of them."
"I... I think that's the most romantic thing you've ever said to me," May said. He closed his eyes; tears blinded him in any case. He felt more words pressing at his lips, words he should have said many, many years ago. He opened his mouth to speak- but an odd sensation stopped him. His ears twitched; they seemed to be ringing-
Ranthe straightened up suddenly, her face turned toward the sky even though she couldn't see it through the tent's roof. "You hear it too?" May asked.
"Yes." Ranthe moved to the tent flap and lifted it. The sound came through louder and deeper: a buzzing, thrumming, and whining all at once. She stood there, looking out.
"What is it?" May asked.
Ranthe licked her lips. "It's a ship. Smaller than Sutherland but solidly built. A strike cruiser, probably. Like nothing I've ever seen before."
"Oh." May swallowed. He supposed that it might be some experimental Federation ship that had somehow stumbled across them but he doubted it. More likely their hidden enemy had come to call. "Help me up," he requested.
"Ranthe, I wouldn't leave you," May cut in. "I... I'd want to but I wouldn't."
Ranthe sighed. "Okay." She knelt by May's side and helped him up.
The pain and effort involved in sitting up and swinging his legs off the cot almost persuaded May to lay back down. But Hell, he'd come this far. By letting Ranthe haul him up and leaning heavily upon her he managed to shuffle out of the medical tent. Ranthe's arm around his torso hurt like the dickens. His ribs felt like someone had gone over them with a meat tenderizing hammer. He imagined Nova compressing his chest with her massive fists and decided that he'd gotten off lucky. In addition to not being dead, of course.
A ship hovered over the lagoon. Its shadow fell over the camp and the ocean roiled under the lash of its repulsors. From the ground it looked huge though May realized it wasn't more than a quarter the size of Sutherland, not even a particularly large vessel by modern standards. May guessed this ship to be around a hundred and seventy meters long; its wedged shaped nose tapered down to a sharp chisel point and its stern flared out vertically. A pair of thick, forward-swept, and sharply anhedral wings sprouted from the fuselage; massive beam projector and missile launch ports lined the forward edge. In overall shape it vaguely reminded May of a bird. It settled slowly, until its sharp bow hung only a few meters above camp. A ramp lowered, the end grounding right at the edge of the lava shelf. An inner door opened and a procession came down.
May gulped. The people were obviously soldiers; they wore ceramic body armor, helmets with mirrored visors, and bulky greaves. Every one carried a stocked weapon with a 2cm muzzle and a fat, vented barrel cover.
"Powerguns," Ranthe whispered. May grimaced; powerguns were nasty things. They shot a spurt of plasma at their target; whatever they hit absorbed so much energy so quickly it exploded from thermal stress. Very effective for inflicting damage, yes, but with two significant disadvantages: one, the plasma was so hot it would blind and flash burn anyone close to the beam path, even the user the weapon. Two, the plasma charge liberated all its energy on the first thing it struck. In jungles or thick forest, for instance, their effective range was dramatically reduced. The Federation had used them for a while; now they used beam throwers, which actually projected tightly focused force fields. They were more efficient, less hazardous to the wielder, and could be dynamically adjusted for shock or penetration. Not that the distinctions meant much in this particular case; of the away team only Nova and Takura habitually carried weapons and, except for tents and woven frond shelters, the lava shelf was open ground. If they were lucky Nova and Takura might take out four or five soldiers before he rest gunned everyone down.
The soldiers themselves were felinoids- and all female, May realized with a start. Nova wouldn't have looked at all out of place among them, even considering her size and build. All these women were tall, exceptionally curved, and quite muscular. In fact, a great many of them resembled lions, having tawny, golden brown pelts. May saw other patterns too; some of the women had spots, like leopards or jaguars, and a few were solid back. None of them had manes; with their helmets on May couldn't tell if they shaved them or just didn't grow them. They fanned out from the foot of the ramp, their weapons ready though not aimed at anything in particular. Rather to his surprise May noticed members of the away team gathering and pressing forward like spectators at an accident. Only he, Ranthe, and the other Star Home people hung back. When the troops leveled their weapons the crowd surged back in alarm. May wanted to laugh; if the soldiers opened fire everyone on the shelf would die. Where they stood wouldn't make any difference.
Someone else came down the ramp. A gasp arose, primarily from the female members of the team. This newcomer was male, and not merely handsome but breathtakingly beautiful. His massive and incredibly powerful body was perfectly and impeccably sculpted. Since he wore only a cloak, and that tossed back over his shoulders, the greatest part of him remained on public display. His white pelt and black tiger stripes only made him even more striking. Even Ranthe drew a sharp breath and May couldn't help staring. May did note the folding stock machine pistol holstered at the man's right thigh and the short sword on his left. Though beautifully decorated May didn't doubt for a moment that they were real weapons.
"Greetings," the man said in a deep, resonant, and purringly sensual voice. "My true name does not translate into your tongue. You may call me Prince Ares. You are now my subjects."
A commotion at the front of the group drew May's attention. Renata thrust her way forward and moved up face to face with Prince Ares, ignoring the soldiers around him. May gulped; not only did he fully expect her to get blasted into a spray of gore but her presence in close proximity to Prince Ares only emphasized how incredibly large he was. She didn't even reach his shoulder, coming only to about the middle of his pectorals. Looking him in the face required her to tip her head back at a rather steep angle. "I'm Renata Fayre of Chakona Network News," she began briskly, as if interviewing a visiting dignitary. Kevin stood a ways back and to one side, filming the action with his servo-cam. "This is of course an exciting and momentous day for the Stellar Federation, to make First Contact with a previously unknown civilization. Could you tell us, your highness, what brought your people to this world?"
"I could," Ares replied. "I choose not to."
Renata assumed a more serious expression. "Some questions have arisen regarding the loss of the ship which brought us here. Could you shed some light on that matter?"
"Yes," Ares replied. "I shot it down."
Renata hesitated for a fraction of a second. Maybe after years of interviewing politicians she wasn't used to such direct and forthright answers. Or maybe the magnitude of what Ares said actually moved her. "Your highness, that action constitutes an unprovoked and unlawful act of war against peoples of the Federation going about their peaceful business!" Her voice started even but rose sharply at the end. "What you've done, your highness, is no less than murder!"
"The state of war is, by definition, the abrogation of civilized law, Renata Fayre of Chakona Network News," Ares replied, not the least bit discomfited. "Where a state of war exists, law and right are what the side with the greatest strength of arms says they are. The only constraint upon that side's behavior is their ability to resist the efforts of any side which says otherwise." He shook his arm free of his cloak, holding his hand cupped before him. "I hold this world in the palm of my hand." He lifted his gaze, panning it across the crowd. "I hold all of you in the palm of my hand. The only constraint upon what I may do with you are the limits of my own conscience."
"Four escape pods left the ship, your highness," Ranthe called suddenly. "What became of them?"
May found Ares' icy blue eyes fixed upon him. His heart flip-flopped in his chest. He'd suspected before but now he knew. Prince Ares had let them all live and would kill them without the slightest hesitation the instant it suited his purpose. Icy fear clawed at May's guts. Prince Ares was here because he wanted something. If May or anyone else hesitated to give it-
"I have no information for you about them," Ares replied, calm as ever.
"There were two hundred and sixty people on board that ship, less us here," Nova said sharply. "And all you can say is that you have no information on them?"
"I said that I have no information for you," Ares clarified. "What I do have for you is this: as the absolute and undisputed ruler of this world I hereby grant you this island as your fiefdom. As a condition of this grant you may not at any time trespass on any other part of my domain, or the airspace above it, without my express permission. This includes transmitting any sort of signal. Otherwise you may do as you please. To insure your compliance I will take two hostages. They will be Mr. Theobald Carson and Shir Snowflake."
"No!" May screamed. A spurt of adrenaline that came from the fear of what he saw about to happen gave him the strength to break free of Ranthe and leap forward. He landed on Nova's arm, clinging with desperate strength, dragging it down with his weight. He'd arrived in the nick of time; she'd slipped the rifle off her shoulder and was raising it when May slammed it back down. Ranthe arrived a half step behind; she'd had the same thought in the same instant. She faced Ares, deliberately blocking his line of fire with her own body. She couldn't help swallowing nervously; Ares stood with his machine pistol in hand, already sighted on the center of Nova's chest. The hem of his cloak still waved from the speed of his draw.
"Nova!" Kit rushed forward. His face looked drawn and ashen; he seemed to have aged a decade in the last few seconds. He gripped her face, forcing her to look at him. "Don't- I mean- I need you, Nova," he said. "I need you to help May. You know he's a good man and he... understands this sort of thing. And-" his voice caught; tears streamed down his cheeks. "I need you to survive, Nova. Promise me you'll do that. Promise me!"
Nova squeezed her eyes shut and let her head droop forward against her chest. Her tears fell on Kit's hands, still on her cheeks. She made an unintelligible sound but nodded.
"We love you, Nova." Snowflake put hir arms around Nova's shoulders and hugged hir tightly. As shi broke away shi slipped hir hand into Kit's. Both of them looked absolutely terrified but turned toward Ares without a word. They reached across their bodies and clasped their offside hands as well while they moved forward. The crowd parted before them, with expressions ranging from shock to amazement to horror. Ares brought his arm back against his side, his pistol aimed up at the sky. Two of his soldiers stepped aside to let Kit and Snowflake pass, then escorted them up the ramp. The rest of the solders shifted to close the gap.
"To further reduce temptation I will also take your communicators," Ares announced. Four soldiers went through the crowd, collecting everyone's comm badge. They took the portable base station, the reserve unit still in its crate, and the broken message torpedoes. One of them shot out the comm panel in the passenger module. Then Ares holstered his pistol and swept up the ramp. His soldiers followed, backing to keep the crowd covered. The ramp withdrew and the ship flew away.
Nova collapsed, sobbing piteously. May went down with her because she'd thrown her arms around him and he lacked the strength to break away. As the adrenaline high left him May felt like his body had turned to water. Oh Star, for all our sakes, please be all right, he prayed. You're the only one who can help us now.
"Daddy!" Star shouted, snapping suddenly to full wakefulness. She rose up but the motion awoke flashes of livid agony from the ragged wounds torn in her back and belly. She sank back down, moaning and sobbing, clawing fitfully at the sea floor muck upon which she lay, lost and alone in the cold and dark. And it was dark, even by her standards. Only extremely high or extremely low frequencies of electromagnetic radiation could penetrate the eight kilometers of ocean stacked up above her. That also meant Daddy wasn't really here. He couldn't be; all that water exerted a crushing force measured in tons per square centimeter. Star's body endured it easily; in fact it eased the suffering brought on by her injuries. But no tiny person could experience it and live.
Star remembered staring in mute shock at the vessel that was not Sutherland nor any other she recognized. She remembered the power beams firing. She remembered an explosion of indescribable agony. Between then and the present her recollection broke apart into a confused jumble as she repeatedly faded in and out of consciousness. Because of that she really had no idea how long she'd been on the sea floor. She supposed she was recovering; she hadn't blacked out in a while and her injuries didn't seem to hurt quite so much. Unfortunately that only gave her more time in which to contemplate her predicament.
Only once before in her life had Star ever been so completely on her own. As a baby she'd once escaped her nursery by side-stepping out of it. That being the first time she'd ever used her star drive she promptly got lost. It also being the first time she'd ever been separated from her caretakers she was, naturally, terrified. She wound up clinging to the Deep Space Hyper-Spatial Anomaly Detector of the Mileva Memorial Hyper-Spatial Observatory. Dr. Chakra, the observatory's director, discovered her presence as a result of anomalous readings from the instrument and notified her parents, who came and collected her. But who would notify her parents this time? Already she'd been away far longer than during that first excursion, even counting only the time she'd been awake. After carefully examining the emanations that had originally drawn her she'd realized that they didn't come from Sutherland. They came from a single core instead of a paired set. Eventually she did locate Sutherland's cores. It took a while because they were shut down... and orbiting separately. They'd obviously been ejected from the ship. After that Star had watched the sky carefully for one entire rotation of the planet. She didn't see Sutherland, not even once. And the ship certainly hadn't flown away without its warp cores. Considering Star's own experiences a likely explanation came all too readily to mind. She wailed louder; understanding the situation didn't help. It made things worse; as a baby she could take comfort in the certainty that her parents would come for her eventually. Now she knew all sorts of reasons why they likely couldn't and intellectual understanding did absolutely noting to quell her fear. Crying didn't help either; only special equipment- or another Stariionae- could detect it. The nearest of either were at Chakona, much farther away than Star could project her voice. She wasn't even sure she could make it back there on her own; she hadn't paid much attention to the route during the trip out.
It all came down to one simple fact. Where were Mom and Dad? If something had happened to Sutherland... if they hadn't made it to the escape pods...
Then Star was not merely alone but alone. Mom and Dad were gone away, now and forever more, like Auntie Krita had gone away while giving birth to Strelka and Zarya. Star's mind circled that truth like a moth circling a flame, unable to leave it but knowing full well that embracing it meant destruction. That was what had kept her on the ocean floor. Not knowing tortured her... but finding out could end up being much, much worse. Unfortunately- for her- waiting wasn't something she did well. Her own sense of time betrayed her; in less stressful situations she dealt with the waiting by letting her mind wander. But anything she looked at here only reinforced the underlying facts of her situation, which made her tense. Tension made time slow down... which made her more tense. Having recovered to the point where her wounds no longer incapacitated her the only way she could continue to wait was if she forced herself to wait. On the other hand, the people who'd attacked her weren't coming after her either. They couldn't sneak up on her if she kept an eye on them; the emanations from their warp core gave them away. They could eject it, of course, but then they'd be mostly without power. Since they had a warp core their ship used warp drive, meaning they couldn't follow her into shadow space- and probably couldn't see her there, not without special equipment. Her own family hadn't developed such equipment until recently and it didn't work very well. The aliens had gone back to whatever they were doing on the surface, apparently having decided Star wasn't a threat. Sitting on the ground restricted what they could see, and more importantly, shoot. Meaning that except for a very small part of one hemisphere Star had the rest of the planet to herself. If the aliens came after her she could dive into the ocean or side-step.
Eventually Star shook off the clinging silt and rose through the depths. No, she didn't like waiting worth beans. However terrible learning the truth might be, inactivity was worse. She ascended cautiously, without generating turbulence, keeping her attention focused on the sky. By tracking the emanations from its warp core she knew that the alien ship was on the ground several thousand kilometers away but a ship or device didn't need a warp core to be dangerous. Theoretically she could see through anything, yes, but that did not mean all matter was equally transparent. The opacity of an object increased with its total mass and density; her ability to resolve any particular thing depended on the ratio of masses and densities. Through eight kilometers of salt water, for instance, she could make out an object one quarter her own mass but only so long as it was no less dense than herself. From two hundred meters down- still deep enough to remain hidden from any passive sensor the Federation used- she could tell that no trace of Sutherland larger than a toggle bolt remained in orbit. Furthermore, she saw an array of satellites- clearly not of Federation manufacture- orbiting the planet. For a while she drifted, watching them carefully, but they did not respond to her presence in any observable way. Nor did the alien ship. Apparently they couldn't see her... which left Star in a quandary. Any quick or simple method of locating her family involved revealing herself. She couldn't pick up radio beacons while under water. If she dared to surface she could at least sense any clouds of vapor or debris Sutherland might have vented, which would at least give her a clue where the escape pods might have come down. All she had at the moment was the knowledge that Sutherland had most likely assumed a standard orbit, directly above the equator. Any pods ejected would tend to fall along that track. So all she'd have to do was approach and scan each and every island and atoll within a hundred kilometers of the equator. From under water that would take years.
Star's frustration with that state of affairs was such that she seriously considered shooting the satellites down, even though Mom and Dad would certainly punish her for it. But there were too many to hit all at once and any she didn't hit might fire back- they all carried beam projectors- or bring the alien ship. Star cursed venomously, using words Valjean and Javert had taught her. Because her attention remained so much on the hated satellites she finally realized something: all the orbital tracks crossed at a particular point above the planet's surface. Given the infinite possibilities for orbiting bodies Star concluded that the aliens had deliberately arranged things that way. Then she observed two other salient factors: the crossing point did not correspond to the location of the alien ship and it lay within a hundred kilometers of the equator. Moreover, this point represented a place on the planet's surface most thoroughly observed by the satellites.
Even to Star this all seemed like a tenuous connection at best. But she didn't have anything else... and if there was something there the aliens found notable or valuable, she might at least destroy or steal it. The notion of anything that might inconvenience the aliens appealed to her greatly. She plotted a course, returned to the abyssal depths, and set out.
Arwen moved cautiously along the shorter arm of the lagoon. The setting sun brightly illuminated the sky people' camp but left her in long, dark shadows cast by the trees lining the beach. Anyone looking her way would be facing the sun. Even so she walked an erratic, zigzag course between the trees and the water. Near the trees she felt safe from the sky people but only near the water did she feel safe from the forest. She could breathe air and walk on land but compared to a creature made to live there she was clumsy and nearsighted. Not to mention that her greatest defensive weapon- her snapping ability- was pretty much useless. That left her second best defensive weapon. With that thought she erected her dorsal fins; they spread out to either side of her torso like a butterfly's wings. The bony battens supporting the membranes projected beyond the edges- and a barb glistening with poison tipped each one. Arwen would find that more reassuring if not for the fact that the spines wouldn't come into play until something actually attacked her. The most likely outcome of such an encounter was her attacker accidentally sticking itself on her spines while it mauled her. Sure it might die but if that happened after she'd been torn up it didn't do her a whole lot of good.
Over the last several days Arwen had searched not only the lagoon but some of the island's outer shore as well. She'd found pieces of the raft but no trace of her companions. Either they'd taken refuge farther up than Arwen had searched or they hadn't made it across the reef. Arwen found the latter more likely; if they'd been looking for her they surely would have met by now. Unless, of course, they were hiding out at the far end of the island and not looking for her. Unfortunately Arwen could easily imagine how that might come about. If Ula saw the sky people she'd convince the others they were devils sent by the Sister.
Arwen froze, shivering with superstitious fear. Since first seeing them she'd thought of nothing but the sky people. Again and again she approached the beach but never quite worked up the courage to come out of the water. She wasn't a particularly pious person; she prayed and made offerings to the Father and the Sister more out of habit than any sense of duty. That the Father and the Sister would judge her actions in this life and assign her place in the next based on it made a certain sense. That they would mete out rewards and punishments to control a person's day to day behavior made considerably less, at least in Arwen's eyes. To Ula every little thing that happened represented the Sister or the Father trying to influence what people thought or did. Arwen found that nonsensical; if the Father or the Sister wanted something done why couldn't just come out and say it? Ula would say that the Gods' will couldn't be understood by mere people. To Arwen that sounded like a cop-out. What was the point of having a guiding will if you couldn't understand it? Getting by in the world was difficult enough without pondering imponderables. Now these people had come down from the Sea of Lights. That proved something was, in fact, up there. Paradoxically Arwen found that disturbing even though it's what she'd claimed she wanted to see all along. If there really were people up there did that make the rest of it true as well? Was the Sister in fact keeping a ledger of all the impious thoughts Arwen had ever had? She'd vacillated between fear and curiosity for most of the day, swimming back and forth across the lagoon because she couldn't bring herself to approach but couldn't bring herself to leave either.
Then the Sky Raft came down. It whipped the water like a winter storm; Arwen prayed like she'd never prayed in her life. It went away and left her unhurt. Arwen didn't care for the implications of that, not one bit. She couldn't shake the sneaking suspicion that the Father had brought her here, and kept her safe, just so she could do this. In the end that's what broke her mental deadlock and drove her forward. She feared the Father's and the Sister's wrath more than she cared to admit, even to herself. She resumed walking.
At the edge of the lava shelf Arwen halted again. While she stood there the sun sank into the sea, plunging the world into darkness. She'd made it this far without provoking some sort of horrible reaction. She licked her lips, which felt dry and sticky with salt. Getting up onto the lava shelf would be difficult; she'd either have to scramble up a steep slope of broken, jagged rock at its edge or find a way to scale the escarpment at its face. Failing that she'd have to circle through the forest and hope that the lava evened out somewhere inland. She almost gave up right there; if the land blocked her way there wasn't anything she could do about it. On the other hand, what did the Father care for what she thought might be possible? She continued along the face of the shelf with a jerky, uncoordinated gait; she felt as if her spirit had already fled, leaving her body to shamble along in a grotesque mockery of life. Thus she came upon a feature she hadn't noticed from a distance: a section of the shelf had fallen in, forming a narrow cleft with a steep but passable trail. Even that would have been difficult; the rubble in the cleft looked only slightly less broken than that along the shelf's edges. But sheets of- of some material had been laid over the rocks. They weren't metal, bone, glass, rock, hide, or shell. The smooth surface, straight edges, and sharp corners of each plank looked, to Arwen, even more shockingly unnatural than the material itself. The sky people must have placed them because she couldn't imagine any such things existing in the world she knew. For a very long time she stood there. Starlight painted the planks dark gray against the black lava. Finally she lifted her foot and placed it on the end of the first plank. The material felt cool and smooth but not slick; she needn't worry about slipping. Nor did the plank flex much as she put her weight on it. Anchors driven into the rocks kept the planks from shifting. A row of smaller, thinner planks anchored to the ravine's wall gave her a place to rest her hand and steady herself.
As her head came up above the level of the shelf Arwen paused, looking around. From across the lagoon the sky peoples' shelters were pale blobs against black lava. Up close they were rectangular things with pointed tops that seemed to be made of some impossibly thin hide, stiffened at corners and edges by battens. Crude huts and lean-tos constructed from lashed sticks and screens woven from palm fronds supplemented the other shelters. Arwen found that perplexing; the shelters looked as if they'd been made by unsupervised children. They'd leak like crazy in the rain and fall down in anything but a light blow. Come to think of it, the whole village seemed poorly sited. The lava shelf wouldn't offer any protection from inclement weather... or unfriendly eyes.
Lights glowed within many of the shelters. Not pale, flickering firelight but steady, cold brightness like she'd seen the swimmers carrying that first evening. For a long time Arwen stayed there, watching. Every so often she saw a silhouette dance across the inside of a shelter as the occupants moved between the light source and the wall. As evening progressed the lights went out one by one as people presumably went to bed. Arwen found herself consumed with curiosity. Not only was the light bright and strong it came and went apparently upon command and even worked under water.
Arwen crept forward on hands and knees, her dorsal fins extended out horizontally. Black coloration on the back of her body and fins would help keep her concealed. She wanted one of those lights; it would be a treasure greater than the sum total of all the gold in all the shipwrecks in the world. Even if the Sister struck her down for her impudence it would be worth it to hold the light from above in her hand.
On land, at night, Arwen sensed her environment primarily through her exceptionally sharp ears and exceedingly sensitive nose. Her vision, not especially good even under the best of circumstances, was practically useless in the dark. Thus she could perhaps be forgiven for failing to notice the strange object perched on a tripod near the top of the cleft. It made no sound as it swiveled its long snout toward her. It did make a noise when what seemed to be a bolt of lightning launched from it but Arwen had not the time to notice. Her world exploded in a blaze of dazzling light and she fell on her face, insensible.
May's eyes snapped open and he sat up. His chest no longer hurt; the regeneratives he'd been given had cleared that up, at least. To be fair his nose hurt less too, so it seemed to be healing as well, albeit more slowly.
"What was that?" Aurora asked. Shi lay on a mat beside May's cot. Foam casts surrounded both hir forelegs.
"One of the autoguns, I think," May replied, pulling on his boots and getting up. Night wasn't any cooler than day; to his knowledge no one used blankets. Which was probably just as well since there wouldn't be enough for everyone. He picked up a hand light and hurried out.
A small group had already gathered and more peeked out of tents and shelters. May came up beside Takura, who crouched by something on the ground, balancing herself by leaning on her rifle, which she'd planted butt down on the ground. "What is it?" May asked.
"If I were to hazard a guess, I'd say a native," Takura replied.
May set his light to wide angle. He couldn't help gasping when he saw what it revealed.
Sprawled on her face just above the cleft leading down to the beach was a creature that looked very much like a young Terran woman in her early twenties. She possessed a firm, athletic, but nevertheless nicely rounded figure. Not unlike Ranthe, May decided. In fact, standing up, this woman would probably be about Ranthe's height, maybe a bit more. The woman's features looked vaguely Mongoloid, with large, slanted eyes, an oval face, a sharp chin, and very smooth features. Her nose, in fact, was little more than a bump with nostrils in the middle of her face. Voluminous, silky black hair spilled down from her head and would probably hang all the way to her crotch were she upright. At that point, however, her similarity to a Terran ended sharply. Except for the hair on her head and a pair of almost invisible eyebrows her skin looked as smooth and hairless as a dolphin's. On the backs of her arms and legs that skin was covered with large black splotches which flowed together into a solid tone on her back. Her face, hands, feet, and the front of her body were as white as fur on May's own chest. Fine membranes grew between her fingers, which sported small but sharp looking claws. Her feet looked like a Terran's except that long, spindly toes more than doubled their length. Membranes between the toes- also clawed- turned the feet into flippers. Her ears, instead of merely being cups of cartilage, looked more like curled fins stiffened with fine bones. At the moment they lay flat against her head but the pointed tips stuck out far enough to protrude from her hair. Finally, a pair of very large fins lay folded against her back. The tips reached down below her knees; erected, May found himself thinking, they'd probably look like butterfly wings. The membranes seemed to have mottled patterns on them but they couldn't be made out with the membranes folded. The bones supporting the membranes protruded beyond the edge- and a nasty looking barb, like the head of a fishing spear, tipped each one.
"My word," Dr. Eikenburg breathed, having come up beside May.
"Is she all right?" Nova asked.
Dr. Eikenburg rubbed his chin. "I think you might be better off asking Dr. Favisham."
"Yes?" Another figure pushed through the growing crowd.
Lendi Favisham stood only one hundred and forty centimeters high. Nevertheless she possessed a perfectly proportioned, fully (and nicely) developed female body. Like the woman on the ground Dr. Favisham looked like a Terran with certain marked differences: in her case that short, soft, fur covered her entire body, whiskers sprouted from her cheeks, and a very catlike tail from the base of her spine. The pattern of her fur resembled that of a silver point tabby, with alternating bands of light and dark gray. Her ears were pointed and stood out from the sides of her head.
May had heard that Dr. Favisham's ancestors had been created long ago- in what was regarded as a less civilized time- to serve as living sex toys. May found it interesting that the sex toys- commonly called love beasts- had survived while the self-proclaimed aristocracy that created them had not.
"Well I'll be," Dr. Favisham muttered, borrowing the medical scanner from Dr. Eikenburg and panning it back and forth over the supine figure. "It's a marine autochthon."
"A what?" May asked.
"A marine autochthon," Dr. Favisham repeated, raising her voice to be heard over the growing babble. "Or, in other words, a mermaid."
"Aren't mermaids supposed to have fish tails?" Nova asked.
"Strictly speaking, a mermaid is just a person who lives in the sea," Dr. Favisham replied. "The idea of a mermaid being half woman, half fish, got started in the sixteenth century when European sailors first saw manatees. Anyway, if she had a fish tail she wouldn't be able to walk on land. I'll need to examine her in more detail but I get the impression that she's an amphibian rather than a strictly aquatic creature."
"Is she alive?" Takura asked.
"Is she... intelligent?" Ranthe added.
"Yes and... most likely," Dr. Favisham replied. "The autogun knocked her out is all. Her brain is without a doubt large and complex enough to house sentience."
A stretcher arrived. "Be careful of those spines," Dr Favisham warned. "I don't think the poison will kill you instantly but you won't like it either way."
"Are mermaids supposed to be poisonous?" May asked.
"Not as far as I know," Nova replied. "Though there's a class of them who sing songs that lead sailors to run their ships onto rocks."
"I think we should scan the area," Takura said. "If there's one there may be more. And we don't know what connection they may have with Prince Ares and his crowd."
May nodded. "I agree," he said. "Let's get patrols set up right away."
"You don't think she may merely be a native?" Dr. Favisham inquired.
May frowned. "All I do know is that this planet has been one nasty surprise after another. Maybe this one is a native. Maybe she's a prisoner Ares took somewhere else who managed to escape. Maybe she's a spy." He shrugged. "We're hanging by a thread as it is. We can't afford to take chances."
Nova handed May a rifle. He checked it reflexively, then slung it on his shoulder. It had been determined over the course of the last few days that tools and expertise existed within the team to conceivably build and navigate a raft. It had also been determined that merely building and provisioning one would take weeks. Ares might come for them at any time. May hadn't the faintest idea what they could do even if the raft were built and launched. Ares could pick them up again or simply blow them out of the water. The more he thought about it the more it seemed that the best he could hope for was to spend the rest of his life on Blue Water... which might be a very long or a very short time, depending on how things went. He glanced at Ranthe, who'd taken a pistol and a sensor pack. As she came up to him May found himself doing something decidedly out of character: he enfolded her in his arms and kissed her passionately.
Ranthe started in shock. But instead of screaming, kicking, punching, or otherwise breaking away, she surrendered to May's embrace. That alarmed him because it seemed to out of character for her. Even as he broke away nervously a part of his mind couldn't help wondering: was it really that easy? Could I have done this years ago?
Ranthe glowered. "You always were an idiot when it came to women, May," she said, as if reading his thoughts. Then she spun him around and gave him a shove toward the jungle.
Kit sat on a bench against one wall of the tiny cell. Snowflake lay on the floor before him; he kept his arms around hir shoulders and shi kept hirs around his waist. The ship had flown for a while, then landed. Now they waited.
The cell door unlocked with a sequence of clanks and opened outward. A cat person who seemed to be a female version of Prince Ares stood outside. Like him she wore a machine pistol and sword strapped to her thighs and a cloak- brilliant, sapphire blue instead of yellow- clasped about her shoulders. Also like Ares she wore no other clothing. Kit found himself staring at her prominent, pink nipples, which due to the size of her breasts the cloak did not quite cover. Snowflake turned to look as well.
"You may call me Princess Angel," the woman said. Her voice, like the rest of her, seemed to be a female version of Ares'. "Please come with me. I will take you to your new quarters."
Kit rose to his feet. Angel stepped back into the hallway. At the door Kit glanced left and right. "What, no guards?" he inquired.
"I don't need them," Angel replied.
Snowflake's eyes narrowed. Hir tail lashed-
Angel's hand came up with the machine pistol in it so fast Kit blinked. She did not point it at Kit or Snowflake specifically but she could quite easily. "Even if you had weapons you wouldn't have a chance against me," she commented. Not in a bragging way but as a simple statement of fact.
Kit took Snowflake's hand, drawing hir gently to hir feet. He led hir out; she glared balefully at Angel, hir tail lashing.Once out of the cell Snowflake insisted on walking at Kit's side; that might have been a problem in the narrow corridors but it wasn't. The crew- all female, it seemed- cleared the passage for Angel even if it meant picking things up and moving them. After not a particularly long walk they left the ship through the same ramp as they'd boarded.
"Is that where we're headed?" Snowflake asked. Off to the ship's right a series of low, crudely made wooden buildings stood in a cleared gravel yard.
"No," Angel replied. "Those are for laborers. You'll be staying in one of our guest houses." She pointed astern of the ship. Four single story houses made of gray plastic sheeting formed a quad bordered by a low field stone wall. The exteriors looked plain but draperies hung in the windows.
"So we're guests now?" Kit inquired sardonically.
"Hostages are taken to insure the good behavior of other individuals or agencies," Angel said. "It behooves the hostage taker to keep them in good order since that maximizes their value when exchanged for concessions."
Snowflake halted suddenly and turned about. "And just what do you think May are and the others are going to do that you need to hold us?" shi blazed.
Angel stopped. The pistol remained in her hand, aimed at the sky. "Nothing," she replied, apparently not the lest bit concerned.
Kit's eyes narrowed. "It's not May and the others they're worried about," he said quietly. "We're here to protect them from Star."
Snowflake drew a sharp, shuddering breath and spun around again, this time facing Kit. "You- you mean she's alive?" The desperate hope in hir eyes tore at Kit's heart. He found himself unable to reply, his throat closed up tight. He put his arms around hir and hugged hir tightly. Snowflake burst out in wracking sobs.
Angel watched them, reaching out with her telepathic senses. Strong emotion turned Kit and Snowflake's minds into roiling, chaotic storms but Angel still managed to pick out curiously similar patterns in both of them. These two did have a low level telepathic connection with... something. She decided no to pursue that until she'd learned more; follow-up interrogations of the first batch of prisoners indicated that dire things had befallen telepaths who engaged Star incautiously.
"What did you do to Star?" Kit demanded in a cold, dangerous voice.
Angel's tail curled. In her mind she saw his rage and anger unfolding like a dark, poisonous flower. "We tried to kill her," she said. "We failed."
Snowflake twisted hir head around and hissed, hir ears laid back. Hir and kit's anger spoke even more directly to the connection, bringing it into sharper and clearer focus. "You should be careful," Angel added. "Your rage might drive Star to do something rash. Have you considered what she'd become if she killed us all in a fit of rage?"
That fetched them up short. Anger fell back in a welter of worry and self doubt. Each new contrast showed Angel new aspects of the connection; Kit and Snowflake's emotional turmoil kept them from noticing Angel's feather-light touch upon their minds. Angel resisted the urge to purr; without even realizing it Kit and Snowflake were delivering the key to Star's mind into her hands.
Something flashed through the link from the other direction. It came so fast Angel only just noticed its presence. Next thing she knew Snowflake had spun and leapt, all in the blink of an eye. Hir slashing forepaw claws caught Angel in the chest, flinging her backwards. The pistol spun out of her hand. Snowflake came down on her like a sledgehammer, slapping the breath out of her and raking viciously with hir hind claws. They would have torn open Angel's belly if not for the dermal armor just above the muscle layer.
Angel almost grabbed the sword from her thigh and drove it into Snowflake's lower chest but caught herself. Dead hostages weren't worth anything and she was annoyed at herself for letting herself get distracted. Instead she launched a series of lightning fast punches into Snowflake's ribs. She felt at least two of them crack under her knuckles. Snowflake yowled in pain and shied away; due to her cybernetically enhanced strength Angel's bare fists did as much damage as a lead weighted bat. Angel scrambled free of Snowflake and flipped dexterously into a crouch. Though the engagement had begun in a flash and lasted only seconds Kit hadn't wasted the opportunity; he ran for the fallen pistol. Angel's opinion of him rose; his courage would do credit even to a Toshigan. Nevertheless she couldn't let him have it; she leapt over Snowflake, intercepted him with a few long strides, and hooked his ankle with a deft kick. He went down heavily; the surface of the pad looked like dirt but felt as hard as concrete. Kit's jaw hit with an ominous crack and blood sprayed from his mouth. Before he could recover she kicked him in the ribs. The blow lifted him off the ground and dumped him on his side even though she hadn't used her full strength. He doubled up, wheezing and spitting blood. Angel scooped up the pistol and drew her sword before turning back to Snowflake, who despite hir cracked ribs had struggled to hir feet. Shi took a step, gathering hirself to leap-
Angel fired. The powergun didn't make much noise, just a sharp thump as superheated air exploded from, then slapped back into, the beam path. The plasma charge itself lit the scene with a cyan flash as bright as the noonday sun; Angel's cybernetically enhanced eyes cut the glare automatically, preserving her sight. The bolt struck Snowflake's left hind paw right above the toes; superheated fluid in hir own flesh blew hir foot apart as if shi'd stepped on a land mine. Shi screamed, rearing back, then went down heavily when hir weight came on the shattered, jagged bone ends protruding from a ring of charred flesh around hir ankle. The fur on hir leg had caught fire. Shi lay on the ground, thrashing and shrieking like a thousand fingernails on a thousand blackboards all at once. Kit screamed too, clawing at his face in a desperate attempt to clear his dazzled vision. Angel cursed under her breath and kicked him in the jaw, rendering him unconscious. She tapped the clasp holding her cape, activating the communications device built inside it. "Security and medical team to the pad, stat," she ordered briskly. She holstered the pistol even though the muzzle radiated enough heat to sear the fur on her thigh. She blamed herself for having let things get out of hand. Still, maybe it hadn't been a total loss. A maimed foot would make Snowflake less likely to run away. Nor did Kit seem like the sort who would leave hir behind. Not only that, she knew beyond a doubt that Star was alive... and responded, albeit indirectly, to a telepathic attack against her parents. Thus it came to pass, much to the medical team's surprise, that Angel started purring while they cleaned and closed the horrific cuts on her chest and belly.
Star emitted a signal that, in a tiny person, would be a gasp and coasted to a stop. She had become suddenly cognizant of two facts: her parents were alive... and in danger. For a subjective eternity- in truth no more than a fraction of a second- Star hung on the verge of blasting off into the sky and be damned what the aliens or the satellites did. But she still didn't know where her parents were. If Star acted rashly they might make good on the threat she felt looming over her parents' heads.
Swiftly and silently Star rose to the surface of the ocean. While still deep enough that she wouldn't make ripples she concentrated a moment, thinking of the water around her. The pastel glow in her skin faded, replaced by flickering blues, greens, and whites. To someone looking down from above it matched the color and texture of the ocean exactly. Then she eased out of the water without making a splash. She felt horribly naked and exposed; she'd just unmasked herself to any number of sensors the satellites above might be carrying. She wasn't worried about them seeing her; she could adjust the reflectivity and pattern of her hull to a broad range of electromagnetic radiation, rendering her effectively invisible to most radar and ladar systems. Furthermore, her body emitted very little in the way of waste energy; what it did she could adjust or conceal to some degree. What worried her the most was what she couldn't conceal. As she moved through the air she left whorls of turbulence behind her, just like a boat leaving a wake in water. Though transparent to the visible light spectrum a good quality Doppler radar could detect it. Moreover, pushing the air out of her way compressed it, therefore heating it. The faster she flew the hotter the air became. Even at low speeds- less than two hundred and fifty kilometers per hour- air flowing over her wings generated enough heat that an alert infra-red tracking system could detect it.
Star stayed low, around three hundred meters above the water, and pushed her speed up as high as she dared, around two hundred and twenty kilometers per hour. If the satellites moved to attack she resolved to shoot them down. With Mom and Dad in danger, now wasn't the time to be excessively cautious.
After washing his breakfast dishes May headed for the center of the camp. A hastily erected pavilion currently housed about half the camp's population and nearly all the scientists. At the center of things the mermaid lay face down on a cot, surrounded by instruments and machines set up on collapsible stands and empty crates. At the moment Dr. Favisham held the floor.
"As near as I can tell what we have here is a fish made as much like a Terran as possible," Dr. Favisham was saying. "Her skeleton is actual bone, not cartilage. Her digestive and waste elimination systems are identical, in general structure and function, to any of ours." She took in the assembled group with a wave. "She even has a four chambered heart. But she's not an endotherm; her body doesn't generate its own heat. Nevertheless, she has sweat glands. Her skin contains melanin to block UV rays and secretes oil to keep it supple in air. Her dental formula is optimized more for meat though she does have molars." Dr. Favisham gently parted the mermaid's lips with a probe; that delicate looking mouth contained sharp, pointed teeth that reminded May of a shark's.
"Does she actually breathe water?" someone asked.
"Yes," Dr. Favisham replied. "And air, too. About half her pulmonary tissue is lung and half gill. In water the lungs collapse and the gills inflate. In air the lungs inflate and the gills collapse. Two siphons, one on either side, expel the water she inhales through her mouth and nose." Dr. Favisham pointed out a small orifice on the side of the mermaid's body, just below her rib cage. "In air the siphons close and she breathes in and out through her nose and mouth. As near as I can tell she could survive on land indefinitely, though her skin is delicate and easily burned."
Several instruments beeped loudly. Dr. Favisham studied a display for a moment then leapt back with a yelp. The mermaid twitched, then pushed herself up. She looked around at the assembled crowd, her eyes wide, her mouth slightly agape. When she blinked a second set of clear lids slid sideways across her eyes underneath the regular lids. For a subjective eternity no one moved or spoke. The mermaid's mouth quivered... and she fell on her knees, hands clutched over her head, babbling. Her voice sounded shrill and thin, lacking low frequencies and harmonics, as if it came through a poor quality speaker.
"Stay back!" Dr. Favisham shouted as several scientists started forward. "If she hits you with one of those spine's you'll seriously regret it." The mermaid had spread her fins; since she lay huddled on her face the only safe direction from which to approach was from straight ahead.
May hadn't noticed Nova come up but he saw her now at the edge of the crowd. She carried her rifle in her hands, ready for use but not currently pointed at anything in particular. She cocked her head, her ears twitching. Then she spoke in what seemed to be the same language. The mermaid stopped wailing and looked up; she and Nova exchanged a few tentative words. Ever so slowly the mermaid got to her feet, looking around fearfully. She smiled halfheartedly.
"Nova, what the Hell did you say?" May exclaimed, astounded rather than angry.
"How did you happen to know the language?" Ranthe added.
"Just a few pleasantries and reassurances," Nova replied. "She's speaking Latin. I studied it in school as part of my linguistics training."
"How the blazes did you manage to study the language of a species nobody'd ever heard of?" Ranthe demanded.
"Latin's a ancient Terran language," Nova pointed out. "It was in common usage fifteen hundred to two thousand years ago."
"Then why the Hell is she speaking it?" May demanded, rounding on Nova but leveling a finger at the mermaid. She drew a sharp breath and fell on her face once more, speaking rapidly.
"Calm down, May, you're frightening her," Nova said sharply.
"Sorry." May hung his head sheepishly. He wasn't mad at the mermaid but at a situation that seemed to become more bizarre at every turn.
Nova listened for a moment then spoke reassuringly. "She's sorry she-" Nova made a tsk sound with her tongue against the roof of her mouth. "I don't know how to translate the word. For whatever it is she did to you. It might help things if you went over there and told her there's no hard feelings." Though phrased as a suggestion Nova's voice held a snap of command.
"What did she do to him?" Dr. Eikenburg inquired.
"She tsk him," Nova replied, repeating the clicking sound. "I have no idea what she means by it."
"Hmm." Dr. Favisham stroked her chin. "I bet I know." She walked up to the mermaid, slowly but without fear. "Nova, ask her to hold out her hands, palm up. I'm not going to do anything, I'm just explaining something to my friends."
Nova spoke. After she finished the mermaid did as requested. The black spotting ended on her forearms, leaving her wrists and hands white- except for a pair of dark half moon marks, one on the heel and one on the ball of each hand. "These black pads are electrodes," Dr. Favisham explained, gesturing- slowly- with a sensor wand. "They connect to a pair of organs that run the length of her body, all the way down to her feet. They generate powerful electric currents, as do similar organs in certain eels, rays, and catfish back on Terra."
"An electric mermaid," Takura muttered. "What will they think of next?"
"A poisonous electric mermaid," May added, eyeing the spines.
"May, she thinks we're gods from the sky," Nova put in. "Right now she's afraid we're going to strike her dead for what she did to you. I strongly suggest you tell her everything's okay."
"But-" May protested.
"Say what you'd say if she understood," Ranthe said, laying a hand on May's shoulder. "She'll understand the tone if not the words. Just... make sure you say it like you mean it."
"But- but- but-" May stammered.
"May, listen to me," Ranthe interrupted, laying her hands on his cheeks. "I know you can do it. Because of you Sundown agreed to help us even though we shot hir and kidnapped hir. You did it with Star, too. Just... say what's in your heart." She gave him a lick on the nose, very gently.
May looked at the mermaid, then at Ranthe, licking his lips uneasily. She gave him a thumb's up. He returned it, and with no further delay approached the mermaid. She glanced up, then quickly covered her head. May knelt, gently touching her head with one hand. She flinched. With gentle pressure he induced her to look up, then to rise. She was, he was surprised to note, nearly as tall as him. She watched him, with her large, dark eyes; every so often her inner lids blinked but her outer lids never moved. He took her hands; her flesh felt oddly cool to the touch. "It's all right," she said gently. "We don't want to hurt you. We... we're explorers. You... you're who we came here to see." As he spoke her fins gradually relaxed; May drew her close and hugged her. She quivered for an instant- then pressed herself into his arms, breaking down into heart-rending sobs.
"May sure seems to have the touch," Takura commented.
Ranthe shook her head. "You'd never know it from some of the things he's put me through." She rolled her eyes. "I think he's just lucky."
"I'd rather be consistently lucky than consistently good," Takura replied.
The mermaid spoke. Nova moved through the crowd and knelt beside her and May, listening and occasional speaking.
"What's the lowdown?" Takura asked once the conversation trailed off.
"Her name is Arwen," Nova reported. "She came to this island on a raft with six other mermaids. They were crossing the ocean from another chain of islands and have been travelling for many days. She saw a trail in the sky that led her here; I think she saw the passenger module coming down. While crossing the reef at the mouth of the lagoon they were attacked by a sea creature. One of the others tsked it. That knocked Arwen unconscious. She came to in the lagoon and couldn't find any trace of her friends but she saw us swimming. Drawn by the hand lights she came up. When May started drowning he grabbed her and she let him have it."
"Ah." Dr. Eikenburg nodded. "The current paralyzed his heart and diaphragm."
"Apparently," Nova concurred. "Anyway, she spent the next couple days searching for her friends and wondering about us. She was there when Ares' ship came down. She thought it was a sign from God and decided to come up and see us."
"And walked into the autogun," Takura put in.
"Exactly so." Nova nodded. "She doesn't know anything about Ares or us. She was born here and so far as she knows her people have always lived here."
"That being so, she could be of invaluable assistance," Takura pointed out. "If she knows about navigation and raft building, what's safe to eat and what isn't, local diseases, and all that."
May looked at Arwen. He felt a sudden kinship with her; they'd both braved the unknown only to be cast up on alien shores. For both of them first contact had gone badly but they persevered. This had led May to new, powerful friendships... and he wanted the same for Arwen. "Then we should help her find her friends," he announced. "Does she have any idea what happened to them?"
"She thinks they're hiding up at the high end of the island," Nova replied.
"That would make sense," Dr. Kenross commented. "There'd be lots of clefts and caves up there. Plenty of places to hide."
May stood up. The ancient volcano that had poured forth the lava on which he stood occupied the thickest part of the island, the base of the claw. Reaching it by following the coast would be a long, circuitous process but from the head of the lagoon it didn't look far at all. "Then we'll organize an expedition," he pronounced. "We'll hike up there and have a look."
"Are we planning to take Arwen with us?" Dr. Favisham inquired.
"I'd say we have to," May replied. "Wouldn't be practical for us to search under water."
"Then you'd best plan on moving slowly or carrying her," Dr. Favisham cautioned. "Her feet aren't designed for long hikes."
May glanced at Arwen's feet. Unlike actual swim fins they flexed at the toe but he couldn't imagine that she'd find walking especially comfortable. "Can we make shoes for her?" he asked.
"Cut the straps off a pair of sandals and add one across the instep," Dr. Sturges suggested.
"She'll need a hat and cloak too, to protect her from the sun," Dr. Favisham put in.
A lively debate sprang up as suggestions and counter-suggestions flew back and forth. Arwen watched passively until, to demonstrate a point, Dr. Penassi started weaving a sun hat. Quite suddenly Arwen lost her reticence, leaping to her feet and speaking at length, then grabbing the fronds and setting to work herself. As May turned to go Arwen and Dr. Penassi began a vociferous discussion; that neither understood the other's language seemed to concern them not at all.
"Takura," May said, approaching that individual, "I'd like to have everything ready so we can set out tomorrow morning."
Takura nodded. "I'm on it."
"Great. Thanks." May clapped her on the shoulder and sought out Dr. Eikenburg.
"The nose doing all right?" Dr. Eikenburg inquired as May came up.
"Well enough, I guess," May replied. Kissing Ranthe wasn't an exercise in masochism any more but he didn't care to mention that. "I'd like you to give Aurora the nanites to heal her legs. Shi's the only one of us who can effectively carry Arwen if it comes to that."
Dr. Eikenburg frowned. "That's not in Aurora's best interests. It's very rare, I'll admit, but there have been cases where the nanites come in conflict with a person's natural bone growth patterns."
"How often are the defects bad enough to require surgery?" May wanted to know.
"Juggling probabilities doesn't justify putting a patient at risk," Dr. Eikenburg countered flatly.
May's mouth worked. He wanted to laugh and cry at the same time. "Doc," he finally said, "We don't seem to be on the same page here. You're talking about
"What if I say it's an order?"
"I say it's an immoral and unjust one," Dr. Eikenburg replied.
"Even if Aurora agrees with me?"
"My duty is to serve hir long term interests, not hir short term wants."
"Do you believe that Aurora's long term interests will be served if
"Is it in Aurora's best interests as a patient is Ares blows hir head off?" May asked in exactly the same tone as before.
"May-" the doctor began.
"Of course it really won't matter," May interrupted. "
The doctor frowned. "There's a distinct possibility shi might develop defects in hir long bones that would require corrective surgery later in life," he pointed out. "I don't feel the risk is worth the short term gain."
"When are these defects most likely to become a problem?" May wanted to know.
"In the early hundreds, as hir bones begin to decalcify," Dr. Eikenburg replied.
May resisted the urge to laugh.
The doctor frowned. "If I do that there is a distinct possibility that shi may, develop defects in hir long bones that will require extensive corrective surgery."
"I realize that," May replied. "But I need hir for the expedition to find Arwen's friends. Shi can carry Arwen on hir back."
"That's likely to make hir leg problems worse," Dr. Eikenburg pointed out.
"Doctor-" May caught himself beginning to speak sharply. That wasn't the right way to handle this. "So long as shi's immobilized shi's stuck here," he said, forcing himself to remain calm. "If... something happens unexpectedly we'll have to abandon hir. Besides, we need every able body."
"I understand your concern, Mayuandi, but I can't countenance the risk to hir health," Dr. Eikenburg replied.
May gritted his teeth. He wanted to laugh and scream and the same time. "Doctor, You don't understand my concerns," he said shortly. "You're treating Aurora as if shi were a patient in a hospital back on Chakona. If that were so we wouldn't be having this discussion. I wouldn't presume to question your professional judgement. But we're not on Chakona. We're in the middle of a war zone."
"But-" the doctor began.
"Doctor, the instant Ares opened fire on the Sutherland a state of war existed between whoever he represents and the Stellar Federation," May interrupted. "Maybe the rest of the Federation doesn't know about it yet but we do. You may think Ares has decided to leave us alone since he
do you really think Ares is going to let us live?"
Dr. Eikenburg opened his mouth. His jaw worked a couple times, then closed.
"The only reason we're still alive is because it's not worth Ares' time to blow us all away," May continued in a sharp whisper. "But if a rescue mission shows up do you think Ares is going to leave is here to warn them and tell them exactly what happened? Hell no. The instant he even suspects we might be discovered he'll kill us all and dump our bodies in the deepest trench. If he can't hide from or ambush the rescue mission he'll probably slick talk them. I'd be pretty easy if there's no one here to dispute what he says."
"Having problems, May?" Ranthe inquired.
"Ms. Narbalek, Mayuandi is trying to-" Dr. Eikenburg began.
"Yes, I heard," Ranthe cut in. "And I happen to agree with him. Leaving Aurora behind is not an option."
"I can't-" the doctor began.
"Doctor-" Ranthe cut in sharply.
"Never mind," May interjected. "He doesn't know. It's not real for him. He... he still thinks we'll survive." He started chuckling; he couldn't help it. The sound just bubbled out of him.
Dr. Eikenburg took a step back, his face turning a deathly pale. What he saw in May's eyes terrified him like nothing he'd ever seen in his entire life.
"Forget him," Ranthe said. "We'll do it ourselves."
"Wait," Dr. Eikenburg said hurriedly as Ranthe turned away.
"Why?" Ranthe countered but she paused.
"I'll do it," The doctor mumbled. "But only if Aurora agrees after being properly informed of the risks. And one other condition."
"Which is?" May inquired.
Dr. Eikenburg swallowed, then looked behind him at the crowd around Arwen. "You take me with you."
May resisted the urge to smile. "Glad to have you, Doc," he said, clapping Dr. Eikenburg on the arm. "Now let's get moving."
Kali rose cautiously out of the grass, only just enough to get a clear view with the magic spyglass she'd stolen from one of Ares' soldiers. An ordinary spyglass would bring things closer; this one not only did that- with incredible clarity- but could see in total darkness or in such a way that made warm things glow. Because of this final ability she could see clearly into the compound even though dusk had fallen. The workers appeared as luminous white blobs as they left the main excavation and headed for the eating hall. Unfortunately, whatever quality that caused hot things to appear as glowing also tended to scrub away details. Nevertheless Kali could easily tell the difference between workers and Ares' soldiers. For one the soldiers were bigger, and their armor- which seemed to be made of stone instead of metal- made them look blocky. Aside from that, there was something in how the soldiers carried themselves. Like conquerors.
Ever so cautiously Kali stole forward, keeping so low her chest almost touched the ground. Sneaking in amongst the laborers wouldn't be difficult. Nor would it be productive; the laborers lived outside the prince's own defenses. What Kali wanted lay alongside the field of hardened earth upon which Ares' flying fortress stood. His soldiers had dug several bunkers, roofed them with timbers and dirt, and installed in them a number of very special prisoners. They were special because Ares had brought them back in his flying fortress, which in two and a half years she'd never seen him do. Not only that, these prisoners looked... different. Large, like Ares' own people. With odd looking clothes, the likes of which Kali had never seen before. Their arrival signified something important. of that Kali had no doubt. The only question was how to get hold of one so that she might find out what. Which begged the question of how to safely pass the lightning spitters mounted on the flying fortress.
In the past two and a half years Kali had probed Ares' defenses carefully and methodically. There was no place anywhere near the fortress the lightning spitters could not reach, even in the air above it. Nor could the spitters be fooled by invisibility spells. A person in gaseous form could approach but the fortress had around it an invisible barrier that prevented entry by such means. It extended just far enough to enclose the new bunkers. The only thing she hadn't tried yet was digging. She'd seriously considered it a number of times but never worked up the courage. None of her other efforts left any identifiable traces; a tunnel wasn't something that could be hidden. She couldn't risk that Ares might connect the penetration to her. Merely contemplating what might happen in that eventuality sent a shiver down her spine.
Almost exactly one year ago the army of King Thanbar arrived in the central highlands to deal with Prince Ares, whom the king regarded as an upstart. Primarily, Kali suspected, because Ares refused to swear fealty or pay taxes to the king. Ares met the force of four hundred footmen and one hundred cavalry with two dozen of his warrior women. Using hand-held lightning spitters and magic vehicles that could move faster than a hawk on the wing they destroyed the entire army. Ares left only a single survivor, who he sent back to tell Thanbar what had happened. The shattered corpses still littered the plains half a day's journey to the south and no one disputed Ares' dominion over the central highlands. Kali did not believe that Ares knew the location of her fortress but she deemed it imprudent to tempt fate.
Kali put away the magic spyglass and skirted the edge of Ares' camp. Though it wasn't hardly a camp any more; there were barracks for the workers, a smithy, storage warehouses, farms, even a granary. He'd turned the site into a regular town. That bothered Kali to no end. Exactly how long did Ares plan to stay here?
Unfortunately Kali suspected that she knew the answer. Ares planned to stay until he figured out how to awaken the Voice of God.
Kali felt a shiver of superstitious dread as she approached the main pit. No guards or magic devices protected this area; it wasn't necessary. The Voice of God stood in the center of the pit; it looked like a black sphere about twice the height of an average person. Before Ares cut away the dirt it had lain buried its own diameter below the ground. When Kali looked at it through the magic spyglass it looked as black as it did to the naked eye. At various times Ares had loosed upon it a terrifying array of infernal devices; at one time he'd even shot it with a lightning spitter. Nothing he'd done had the slightest observable effect. Now he had his subjects digging up ruins and relics all over the place; his excavations dotted the highlands. Kali grinned, so it turned out that some things were even beyond the mighty Ares.
A thought came suddenly to Kali. She backed into the grass and headed around to the checkpoint between the laborer's village and Ares' fortress. She came boldly along the road now, her torso proudly erect. Sometimes the best way to tackle a problem was head on.
"What do you want, Black Snake?" One of the guards called.
Kali glowered. Only one of Ares' soldiers would dare call her that. "I am here to have an audience with your master," she declared, loading the statement with as much haughty disdain as she could.
"Why would our master wish to speak with you, Black Snake?" one of the guards inquired, shifting her lightning spitter into the crook of her arm.
Kali clenched her fists. You think I couldn't incinerate you where you stand, lightning spitter or no lightning spitter? But she hadn't come to pick a fight. "If your master has any interest in the oldest documented copy of the Book of the Dead then he wants to speak with me. If not, I shan't waste his time." She turned about and headed away, nose in the air, not bothering to look back. If Ares wanted to deal, let him come to her. Like any good commander Kali appreciated the importance of maintaining the initiative in any engagement.
Rainsong rested on her hands and knees, her backside toward Ares. It was, Ares would have to say, a very nicely formed backside, full and round but nonetheless firm. Her vulva winked from between her ample buttocks like a delicate, pink flower. Ares gripped those buttocks and drew them towards him, guiding his shaft into her. With that taken care of he slipped his right hand between Starshine's legs and his left between Snowstar's. After ejaculating he would have the women rotate positions.
At any other time in his life he would have said that making love to three women a night- different ones every evening, no less- was the next best thing to Heaven. He was still young enough that he'd never say he didn't like it but what he was doing came perilously close to being work instead of recreation, a thing he couldn't have imagined before coming here. The sad fact was that Ares had failed to properly anticipate the consequences of being one of only two males on board a ship full of energetic young females. When it came right down to it they didn't take to being deprived of sex any better than a crew of young men would have. They tended not to express their displeasure in overtly violent ways but that didn't make the problem any less real. Ares found himself having to choose partners on the basis of maintaining harmony rather than his own preferences. Expressing favoritism would lead to discipline problems he couldn't afford, not with so much work to be done. Nor could he let anyone go too long without. With fifty-five women in the crew that meant he ended up with between two and four partners a night, every night. Sometimes he wondered who was servicing whom.
The cabin door hissed open, revealing Angel. "Sire, I apologize for interrupting," she began. Her eyes left his for an instant, flicking over the three naked women around him. "Kali Nagaina is here. She claims to have a complete copy of the Book of the Dead."
Ares froze in mid-motion. Rainsong looked over her shoulder at him. "Tell her that I will see her in the reception hall," he said, resuming his ministrations. If Kali really did have a copy of the Book of the Dead that certainly warranted his immediate attention but it wouldn't do at all to let her think she had him at her beck and call.
"Yes, Sire." Angel closed the door.
To Be Continued