Rocket Man III: Revenge of the Spider Queen
by John R. Plunkett

After his well publicized success at the Balastrae Conference, saving the Procosian ambassador from assassination at the hands of the mysterious Weapon O, Lieutenant Steven Steele and the gallant crew of the Survey Service vessel D'Artagnan return to Regulus to receive their accolades and for a much deserved rest. But unknown to them Weapon O was not killed when her ship was shot down by Blastrae's orbital defense fortresses. In fact, she secretly followed the lieutenant to Ambassador Rozita's private villa on Maraush (where he spent two weeks, at the ambassador's insistence, as reward for his heroism). Now, as the D'Artagnan makes her final approach to Regulus Base, it turns out that Weapon O left a "going away" present....

"Stop that!" Ensign Banya Arlie protested, batting at D'Artagnan's hands as he reached around from behind to fondle her breasts. But she couldn't help giggling.

"Is that what you really want?" D'Artagnan countered with a wolfish grin, stepping directly in front of Banya and slipping a hand between her thighs. In that position his body projected half out of the instrument cluster, blocking it and her forward view. He appeared to be a svelte, devilishly handsome gray fox; at the moment he wore a Burgundy tunic, brown pants, and boots with wide cuffs. A blue tabard, trimmed with silver and emblazoned with an ornate silver cross on the front and back overlay his tunic; a wide brimmed hat sporting an ostrich feather plume sat jauntily on his head.

"Get off, you electronic lech!" Banya shouted, slapping D'Artagnan's face. Or trying to, at any rate; her hand passed right through him. He had no physical presence; he was nothing but an image projected by the ship's holographic display system. Strictly speaking she shouldn't feel his touch any more than she could touch him; she did because he injected signals into the cyberlink that allowed her to interface directly with the ship's navigation and piloting systems. However, that the sensory inputs were simulated did not make the experience of them any less real. Banya's heart rate picked up and her nipples stiffened.

"That's what I'm trying to do," D'Artagnan protested mildly, but he bowed with a flourish and sank out of sight into the floor.

"Regulus control to SSC-429," the comm chirped. "Be advised that you are entering restricted space. Please authenticate."

"Roger, Regulus control," Banya responded, keying the authentication code into the IFF transponder. She smiled, reflecting that typing the code was, realistically, her only purpose to being in the cockpit right now. D'Artagnan could fly the ship to touchdown without any human intervention but he couldn't operate the IFF transponder. As a security measure it wasn't linked into the ship's computer system. "Authenticating now." She pressed the 'Commit' button.

"We have your authentication, SSC-429. Vector to approach Theta one-niner and stand by to receive weather slug. Welcome back, D'Artagnan."

"Roger, Regulus." Banya grinned. "Thanks. It's good to be back."

"Captain Jenner sends his regards and wonders if you'll doing the honor of sharing a drink in the O-club," the controller continued.

Banya couldn't help drawing a quick breath. But no; Captain Jenner didn't want to have a drink with Ensign Banya Arlie. He meant D'Artagnan's whole crew... or just Lieutenant Steele. "Tell the captain we'd love to," she said, hoping that the rather forced cheerfulness in her tone didn't go through.

"That's a roger, SSC-429. Regulus out."

"Don't bother yourself with that old windbag," D'Artagnan whispered into Banya's ear. She felt his warm breath against her fur; he seemed to be standing behind her, though that would place him inside the bulkhead. "You're a beautiful, desirable woman Banya," D'Artagnan continued, stroking her ears gently. "If the Jenners of the galaxy can't see that, then too bad for them." He bent her right ear back and licked the inside of it. She drew a sharp breath; being a rabbit, her ears were large and very sensitive. And D'Artagnan knew just what to do with them. Protests formed in Banya's mind but never made it to her lips. When he devoted himself to her ears, surrender was inevitable.

Viewed in the proper context, Banya was indeed quite pretty. She stood a bit more than average height, not counting her ears. Her figure was full and voluptuous but not plump; her breasts, though large, were firm and round, her hips broad and smoothly curved. The waist in between flared nicely, her belly soft but not loose. Her legs lived up to the promise of her hips, having substantial thighs and elegantly proportioned calves and feet. Her arms and hands followed the same pattern, being long, trim but not skinny, and masterfully shaped. Her pelt, however, comprised patches of white, black, gray, tan, and brown as if it had been stitched together from scraps. Which was in fact the case; Banya's previous ship, the Goldenfels, had suffered a catastrophic thruster failure on landing and flipped onto her back. The surgeons had done what they could, which amounted to stitching parts together until they had a handful of more or less complete survivors. Even so, there hadn't been enough usable bits to go around. Banya's right arm from just above the elbow on down and both her legs from the crotch down were made of lustrous, organically contoured metal. Her eyes lacked pupils or irises, being instead faceted like an insect's, and glittering like diamonds.

While D'Artagnan applied himself to Banya's ears a second pair of hands shimmered into being which stroked the sides of her torso, then massaged her breasts, their fingers gently tweaking her nipples. Yet another pair applied themselves to her waist, belly, and hips. A fourth pair gently parted her knees, caressed the insides of her thighs, and rubbed her crotch. Being a computer generated simulacra meant that D'Artagnan did not suffer the limits of physicality; if he so chose he could manifest as many extra body parts, or even whole bodies, as the ship's computer had the processing power to support.

Banya released the straps holding her to the pilot's chair and quickly wriggled out of her flight suit. Strictly speaking it wasn't necessary, since the sensation of D'Artagnan's touch came not from her skin but was instead injected directly into her brain by way of two cyberjacks, one mounted just behind each ear. However, the emotional need to get naked overrode her intellectual understanding of the situation. Just as she understood- intellectually- that D'Artagnan was an artificial intelligence program running in the ship's computer and not a 'real' man at all. But no man of flesh and blood had ever said with such unassailable conviction that he loved her, that he found her beautiful, desirable, and captivating. When Banya needed to unburden her soul D'Artagnan was always there, ready to lend a sympathetic ear. When she craved companionship he was there too: never once had he averted his eyes because of her odd appearance, nor had he ever shied from the touch of her cybernetic arm or legs. Her brain might sometimes wonder if what they shared was real or just an illusion. Her heart neither knew nor cared.

A complete and naked D'Artagnan appeared in front of Banya as she settled back into the pilot's chair, her hips scooted forward and her knees over the arms. His hands stroked up and down the sides of her torso while he licked her neck and face. Banya pulled him tight against her, reveling in the sensation of her breasts crushed against his chest, her tongue ardently exploring his mouth. His firmly erect penis rubbed teasingly against her vulva; she grabbed his buttocks and forced them down. His glans slid easily past her labia; they pouted invitingly and glistened wetly with a generous coating of fluid. She cried out and clawed at his shoulders as he thrust into her.

The cockpit had no view ports but Banya, through her cybernetic link to the computer, received a panoramic view as if she were perched right on the ship's nose. Regulus hung below her, a blue-white arc that flattened as the ship descended toward it. The image quality degraded some as D'Artagnan stole bandwidth from the video system to enhance other sensory channels; Banya didn't notice any more than she felt the buffeting as the ship passed through the upper atmosphere or the bright streamers of ionized gas streaming away aft as the ship scrubbed off its orbital velocity.


Regulus grew in the view ports, a beautiful, blue-white arc hanging in space. The ship buffeted slightly as it entered the upper atmosphere and the sky lightened from black to deep purple. Bright streamers of fire trailed past the view ports as air friction scrubbed away the ship's orbital velocity. Banya now had D'Artagnan's penis- another one, at any rate- in her mouth, sucking greedily. She heard him groan; she tasted the first drops of pre-ejaculate-

A tremendous shock shook the D'Artagnan from stem to stern. It coincided exactly with Banya's orgasm so she didn't notice. She did notice when D'Artagnan's moans of pleasure cut off in a howl of electronic interference and every part of him seemed to turn to broken glass, tearing painfully at her inside and out. She screamed, rearing back and tearing the datalink cable out of its socket.

Red warnings flashed all over the instrument cluster. Sirens hooted. The ship's nose bobbled up and down, wandering away from the glide path. "D'Artagnan!" Banya screamed, struggling to right herself. She bumped the stick and the ship flopped over on its back. The nose pogoed up and down, throwing Banya around like a bean in a whistle. She caught a stanchion with her right hand and held on for dear life while high-altitude turbulence worried the ship like a terrier killing a rat. Blood stained the fur on her left forearm though she didn't remember cutting herself. By main force she dragged herself to the pilot's chair. Fortunately the ship rolled upright and she managed to strap in. She grabbed the stick but it swung loose in her hand. "Mayday, mayday, this is SSC-429 to Regulus control, our main c- c- computer's down and we've lost primary flight control," she called, stumbling over the words. Her electronic eyes didn't have tear ducts so she couldn't cry, but that didn't stop her from sobbing. Oh, D'Artagnan, please don't be dead, she fervently prayed.

Commander Ramrod let out an inarticulate yell as he orgasmed. His semen erupted in Luna's mouth, not in short spurts but long pulses. Luna wondered if the length of his penis had something to do with it.

Suddenly the commander's cock wasn't in Luna's mouth any more. It wasn't between her breasts either. The reason was that they'd both left the bed in different trajectories. She crashed against the wall hard enough that the world momentarily dissolved in a spray of pulsating light. Steven did an ungainly flip and landed face down, still pumping away. He screamed when his stiff tool hit the deck, driven by the weight of his body. He still lay there, moaning and clutching at his crotch, when Luna finally recovered. She found herself rolling across the deck, which pitched like that of an ocean ship in a storm. She tried to rise but the deck threw her back down. This time she took the blow on her chest instead of her face, fortunate since her chest had much better padding. She caught the railing along the cabin wall and pulled herself up. She could only stay up by hanging on with both hands. "Steve!" she screamed. "We're out of control!"

Steven struggled to his feet, clinging to the wall as Luna did. His penis had retracted but Luna saw a livid, purple bruise where he'd bent it in his fall. "Christ on a crutch!" he snarled. "Luna, get to the computer core! Something must have happened to D'Artagnan!"

"Okay!" Luna almost lost her grip when she released one hand to operate the door controls. Keeping a firm grip on the railing she worked her way aft. Steve waited, then ran as the room tipped. He managed to get it just right so that the deck's motion arrested his plunge rather than slamming him into the wall. He hurried along, riding the pitching deck like a cowboy on an unruly bronco. As such he reached the cockpit long before Luna reached the computer core.

"Sir, the primary flight controls and the emergency backups are both offline," Banya screamed as Steven caromed into the cockpit.

"Bugger me!" Steven growled, hauling himself into the copilot's chair. He didn't need instruments to know that D'Artagnan was coming in too steep and on the verge of departing into an uncontrollable spin. If that happened at their current speed air friction would tear the ship apart. The stick and pedals moved freely; they weren't connected to anything anymore. When he wiggled the trim controls he felt a reaction; they at least still worked. "Banya, bring up the docking thrusters!" he ordered. "We gotta get this pig under control Now!"

"Yes sir!" Banya braced her right arm and used her left to operate the controls. If she tried using her right hand with the ship pitching like this she'd end up stabbing her finger right through something.

The sky turned from purple to deep blue and the view ports cleared. Now D'Artagnan was flying instead of falling from space but they weren't out of the woods yet. Banya managed to stop the ship's wild gyrations and Steven held it more or less straight and level but they were still descending much too fast and he couldn't hold a heading.

"Regulus control to SSC-429, state your condition."

"We have the ship under control but we've sustained moderate structural damage," Steven replied, glancing at the engineering readouts. "We still have no primary flight control and no lateral stability. If I pull the nose up she'll flip on her back."

"Roger, SSC-429. We're rolling the crash crews now and a tug is on its way."

"Banya, nav display," Steve ordered. Banya punched up a scrolling map; D'Artagnan's course showed as a jagged line. Their projected impact point danced over the map as the nose hunted this way and that. "Regulus control, I'm gonna be lucky if I can hit the port reservation," Steve said grimly. For a moment the impact point held steady smack dab in the middle of Newport City.

"Roger that," Regulus Control replied after a pregnant pause. "Advise you abandon ship."

"Sir, if we do that they'll shoot him down," Banya said.

Steve licked his lips. As the ship tried to roll off he twirled the trim dials. Slowly, mushily, it came back but their heading had slewed a good fifteen degrees. He knew about Banya and D'Artagnan; the ship wasn't so very large and he, Banya, and Luna its only crew.

No. D'Artagnan might be a computer but he was a member of the crew as much as any of them. Without a doubt he'd served, loyally and capably. "Negative, Regulus control," Steve decided. "If we bail, who knows where he'll come down. We'll get down safely. I'm just not sure where."

"Roger, SSC-429. God speed."

"That's an affirm, Regulus Control," Steve replied, with feeling. "Luna-" he continued, but with D'Artagnan off line the comm system wouldn't auto-route. "Banya, patch me to the computer core."

"Aye aye, sir." Banya brought the intercom on line in manual mode.

"Luna, what's going on back there?" Steve asked.

"It's a mess," Luna replied. "There was an explosive of some sort hidden in D'Artagnan's motor relay block."

Banya just managed not to cry out. If D'Artagnan's cortical nodes hadn't been destroyed there was still hope that he might survive. Almost at once her relief gave way to rush of hot anger. Someone had tried to kill him.

"Can you get the flight controls back on line?" Steve asked.

"In an hour, sure," Luna replied.

Steve glanced at the rapidly unwinding altimeter. "We don't have that long," he said. "Get up here and strap down. Wherever we land, it ain't gonna be gentle."

"On my way," Luna replied. Though it only took her a few minutes to reach the cockpit, in that time D'Artagnan reversed course twice. At least now they were headed out into the countryside and not the middle of downtown. Luna stepped into the cockpit and gave Steve a kiss on the cheek. "For luck," she explained.

"Thanks, Luna," Banya said. "We need it." Steve gave a quick nod.

"Emergency landing checklist," Steve called.

"Emergency landing checklist, aye," Banya replied, punching up the menu. She ran through the list quickly but calmly.

"Leave the gear up," Steve interrupted at one point.

"Gear up, aye," Banya replied, taking her hand away from the landing gear control lever.

"Just before touchdown I'm gonna dial in as much nose up as I can," Steve continued. "You'll have to help me with the thrusters. If we're lucky, she won't flip over on impact."

"Aye sir," Banya responded grimly. She used both hands on the thruster controls, Steve noticed.

Through the view ports Steven saw gently rolling grassland crossed by narrow rills and occasionally dotted by copses of trees. He barely noticed; he certainly didn't have time to see. At the moment scenery only mattered in how it would impede landing. All too easily he could imagine the ship hitting a clump of trees or catching a slope the wrong way. If so the ship would most likely come apart and they'd all die. "Now!" he shouted, rolling the pitch trim all the way back.

Banya set the bow thrusters on maximum while easing back on the stern. Trying to balance a ship on thrusters alone- without electronic stabilization- was like standing on one stilt. Banya did absolutely the best she could but nevertheless D'Artagnan was both yawing and pitching when she hit. Terrain actually saved them; the slope of a hill hardly visible from the air caught the ship and threw it onto a more or less straight line. The nose came down with a horrendous crash that hit Steve like a club to the solar plexus, leaving him struggling for breath and his vision pulsing with bright gold and purple spots. He gripped the stick because he needed to grip something; at this stage of the journey he was just along for the ride. D'Artagnan went over a low rise, leapt into the air, and came down with another crash. The starboard stabilator fin tore away and she rolled onto the stump. Just before going onto her back another impact flung her upright. Steve opened his eyes, realizing that the noise had stopped. The deck canted about thirty degrees down to the left. The cockpit emergency lights had come on but most of the instruments still functioned. They were down and stopped.

"Abandon ship!" Steve ordered, struggling out of his chair. Even through his fleece the straps had cut into this flesh. He waited for Banya to get free, then both of them had to help Luna. In the cabin just behind the cockpit Steve blew the portside escape hatch; with the punishment the lower hull had taken the main hatch probably wouldn't open. The inflatable ramp deployed; he sent Luna down first, then Banya, then himself. His momentum threw him to his feet but his legs felt rubbery; he dropped to his knees, then on his face. He lay in a bed of brightly colored flowers set in soft, dark soil. He lifted his head and looked around; D'Artagnan had come through a low stone wall and landed in a large, beautifully landscaped garden. At least it had been before the ship plowed it like a fleet of bulldozers driven by monkeys.

For a moment Steven wondered where the heck they could be. Just as a squad of Imperial marines came hurrying up he remembered. The port reservation extended a long way east of Regulus Base; over the years various officers had appropriated plots in which to build villas. This had to be one of them. Steve struggled to his feet; fear re-energized him. Coming down in the middle of Newport City might not have been so bad after all. "Do you have a corpsman?" he asked. "I need to check my crew for-"

Steven stopped because, in glancing at Banya and Luna, he saw that they were naked. Which reminded him that he was undressed.

Someone else came up behind the marines. She wore a Naval greatcoat of black trimmed with silver. She resembled a cougar; though clearly in her late forties or early fifties she still looked quite handsome. She looked not at the ship, nor Luna and Banya, but at Steve. Specifically, the portions of him below the waist. "My word," she commented with a flick of the tail. "I'd heard stories, of course, but I never imagined."

"S- sir!" Steve barked, coming to attention and saluting.

Admiral Lady Julietta Nelson, supreme commander of the Imperial Eastern Arm fleet, lifted her gaze to Commander Ramrod's face and returned his salute. "Glad to see you and your crew down safely, Commander. Though I can't help wonder why you're all out of uniform."

Steve swallowed. Yes, coming down in the middle of Newport City would have been better. Dying in a ball of flame in the upper atmosphere would have been better, for that matter.

Ensign Hawkes strode onto the bridge. He drew himself up before Ensign Bessa and saluted crisply. "Ensign Hawkes to relieve you, sir."

Ensign Bessa returned the salute. "I am relieved," she announced, and grinned. "You better believe I'm relieved."

Ensign Hawkes grinned also. "No less relieved than I'll be in four hours." He just resisted the urge to give Ensign Bessa a pat on the buttocks. That wouldn't be appropriate behavior on the bridge. The Empress Catherine might be a liner rather than a warship but the line had standards to maintain.

"I'll be waiting," Ensign Bessa replied over her shoulder, throwing a little extra wiggle into her walk. Ensign Hawkes pulled off his white dress cover and fanned himself with it. Carli Bessa was a fox, literally and figuratively. He hadn't the faintest idea how she made her tail gleam like that but it looked like a flame sprouting from her buttocks. It felt like silk. Ensign Hawkes looked forward to touching it as much as the rest of her... and the rest of her was pretty damn good. Though Terrence Hawkes could honestly say he wasn't so bad himself. His dun colored coyote's pelt lacked- and never would have- the luster of Carli's tail but genetics had gifted him with a well proportioned body, which he kept lean and hard through regular exercise. It certainly helped that he didn't lack for exercise partners, such as Carli for instance.

An alarm snapped Ensign Hawkes out of his reverie. "Sir, a ship is de-folding close inboard," a rating called from the sensor board.

"Warn them off!" Ensign Hawkes shouted. "We have precedence-"

"Sir, it's a Spider Clan warship!" the rating interrupted in a voice shrill with fear.

Ensign Hawkes' mouth worked. He hesitated only a second but in that time three more raiders materialized. "Launch a message beacon!" he commanded. Even as the words left his mouth the Empress Catherine shuddered. More alarms shrilled and warnings flashed on the bridge displays.

"Sir, they've shot away our beacon launcher and communication array," a different rating reported.

Ensign Hawkes licked his suddenly bone dry lips. Escape might still be possible if he took the Empress Catherine into an emergency fold. But all sorts of things could go wrong. If they escaped they could end up hopelessly lost. If they didn't they'd be at the mercy of an enemy who treated very harshly with anyone who resisted.

"Sir, they're hailing us," the communications rating announced.

"O- on screen," Ensign Hawkes replied. "A- and call the captain to the bridge."

On the main view screen, there appeared the interior of a bridge about a third the size of the Empress Catherine's. It was, however, very clearly the bridge of a warship- as emphasized by the fact that the commander, seated on a raised chair at the center of the room, wore a bulky powered suit. Despite this, the commander's sex was not in doubt: she was quite obviously female. Her gleaming black metal and ceramic armor had been deliberately shaped to emphasize feminine curves. Her breastplate came equipped with a pair of amazingly large breasts, complete with nipples. Under other circumstances Ensign Hawkes might have found that quite interesting; instead he quickly noted the red hourglass symbol on her belly and the oval design on her left upper arm showing a black spider against a red field. Her right upper arm and the top of her helmet bore the image of a white gemstone; on the back of each wrist was a small silver skull with four silver lighting bolts marked across the forearm above it.

"I am Shiplord Brenna of the Diamond Spine," the woman announced. "You are in violation of Spider Clan territorial sovereignty. You will surrender your vessel or be destroyed."

At that instant Captain Hardesty burst onto the bridge. He'd been in bed or something; he wore his shoes and dress trousers but his blouse and jacket were only half on, leaving most of his chest bare. He hadn't bothered with his corset, either, so his belly flopped over his belt. "What's going on here?" he demanded crossly.

Shiplord Brenna leveled her finger. "You do not speak that way to your natural superiors!" she thundered.

Ensign Hawkes opened his mouth to speak, hoping to forestall what he feared was coming. He never got the chance; the bridge disintegrated in flame around him.

Steven just resisted the urge to swallow; that would only reveal how nervous and frightened he was. "Sir, the trip out from Maraush was entirely routine," he said. "The landing... I didn't think anything could possibly go wrong and I knew that D'Artagnan and Ensign Arlie had... a relationship. I instructed her to take it down on automatic."

Admiral Nelson leaned back in her chair, tapping her fingertips one at a time on the glass smooth Obsidian surface of her desk. The tic of her claws striking the stone seemed inordinately loud. "You mean to say, Commander, that you relieved your chief pilot of duty during the most critical stage of flight so that she could enjoy a tryst with the ship's computer?" she inquired, arching an eyebrow. "Meanwhile, you were enjoying a tryst with your science officer." The ghost of a smile played across her face. "Forgive me, but I'd have thought you'd want to give it a rest after spending all that time 'relaxing' with Ambassador Rozita."

Steven swallowed convulsively; he couldn't help it. Truth was he'd been with Luna to banish the memory of Ambassador Rozita. He considered himself a cosmopolitan gentleman, but being sexually assaulted by a woman three times his mass who most closely resembled a purple elephant with six breasts pressed his tolerance to the very limit. He didn't see how he could tell the Admiral that, however.

"You've put me in a very difficult spot Commander," the admiral continued, leaning forward and lacing her fingers together. "Your success at Balastrae has made you the Admiralty's golden boy. And yet, I hear there's already pictures of you three standing around in my rose garden, naked as jay birds. One is a close-up of Dr. von Stupp, showing clearly that her face and chest are soaked with what can only be semen. When one sees the next picture, showing you with your schlong hanging in the breeze, one can make an educated guess wherefrom that semen most likely came." Her eyes narrowed. "I've set Naval Intelligence on this but even they can't hold the lid on for more than a day or two. When the story breaks, there will be Hell to pay." Her clenched fist came down on the desktop. It didn't make a loud sound but Steven flinched. "You are a very lucky man, Commander Steven Tiberius Ramrod," the admiral continued. "If I brought you or Ensign Arlie up on charges then those pictures will come out. The proceedings will become a media circus and the Admiralty a laughingstock. Which, as my superiors have so pointedly reminded me, cannot be allowed to happen. The Admiralty needs all the good press it can get, especially right now. Meaning- and with which I am in complete agreement- it would be for the best if you and your crew were to-" she fluttered her fingers- "disappear." Her lips parted in a savage grin, leaving no doubt that her distant ancestors had been vicious predators, and pointedly reminding the Commander that his ancestors had been prey. "As such, you will undertake whatever repairs are necessary to make D'Artagnan capable of flight. You will work around the clock until the work is done. You will then take yourself, your crew, and your ship to Niffelheim and complete the repairs at Bifrost Base. After that you will conduct a lengthy survey of potential mining colony sites in the Eastern Arm territories." She picked up a stack of papers and straightened them. "Are you still here, Commander?" she glanced up. "Vanish." She flipped her fingers as if dismissing something distasteful.

Commander Ramrod made the only reply he possibly could. "Aye aye, sir." He saluted, backed two steps, turned on his heel, and marched out.

Steven twisted his head around inside his helmet, trying to reach a spot on his neck that had begun to itch terribly. When the Admiral had said "capable of flight" she'd meant just that. She hadn't even allowed time to patch the plates sprung during the landing; Commander Ramrod and his gallant crew had spent the entire eight day journy in space suits. One advantage to that, Steven would have to admit, was that the prospect of getting out of his suit made even a landfall on Niffelheim seem pleasant by comparison.

From orbit Niffelheim didn't seem so bad. Bands of icy blue cloud covered the planet from pole to pole; from a distance the color looked solid but up close one could make out eddies, swirls, and bands. Once into the upper atmopshere the clouds blocked out all light and one couldn't see a thing except for flashes of eerie, purple lightning. High altitude winds buffeted the ship mercilessly, forcing Steven to fight the controls all the way down. Near ground level the winds finally let off, because Bifrost Base sat on a rocky coastline with tall mountains behind it which blocked the prevailing winds. Drifts of snow covered the rocky landscape and a strangely white ocean surged against black, towering cliffs. One could see here because an eerie, greenish glow from the solid cloud cover clouds somewhat illuminated everything below. As Steven brought the ship down on the pad it skidded on what looked like a patch of black ice. It, and the snow, was in fact frozen carbon dioxide; the ocean was liquid ammonia. While Steven watched a hoar of waxy crystals began to grow on the seaward view ports.

"Shouldn't somone from the base be coming out to pick us up?" Banya inquired, rising from her couch and peering out into the murky, semi-darkness.

"Yes, they should," Steven muttered, keying the comm with his toe. "SSC-429 to Bifrost Control, we're freezing our asses off out here. Can't you get a tractor to us?"

"Sorry, sir, everyone's in the wardroom watching the news," the controller's voice responded. "I'll see if I can't scare someone up but it might take a bit."

"What's happening?" Steven demanded crossly.

"Empress Catherine's gone missing."

Steven could not articulate a reply. Empress Catherine was the Comet Line's biggest and most luxurious star liner, carrying up to eight thousand of the Terran Imperium's wealthiest passengers. Its loss would be a disaster of unimaginable proprtions. Such an accident would cast a pall even over the stunning success of the Balastrae Conference.

If it was an accident, Steven found himself thinking. There were any number of agencies that would jump at the opportunity to give the Imperium a black eye. "Never mind, Control, we'll walk," Steven decided. "All right, troops, secure the ship. We'll hoof it to the base."

"In this weather, sir?" Banya protested.

"This is Niffelheim," Steven replied, unstrapping and getting to his feet. "For here, this is good weather."

Stepping out of the ship almost changed Steven's mind. The frigid winds bit even through the insulation of his space suit. Ordinary suits weren't designed for this; in deep space heat radiated away but even so getting rid of it was more often the main problem. Here the frigid atmosphere sucked it away with frightening speed; even a suit's heaters could barely keep up. His teeth were chattering by the time he reached the base and it wasn't even a long walk.

"Open the door quickly, please," Luna said, stamping her feet and swinging her arms. "My nipples are about to break off."

"Ditto," Banya added.

Steven grunted. His nipples didn't feel much better. Once he got the outer door open- a rime of carbon dioxide frost had jammed the track- he waved the women in, then followed. He considered offering to warm their nipples with his lips but decided against it. They probably wouldn't react well and anyway his heart wasn't in it. Niffelheim wasn't a place that encouraged torrid thoughts. They climbed down a ladder into a bath of oil that dissolved any ammonia that might be clinging to their suits, then walked through a flooded tunnel and came up in a lock chamber. When outside air pressure and temperature finally stabilized Steven unlocked his helmet and pulled it off. "Oh, God!" he exclaimed, inhaling deeply. The air reeked of ammonia but compared to his own body odor, in which he'd been immersed for the past week, even ammonia smelled as sweet as springtime flowers.

"I am so glad to get out of this suit," Luna muttered as she removed her gauntlets and unlatched the waist articulation.

"Me too," Steven agreed, helping Luna out of her torso piece. She looked damn good in a gray suit liner, which clung to her delicious curves like a second skin. Then the smell hit. Steven had read that female body odor generally wasn't as strong as the male version. Whoever wrote that obviously hadn't been around a woman who'd spent a week in a space suit.

"I have waited so long for this," Luna declared, tearing off her suit liner and bending forward so her breasts hung straight out from her chest. Then she scratched vigorously under them.

Steven watched and his crotch stirred a little, but mostly Luna's actions reminded him of all the places he desperately needed to scratch. He struggled out of his suit liner and disdainfully stuffed it down the waste chute. He noticed Banya in the corner of his eye... and deliberately watched while she peeled off her suit liner. She really did have a goregous body; not as busty and full figured as Luna, perhaps, but very few women were. By just about any standard, Banya had an absolutely drop dead gorgeous torso. The problem, of course, lay with what attached to it- or didn't, depending on one's point of view. The metal arm and legs could be off-putting but they weren't the problem, Steven decided. It was her face. In his experience people put great stock in eyes; the surgeons had done her a grave dissservice, he felt, by not giving her more natural looking ones.

To Be Continued