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Alien Exodus

 

Alien Exodus

 

Book Three of the Alien Something Trilogy

 

by

Mary Margaret Branning

Copyright 2017 Mary Margaret Branning

Shakespir Edition

 

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever including Internet usage, without written permission of the author.

Big Fat Thank You page:

 

My Sincerest Gratitude belongs to:

 

Nina Davies and her Autocrit software, without which this book would have been even messier than it currently is.

 

Jesse Gordon of A Darned Good Book.com for expert formatting and advice.

 

Graphic Artist Toshi Simon of Allegra Print, Sign, and Design in the White Mountains of Arizona, for his excellent work on the book cover.

 

Magann (Markus Gann) for the green iris, via Shutterstock.com.

 

Andrea Danti for Space ships travelling to a futuristic city. Mixed media illustration via Shutterstock.com

TABLE OF CONTENTS

 

Chapter One: Bustered

Chapter Two: Klon, Civilized

Chapter Three: Bumpin’ Alien Uglies

Chapter Four: Hit… Thing

Chapter Five: Vacation with a Side of Business

Chapter Six: Domestic Interlude

Chapter Seven: The Trakennad Dor

Chapter Eight: Dual Duplicity

Chapter Nine: Buster Makes Bank

Chapter Ten: The Anything Goes

Chapter Eleven: The Rapha Disappears

Chapter Twelve: Infinite Recycling

Chapter Thirteen: The God Remnant

Chapter Fourteen: Alien Fight Club

Chapter Fifteen: Really Big Show

Chapter Sixteen: A Fine Finale

Chapter Seventeen: Return to Earth

Chapter Eighteen: Deena’s Final Betrayal

Chapter Nineteen: The Realm of Conscience

End Notes

[][Chapter One
Bustered]

 

 

Buster ordered the ship to adjust course to swallow up some loose metal scree floating off to port, and then she left the bridge.

She didn’t walk; the low interior gravity prevented walking. Buster didn’t keep the gee low because she needed to conserve energy; the scow’s capabilities included conversion into energy of many of the materials found floating around in the Infinite.

Mainly the engines relied on hydrogen, always abundant in space. Sometimes the ship scooped up spacebergs, distilled out the water, and split off the hydrogen from the oxygen. The useful solar collecting outer hull panels worked efficiently when they came close enough to light sources, and even reflected or refracted light. Once in a while they ran across shipwrecks or jettisoned fuel tanks containing unused fuel. She rarely traded for fuel. The scow was adaptable.

No, Buster didn’t walk simply because she liked using the handholds to pull and push herself along – to float. She spent most of the time with the gravity dialed down.

Her drift wasn’t aimless; her goal was the gym. Because she spent so much time in thirty-five percent gravity, Buster used the gym frequently.

There wasn’t really much else to do.

As she entered the gym and sealed the hatches, the loud clanging of the reclaimed metal scrap on the interior hull reverberated throughout. The company spent untold wealth on the ship’s brain, the recyclers, hull reinforcement – because of the massive storage areas, and the engines, but little on crew comfort. The noise of scrap hitting the walls after being scooped out of space was barely dampened.

No matter.

After she righted herself, Buster ordered the gym to increase its gravity to one-point-five Universal. Slowly, she fell. The insulated soles of her booties pressed into the hard flooring. This footwear protected her from sudden impact and most of the cold of the floor. She let one rip and moved away while the ventilation removed her effluent.

The vessel collected and made plenty of energy to heat the shipwalls and the decks, too, but to warm up all those surfaces just for her seemed like a waste. So, Buster kept them almost livable, relying on her thermal boots, gloves, and hooded skinsuit to protect her. The shipwalls weren’t freezing, but the occasions she did touch them with unprotected skin reminded her that, yes, she was still alive, and not simply a ghost haunting an empty ship searching endless space for garbage to recycle.

Walking the few steps to the machine was exercise itself in the one-point-five gravity units, accustomed as she was to thirty-five percent. But she was also used to the exercise, and she wiggled into the machine and waited as its padded clamps closed on her various parts. She tightened her abs, pulled in her arms and legs, and began.

After the sweat began to bead on her skin she ordered a grav increase of fifty points. Two gravity units forced her to strain more at the padded clamps. Her muscles bulged and her veins swelled. Ligaments, tendons, and membranes complained.

No matter.

She imagined her heart growing larger and stronger with each pull and push, willing it so, controlling the straining muscle’s beating with her breathing. Slowing her pulse, she worked harder.

Sweat beads broke free and fell splashing onto the deck. The floor absorbed them for recycling. She gripped more tightly. The clamps on her legs and arms held tight, wicking moisture. She decreased the gravity seventy five points to rest, still moving the resisting machine with her own kinetic energy. She breathed deeply but regularly, further lowering her heart rate.

Through the ship’s vibrations she felt the bay clamps reaching out to grasp and manipulate the garbage. The analysis of the scrap for content produced a grinding shudder.

“Log results,” Buster gasped, so the ship would not announce the results. She was uninterested now and would access the information later.

Whatever the scrap amounted to didn’t really matter, the ship would neutralize anything harmful, disassemble manufactured refuse down to its basic elements or useful composites, segregate and containerize or palletize each type, label, and make a record of every little thing.

“Increase gravity fifty points,” Buster ordered. The increase wasn’t sudden, but gradual. The ship knew better than to make instantaneous changes, because she’d taught it. She’d taught the machine the temperature she liked in the air, her quarters, the bathwater, and her food and drinks.

The company provided only basic foods, and no coffee, tea, or sweets, and Operators were expected to buy and trade for the items they preferred on the planets they serviced, and to make do. Buster had stopped paying for her own supplies after the first thirty years of service, and included supplies in the contracts she made with clients. This way the Company ended up paying for them, and she didn’t touch her accumulating compensation. The Company never complained, she was their oldest employee, literally, chronologically, and in seniority. She’d been working their scows for one hundred and seventy-three years, ever since the Company had bought her from the humans. Put to work after six months of training, she’d had outlived two ships. This was her third. Buster had no idea what her ultimate lifespan would end up being.

Lactic acid ravaged her muscles.

“Decrease gravity twenty five points,” she grunted.

The banging and ripples of motion and noise from the bay ceased.

“Ocean view,” Buster gasped. The bulkhead in front of her shimmered before displaying a gorgeous view of a red, orange, and white sky above an undulating orange surf with yellow foam. The arrhythmic motion of the waves calmed as much as the color aroused. Buster braced herself.

“Increase gee seventy-five points.”

Buster strained and pumped the torturous device for one minute more in the final abysmal sprint in two-and-a-quarter gravs, then relaxed utterly. The machine slowed and stopped in response to the lack of kinetics.

“End,” she ordered, and the contraption released her. Standing, she wriggled free of her skinsuit, and held it in her right hand. She walked over to the bulkhead, gripped a handle, pulled open a little hatch, which was hinged on the bottom, and dropped the used article inside. It would be recycled. The door banged closed and she stood naked, soaked, with sweat running in rivulets down her body, which immediately disappeared as it dripped onto the deck. This absorption limited condensation, conserved water, and prevented slip-and-falls. The Company, requiring her to keep herself uninjured, had engineered and programmed the ship to be helpful in this regard.

“One gu,” she ordered, and felt her body stretch with the gradual release of a full gravity-and-a-quarter of pressure. Her joints creaked and popped.

“Raining forest,” she said to the bulkhead and the scene changed. The sound of water sprinkling soil and slapping leaves filled her ears.

“Scent,” she said. The complicated scent she associated with this particular scene entered her nostrils. She breathed deeply and stood still. Sweat still ran down her body. The skin’ she wore wicked like mad, almost chilling her. She bent over to stretch her calves, hams, butt and back. After a minute she stood, bending her knees on the way up to protect her tight low back. She leaned forward and pressed her palms against the sealed hatch, stretching her calves and Achilles tendons further. She held this posture for two minutes.

Even though the Company had taught her their own system of time, the planet of the Company’s origin, Ordoron, used another. Once she’d had the ship to herself, she’d programmed the shipbrain to talk to her in Earth time, Christian calendar, followed by the Company’s manner of telling time, and then Ordoron’s. These adjustments remained, even though so many decades of listening to the different systems side-by-side had made both Company time and her native Earth time equally accessible in her mind. Ordoron’s complicated time system became understandable with a little calculation, which she found, after several decades, she’d learned to make automatically.

Buster stood up. “Preferred,” she told the ship, and the gravity lessened to thirty-five percent. She would finish stretching after her bath. As the gravity adjusted she ordered the rain forest to quit and the hatch to open and pulled herself from the gym. She floated freely, grabbing handholds to propel herself through the tubular corridor to her quarters. Once there she sealed the hatch.

“One grav. Bath,” she said. Water ran in the next room when the gravity field finished adjusting. She stepped through the hatchway and stood watching the tub fill. “Close.” The bathroom hatch closed behind her and the ambient temperature rose. So did the humidity, but the air moved gently to counter the cloying moisture.

She examined herself in the reflective walls of the small bathroom. Same old scars – battle scars. Same old tattoo, B-4ST327R. Same bored expression on a perfectly seamless face. There were no reasons for expressions, therefore, no wrinkles. No one existed to perform expressions for anymore. Same shaved head.

She stepped into the water closet and made a satisfying deposit, cleaned herself, and stepped out. This hatch closed automatically behind. Buster stepped into the water and lowered herself in, feeling the tightened muscles stretch with her movements.

There used to be someone to emote for, but he was long gone. At first he’d made her smile, but the frustration came soon enough. Then came the scowls, and later, anger. The relationship became a typical Odd Couple situation, with Buster playing Felix.

What was “Oscar’s” name? Cob? Nob? Rob? Oh yeah. Bob

Bobrin the Braxletl. Bob the lover. Bob the corpse.

No matter.

Bob wouldn’t have lasted long anyway; Braxletls have an inadequate life span. They burned brightly though, for a short while, especially, in her experience, sexually.

When she’d notified the Company of his demise they agreed she should continue on alone. It would have taken her years to get back anyway, even as the crow flies, as they used to say on Earth, since she was in the middle of yet another twenty-one year (Earth time) loop. They sent her the shipbrain’s advanced programming instructions, which Bob, as an employee and not a slave, had been the master of, the coordinates of the rest of the clients on this circuit, and wrote, “Contact us if you need something.”

She’d finished the circuit herself, went back to Odoron, and was sent out again. That next time, they’d sent Buster out alone.

Bob had died. Seventeen years had passed.

As her body relaxed in the hot water and the humid, warm air entered and moistened her dry lungs, Buster’s memories drifted back to when she hadn’t been alone.

Bob had been an employee, and she, a slave, but he didn’t seem to hold her reduced status against her, or her gender, either. No, his particular complaint was that she hadn’t always appreciated him the way he decided he should have been appreciated, in an unconditional way.

But Buster wasn’t that kind of creature. Behavior mattered to Buster. She hadn’t much cared how Bob thought, only how he acted. So when he forgot to secure tools which could, in an emergency, or even under normal operation, propel around and injure or even kill her, she mentioned this failure. And when the endangering behavior happened again, she mentioned it again. And again. Likewise, when he left his personal junk lying around the communal spaces, such as the mess, the lounge, or the gym, she mentioned that too. Since Buster made the effort and took the time to secure tools and return her things to her quarters, she expected the same consideration. Bob continued to fail to be considerate. She found herself repeating her request for him to clean up after himself. She began to hate herself for turning into such a bitch, and him for being so unresponsive.

Oh, he was always polite, agreeable even. “Sure, Buster, I’ll clean up,” he’d say, but rarely made much of an effort. When Buster left him on the bridge and went into the lounge to read or watch some entertainment, his mess lay all around her. Sour smelling clothes, food desiccating in containers, drinks moldering in mugs, reading material and games strewn on every surface, his personal grooming appliances and various surfaces covered in hairs and whiskers – he was quite hirsute – you name the mess, he left everything behind on his way to making another.

She’d asked him, “Why do you do this though I’ve repeatedly asked you not to?”

He’d replied, “My last shipmate didn’t mind. She was the same way as me.”

“Well, I’m not her, and I don’t want to live in your filth.”

By this time they’d embarked on a sexual relationship, since they’d agreed this was only reasonable; their stay on the ship together would be long and their genitals fit each other’s well enough, even though they didn’t belong to the same species. They learned to physically please one another in other ways, as well.

After she’d yelled at him, finally scaring him, having become tired of requesting, asking, demanding, and pleading, he’d made an effort. She showed her appreciating by backing down in her demands. His quarters became the mess, since he stuffed all his possessions into his personal space, in no particular order, but about this she didn’t care because never went in there. Buster even avoided looking when she passed that way and he’d left hatch open.

The other conversation about his behavior occurred regarding all the tools he left lying unsecured all around, which ended up floating about and hitting things when the ship lurched as it sometimes did while changing course, or when some garbage hit the hull inside or out. The old ship was designed and built to handle a rough job, with minimal thought for those who might be living inside, and thus the precautions were logical. They were even required by the Company.

Buster continued to bring up this dangerous sloppiness in many conversations, but Bob didn’t think much of it until that time the ship orbited the planet – which one was it? The outer orbit was full of the trash the inhabitants had ejected into it, and this waste buffeted the ship constantly as it scooped up the mess. An excellent haul, and the advanced civilization paid well to have its local space cleaned and the recycled materials returned to them for further use in manufacture. But the ship had been a dangerous mess inside as everything Bob neglected to secure for years ended up everywhere other than where it should have been. Buster was hit in the head by a large whirling wrench, and in the deltoid by a cutter which left a deep and painful gash.

Done, then, with patient suggestions, explanations, and waiting for his compliance, Buster threatened him with bodily harm. He’d actually wondered aloud why she cared, since she healed so fast, and whined insensitively, “You don’t even feel pain, do you?”

“Yes, I do, you stupid douche!”

“Oh, I’m sorry.”

“You’re sorry. Well, that’s all right then. CLEAN UP THE SHIP!!! Secure everything where it belongs.”

“What? That’ll take years!”

Patiently, Buster quieted her tone. “Which is why I’ve been telling you for years to secure the tools after you use them, so this won’t happen. It’s easy enough to predict. I wasn’t just being a bitch. How old are you, anyway? Didn’t your mother teach you anything?”

“She tried.”

“Well, that makes perfect sense,” Buster sighed.

Bob cleaned up the ship, but he wasn’t happy, and Buster noticed during this time the disappearance of her Iolian kelfinsfer.

A while passed before this came to her attention. The kelfinsfer had been sitting on a shelf in her quarters, anchored by ship-grade decorator putty, ever since the vacation they’d taken in Iolia, after cleaning the planet’s orbit. When she realized the statuette was missing, she remembered the heated discussions they’d had soon after returning from Iolia. She soon realized other things were not where she’d put them, and recalled other highly animated conversations as well.

Buster ran a scan in the waste hold to find her kelfinsfer, but everything inside was already being reduced to elements, segregated, and containerized. Later, while Bob manned the bridge and she was supposed to be sleeping, she went through his filthy quarters, but found none of her possessions.

No one else lived on the ship, and Buster wasn’t prone to stealing and recycling her own goods in her sleep. She even took time to view recordings of herself sleeping on the big couch in the lounge where they engaged in their entertainments, and she viewed hours of sped-up vids of the hall outside her personal quarters while she’d been inside, sleeping. No bizarre sleep walking recycling adventures revealed themselves, though she could have been dropping her possessions into the recycle hatch inside, off camera. She did find recordings of Bob entering and exiting her quarters during her shifts on the bridge, several times, presumably stealing her things and dropping them in the recycling hatch. He didn’t seem to be carrying anything out. She also located and reviewed recordings of each of the arguments which, coincidentally, occurred just before his incursions into her private rooms. Hmmm.

Strangely, everything he’d trashed had been something she’d told him a little story about: the small clay whales made by an ancestor of a friend, which the friend had gifted to her many years ago, the wooden hand-painted carving of a Terran cat she’d purchased while on leave in Bali, Earth, during her soldering days, the light jacket another friend bought her just because she’d mentioned the night air was chilly on Chobok. All these things and more disappeared, simply because Bob wouldn’t pick up after himself and couldn’t handle her criticisms.

The symbols of some of her best memories were lost forever.

During one shift, because she was suspicious by then, Buster hacked into his communications locker. She found a draft of a complaint he’d composed to be sent to the Company. The idiot had used his own name to secure the files. For a thief he sure was trusting. Perhaps he’d counted on her not behaving as he did, or figuring out what he’d been doing. She found his lies about her in the documents: that she was angry and unpredictable, had accused him of infractions she herself committed, and he’d become afraid of her (well that could be true) and would like to file a claim of intimidation and receive compensation from her account, per the board’s decision. Would they consider a complaint and send him the proper forms?

Oh, no you don’t, you slimeball, Buster had thought. Insulted and incensed, Buster covered-up her break-in by deleting the record, and erasing the records of erasure, and compressing the whole lot. She ‘lost’ his entire communication locker in the shipbrain’s comprehensive databay, which included all the daily minutiae the vessel recorded.

At the time she’d been three years into a twenty year trip. Detecting the proof of her perfidy would take a data retrieval expert a long while, since the expert wouldn’t even be able to get into the vessel’s cerebellum until she docked at the Company’s planet of operations in seventeen years. By the time the forsaken garbage scow docked, records of her deeds would be compressed incomprehensibly by immense volumes of data.

She spent the rest of the shift making plans, both short and long term, and waited for opportunities.

Bob, not a strong creature, had originated on a lighter-gravity planet than her origin of Earth. Bob’s people, an advanced, long-civilized race, pampered themselves unreasonably. They ate well, they lived well, and they didn’t have to fight for anything any more, well, except with each other. In Bob, the animal had been suppressed, and the privileged whiner emerged. But Buster was a complex creation, a killer who hadn’t killed in far too long.

How ironic; she behaved in the civilized manner aboard ship while the civilized man behaved like an ill-trained child.

No matter. She solved the problem.

He’d been barely able to struggle against her when she’d hauled him to the airlock and pushed him in. She closed the door and, just for satisfaction’s sake, watched him scream, beg, and cry for a moment. Then she flushed him out and walked down the corridor, ordering the ship to provide a view of space through its hull as he floated by. Vacuum distorted his body and his deceitful face.

No one would be able to prove anything. She recorded his death officially as an accident, and caused the ship system to malfunction and record over the recording of the real event. One great thing about living so long is you pick up these little tricks, and some fine day, you get to use them. She reported his head bashed in by one of the tools he was forever leaving unsecured. Buried in space. Such a shame. What a waste.

Yes, she could carry on unassisted. No, the Company replied, no need for us to send a replacement. Anyway, by her estimation it would take three quahot for the replacement to arrive in a speedy one-man craft.

A quahot denoted a third of an Ordoron year, and one-and-three-quarter years in Earth time, give or take. Three quahot equated to five-and-one-quarter Earth years. Four quahot was one Company year and about seven Earth years. Three Company years equaled approximately twenty-one Earth years. The length of the assignments she went on were typically ten to twenty Earth years or so, which came to one-and-a-half to three years Company, and included the year spent unloading whatever bucket she’d been in, plus the time it took to rehab it for another go.

Time-telling on Ordoron was a complicated and ritualistic matter, best left to serious mathematicians, the Ordorons thought. However, the Company itself used something akin to military time used on Earth, though the periods differed greatly in length and divisions.

Buster liked to play a game with her owners by converting Company time to the planetary time scales at whichever planet she was orbiting, and displaying for them her versatility and comprehension. It was a fun time-waster for her. What could they do about it? Bitch? The Company did not bitch. They employed and owned the best mathematicians who made the conversions back to Company time.

Anyway, after Bob’s unfortunate demise, the Company sent generic condolences. Carry on. Here are the master instructions for the shipbrain. Buster became the one-and-only slave to ever receive them. Unprecedented!

The scow’s productivity did not falter. In fact, without the distraction of Bobrin the Braxtletl, the ship recorded productivity up an average of 2.54% per quahot. The Company seemed pleased.

Apparently, Bob had mostly been extra weight.

 

 

“Hot water,” she ordered, and a steaming stream poured into her cooled bath. The memories stirred up some agitation in her mind; some annoying emotions. Her hand traveled down her flat belly. She traced the square abdominal muscles. She scratched her fuzzy bump. Bob had been fun in the bunk – that crazy alien tongue! – though eventually not worth the aggravation.

No matter.

Her makers hadn’t engineered out the handy, finger-tip-sized toy for her private pleasure, down there.

Thoughtful of them.

 

 

Cleaned, relaxed, and outfitted in new, fresh and warm, cushy booties, gloves, and skin’, including attached, skintight hood, Buster left her neat and tidy quarters and pulled herself along the corridor. The trip to her personal bay, within the enormous section of the ship devoted to storage, was long. When she finally arrived, she ordered the appropriate hatches sealed so she could increase the gee without affecting the rest of the ship. The ship maintained the gravity in the storage bays at two gu. In addition to that, the materials were containerized, palletized, and secured by titanium composite nets to keep them from slamming around in the case of heavy turbulence inside the ship because of junk collection or orbit entry. Buster ordered the gravs outside her bay increased to match the insides and opened the bay hatch. She appraised her booty.

One of the perks of working for Apical Mining and Recycling Company included scooping up unclaimed asteroids and having the ship mine them for personal gain, as long as the operators didn’t take up more than one percent total transit time to do so. Otherwise, fines were imposed. Everything mined from the asteroids belonged to the operator who’d ordered the scoop. They stored this matter in personal units. Company reasoned that happy operators would want to continue working in order to continue mining asteroids to continue making themselves relatively rich. The Company didn’t really pay very well.

About fifty Earth years ago, Buster stopped cashing in when she docked, and started leaving her booty in her personal storage. She had it transferred every time they gave her a new ride. She looked at the stacks of palletized bars of platinum, palladium, gold, silver, copper, tin, and many other valuable metals, and the barrels of rough diamonds, colored gemstones, quartz crystals, and every other precious commodity she’d found and salvaged for herself, and felt satisfied. She closed the unit, recalled the gravs, opened the hatches, and pulled herself out of the storage section.

Back at her post on the bridge, Buster ordered the ship to clear the opaqued viewports so she could look at the beautiful and constantly various Infinity of space surrounding her.

Wait a minute! What was this, then? Civilization on a planet which had been unoccupied when she’d previously last passed this way? And space waste? Excellent, she could negotiate a brand new contract, one of her favorite chores. Buster ordered the shipbrain to scan frequencies for noise coming from the planet.

Maybe the time had arrived for some well deserved shore leave.

[][Chapter Two
Klon, Civilized]

 

 

The air bonged softly above my head.

“Yes,” I answered, pausing the recording of Tad piloting his Dinky Dingy Jr. into the Grey Matter’s Hell Craft. You’d be surprised the types of entertainment that have survived the theft of Earth. Everyone with any kind of collection has made their goodies available to all and sundry.

My view screen took up an entire wall.

“Ghee, this is KekTan CHOO.”

CHOO was the mekked and manned satellite called Communication Hub Orbital One. There were two, this one was civilian, and the other part of the Sheriff’s Department Planetary Protection Force.

“You have a personal communication from the alien spaceship Trakennad Dor. Klon requesting audience.”

“Hi Glennis, yes, I‘ll take that,” I responded.

Klon! No way! I waited anxiously, sporting a big dumb grin on my face, but I didn’t wait for long.

Klon sounded very pleased with himself. His deep bassoon growl ejected my name. My skin prickled, all of my hairs stood on end, and I felt a chill shiver my timbers.

“Klon, how did you find me?” I demanded of him in his language.

“Gossip,” Klon rumbled. His tone of arrogant self-satisfaction somehow traveled through the ether into my home.

“I’m delighted. Where are you?”

“We are several light years from KekTan. We will be there shortly.”

“How?”

“The Trakennad Dor was Spauch’s ship. Spauch no longer presides over us.”

“But you do?”

“Me and many of the others. We run the ship now.”

“You run it to do what?”

“Fight.”

“Oh, Klon,” I said sadly.

“Not to the death, Ghee. To tap out.” Weirdly, he said ‘tap out’ in English, and I could hear the pride in his growl.

“How do you split the proceeds?” I asked. What a curious turn of events.

“We are a co-op,” he answered smugly.

“Klon! You’re civilized?”

“I am. We all are. Also, we are all rich businessmen now. Legit. I‘m here to tell you that you will come here and fight with us.”

“I will?”

“Yes. A match. We found two like you on the Anything Goes.”

Two like you… what the hell?

“The Anything Goes? What’s that?”

“It is a sex ship. We are very fond of them.”

“I’ll bet you are. You found two like me?”

“Yes, and you three will fight together. You will make us all very, very happy. And richer.”

“Will you take no for an answer?”

“No.”

“I’m out condition.” At least that kind. I’d become, shall we say, a little plush.

“Work on yourself. Anyway, the others are not fighters, they are sexers. We will choreograph the fight. It will be a brilliant show.”

“When will you be here?”

“Soon. I will call again. Goodbye.”

The connection ended abruptly.

Holy guano, Spaceman! Klon was running an intergalactic fight club. I was sure the fights were real, even if they weren’t killing each other anymore. Choreographed, my ass.

“Jack,” I said into the air.

A moment passed, then, an automated recording of a Mek voice said, “Most High Ambassador Kek John Jack Knott is not available. Your call will be logged. Do you care to leave a message?”

‘Kek’ was not part of Jack’s name, it was an honorific. My good friend Kek, who used to be my guard when I was a slave on an arena ship—the very ship that Klon had called from, had been honored by his kins’ decree that all Diplomatic Corps personnel would adopt his name before their own in their titles. Kek had made the escape from slavery possible, and had negotiated with Jack for a planetary home for his kin while we were all still slaves. His kin had decided to distinguish him in this way, and they’d also rewarded him by calling the planet KekTan, meaning “Great Kek”. My friend was a Big Deal among his kin.

“No,” I answered the computer. “End.” He would call me when he could. When Jack had left this morning, he’d said something about the Apsaragin trade negotiations. He was probably in the middle of them right now.

Apsaragin was a group of five little planets orbiting a small, hot star not too distant from MekKop. When the old Union of Galaxies was protecting and trading among the planets of sixteen different galaxies, they didn’t bother exploring their closer neighborhoods. Now that the new Galactic Union had shrunk to four galaxies, nearby neighbors had become important to explorers, the Diplomatic Corps, and traders. Jack had been fairly busy, alas. Anyway, he’d be home tonight.

 

 

The next morning I woke slowly and lingered in dream twilight for a long while.

I recalled Klon’s bizarre call, and the conclusion of Tad’s adventures. When I rolled over, there was Jack, grinning lopsidedly and somewhat wickedly at me. Then he was looking down at me, his sleep-warmed body pressing into mine, pressing me into our space-age mattress. Apparently he rethought his position because his head disappeared below my deep burgundy sheets of fine Faire cotton.

Oooh, yes!

Jack had moved into my home after we’d moved to Mekkop and he’d settled into his new job with the D.C. We’d discovered that we were made for each other in every way; we fit each other perfectly. Our minds, in short time, synced very well.

Our bodies, well, I, arched, becoming very warm and exquisitely stupid. There were interesting noises in the room, and not just mine. Jack is an involved lover. I controlled myself and drew out the inevitable for as long as I could stand it. Then I pushed his head away, curled up and rolled onto my side, buzzing. He wasn’t satisfied yet, though.

What a man, is my man Jack!

 

 

As I cleaned my mouth with Flatteracks’ ph Perfect Oral Wash in Traditional Mint Flavor, I contemplated that I never had to clean Jack’s whiskers out of our sinks. He’d had them removed thirty years or so ago for his Sheriff’s Department Space Force service. Somehow, those clever scientists had harnessed the balding experience and ended it for the head, unless, of course, you opted for it, as some had. Many swimmers, divers and spacers, for instance, opted for bald. Other parts of the body could be directed to go bald, conveniently, as well. And it could be reversed. It worked best on men, of course, baldness being a function of testosterone and certain inherited genes from Mom. But with a few tweaks, women could denude themselves, too. Anywhere. You could even make patterns appear, like tattoos. Jack could rub his face on me anywhere and I didn’t rash up. Nice.

The future is good. I highly recommend it.

Then I showered and otherwise cleaned myself in fresh, clear KekTan water. I thought about the woman who would be our breakfast guest, whom Jack had reported as being a Space Force physicist from Theory and Practice. T n’ P decided what Research and Development would do. They were trying to understand the Odok ships. So far they’d replicated the cookers, the recyclers, and some of the materials that made up the ship. What they really wanted to reproduce, though, was those mysterious drives.

We were having eggs MekKop for breakfast, a twist on eggs Florentine. Stuff was piled on glorious MekKop “bubble bread”; fresh Faire spinach and tomatoes, and Philippa’s planet poached eggs. Philippa’s bacon was served on the side. The self-sufficient human Philippans were excellent protein producers, though not with factory farms and slaughterhouses. The founder, Philippa Oliver had been quite a strident vegan. Labs and clean rooms extruded Philippa products. Philippans were element manipulators extraordinaire; all the flavor and none of the salt, fat, or sugar consequences. (Their pressed duck covered in MekKop Fat Dap sauce is absolutely to live for, you betcha). Oh, and we were having chilled Mek melon soup. The sweet melon had been found growing wild on their new planet, and was now being cultivated. Mmmm, it was simply the best. We would have Faire coffee, of course, with Philippan thick cream and Utopian sugar, and orange juice, as well.

The Mek had discovered orange juice and simply could not get enough. They planted actual groves. They built packing houses. They competed for any work involving the fruit. Oranges appeared in every kitchen. They took great pride in juicing fresh oranges for visitors and it was evolving into something like a Japanese tea ceremony. Then they’d discovered blood oranges. Oh, their ecstasy was outrageous. Unfortunately, they put orange juice in things it really should not have been put in.

The vicious humans on the ‘self-sufficient’ planet Utopia hadn’t survived the Pox, because those emigrants contracted the disease before they received the vaccine. Apparently they hadn’t been as self-sufficient as advertised. The native, non-human population had survived, though, and now thrived on the continued production and trade of sugar and candy products. The Mek are very fond of the former slaves and do a good business with them.

I liked to think of Utopia as Candy Land. I like to keep their avocado milk shakes to hand, though the milk products of Candyland are not manipulated, and can be quite challenging to the heart muscle and filtering systems. So, Jack had approached Philippa’s Planet and Utopia with the idea of trading so I could get healthier avocado shakes. They are still working that out. It’s hard to wait. Have I mentioned that I have become rather plush?

Anyway, I’ve been training the Space Force cadets to fight like caged aliens, tuning up their superiors as well, and there is always foreplay with Jack. I’m not in terrible condition, but I’m not in the condition I was when I was Spauch’s slave.

“Come here, my mocha loveliness,” Jack purred as he stepped into the stream of soothing water beside me. I wrapped my arms around him and said into his ear, deeply and intimately, “This morning was lovely. Thank you for waking me up in such a special way.”

It’s important to encourage good behavior. Positive reinforcement, you know.

“The pleasure was all mine. You were awake, anyway. Not sleeping well?”

“Excited.”

“Klon?”

“Yes.”

Jack looked at my deranged face. We are the same height, very comfortable for kissing.

“You know, my dear, you have the face of a Zillian,” he said.

“Fuck you, my love,” I replied pleasantly.

“Yes, honey buns.” He silenced me with hard, demanding lips.

Wow!

My genes had been recombined using alien DNA, or, more accurately, they had been genomically altered with the DNA of Earth’s animals. Doc didn’t know which animals yet, but they sure crave Jack.

He filthed me up again, the craven fiend, and I had to sluice a second time. It certainly had been brilliant of me to program the cooker last night because I had barely gotten my long cloud of thick hair dry and tamed into something resembling a style when the overhead com bonged and announced that our guest had arrived. I slipped quickly into a voluminous mauve dress (it is not a muumuu), of fine shiny Faire cotton (this ankle and wrist length dress sufficiently covered much of my muscular, corded limbs and oversized joints) and entered the living room just as Jack was settling our guest on the sofa.

The scientist turned to me… and did a double take on my face, literally. Her slight smile turned to horrified shock before she fully recovered her self control.

I laughed, which turned into the giggles. My diaphragm took on a life of its own; I couldn’t control it.

“Dear friend,” I gasped, and then I turned to Jack and asked, “did you forget to warn her?”

Jack had turned beet red. “Beautilicious, I’m afraid that I did.”

We were all laughing by then, and everything was okay.

Poor gal. I really am ugly. Still, Jack manages to look at me like I’m a hot Philippa’s cheese-steak sammich, which he adores, even when he is inches from my face. Of course, he’s usually in me when he looks at me closely like that, or is about to be.

(I know what you’re thinking, dear reader, “overkill,” but our relationship really is this good. Don’t believe me if you don’t want to, I understand. What you’re telling me is that your relationship(s) are not this good. Too bad for you. Boo-hoo, but keep it to yourself. I’m not interested in your doubting opinion of my glorious sex life. Not at all.)

“I’m so sorry,” Suri Cullough, PhD, managed to choke out. “I don’t know what to say.”

“Say nothing,” I said. “Laughter is good for the soul.” I’m always coming up with these rotten old chestnuts. Most folks erroneously think I’m very original in my speech. I don’t correct them. “Coffee, tea, orange juice, water…”

“Coffee, please. I’m getting sick of orange juice. I had a meat loaf yesterday…”

“Ah, yes. The meatloaf,” Jack sighed.

We all laughed again.

“Eggs MekKop this morning, no meatloaf,” I said.

“Thank God,” Suri sighed.

“Christian?” I asked.

“No. It’s just an expression.”

“It’s okay if you are, we’re not prejudice.”

“Really? Well, I am, then.”

Jack and I looked at each other.

“We should introduce you to our good friend, Doc,” Jack said.

“Dinner party?” I suggested.

“Brilliant,” Jack replied.

Suri looked slightly confused.

“I’ll get the coffee,” I said, and returned shortly with my silver tray and spoons, my ancient English porcelain teapot filled with coffee, the cups and saucers, sugar, and cream. I poured for each of us. Suri preferred lots of sugar but no cream.

Jack stood up, went into the kitchen to refill the pot, and returned with it to the table. I’d made a thermal tea cozy for my teapot and it was excellent at discouraging chips and keeping the contents hot. I placed the gaudy thing over it.

“So, tell us what you’ve discovered about the Odok ships,” Jack encouraged right away. Suri seemed like the kind of scientist that is only comfortable when talking about her specialty, and Jack often dispensed with the small talk in our home. He had to follow so many varying social conventions in his work, with so many different species, that at home he often became blunt.

I prefer it that way.

The scientist didn’t even notice the absence of small talk. She lifted both her cup and saucer, sipped, moaned pleasurably, rolled the liquid inside her mouth, swallowed, and cradled the cup and saucer possessively in her lap.

“We’ve discovered nada, but we’ve theorized mucho,” she said.

Jack and I smiled encouragement.

“There are several theories that might explain the way the Odok ships get from one region to another instantaneously. We like three of them in particular.

“First, there are these things called neutrinos, which are made within the nuclear reactions of suns and forced out into the solar winds. They’re non-reactive for the most part. They pass through everything, even planets, without being hindered or leaving much evidence of their passage. Ghost particles, some call them. They can break the light speed barrier.

“Some theorize that the Odok drive may somehow convert into or make the ship, its cargo, crew, and fuel masses behave as neutrino-like particles, contain them, of course, you wouldn’t want to lose anything, and then propel them – in a straight path because they can go through everything, at faster than light speeds from the ingress point to the egress point.

“Whatever property the ship, cargo, crew, and fuel masses are turned into or made to behave as, the amount of energy to begin, contain, and end a process like that is immense. It represents values that we are unable to create today. Worse, it’s terrifying. Makes you think twice about tripping in those ships. Frankly, we don’t think this is what’s happening. The physics just doesn’t work out.

“Secondly, Ghee, the explanation of the Infinite recycling itself through black and white holes and other phenomena that you brought to us from the Wilderness suggested another theory. What if the drive creates and controls a portion of an event horizon which allows instantaneous travel anywherewhen? The event horizon is the area at the edge of the black hole where, theoretically, you cease to be able to detect matter and energy falling into it. We don’t actually have the equipment to detect this yet, but the math can be done. The Energy Propeller could suck the ship in and poop the ship out at the omega destination at the exact time we leave the alpha destination.

“Going further, could there be destinations in places and times that we are unaware of? The Odoks gave us only specific plots, possibly to contain us within those sixteen galaxies and within our current time. It’s possible that there are many more destinations plotted throughout the Infinite and throughout time.”

My china clattered in her hands as she twitched. She closed her eyes a moment, then raised the cup and drank deeply. Jack picked up the china pot and filled her cup again. Coffee seems to calm the high-strung.

Suri seemed withdrawn in thought as she added just the right amount of sugar, and sipped. Then she set the saucer down carefully on the living room table and sat back in the same position, gently cradling the warm cup in both hands.

She absently stroked the bowl of the cup with her fingers and I wondered if she had a cat at home. Or many.

“It hurts my brain,” Jack groaned.

Suri laughed. “Me too, and I’ve been thinking on this for a very long time,” she whined humorously.

“Holy shit. This is all very deep,” I said.

Suri stared at me for a moment. “You use interesting phrases, Ghee,” she commented. Then she said, “There’s more. I haven’t told you about quarks, yet. They have strange behavioral properties.”

She stopped again for a moment and sighed deeply. “Trying to put what I have in my head into your head using mere words is going to give me a seizure.”

“Seriously?”

“No! No, no. I’m not prone to seizures.”

“You need fuel,” Jack insisted.

We all stood up and moved to the dining area. My table is a magnificently carved piece of petrified tork from Frell. It’s basically a stone table that has the whorls and rings of a very old and gnarled tree boll. It is cut so thin that in some places you can see right through the slice. The chairs match but are synthetic; otherwise we wouldn’t be able to move them. She stared through the table, and then at the intricate carvings around the slightly thicker edge, and I wondered if she was calculating the curves. Were numbers running through her head? Equations? Who knew? Not I. She certainly was intense.

Jack served. As he passed me, the light scent of citrus soap and Jack’s own scent touched my nostrils. I lost my concentration momentarily.

Geez! I couldn’t not react to Jack. Enough already! Concentrate, Ghee, I ordered myself.

The melon soup announced itself with a delightful odor, replacing that which had befuddled me momentarily. My China bowls were pretty. I lifted mine to my lips and slurped. Flavors burst through my palate. I tasted in rapid succession fresh strawberries and the sweetest of cantaloupes, the slight, fleeting flavor of almonds, a mellow mint, then honeydew, and finally, the native melon. Wow. No one spoke and the slurping was loud, but it wasn’t over until we licked the shallow bowls.

That’s how we eat melon soup on KekTan.

Jack collected the delicate bowls and carefully deposited them in the kitchen, as I insist on washing them by hand. He waited momentarily for the main meal. The cooker delivered and Jack rolled our dinner into the room on a fine cart, not an original but a reproduction, and we immersed ourselves. The sauce was smooth and deep purple, the blue spinach was perfectly cooked and not waterlogged, the tomatoes were white and tangy, the muffins held up well, the edges crisply tanned. The poached eggs Jack had chosen had lavender yokes and looked uneven, as if they had actually been poached in water.

And yum; guilt-free bacon!

Honestly, the future is cool. Just wait. You’ll see.

Sadly, we soon finished. Like sex, breakfast doesn’t last forever. Just long enough.

Suri helped Jack and I clean up, still in the pensive funk that seemed to be her default mood. Jack brought more coffee, sugar and cream to the table, just in case.

She spoke less urgently now, but was still very intense. Energy streamed from her like escaping electrons and seemed to pelt us both.

“So, of the many mind twists, how all these energies are being produced and contained are the most mysterious to me. Nothing is wasted. Nothing is lost. Something in that ship is initiating the reaction, maintaining its integrity, opening the travel portal or propelling the particles, maintaining the time constant, closing the portal or stopping the motion and reassembling the mass in perfect order, while stuffing the enormous reaction that caused it all in the first place back into its little bottle, or whatever. We’ve all watched ships transport in space—they’re there, they’re gone. There’s no flash, no movement, no nothing. There.” She snapped her fingers. “Gone.”

“Back to our theories. Thirdly, there are strange particles, noticed in the quantum realm, things like quarks and antiquarks, which appear to be able to exist in more than one place at the same time. But they are excruciatingly minute and simple, not huge and complex like a ship and crew compliment. One theory postulates that the ship turns into or behaves like this kind of property, and then just exists in the destination placetime, and not here anymore.

“Also, to help explain the second scenario, which I like the best, some scientists are resurrecting the Bekenstein-Hawking Radiation theory. In the 1970s, Hawking worked with Bekenstein’s earlier work. He posited that there are twin particles in the event horizons of black holes which explain mass loss. Black holes can lose mass. Smaller black holes can emit more radiation that they absorb, so where does it go? Larger black holes, larger than one solar mass, absorb more radiation than they emit, so where does that all go?

“The Radiation theory states: two particles are created at the event horizon, the positively charged particle stays in the origination placetime, and the antiparticle goes… there, back through the black hole to another region in time. I guess the ship could become… maybe the ship could act like the antiparticles, or simply use the mechanism the antiparticles use to escape the origin placetime.

“This takes us back to your story, Ghee, of the Infinite recycling itself. The matter and energy which gets trapped in the gravity well of the singularity goes to another placetime. Perhaps the Odoks learned to control this phenomenon in order to direct the ships to whatever regiontime they want. The event horizon could be the gateway.

“We’ve seen the old science fiction movies, right? What’s left of them?”

Jack and I nodded in unison.

“That stuff is all fantasy. It was developed from Bekenstein’s and Hawking’s radiation theories. The Odok ships may actually be doing this, but there’s no experience of the E.P., or any event horizon visible. How is it done? I fear it’s too far beyond us. We cannot wrap our heads around it.”

Neither could I. I looked at Jack.

Suri said, “You know, the Odoks could have come from any where or when. Their science is far advanced, way beyond our own. They must have been an ancient civilization, much older than ours.”

“You said you had an experiment worked up?” my darling prompted.

“Yes. We’re fitting a ship with every type of monitor in existence and a few we made up special, and we have a small, volunteer crew. We’re going to bounce the ship from here to orbit around Utopia and then analyze the data. We have a center on MekKop that the instruments will stream data to, and we’re setting one up on Utopia as well.”

“Who’s crewing?” I asked.

“Volunteers. I don’t know them, yet. There’s a chance that the huge array of monitoring equipment could cause interference with the Odok systems, and cause problems we can’t anticipate, so we asked for volunteers; a skeleton crew. This experiment should at least give us some information to work with. There’s engineering and physics behind the magic. We want it. This could advance us rapidly.”

“When is the experiment scheduled?”

“After the equinox.”

“Two weeks,” Jack said.

“Wow, Suri. That’s fantastic. Congratulations. I’ll be very excited to hear about the results,” I said.

“Oh, well, I’m sure that we’ll be interpreting the data forever. This is going to be my life’s work. I’ll keep you apprised.”

Soon after, our guest left, presumably to return to her think tank, or lab, or whatever.

Jack snuggled me from behind.

“You sure are a horny old goat today, Jack,” I said.

“You bet.”

He nuzzled my neck.

It’s still a little embarrassing to realize the effect I have on him. Then again, I benefit too. Sometimes I forget I’m especially attractive to him because of what I see in the mirror. I always forget I’m not completely human anymore, and that my attractiveness is a by-product of this fact.

I turned around in his encircling arms. His breath smelled like Faire coffee. His lips and tongue were very warm.

I got over my self-consciousness right quick.

[][Chapter Three
Bumpin’ Alien Uglies]

 

 

Kitty LeMieux walked the corridors of her ship. Kitty was human – though almost none of her employees were – and space born. She stopped to gaze through an opaque wall at the gymnastics that Upender and Tailgunner were performing for their client, who lived on the splendid blue planet that was spinning slowly above the Anything Goes.

Blue planets were Kitty’s favorite, although she’d never lived on one.

She could see Up’s and Tail’s silhouettes through the opaque wall, but decided not to clear it, because that might distract them. Both commanded high fees for their services because they specialized in species most of the other sexers could not entertain. It was the age old problem of incompatible physiology.

Only the richest of the rich could afford those two together, and they’d been with this particular client for over an hour. The client was wealthy, he seemed athletically fit, and he was masterful at postponing the inevitable. He was giving Up and Tail quite a workout.

Kitty turned on the audio.

The client demanded something in his language which the software translated into Infinite Standard for Up and Tail. He didn’t sound breathless at all.

Tailgunner did sound breathless when he said, “Up, get your ass out of my face, I can’t find his sclorpin!”

She listened to him trying to control his breathing with deep gasps.

Those kinds of verbal expulsions were filtered out of the client’s audio feed. There was a holographic copy of the client in the room with them, so they could best manage the movements of the braindeads. It was important not to knock your client out, unless that’s what he paid for.

“It’s on your left. Move your left hand. Now down. No, the other down!”

Up and Tail were manipulating the two robots, also called braindeads, affectionately and exasperatingly referred to ‘bots or ‘deads by the sexers, which the client had ordered from her. The other operators usually used computers and holotoys to please their clients. Up and Tail specialized in braindeads, which were made in the bowels of the Anything Goes by expert technicians – also Kitty’s employees – according to the client’s wishes, and at great expense. They were delivered to private homes planetside in the buyers’ personal crafts. Kitty didn’t deliver.

Braindeads were designed to react to instructions sent by operators on Kitty’s ship, and to nothing else. While the holotoy operators sat at computers and used various manual or voice commands to create motion in the holographs on planet, Up and Tail had to strap on special suits and make the exact motions the client wanted his ‘bots to make. The suit interiors were anatomically correct for Up and Tail’s anatomy, and, in the client’s living room, the ‘bots were anatomically correct to the client’s, or clients’, body, or bodies. Customers sent detailed data regarding their species to her ship’s computers after they signed Kitty’s contracts, so she could customize the ‘deads to their physiology.

Up and Tail were creative at finding ways to perform their paying playmates’ demands, in suits that looked nothing like either of them. And they got the big bucks for doing it – after Kitty took her rather large cut. She had a business ship to run, after all.

Kitty tuned out and moved on. In the next playpen, two hundred and twenty-four operators in various states of repose, before terminals, were making customers’ holotoys behave to their wishes while the players on planet did the various things they did to please themselves. Most of the sexers looked bored; their clientele was the cheapest, desiring nothing more than your basic suck, lick, and fuck, or whatever their species equivalent was.

The Anything Goes had visited Earth several times since the population had strangely changed species. Where the human clients had gone, Kitty couldn’t guess. A species change of an entire planet had never occurred in Kitty’s extensive experience before. She didn’t know what to think of it.

The new clients’ preferences had been discussed after the first visit, had been standardized, and were already programmed in. The operators just tweaked the holotoy programs when necessary to comply with the client’s immediate desires. They could change speed, order of acts, and even entire routines, in only the time it took to touch or speak the correct command.

Kitty moved on. She didn’t continue on to Playpen Three, however, from where somewhat more complicated virtual sexual acts were being directed. She took the lift to her office. There, the accounting program was displaying the current, up to the moment take from Earth, converting it into demes. Demes were the monetary unit Kit banked in on a planet that had specialty banking services. The screen blinked D-1,234,468,754/245. Then it blinked D-1,254,484,618/641. By the time the Anything Goes left orbit on his way to the planet Makenz, the total would read nearly D-45,987,287,511.860. Earth was always a good haul, though this species was a fairly new client. Kitty would do more advertising here next time.

And yes, the Anything Goes was a he. He was Kit’s ship, and his gender was hers to determine. A.G. was definitely a he. He was her protector and provider. She was the brains and the beauty. Although Kit was now nearing ninety, the medical programs kept her in pretty fair condition, for an old broad. She hadn’t known many humans in her lifetime, but her old ma had lived into her hundred and twenties.

Kit’s dad had been a skip; she’d never known him and had never needed him, because by the time she’d been born her ma had already started a brothel on the ship she’d been living on. Ma’d put Kit through business school, and Kit advanced her and her mother into their own ship and business.

Ma died just after finishing with a client in Playpen Seven. She’d passed away doing what she’d loved, pleasing a human woman on one of their military ships. Ma had adored those space rangers, especially Lieutenant Colonel Sylveline Collette. Sylveline had been devastated when Kit told her of her mother’s death.

Kit herself loved males, and spent a lot of time with Felcher, although, not felching, or being felched. That wasn’t Kit’s style. Felcher wasn’t human, but he was close enough. He had comparable parts of the appropriate size, and when he was with Kit, nothing else was on his mind. She didn’t know or care if he was acting when he was with her; he was so convincing. When they orbited certain planets he was in great demand because of his specialty, on others not so much, on most, none at all, and so he filled in with the other operators doing the regular work.

 

 

Kit had called a meeting with her number twos during the planets wee hours when activity was low.

“But Kitty,” Felch interrupted, “why don’t we just stay here? It’s easy money.”

“Dear Felch, Up is damaged and Tail is done in. Unless you want to do what they do…”

“You know I don’t have the anatomy for it, and maybe now’s the time to let the ‘bot owners know that if they get beyond basic, they’ll wreck the operators.”

“That would give us the reputation of bad service providers. It would cut down on orders for braindeads, for which we make a lot of doughnuts, my dear,” Kitty replied.

“They can use holotoys and save their ‘deads and ‘bots for special occasions,” slurred Upender, who had somehow pulled two of his six ‘knee’ joints out of their sockets. He was heavily medicated.

“Up and I can contact our planet and recruit some more operators,” Tailgunner suggested. “We can train them, too. Most of our problems are just overuse and fatigue.”

“I agree,” said Kit. “There seem to be quite a few Nams on Earth that are rich enough to purchase the ‘bots, so we’ll need more sexers. I’ll boost the price because the techs are having a hard time keeping up with the orders. The customization each client desires seems extensive and is slowing production. Can you have some more personnel trained and conditioned by our next pass through?”

“Of course,” Tail nodded.

Up snored.

“Would they share the ‘bots they’ve already bought with each other if we cut deliveries?” Yelp asked.

“Maybe the ones who own will rent theirs out,” Ravish suggested.

“Do these creatures share?” asked Cherish.

The tall, toned, milk-chocolate-extra-milk colored twins stared at Kitty.

“It’s been my observation that creatures don’t usually share expensive sex toys, especially with this extent of customization.” Kitty answered.” The reason I’m suggesting we pull up stakes is that there’s a new civilization I want to explore, and from what I’ve heard on the banter lines, their sexuality is much simpler than these clouts. Okay, I’ll program Iffy to notify customers that double braindead fantasies are unavailable for a while, and let them know how they can send good wishes and gifts to Upender. Tail is still available for singles but let’s not overwork him. I’ll have Iffy really push the holotoy experience, so those orders are going to increase. Get back to work.”

“I was sleeping,” Stretch yawned.

“I was eating,” grumbled Gunslinger.

“We were smorling,” smiled Digits. Velvet Glove stretched sensually and smiled back.

“Shut up and get out,” Kitty barked. “Felch, you stay.”

“I’m sorry, Kitten, me and Torcha Galore have a booking soon.”

“I can stay, Kitty,” purred Matilda the Hun.

“Sorry, dear Matty, you know that won’t work,” Kitty laughed.

“And I don’t share,” growled Felch, as he pushed Matty back and out of the hatch.

Goosh the Jelly wobbled in place as the others left.

“Yes, Goosh?” Kit asked.

It was very difficult to understand Goosh, but Kitty had been listening to her for several decades. Something that sounded like: “Madam, may I squash a piece of cheese?” came out of her, accompanied by a sloshing sound.

“The take is already fairly high,” Kit replied.

“Got rocks and planks. Boogers afoot. Foul day bright eye the plankton tractor.”

“Oh, alright. I’ll stop Iffy taking orders for the ‘bots completely for now. Or at least program her to inform the buggers that they won’t be available ‘til our next visit.”

“There are dogs in the pizza,” Goosh sighed, expelling an extra bit of spittle.

“Thank you for your concern, Goosh. I am tired.”

Goosh wobbled out through the hatch and Kit ordered it to seal. She sat down in her ma’s old overstuffed re-re-re-re-re upholstered LaZGirl and closed her eyes. Just for a moment.

Such good kids, really. Good sports, too, because sex was such a shitty job once the novelty wore off. For instance, Tzlotzl were particularly nasty, having no conscience to speak of. More than one sexer had gone a little bat-shit crazy after having had to deal with them for any length of time. Great business minds, though. Every time Kitty showed up they renegotiated and she learned something new. Though she didn’t always think she would use many of the financial techniques they inflicted upon her.

Kitty, operating from space, was subject to no laws or customs except those the planets insisted on, and each culture of each planet had different customs and laws as well. The accounting computer, Iffy, queried all of them for permission to do business, took care of any legal issues, set up payment accounts, programmed herself to allow and disallow various acts according to cultural and legal edicts, saved and updated all information, and managed the orders for the workers to fulfill.

Worker burnout was common. Leave was granted frequently, and occasionally groups of the kids would go down to whatever planet A.G. was orbiting and relax in the most lux vacation spots available. Kitty paid for everything. No side jobs were allowed and absolutely no prostitution. A worker could catch a disease, a beating, be raped, or even be made a homicide victim, and Kitty wasn’t interested in losing her workers or having them damaged in any way that would cut their productivity. They weren’t to speak of her or their work while vacationing, either, and they had cover stories. Anyway, while on vacation they were all trying to get away from sex talk, so the kids obeyed all her rules.

Everyone was a kid to Kitty LeMieux, except some of the aliens. Fist of God, FoG for short, was an antique alien who seemed to no longer have any scruples, if he ever had. FoG would do anything, unlike many of the others who might balk at, say, bestiality. A beast was sub-sentient, as opposed to a mature alien, which could be either sentient, sub-sentient, or non-sentient. Sub- and non-sentient creatures were not clients. That was Kitty’s rule. Sub-sentient beasts could be part of the fantasy, as long as actual beasts were not used. That was where FoG came in. He was an excellent actor. Nor was anyone who was considered age inappropriate by the client species allowed in either the fantasy or as a customer or playmate. These prohibitions were in her contracts. Kitty queried every species for their definition of juvenile.

FoG had been one of Kitty’s ma’s employees, and Kitty had sort of inherited him. She’d asked FoG if he wanted to be pensioned off, but he declined. He’d been sexing for so long, he didn’t know what else to do with himself. And anyway, his experience was invaluable. He didn’t seem to rest or sleep much, or perhaps he was always at rest. He had been an excellent teacher, although some of the comments his students were making lately caused Kitty to wonder if perhaps he was finally flirting with senility. You never really knew, with aliens. How could you tell? He did seem somewhat different than he was before.

The sexers’ working names advertised specialties or preferences, or even referred to personality types, or were just jokes. When some of the workers’ names were too unpronounceable for the species being serviced, these were changed. Iffy translated the nicknames on lists that were offered to clients in their own languages, and altered a bit or completely changed them when necessary. For instance, if the client didn’t have external genitalia, then ‘Wang’ or ‘Dangles’ would mean nothing to them, and would have no translatable equivalent. Without alternative nicknames, those names would show up as dashes in the written translations, or soundless pauses in the audios, and those boys and girls would get no clients from that planet or culture. This wasn’t fair, so alternatives were chosen. Often Iffy would query Kitty for help at these times.

It was all fairly automatic.

Kitty rubbed her sore eyes. There were always complaints, of course. Every culture had its culture warriors, but Kitty’s ma had said, and Kitty still believed, that if they were shouting, slugging, or shooting at you, it was because you were doing something right. Unlike her mother, though, Kitty cared. She always answered the angry outbursts personally because she knew that if she were mean to people about the mistakes they made, then she could expect them to be mean to her about her own. “Perfection is an ideal, dear,” her ma used to say, “not a reality.”

Usually, doing business was a matter of education. Creatures often needed to be reminded that their choices were not being taken away from them, therefore, they shouldn’t try to impose their choices on others, because turnabout is fair play. Better to keep it in your own pants, so to speak.

Kitty used phrases like “Your ways are not our ways, or your neighbors’”, and “Just trying to make an honest buck, here.” “We’re discrete, your children will never know,” was effective with frightened parents. After speaking that one, Kitty would think to herself, nor would you have if you’d kept your eyes out of certain kinds of advertising materials. “How is it that you heard about us, dear?” reminded a potential player of its own culpability, and was usually effective with all but the most angry and obtuse. Those were usually reported to the local authorities. Not directly, but conversationally, as in, “Chief Whatever, is it acceptable in your culture to threaten legitimate business people? I’m just wondering because… I don’t want to cause a problem… well, thank you, Chief. I really didn’t know. Tomorrow evening? With Hyde Tanner? Of course. I’ve put you down on his list. And keep an eye out, I’m sending some Thorian candy down for your children and some Glaxici cigars for you… of course, and greetings to…” she would struggle with the names of his, her, or it’s concubines, wives, husband, or ‘friends’, but the effort would be appreciated. “Bye now!”

Diplomacy. Such a boon to whatever-kind. Kitty kept a entire hold full of various bribes, uh, gifts, and they were kept as fresh as the day they were made through various expensive devices. Sex paid so well that Kitty could afford this, and she would continue to be able to because she was so very considerate, in a bottom-line-minding sort of way. It was as automatic for her as breathing.

 

 

“Iffy”, Kitty croaked, and then cleared her voice, “this is the next system we’re visiting. Send Greeting Message Two to the orbiter of the star.” She put her finger on the representation of the star she referred to on the map displayed in front of her on the monitor.

“Yes, Kitty. Done.”

This new civilization had advanced quickly on a planet previously inhabited by non-sentient species. They’d probably transplanted themselves, or been transplanted, from elsewhere. Perhaps the creatures there were already familiar with her services, if they’d ever lived or worked on a planet or space station on her route, or a ship that had crossed her path. Or perhaps not. Either way, she hadn’t added a civilization to the roster in a long while. She’d succumbed to complacency. Well, enough of that! One could get old that way.

This was an opportunity to make new friends. What kind of creatures would they be? Bleezaks? Nomicronians from Zersei 8? Terricans? There seemed to be less of those around lately, scattered about. Something entirely new? Always a challenge, but she had a hold full of gifts, and Iffy had the best translation programs money could buy. And if she did say so herself, Kitty was a very good negotiator, maybe the best, considering the wide range of alien species her business serviced.

Kitty had met only a few cultures that didn’t appreciate the “mating aids” she provided. Masturbation was certainly fun on one’s own, but few didn’t want to at least try the added stimulation of a customized holostripper.

She had noticed that Klon’s ship was decelerating toward that star. The fighters were always good custom. What did Klon know about the new civilization that Kitty did not? She was curious to find out.

“Iffy, how much longer do we have to be here?”

“If we stop advertising now, there will be a slowing of orders that calculates out, with foreseeable variables, to a departure date in approximately twelve of this planet’s days.

“How long did we plan on staying?”

“With current levels of advertising, in thirty additional days orders will decrease significantly. Cost should then exceed income, absent potential variables, in another four days.”

“Thirty-four days of missed income,” Kit murmured.

Iffy heard.

“The approximate loss will be…”

No. It was too much.

“Carry on as before, Iffy.”

“Yes Madam.”

Too bad. Kitty’s new friends would have to wait.

[][Chapter Four
Hit… Thing]

 

 

On a bright and sunny day, far away and long ago, a family gathered in a luxurious home. Placed ‘round and about, flat, square plates tempted palates with professionally sculptured and decorated snacks. Beverages in hand, the family members waited with patience for their mother’s pronouncements.

None of the six grown and nearly grown children had yet commented on the long, tall, new sofa table behind one of the couches. Black haired Shelga had placed her cup on its oddly sculptured surface, and had forgotten about it. She’d asked her twin brother Shagen to get her a new one. Condensation dripped down the glass and made a wet ring on the new table’s strange surface.

Shelga and Shagen were young adult members of an obscenely rich family, the kind of wealth that makes the rules for the less well endowed, and then blatantly ignores those dictates in regards to themselves and their friends of the month. Few people remained friends with this family for much more than a month. Friends became sport for them, hangers on and wannabes to be tormented until they fled. Of course, if you were close to as rich as the Karradems, the torment wouldn’t be as intense for you. They’d tolerate you. If richer, they’d defer to you, and catered to your eccentricities. But few people or families matched or exceeded the wealth or the maliciousness of the Karradems.

They treated their legal staff fairly. They treated their maids and gardeners and animal keepers well, too, as long as these servants didn’t cost the family beyond management expenses. Once, the family had hanged a keeper after he caused, through ignorance, the death of an important breeder and her unborn son. But that had backfired as the family had had to do their own muck shoveling for a month until the other keepers and their menials would come out of hiding.

The new table shifted minutely, but none of the Karradems seemed to notice.

“Come now, family, stop carping. I have a plan,” Mother said softly as she entered. Mother was the tama Chelisa Karradem, always genteel and impeccably clean. Her hair was also black, but now probably artificially so. Others carried out her orders and often died before the act could be traced to her.

Mother enjoyed microexplosives. In her youth she had been hardeem, one of the four different types of very special soldiers of the Braxletl race who had conquered the other civilization on this fine planet called Haina. They’d left no trace whatsoever of their manipulations of those others, or those others.

Father had married her for her special education, and afterward, she’d plied her trade among the various corporations and families Father did business with. Hence Karradem Enterprises became the second largest corporation on Haina, second only to Bagarsa Corporations, run by Aina Bagarsa, who’d married Elsma Cretiphor.

Tama Elsma had been in tama Chelisa’s classes at University, and they understood each other well. A truce existed; they stayed well out of one another’s way, and used every security procedure known to them against each other. Therefore, the planet was effectively split into two halves; Karradem Enterprises ran one half, Bagarsa Corporations, the other.

Tama Chelisa headed security for Karradem, and the Bagarsas had the same arrangement.

Smaller corporations were allowed to compete with each other in businesses not wholly owned by either megacorporation. Karradem Enterprises and Bagarsa Corporations each owned businesses encompassing security, including police and militias, and others like waste management, mining, many manufacturing entities, energy, transportation, food and water supply, and investment firms. Because Karradem Enterprises controlled investments on one hemisphere, and Bagarsa Corporations controlled investments on the other, the megacorps indirectly controlled every smaller enterprise. The smaller corporations were also at the mercy of, say, waste management.

They were all horrible creatures. Most of the children took after their parents, and you did not defy the tamas. The few children who managed to squirt through the crushing fingers of the tamas’ iron grips suffered under the suspicion or diagnosis of mental defect, or worse, were deemed insane, depending on the strength or longevity of their defiance. Rendered harmless through various methods, up to and including ‘accidents’, the poor dears didn’t resist long.

Not human, Braxletls had no equivalents for concepts like empathy, compassion, mercy, or pity. Although tamas used emotions for their own ends, and could therefore, generously speaking, be considered empathetic, the results of their detections were the ruthless exploitations of others. Fortunately, they lived short lives. Unfortunately, they were fecund, and their trusts ensured that their style of rule would continue far beyond their deaths. The two corporations had evolved to their present state through many generations, the current situation being the most competitive and successful thus far, and the tamas would choose the controlling heirs. The Braxletls of Haina were rabidly greedy, familialy loyal, secretive, duplicitous, and entirely without scruples, but their manners were impeccable. Most of Chelisa’s and Elsma’s children had suppressed the insane rebellious traits successfully and had followed the tamas’ directions with perfect obeisance, so far. Perhaps this wasn’t so curious, as those offspring who did not submit to the tamas’ directives tended to suddenly and abruptly cease to thrive. Every mature Hainan practiced infanticide when necessary, but preferred to manipulate obeisance.

One did not bicker in public. One sabotaged in secret. One also protected one’s own, unless one’s own became insane. Then the tama was expected to take care of the problem. The insanities of empathy, compassion, and indiscretion, though they had, for the most part, been murdered out, still tended to crop up occassionally.

A few sons and daughters had escaped. One, from the Karradem family, named Bobrin Karradem, had in fact run away by paying his way on a freighter. The mistake of his escape was due to a lack of attention to his antics, and was rued by the Karradems. They were privately and sometimes publicly questioned as to their fitness to run the hemisphere, but something might be salvaged of that mistake.

“We know,” said Mother, “that Apical Mining and Recycling Company of Ordoron, for unfathomable reasons, lets its employees mine asteroids for personal gain.” She noted her children’s confused look. “Strangely, most of their employees remain their employees for long terms. They retire quite wealthy.” Mother paused, trying to fathom the alien system.

Why the company did not take everything and virtually enslave its employees with poor wages until their deaths or incapacitations baffled her. ‘Share The Wealth’, one of Apical Company’s slogans, revealed their barbarity. Successful barbarians, though; the Apical Company was the primary business of Ordoron, and the bizarre Share The Wealth philosophy enabled them to care for their people well. She continued.

“We’ve received the wealth Bobrin collected while employed by Apical, and an accounting of his death.” She began to pace around the seating arrangement. Those of her children who were standing moved out of her way. The seated ones prepared to move if she decided to sit where they were. She stopped briefly to stare at the drink glass making a wet circle on the new table.

Shagen, the closest, removed the glass and, turning toward Shelga, murmured, “Go get a towel.” Mother waited with patience.

Shelga wiped the ring from the table’s top, wondering where her mother had dredged up this ugly thing, but not saying a word. Mother took a deep breath. Her chest swelled, making the single strand of polished, round, faceted, eight millimeter diamond beads roll and flash rainbow colors onto her face and around the room. Her children seemed mesmerized and distracted by the display. Mother knew. This was the only diamond bead strand on the planet, because Haina had no diamonds, and Mother’s husband, Datar, had imported the stones, keeping the source secret.

“So,” she barked, and her children twitched. All eyes fastened onto hers, not out of surprise or respect, but to see if she might be coming for them. Sometimes the children could evade abuse, for a while.

Mother hadn’t hit anyone for a very long time. She’d commanded the younglings’ attention before, but by the time the children reached their maturity, the lessons had either been learned, or not. Still, the fear remained, in all but a few, like Bobrin. Bobrin had been fearful, but not in the same way as the others. He’d wanted to please her, but he had not wanted to obey her. Chelisa mused frequently about this wayward son. He’d always had an insane streak, an untouchable quirk, and she admired him for that. But he could not remain an example to the others, so she had actually allowed him to steal the jewelry that had bought his passage off Haina. Otherwise, she would have been expected to kill him.

Datar had expected her to send an assassin after him, but she had refused. “He won’t be any trouble if he stays away, Dati,” she had said. He’d said, “What if he doesn’t?” So she’d put a hemisphere-wide kill on site warrant out for him just in case he did come back, to seem proper. Bobrin wasn’t stupid, just crazy. He wouldn’t be back. Strangely, his abandonment had saddened her instead of angering her.

Datar had looked suspiciously at his wife after these events, and their relationship had been strained ever since. Did the madness come from Chelisa, he’d wondered? He pondered still, and she was aware that he did. This was only natural.

Mother knew, so why set this particular course in motion? This path was unprecedented, that was certain. If she had killed her son, the need to avenge his death wouldn’t exist. Avenging his death would be seen as sentimentally insane, unless she pretended that she merely wanted to recover his murderer’s haul. That would be acceptable, as it would increase the family’s resources and subsequent respectability, and would nullify some of the talk. Tama Chelisa had found out through secretly purchased information that his murderer was quite a wealthy thing, a member of a long-lived species, and records of its stash had reached her eyes. This hoard would make the Karradems wealthier than the Bagarsa’s, but she had revealed this fact to no one. She would have these riches, and the entire planet would be hers, hence, the new table.

“Mother, may we do anything for you?” her third son, Ragard asked. The question bordered on insanity; it could be interpreted as compassion, and implied she’d somehow gotten out of her depth. But Ragard was Ragard. He knew the limits of her, and father’s, and his siblings’ tolerances, and frequently clawed at them, if not playfully, then purposefully. Most likely he was just displaying his greed and eagerness to help plunder the assets of their enemy.

She grinned at him. Her strong teeth shined almost as brightly as the diamonds. He shrank back a bit into himself.

“We are going after Bobrin’s murderer’s holdings. They are substantial,” she stated plainly.

She felt shock course through her children, and other emotions, but not the ones she wanted to sense them feeling. She sighed. So much work, these adult children. A substitute for experience didn’t exist. Then again, she walked a fine line here, exploring new territory, bound to cause confusion, even reticence. She would nip that in the bud immediately.

“His murderer’s personal wealth would run our total hemisphere, without any other input, for an entire year.”

Gasps. Ragard smiled and strode up to her.

“Mother!” he exclaimed. He brushed her cheek with his own, an intimate and affectionate gesture, and stood besides her facing his siblings as if he’d come up with the plan himself. His immediate support gave the others their cue.

“Oh, excellent. How shall we accomplish this… acquisition?”

“You have a plan! Tell us.”

‘Yes, Mother, please tell.”

“Clever, Mother, when shall I ever be as you are?” This from Anama, the youngest.

Such clever children, Mother thought to herself, pleased. However, Anama, the flatterer, wasn’t much of a thinker.

The new table shifted again and this time Ragard saw it move. He stared.

“Never mind, Ragard,” Mother murmured.

“I have its description,” Mother said. She’d had her agent pay an Apical Company records employee a goodly sum for the information. “I’m in possession of the vessel’s most recent co-ordinates. I purchased a suitable ship to return its cargo to us, and an agent to take it.”

“The animal won’t let its wealth go willingly, Mother,” Shagen said.

“What kind of agent?” Famaca asked.

“What will the Company do, Mother?” Kranson queried.

“How will you keep the agent from taking off with the treasure, Mother?” This was Dorcad’s question.

Chelisa paused a moment and made a mental note about her daughter’s perceptive skills. Dorcad, still too young to take over any of the family’s business functions, would obviously become a skilled manager.

“These are all excellent questions, my children. I’m impressed with you all. At this point I’d like to tell you that because you’ve all been so perceptive; I’d like to hand out some promotions. I don’t think I need to say that I’m counting on you not to disappoint me.”

“But Mother, you just did say,” Anama chimed in her still childish voice.

Perhaps she could put Anama in charge of the stables when the time came for her to contribute to family business.

The infantile panic which flashed across all of their faces amused her, but they recovered in haste, and she was again impressed. She praised herself internally for rearing such a fine batch of future entrepreneurs, for the most part.

“The agent is an assassin, a pilot, and an expert in security systems and making entry into secure facilities. He is bonded and licensed. This is what his people do, well, the ones who work off planet. They have excellent reputations.”

“This sounds expensive, Mother.”

“This adventurer will receive a start up amount, I’ll reimburse its government for the cost of leasing the ship, and after we’ve assessed the take, a percentage.” Actually, Mother had contracted to pay the hitter four point three percent of the value of Buster’s treasure, and had signed several lifetime trade contracts with its minister of trade, her lifetime, not theirs.

“What percentage?”

“Not your concern dear.”

“Will we still have enough to run the Enterprise for a year after you pay this hitter this generous amount?”

“Of course, all expenses are factored in.”

“Even considering the cost of the ship?” Anama said, trying to show off. This was the second smallest expense.

“Yes, dear.”

“And the advance?”

“Yes.”

“What if this agent doesn’t come back?”

“It will, we’ve already covered this.”

“What guarantees this, Mother?” Shagen frowned.

“Trade agreements, dear. Also, the individual has agreed to be injected with a small explosive capsule. If the job takes longer than a specified amount of time, I will allow access to a data pack that will reveal an extension code. This can happen three times. At the end of the fourth extension, our assassin must be on Haina to receive the last code, or it will die. It has agreed to these terms.”

“That’s impressive, Mother,” Ragard said. “Will you tell us about our promotions?”

“Yes, Ragard. In fact, you’ve an appointment with the University administrator to arrange your schedule of classes. You will be following your mother’s footsteps into the field of security.”

“Oh, Mother, I’m so pleased! I’m going to be hardeem!”

Ragard threw himself on the sofa in front of the strange table he’d forgotten about.

“What about us, Mother?”

“Shagen, you will report to your father’s business and learn at his side.”

Shagen couldn’t speak. He knew this meant he would have an excellent chance to succeed his father when the time came. He threw himself down next to Ragard and they slapped and punched each other silly.

“Shelga, you have a choice. You can work for your father or you can learn to run this house. Take your time to decide.”

“Oh, I’ll take the house, Mother. Who do I report to, you or Kadi?”

“Kadi, dear, but I’ll help out. Dorcad, Kranson, Famaca, and Anama, you need to continue your studies, but I’ve decided to give you a fabulous vacation during your next break. I haven’t decided where you will be sent, yet, you I will allow you to make suggestions later.”

The youngest three jumped up and ran around each other just like they’d done as energetic young things, and then they, too, collapsed, but on the couch, which faced their three older siblings.

The conversation had been intense.

The table behind the sofa occupied by Ragard, Shagen, and Shelga moved in a sort of undulation. Mother simply watched as the surface shimmered like water and the illusion of furniture quivered away. The thing that had been disguised there still looked like a table, it’s back straight and the end parts bent like table legs. It adjusted itself by rearing up on its hind end. As it towered over the sofa, the three elder offspring finally noticed the creature. They almost broke their necks by snapping their heads around to look, and their eyes threatened to pop out of their skulls. The older children’s mouths dropped open. Shrieks resounded and Ragard, Shagen, and Shelga flew over the other couch, dragging their siblings with them toward the door, not because they cared, but for fear of mother. She might have plans that would be disrupted if any of the siblings were killed or damaged. And she would make them pay for their neglect.

Famaca seemed to be welded to the couch. She barely breathed.

The three younger ones resisted because they hadn’t noticed the beast. They’d still been playing, and slowed their brothers’ and sister’s attempts to pull them out of harm’s way. Ragard ran to the room’s exit, a large archway, dragging Anama and Kranson with him. Shagen had hold of Anama as well, and grabbed at Dorcad, but missed. Shelga hugged and lifted little Dorcad and ran with her the exitway. The older boys seemed to be using the younger children as rear shields.

When the juveniles looked back, they witnessed their mother expressing amusement, standing calmly next to the thing. Mother flipped her hand over toward the monster and exclaimed, “This is our hitter.”

The alien being, twice as tall as Mother, was evenly segmented, and each segment had two short legs sticking out, one on each side. The appendages curled forward. These limbs, at least a hundred of them, tapered to segmented points. It stood, if you could call it that, in a kind of backwards ‘s’ shape, with the bottom end on the floor curled away from them, and the upper end curled forward.

Even its mother would be afraid of that face. The eyes were small in proportion to its size. Two large, curved scimitars came forward from the edges of its dorsal-ventrally flattened face. They were hollow, and the poison channel could be seen arching back from the tips of the yellowed pincers. Its ventral aspect, dull silver, blended to cream toward the center. Its dorsal aspect, powder blue on the outer edges above the silver, shaded inward to shiny grey, and a dark metallic blue stripe ran down the center of its back from its head to its end. Two fleshy protuberances went backwards from its… whatever.

“What is that?” whispered Anama, the first to regain her voice, showing one of the first signs of promise that today. Mother appreciated the self control she’d exhibited. Or, maybe she was just too stupid to stay silent. Hard to tell.

“I’m not sure,” Mother said. “Its speech doesn’t translate well into ours. But Paktchikt comes well recommended.”

“Who recommended it?” Shagen demanded.

All the kids lined up with both couches between then and the creature.

“One of my mentors, dear.”

The kids relaxed slightly.

“Well then, welcome,” said Ragard to the thing. He cleared his hoarse throat.

Intelligent noises emitted from the translator belted around its middle.

“Yes, well,” said Mother, clasping her hands in front of her surprisingly feminine, floral-printed, leather belted robes. She had enjoyed her little surprise. It had been a full day.

Kadi appeared, standing at the entrance to the dining hall. “Time for dinner,” Mother said. “Paktchikt, I don’t think there’s a need for us to meet again until you are successful. Good luck.”

The translator made some more noises as the creature flattened out. Putting all the pointy parts of his legs on the floor, it scooted past the children and went out the door.

[][Chapter Five
Vacation With A Side Of Business]

 

 

The recycle ship approached the planet’s inner space transmitting its identity, requested permission to dock, and directions to a slip. The console binked, and Buster answered. The controller asked Buster if she would leave her vessel in outer orbit and could she take a shuttle to the civilian orbiter? Buster affirmed. Her great ship was assigned an orbit. Buster stated her identifications, told the controller that she was here on business, and asked if someone was available to talk to her about cleaning the trash out of their orbit. Was she allowed to also visit the planet for a short leave? The controller transmitted her request to customs and said the determination regarding whether she would be allowed to visit KekTan would be made as she passed through customs checks in the orbital station. If so, directions on how to get planetside would be given to her.

Good enough, Buster thought, and she transmitted her acceptance of the terms. Control terminated the contact with a cheerful, “Enjoy Civilian Orbiter Two,” which Buster hoped was a sincere and not a sarcastic comment. Only experience would tell.

The reclaimer barge settled into its assigned orbit as Buster retrieved her travel bag from quarters and then made her way to the personal transport skiff. She ran through the protocols while the hatches closed and dogged themselves. The outer bay doors opened, Buster fired up the vehicle’s engine, and lifted off. With minimal thrust, she exited the Company craft. The bay door closed and the scow secured itself.

Buster powered through space in her bubble of atmosphere encased in metal composites. She made all the ports transparent in order to gage the traffic and junk in the vicinity. Five enormous military facilities had several hundred ships docked idly, and she recognized two civilian orbiters. She wondered if Civilian Orbiter Two was for visitors and Civilian Orbiter One for locals. It seemed like an expensive security arrangement. Most planets only had one satellite, combined as a visitor and citizen station. Apparently these people simply had enough traffic, and wealth, to justify two. After watching for a while, she realized one of the orbitals had only outgoing traffic, and the other, ingoing.

There didn’t seem to be a lot of junk in their inner space. Of course that would be too much of a hazard with so many ships and satellites hanging around. No matter. She’d have a vacation, introduce herself, and maybe next time do a little recycling. Sometimes these new accounts learned to see the wisdom of having a professional collect their refuse and put it in an orbit which didn’t interfere with traffic. She could swing by every decade or two and adjust its path, or recycle it for them into whatever atoms, molecules, and/or composites they required and the components of their trash would revert to. Some of her clients paid her to collect their garbage, return only certain products to them, and take the rest away. She was usually able to find clients to sell the unwanted waste to. Often the potential new client couldn’t imagine what services they might want until she assessed their situation and informed them of their options.

Recycling for Apical was a pretty good job all around. No officers breathed down her neck or barked in her face. She had nearly complete autonomy. She was paid a flat pittance for every new contract she negotiated, a small percentage of the value of every product she sold en route or delivered back to Odoron, and there was always the mining. Space rocks and abandoned vessels were made of and often full of goodies, which reminded Buster to check the commodities markets on this planet. However, she didn’t want to flood any market with product and crash prices, so perhaps private buyers? She would query a bank for the best ways to proceed, provided she decided she liked KekTan. Surely, at the least, the bank would store her booty for a price, and the markets would likely buy something.

Every once in a blue moon her owner-employer would transmit to her a polite missive which informed her of the price she could pay them for her freedom, and the added security of a contract for employment. They’d started sending her these missives six Company years to the day after they’d purchased her. She’d since received one every Company year (seven Earth years) since, wherever she happened to be. She read them and stored them, and every so often deleted the old ones. If they owned her, they couldn’t fire her, and wouldn’t play stupid games with her. Paperwork was less lengthy for her, because of her slave status. But Buster owned so much wealth now she could do anything she wanted, anywhere that pleased her. She had been on the hunt for her future home for over forty Earth years.

Civilian Orbiter Two had been enlarging in her viewports. Two little tugboats were on their way out to meet her. They transmitted the acceptable speed to her, to which she had slowed. They politely asked her to cut engines and any independent boosters, which she did. The petite towboats attached to her hull expertly, though a slight clang, bump, and shudder occurred. The tugs, both on the same side of her conveyance, turned her small launch sideways, until the satelite appeared in her starboard viewports, and pushed.

Either the beings who occupied KekTan were tiny, or the barges were robotic. Perhaps they were remotely controlled. Either way, they effectively and expertly docked the shuttle in the assigned slip. She felt only two bumps. On the small screen beside the hatch, she could see the lights in the docking bay shining red. Her console and hatch indicators glowed orange.

Buster stood at the hatch, listening to the seal secure her craft to the dock, and then atmosphere rushed into the lock. She watched through her small view screen. The hissing stopped, the red light above the opposite dock hatch turned green, and then, twenty feet from her personal ferry, their hatch opened. The space was large enough to let in a number of security personnel.

Buster was already impressed with these creatures. Six short, wide, armed figures enter. In a moment her console binked, and the light above the hatch turned from orange to blue.

“Open hatch,” she ordered.

The aliens in the dock weren’t as small as would have been necessary to pilot the tugs, so she assumed they were remote controlled, or programmed to act autonomously. Her welcoming committee was armed. The weapons were held a little slack, not quite aimed at her; the barrels pointed somewhere between the floor and her waist’s height.

Their wide, stocky bodies appeared powerful. Militarily uniformed and helmeted, they looked almost identical to each other. Their faces were broad and appeared open and guileless, but their eyes were not the eyes of fools.

Buster stepped slowly out of the skiff into the center of the short beings and waited, her body loose and relaxed. Two of them entered her shuttle. The other four stood lacking all anxiety, but alert, all around her. After a few moments, she heard a voice from inside reporting. Another of the broad creatures arrived in the hatchway, dressed in a uniform, but not the military looking one.

“Welcome to Civilian Orbital Two,” it pronounced oddly through a wide orifice in English, which was one of the languages the scow had found in use on the planet, and the one Buster had communicated with the controller in. Buster had not used the language in a long time, since Ordoron was not a human planet and existed far away from human space. “You are orbiting the planet KekTan,” the alien continued. “We are the MekKop.”

Buster stepped through, entering, at last, the satellite. “Thank you,” she said.

“Follow me.” It turned briskly strode away. Buster followed in close pursuit, while four of the guards fell in behind her.

“You will have a continuous security escort while on this station, but the soldiers will leave you once you’ve passed through security screening. We understand that you want to visit KekTan, is this correct?”

“Yes.”

“We will assign you a personal escort if you are allowed to continue to our planet. Once you are ensconced in your temporary domicile planetside, this escort will leave you, but do not worry. KekTan is very safe. Security is a serious matter to us. Here is your customs agent. We know you will enjoy your experience with us.” She or he quietly went away with two of the guards, leaving Buster an escort of two.

Buster already had a good feeling about the MekKop.

“Hello, B-4ST327R,” said the MekKop clerk.

“Buster, if you please,” Buster replied.

“Of course,” the MekKop said, accepting the console’s query to add “Buster” as the preferred form of address.

“Buster. Welcome.”

He or she explained the customs procedure to her, including the extent of the search of her shuttle, while another MekKop took her travel bag, scanned it, and physically searched the contents.

Buster liked thorough security. Some planets were quite dangerous. Not this one though. They wouldn’t let her boots touch their soil until they’d decided she didn’t constitute a threat. This meant not one ion of the planet would be a threat to her either, except, possibly, the other MekKop, and then only if she misbehaved.

“We require a deposit of 20,000 of our monetary units, which is this amount in your currency.” The amount in Ordoron kimbooz glowed on the monitor facing Buster. She authorized the transfer with a touch.

The customs agent described the laws and customs which visitors most frequently came up against, and stated that further information would be available to her in her suite, planetside. “Please read and understand the documents regarding our further laws and customs before you leave your rooms the first time,” the MekKop emphasized. “You will be required to sign a binding legal contract of understanding and consent. We are a law and order society. You may not break the law on our planet, Buster. However, we understand certain customs unfamiliar to you may be breached unwittingly.” Another one of the sort creatures behind the agent had stilled and stared at her. She stared back. He or she lowered his or her gaze and shuffled its paperwork, and then walked through a door which closed behind. She could not see beyond the wall containing the door. The customs agent had continued reading his statement. “You will be warned only once for each infraction. Four infractions of any kind will result in your expulsion from our planet and our inner space. You will be escorted into outer space by our security personnel to what we consider to be a safe distance from our facilities and then you will be required to leave. Any other course of action taken on your part will result in your death.” He paused and looked Buster full in the face. “Do you understand the expectations and the consequences of not meeting them, which I have just explained to you?”

“Yes.”

“Please make your mark here to confirm your comprehension.” The clerk touched his or her side of the monitor, and a box began blinking on her side. She signed her name and Apical Company and Ordoron designations.

The customs agent injected a nearly invisible capsule into the skin on the rear dorsal aspect of Buster’s right forearm, closer to the elbow than the wrist, explaining the contents as her identity information, her shuttle and ship descriptions and locations, and a locator beacon. Another MekKop came up on her left side and picked up her bag. The customs agent again welcomed her to KekTan. The porter escorted her to a full body scanner, which she successfully passed through.

“Would you like to visit the restrooms before we board the bus?” The porter asked.

“I would. Do you have a name?” Buster asked.

“Oh yes. I should have told you. I am Det.”

The porter paused and Buster realized they stood in front of the entrance to the potty.

“Do I tip you, Det?” Buster wondered when would be the appropriate time, if so, to discourage Det from taking off with her bag, or taking something out of it. This didn’t seem like that kind of planet, but you never knew.

“Oh, no,” Det replied. “We don’t accept gratuities. I do appreciate your kindness in asking, however.”

Buster entered the restroom. Scrubbed air quietly shushed in from vents. A carpeted lobby of sofas, chairs, lockers, and mirrors was appointed with several attendants, who all seemed to smile at her with their wide mouths full of carnivorous teeth, or maybe this was just how they normally held their mouths when not being serious and businesslike. Hard to tell. Wide halls radiated off the main lobby, and doors lined the halls. Each potty was self contained. She chose the nearest, and entered. The air smelled fresh and clean. Thankfully, there was plenty of space inside.

She finished her business and moved to the sink. “Please place your hands on the sensors,” one of the attendants suggested, and she did. “The water temperature will automatically adjust after the sink measures your body temperature,” and it did. Buster rinsed her face. The towel that squeezed out of the wall was a soft, fine variety of real cotton. Buster felt pampered already.

The room was attractively appointed in blues, whites, tans, and mauves. The floor was made of a smooth, non porous material, which climbed three quarters of the way up the wall. The surfaces gleamed spotlessly. No water spots, dust, or odor of disinfectants marred her toileting experience.

The john in the stall she’d chosen had been the ubiquitous hole-in-the-floor style. She looked into a few other stall, because some of the doors had unusual silhouettes on them. A number of strange toilet models presented, some of which Buster couldn’t imagine how to use, and space existed for additions. As she exited back into the lobby, one of the attending MekKop slipped into the stall she’d just vacated, for what purpose she didn’t speculate.

On the planet, the MekKop would be everywhere as well, Buster surmised. Orbiters usually set the tone. This tone was pretty nice, much better than the lawlessness or inattentiveness she’d experienced elsewhere.

Det was waiting for her and gestured to a shuttle area containing several vessels. “Here’s our bus,” Det pointed.

“Is this a slow day?” Buster wondered aloud.

“About average,” Det said, and did not elaborate.

When Buster entered the bullet-shaped transport, she saw quite a few people inside, and each person had a MekKop porter. A family of six aliens included three pups, each of whom had an even smaller porter. The kids served the kids, she suspected.

Det led Buster to a seat and gestured. Buster sat. Det noticed Buster’s interested stare and said quietly, “Our older children use work study programs to come up and attend to the needs of our younger guests. This helps keep our young visitors calm and entertained. Lots of our child attendants are from the diplomatic schools. It is their best opportunity to get to know the many types of peoples who come to visit KekTan.”

Buster nodded. This craft was comfortably appointed and spotlessly clean. Buster approved.

“So, tell me where we’re going,” she suggested.

“We are going to the main transportation hub on the planet, where I’ll explain to you your choice of accommodations, and I’ll take you to your preference. On the way I will explain our various modes of moving about the planet. Transportation is free. I will show you how to use the information terminals, and how to discover the restaurants and shopping areas nearby. I will depart then, but another host will take my place. Tomorrow, I must return to the Orbiter, but you will be assigned several attendants who will be available to you at all hours. They can help you find whatever you are interested in finding, but you are not required,” the shuttle doors closed with a slight whoosh, “to take them everywhere with you, unless you would prefer to be accompanied. This is acceptable.”

The pilot spoke through the intercom. “Dear guests, we are about to take off for KekTan. Please fasten yourself in manually to avoid mishaps. Air pressure will be increased and a light artificial gravity field will be applied in a moment as well to hold you into your seats. If you have jaws, remember to move them like this – a holo popped up from the floor and showed several different types of aliens in the act of popping their ears. We will be planetside in twelve KekTan minutes.”

Det demonstrated the simple restraints and Buster mimicked her. The increased pressure and gravity kept the smaller children for the most part immobile, which made Buster smile.

These MekKop were something else. Every detail had been analyzed and clever solutions applied.

Det checked her wristband calculator for the conversion of KekTan time into Company time and showed Buster, whose own craft had worked out the conversions and supplied them to the MekKop machinery. The team which had entered her shuttle had not only gone looking for bombs and contraband, but for the means of making Buster’s stay more convenient for her and for them. Buster found it difficult to move her arms in the increased gravity, but Det hadn’t seemed to be much bothered by it. The MekKop must be very strong.

Shortly after a bit of reentry chop, the pressure and gravity gently reduced while the shuttle came to a smooth stop on the planet. The energetic kids fumbled with their manual restraints.

Det and Buster exited the bus and headed for an information kiosk.

Buster took several deep breaths. Every planet had its own perfume; this one smelled of water, moist plant material and animal life, and quite a clean city. Again, she was impressed.

“This is how you access various directories,” Det said. “Here are your choices of accommodation. Please choose one. Take your time.” A screen had come up which showed a variety of hotels, rental housing, luxury resorts, and more, all rated, categorized by available features, with prices displayed in Mek/human “dollars”, and Ordoron kimbooz. Buster chose a hotel in the upper-middle range of pricing.

“An excellent choice,” Det said. “The Ambassador Knott Hotel is very popular. However, once we get to the hotel, if you decide to upgrade, I suggest the Nok Resort. I don’t mean to suggest that you will be unhappy at the Ambassador Knott, but we don’t know your preferences yet, and you are unfamiliar with our amenities. Of course, if you find yourself desiring more modest accommodations, perhaps in anticipation of extending your stay, you may enjoy the Cap Pon Dun Rop Hotel Spa which is comfortable as well, but you will, for instance, be doing your own laundry there.”

They’d walked to the transparent door of the shuttle facility set in a huge glass wall extending up and far to the sides. Outside, the round orb of a strong, young, and large star shined down on the lovely planet. The breezes rustled leaves on trees and shrubs preserved in tiny treasuries of native forest here and there. All around these park-like pockets ran a large variety of transportation. There was no exhaust.

Det led Buster to another kiosk. “Here is where you decide what form of ride you would like. You can see the routes, and here is the Ambassador Knott,” she or he pointed to it on the map. “These are the varieties of transportation we can take to get there from here. Please make your choice.”

The options ranged from individual jet cycles to private, chauffeured ‘copters to public ground shuttle. Buster chose the bus.

“Good choice.” Det nodded. “You have to take a short class to use the jet bikes. Public conveyance is the most interesting, although flight is advised as well if you like to view the scenery. I take the bus everywhere unless I’m in a hurry, because the view is priceless and you meet interesting people.”

Buster noted her guide’s use of the English word “people’ to refer to, apparently, both her kind and all other creatures on the planet. There seemed to be a variety of species represented here.

They took a slidewalk to the public streetcar platform.

“If you enter the wrong vehicle, your implant will pulse. Please don’t ignore the sensation, because you will end up going in the wrong direction. You will have to take other transportation to get to your destination, and your journey may end up being much longer than you had wanted.”

The customs agent hadn’t explained the transportation connection to the implant. Briefly, Buster wondered what else he or she hadn’t explained.

The container could include a poison capsule to incapacitate her in the event she decided to commit a crime or went berserk. She’d seen cameras, detectors, and uniformed and casually dressed, but alert, MekKop everywhere. Buster put those thoughts aside because those things also should mean that her vacation would be violence free. Such a safe planet.

The only place free from cameras, detectors, or uniformed guards had been the bathrooms, but twelve of the tough looking attendants had been in there.

The top of the head of tallest of the plentiful Mek she’d seen so far came only up to just under where her breasts would have been, had she had any, but every one of them looked hard as rocks. She still hadn’t figured out if they exhibited genders. There didn’t seem to be any differences, and so, how could she tell them apart? Apparently, addressing them with a gender-neutral single name was the custom she was to follow.

They arrived at the Ambassador Knott, a modernistic glass and metal structure which went straight up. Around the base, off kilter geometric structures housed the shuttle access, several restaurants, and a large gymnasium, including indoor and outdoor pools. They entered the lobby.

Those gigantic windows surrounded a huge common space. Apparently, the inhabitants liked to look at the views. Buster wasn’t sure if the transparent windows were actually the glass she was familiar with from Earth and a few other places. The panes were very large. At any rate, they looked just like glass.

At the center of the great room, a round counter surrounded busy MekKop and human hosts. Det led Buster to one.

“Welcome, Buster, to the Ambassador Knott Hotel,” the human said. “I’m Jiffy. If you take tube six to the fourteenth floor, you’ll find your room on the right, at,” she checked her wrist for the calculation, translation, and Ordoron pronunciation, “corfor ploknits la down the hall.”

As the hostess took a breath in preparation to proceed, Buster said, “Actually, I would prefer if you just used English,”

“Excellent. I speak that language natively. Then, your accommodations will be seventy-four feet to your right as you step off the lift, room fourteen ninety-six. The room number’s beside the door.”

“Thank you very much,” Buster said.

Det still had her bag. They found lift six and rode up together to the fourteenth floor. The door to room fourteen ninety-six recognized Buster. The implant tickled her briefly and the door opened.

“The implant won’t buzz anymore when you approach this door, it was just telling you that the door recognized you,” Det said.

Det put Buster’s bag on a stand just inside the door. “Now is the time for me to leave you, Buster, but here is Som to help you understand the room controls and answer any questions you might have. I’ve had a good time escorting you. I hope we meet again.”

“Thank you, Det. It’s been a pleasure,” Buster said, turning around. A different MekKop stood in the doorway Det had left through.

“Som, would you close the door, please.” Som did. “I’d like to research your full service banks.”

[][Chapter Six
Domestic Interlude]

 

 

The overhead com bonged twice, two incoming calls.

“In order,” I ordered.

“Ghee, this is Pam. Danny is in the tube with me. I’m letting him out on your floor now.”

“Thanks, Pam,” I replied. I checked the monitor displaying the security eye’s view of the hallway and said, “Front door, open.”

Danny wrapped himself around the frame on his way in. Grey, striped, and tuxedoed, the big feline “prrrowed” and stretched out his long, lean parts. Still walking forward in the stretched position, his little rear toes pushed and his feet lifted alternately – so damn cute. I walked forward and picked him up. Danny tucked his head under my chin.

“Hello, handsome.” I nuzzled his soft, furry noggin. He smelled like bird down, and dirt.

“Ghee,” Jack’s voice boomed. Boomed! Jack was uncharacteristically excited.

“Yes, dear?”

“Look at the monitor,” he said.

I walked to my viewall. One end of Danny was slung over my shoulder and the other end rested on my forearm. The cat was completely relaxed.

“On,” I spoke at the blank wall. A picture of myself appeared before me. I was in the civilian orbiter, at a customs desk, my back was turned toward the camera. The picture was perfectly clear, though tiny, the view from a wide angle security lens hung about a hundred meters behind me. My hair looked uncharacteristically short.

“So? When was this?” The last time I’d had hair that short was not long after my arrival on this planet. About two months ago I’d left KekTan was to visit Candy Land, but I hadn’t looked like that. My dull brown hair is now fairly long.

When we talked on KekTan we used local time. A month took longer on this planet than on Earth by about ten days.

“Two hours ago.”

“No, honeybuns, I’ve been here. This must be very old. My head is shaved there.”

“That construct’s not you. It’s B-4ST327R.”

Oh, shit. Another one.

“Buster is what she likes to be called,” my lover informed me.

I didn’t respond, but my mouth fell open of its own accord.

I collapsed onto my plush LaZGirl, put my feet up on the ottoman, and let Danny slide onto my lap. He demanded the attention of both of my hands.

All right. Everything’s fine. Don’t panic. My cover story’s in place. I thought to myself like a mantra. Although I’d started out as Carol on Earth, I’d died there in 2008, and somehow my personality had eventually ended up in this body, after briefly gracing two others.[1]

The body my conscience now resides in is one of two hundred constructs which were made by human beings between 2049 and 2050AD to help with the colonization of space. After four years of training and six of service, in 2060, the remaining twelve constructs had been sold to wealthy aliens. They had completed their primary mission before human sentiment inconveniently turned against the use of things like them.

Ten Earth years ago (KekTan years were longer than Terran years by roughly a third), the Rotagons captured Jack and illegally sold him to my owner at the time, Spauch. Jack had found me in the very same slave ship we were to visit tonight, the Trakennad Dor. Later, the Mek, myself, and he had all escaped to our future on this beautiful planet called KekTan.

I hadn’t entered this body until it had already been in service to Spauch on that fight ship for many decades. Its body had died, the conscience had fled, and mine had resurrected it an instant later. I don’t know why, or how, and no one knows this but me.

My cover story has been that I’d suffered brain damage from the decades of fighting I endured on the Trakennad Dor, and I can’t remember my early years in service to humankind, or much about my servitude to Spauch, either. My ‘memory’ picks up when I had returned to consciousness in this construct’s body, which had just died in the ring.

I couldn’t tell the Mek or humans the truth. Who would believe me?

Kek and Nok, who’d been my handlers on the arena ship, let me know a few years ago that they understood I was not the same creature I had been. Apparently, the way the construct had behaved and even moved had been different enough from the way I do, that the brothers’ father, who had been my guard at the time, had noticed the change. He must have let them know.

The Mek were not constrained by human belief systems and experiences, not being human themselves. The change in personality was not unbelievable to them. We’d talked about this in a vague way just once; Jack had not understood the theme of the conversation even though he’d been in the room at the time. How could he have? For all their experiences, humans remain fundamentally provincial.

On our view screen was the picture of another construct. She wasn’t me, or Deena.

“Ghee?”

“Yes! Uhm, so that’s, what, four now? Why are they all converging on KekTan?”

“Fuck if I know,” Jack said. He’d adopted some interesting language from the old Earth movies and TV shows I’d found and collected, and from me. He was careful not to be overheard when he used this particular word, however, since he was still a diplomat. Slang has changed somewhat, and he’d never cussed before he’d met me, having been a buttoned up deputy at the time. I’m glad I’ve been a bad influence on him; he’s loosened up quite a bit, at least in private. I feel comforted by this. He asked, “Do you?”

“Nope.”

“Does this have something to do with your super-special attractiveness? Are you calling out to each other across the light-years or something, somehow?” He sounded doubtful even as he spoke it. “We’re talking about twelve units spread who knows where throughout the Infinite.”

“I don’t think so, Jack. I haven’t experienced anything unusual.” My lover had just called me a unit. I didn’t feel good about that.

“So what the hell is going on?”

I shrugged, which he didn’t see, as we were on an audio-only link. “I don’t know. What did you learn about her?” I picked up one of Danny’s yummy treat pouches from the floor under my plush mauve armchair.

“Calls herself Buster… pilots a garbage scow designated… it’s in alien lettering, or numbers, I can’t tell which. Wait, here’s the translation. It’s only a number – 42904856. From a planet called Ordoron. Has a route – wait. The freighter’s on a multi-year circuit, cleans up debris in its client planets’ inner and outer spaces. Buster is… owned, by Apical Mining and Recycling Company. She’s here for business and vacation.”

Danny took a treat gently from my fingers and jumped to the carpet.

“She’s made of exactly the same stuff as you, Ghee, right down to your carbon fiber composite skeleton.”

The orbiter’s scanners would have analyzed all the molecules of her clothing, her body, and anything she carried through, looking for threats.

As Jack talked, I watched Buster on my view screen enter and exit the restroom.

“She’s staying at the Ambassador Knott, thank you very much!” Jack was still thrilled and humbled about the Mek decision to name the giant business hotel after him. I laughed. He continued. “She poses a low threat risk. Also, she’s researched banks.”

“For what?”

“I don’t know yet. I’m acquainted with Fic and Het over at KekTan National; they won’t tell me much, though.”

Mek security could not be breached.

“No, they wouldn’t.” I watched Buster and her Mek attendant enter the bus, and then the angle switched to an interior camera view. Her face looked… average. “Well, four out of twelve of us are here now. I don’t know what to say about that. It’s a strange coincidence.”

“Five. Don’t forget Deena. I’ll be home in an hour. We’re going to Klon’s tonight, right?”

Klon’s. What a funny way to put it. “Right.”

“See you soon.”

“Love you.”

“Love you, too.”

“Bye.”

“Bye.”

Pause.

“Oh, get off the com already, Jack.”

“Okay.”

Pause.

“Are you still there?” I asked, knowing full well he was.

“Yes, my love.”

“Kisses, then.”

“Kisses back.”

“Off,” I ordered. Jack usually left it up to me to end the call, unless he had business to attend to. Full of it, that man. Sometimes our com conversations lasted a long time.

There was no charge for com time. Communication was considered a necessity by the Mek. They were unlike the humans of my time. The populace of KekTan, which included myself and Jack, provided lots of basic needs free of charge to inhabitants and visitors.

KekTan was so rich, and the MekKop the total opposite of greedy; they wanted everyone to have a well-provisioned life. No one gathered enough to make themselves “better” than others. They had been slaves for generations, and had created the society on KekTan to reflect their need for harmony and generosity of spirit. Individual Mek didn’t have any desire to set themselves apart from their kin.

Of course, we did business in currencies, because it was convenient, but we also traded commodities.

When the Mek saw need, they moved to provide, but not to the point of stressing their own populations. They did what they could for everyone they came across.

As I walked into the bathroom, I pondered our forthcoming evening. We would be going straight up to the shuttle when Jack returned home, so I tamed my mousy brown hair with straightener and brushed a little conditioning concealer makeup on my scarred skin. I was wearing my Faire cotton robe, so fine it looked and felt almost like silk, but more breathable. Danny hopped up on the countertop, sat his furry little butt down on the cold stone, and observed.

“You know, I get a lot of compliments about you, my fine boy,” I told him as I tickled his right cheek with my left hand fingers. Brushing a fine bit of highlighting powder straight down the bridge of my crooked nose, I tried to create the illusion of straightness. Then I switched the applicator to a slightly darker color.

“You’re fond of trotting through the neighborhood with a dead mole in your mouth, I’ve heard. Showing off? The neighbors love that, you know.” I wasn’t being sarcastic, they actually did. The native, voracious moles did a lot of damage to landscapes and crops.

The wells the Mek had dug brought water to the surface, allowing them to landscape and farm, and the mole population exploded with the increase in sustenance. Mek preferred the cats to poisons, although traps baited with hormone lures were used because the cats just couldn’t keep up. Yet.

The Mek had gone crazy for cats.

I stroked the slightly darker contour shade down the right side of my nose, but my hand shook. Pam had generously chopped me in the deltoid during our lunchtime sparring match, making my shoulder sore.

“Damn.” I wiped the contour off the side of my nose and picked up a medstick, infusing the muscle with a mild anti-inflammatory. I sat down on the toilet to wait for the juice to spread, and Danny landed gently in my lap. He sat back on my thighs, faced me, and propped his paws on my chest, rubbing his face on one side of my mouth and the other. I stopped him with a nose kiss and pushed his paws down to my lap.

“I love you too, darling, but you’re smearing my makeup, and I’m not really attracted to the smell of your musk. Sorry. I have a very important date tonight. Can’t be late, or stink like you. I’m going into a ship full of aliens, and what will they think if my face smells like your muskies? You just never know how those aliens’ll react. They might think your exudate is a Love Potion. It could be dangerous for me.”

I put him back on the counter and finished my attempt at straightening out my mangled visage. I added a light lip liner and color and contoured my lumpy cheeks as best I could.

When I turned to exit the bathroom Danny jumped down followed me out.

He trotted to the front door which would open to the communal hallway, sat down, and looked back at me.

“Mrrm,” he said. He knew how to let himself out, but he liked to let me give him attention. He knew it was good for me.

I palmed the pad and the door opened. Leaning on the door frame, I watched his pigeon-toed back feet as he walked toward the lift. Once there he stood up on his hind legs, stretched his long body, touched the pad that called the elevator, and then sat down to wait. In a moment, the door opened. Danny marched into the lift and sinuated around Pam’s legs.

“Hello, again, Danny,” Pam said, and she smiled at me. The doors closed.

Jack or I used to walk him down the hall and get the tube for him, but one day he stretched up and touched the pad himself. We talked to the super, who admitted his kitty DNA sample into the programming and the biosenspad has been recognizing his little paw tap ever since. Whichever Mek was mekking the tube always took good care of him. Danny was considered kitty royalty because of his hunting skills. Being a part of Jack‘s and my small family didn’t hurt, either.

We even programmed the apartment door to recognize him, open, and lock behind him when no one is home. It lets him back out again, too. Danny normally checks in a couple times a day, but those days exist when something catches his interest and we don’t see him, or see him much, anyway, sometimes for days. Once in a while I catch a glimpse of him out in a field somewhere, or basking in the attention of one or more of his many admirers.

Usually he’s available to be fed breakfast and dinner, and receive snacks and attention from us. On nights too cold to hunt, I wake up with him snuggled between Jack and me, or sprawled across both of us.

Danny had been the pick of the litter of Kek’s favorite queen, and Kek presented him to me two years ago in a grand ceremony. At the time, Danny was a scrawny, confused kitten. Since then, he’s become a large and gentle cat, with little ego to speak of, and he manages to take everything with a good dollop of kitty grace. He’s as sweet as they come, and an excellent hunter which is why he is widely loved. People frequently tell me they’ve seen Danny here, stalking, or there, lunching on mole. Among so many others, Danny is a celebricat.

I checked the time. The computer told me that Jack had left his office.

I hung up the robe and pulled a light colored turquoise sheath carefully over my head, grabbed my elegant, strappy black heels, and headed for the living room.

Futzing around, I straightened cushions, wandered into the kitchen, and cupboarded some dishes. The cooker could make dishes, but I’d found a set of old Earth stuff I liked, and kept it around. They were painted with pink and mauve cabbage roses, purple fuchsias, and blue flowers – the little things might have been forget-me-nots. The set had been common in its day, but mine may be the only set in existence today.

I try to be careful, but every once in a while a piece breaks.

I’ve put ads out everywhere, offering to buy any like pieces anyone owns which are in good condition. Five pieces have come my way so far, but three have already left this plane of unbroken existence for good. I thought about sticking them in a case and not using them, to protect them, but they give me so much pleasure. Still, at nearly three hundred years old, every time one breaks, it hurts. So, I’d taken two perfect sets and exhibited them in display case in the dining area. Good enough.

I changed my mind about the movement-restricting sheath and the ridiculous heels.

In my walk-in closet, nearly as big as the bedroom, I put on clean panties, a camisole, and light grey slacks, and pondered which shirt to wear. Jack and I had decided to dress up a bit. We were visiting a rough fight ship, but its purpose was entertainment, after all. I recalled Las Vegas briefly, and then wondered if the fighters would still be naked. We would not be. Old, bad times should be revisited quite so authentically.

I chose an ivory Faire silk blouse. What silk had to do with the Renaissance I did not know, but the founders of the planet named Faire had created an artificial, but wholly realistic, of-that-Era society there. They’d managed to put silk worm farms in the appropriate climate zone around the planet, along with what I believe are other non-Renaissancy-type products, like mango, pineapple, banana, rambuttan, jack fruit, artichoke, spinach, eggplant, and many others. Those founders, all dead now except for a few descendants had designed the planet well.

The best commercial produce came from Faire, and textiles as well. In the past, the silk was used to embroider the robes of the self-proclaimed lords and provide fine products for them alone. Recently, the decision had been made to market the silk for high-end cloth, which has become quite the money maker, and I’ve heavily invested in its distribution and sale. Still primarily an agrarian planet, Faire was now being run as a co-op, in a thoughtful rejection of an authoritarian past.

The Mek and I had had a little something to do with their decisions, using our investments to nudge the populace in a sustainable direction after they deposed their despotic ruler, Deena.

The people didn’t have the resources to market and transport their goods off planet, though, so Kek, Nok, and I stepped in with our brand spankin’ new shipping and marketing conglomerate. We leased some of the docked Space Force ships from the Sheriff’s Department, mekked and manned them, built an office building on KekTan – the one I live in, and proceeded to market Faire products to the Mek, the human military, the Space Force, the former self sufficient planets, and the remainder of humanity within the new Galactic Union. Other species on planets within our sphere of influence trade with us as well. The enterprise has made us ridiculously wealthy, and because we are good people who’ve experienced extreme usury and abuse in our pasts, we engaged with the people of Faire in a, well, fair manner. They are doing well, too.

Deena, the former ruler of Faire, still languished in her castle prison on that planet, where she’d been incarcerated for her crimes against Faire’s humanity.

Before her spirit, like mine, also bounced into a construct’s body, Deena had killed me back on Earth via vehicular homicide. Somehow she ended up in a body so similar to mine we can only be told apart by her undamaged face, and the tattoos on our scapulas. The grind of time and human nature being what they are, I was able to get my revenge on Deena when her own admirals finally turned against her abusiveness, with our help.

She, I, the two sexers, and now this Buster are all humanoid, human creations; we are five of the original twelve who’d been sold into slavery over seventeen decades ago. Our life spans are unknowable. Why and how the five of us ended up in this same small region of space is a mystery. Why Deena and I started out in the same town on Earth, and have somehow both ended up in this region, I cannot imagine. When I thought about it, which wasn’t very often, I imagined there must be some grand plan at work, some master puppeteer somewhere with its own agenda. I have kept these thoughts from Jack though, because he is, after all, only human.

I heard the front door sheesh open. Had I been idle for an entire hour?

“Ghee? I’m home!” Jack announced.

Yes, yes I had.

I looked at my full length reflection, but avoided looking directly at my pulped face. The silk blouse was a sort of upscale oxford style which glowed mutely pink, with grey-blue overtones, like a fine pearl. I chose some soft, black wool-and-silk-blend knee-length socks and black flats with thick soles – a more ship worthy choice than the slingbacks. Carefully I outlined my eyes in a thin line of deep purple, and shaded my upper lids in a pale shade of lavender. I air kissed my lover’s reflection in the mirror as he entered the bedroom.

“A quick shower and change and we’ll be off,” he said from behind me as he turned around and kissed my lips with a satisfied smacking sound.

“Okay,” I replied. “You just missed Danny,” I said as I turned back to the mirror and re-applied a layer of lip color. I’d never used makeup on Earth, but I found myself enjoying it now.

“No, I saw him in the lobby on the way in.” Jack pulled off his shirt. “He was accepting attention like a furry little king.”

I laughed. That darned cat.

I sat on the end of our bed as Jack finished stripping on his way into the shower. The water ran. Moist, citrus-soap-scented steam wafted into the bedroom, and I’d barely pulled my socks and shoes on by the time he’d finished his rinse. Wasn’t technically a shower, more of a spritz. He must have been riding the chair all day. Jack hit a few parts of himself with a towel as he crossed the room and pulled clothes off hangers – a dark blue jacket, a pressed, light blue, medium-weight Faire cotton shirt, dark grey slacks, and black socks. He picked comfortable shoes with a bit of thick sole on them, as I had. Usually ship metal is cold and uncarpeted. We know what Spauch’s ship had been like when we’d left, but now, who knew? As I recalled, though, the metal hadn’t been metal, but some kind of material that somehow absorbed and radiated warmth.

“Wonder if Klon will let our tech boys and girls look at the ship material. Take samples, maybe.” Just like he was reading my mind.

He sat next to me on the bed.

“We can ask,” I said as Jack slipped on his second shoe.

“You’re the guest of honor tonight.” He looked at me.

“The… no.”

“The… yeah. Klon called and told me not to tell you.”

“I haven’t heard a thing.”

“So they might put a spotlight on you, seat you in a special box, introduce you, like that.”

“Shit.”

Jack chuckled. “Don’t sound so cheerful.”

“It’s been a long time since I was that Ghee.”

“They remember you. Everything’ll be fine. Nostalgic. All the worship, you’ll love it.”

“Sure.”

“They love you.”

“As a commodity.”

“No, as a celebrity.”

“Same dif.”

“So, be gracious.”

“Darling, I won’t embarrass Klon.”

“Klon! I was thinking about me. I gotta tell ya, Ghee,” Jack put his arm around my waist, shoulders, lifted me to my feet, and propelled me to the door, “I never thought of him as anything but a scary, dangerous beast.”

“He still is. But he seems to be taking entrepreneurship seriously.”

“So, if I promise to introduce him to some business folk who’ll be able to help him expand his enterprise, maybe into franchises, he won’t break me into bits, right?”

“That’s an idea!”

“This way he can get a cut of every ship’s take, instead of other people just taking the idea for a ride on their own.”

“Jack, that’s a thoughtful plan. Perhaps I’ll back that financially.”

“I thought you might. You’ll translate for me when the time comes, right?” We exited the apartment.

“You don’t even have to ask, but I’m glad you did.”

“I never learned Klon-ese.”

“No reason why you should. You weren’t there that long, thankfully.”

Jack and I reached the tube door as it opened to reveal Pam. We stepped through in unison. The doors closed and the slight feeling of pressure descended on us as we rose.

“Going to Klon’s?” Pam said rather than asked through her wide, toothy grin.

“Yep.”

“I went last night.”

“Did you? I asked.

“How was it?” Jack interrupted. He was nervous. I could tell because he adjusted the lay of his shirt by moving his shoulders, one of his few nervous tells.

“Not the same, thankfully. They took out the holding cells, put in visitor suites, and they don’t kill each other any more.”

“We heard,” I said. “Tap out.” I tried to growl out an imitation of our host. Pam and Jack laughed with me.

“The show was terrific. There were some injuries; it’s not all faked. They’ve cleaned all the stinky old blood off the walls and that nasty sand stuff is gone.”

“Nice.”

“The arena floor and walls are padded now.”

“Deluxe!”

“The fighters are usually well matched. Sometimes they’re not, though, like when they put on a comedy skit during intermissions, so they can push the concessions. You’ll like it. It’s fun.”

The pressure lifted and the doors shushed open.

“Enjoy your night,” Pam said warmly.

We said goodnight to Pam and left the protected surround. A strong breeze blew across the roof, and by the time we sat inside our little craft we were disheveled. We’d named our ship the Maiden Faire. Get it? Made in Faire, because most of my wealth comes from trade in Faire products, also, the planet sported a culture styled on the Renaissance.

Combing through our hair with our fingers, we greeted our salt-and-pepper topped pilot, Tem, took our seats, and strapped in.

[][Chapter Seven
The] Trakennad Dor

 

 

The last time I’d seen the inside of the fight ship, Jack, Kim Jones, Roger Abbas ibn Spralja, the Mek, and I were in the process of escaping it by means of stolen ships. From space, the exterior looked about the same. Tem brought us in rapidly and docked the shuttle inside like the fighter pilot he used to be. Tem was such a good pilot that we swayed, but didn’t jerk around in our seats. He’d brought us in the back way, because the spectators caused too much traffic with their comings and goings through the ‘front door’. The Mek had taken advantage of Klon’s being in orbit; rather than being enslaved guards, they were in the audience cheering and spilling snacks instead of wrangling bloodied, half berserked slaves into cages. Ahhh! Progress.

Air cycled into the dock as Tem powered our shuttle down, and Jack and I unsecured ourselves and stood up. Tem came back and opened the shuttle’s hatch and stepped out.

A white, furry alien stood on the deck. It was about six and a half feet tall, had a heart shaped face with one bulbous red eye in each lobe, and a red bulb where the point of the nose would have been. The eyes were golden. The creature kind of resembled a bat in shape and silhouette.

Sha-kaka! came to me unbidden from my memories.

I greeted the being in trade speech.

The bat grunted a greeting back at me in the same language. Its four limbs were very short and clawed. It stood with the arms out to the side, and the feet about a foot-and-a-half apart, looking much like a kite. I appraised the beast by looking it up and down as I would have had I still been a fighter, and received an approving expression and a preening posture in return.

I’d noticed that two huge furry balls hung down between its legs, almost brushing the floor. Later I learned from Klon that they weren’t testicles, but fat storage, and, in fact, the red bulb of a “nose” was the thing’s sex organ. Sex organs on the face! Talk about being skull fucked.

You gotta love nekkid aliens.

“I am Lukan,” Lukan said from behind the bulb.

I didn’t have to translate as Jack knows trade speech, but I introduced him. He was standing quite still. I didn’t think he’d be afraid, but he’d had some bad experiences on this ship. Jack lost some of his team here, I remembered.

Jack nodded at Lukan and introduced Tem. Lukan had a hard time looking down at Tem, as if his spine wouldn’t bend.

Lukan said, “Klon has asked me to lead you to him.”

Take me to your leader, I thought. Tem nodded. “Excellent,” I replied as a dark shadow came swiftly up the shaft behind Lucan, pushing him roughly aside and grinning hugely at me.

“Ghee!” it growled.

“Klon!” I yelled back.

“I could not wait,” he said in heavily accented English, with a growl accompaniment.

He grabbed me in a bear hug and I cringed at what I imagined would be the greasy, rank smell of him, but he smelled of hair conditioner. Vanilla.

He pushed me back and held me at arm’s length, his claws not quite tearing my blouse. His scary face stared into mine.

He was closer to seven feet tall, muscled like a gorilla but with a body more like a human’s, covered by a pelt so dark brown it appeared black. The hairs were long, about seven inches in length, and threaded with grey, a lot more than I remembered. I knew his back hair, though we couldn’t see it, would be silver, and even longer. His skin, which was visible on his hands, feet, and part of his face, was a velvety looking medium-grey color, and leathery. But his eyes, deep blue feline irises, the pupils horizontal instead of vertical, held worlds more twinkle in them as well. Two slits in his face were his nostrils, and they could flair or close tight at will. His face was as lumpy and scarred as mine.

“I get away from duty,” he bellowed in terrible English. My eyebrows rose involuntarily. He laughed at me. “Ghee, I am Suit, now! Businessman,” he boomed and laughed. “We are all,” he swung his club of an arm around and grabbed Lucan’s shoulder, pulling him closer, “entrepreneurs,” he sigh-growled in a satisfied way.

“I’m astonished, Klon, and pleased! You remember Jack? And this is our pilot, Tem.”

“Ambassador and little Mek pilot, you are so welcome. Your visit will be pleasant. Not like before.”

I felt Jack physically relax beside me, but Tem seemed to take this all in stride. He’d probably talked to the Mek who had already visited the ship, or maybe he’d taken in a show himself.

“Much to say, in my imperfect English,” Klon bellowed, so I explained to him I would translate. He and I commenced to speaking in Klon’s guttural language. He pulled me ahead, explaining the business in detail. I glanced back at Jack, Tem, and Lukan, and Jack smiled and waved me ahead.

Klon took us on a tour of the ship, but at some point he and I lost the others. He showed me the new visitor suites, which had been the cages Jack and his team had suffered in before. We were walking down a familiar hallway when Klon growled and pushed our way through a group of gawkers. We stood in front of my old cage. I followed Klon in until stopped by a thick velvet rope between metal stands, like in a museum, or at the theatre where you line up. Beyond, my cage was exactly the same.

“Klon, what…?”

“You are famous, Ghee. Visitors want to see your cell. Look.”

He knocked the left stand into the right one. As they both crashed to the floor, he pulled me through my old prison, past the smoked wall, and into my old garden. The sound of the crowd hushed a bit. The grass seemed the same, but the tree was young.

“We had to replace the old tree. It died soon after you escaped. But this one will be here for a long time.”

I sunk to my knees in the grass, facing the tree like old times. It barely registered in the back of my mind that the crowd was making very little noise. They hadn’t advanced in to my old quarters but still stood behind where the barrier should have been. For many decades I’d knelt or sat here, contemplating my tree which had grown old and gnarled before me, as I had before it. For over fifteen decades this body had fought on this ship and healed in this room.

“Thank you for bringing me here, Klon. I’d almost forgotten.”

“I forget too, sometimes. I have my own memory place. In it, I remember the Klon I don’t want to be anymore, and I am better now because of those memories.”

“Yes.”

“I have one more thing to show you, and then we’ll go enjoy the show.”

Klon struggled to lift his mass up off the grass carpet and I wondered how old he was. He moved a bit like an old man, but then, life in an arena can age you quickly. The injuries accumulate. I felt a little stiff myself.

He stared at me for a moment, and I saw something kind in his eyes.

“You are so ugly,” he growled.

“Excuse me? Do you have a full length mirror?”

We laughed as we walked back through my old bedroom. The crowd was now totally silent. Klon rearranged the velvet ropes and stanchions after we went through them and I noticed for the first time people capturing still and moving images of us with various devices. Klon pushed aside those individuals who were too stupid or paralyzed with fear to get out of his way. When we’d moved through the majority of them, he turned around and roared. No one followed us any further.

“Your face,” he said when we were out of earshot. “Ugly. I never realized before.”

“How could you know?” I asked.

“Exactly,” he agreed. “Cherish and Ravish are symmetrical.” He glared at me again, then laughed. “I wonder what my clan would think of my lumps and scars.”

“They could hardly tell. You’re mostly covered in hair.”

“They would not like my gentleness.”

Klon? Gentle? I chuckled.

“So much killing has made me… desire softer things. Makes me a nicer…” he growled out his species name.

I stopped. He stopped and faced me. I reached up and put one hand on each of his hairy cheeks. His fierce eyes at that moment seemed to be hiding a giant, somber, old man.

“I know what you mean, my friend.”

We continued to walk.

“So, who are Cherish and Ravish?’ I asked.

“The sexers.”

Of course.

“They are just like you, but pretty.” He glanced sideways at me. “Kitty and I talked about orbiting some planets at the same time, but decided we would only do this for high population planets or systems, otherwise we cut into each others’ profits. We organize our schedules so we visit planets at different times, to let the peoples rebuild their disposable incomes so they can spend more on us.”

Klon had just said disposable income, for cryin’ out loud.

“Sounds smart. Who’s Kitty?”

“She owns the sex ship. Kitten LeMieux.”

I laughed out loud.

“What?”

I took a long time figuring out how to translate her name into Klon-ese. I had to find out if his people had pets, anything similar to cats. He finally got the joke.

“I think they all have fake names. Also, Cherish and Ravish have tattoos, like yours. I have tried to find the other sexers’ names in my English-Trade Speech Standard Dictionary to learn if they mean anything nasty. Some are scandalous.”

I pictured Klon in a smoking jacket with a pipe, in an overstuffed chair, peering through reading glasses at a large book, looking for dirty words.

He said something and I had to shake my head to clear the vision.

“What, Klon?”

“This.” He palmed a pad on the wall and the door in front of us slid open. Inside was something like a small version of a twenty-first century server farm, or one of those large, antique, original Earth computers. Lights blinked, things spun and other things clicked over. A loud hum filled our heads and the floor vibrated annoyingly. The machine took up the entire large room, and cool air flushed in from grates low in the walls. Vents in the ceiling worked hard to remove the heat.

I questioned Klon with my eyes.

“This has five servicers that are robotic, and as far as we can tell, they service each other as well. We don’t mess with them, or it.”

He gestured at the thing. I walked around hugging the walls while getting a lot of hot air blown at me.

“What is this,” I asked.

“Guess,” Klon said.

“Okay. I guess it runs some function of the ship.”

“All functions of the ship.”

“Right. Shipbrain,” I answered.

“Yes, though more. Try again.”

“I have no idea, my friend. What is it?”

“It’s Spauch.”

It’s Spauch, echoed in my brain. It’s Spauch.

My mouth literally fell open.

“No,” I exclaimed.

Klon addressed what looked like a speaker panel on the thing in his native language.

“What are you?”

The stupid computer replied to Klon in his tongue, “Spauch Brand Accounting and Managerial System model number…” and pronounced a string of numbers and letters.

“This is Spauch?” I’m afraid I shrieked a little.

“Yes,” Klon answered calmly. He was staring at me. “Its origin language is Tzlotzl.”

“A Tzlotzl computer!”

“Yes.”

“This is what we were afraid of?”

“Yes.”

“I’ll be damned.”

“Me, too,” Klon agreed icily.

I stared in awe for a full minute. I couldn’t speak. How had this happened? How had a computer become the thing we’d all been afraid of? We could have escaped at any time had we been aware; we had all worked against each other and there’d been no one to stop us from up and leaving, except ourselves.

“Do the Mek know?” I asked. The Mek had been enforcing a system of slavery they’d despised when they hadn’t had too. I didn’t know if they could handle the truth.

“No. We decided not to tell them.”

“We?”

“The Board of Supervisors.” I laughed again, but with more reserve. “You’re a Supervisor, right?”

“Right. Will you tell them?”

“No, Klon. I’m not telling them this.”

Klon relaxed just like Jack had earlier. What a nasty revelation this had turned out to be.

“Now, we will have fun.”

We weren’t too far from the entrance of the private box he took me to which overlooked the arena. Jack and Lukan already sat in plush recliners, but not Tem. Jack took one look at me face and almost dropped his drink on the table as he lurched up and asked anxiously, “What’s wrong?”

I smiled. “Wrong?”

“You look like hell,” said the Diplomat.

“Thanks,” I replied cheerily. I babbled on distractingly about the changes Klon had made to the ship and the crowd at my pen. Jack’s worry decreased. An alien barker entered the ring and began to shout at us. Translators blinked on the table and we each picked one up and stuck the button onto the skin behind our ears, quietly speaking a few lines so the translators could determine our language.

“Ladies and Gentlemen, boys and girls of all ages… ” the circus master said over and over again as all the alien spectators adjusted their translators.

I watched Klon pick up something about the size of a deflated basketball, covered in dark hair like his, though shorter, and set it on his shoulder. The furball proceeded to slowly move around his body until finally settling in his lap.

The show was terrific. Pam had been right, and some of the fighters were Mek. In fact, one was Tem! Tem came out from the left pen like I used to, pounded his chest, and raised his arms to the crowd. He was wearing skin-tight blue trunks, and nothing else.

“Klon, that’s our pilot,” I said with some concern. Klon grinned and spoke English for Jack’s benefit. “Only fight to tap out!” he growled.

A froggy came into the arena from the right.

“Klon!” I said with growing irritation. I found myself perched on the edge of my seat, adrenaline flowing through me.

Klon looked at me. “This okay, Ghee,” he said, still in English. “Froggies in on it. They have intelligence, and we give ‘em lotta feed.”

Shit, I quietly breathed, but the froggy didn’t unhinge his beak and swallow our pilot. He pretended to want to, though, and I damn near peed myself as he pretended repeatedly to miss, barely. Tem did get hold of the hopper several times and the action turned hilarious. The frog bounced around the arena with Tem holding on, trying to apply an arm lock to the ridiculously thick neck. Eventually, Tem wore out, lost his grip, fell off, and had to tap out, his breath going deeply in and out of his wide chest. They got a huge round of applause.

During the fight, I noticed the retention net, which had been stretched over the ring to keep the froggies in after Spauch had started buying them, had been replaced with a solid, clear dome.

“Klon, you replaced the net.”

“Yeah, to keep spectators from throwing stuff on the fighters. You remember?”

Oh, yeah, I did remember the sticky drinks and food, and sometimes nastier things. I didn’t get a lot of that during my fights, but some of the others did.

Intermissions broke up the action between each fight, and we sampled the snacks Klon and Company had provided. Some expensive delicacies presented, including Faire products. I asked Klon what he’d paid for them, and the price was high. It’d been through too many hands, so to speak.

“I can get you a better deal, Klon,” I smiled, “if you tell me what that thing is on your lap.”

Klon looked down. He replied in his language.

“This is my spall. My… mmm. You say ‘wife’. We are mating.”

“Now?” My voice hit the high octaves.

“No. She just gets comfy there.”

“What’s her name?”

“No name. She’s not intelligent. Just spall.”

I translated for Jack.

“So, you’re starting a family,” Jack said, “Congratulations!” Jack shook Klon’s enormous hair-backed hand and even ventured to slap his back, which made a muffled thud. Jack grabbed his drink and toasted Klon’s imminent family.

Klon was impressing me with his worldliness.

The spall was the thing Klon had likened to a cat earlier when I was trying to explain Kitten LeMieux’s name, but I hadn’t heard any noise come out of the little beast yet.

Aliens. What are you gonna do?

“I thought you used the sexers?” I asked.

He answered in his terrible English. “Not as customer, no, they too small, you know. Spall made for this, biologically speaking. Is mostly reproductive parts. Very expansive,” he bragged. “But me and Cherish and Ravish have make a friendship. They are much like you, Ghee.”

He changed the subject. “So, you decide to fight, right?”

“Right.” How could I say no?

“What about Buster?” Jack asked.

“Buster?” Klon asked. He gently stroked his wife.

“B-4ST327R. She arrived at KekTan recently. She’s like Ghee, too.”

“Four of you in arena together! Oh, I want to see. I cannot wait! You must travel with us. We will rake in the money hands over claws.”

“You mean ‘hand-over-fist’, Klon.” I thought perhaps his word was more accurate. “But wait. I don’t even know any of them yet.”

“Leave that to us. Lukan is our best recruiter. He’ll shuttle to KekTan and talk at Buster. Exciting!”

It was interesting to experience Klon in his new role.

Jack kept looking back and forth at us, as we talked. He seemed a bit… stunned.

I had a wonderful time. By the end of the evening Jack was drunk, though he handled inebriation well. Tem had showered and changed and met us on the flight deck. Klon had wrapped one arm around me and one around Jack and didn’t seem to want to let go. When he did, our new best friend Lukan tried to hug us, too, but he made a bad job of it. He, too, was quite drunk. Tears streamed from his eyes. I didn’t think he was crying, but he did seem quite emotional.

Klon informed us that Lukan had had a disastrous final fight, and afterward, his entire spine had been surgically fused. They’d done this in a rush to save him. He’d died once after the fight and twice during the procedure. Lukan really was very sweet. I think he suffered from the same disease that all we old, broken down killers succumb to – an excess of kindness.

After lengthy goodnights, Klon shoved us into our shuttle after Tem and tried to follow, not wanting to let us go, but he couldn’t fit his enormous self in. Klon and Lukan stood sniffling and waving while Tem went through his checklist and powered up our little ship. The hairy nightmare monster and our newest friend were forced to leave the deck so the air could cycle out. When the outer hatch opened, Tem lifted the shuttle, gently boostering us out of the Trakennad Dor. He flew us safely home.

[][Chapter Eight
Dual Duplicity]

 

 

The first thing Pakchikt did, after securing a fast ship from his government, was to get pictures of B-4ST327R. He did this by remotely searching the employee database of Apical Mining and Recycling Company of Ordoron.

He was already on the way toward the system within which Ordoron orbited. His government ran the assassination guild Pakchikt belonged to, which also provided him with training, contracts, contacts, ships, weapons, trade goods and a bank account, data, and personal needs. Pakchikt’s government’s subspace net of informants – “subspace” is used here in similar slang as the phrase “black market” – included a recently bent Apical employee corrupted specifically for this job. This employee not only provided still and moving pictures, but B-4ST327R’s entire profile, which was quite large. The creature was very long-lived, and liked to be called “Buster”.

Pakchikt stared at the recording which he’d chosen as the best representation of the animal. Buster was picking up crates stacked in a staging area and loading them onto a type of moveable stage. They had something similar to this on the assassin’s planet. Moving goods was pretty much the same on every advanced planet. The moving picture showed the thing in motion, so Pakchikt memorized a search image to increase the likelihood of noticing the mammal before it saw and started to wonder about him. Noticing it first would be ideal, since his species was quite remarkable to most other beings, and not easily missed. Also, there was always the very slight chance that someone might figure out his plot and tip off his prey.

The second was a close up still image of the face. The creature was plain by the standards of its kind. The alien’s outer covering had only one basic color, a light brown, which resembled a certain native peat plant of his planet which Pakchikt was particularly fond of grazing on. It had hair, as so many creatures did. This hair was brown and its growth seemed restricted to its head, not its face, ears, throat, or the back of its hands. The eyes were brown as well. Two eyes, two nostrils – not obvious ones, beneath a protrusion – one mouth, two ears: a symmetrical appearance.

Pakchikt studied again the moving pic. Two arms, two legs, five digits on each hand, and, he reasonably presumed, on each foot. Pakchikt called up data on human anatomy and so checked the body parts with their descriptions and names as he memorized the features. “Cheeks”, now that was a fun word, though impossible to say. Pakchikt’s mouthparts could not, though the databank pronounced the word for him in “English”, the creature’s native language.

“Again,” he demanded.

“Cheeks.”

Very funny!

Pakchikt always enjoyed learning about his quarries. He’d studied alien cultural anthropology to supplement his work for the government. There’d been choices, and he’d chosen alien cultural anthropology because he’d thought the hunt would be more stimulating were he able to track and kill his targets using their own innate behaviors and anatomical differentia rather than a more blunt approach. Pakchikt’s skills had made him something of a celebrity. No, not a celebrity, more like a venerable character among his peers and the up-and-comers. Often, though, his handlers warned him to get the job done efficiently, and gave him a tight timeline, since he tended to do too much studying and not enough killing of the prey in a timely fashion. Clients tended to get antsy.

The assassin traveled for many of his planet’s rotations, eventually nearing Ordoron. A mature species, Ordorons lived on a planet supporting many orbital stations, and they did a brisk business. Their primary business seemed to be building and servicing large vessels.

Business must be booming. The ships were mostly gigantic miner-recyclers, some enormous passenger transports, with many smaller transport vessels whipping among the orbiters and to and from the planet itself. Pakchikt enjoyed the intricate ballet as his ship communicated its I.D. to their traffic control monitors, received directions, and altered its course the assigned moorings.

The ship settled into its berth as Pakchikt read the ship-translated instructions on conduct for both the orbital and the planet. Once he indicated his understanding of what was expected of him, he was allowed to disembark into the station, which was functional, but not pretty. Plenty of metal, plastic, and other recycled products dominated the construction.

Pakchikt walked rapidly to the line of aliens waiting to be sent through the biological (pathogens) and security (weapons) scanners. His curved, segmented legs moved in waves, his iridescent grays and blues shimmered in the artificial light. On all hundred “feet”, Pakchikt was short, but long, and somewhat wide. He was ventrally concave and dorsally convex. His mass was approximately a quarter more than those creatures who seemed most proportionately exhibited in the orbital, presumably, the Ordorons. They were all labor types, male and female, with a few supervisory types scattered here and there. They wore sturdy protective clothing and smelled of long periods spent cooped up in ships. Even ships with state-of-the-art scrubbers managed to permeate their biological members with that peculiar odor. Some smelled more pungently than others. Pakchikt’s olfactory senses were acute, but he was not offended. His ancestors had lived their entire lives in offal and muck, after all.

Once in line, he affected an upright posture, but kept his head somewhat below the average head height of the Ordorons represented in the line. This caused him to bend in an exaggerated curved shape. Most of the others turned to give him the quick once-over. His scimitar-like mouthparts gave a few of them some concern, but after all, the scanners had let him land and disembark, so he couldn’t be a criminal type. You never knew, though, mistakes had occasionally been made.

The line moved quickly. Ordorons and a few alien types lined up behind Pakchikt. The one directly behind spoke to him. Pakchikt’s translator, belted around his mid-segments, translated into the receptors in his inner auditory canals.

“You’re an interesting looking creature. Haven’t seen your kind around here.”

Pakchikt turned, careful not to touch the poison tips of his mouthparts against the Ordoron’s chest, throat, or face.

“I am Pakchikt,” his translator pronounced clearly, having already accessed the database regarding Ordoron language. “This is my first time into your space.”

“Well, welcome, then. Can I help you find anything?”

“In fact, yes. I’m looking for a bar. For those like us, you know, who work for a living?”

“Of course. When we’re done here, you come with me.” The Ordoron nodded. “I’m headed for one myself.”

Pakchikt lowered himself and walked through the scanners. By the time his front was cleared, his hind had yet not gone in. Once through, another machine gave him a pass. He pressed the tag onto one of the segments on his ventral side below the fierce pincers, while he reared up again to just below the Ordorons’ average height.

“C’mon, Pak,” the Ordoron said as he stuck his own pass to his clothing, “Let’s get that drink. My name’s Kortinkaemanur, by the way. Kort for short.”

They walked in companionable silence to a nearby bar. Together they entered, and Kort wondered aloud how Pak would like to arrange himself, as far as the seating went. Pakchikt demonstrated. Then Kort chose a stool at the bar after pushing away the one beside his choice to make room for his new companion.

Pakchikt settled in next to him, in the exaggerated ‘s’ curve he’d shown Kort a minute ago. Kort ordered for himself and proceeded to discuss the various available drinks with Pakchikt, while the server provided several small samples until the insectoid creature decided on one. They sat and drank while Pakchikt listened to the story of Kort’s latest recycling run, which was not as boring as you might think.

“Here I am babbling on about myself, not letting you get a word in sideways,” Kort said after a while. “Tell, me, brother beast, what are you all about?”

“Well,” Pakchikt pulled some mouthparts out of his drink and made soft clicking noises while the translator spoke for him, “I’m looking for a particular alien worker for a client. I’m a headhunter for a jobs agency. This alien has some skills the client needs for a mining operation. The client wants to rent the alien, who is a slave of Apical, for a time, so I’m here to talk to Apical about a possible contract.”

Pakchikt contorted himself a bit to get the pointed end of one of his many limbs into his pack. He plucked out a device displaying the still pic of Buster’s face and handed it over to Kort.

Kort stared at the image for a short while.

“Can’t say that I’ve met this one.”

He scanned faces around the bar. “There’s Jernod, from personnel. Hey, Jern!”

The Ordoron named Jern waved, made his way over to Kort, and stood next to him eyeballing Pakchikt.

“Kort, good to see you. Who’s your friend?”

“Jern, this is Pak.”

“Good to make your acquaintance, Pak. You’re quite an unusual fellow.”

“Thank, you, Jern.” Pakchikt’s translator said. “I’m pleased to meet you as well.”

“Jern,” Kort said, “Pak is looking for a slave owned by Apical. Do you recognize this one?”

Jern took the photo.

“Why would you be looking for this, Pak?” Jern asked politely.

“A client of my company desires a temporary contract for the use of this slave in a mining operation. The being has the needed skills.”

“I understand. Do you have some identification I might take with me to the informer? I’m afraid I’ll have to check your credentials before I can comment further.”

You haven’t commented at all, Pakchikt thought to himself, careful to bypass the interior translator pickup. He contorted himself once again, retrieved a data packet from his purse, and handed it to Jern.

“Of course I comprehend,” Pakchikt said to Jern. Agents in his government would pretend to be the jobs agency for him. The packet would connect Jern to them, and Apical could check out the fake agency on any legal roster – it would be there. The dummy company was a long-standing cover, as were many others.

Kort and Pakchikt continued to drink. A three-piece band was setting up with their musical instruments on a small stage in the corner. They tuned and tinkered.

Pakchikt felt calm, and what there was of the lighting began to blur. The noise blended most melodically. He peered at Kort and noticed that the Ordoran’s neck muscles had relaxed. His head was dipping toward his drink on the countertop, which was made up of multicolored, recycled material.

When Jern returned and spoke, Kort’s head bobbed back up. His eyes were watering.

Sorry, Kort, didn’t mean to startle you,” Jern gently gripped Kort’s shoulder. “Here’s your kit, Pak,” he said, handing back the packet. “You check out and the Company confirmed a potential contract, provided all legalities are satisfied, of course. But the choice of whether to do the work is up to Buster, since she’s only still a slave by choice or omission. She worked out her contract, you understand? She only has to pay the Company some profit, and they’ll let her go, but she’s continued on the same. So I boosted a message to her ship, which she’ll receive in time, I can’t tell you how much time. Wouldn’t want you to calculate the distance and possibly the region and go harass her. We protect our personnel. If she’s interested, she’ll contact you. You’re welcome to stay here on this orbital and wait if you like, meet with the lawyers and work out the details.”

“This is very kind of you, Jern. I appreciate your time and effort. And Kort, you as well. You’ve both made my job somewhat easier.”

“My pleasure, but now I must leave you. It’s been a pleasure serving you, Pak. Goodnight, Kort.”

Kort mumbled something and managed a wave.

Pakchikt clicked his mandibles at the bartender. “Friend,” he said, “Kort here seems quite numb. Is a safe place nearby where I can take him so that he may sleep off his intoxication?”

“Oh, don’t worry about Kort,” the bartender said. “He’ll snap up in a while and take himself off to his dorm. But you need a bunk for the night, eh? If you go out the bar and turn right… ” and he gave Pakchikt directions. Pakchikt thanked him and paid for both his and Kort’s drinks, and made his way out.

Pakchikt turned right and flattened out on all hundred because the foot traffic seemed light and he felt sure he wouldn’t trip any of the tall ones. He found the bunkhouse the bartender had mentioned, skittered over to a shadowy spot and paused for a while, keeping an eye on the passersby.

After some time passed, he moved back toward his ship’s berth and plugged his I.D. pack into the port in the wall beside the hatch. When the machine was satisfied, the hatch slid opened and he entered the tube. His ship stood open, but he knew security was tight, though thoroughly hidden. The station would sustain too much liability otherwise. He went into his ship and closed its hatch behind, went through the myriad undocking authorization procedures and his preflight checklist, and undocked. Flying with care, he transversed the bay, cleared the structure, and headed out to open space. He piloted the ship straight away as the computer worked on decoding the path of the message Jern had sent to Buster. His equipment was tricky this way. It was able to override Ordoron security even when physically removed from their system, and could track the path of the message through space from one signal booster to the next. Pakchikt directed the ship to plot a course following the message path until the destination was found, and then to head straight for that. He increased the ship’s speed, set everything on automatic, and went to the galley for a meal. After a pleasant lunch, he took a long nap.

 

 

Pakchikt eventually neared the human controlled region of space identified as the Galactic Union. His ship was fast, and the trip was a straight run with no stops, but he had been in near-hibernation, so he was older when he got there. A while had passed since the client’s offspring had been murdered, but no cancellation had been submitted and transmitted to his ship. So he continued on his mission.

He had the ship scan the region for a friendly, suitable planet on which he could petition for leave. He needed to stretch and exercise. Ship found one for him.

The planet was inhabited, with good interplanetary trade in its own system. The folk were decent, and security was adequate for their needs. They even had some natural areas on their planet, and allowed Pakchikt to rough it. He climbed mountains and swam across streams and buried himself in moldy leaf debris and sand dunes. His strength and suppleness improved.

He made friends, the kind you meet in bars, who, after a few free drinks, tell you what you want to know and then forget what they told you. Three of his new friends were traders who went off world, serious imbibers who viewed his stills and told him about the wicked witch of a planet called Faire. One swore the thing in the pics was an exact match to the being in the vids in the kiosks set around Faire, which reminded the people of some bad old thing, as well as many better, more recent things. The kiosks were also used to teach the visitors and young children the history of the society, and moral lessons. But that creature was called Deena, and Kate, not Buster. They were sure; if this wasn’t the same creature, it was the same species.

Pakchikt decided to find and study the being, and he up and left for Faire.

 

 

On Faire, he watched several shows at one of the ubiquitous kiosks, and then he found the castle, which was well guarded. Ingress on the lower three levels was bricked over, except for one. Supplies went in that one; nothing ever came out.

One morning very early, while the sky was still dark, Pakchikt slipped past the patrolling guards by scrambling through the treetops to the castle, and then climbed up the taller castle walls. One hundred sharp, pointed legs were good for this kind of work. He crawled around the upper floor windows until he found one opened, and he slipped in.

He smelled the thing on the stones and in the air. He tasted its chemical trail. He followed the many trails as they grew fresher and denser, and he entered a room and found the creature in a plush chair, drinking some dark liquid. Pakchikt made himself obvious. It stared.

“What the fuck are you?” it snarled. The translation entered the organ which could be considered Pakchikt’s brain.

“I am Pakchikt.”

“You’re breaking about a million laws, some punishable by life in prison.”

“No one knows.”

“So if I killed you and ate you, no one would know?”

“That is correct. Would you like to try?”

It didn’t hesitate long.

“Sit, or whatever. Do you drink?”

“Absolutely.”

Deena got up, somewhat stiffly but still gracefully, walked to the cupboard, and poured a glass of real Irish whiskey. She put the tumbler on the table near him, and sat again in her chair.

“I assume you want something,” Deena challenged as she watched the gigantic centipede use a pincer like a straw.

The beast sucked, and then put its head up.

“Of course.” Pakchikt reached into his purse and pulled out something. “I’m looking for this.” He bent his upper body forward and put two images on the table in front of Deena, returning to its drink.

Deena picked them up and gave them both a good long stare.

“A sister, perhaps?” He questioned her.

The woman looked exactly like her; different scars, different hair style and clothing, same everything else. The woman was in a place she’d never been. Deena tossed the pictures back on the table.

“It would seem so,” she said. “What do you want her for?”

Pakchikt made a calculation. This thing was cagey, a prisoner, a criminal, and the same species as the thing he sought. That thing apparently was not a convicted criminal, and this thing would probably do anything to get out of here.

“I’ve been hired to kill it,” he risked.

A slow smile crept over Deena’s face. “Is that what you do? Kill people?”

“I do.”

“I did, too.”

Now they met on common ground.

“So, are you familiar with her?”

“Maybe.”

“What do you want?”

“Can you get me out of here?”

“Can you hang onto me while I climb down?”

“Can I tie ropes around you, to help me hang on?”

“Of course.”

“You look like you could kill her, but she’s tough.”

“Tough as you?”

“Tougher. I’m soft now, she’s not. She’s dangerous.”

“So am I, and this is what I do.”

Deena had calculated, too. She didn’t recognize the one in the pictures, but this provided an opportunity for her to get revenge on that bitch, Ghee, whom she was sure had had a hand in her capture.[2] After all, wasn’t Ghee the one benefiting from her imprisonment now? Deena had observed changes on her planet, and occasionally talked some information out of the guards. There were investors in Faire, people from the planet KekTan. That woman must be one of them.

“She’s different now. Her face is deranged. A bad accident.”

“That’s excellent intelligence. I hadn’t realized.”

“I know what planet she’s on, but I’ll be spotted in an instant. So will you, and, as an unknown species, you’ll be viewed as suspicious. Their security is impeccable.”

“We will have to get her to go somewhere else. We’ll arrange for her to travel if we have to.”

“You can do that?”

“Oh, yes, after some study. I told you, this is what I do.”

Deena sat and thought. She’d had a lot of time to think, of late. Her admirals had turned against her after she’d let them visit KekTan with her. Those Mek, and that Ghee person, who had looked like her except for the ruined face, must have turned them against her, must have offered the admirals support. Her guards had told her the Fairans traded with the Mek and humans now. She’d been overthrown for her planet’s agricultural products.

Ghee hadn’t liked her, Deena could tell. Ghee didn’t think as Deena thought, hadn’t liked the things Deena’d said, or even the way she said them. Ghee was like so many others whom Deena had crushed for insulting her, for acting as if Deena was wrong and they were right. Now, after all, Deena would show Ghee who was wrong, like she had all those others.

The creature before her was searching for this woman who appeared almost an exactly replica of herself; the same as Ghee-Nye must have once looked. The assassin would never know that the woman in the picture was not the person Deena would lead him to.

[][Chapter Nine
Buster Makes Bank]

 

 

The Mek clerk at the bank whom she’d talked to hadn’t taken Buster seriously, even after she presented the inventory of her storage locker. Actually, Buster hadn’t believed the volume herself. Fifty years of hoarding had produced quite a magnificent haul of precious metals, useful gasses the ship had compressed for her, metal and mineral specimens, including what used to be called “rare earths”, which weren’t really rare, even on Earth. They would be useful to these humans and the Mek in their embrace of technology. She’d already done the research to determine if her products would sell well on this planet. They would.

Rare minerals had been quite abundant in some regions of Earth, and in fact several different kinds were often found in small amounts in the same areas, but those places were scattered over the planet. These materials proved to be so similar they were difficult to separate, and weren’t economically feasible to mine, like, say, silver, except in a few places.

Rare minerals were referred to as the seventeen lanthanides found on the periodic table, having names like Yttrium, Cerium, and Lanthanum. They were useful in a variety of applications like aerospace components, superconductors, microwave filters, lasers, magnets, glasses, enamels and ceramics, computer memories, and medical diagnostic machines. Cerium and Lanthanum had been used as a fluid cracking catalyst in oil refining in the bad old days of massive carbon release; “cracking” meant breaking up the molecules in order to mix them in other combinations for combustion.

Buster’s flying garbage truck easily separated minerals, and, in fact, all components from the rocks it swallowed in space, so Buster had a leg up on the competition in this region. Extraction operations in this region couldn’t rival the capacity of her scow, which, in this part of the Infinite, was a unique vessel.

Of course, the value of the haul depended on where you found yourself mining. Buster knew about plenty of rich pockets of space. Actually, if she found a buyer, she might sell the information. Another thought she pondered was whether to go through the trouble and expense of creating a ship manufactory business, outfitting herself with a fleet, hiring the sturdy Mek – they looked like they could mine the hell out of anything – and run her own Company. Buster Company. Now this might be a good idea, or a nightmare, she couldn’t decide which. Maybe both.

So not only did she pull the inventory for the bank out of the ship’s data storage, but she planned to pull her Very Personal Log, and leave some nonsense misfiled in its place to disguise her extraction. The nonsense would be about the same size as the file she removed, just to give the techs a bit of a hard time. She suspected that if they really tried, they’d discover all of her fiddling eventually, but would they even try? And then what would they do, come after her? Doubtful. They would probably download all the data to one of their information banks and only access it if a problem arose. Most likely they’d only access the data pertaining to whatever problem it was they were analyzing and leave the rest untouched.

Technically, her VPL was their property, as was she and everything she’d produced, except that which they designated she could keep – primarily consisting of the few things she’d bought for herself with her compensation. And her hoard of goodies.

Anyway, perhaps this had all happened before. Maybe she wasn’t the first to quit in the middle of a run. Surely they’d noticed she hadn’t been cashing in for fifty years. Surely they’d calculated that she might scarper eventually. Maybe those buyout contracts had been an invitation to do just so! Who wanted an almost two hundred year old slave in an old bucket of a ship anyway?

Buster figured she’d already paid them back for herself many times over with the new contracts she’d negotiated and fulfilled, and the recycled goods she’d sold and returned with time after time. The wealth for which she hadn’t found buyers she’d brought back to Ordoron. The pittance they’d paid her had been an infinitesimally small portion of the wealth she’d made for them. They hadn’t even needed to pay the slave called Buster, because she was a slave, but fair, at lest superficially, was the kind of company Apical strove to be. The Corporate decision makers were cognizant of and protective of their reputation. Buster didn’t feel she owed the Company. If anything, they probably owed her. Or not, she thought, as she thought about her personal inventory. She wouldn’t even be absconding with the ship; she’d send the old bucket back on autopilot controls. It was equipped with a homing device, a mechanical version reminiscent of that used by the extinct homing pigeons of old on her planet of origin.

If she didn’t send the scow back to them, which in all likelihood they would recycle into new ship components, and if she tried to keep their property to start her own fleet, a retrieval program would detect her when she was inside, lock her up in it, and take her back to face the hangman. The possibility existed that there wasn’t enough food in store for the long trip, and she might starve to death. Retrieval was expensive if you considered lost time mining and recycling, and the loot that could have been. The Company had never lost a ship, but had hung a few slaves who’d tried to steal ships and cargoes, and a few employees who’d tried the same had died in some of the worst prisons in the Infinite.

But the Company had a soul of sorts, or rather, its owners did. They didn’t like to do those things, so one part of the initial six month curriculum encompassed History of Employee Abuse of Company Largesse. The course included graphic vids of the hangings and of prison conditions. None of the prisoners died of old age. Hanging seemed preferable to a short life of deprivation, disease, and brutalization in those prisons, but you had to be a slave to be hanged. In fact, since employees and slaves were not treated the same after a conviction, some employees sold themselves to the Company. If an employee had the kind of impulsive, unreliable personality such that they would not even trust themselves to behave, they became slaves to the Company in order to get a better deal if, in fact, they did misbehave. Yes, hanging seemed definitely preferable to dying in those prisons. Immediate or at least quick deaths were cheaper for the Company, which was probably the explanation for the condition of those horrid penitentiaries. No appeals process existed for the condemned.

Buster gazed out of her fourteenth story window onto the bustle of the International Block below. She had done several hours of reading to enlighten herself about her potential future home.

Many different species came to KekTan to shop and do business or vacation. The Mek, though deadly serious about security, expressed childlike delight in everything else. The sprawling buildings, modern structures full of windows, contained inner hallways showing moving pictures of the wilderness areas of the planet: plains, forests, jungles, oceans, lakes, river valleys, dunes, and rocky crags covered in snow constituted the decorations. Gorgeous footage of native wildlife appeared to be popular. Buster had viewed the story of their generational incarceration on an arena ship. She knew for certain they would embrace her once she’d made public the decision to purchase herself. KekTan might just be the place she’d been searching for.

Cats played, fought, hunted, and angled for attention everywhere. Visitors were encouraged to socialize with them. The only places they weren’t allowed were the satellites, and the kitchen and the dining areas, although you didn’t have to invite them into your suite if you didn’t want to. You could, though.

Mek cat handlers distracted little animals from social gatherings and business meetings held in public places, when requested. The cats even had their own bathrooms full of litter boxes and attendants. Feline queens managed potty training by example quite well in the cattery, where they were contained for the kittens, and their mother’s protection. All which were to be released into the city or agricultural populations were spayed or neutered first. Occasional accidents occurred, so Mek patrolled on potty duty and also for cat hair cleanup. They kept the shed fur under control for the most part, although on occasion guests did find the fleece stuck to their fabrics. Visitors found switching to Mek fabrics desirable once they’d settled in, as the material repelled the hair. Simple clothing designs were provided free of charge, or one might shop for different, upscale styles, of which there were many varieties.

The Mek loved their cats, and visitors loved them, too, or they just didn’t come to KekTan. The world was the hub of commerce and leisure in this region of space, but arrangements could be made to do business on the orbiters if the cats were not acceptable, or visitors found them too prey-like. Snacking on a Mek cat was frowned upon most strenuously. Under no circumstances were visitors allowed to feed on them. The listed punishments were severe – expulsion from the planet and banishment from all future trade with Mek, which could be particularly disastrous to a planet’s economy.

Also, if you had any business with humans, you came here. Since they’d lost their home planet, the Mek had invited the homosapien species to base their operations here on KekTan. After all, if not for humans, Mek would still be slaves, not living free on this beautiful planet. The Mek had insisted.

The basic necessities were provided free of charge on KekTan: quality water and food, basic living quarters, heating and cooling, clothing, and basic service employment as well for those able and willing to work. If you wanted something more luxurious, you paid for it, and you could apply whatever skills you had to jobs which were better compensated than the service ones.

This lovely society attracted Buster. She’d almost made up her mind to stay, and planned to open an account at KekTan National Bank with a small bar of platinum from her personal storage aboard ship, for expenses. She could sell the platinum to the bank for Tan Notes. The exchange rate was fair. The Mek kept everything well but modestly regulated through low fees and short applications, eschewed greed, and business flowed smoothly without the egregious usury Buster had experienced at some other locations.

A soft pinging told Buster that the time had come for her to go down to the lobby. She grabbed her small bag, which she attached to her belt, and exited the suite. She locked the entry using the biologically coded palm pad outside, and walked to the bank of tubes making a sturdy column in the center of the building.

In the lobby she chose an overstuffed chair, and in a moment was greeted by a large orange tuxedo tabby who bumped his head into her dangling palm and purred loudly. She scratched his cheeks. Other cats noticed her amenability and started to make their way toward her, and several expert Mek handlers swooped in and distracted them so she wouldn’t be swarmed. They all carried sticks with string attached to them, and swirled these on the floor. No cat could resist. Even the tabby trotted off.

Only a few minutes passed before the bank employee entered the building, recognize her, and made her way over. She introduced herself as Gem. Buster asked if more were expected, as the inventory was large. Gem replied in the negative. Buster swallowed her sigh. She knew Gem would walk into Buster’s personal locker and immediately call for help…

… which was exactly what she did.

They rode up together to the orbital and then on to the scow still floating around the planet in its assigned orbit. Buster had been required to pay for the transportation and also to make a deposit for the auditor’s time in case her request turned out to be nonsense, which is what they expected, although they remained polite.

While Gem awaited the arrival of five colleagues she (Buster assigned a gender to this one, to relieve the tension it caused her when she thought about it) summoned after one look at Buster’s booty, she explored the storage space and made a little map on her pad, marking squares for pallets and circles for barrels, and transcribed labels onto them.

Buster didn’t bother to watch. Gem was welcome to pocket whatever she wanted, if such was her nature, though Buster thought not. The Mek seemed straightforward, honest, and not clever in the worst sense of the word. After all, they had everything they wanted, and could buy, trade for, produce or have produced anything they desired.

Buster went to her quarters, packed the remainder of her personal items, and put them in the shuttle. She went to the bridge and downloaded her VPL – the one full of coordinates and materials lists – and checked her incoming transmissions. Another Offer of Enslavement Termination Agreement had arrived. She read this and downloaded it to her packet as well.

The rest of the accountants from the bank arrived. Buster let them on board, secured the hatch behind them, directed them to the holds, and followed them there.

Perfunctory introductions made, she led them to her personal storage locker. Gem transmitted her map to their devices, and after a brief discussion about who would start where, and do what, they began inventorying.

The inventory took four days. Buster kept them in food and drink and showed them where to sleep and clean up. This they did in shifts, but they didn’t seem to sleep much.

Each day, she made sure they had everything they wanted and then went to the bridge. She programmed the ship to go home, which she’d trigger remotely from the planet after she informed customs, settled with them, and received their transmission regarding the path of the scow’s exit from their space. She had applied for permanent residency on KekTan while on the planet, and figured once they’d finished the inventory, she’d be approved.

Buster brainstormed on the third day and spent most of it looking for the ship’s specs, particularly of the hull components, recyclers, and the engines. She copied everything she found, mostly from repair manuals, onto the personal storage packets she’d brought from KekTan to store her VPL. She even excised a piece of an interior bulkhead to have analyzed and perhaps replicated.

After she found enough markets for her recycled goodies, she hoped to build ships like the scow to begin her new business with. She did the best she could to obscure the fact that she’d made the copies of the manuals; a more thorough job than the one she did trying to hide the fact that she’d downloaded her VPL. She would rather they come after her about that than for taking the other materials, which might contain protected information.

Finally, the work was done. The Mek accountants filed their reports from space and managed to suppress their excitement on the ride back to the orbital. Then they traveled back to KekTan, politely explaining to her that under no circumstances would she be allowed to dump her wealth into their economy, or any economy, all at once. Disbursement must be carefully managed and monitored. She was made to understand she had the ability to destroy worlds, even entire regions, with that kind of wealth. She’d had no idea.

“Actually,” said Buster, “I’d prefer to store it with the bank and sell it as needed, to your government or any other investors. I’m sure you’ll be able to advise me.”

“Of course,” Gem said, and they all nodded. “Of course we can. It will be our pleasure.” She was not successful in suppressing a particularly predatory grin.

Once they had escorted her back to the Ambassador Knott’s lobby, they smiled their wide, toothful grins, said goodbye, and scampered quickly out to a flying cab, which took them swiftly back to the bank. They went straight to the President’s office.

Buster went to her suite, made multiple copies of her Very Personal Log and the manuals, and secured multiple copies in data vaults at the bank, in the hotel, and also in her room. She checked her communications locker and found her Permanent Resident Request had been approved and transmitted moments before. For the first and last time she replied to the Offer of Enslavement Termination Agreement, choosing “Buyout”, and, deciding to purchase herself from the Company using some of the money in her account on Ordoron, she put transmission of the buyout agreement and payment on hold. She wouldn’t send the documents until the bank had escorted her goodies from the ship, just in case the Company had a retrieval method she was unaware of. It wouldn’t do to have them program the ship to return to them with all of her long collected wealth inside.

Also, the Agreement and bank account access permission statement for the buyout amount would have to be sent using the ship’s com system. The Mek had no commerce with, or in fact knowledge of Ordoron, other than what she’d brought with her, and no current means to communicate with them.

Confident she’d covered all the bases, Buster relaxed and discovered that her tummy felt a bit hollow. The poor, neglected thing even gurgled. So she cleaned up some, put on some of her new cat-hair-repellent duds, and made her way to the Reclining Queen Dining Room, which served gourmet meals any time of the day or night. Buster was developing a taste for the excellent food on this wonderful planet, and she finally owned the wherewithal to afford it.

As she finished desert, which was fresh ripe native fruit compote with a complicated wine sauce, one of the hotel’s Mek approached and quietly told her that someone had approached the front desk asking to see her. The Mek covertly nodded toward a strange, white figure.

Buster was curious. The sky was dark outside; he couldn’t be from the bank, could he?

“He’s from the arena ship in orbit. He says he has a proposition for you, and that Ghee-Nye and Most High Ambassador Kek John Jack Knott recommend him. He brought you this brief note on the Ambassador’s letterhead.”

The Mek handed her the printed paper, carefully standing between her and the white alien as she read the missive. The letter simply said, “Welcome, Buster. Please enjoy the company of our friend Lukan.” The missive was initialed MHAKJJK.

Buster knew Ghee-Nye and Most High Ambassador Kek John Jack Knott were considered with a very special pride on this planet, she’d sensed this from her reading. Only Kek and his mate Tap, and Kek’s brother Nok and his mate, Mik, appeared higher on the KekTan totem pole.

“Send him over, please.”

The alien seemed stiff, with his feet, hands, and head making a sort of kite configuration. Thick, short, sparkling clean, white fur covered him all over except for the three red bulbs on his face, and he practically dragged two huge balls. You couldn’t miss them. The creature slowly made his way to the table and then slightly bowed his upper body in her direction.

“I am Lukan of the fight ship Trakennad Dor. Thank you for this audience.” Lukan’s translator was buried in the fur of his neck.

“I’m pleased to meet you, Lukan. Call me Buster. Can you sit, or shall I ask the servers to supply you with some other accommodations?”

Buster’s table did the translating for her.

Lukan clumsily and with great effort slid into a chair. His legs were short and his back very long and he towered above her. A server asked for his order and he waited for a Faire Dark Coffee with Philippa’s extra thick cream, no foam, and two scoops of Utopian raspberry flavored sugar.

She waited for him to proceed.

He asked, “Do you know anything about arena ships?”

“Yes, I do,” Buster answered. “I scanned the most current information this morning.”

“I represent such a ship. I don’t know if you are aware, but Ghee-nye is of the same species as you.”

Buster, as a construct, didn’t belong to any species, but she didn’t correct him. She raised an eyebrow in a non-committal response.

The coffee, in a pale blue ceramic cup on a matching saucer holding a solid silver stir stick, arrived quickly. The Mek were efficient at everything. The cup, saucer, white porcelain cream pitcher and sugar bowl – with a little silver spoon in it – all had tiny black dancing cat silhouettes hand-painted around the rims. Up the handles of both the stir stick and the spoon, carved cats followed each other.

“There are two others like you in this vicinity. Cherish and Ravish work and live on the sex ship, Anything Goes. “

Buster nodded.

“We of the Trakennad Dor are no longer a slave ship, because of Ghee-nye, Kek, and Most High Ambassador Kek John Jack Knott.”

“I’ve seen the story,” Buster said. You couldn’t miss it, actors performed live in many of the open spaces and the story played on some of the building walls, as well.

“Ghee-nye, Cherish, and Ravish have agreed to perform a fight on the Trakennad Dor for our eager audience, and we would like to invite you to join them. We will compensate you,” Lukan said.

“Perform?”

“Oh, yes. The contests aren’t like in the bad-old-days. We don’t kill each other anymore. We fight only to tap-out, and the fight you are being invited to join will be choreographed to give the best possible show for our beloved paying audience, you understand. Because Cherish and Ravish are not fighters, they are sexers, and you are a miner. There could be injuries, even deaths, these things do sometimes occur. You must be informed. Medical expenses will be taken care of, and we have expert medics on board. Also, funeral expenses will be covered, if necessary.”

“Did you fight on this ship, Lukan?” Buster asked.

“I did, as a slave. I nearly died there.”

This could explain his stiffness. No one could fight in that condition; he must have been severely injured.

“And, you are still doing business for them?”

“Oh, yes. Well, not for them. We are a Cooperative Corporation. All of us own a piece, now. Those who stayed on, I mean.”

Buster sat back for a moment. Lukan waited.

Buster wondered which three constructs Ghee-Nye, Ravish and Cherish were. Only twelve had survived the human colonization of space, to be sold, in the bad-old-days, to wealthy aliens. Buster never thought she’d see them again, and wasn’t sure she wanted to.

Ghee-Nye seemed to have done well for herself.

“Are Cherish and Ravish slaves, Lukan?”

“No, no. They live and work aboard the Anything Goes, a sex ship. Originally, I am told, they were slaves, but their owner, the mother of the current ship owner, made them free upon her death.”

Well, that was good. They weren’t being forced into it, now, anyway.

“The purpose of the fight, is it purely entertainment?”

“Oh, yes. And profit.”

“Anything else I should know?”

“If you agree, you will all meet on Trakennad Dor for rehearsals and conditioning. Here is a schedule, and the contract for your perusal.” He struggled to pull a packet out of what seemed to be a flesh pocket slightly off center in his front, and handed it to her.

Buster plugged the capsule into a port in the table and briefly scanned the contents on the pop-up monitor.

“Can I get the waiter for you while I look this over, Lukan? Dinner’s on me.”

“Thank you, Buster, but I would like to pay.”

“No, Lukan, I insist.” Buster was feeling generous because of the accounting.

“Yes, that would be lovely. I notice that they make an Earth origin item I am curious to try, Philippan Lobster Thermidor. May I?”

“Yes, please.” Buster stroked a finger over the call sensor and in a moment her server appeared. Lukan ordered while she focused on the contract. The waiter recommended a wine and the side dish of the evening, which consisted of a mix of freshly steamed, hand-picked, native vegetables in a light Philippan butter and immature herbs sauce. Lukan accepted with obvious anticipatory pleasure.

When the food came, Lukan ate with gusto, making many appreciative noises. The Mek server liked him very much.

“Well, Lukan,” Buster commented to the relaxed, wine sipping alien, “this looks to be in order. Dessert?”

“No thank you, Buster, you’ve been too kind already.”

Buster pressed her thumb against the monitor over the identification block on the document, transferred a copy of the schedule to her room comlock, and handed the packet back to Lukan. “I’m in,” she said.

“Oh! Excellent! I am so elated I can hardly wait to tell the others!”

With that, he struggled out of the chair, stood a moment catching his breath, quietly said, “Goodnight, Buster, new friend,” and hurriedly skip-hopped out of the hotel.

[][Chapter Ten
The] Anything Goes

 

 

The second the Anything Goes came within communications range of KekTan, Customs alerted Jack, who then sent Kitty LeMieux this message:

 

Madam LeMieux, residents, and crew of the Anything Goes, welcome to KekTan. Your friendship and services have been highly recommended by Klon, the crew, and the residents of the Trakennad Dor. We anticipate pleasant and mutually beneficial interactions. Please enjoy our hospitality planetside, and let me know personally when you are ready to meet with us. In the meantime, the Mek will take care of your every need; you have only to ask.

 

[Sincerely,
Most High Ambassador Kek John Jack Knott.”]

 

Attached to the missive was Jack’s contact information.

Customs officers took their usual excellent care with guiding Kitty LeMieux and her entourage through the orbital station and customs processes, and turned them over to a guide who escorted them to their chosen hotel. Kitty had left the sexers on the ship and allowed the overworked technicians first crack at shore leave planetside. The crew would be next, and then the sexers, along with the skeleton crew that had been left behind to handle basic ships systems while the majority recreated. Once Kitty hit dirtside, the environment so charmed her that she decided to spend as much of the three rotations she’d allocated for herself on world as business allowed.

Someone had arranged for them to have all four of the enormous, luxurious suites on the top floor of the luxury Nok Resort Hotel. They weren’t even charged for their stay. Being a ferocious businesswoman, Kitty appreciated this generosity, which she assumed was designed to soften her and weaken her negotiative stance.

Their attempt wouldn’t work. Iffy had already analyzed the planet’s potential in regards to her business; its wealth, wealth distribution, and class structure. The society was extremely rich, the residents as well. Even the lowliest, by most standards, was what was considered in most societies upper middle class. The “class structure” was primarily honorary, as the spread of wealth was generous. Everyone who could work had some kind of position, compensation was excellent, and public utilities free. Still, the madam businesswoman appreciated the gesture.

Kitty had met with Klon regarding his inclusion of Cherish and Ravish in the great extravaganza, and that giant hairy beast had been a tough negotiator. She only managed to negotiate two percent of the concession sales and cover charge for the fight night her sexers would perform in. Klon would not share the betting fees, and Kitty, seeing his immobility regarding this matter, acquiesced, but only after Klon showed her recent concession and cover charge earnings. He explained that these represented only average sales, and told her that seats for the fight of Ghee, Cherish, Ravish, and Buster would be much sought after. Also, Kitty wouldn’t be asked to pay for any advertisement, the corporation would handle those costs.

They decided Cherish and Ravish would each receive an additional one percent for their participation, which would make them quite wealthy, and any medical or funerary care which might be needed. After these settlements, Kitty felt quite satisfied. Of course, these had been closed-door negotiations.

Kitty quietly (she thought) researched the Mek’s sexual proclivities for a week, and contacted Jack to find a biological scientist to help design Mek-shaped ‘bots. Jack passed the request on to the University’s biological sciences annex; they found a candidate, a female Mek named Dan. She accompanied Kitty to the roof of Jack and Ghee’s building so Tem could chauffeur them all to the Anything Goes for a look-see. Kek and Nok were invited to come as well.

 

 

Tem delivered Nok, Kek, Dan, Kitty, Jack, and me to the sex ship where many creatures greeted us. The aliens had piled into the lock just after the air pressure and gravity adjusted, before the shuttle’s hatch opened.

As we waded through the sea of bodies, I casually glanced around for figures like mine. Not seeing any, I asked Kitty’s permission to discuss the fight with Cherish and Ravish. She informed me that they’d already settled their negotiations with the Trakennad Dor Corporation’s Board of Supervisors, and welcomed me to talk to the two free sexers.

For my part, I’d also negotiated and signed a contract, and I thought donating my cut to the University would be helpful to them.

I’d learned that Lukan had skillfully roped in Buster.

Once again, I decided to rely on the tried-and-true brain damage excuse for why I couldn’t recognize Cherish and Ravish. Their bodies, like my body, were constructs made by twenty-first century Earth humans. They’d been soldiers and spacers. Jack had told me of our history when I was still a slave on Spauch’s arena ship.[3] Jack thought, because I had told him this lie to cover a reality he wouldn’t understand, much less believe, that I couldn’t remember the first eleven years of my life. This included my construction, which took a year, my training, which took four years, and the six years of military and security service while humans expanded out into space. Nor could I, my story went, remember my sale and first decades as a slave on Trakennad Dor. Cherish, Ravish, Buster, myself, and one hundred and ninety-six other constructs had protected humans and enabled off-Earth colonization until non-military humans got wise to our reality. They then became squeamish and protested our use. In those six years, one hundred and eighty-eight of us were destroyed in one way or another.

Jack didn’t know, but Kek and Nok did, that the personality now residing in the construct G-9SR025T was not the original personality which had occupied it. Cherish, Ravish, and Buster didn’t have a clue that the incipient person who had occupied this body had been killed during a match in the arena aboard the Trakennad Dor, and the conscience now occupying Ghee was originally named Carol. Carol, a human from twentieth century Earth, was me. I’d died on Earth in 2008, and my personality had then gone on a strange journey, culminating in the occupation of this construct called Ghee-nye. I would have to fake it.

I always felt nervous and deceitful about the brain damage story, but Kek and Nok could be relied on to keep their wide, predatorially toothed mouths shut. Mek security would not be breached.

The ship had three levels; the workshops below, the engine, navigation, bridge and living quarters in the protected middle, and the sex shop on top. Not a pretty ship, but deep and squat, it comfortably housed a well-functioning business.

Kitty had not spared the inhabitants any luxuries. Carpets were deep, colors abundant, furniture plush and well made, and the technologies top of the line; except for the sexbots, which were, incongruously, archaic. They were her mother’s design. Dan exclaimed in dismay when she saw them, after we’d made our way to the lowest decks of the ship.

“Oh, Kitty, I can do better for you than this. The physics department has some programmable matter that will make lifelike looking and acting ‘bots, and your employees will be able to use a sophisticated interface to effect a wide variety of naturalistic movements from terminals aboard ship. They’ll also be able to respond almost instantaneously to customer requests. Didn’t you say you’d had some problems with employee injuries and ‘bot malfunctions?”

I heard sighs of relief and pleasure from the techs, all of whom had made the trip up to meet Dan, and from the sex workers present among them. They even applauded and cheered a little.

The Madam and la femme scientiste wandered off, followed by techs and some of the sexers, to discuss the possibilities. I wondered what kind of money Dan, her team of biologists, and the physics geeks would make from the pleasure profiteer. If they played their cards right they’d charge a decent fee for the materials and training, and for every use of the new ‘bots, and they were nothing if not smart.

Nok, Kek, Jack and I drifted along surrounded by chatty sexers. We learned more than we ever knew we wanted to know about the business of pleasure.

Watching Kek and Nok soak up the elements of the business provided much of the fun for Jack and I. The brothers loved attention and new experiences, and I felt certain this kind of entertainment would be a big, silly hit on KekTan.

The Mek were normally fiscally conservative, and for the most part, emotionally reserved folk, but not prudes. They had not been allowed to breed freely when they existed as slaves on the Trakennad Dor. Spauch had only allowed them to replace themselves to keep the population of guards stable, and since they were very long-lived, they couldn’t breed much. Since they’d escaped, they’d embraced sex, contraception, and parenthood spectacularly.

Picking a rather large planet for their new home had been a most intelligent and forward-looking choice.

Mek were realistic. They wouldn’t mind helping Kitty and her folks, as long as some of the wealth came back into the KekTan economy through Dan and her folks. As an experience, the pleasure trade was entirely new for the Mek. When they’d been slaves on the arena ship with me, they’d been the prison guards and fighter wranglers. They’d handled more alien flesh more securely than any creatures currently known in the Galactic Union. They’d escaped that reality, leaving the disabled ship in the hands of the other slaves, like Klon. The MekKop had bargained through Jack, who’d also briefly been enslaved there, with the humans for the planet now named KekTan, or “Great Kek”. Their new home had been named after the Mek we had with us today. Kek had been my personal guard, with his brother Nok as his second, and Kek had come up with the plan to escape the Trakennad Dor.[4]

Once ensconced on KekTan, the Mek had renamed themselves MekKop, or “free kin”.

I still felt a swell of pride when I thought about those heady days. I had no doubt they would relish an experience as alien and exciting to them as the sex trade. What excited me was the virtual nature of the sex; prostitution was never even mentioned, or for that matter, engaged in. (Although prostitution in many societies doesn’t have negative stigma attached to it, for better or worse, I guess I was still just an old-fashioned American girl at heart.) The client base could be much larger this way, the sexers much healthier and safe, and my respect for Kitty and her mother, as I realized this, grew.

Judging from the scents wafting down the hallway we walked, Kitty didn’t feed her employees on the cheap. The odors were rich and complex.

We came to a plush dining hall and our doting crowd ushered us to one of the long dining tables. The tables held crystal ware, real silver utensils, white porcelain, and light peach cloth napkins, which complimented the fine mauve tablecloths. The lighting was muted, and the soft tinkling of music could be heard coming from all around us. The music seemed to adjust to the noise level so it was always just audible, but did not overwhelm conversation.

Once we were all seated, servers rolled trolley after trolley to the ends of the tables. Somehow, the platters and tureens of food and pitchers of drink rolled down the centers of the tables in a slow, controlled fashion as if on a conveyor belt. We took a little of everything until we could fit no more on our plates. We sampled all the drinks. After a while the food stopped coming and people started placing used utensils, plates, bowls, glasses, cups, and napkins on the tables’ center. They were taken to the end and loaded on trolleys by means I’d never encountered before. Everything was in constant, quiet motion. I enjoyed a wonderful meal.

As consumption slowed, folks began drifting out, and we discovered several forms of entertainment were available. One theater was a holoshow, and one, live performances – the sexers were excellent actors and had a lot of fun, as you would expect. An extensive games room beckoned. Some found instruments and gathered and played here and there. Many just lounged and talked and even fell asleep in big plush chairs and on sofas.

At some point Kitty and Dan escaped us, but we were well taken care of. We found a library like one you’d find on Earth in a castle or fine home, with a high ceiling, real wood bookshelves, and rolling ladders. Gilt-embossed spines peered at us from everywhere, as well as colorful popular editions. This seemed to be a large collection of reproductions from many Earth ages, with sections of non-human works in several different languages as well, probably reflecting the population living on the ship. Simulated fires crackled in two “fireplaces” at opposite ends of the room, and reproduction antique “oil lamps” shed a soft golden light and produced a fresh, light, fruity scent. The fixtures even flickered. They were authentic looking replicas, but the light itself was unusual, not real flame. I couldn’t figure those contraptions out.

Jack, Kek, Nok and I chose a grouping of deep burgundy velvet upholstered chairs and a couch and settled in.

“Hello, G-9,” a voice much like my own interrupted my musings. I turned and stared at… two of me, two beautiful versions of myself. Well, beautiful compared to me, they were actually quite plain in the face, but their skin was smooth and scarless. Both had light milk chocolate skin, brown hair and eyes, and were tall, lean and vascular, with large joints. Out of the corner of my eye I noticed the boys’ focus suddenly intensify on the new arrivals, both of whom seemed as hormonally attractive as me to at least two species.

I watched both of their expressions pinch when they got a clear view of my decimated face.

“Ouch,” one said.

“Geez!” yelped the other.

“Sorry,” they said in unison.

“We heard you’d been sold to an arena ship, but…” said the first.

“It’s okay,’ I said. “It’s impossible to be prepared. Then I blurted out, “Brain damage.” I hadn’t realized I’d become so tense; I hate lying so much.

“What?”

“Huh?”

“I apologize. I don’t remember you because of the concussions. Many concussions.” I realized I was speaking too fast.

They both seemed to slow down as they sat. They looked at each other and then spoke quietly to me.

“I’m A-8VNO61Z. You used to call me ‘Eight’. They call me Cherish around here.”

“And I’m D-3LV134N. ‘Delvin’? I’m called Ravish here. We’re twins, you understand?”

“Yes, I do.” Actually, we were triplets, but for their purposes, they’d pretended to be biological twins.

An awkward silence was broken by someone clearing his throat.

We all turned to Jack, who was grinning wickedly. He scooted to the front edge of his deep chair, eagerly clasped his hands in front of him, elbows on his knees, and asked, “Do you girls remember how to fight?”

Both Kek and Nok made some sort of gurgly noises.

All three boys looked, well, greedy.

Cherish and Ravish smiled.

“Yes.”

“Of course.”

Jack said, “Well then, have we got a proposition for you.”

I sat back and watched as Jack, Kek, and Nok seemed to fall all over themselves explaining the business of the Trakennad Dor, apparently forgetting that Klon and Lukan had already gotten to them. Talk about brain damage. Cherish and Ravish smiled and nodded.

I sat and thought about Doc, who’d told me I was mainly human, but that splices of unidentified alien genes in my genome (probably from various species of Earth animals, since we hadn’t yet gotten out into space) had made me the unusual creature I am. I can take a huge amount of physical punishment because my muscles and connective tissues are dense, and grown around a relatively lightweight, but super strong carbon fiber composite skeleton. I heal rapidly and survive damage that ordinary humans cannot. We remaining constructs have been alive for almost two centuries.

Then there’s the super-special attractiveness that pretty much gets me whatever I want whenever I want it. Doc has been examining my ovaries, brain, and unusual hormones, virtually, of course, and by chemical analysis. He scanned me when we first met, made computerized models to study, and took samples.

He’s working on the theory that my super-special attractiveness is an accidental by-product of genetic manipulations designed to disallow menstruation and reproduction, both big problems for a female soldier who is also a slave. He also thinks we were made female and have such little breast tissue because of the utilitarian idea that the male reproductive parts and breasts get in the way of physical work. Alternatively, a theory has escaped him proposing that our special attractiveness may have been engineered in to make our work easier, since it seems to work on a lot of different species and would be useful for a push into unknown space, which is what we had been built to accommodate. This is all theory though, because most of the documents regarding our engineering and construction were lost when Earth fell to the Nameloids.

My super-special attractiveness had also been quite a problem in the arena, but I was strong, and became tough, tricky, and mean enough not to be beaten bloody and raped by my opponents in front of all those spectators.

Two new specimens for Doc to obsess over sat in from of me, not to mention Buster. And Doc had also surreptitiously scanned Deena, though he had kept this unauthorized intrusion a secret. I think he may have broken some laws getting the data, I’m not really sure. Doc is going to examine us before we go to the arena ship to train, and I’m sure he’ll charm these two into letting him make two more virtual simulations and biological samples of them for his studies. I wonder if he’ll ever figure out how to make more of us. Anyway, he’s written several papers and published them, has made constructs a new, and his main, field of study, and has become quite a celebrity in medical circles.

“I’ll do it!” Cherish exclaimed.

“Me, too!” Ravish concurred. “This should be fun.”

They had already agreed, but were being polite and engaging with my silly boys.

They turned their identical faces to me.

“Excellent,” I grinned with one side of my face. “I’ll tell Klon and he can coordinate times for us to train together on the Trakennad Dor.”

He’d already given us schedules to approve.

The boys beamed. Cherish and Ravish smiled. I did my lopsided best to smile as well.

“Oh,” Jack blurted inanely, “Buster!”

“Oh, yeah,” I said. “There’s another of us on KekTan. One of Klon’s boys has talked her into joining us.”

“Buster, I remember her,” Cherish said.

“Gonna be like old home week,” Ravish said.

“We haven’t seen any others of us all this time,” her ‘twin’ mentioned.

“And now we’re four,” Ravish pondered.

“You don’t remember her either?” Cherish rested her gentle hand over mine.

“No, I don’t,” I replied. “She looks just like you two, though.”

“What does she do?”

“She runs a garbage scow.”

“Alone? Or are there more of us?”

“No, she’s alone, as far as we know.”

“Is she free, too?”

“No, she’s owned by Apical Mining and Recycling Company of Ordoron, wherever that is.”

“Never heard of them.”

“Me neither. Must be a long way away.”

“We’re free, too, G-9. Kitty’s mom bought us, but she freed us just before her death.”

“All legal and everything.”

“We stayed on ‘cause, well, this sex business is fairly easy.”

“And this is a terrific place to live.”

“Good friends.”

“Good food.”

“Plenty of work.” They both laughed.

“And lots of vacation time, too, on interesting planets.”

“You can call me Ghee, if you want,” I said. “Everyone else does, except Doc. He calls me Gina. My name evolved into Ghee-Nye because the Mek found it difficult to say G-9.”

“Okay, we’ll call you Ghee.”

“There’s one other construct that I’m aware of, but she went bad. She calls herself ‘Deena’.” I informed them.

“Went bad? How?”

“I’m not sure how it happened, but when she was imprisoned for crimes against the humanity of her planet, she was in total control of it.”

“’Power corrupts’,” said Cherish.

“’And absolute power corrupts absolutely’,” said Ravish.

“That’s what they say,” I commented, knowing full well that K-8, or ‘Kate’, the construct now called Deena, must have died at some time, because the personality of the woman who’d killed me on Earth had somehow ended up in that construct’s body, just as I’d ended up in this one. A strange coincidence, if you believe in them. And I don’t. It seemed as if we’d both been tampered with, and I wanted to be sure Ravish and Cherish had not.

“Oh, sure. We’ve seen it happen. Haven’t you?”

For a moment, I was confused. Oh, she was talking about power corrupting, not souls bouncing.

“No, not really,” I replied. “I’ve been with the Mek. They’re incorruptible. Now I spend most of my time training and conditioning Sheriff’s Department personnel, and minding various business interests. As far as I can tell, no one I’m familiar with now has gone corrupt, unless I’m not seeing it. “

“You’d see it eventually. No one can hide it forever. They don’t think anything’s wrong with them, or if they know they’re twisted, they get skilled at hiding it and projecting a ‘proper’ image. They don’t want to get caught.”

Cherish shook her head.

“The thrill is getting away with it, makes them feel like they’re smarter than the fools they fool. Basically, they’re very insecure and need a lot of attention.”

Ravish nodded hers.

“Pathologically insecure.”

“Mm-hmm.”

“You two seem to have a handle on this,” I broke in.

I turned to look at my human and my Mek. Jack seemed pleased to be among us, but both Nok and Kek had been staring at Cherish and Ravish while we’d talked. The brothers nodded at me and smiled, and all four wide Mek eyes winked at me, catlike. Hmmm.

“We can’t wait to visit KekTan.” Cherish said, looking eager.

“You’ll love it,” I said. “The city is modern, tasteful, and practically designed.”

“Kitty says most of the planet is still natural.”

“Yes. The old growth forests and jungles are amazing.”

“Can we go camping?”

“There are several campgrounds, but I’m guessing you want to go way out, kind of like survival training, right? You can’t really get lost, not with the communications system we have.”

“You remember that?”

“What?”

“Being dumped in the forest and finding our way out. Alone.”

“No, I don’t. But I realize that was part of our training. Some records survived.”

“It’s been a long lifetime,” Cherish commented wistfully.

“Hey, we heard humans have left Earth and now reside in space. Do you know why?” Ravish asked.

Oh, shit, they don’t know, I realized.

Jack saw the brief expression of shock flit across my face. He was pretty much the only person who could read my expressions, because of the facial derangement. Him, and the Mek brothers, that is. He said, “We didn’t leave, we were infected with a disease cocktail. Only the populations of three of the self-sufficient planets, a few traders who were far out, and some of the military and Sheriff’s Space Force survived, that we’re aware of so far.”

Cherish stood up and exclaimed, “Oh, fuck me to death! They’re our clients!”

Ravish leaned forward. “Shit. I’m gonna to be sick.”

But she was made of sterner stuff than that. She leaped up and trotted over to a public com unit on the wall. She talked for a few minutes and came back.

“Come on. We’re going to meet Kitty in Playpen Four.”

We all trotted to the lift and took it up to the main business areas. As we went, Kek looked up at me and murmured in his language, “They’re original.” Nok nodded vigorously and said, “Like you were, before you changed into you.”

So, only Deena and I had been switched into the constructs’ bodies.

We found both Kitty and Dan in Playpen Four. Dan was excited.

“Jack”, she said. “They have detailed biological files of the fuckers.”

“They call themselves,” Kitty said something that sounded like something pretty close to ‘Nameloids’. At least we got the name right. “We call them Nams, for short. We have the capacity of monitoring their hormones, respiration, and circulatory pressure patterns, as you see here in this replay, to optimize the sexual experience for them; we draw their pleasure out for as long as we healthfully can and intensify the climax for them using these graphs.”

An actual recorded sex job was replaying on the monitor. The sexbot had recorded a view of the Nameloid client responding to its performance as directed by two sexers called Upender and Tailgunner. The feed had been sent to the ship and recorded in the computers for future reference. To the right of the replay scrolled the graphs of the creature’s sexual vitals. To the left was a transcript of the conversation between the sexers and the client, as well as the sexers’ personal conversation. One conversation was in royal blue and one in deep, dark orange.

Jack became deadly calm. I hadn’t experienced him in quite this mood since before we’d escaped the Trakennad Dor.

“Madam LeMieux,” he said formally, “if you would allow the Sheriff’s Department Space Force to review all your business records with the Nameloids, we may find a way to get our planet back and bring to justice those creatures for the genocide they perpetrated on humanity.”

“I hope you intend to punish them severely,” Kitty sniffed. “You can have access to it all, Most High Ambassador.” She stared at the creature on the monitor trying to climax. The beast was ugly and ungainly.

Jack nodded. He seemed to be too emotional to speak.

The old woman turned to Jack and said sternly, “You bet your sweet bippy, honey buns. Total fucking access.”

[][Chapter Eleven
The] Rapha Disappears

 

 

The Raphaella Ramirez Gonsalvez Kornacki, otherwise known and the Rapha, blinked out at the ingress point, but never arrived in Utopian space. The ship literally disappeared.

Suri arrived soon after at Jack’s office in the Embassy building. She looked like she’d been crying for a while, which, in fact, she had, off and on. Mostly on.

“They were volunteers, Jack, all retired, three were terminally ill.”

Jack picked up the list. He read: “Mackenzie Johns, Elsbeth ‘Bitzy’ Carruthers, Jossleen Chong, Matthew Donald Andronovich, and William Lionell Pigford.

“All dead and gone,” Suri said. “Well, gone anyway.”

“You’ve no idea where they went?”

“None. We were getting readings, and suddenly, nothing. They could be anywherewhen in the Infinite.”

“So you don’t think they’re dead?”

“We’re clueless.” She started to sniffle again.

Jack stood up and walked around his desk, picking up a box of Whiffs as he did. He sat on the edge of his desk and handed her the box.

“Thank you,” she sighed, dabbing. “I’m exhausted, Jack, all those monitors we put on the Rapha must have screwed up something, or interfered with the destination coordinates. Something went badly wrong. Maybe we killed them all.”

“They understood what they were getting into. They were all good deputies.”

“Yeah.”

“So, what now?”

Suri took a deep breath and exhaled. “Well, we retrieved a lot of data to analyze. We did get readings for a moment after the ship exited the ingress point. There was a slight lag.”

Exited the ingress point. She couldn’t just say ‘disappeared’, or ‘jumped’, or ‘bounced’. How about ‘left our space’. Jack felt annoyed, though not at her, and he would be careful not to take his frustration out on her in either words or tone. She was terribly fragile at the moment.

“I’m annoyed,” he announced. Suri glanced up quickly.

“I’m sorry I’m crying so much, Jack. I don’t usually kill people in my line of work.”

“Not at you, Suri. Silly. Not even about their deaths, if they even died. I hope they’ll live out the rest of their lives in some paradise somewhere, or even in the ship. Like I said, they knew what they were getting into going in. They volunteered. Who wants to linger and die slowly of disease or old age, anyway? Most once-active deputies aren’t graceful retirees. Lots of suicides. They get bored and feel useless, and the memories can haunt you. It’s hard to socialize.” He began to pace the room, gazing at the artworks which helped him to focus his thoughts.

“What, then?” She asked.

“We didn’t get much info on how the damn ships work!”

“We got plenty, Jack, but the volume of data will take forever to analyze. We’ve reviewed the data from the few moments right before they disappeared, but it hasn’t helped much, yet. All the scientists are feeling pretty badly.”

“You’re gonna have to go back and put your foot down on them, then.”

“Why?”

“Can’t you can find out where they went and get them back? Send another ship out to them?”

“No, Jack. We checked. We’re not aware of an egress point. There’s no destination logged. The destination was supposed to be in Utopia’s outer space. The data just stops. There’s no way to trace or find them. They’ll have to get back on their own, if they can, but if they’re in a regiontime they don’t recognize, or the ship doesn’t, there’s no way for them to plot a path home. They need to use their egress point as their ingress point to reverse the trip, but they won’t know what it is. We were only given local coordinates by the Odoks.”

The com bonged overhead and the silky voice announced a private call for Suri from one of her scientist. She walked to the farthest wall unit and conversed with him privately. She went to and opened the door, asking Jack’s secretary, Neil, for some orange juice. Jack looked quizzically at her.

“Low blood sugar. I’m afraid I’ve been running on all cylinders.”

“Ghee’s got you doing it now, too, hasn’t she?”

“What?” she asked.

“Speaking in those funny old sayings of hers.”

“Was I? I hadn’t realized. Yes, I guess they’re catchy. As a matter of fact, now that I think about it, the other scientists at the lab are, too. The phrases are an inexact way of speaking, yet everyone knows what you mean.”

“I understand you two went to the theater and out to dinner the other night,” Jack said.

“She’s really good company.”

Jack nodded, and smiled. ‘Yep,” he agreed. He walked to the door and asked Neil to bring some food with the orange juice.

“We’d planned to go up to the Trakennad Dor together tonight, but I’m not up to it,” Suri said.

“Do you need to call her?”

“No, I left a message for her before I came here.”

Neil came in with a tray. He placed it on the low coffee table between the sofas. It had a small carafe of orange juice and one of water, and glasses. Rhonda followed with small plates and a tray of breads, Philippa cheeses and cold cuts, and condiments.

“Thank you,” Suri said gratefully, and Rhonda departed. Neil went to the cooker, disguised as fine wood cupboarding, and ordered fresh coffee. He placed the coffee carafe on the table with mugs, Philippan cream, Utopian sugar in plain and several flavors, spoons, and some vanilla biscuits. He received a nod from Jack when he glanced up, and then he left too, closing the door behind him.

Suri dug in and Jack joined her, seated on the opposite sofa. They munched their sammiches for a while. The small meal seemed to help Suri regain her composure. Eventually, she sat back with a sweetened cup of coffee and stared out the big picture window. Jack waited.

“Well, my team lead, Jackson Muder,” she said, “says we didn’t find any evidence of particle conversion, though that is not conclusive. Just because we couldn’t observe or measure any doesn’t mean none happened. But for now, we’re going with the Bekenstein-Hawking Radiation theory. Are you familiar with it?”

“No. Tell me.”

“Okay. Well, in the twentieth century, the British physicist, Stephen Hawking, was working off Israeli physicist Jacob Bekenstein’s earlier work on black holes. Hawking thought twin particles could be created just beyond the event horizon of a black hole. One supposedly comes out into the galaxy, and one goes into the black hole.

“Some folks didn’t like the theory, because it’s been proven, repeatedly, in every reaction, that information – matter and energy, you understand?” Jack nodded. “Information is never lost. To give you a simple idea of what I mean, in old style light bulbs, the kind Einstein created – you’ve seen them?” Jack nodded again. “Electricity goes in and heat and light come out. What goes in is equivalent to the sum of what comes out. Nothing just disappears, and this is true for every reaction.

“However, you must have the know-how and the equipment to measure the inputs and outputs. With a black hole, and frankly, these damn ships, everything we think up is hypothetical. We didn’t and still don’t have the equipment, knowledge, or, frankly, the comprehension to measure what is going in to and coming out of the singularity, if there is one. We don’t know how these ships are hopping about.

“Ever since we heard Ghee’s explanation of the Infinite recycling itself,[5] we realized the information which is thought to disappear into a black hole is not actually being lost, but is being transported across the horizon and through the phenomenon to another placetime. The Odok ships could be using this phenomenon, manipulating it, somehow generating an instantaneous, small, event horizon, singularity, or otherwise causing the ship to cease to exist at ingress and begin to exist at egress.”

“Like a wormhole?” Jack asked. He’d enjoyed viewing the restored movies Ghee had found.

“Yes, but you’ve traveled in the Odok vessels,” Suri smiled. She’d been watching them, too. “There’s no experience, no sense of travel. It’s instantaneous and motionless. No time is gained or lost; you feel no sensation of any kind…”

“Yes,” Jack agreed.

“I think… did we discuss this before? All the alpha and omega destinations we got from the Odoks are in this time. Possibly they traveled not only to other places, but to other times as well. The trick would be to have the coordinates to a known destination. This has to be plotted, you can’t go willy-nilly; you might end up anywherewhen, even inside a planet or star, or at the end or beginning of time, if those exist.

“The ships don’t go without a plotted destination. Did the Odoks plot the destinations they use by traveling to them normally first? How does one travel ‘normally’ to a different placetime? Or did they predict the egress points mathematically? Can we do the kind of math required? For that matter, where and when are the Odoks from? Our future? Our past? They could have come to maturity as a species before or after our galaxy ever existed. I’ll admit it, I’m terribly curious about them.”

“If they’re so advanced,” Jack asked, “how did they run out of the fungus they needed for digestion? And why did a fungus Earth grew in abundance happen to fit the bill?”

“Oh, well, biology, you know. Possibly their vats became polluted, or some mutation had occurred and their fungus stopped producing whatever protein, or enzyme, or whatever it made that they needed. Sometimes these things happen so quickly the damage is done before you realize something’s gone wrong. Maybe they only needed an infusion of new material, or they took ours apart and selected some genes to splice in to their fungi’s DNA to strengthen their own stock, correct the mutation, or whatever. I don’t know.

“Anyway, we’ve decided we like the recycling black hole working theory because this would take significantly less ship energy than any of the particle-conversion-propulsion scenarios, but honestly, we don’t know much more than we did before the experiment. We may never figure out their drive. It’s far too advanced for us puny humans to comprehend.”

Jack chuckled. Suri smiled.

“I keep thinking about quantum tunneling, too, though,” Suri mused. She sipped her coffee, which had cooled, took a bigger sip, and then refreshed her cup from the insulated carafe. She spooned three heaps of sugar in and stirred.

Jack listened to the sound of the spoon ringing on the inside of the cup.

“It’s possible something in the hull material attracts the ship to the omega destination, and all you have to do is input the information into the computer. The ships don’t travel through space without those coordinates. I mean, they use propulsion for local travel, but…”

“What about those engines? Have you figured them out?” Jack asked. He refreshed his coffee, too. “What kind of fuel do they use?”

“They scoop fuel out of the space they travel through, when whatever they need is available, but this shouldn’t be nearly enough for spacetime travel, unless those engines have efficiencies we can’t even imagine. Hydrogen would work for everyday travel, and is plentiful in space. Other fuels are out in space, too, if you use an engine capable of utilizing them, maybe adapt and refine them onboard, like Buster’s ship. Buster’s ship could be some kind of precursor. But if this is going on in the Odok ships, we can’t find where, although we still haven’t figured out yet quite a few of the mysterious pieces of machinery.

“How ‘bout this? What if the engines are pulling in fuel from other placetimes? We just don’t know. We can’t find the exhaust, either. Maybe they’re sending the exhaust to other placetimes.”

“Didn’t we build those ships on Earth, with their help? Why don’t we know how they work? Weren’t there blueprints or something?” Jack licked a bit of Philippa mayo off his finger.

“I looked back at what’s left of the records. They built the propulsion systems themselves, and didn’t use human help. Perhaps they wanted to be prudent to protect their technology, which is far too advanced for our ignorant minds to embrace.”

“I’m sure we would embrace all the practical aspects if we could figure them out,” Jack picked up another slice of the cold cuts, rolled it, and pushed it into his mouth.

Suri laughed. “Maybe that’s what they didn’t want. It’s one thing to share, it’s quite another to create your own competition. Also, we don’t yet comprehend the dangers I’m assuming they have the experience to deal with.” She sighed and changed the subject.

“Sometimes I guest lecture in the sciences classes at the schools. It’s fun and I’m hoping to do more of it. If I give you a short lecture, it might make it easier for me to explain what I know. Have I told you my story about theories?”

“No. Tell me,” Jack smiled. Suri seemed to be getting past most of her melancholy.

“Okay. Here goes. So, once upon a time, in the early nineteen hundreds, on Earth, a woman named Henrietta Leavitt became fascinated with a type of star called a Cepheid variable. She found them by studying photographic plates of the Large and Small Megallanic Clouds. These stars pulse, becoming brighter and dimmer, over and over. Each time they become brighter and dimmer is called a period. She studied several of these stars and plotted their brighter-dimmer periods on graph paper, depicting light curves. She discovered the period-luminosity relationship, which states that Cepheid variable stars having longer periods are more luminous, meaning they make more light than Cepheid variable stars with shorter periods.

“Next, a Danish astronomer named Ejnar Hertzsprung calculated the approximate distance to a Cepheid variable star from Earth using the star’s periods and light curve.

“I don’t go into the math, which is too complicated for the students at this level. The ones with aptitude who go on to study astronomy get into those equations later.

“Mr. Hertzsprung then calculated the distance to the Small Magellanic Cloud using his data on some nearby Cepheids he had studied, along with the Cepheids visible in the Small Megellanic Cloud.

“Next, an American astronomer named Harlow Shapley determined the period-luminosity relationship and the light waves of a larger number of Cepheids to recalibrate the distance to the Small Magellanic cloud. It is always important to measure lots of your objects to get the right average or mean measurement to use in your calculations, or someone will come along later and do a better job and show that you didn’t do enough work and got the wrong answer. Back in the day, though, each of these discoveries was a step in the right direction, and they were working with primitive instruments. Their work was groundbreaking.

“In 1917, still on Earth, the astronomer Albert Einstein was thinking about space and time, and his new Theory of Relativity. He thought time must be affected by mass.

“In fact, when we started flying planes high in the atmosphere and sending rockets and satellites into space, we found the further away we got from the planet, the slower time moved, compared with how the devices moved on Earth.

“Called time dilation, it affected satellites, plane travelers, and the timing of communications from the space station. Mr. Einstein was right, and he figured this out with mathematics and thought experiments before we became able to fly planes and launch rockets and put satellites into space!

“I always like to pause and look into the eyes of the kids who show mathematical aptitude at this point. I ask the teacher to tell me who they are in advance.”

She continued her lecture. “Since Mr. Einstein thought space would be affected by mass, he calculated the warping of space by a force called gravity around bodies like the Earth, the moon, the sun, even galaxies.

“Now, gravity pulls masses toward each other, and if gravity was the only force, all the planets and suns and galaxies would collapse into each other. But they don’t, so Mr. Einstein hypothesized a repelling force, which he called the ‘cosmological constant’. He thought the cosmological constant would balance things out and keep everything from crashing together into a big mess.

“Now I look at the math students again. There’s usually only one or two with exceptional ability in any class. Sometimes they’re pretty awkward kids, so I want to encourage them. I was pretty awkward, too.

“But the math didn’t add up. Mr. Einstein thought the Universe was static – a certain size, and the size wasn’t changing. But this isn’t true, which was why his math wasn’t working.

“Just a few years later, an astronomer named Edwin Hubble decided to determine a standard measure of light. He used the previous research on the Cepheid variable stars to do this. Mr. Hubble mathematically developed and used his ‘standard candle’, which is basically the average frequency of light measured from multiple Cepheid stars; in other words, one certain frequency of starlight seen from Earth at a certain distance. He used this ‘standard candle’ to measure the distance from Earth to objects he observed in space.

“Today, there are many standard candles calculated on the luminosity of different classes of objects, such as supernovae and even galaxies, with which we can measure the distance of objects from Earth.”

Jack poured himself some more coffee and selected a cookie.

“Now, light is made of particles called photons, and photons travel in waves, like sound, and light travels perfectly well in empty space, unlike sound.

“Light waves come in different colors. If you’ve taken art class, you know about the color spectrum, or Roy G. Biv: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet. Light appears to us as different colors because each color consists of photons vibrating at their own unique frequency.

“Frequencies are the amount of waves passing a point, like our eyes, in a given time frame, say, one second. Higher frequency waves pass the point faster, or more often in our second of time, and lower frequency waves pass more slowly.

“Since each color vibrates at its own frequency, the color red is at one end of the spectrum because its waves are a lower frequency, passing our point less frequently, and violet is at the other end of the spectrum, because its waves pass our point more frequently.

“All the colors in between have their own frequencies; each successive color’s frequency is a little higher than the previous if you start at red and move across the spectrum to lavender. Alternatively, if you start at lavender and move through the spectrum to red, each successive color’s frequency is a little lower than the previous. The light comes into our eyes, and our eyes see the different frequencies of light as different colors.

“So Mr. Hubble used his measurement of the ‘standard candle’ to compare the frequencies of light coming from different galaxies. He found galaxies which seemed reddish, or what we call red shifted. What did this mean? Well, the light from the red looking galaxies was coming into his eyes at a lower frequency than if they’d been any other color.

“Since Mr. Hubble was on Earth, and, from his perspective, stationary, he decided this meant those galaxies were moving. He decided the red shift indicated those galaxies were going away from him, because the frequency of light was slower. The light from the red shifted galaxies was taking longer to get to Earth to be observed by Mr. Hubble. Some of the galaxies seemed redder than others, which meant they were even farther away.

“Measuring the distances to these galaxies from Earth against his standard candle, he found that in fact the entire Universe was expanding, or moving away from Earth. The redder-looking galaxies were farther away, and seemed redder because the light waves were coming to him more slowly than the less red galaxies, which were closer. The closer the galaxies’ were to Mr. Hubble, the faster the waves came to him, and the color moved into the blue hues, a blue shift.

“This was a big, huge, discovery! Remember, Mr. Einstein thought the Universe stationary, now Mr. Hubble had found that no, in fact, it was expanding. The math then worked!

“All the scientists thought, well, if it’s expanding, it must have once been smaller, so they came up with the Big Bang theory. They decided that at one time, long ago, the Universe had been infinitely small, expanded rapidly outward, becoming extremely hot. Chemical reactions occurred. Atoms and molecules were attracted to each other by electromagnetic force. Gases, minerals, and composite materials formed by electromagnetic attraction as the Universe continued expanding and cooling. The spinning of the masses of these materials created gravity – the attractive force. Collisions formed asteroids, comets, planets, solar systems, and galaxies.

“The early nineteen hundreds were exciting times in science, but Mr. Einstein was troubled. He thought he’d made a blunder in his proposal of a cosmological constant, because he’d thought the universe was stagnant, or constant. Remember that afterward, Mr. Hubble found that the universe was expanding, and the math describing the Universe finally worked.

“Later scientists, however, decided Mr. Einstein had been nearly correct. They found a force working in opposition to gravity, but a little harder, causing the Universe not to maintain the same size, but to actually expand. They called this force ‘dark matter’, and although they couldn’t detect it, they observed its effect on everything out in space.

“Human beings are interested in the world around them and make observations. They say, ‘I think this explains what I’m seeing’, which is called a hypothesis, or thesis, for short. Then other people look around, do tests that we call experiments, and say they either agree or they don’t, based on the results of their tests and observations. If they disagree, someone else might say, ‘I think this is what’s going on instead’. That’s another hypothesis. Then they all test this hypothesis, and if a majority can reproduce his or her results and they agree, they say ‘this hypothesis seems to be correct’. This is when the hypothesis becomes a theory.

“Often, advances in equipment allow us to make new measurements of old or new information, or a different person has come along who thinks and sees things in a different way, and advances science.

“Scientists are a competitive, disciplined group. They all want to do the experiments and see the new results for themselves. When a general consensus occurs, meaning most of the scientists agree, they’ll adopt the new theory.

“Dissent is considered if someone doesn’t agree. Scientists who disagree may say, ‘Wait a minute, what if it’s like this instead?’ This is good, because you always want people to doubt and search for better explanations. Otherwise the scientists may all agree to some untrue idea, or a theory true only because they’re missing some information which they haven’t yet been able to detect with their equipment yet. They may not be able to proceed until more advanced equipment is developed.

“Of course, they must prove their theories with experiments and equations that back up their claims, and submit these for peer review. As a group, they all work with the new theory until new evidence is discovered which changes the equations, an experiment shows different phenomena, a new hypothesis is presented for testing, and a different theory emerges. Sometimes they just keep proving repeatedly a solid theory. This is how science advances, and this is called the Scientific Method.

“And that’s the end of that particular speech.”

[][Chapter Twelve
Infinite Recycling]

 

 

Jack was sitting back in his couch smiling widely.

“Suri, that was wonderful, and I don’t believe you were ever awkward. I think I learned some of that in school, or at least in the Academy, but so long ago I’d forgotten. Maybe I tuned out, or it wasn’t explained to me that well. What a great way to teach the children; you had my attention the whole time.”

“Thank you, Jack, that’s a nice thing to hear. Not everyone has the aptitude for math or chemistry, but everyone likes a good story. Science can be such a dry subject; I try to add a little history, even human conflict and competition to the theories to make them more palatable. Strict theory is pretty boring, but much easier to understand and remember in context.

”Sometimes I set up demonstrations to help the students visualize physics and chemistry. I turn copper into ‘gold’ – not real gold, it’s a chemical reaction that changes the color of the copper. The kids love it. Sometimes we go out in the open and I shoot baseballs out of a launcher my son made for my classes, and then we discuss parabolas.”

“Well that’s ingenious. I think you’re a fun lecturer.”

“Thanks again. Listen, I’ve been thinking about the Big Bang.”

“I’m sorry to hear that.”

Suri chuckled with him. “No really. This theory goes along perfectly with the explanation of the Infinite recycling itself that Ghee told you on the Mark Burgess, which is kinda why I told you my little story. It might help explain the mysterious Odok drive. Or not, I’m not sure. Would you care to explore this with me? It’s a nap-worthy subject. Do you have the time?”

“I’m all ears,” Jack replied, ready to hear some more. He found himself relaxing as he listened to her.

“Okay. Here we go again. Many scientists still think our region of space started out as an infinitesimally small and dense point which expanded immensely, rapidly, causing tremendous heat and creating the original elements. As everything spread out, cooling occurred, electromagnetic attraction made more elements and molecules. Collisions and the eventual coalescence of planets followed.

“But what about the initial dense point? How did that occur? Where did that come from?” Here I stop and let the students speculate. Then I say, “This is one theory. What if our region of space started out in some other region of the Infinite, at another age in space? Perhaps a virulent black hole there sucked in an entire universe-sized region and the enormous energy this created broke into another space-age. The material pooped out in its entirety into this regiontime. The singularity would have reduced all the masses and gasses to their basic particles going in. Coming out, everything expanded, cooled, and slowed, eventually becoming our area of space. The black hole slows and dies, possibly disappearing, or simply becoming inert.

“All galaxies contain a black hole at their center. Perhaps this is the remnant of this recycling effort. It’s possible that this occurs in all galaxies, and even enormous regions of space like ours.

“Secondly, maybe black holes can wink in and out of existence, and vary in size and strength. They would occur, only suck in and spew it out as much material as they have energy for, and become nothing. The unanswerable question with this theory is what is the guiding principal which causes them to blink into and out of existence? Also, if they come and go, how do we detect them, unless we happen to be in the right place at the right time when they show up or disappear?

“The third theory is this – perhaps the effect goes back and forth: explosion, expansion, collapse, expulsion into this space time, constriction and collapse and explosion into the other, lather, rinse, repeat.

“We think only the galaxies would do one, two, or all of these, since our Universe doesn’t seem to contain a dense point which previously might have been a gigantic black hole capable of recycling the whole thing. At least we haven’t found that point yet.

“Our lack of knowledge doesn’t mean one or more of these theories aren’t actually happening, or that one or more of these theories isn’t correct. It means we haven’t experienced the event, or figured out the math, yet. It means we are infants still in our understanding of the greatness of space. And since these events take longer than the human lifetime, more than generations of lifetimes, we can only theorize.

“These could be three alternative explanations for why everything is traveling away from us. Dark matter theory states; all matter in our local area of the Infinite is traveling away from all other matter, so wherever you stand in this Universe, whether you’re on Earth, or a moon in Andromeda Galaxy, you will perceive red shifted matter traveling away from you.

“Does this make sense to you? It never made sense to me. However, what if all galaxies are recycling back and forth from and into into their respective space-ages, pulverizing everything in the near vicinity of their Bang, and incorporating some of the matter into the new galaxy formation… and pushing, if you will, the unincorporated material outside of the – I’ll call them Bang Zones, away? We have discovered warped astral bodies in space, which are continuously moving away from us.

“At this point I hold up a big inflated round ball, and explain that our galaxy is in the center inside the ball, and the Bang Zone is the ball material itself. As I pump more air into the ball, it expands. I say, ‘The Bang Zone, or the skin of the ball, is where the recycled material has come through the black hole and collided with whatever was in that space. As more material spurts into this regiontime from the other, through the singularity’s spigot, it pushes everything else away.’

“I stop pumping air into the ball now. ‘At some point,’ I say, ‘the material in the other space time runs out, or the waning energy of the singularity disables it from pulling more through from the other zone. There is now as much material in our zone as there ever will be.’ Now, I flip a switch, creating suction, and I slowly let the air out of the ball. I say, ‘Eventually, this space and all the material in it begins to contract, because the singularity is still active and there is pull, possibly from the other side, which is ready to expand again, from the same hole. The galaxy begins to slowly collapse, growing speedier as it gets smaller, and finally, all matter reenters the hole and the process reverses, reoccurring on the other side, in the other region in another time.’”

Jack shook himself and laughed, as if the energy of her explanation had entered him and he was letting some of it out.

“Oh, Suri, I totally understood that! There’s a moving picture in my mind of everything you just said.”

“I know! I have to admit when I came up with this description I was really pleased with myself. Shall I continue?”

“Yes, please!”

“Okay, so in the case of the Milky Way, if it’s the newest or strongest galaxy in this region, it would be pushing everything around us away and we’d be seeing a red shift. If we weren’t, and say, Andromeda was newer, then some of Andromeda’s galactic matter would be coming toward us, exhibiting a blue shift, or, at least, going sideways to us. The way the matter is traveling would depend on the timing and velocities of the masses of the two galaxies, moving against each other. Now imagine this is happening to every galaxy!”

“I can! I can imagine this,” Jack laughed.

“First, small black holes are said to spew out more than they take in, and large black holes are said to spew out less than they take in. So what if small black holes are just beginning to bring matter and energy from another regiontime? They are more energetic at the beginning of the process. They start small and get bigger as they age and because they bring through more and more material. Then when they get older, they slow down because they have brought through all the matter they are able to gravitationally attract in the ingress space time. As they age, and as the matter and energy transfer decreases, because they are unable to bring any more through, and they slowly collapse. Eventually there’s no more energy to feed on, no more matter to bring through. They die.

“Second, is there is a mechanism for primordial black holes to come into existence anywhere in any regiontime, start this phenomenon, and transfer material to another time-in-space? After, perhaps, its existence ends. A singularity could occur anywhere at any time.

“The third line of thought goes like this; singularities start small, they end small, but they are infinitely dense because of their collapse in size after they’re through with the transfer. The very act of collapsing causes an increase in density, energy, and strength. So, as the singularity collapses, the galaxy stops growing, and it begins to contract back toward its origin, the black hole. The collapse speeds, collisions and energy pull everything apart and back to basic components, and then elements, and this all enters the hole and spews out into the other space-age, and this phenomenon goes back and forth, back and forth.

“Perhaps all three of these scenarios are occurring, or only one or two of these theories is correct. We can’t know at this time.”

Jack interrupted. “So, are we talking about black holes creating wormholes to other space times and pulling stuff through, or about that quantum effect you mentioned?”

“Yes. Well, we don’t know. Either, I guess. Some think a black hole and its event horizon creates a wormhole from one point in one region and time to another. The energies of a black hole may become sufficient enough to create a wormhole to elsewherewhen, and send everything it can gravitationally capture through. In this case the question is, what is the mechanism that initiates the black hole formation and its gravity?

“On the other hand, we could be looking at a galaxy point and an anti-galaxy point, in which case the points would be ‘attached’ to each other through space time, even though they could be billions of light years apart. In this case, the recycling could just be blinking back and forth, a quantum effect. Then the question is, at what age and under what conditions do the processes begin to occur? We’d want to know how close our own galaxy is to collapse. Or not, we couldn’t do anything about it.”

“How about folding space?” Jack interrupted. “Ghee’s found a copy of a twentieth century movie based on a book that uses this one. Did you see it?”

“No. I’ll have to come over for movie night again. I’ve always had a problem with the idea of ‘folding’ space. What happens to the gravity of all the planets, solar systems, galaxies, and all the rest of the stuff in the part of the space that’s being “folded”? The forces would be disrupted and massive destruction would result. Or, if the word is meant as a metaphor, then we’re really talking about some kind of tunneling, or a quantum effect on a macro scale. We’re back to those two theories.”

“Mmm-hmm,” Jack murmured around his coffee cup.

“Quantum physics deals with infinitesimal particles. The phenomenon called “quantum movement” is instantaneous. The movement isn’t observable, only the particle’s change in position can be observed.

“On a macro level, if an artificially created event horizon effectively grinds down energy and matter into infinitesimally small particles, why can’t the particles change position from the ingress to the egress point by means of quantum movement? The matter would be there, and then it would be here, just as we’re experiencing when we travel in the Odok ships.

“This would have to be accomplished instantaneously, and the material would have to be put back together perfectly, which is way beyond our capability or even imagination. But we know something is happening.

“Of course, other scientists subscribe to the wormhole theory, where you’d just be sucked through, so to speak. That’s just easier to wrap your mind around, but nothing remains whole in an event horizon, even an artificially created one. So, how does it get put back together?”

“You’ve been thinking about this because you’re trying to explain the Odok drive. So you’re thinking galactic recycling and Odok space travel are based on the same mechanisms, whatever they are. Have I expressed this correctly?”

“Exactly, Jack. What if the Odok drive operates on the same principle of the Infinite recycling bits of itself? We don’t know the mechanism that initiates a black hole coming in to existence. After it does its thing, does it reverse itself, die, or cease to exist? If the Odoks discovered what occurs, they could have harnessed a way to create the effect and therefore travel that way in those ships. Perhaps the whole ship instantaneously ‘tunnels’ through the event horizon into a wormhole, or acts like a single particle and changes position through quantum movement.”

“Damn, Suri, I’d buy either one.”

“Well, they’re only theories, and you’ve heard what the religionists say, all our theories are as much nonsense as their mystical being that created everything in six days and rested on the seventh. Unfortunately for them, we do end up proving something once in a while, while they rely on simple belief.

“We won’t prove this stuff in my lifetime, but the Odoks, they understood the science. They manipulate the phenomena and use it like we use the sink faucet. Like I said before, we aren’t aware of the age of their species, or of their civilization, or, for that matter, whether they existed trillions of our millennia ago or in our distant future. If they’re traveling through both space and time, they could be from anywherewhen.”

“I hate to be a wet blanket, Suri,” Jack used one of Ghee’s dredged-up old sayings, “because these are fascinating theories, but time travel is a myth to us, a vehicle used by science fiction writers to tell impossible stories.”

“Yep. So was instantaneous space travel not too long ago. Okay, so let’s forget time travel. Think about this though, Jack, if we figured out the Odok transportation system, would we need the ships anymore? We’d “beam” cargo and life forms around, just like that ancient television show. Our Odok ships travel only where the Odoks allowed us to travel, and in this time only. If we figured these ships’ mechanisms out, we could beam anything from our known ingress points to our known egress points, without the ships.”

“Then why didn’t they travel like that? Why use the ships?”

“Maybe they did, or do, at home, like a subway system, where they were in control. But traveling through and about other species’ home regions are other situations for which they would need the ships to carry their atmosphere with them.”

“That makes sense, but time travel is still fiction, Suri.”

Suri took a breath and opened her mouth, then stopped and sighed. “To us. Anyway, it won’t be fiction forever, Jack. What’s that saying? ‘Science is magic that hasn’t been explained.’”

“I think you got that backward.” He paused and looked a little puzzled. “Or maybe not, I dunno. Again, if they’re so advanced, how did they manage to screw up their food production so badly? Aren’t you bothered about these highly advanced people almost killing themselves over something so simple? If they really needed the fungus to digest their food, why weren’t they able to protect their stock and production process from a failure which would have killed them off? The documentation says they said they ate the stuff fresh, to facilitate some kind of symbiosis. It provided a product for a deficiency needing to be replenished regularly. They didn’t expound, but that’s a damn big deal. Wouldn’t they put some of the product in safekeeping, in a different secure system, in case of failure, to revitalize the stock? Or just pop back home and pick up some more? It doesn’t track.”

“Right. I have no idea. We just don’t know.” She looked thoughtful for a few seconds. “What if they lied about why they needed us and something else was going on?”

“Like what?”

“Well, if they were time travelers, maybe they needed to give us the ships to affect something they or someone needed doing in the future. We may have already accomplished this and be none the wiser for it.”

She wasn’t going to let this go.

“Okay, like what?”

“Again, clueless! Like, help the Mek create their free society on this planet. I don’t know… maybe we were supposed to lose the Rapha?”

Jack paused. Was the poor thing trying to make the deaths of those deputies alright in her mind?

“How could they predict those things?”

“If they can travel in time, they would have been in the future and seen what will happen, decided to make changes, came back and caused… whatever they caused to happen, using us to change that future. They needed to give us the ships to accomplish this.”

“To change the way the future turns out?”

“Yes.”

“But they couldn’t predict some specific thing happening after they interfered with us. Humans are flaky. We wouldn’t necessarily accomplish what they needed us to. They would need to have had access to all timelines that might occur after they messed with us, as well as the one existing when they were here with us. How could they see all the possible results of their interference, as well as their own real future? How would they ensure the Mek would be freed or the Rapha would disappear just by giving us those ships so long ago, or determine what the effect of those events would cause?”

“Those are good points. You got me there, unless they’re still interfering somehow, watching, nudging. We don’t know them or what they’re capable of. We don’t understand how those drives work. The ‘drive engines’ are empty boxes. I’m hoping the Odoks made the Rapha disappear to wherewhenever they are and the crew is safe.”

“It’s too complicated, Suri,” Jack said gently, “but what a good piece of fiction. You should write a story, and use it to teach science, like you do with your lectures.”

Suri pursed her lips and blushed slightly. “Yeah, you’re right, Jack. I’m fantasizing. I’m grasping at strays.”

“You’re tired. Straws, I think.”

“Hm?”

“Grasping at straws.”

“Oh!” Suri chuckled and Jack joined her. “What does it mean? Did I use it correctly?”

“That, I’m afraid, is beyond my comprehension,” Jack said. “You’ll have to ask Ghee.”

“Grief is a funny thing,” Suri said sadly, finally openly admitting her real problem.

“Not really, no,” Jack said, still smiling kindly.

“Right again.”

Suri took a few moments to make a new sammich and Jack picked up a few more biscuits. He poured some fresh water into glasses for them both.

They chewed for a while and rested their brains.

Suri swallowed and said, “It’s nice here, Jack.”

“Yes, it is.”

“This office, the view, and the planet are nice, and this water’s delicious.”

“Yes, it is.”

“We’re really lucky.”

“Yes, we came too close to our end.”

“Perhaps they gave us the ship to help us get out here, to save us. The rest is all random.”

“Yeah. I’m going to stick with that explanation.” Jack realized she wasn’t going to let go of her fantastic idea that the Odoks, with their mysterious ships, had interfered for some reason. Perhaps the idea of something being set right by the gift of the ships would help her come to terms with the Rapha’s disappearance. It seemed strange to Jack that a scientist would need a mythological explanation to live with a horrible loss, but people were funny. Ghee always said humans were still quite provincial.

Suri finished her second sammich and started on the vanilla biscuits, pouring the last of the coffee.

“So, you’ve got your life’s work all cut out for you,” Jack said, wiping his mouth with a napkin and checking his lap for crumbs.

“Yes, I do. The whole team does – analyzing all the data, trying to figure out what happened. I guess that’s what you call job security.”

“Job security often is predicated on some problem or another, unfortunately. Where would the Sheriff’s Department be without criminals and accidents and pure unadulterated stupidity?”

“So true. That’s right, you were a deputy once upon a time.”

“Yes. They’ll find their way back, Suri. They’ll figure out where they are, program the ingress point as the egress point and show up here shortly.”

“Some day, some time. I sure hope so, Jack, unless they crashed, or the equipment malfunctioned. I think they’d be back by now if that kind of reverse programming would have worked, though, don’t you?”

“Yeah, I do. They don’t know where they are, or how to get back. The ship could be damaged.”

“Or they could be dead.” Suri finished the last biscuit.

“Jack, you are terrific company and an excellent host. I’m sorry if I depressed you.”

“I had to know. You didn’t depress me, the circumstances did, but not you.”

Suri stood up and so did Jack. He followed her to the door. Before he opened it for her he said, “Don’t be shy. Ghee and I are both curious about your findings, and if you ever need any emotional support, you know where to find us.”

That almost started the waterworks again.

“You two are terrific, you know. Even if Ghee does look like a Zillian.”

“She does, doesn’t she? I tell her that, too.”

Suri laughed, “We’re so mean.”

“Nah. She’s been through worse.”

Jack walked her to the elevator. Gam was mekking the lift today.

“Your chariot awaits, m’lady,” Jack smiled.

Suri stepped into the elevator and spoke another Ghee-ism, “Catch you later, Jack.”

“Later, Suri,” he replied.

The elevator doors closed and Jack walked back to his office. He settled into his comfy office throne and demanded, “Ghee.”

In a few seconds, she answered. Her pleasant voice fell toward him from the ceiling com.

“Hello, lovely, where are you?” he asked.

“Home.”

“Alone?”

“No, I’m with four of my hot lovers. Wish you were here?”

“You bet! Suri just left.”

“A long meeting.”

“Learned a lot.” He briefly filled her in, leaving out almost everything. There would be time later to go over it all. He said, “She’s taking the disappearance hard, trying to find reasons.”

“Find reasons?”

“Magical reasons. The New Mythology according to Suri.”

“Suri’s a scientist. I find that hard to believe.”

“Yeah. Like, did the Odoks give us those ships to somehow rewrite the future.”

 

 

Whoa. I paused. Now this was interesting. Suri thought the Odoks were somehow manipulating things. Well, well. I’d always suspected some kind of intelligence behind my own adventures. I’d never mentioned my suspicions to Jack, or talked about my past before I’d ended up on the arena ship in this body. Could the Odoks be the agents of my own deliverance from my death on Earth, and the ensuing adventures I’d endured?

“Tell me more.”

He did. He told me about her theories about the Odok’s traveling to other time and space regions and forwarded me a recording.

“I’m going to listen to this right now, Jack. Let’s talk tonight.”

“I’ve got a few calls to make, and then I’m gonna call it a day,” he decided. “I’ll see you soon, love.”

“Not soon enough, handsome.”

“I’ll put the whip to Tem.”

“I’m sure he’ll enjoy that, dear. Wait, don’t you walk home?”

“Indeed I do.”

“Silly. See you soon.”

“Au revoir.”

“Hasta luego.”

Jack was laughing when I hung up.

[][Chapter Thirteen
The God Remnant]

 

 

Well, hell. Suri the scientist was thinking someone or some things were interfering with our activities.

Plenty of scientists have religious beliefs. I’m still a doubter, myself. Of course, most people who practice any religion claim theirs is peaceful, and many practitioners are peaceful. There’s always a certain percentage, though, just like in any group of people, who use their beliefs in abusive ways.

I’d thought along the same lines as Suri seemed to be when I pondered certain events in my life, and I’d decided to call the interference “The God Remnant”.

The God Remnant, I reasoned, was a remnant of the idea of God which Christians absorb at a very early age. Even if we eventually reject the idea of God, the God Remnant unfortunately sticks in our brains like a burr in long cat hair. Religionists would say this is because we feel the presence of God even though we’ve rejected Him intellectually. “You may not believe in Him, but He believes in you,” is a saying I’m sure we’ve all heard. I reply I feel the presence of two plus two equals four, but I feel nothing mystical about that fact.

If you’re exposed to something – either myth or reality repeated frequently in your childhood, and the thing is often brought up, reinforced, in your adulthood, indeed, throughout your life, it becomes a part of your “knowledge” base. You have no choice in the matter. But reality means I can always count out two apples plus two apples equaling four apples. Well, in my current situation I guess I would probably be counting oranges. God, on the other hand, cannot be experienced except through mythology and belief.

Ethical and moral behavior can be taught without the help of a god or gods, devils, heaven, or hell, and the biblical promises of rewards and punishments. It’s easy enough to explain that we don’t behave this way because it hurts people. If someone did that to you, it would hurt you, so you don’t do that to them. You ‘Golden Rule’ it, so to speak. And even though the Golden Rule is in the Bible, it’s really just good old common sense.

The reality is that too many religionists use God and their religion as a weapon of control, because they feel small, vulnerable, and helpless otherwise. Some even terrify and abuse their children with their beliefs. It’s too easy to go that route, and inevitable, if you believe yourself superior because you are convinced your beliefs are ‘right’, and you think you’re superior to others who don’t believe as you do, you abuse them. No, I’m sticking with two plus two equals four, thank you very much. Anything that can be proven over and over again is reliable and undeniable. No one doubts two plus two equaling four.

After I’d died on Earth, I’d awaken in the body of some kind of hive insect.[6] Everything around me was gigantic: blades of grass, shrubbery leaves, tree limbs. I wasn’t on Earth I’d decided, because the insects used tubing while I was recovering. They had in some way made tubing, though I hadn’t had the time to explore how or where. They’d spoken some kind of language. The brain of the body I’d woken up in had formed the correct synaptic connections, and therefore, I’d comprehended their means of communication. This made sense, didn’t it? Language is a function of hearing and speech and changes the brain in ways which are more or less permanent, and don’t those have their basis in neuron function? Synapses firing? I believe so.

Anyway, the consciousness of the bug seemed to have fled, and mine, somehow, slipped in. Life resumed. The body healed, I went back to work guarding the hive, and then a couple of my hivemates kicked me off a branch into the jaws of a koolkool; a lizard with a hard beak of a mouth. The looks I saw on those guards’ faces as I fell reminded me of the looks on the faces of Deena and Elva, just before they’d killed me on Earth.

Curious, that. Do devious, evil-minded killers all get the same look at the climax of their hate-filled activities?

Afterwards, I’d awakened in the body of a cat-like mammalian creature. This beast was a shape shifter, having both an upright form and a four-legged form – something human-like, and something cat-like. It had apparently killed the beast, which I’d found lying next to me when I awoke, before I became conscious in that body. Vulture-like scavengers were feasting on us both. I’d been mortally wounded, but my soul, spirit, personality, essence, characteristics, whatever, had awakened in the dead cat-thing, resurrecting it, just as had happened with the bug.

I’d struggled to drink from a stream. Instinctively, in agony, I’d found my way through the woods to a river which was falling down a steep incline into a beautiful green valley below.

I’d run into some creatures that were short and dirty, and now that I think about it, not unlike the Mek. Those little people were sort of like a meek, primitive versions, without the wide, toothy grins. I took care of them; I employed my Earthly horticultural and agricultural education to try to increase our food supply and variety. As the cat, I hunted for them.

A silver sphere had come. They’d wanted the green crystals we’d found in our cave. I bargained with the alien blobs, using hand signals and symbols. My little friend, Ne, was overcome by fear, and maybe a protective instinct, so he chucked the spear I’d made for him and had taught him to use at one of the blobs. They’d killed us all…

… which was when I had woken up in the arena ship. Now I know the ship as the Trakennad Dor. I woke up in this construct’s body. I hadn’t known at the time and for a long while after that this body was of human design, a construction. This body had been in the middle of a match when my conscience resurrected it.

I can’t tell for sure how long I was on Trakennad Dor, but at least for many decades, I think. The construct had been sold to Spauch in 2060 A.D. by the human military and had died sometime in the ring, which was when my conscience had bounced into it. Talk about baptism by fire. I’d had to finish the fight by killing my opponent while inhabiting a recently killed and resurrected body, because at the time, no way out of the arena was available to me unless someone died. I didn’t understand this at that moment, but my opponent did. I had simply defended myself.

Decades later, Jack and his negotiation team were seized by the Rotagonians, who had decided they no longer wanted the protection and trade of humans, and they illegally sold the team to Spauch.

Kek had insisted that I talk with Jack, and Kek had come up with the idea to take all the Mek off the ship in fighter craft and cargo barges to join the crews of the Mark Burgess, the Toi G. Aguirre, the Tomas Elias Mennem, and the Dusundu Deshembe; these Sheriff Department Space Force ships were massing against the Trakennad Dor to take back Jack and his team. Some of the team hadn’t survived. Commander Lenore (Lee) Phong-Nguyen, Captain Benjamin (Pak) Pakinajasool, and Sergeant Sullivan (Sully) McTiernan had died in the arena. Sergeant Kim Jones and civilian observer Roger Abbas ibn Spralja escaped with Jack, the kin, and me.

It was then 2223 A.D. by the Christian calendar.

Now, in 2233 A.D., we’re all safe, all citizens of KekTan, protected and loved by the Mek. Klon has the Trakennad Dor and has turned the vessel into an interstellar Las Vegas, and Spauch is accounting and managerial software.

I’d often wondered if my crazy experiences had all been a test. That’s a Christian concept, too, though, that life is a test. Obviously, I’m no Christian, but the thought stayed with me. When I was a human, my coworkers killed me. When I was a bug, my hive mates killed me. When I was the cat-beast, my little wards didn’t kill me, but outsiders did. However, the Mek and humans in this time and place embraced me, and are still.

Had I passed the test, if there was a test? Surely what had happened to me couldn’t be normal, and had to have been caused and directed by someone, by something, right? This was the only question I’d wanted to ask Deena, did this happen to you, too? I’ll never reveal to her who I’d been, though, and who I am. She’s too dangerous to confide in.

Once again I wondered how long I would live, not this body, but me, my personality. What kind of creature would I inhabit next? And what, or who, was doing this to me? I’ve rejected the Christian God, but I believe something is manipulating my life. I often pray, like this, Whoever you are, whatever you’re up to, please, please, please, let me stay here with Jack until he dies. Please.

[][Chapter Fourteen
Alien Fight Club]

 

 

Before we started sparring and working out our performances, Doc checked us all out. “You’re all healthy as horses (one of my so-called Ghee-isms),” he announced. He managed to get Cherish, Ravish, and Buster to allow him to make virtual copies of them for his studies, and took actual samples, too. He was one happy Doc.

We began meeting on the Trakennad Dor to have access to the mat rooms and fight coaches and medics, and our sessions were top secret, closed-door affairs. Klon posted guards every time we practiced; he would not let anyone see what we were up to. Even our guards were convinced not to peak in at us. No one was allowed to watch. I put all my work aside; Buster, Cherish, and Ravish extended their vacations. Well, they were paying us, so “vacation” didn’t exactly apply. It was hard work, but also really fun.

Ravish, Cherish, Buster, and I conditioned and sparred for weeks. All our old reflexes sharpened up. We began to function as a team.

The other three reminisced about the old days, which was enlightening to me. I focused on the job at hand and taught them a few of the things I’d learned in the arena. I hadn’t realized how much of a showman I’d become. Plenty of the moves, though designed to protect myself and inflict various degrees of damage, also had an element in them of playing to the crowd, of getting the cheers and making the spectators drop their drinks and stand and yell.

We worked on a two hour long program; we didn’t just brawl. I recalled many lengthy fights I’d endured in when my opponent just wouldn’t die. This performance had a lot of what we called vignettes, periods of intense fighting where we paired off and beat the crap out of each other, but also lots of periods of rest where one or two of us would pretend we’d been hurt. One or more of the others would become protective and shield the “injured” fighter, hurling insults and blows at the other or others who were pretending to want to finish off the damaged one. The alliances and enmities were ever-shifting.

We threw plenty of alien insults at each other. The roaring of spectators would drown our shouts out, so I recalled many demeaning hand, arm and body gestures. We restricted most of our taunts to the ones that meant about the same thing as the middle finger salute. No reason to ridicule anyone’s mother, or sporing mass, or, whatever.

The aspersions we cast came from a variety of different cultures, and the Mek would know them all. They would inform the spectators, composed of many different species, of their meanings. The bulkheads behind and the audience had been turned into view screens, and the Ring Master’s vocalizations would be translated into many languages.

We had planned for as much spectator participation as the situation would allow.

We choreographed our movements so that we each acted as individuals, not as teams, but to incorporate the simulated insults and feigned injuries, we would double or occasionally triple up and attack the others or the poor lone sucker who had to face three of us. We practiced scenarios in case one of us got injured bad enough to need to tap out, so we had a variety of ideas and routines for three combatants as well.

In the beginning, we did a lot of hard work. We were bruised, strained, and sprained, though our carbon fiber skeletons, of course, didn’t break. We injected pain meds and padded and flagged the injured areas with red bandanas to avoid injuring ourselves any further. We continued on, and on.

After a while, we got good at anticipating each other and reacting to the others’ moves, and we started having fun. We were really very much alike.

Our wind increased and we stopped having to take so many breaks to catch our breath. It took increasing amounts of time to break a sweat. We started to move so smoothly, we had to make sure to remember to fake injuries. Otherwise we sparred continuously, and that would have been boring for the audience.

We even faked blood, although some real blood spilled as well, and we were all aware that we were most likely going to actually hurt each other in the arena. Once the excitement of the audience got into us, our adrenaline would flow, and what we thought would be a regular meaty punch could become destructive.

We’d decided to wear light mocha colored, skin-tight, easy-breath, tank and knee-length unitards. We glued thin dye packs into them in various places and practiced breaking them with punches and kicks. Buster even bit one of Cherish’s hidden packs open, but she said the gunk tasted like shit smells. We had a lot of fun with the stuff but decided to limit using it because by the end of practices we were starting to look all bled out. Our unitards went from mocha latte to darkly blotched. The blood looked fake, because who would still be standing after losing that much blood? We laughed too much using them, and we didn’t seem to be able to modify our usage. We ditched the blood packs.

I’m not sure I’ve ever had so much fun.

We hit the weight room frequently as well, but the fight practice took care of the cardio—all this equipment was now available on the Trakennad Dor. We were looking like real fighters when Klon invited us to dinner.

A week before the main event, and after our workout, we showered, endured the anti-bacterial steam booth, dried and dressed, and walked together toward Klon’s suite. I’d never been there before.

The fighters and ship crew in the corridors stood to the side as we passed. They all smiled and made encouraging comments, some were lewd, but said in a joking manner. We didn’t take offense at their fun, and everyone knew we each were able to destroy any one of and possibly all of them if we chose to.

Klon had installed a beautifully carved, real wooden door at the end of a hallway. The wood was finely grained, sanded, stained and polished. I couldn’t determine what the carving was about, though I thought I saw likenesses in there, things much like Klon. As I stared, trying to pick out individual figures, or determine what the scene depicted, it would become unrecognizably abstract again. The design didn’t actually move, but was simply a masterful carving.

Klon opened the door himself and smiled at each of us in turn, inviting us in with a sweep of his big, hairy arm. His eyes lingered on mine, in mine, for a moment.

“Come,” he said in English, and he walked back into the room, tempering his enormous stride. “I will treat my favorite warriors tonight.”

The food smelled delicious and I didn’t recognize anything.

“Treats from my home,” Klon said.

“You found your world?” I asked.

Klon switched to his language. “Yes. It wasn’t easy getting into the records, but we managed to, and my home is far away. We went there once about…” here he switched to English for my benefit “…five years ago.” Back to Klon-ese. “I purchased that door…”

“It’s gorgeous, Klon,” I said, and I took a moment to translate for the others. Klon continued.

“…and I traded for food, and I have a transport coming here now with more. It is crewed by…” he named a species. They were not his people, who didn’t go into space. My mouth was unable to pronounce the name. “They will enjoy our little enterprise.”

I translated most of that for the others.

“Your species seem cultured, Klon,” I gestured toward the door, “I thought they were somewhat warlike.”

“You thought that because of me. I was somewhat warlike. That’s why they sold me to Spauch. I disrupted the sanctity of my culture. They thought me mad.”

“And were you?” I asked.

“I wanted more than just culture,” he answered. “I wanted action.”

“And now you have it.”

“Yes.”

He gestured and we all sat down on fabulous colorful cushions. A low table stood between us. It had cushioned fabric bumpers. The colorful fabrics reminded me of what I remembered of Middle Eastern cultures on Earth.

Decorating the table, many carved wooden ladels and spoons languished in a variety of fired clay tureens filled with all sorts of goodies, and Klon invited us to fill our deep, wooden bowls. Even though we’d been on strict high carbohydrate, moderate protein diets, complemented with electrolytes and other minerals, food hadn’t been limited, because we easily burned up the fuel. However, this night, we would eat like we’d been starved for weeks. This was a feast.

Klon is a giant hairy beast, there’s no way around that, but I’ll be damned if he didn’t eat like an aristocrat. He didn’t spit food or dribble, nothing ended up in his hair. Astonished, I stared at him, smiling as I interpreted his occasional words for the others. He explained what we were eating.

I couldn’t believe this scene! Everyone busily attacked every dish and said nothing for a while. Once in a while I looked around and chuckled. After a time, Klon started laughing quietly back at me.

When we’d slowed down, Klon himself rose and removed the earthenware tureens and wooden bowls, now empty or nearly so, and easily lifted the entire thick wood table and put it in another room. Carrying a tray with a thick, cut glass decanter and squat tumblers, he rejoined us, and placed this in the middle of the floor. He brought more pillows to us from the corners of the room.

Then he poured us some kind of dark, wood-smoke tasting liquor, and called it ‘brandy’. It looked so dark I thought it might be bathtub brandy. He plunked some type of berries into our glasses.

“Is this from your planet, Klon?’ Buster asked, rolling the dark liquid around in the glass.

“Yes.”

“It’s delicious,” Cherish raved. “The berry gives off just the right amount of sweetness to offset the… “

“… potency. I don’t suppose we could buy some from you to take home with us?” Ravish asked.

Cherish gave her ‘twin’ the stink eye and elbowed her in the ribs.

“Ow,” Ravish moaned, bending over to protect her bruises.

I finished my first drink and ate the berry. Immediately the stupid started intensifying in my brain. I giggled and couldn’t stop. Pretty soon we were all giggling, diaphragms spasming. Even Klon lost control, his giggle a deep, hiccupy growl.

None of us could breathe normally. We started panting and, for me, the colors in the room had all become intensely bright, pulsating slightly. I pointed.

Everyone looked around. Klon grunted as he slowly fell over on his side and lay staring at the decorations.

At one point, I realized I’d seated myself propped up against his middle. I watched his spall crawl up his thick chest, pause on top of his massive upper arm, and migrate down to his barrel of a neck, to rest here. Klon settled a pillow under his head and began to whisper-growl to the spall as he slowly rolled on to his back. It moved to lie across his throat. Sweet nothings? I scooted back more firmly against him.

Cherish and Ravish stood up and explored the room, staring at the decorations, which also pulsated now. Even the wall, ceiling, and floor seemed to be bowing and rolling. Every once in a while one of the sexers would pirouette, then brace herself and look slowly around, eyes wide open. Our pupils had grown enormous. Klon had drugged us with his damn berries and alcohol, or was it the combination that has us spinning?

The big guy plucked one of the berries out of the small bowl he’d brought them to the table in and held it out to the spall. She migrated over until she covered up his entire hand, and when she migrated back to her perch on his throat, the berry had disappeared. She seemed to relax, that is, she flattened out a bit against him. He exhaled and closed his eyes.

I followed his example and closed my eyes, too. The colors continued to pulse inside my mind, and began to slowly swirl. The feeling was similar to having the spins, though I didn’t feel sick. I felt Buster crawl over Klon and lay down behind him, her back to his back. She groped around and grumbled for a pillow. I opened my eyes, grabbed the nearest one, and lobbed the cushion over him toward the general vicinity of her head.

One of the twins fell over. She began hugging pillows, making a big pile around and on top of herself. Then the other tripped on one of the overstuffed cushions and fell gracefully onto the pile. This appeared to me to be happening in slow motion. Cherish and Ravish spent what seemed like an hour burrowing over, under, and between the pillows. I sat and enjoyed the little spectacle.

“Ghee,” I heard my name growled quietly beside me, nearly inside me.

I turned my head. Klon was staring at me. His head was propped up on an oversized pillow. His head was propped up HHHHiFluid-rimmed, puppy dog eyes, somewhat hardened by Klon’s innate intelligence, stared out at me.

“Will you put on a good show?” he asked me.

I smiled. Klon, always the businessman these days.

“A great one.”

“I am glad. I’m greedy to watch you fight again.”

“You and everyone else.”

“Yes.”

“There’s a reason for that.’

“For our greed?”

“Yes. It’s my super-special attractiveness.”

“Yes,” he grunted in agreement.

“It made me a better soldier, better able to deal with the aliens we encountered when we explored space.”

“Yes.”

“But it could have been an accident.”

“Yes?”

“I was designed and built, Klon, not born. These others, too.”

“No.”

“Yes. The combination of species used to create us somehow synergized into the attractiveness everyone detects in us.”

“Yes?”

“It’s been useful.”

“Yes.”

He reached over and moved some of my hair out of my face with one giant, black finger.

“I always knew,” he said quietly.

“You did not.”

“I did, too.”

“Did not.”

“Did too.”

We both laughed. We laughed and laughed, his a deep bass, mine a bit of an alto-soprano. We turned this into a song. We harmonized for a moment. Buster chimed in with a clear soprano. Cherish rolled onto her back, scattered pillows and began beating the floor in rhythm with us. Ravish affected a falsetto, but that cracked us all up and our impromptu quintet collapsed. After another bout of laughter, we all became silent. The murmur of the ship gently vibrated in the material of the floor, lulling us.

Klon’s spall began to snore. For a moment, we all grew silent and focused, trying to locate the sound. Then we all cracked up again. She woke with a snort, and bunched up. Klon grumbled a laugh and stroked her gently until she flattened out again.

 

 

I woke up because Lukan was standing just inside the closed door, speaking to us in dulcet tones.

“Too much lorphch, Klon,” he chided quietly, “shame on you.”

“They have a week to sweat the poison out,” Klon rumbled.

“Ladies,” Lukan said, “you’re going to practice in the arena today. Get up and get moving. You’ve got to get the dimensions of the arena into your muscle memories and expand your routines to fill the space.”

From behind Klon, I heard Buster sigh and, in a strangled way, groan, “Oh, for fuck’s sake.”

I sat up and my breathing was arrested by the stiff agony in my lower back. Pillows moved on the floor. Cherish and Ravish made tentative movements in front of me. The rumble of Klon’s laughter echoed through his chest into my back.

I turned to watch him laugh at us.

The spall had apparently found someplace else to recover.

[][Chapter Fifteen
Really Big Show]

 

 

We spent two days and a night in our respective abodes resting our weary bones, soaking in hot baths, loading up on carbohydrates, hydrating, stretching, massaging out the cramps and sore spots, and sleeping.

On the day of the fight, Cherish, Ravish, Buster, myself, and Jack gathered on the rooftop of my building. A smiling, whistling Tem flew us to the Trakennad Dor.

Well-wishers in shuttles all along the route had rigged up lighted messages and moving cartoons on their ship hulls, creating a fan-filled, color-lighted gauntlet all the way.

Tem landed the Maiden Faire quickly but gently. The air cycled, the hatches opened, and fighters and ship personnel streamed into the dock.

What a bizarre thing to be surrounded by such a huge, unrestrained crush of creatures, and scary, too! For a moment, fear seized me. Creatures touched us, and claws flashed all around. Alien lips, if they had them, stretched over sharp teeth, which most possessed, and everyone was grinning and trying to talk to us.

Nok took point and Kek made like a caboose as we plowed slowly through the mass of alien flesh. The humidity and heat from the bodies seemed excessive, almost unbearable. The ventilation had to be working hard, but I couldn’t hear it, or much of anything else for all the loud noise.

The corridors seemed to go on and on. I knew we were headed to the medical unit, which was in the same place it had always been. I trusted Nok to lead the way. Though he couldn’t see where he was going, he’d lived on this ship for many decades. Still, almost everyone was taller than he.

I started to wonder if we’d ever reach our destination. Every few moments, one or the other of the gals would catch my eyes and make a face. At first, they panicked, as I did. Later, less so, and even later, our moods crawled into frustrated anxiety.

I could feel the flesh of my arm bruising in a hand-shape where Jack gripped me. I hadn’t realized he was that strong. It was a revelation of how gentle he’d always been with me.

Liquid welled in my eyes; I blinked rapidly. I hadn’t realized how emotional this experience would be for me, and wished someone had prepared me, but who could have? It was a unique experience. I ducked my head and rubbed my eyes, trying to make my actions seem like the glare of the lights bothered me. I wondered if anyone even noticed.

We struggled through, getting slowly closer to the med unit. People continuously touched me, reaching forward through the crowd as far as their arms and whatevers would extend. This was oddly sensual. I tried not to react, but I wanted the touching to stop. The exasperation on Buster’s, Cherish’s, and Ravish’s faces told me their story was the same as mine. If we ever did this again, different arrangements would have to be made.

I could see the closed entrance to the clinic. Deep phalanxes of guards stood before the doors. I yelled to Nok that we’d almost made it. No one heard me. I shut my eyes and stopped my brain, thinking of darkness and silence, letting Jack drag me through the guards to the hatch. The door opened to receive us and closed out the noise behind. The silence hit us like a brick.

“Jesus Christ!” Buster gasped.

“That was fucking awful,” Cherish said.

“Why didn’t they warn us, God damn it?” Ravish demanded. I found it funny that they had all reverted to Earth cuss words.

I sat on the nearest metal exam table. I was suddenly cold, but sweating hard.

Jack’s grip loosened but he put both of his hands on my shoulders and stood in front of me, bracing me. His broad chest, blue buttons, and light blue Faire cotton shirt blocked my view. Several grey chest hairs curled out of his very straight gig line. Even so, he was looking sharp tonight.

I guess the touching had gotten to me. I studied his face. He seemed concerned, which puzzled me. He wiped the sweat off my face with his right hand, still holding one of my shoulders with his left.

I sat up straight and shook myself. Nok and Kek had apparently herded Buster, Cherish, and Ravish onto other exam tables. The alien medics were closing in on us. Strangely, I began to remember all the times I’d been attended to by them, not too unkindly, but efficiently, and I flinched. Jack moved in closer to me and waved them off. I spotted Doc.

I took a deep breath. “It’s okay, Jack, I’m okay,” I said. He stared at me like he didn’t believe a word of it, but he backed off a foot and let a medic squeeze through. The same kind of creature that had treated me so long ago took my pulse and blood pressure, told me to breathe slowly and deeply, peered into my eyes with a lighted instrument, made me open my mouth, prodded my ribs, spine, head, manipulated the large joints, nodded, and moved away.

Doc stepped forward. “Gina, you’re sweating like you been in a sauna,” he stated, grabbing my wrist. He watched his old fashioned timepiece.

“I didn’t expect a gauntlet.”

“They love you. Did anyone hurt you?”

“No.” Only Jack.

“You seem okay. Are you okay?”

‘Yeah. I’m fine, Doc, thanks.”

He moved over to Ravish and proceeded to examine and question each of them quickly when the medics were finished.

A burst of noise assailed us when Lukan entered, which ended when a guard used the biosenspad to slam shut the door. Lukan queried the head medic and nodded. “Okay, fighters, I’m going to take you out the rear exit and down to a pen, er, room, where you can rest for a few moments. Gliton is revving up the crowd. Are you all ready for this?”

“Are more people out there,” Cherish asked nervously, almost aggressively, nodding at the rear hatch.

“No. We kept them out in the main corridors.”

We all exhaled, glanced at each other, and laughed a bit.

We followed Lucan toward the exit. He turned around before opening the hatch. “Gentlemen, this is as far as you go. The guards out front will take you to Klon’s box.”

Jack kissed me soundly on the lips and turned away before I even registered the kiss. His back muscles were all bunched up. I was suddenly very hot for him. What the hell?

Kek and Nok caught my eye. They stood together at the first door, not exactly smiling. How odd. If I didn’t know better, I’d say they seemed anxious. All my boys were worried for me, which made me suddenly angry.

Damn them! At a time like this, too, they couldn’t just be happy and relaxed and supportive? This was only another fight, for cryin’ in the soup, and not exactly a death match, like every other one I’d ever had. Come on already!

While I thought such thoughts, we followed Lukan down a narrow corridor, single file. I led from behind him. I turned my profile to the gals behind me and asked, “Are any of you feeling emotional?”

“Yeah. I thought it was just me,” Ravish said.

“Me, too.” Cherish agreed. “Knowing you’re freaking out makes me feel better.”

That made me laugh.

“I didn’t like the touching,” Buster said, “At all.”

“No, me neither,” I agreed.

“I haven’t been touched in decades,” Buster declared.

“We may be sexers, but we don’t get touched,” Ravish snarled.

“Well, I liked that part,” Cherish lied.

We chuckled at that, releasing some tension. Even Lukan turned back and laughed. He came to a hatch, which he opened and stepped through. “You’ll all be fine. There’s nobody dangerous in the crowd, just adoring, well-behaved fans. I will leave you here now. There’s some water and the toilets, and mats on the floor. Stretch, warm up, do whatever you need to do. I’ll be back in about twenty minutes, ship time.”

We jumped, stretched, air boxed, and ran in place to get the anxiety out and limber up.

Lukan took more like forty minutes to come back and say, “Come, I’ll take you ringside.”

We left the small mat room and took several narrow back corridors to a kind of staging area where the big holding pens used to be, up close to the arena. The area had been completely remodeled, and I was grateful. I’d spent decades in those rancid holding pens in the bad old days. Klon and his buddies had done a good job.

We could see the crowd through a mirrored wall. They waited for us, standing room only. I wondered if Klon was breaking some laws by letting them pack themselves in like that. Then again, what laws? Aliens wet-mopped the enormous mat, then ran dry mops over the surface. The process took only five minutes because there were so many of them. The restless crowd, once the cleanup crew left, settled down. Quiet descended. Everyone waited.

“You each will enter from different sides of the arena. Ghee, you stay here. The rest of you follow me.” The huge, furry, white bat led Buster, Cherish, and Ravish out yet another door.

The rear door clicked open and I turned. I was the only one in the big room when Klon came in.

“Ready?” he grumbled.

“Yes, Klon,” I smiled.

“You promised me a good show,” he growled.

“Would I give you anything less?”

“If you do, then next it will be you and me out there.”

I wasn’t sure if he was kidding, but I winked at him, walked over, and gave him a big hug.

Gliton, the Ringmaster, paced in the arena, singing my praises. He then introduced Buster, Cherish, and Ravish one-by-one. They entered from different parts of the ring as their names were called, preening and cavorting gymnastically for the crowd, causing an immediate roar. The crowd sustained the cheering. Gliton had to yell his effusive praise at the overhead pickups.

He shouted, “GHEEEEE-NYYYYYE!” and swung his arm around in my direction.

Klon said quietly, for Klon, “Show time.”

The hatch clanged open, making the same sound the gates had always made. My cells vibrated madly. Every atom of my being pulsed. Glands ejaculated. My pits and crotch dampened as sweat rolled down my scalp. I ran out into the ring, right out to the center. The roar of the crowd was so loud I could hear nothing, not even my own breathing.

Just like old times.

I showed myself to the world, many worlds, actually. The show was being beamed out to paying audiences far and wide.

I raised my arms and made a slow, tight circle in the middle of all that color and light and sound while the others circled near the walls and slowly closed in on me. The PA system repeated over and over, “Please do not stomp.” Unfortunately, the announcements created a rhythm the audience liked, but the stomping slowly tapered off. Instead, the spectators started to clap. Voices here and there yelled, “Fight!”

Cherish, Ravish, Buster and circled closer. I continued to preen like I didn’t care.

”Fight! Fight! Fight! Fight! Fight!”

Closer.

“Fight! Fight! Fight!”

Closer.

“Kill! Fight! Kill! Kill!

Close enough. A little skirmish on the side – Buster and Cherish throwing roundhouses at each other. Ravish circled in, wrapped a leg around Buster’s long limbs and dumped her on the mat, rolled away, stood, and raised her arms to the crowd. Cherish played the crowd as well, pumping her fists in the air, and using the hand signals we’d practiced to demean Buster, who was shaking her head and standing up from the floor. She sprinted the short distance to Ravish and tackled her. They fought like alley cats, quick blows, lots of snarling and rolling around gripped together. Cherish moved away from them and came toward me. I started toward her, arms out, making myself as big as possible, and she backed off.

The crowd ate it up. I was the undefeated Queen of the Ring. No one could best me. Only fools would try.

We were no fools. We knew how to put on one hell of a show.

The big noise obscured individual screaming and clapping and I was deafened. Buster cleared herself from Ravish’s embrace by throwing her over, and glare at me. We’d decided she’d be the prime aggressor against me. She was the fittest looking among us, and was now, after all our hard work, looking even more aggressively fierce and strong. Her muscles were flat and hard, and she’d bulked up more than the rest of us, even though we were all genetically long and lean looking. Buster had had more to work with, initially.

Ravish and Cherish consoled each other with exaggerated expressions, but then got into a sissy-looking, hair-pulling squabble while Buster circled me. I ignored her. She wasn’t worth noticing. She circled closer. I looked at the crowd, pointed at her and laughed. A lot of Faire cotton was being worn out there; some of our patented dye hues caught my eye.

Buster charged. I did a series of back layouts out of her way, which I pulled of nicely. I landed the fifth one almost standing, one hand down, knees bent to lessen the jolt to my spine and knees. She changed direction quickly and came at me again. Again, I evaded her. We were super fast. She course corrected and grabbed my hair. Cherish’s and Ravish’s squabbled had escalated to volleys of punches and jabs, but they paused to watch us. All part of the act. I reached up and pulled Buster’s thumb back and her hand released my hair. She kicked at me. I released her thumb and she backed off.

Ravish ran up from behind and jumped onto Buster’s back, wrapped her long legs around Buster’s torso, trapping her left arm, and tried to throw a strangling arm around her neck. No good. Buster blocked Ravish’s arm with her free right, coming up on the inside and pushing out. They struggled.

Cherish rushed me from behind as I watched the other two. I had time to see Buster squat and leap high in to the air, pushing back enough to land on Ravish when they came down. That was gonna hurt. The already loud crowd cheered.

Cherish ran up and squared herself as I turned toward her, and she clocked me on my left cheek. Lightening explode in my face. I stumbled sideways. My vision fuzzed. She backed off and teased the crowd, her arms raised. I shook the blow off in an obvious way for the crowd’s pleasure, and then sped in like a hawk after a dove. My arms spread wide, I crushed my fists into her on either side of her rib cage. She folded as I leaped over her, putting my foot on her back and knocking her flat, face down. I landed standing and preened for the crowd.

Both Buster and I were up and milking it, while both Ravish and Cherish rolled on the ground in apparent pain and embarrassment. So I rushed Buster, but stopped on a dime and moved sideways, faking her out. She’d contracted and readied for the tackle, I laughed and pointed at her. The crowd roared. Buster appeared foolish for a second, and angry, then really angry, and she rushed me. She cocked back her right fist as she ran but at the last minute she squatted on her left leg and jumped. Her right leg whipped toward my head. I jumped up and caught it, trapping the limb against my left rib cage. Damn. That hurt every time. The shock of her blow rocked through my organs. Briefly I mused, this used to be normal.

I landed on my feet, she on her left foot. We caught each others’ eyes. I squatted and jumped into a left aerial, flipping over her trapped leg. I should have wrenched her leg out of the socket but she was ready for me. She flipped a right aerial and followed me though. We both landed in the same pose, her right leg still trapped under my left arm. We did it again. The kinetic movement in the crowd infected us. This time as we landed she bounced up off her left leg and kicked me hard in the upper right chest. I loosened my grip on her right leg; she tried to yank it back. I grabbed her ankle with both hands and held on, and got slammed from behind by Ravish.

I landed face forward on the mat. Buster had moved. Ravish straddled me and pummeled my kidneys from behind, but kept her knees loose around my thighs. I flipped over, sat up, and grabbed her by the throat.

Buster and Cherish were going at it hammer and tongs to my left. Ravish tried to break my grip. I put the sole of my left foot on the side of her head, using it and my arms to slam her to the side. Getting my feet under me, still gripping her throat, I squatted and leaned back, picked her up, and threw her a good ten feet to my left. She rolled and flopped to a stop as if unconscious. That was such a convincing performance I almost believed she was out cold, but we’d practiced it many times. She was good.

I turned to check out Buster and Cherish. I breathed deeply, getting control. Out of the corner of my eye I noticed Klon. He had entered the arena and was leaning against the wall just inside the ring, his arms crossed. He was smiling.

I was pretty sure I’d never seen him smile quite like that before.

[][Chapter Sixteen
A Fine Finale]

 

 

His gaze held me still for a moment while I forgot what I was supposed to do. He grinned a bit more wickedly, and suddenly I was flailing mid-air. Cherish to my right and Buster at my left had joined forces. One had swept my feet out from under me and both had gripped me under each arm. As my toes reconnected with the ground, they commenced attempting to pull my arms off.

This was a tough trick to pull off. They had to pull hard enough away from each other with me in the middle to make it look real, but not actually injure me. I had to trust them not to get too excited and tear my muscles.

I’m pleased to report they succeeded admirably. We’d stretched me repeatedly in practice in this pose. I grimace in “agony” while the crowd watched my chest and back muscles lengthen, and lengthen, and…

I threw my head back and howled, even though the crowd couldn’t hear me. Out of the corner of my right eye I saw Ravish “coming to”. She put her palms on the mat and pushed herself up, collapsed, and rolled onto her back. She took a few deep breaths, her chest rising and falling. Rolling onto her side, she curled her legs under her, pushed herself onto her shins, and lurched to her feet, pretending to stagger for a few seconds. Buster and Ravish had been kicking at each other for a minute or so, sometimes letting the tension off my arms, which I kept attempting to take advantage of. Then they’d “notice” and pull apart again, only to start kicking at each other again.

Ravish spun around, saw us, grinned maniacally, and charged. Her tackle launched Buster twenty feet in front of me, with Ravish hanging on. They’d begun to inflict blunt-force trauma on each other before they even stopped rolling.

When Buster had let go of me, I was sent hurling into Cherish, who tried to scramble out of my path, but was unsuccessful. I crashed into her and she fell, trapped by my body on her legs. She tried to kick and struggle free. I wrapped my arms around her thighs, with my face ending up in her crotch.

I didn’t think the noise of the crowd could get any louder, but it did!

Cherish pushed herself away using her arms, her sweaty palms leaving streaks on the mat as they slipped toward me. I gripped her thighs with my left arm and grabbed at her left hand a couple of times with my right. We seemed to be in a kind of standoff, or layoff, maybe, but then she began to make a kind of swimming motion with her lower body – like a mermaid’s. She tried to kick me off.

Cherish had done a lot of strengthening of her abs, obliques, and back muscles to enable her to get a lot of motion into this move, and it looked great. Her knees kept bashing my chest though, not so great. As we’d practiced, I lost my grip, and then reattached myself to her shins, and then her knees were beating my face. Under my chest, the soles of her feet planted on the floor, her knees pushed up, she levered herself up on bent arms, and flick! I went flying into the air, not much altitude, but enough to allow her to pull herself out from under me. I landed – oof! – on my face and upper chest, using my palms to cushion the blow.

A little blood was flowing from my nose as I stood up. I used my forearm to wipe it away and stood blinking tears out of my eyes.

While we’d been clinched Buster and Ravish had exhausted themselves as well, so we all stood still, eyeing each other, breathing hard, rubbing bruises and wiping away snot, tears, sweat, and blood.

The crowd didn’t like that much. The stomping began again, here and there at first, then more joined in and it became louder.

Gliton came on the mic again and his voice boomed above us. “Ladies and Gentlemen, stomping is not allowed. Please stop or this fight will be ended.”

We’d choreographed this, too. We’d realized at this point we’d need to rest and catch our breath after the initial excitement, so fifteen plants in the audience – fighters who had the night off – incited the stamping.

As Cherish, Ravish, Buster, and I breathed, sweat, bled, and blew snot out of our noses, Gliton got the crowd under control. It took almost five minutes. By the time the crowd had calmed down, we were feeling chilled. Klon seemed to have left the arena.

Once again we began to circle each other warily. I felt several slippery wet spots under my feet. The mat would get more dangerous for us as the fight continued because of them. I was looking down at the mat and circling toward the outer areas of the ring. The other three were slowly closing in on me across the wet patches in the middle. They were moving closer together as they walked. The arena wall was coming closer to me. Hmmm.

The crowd hummed in anticipation.

Buster, Cherish, and Ravish were glancing at each other, and appeared to come to a decision.

I’d backed up against the wall, and pushed myself off of it, “surprised”, as if I’d forgotten how to fight in this space.

The audience members directly above me were leaning over the barrier, yelling and waving at me.

I moved along the wall to my right. The others changed course to their left. Oh boy! Three on one! The spectators roared as they recognized the dynamic.

I smiled. I pumped my fists in the air. I beckoned my “foes” with my hands. I pounded one fist into the other palm. I curled my arms inward and down, fists toward each other, and pumped up my chest.

They all took off at once and charged. I ran toward them.

Kablam! It could have been suicide in the old days.

Arms flailing, legs kicking, this was a free-for-all. I punched Buster on the cheek. Cherish slugged me in the kidney. I swept Ravish’s feet out from under her, Buster and Cherish piled on me. I went to my knee, Cherish wrapped her arm around my throat.

The crowd berserked.

Ravish, still on the ground, socked the back of Buster’s standing leg, dumping her to her knee. Buster’s arms and kicking leg followed her down. On hand and knees, she made a good prop for me. I placed both hands on her back and pushed myself up and backwards in toward Cherish. She clung to my neck. On my feet, I reached back, grabbed her hair, bent forward, and pulled her over the top of me, dumping her onto Buster, who was trying to stand. They both rolled into Ravish, who had managed to stand, but now fell on her butt.

I jumped into the pile and we rolled around, flailing at each other. After a few minutes, Ravish and Cherish paired off, as Buster and I did the same, punching and kicking, grabbing and rolling to separate our pairs from each other. When we were about eight feet apart, Cherish stood up, hands filled with Ravish’s hair, Ravish’s hand gripping her wrists, and Cherish spun her around, letting go so that her “sister” careened in to Buster and me just as we got our feet under us once again. We three went flying and flopping down the mat. I rolled free of the tangle and stood.

Cherish was running and boof! Her shoulder slammed into my side and we flew apart from the others. This time she landed with her face in my crotch. Ah, the irony! More huge noise erupted from above us.

On my back, I surveyed the crowd: all the beautifully colored clothes, all the lunacy in the faces, all the spilled food, drinks, and containers on the dome. The sprinklers came on and water ran from the middle to the sides above me, washing the mess they’d made into the trough around the ring walls, below the spectators. For a moment, they couldn’t see us clearly. We relaxed, breathed, kept our places, and waited for the sprayers to cease.

When the dome cleared, we were back at it. We performed a mixed martial arts rally that lasted about half an hour. We’d practiced it so long it felt like slow-motion to us, but the crowd seemed to be experiencing something like a very long orgasm. We kicked and punched and slapped and blocked, and tried to apply a variety of holds and locks on each other. Part of the time it was like a class in how to apply and break away, but we were so fast, the audience was mesmerized.

Every so often a hold would last just long enough for the holdee to suck in a few deep breaths and relax some tight muscles. In these instances, we had the breakaways all timed in, but this part of the show was more freeform than choreographed. In the crowd were a lot of fighters and regular watchers, even so, we’d made our movements so complicated and fast, they seemed to respond positively to this. They were so engrossed for a while I was able to hear the four of us breathing and grunting, and blows landing.

While we duked it out, I wondered how Jack was doing. Was he enjoying it or having flashbacks? He’d only seen me fight twice, and I recalled that before the first battle of mine that he’d witnessed, he’d lost one of his teammates, Sullivan McTiernan. They’d called him “Sully”, and had encouraged him and cheered him on until a giant orange gelatinous blob had devoured him. The beast then took his victory laps, Sully visibly being digested inside of it.[7]

An elbow was coming in fast at my sore nose and I jerked my head to the left just in time to take the blow on my split cheek.

No worries, we were almost finished with this scuffle and then we’d start our finale.

We’d choreographed a long finale. They’d be talking about us and watching recordings for centuries.

We all pulled apart and breathed while the audience rested as well. This was kind of like halftime, although we were almost fifteen minutes into hour two.

In the old days, I didn’t take breathers. Pretty much whoever ran out of stamina first lost the advantage and was killed by its opponent. In my fights, mine was always better. No killing here today, but no tapping out, either. We’d been able to provide a fast, and for the most part, continuous show.

Our audience was drinking, snacking, talking, and waiting. They seemed satisfied, but we weren’t finished yet.

We’d moved out into four “corners” and were circling the arena. We’d planned to rest and wait until the spectators became restless. They seemed to be giving us plenty of time to recuperate, as if they knew the battle to come would be worth the wait. It sort of reminded me of the kind of lull in fireworks displays before the grand finale during my time on Earth.

They gave us about five minutes, and then the noise level began to rise. Shouts of “Fight!” came from here and there, nothing crucial yet. We let them wait. Pockets of clapping, a few thrown cups, and a little stamping began.

The noise picked up some more; more shouting, clapping and stomping occurred.

Gliton broke in momentarily through the com system and admonished the stampers, which quieted them briefly, but not for long. They were getting impatient.

We circled closer and began to verbally and physically taunt one another.

More audience members were yelling, “Fight!”, and they were starting to coordinate in to a chant.

Our gestures became more insulting, lewd, and lascivious.

The clapping and yelling increased.

We were close enough to run and kick out at each other, but still we didn’t fully engage.

The chanting grew in volume and speed, “Fight! Fight! Fight! Fight!”

A scuffle broke out to my left; Buster and Cherish grappling, trying to apply locks and holds on each other, neither succeeding. They got the crowd’s attention, but then they backed off. As I watched, Ravish snuck in on my right. I turned just in time to block and slip away from her flying kick. I pushed her leg away from me to knock her off balance and get a little momentum for my side stepping. She landed awkwardly but managed to roll out of it and stand up. She wobbled for just a second and then walked toward me. I stood my ground and watched Buster grab both of Cherish’s forearms.

Ravish chose to throw a punch, which I squatted under. She continued to spin and attempted to knock me in the head with her elbow. I dropped to the ground to grab both of her legs between mine. She struggle, but fell.

Buster rolled out of the arm bar throw Cherish had performed masterfully on her, and Buster and Ravish managed to collide.

Of course, this “angered’ them both and they began grabbing, kicking and spinning around each other on the floor. Their limbs moved so fast it was hard to see what was going on, and we’d had a challenge during practice coming up with new moves for them, but we had.

I stood and looked at Cherish, who smiled at me and gave me a thumbs-up. Her leotard and tights were darkened by sweat and blood. I looked down at myself and realized I was in the same condition. I looked up and she was nodding and giving me the “come on” hands sign. So I did.

I walked right up to her and threw a punch, which she took on the jaw, and then she threw one at me. My arms didn’t seem to want to respond correctly, so I ended up blocking it with my forehead. Ouch. She was tired, too, so, thankfully, it wasn’t a full strength blow. She jabbed; I jabbed. Suddenly she spun and dropped, sweeping my legs out from under me. As I was falling, she pushed herself upright on the one leg, caught one of my legs, and began to swing me around in a circle.

For a lazy sexer she sure was strong. She and Ravish had kept in shape by sparring every day on the Anything Goes, and they had taught classes, too.

Though we were all pretty amazing, and could do things no human could do, I’d found myself the weakest of the bunch. Still, I was the headliner, and I’d spent decades fighting aliens, so I knew many tricks. But we’d decided to let the others get a few moves in on me, so when she let go, I flew through the air and hit the arena wall with a resounding thud, which presented as a bit of vibration in the wall, to the thrill of the fans sitting in that section. Once again, their cheering was so loud I couldn’t hear a thing.

I’d flown a long way, so the impact wasn’t terrible, and I’d maneuvered myself to hit the wall flat on my back, spreading out the force of impact. Still, I felt some bruising occur at the back of my head and heels, and behind my shoulder blades. I felt some crunching as my low back straightened against the wall. Crepitus. Even the flesh surrounding carbon-fiber spines makes that sound. I flopped to the floor and played unconscious while I watched Cherish and Ravish attack Buster through narrow slits between my eyelids.

They were wailing on each other. It looked like a drunken bar fight that went on and on. Blows really landed; I could see their flesh give. The concentration on their faces was intense. The alertness, the calculations were inhuman. They were all in the moment, slugging away like boxers, when Buster suddenly straightened up like a board and fell backwards.

Uh, oh. That wasn’t part of our program. Shit!

The choreography was broken. We’d have to improvise, now, until we could get back into it.

Cherish and Ravish continued boxing while watching Buster when they could. I watched their eyes sliding around to look at her. I continued to play dead, but began to move slightly – “coming to”.

Their boxing turned into kick boxing, as if their arms had grown tired and needed a break.

I pretended to push myself up on my arms and collapse. Buster still hadn’t moved. She’d really gotten clocked.

I rolled onto my side, stuck my legs out, and pushed myself into a seated position, facing the wall. I pretended not to know where I was. I slowly looked up the wall until I saw the spectators. They were screaming at me.

At this point Ravish was supposed to be coming up behind me but I knew that wasn’t going to happen. She was still engaged with Cherish, and my friends up the wall weren’t pointing. So I moved to my left and onto my shins to stretch my knees, facing the others.

Buster was finally moving. She’d rolled onto her side.

Cherish and Ravish were doing some complicated stuff to each other. I marveled at their stamina, but they were blowing hard.

I stood up and walked, watching Buster. She was on her hands and knees, her head hanging. She sat back and looked around. The other two were behind her. She turned her head to look at me and then she stood up.

She was hardly wobbling at all. She flexed and stretched a bit and then began to dance, giving me the same “come on” hands sign Cherish had a while ago. So we stumbled toward each other and picked up fighting right at the point in the choreography where we should have been at that moment, just in a different place in the ring.

It was magical. Near the end, we were all executing tricky moves in the center of the ring, switching partners and exchanging maneuvers like you see in the best fight movies; a surprising number of which have survived the fall of Earth.

Suddenly the loud, synthetic tone filled the stadium, and our performance ended.

The entire crowd was on its feet, screaming and clapping. We stood in a line, our mouths hanging open, and gasped and sweat and bled.

We slowly rotated so we could face everyone in the audience. We could feel the energy of the shaking ship coming up through the floor into our bare feet. Even the air was vibrating.

Screens above our audience showed creatures on many different ships and planets doing the multitude of things they did to show their appreciation of us. One screen showed a close up of all our faces as we slowly turned. We looked terrible.

As I turned I saw on one screen my three boys, and Klon and Lukan looking down at us. Klon looked satisfied. Lukan, Kek, and Nok looked thrilled and all smiled widely. And Jack, poor Jack, looked proud and scared, and he was crying. So, of course, my stomach clenched, my throat tightened, and then I was crying, too.

Of course, this just made it harder for me to breathe, damnit.

[][Chapter Seventeen
Return to Earth]

 

 

My financial take from our fight had been colossal. I was even able to buy some of Buster’s most precious and useful materials and stash them in my own vault.

Buster the construct, the lifelong soldier and former slave, became a guest headliner on the Trakennad Dor, and a socialite. She bought a lovely home on the West coast of this continent, and was working on a project she was being obscenely secretive about. As befit her status, she had acquired many cats. The Mek adored her.

Cherish and Ravish went back to their ersatz family on the Anything Goes. Kitty has even allowed them to become part owners. They’ll continue to service clients, after all, one must do something with one’s time.

The deputies of the computer forensic sciences division went over Kitty’s system like mosquitoes extracting blood. The Nameloids, after extensive evaluation, proved to have several exploitable physical and psychological peculiarities. A plan was derived.

Among other things, Nameloids liked to clean things up, because they’re highly susceptible to several common toxins, mercury being one. They were hazardous materials specialists extraordinaire, and presumably, they’d developed uses or markets for the materials they stole.

The docs discovered their weakness by examining the physiological profiles Kitty had collected to make the sexbots, and from her films of the creatures themselves.

Hides of thick, elephant-like skin protect most of their volume, but not all. Several potential lethal entryways, namely the eyes, and some peculiar pits which ran vertically along their sides under the armpits, were especially vulnerable. The doctors thought these had something to do with respiration. The Nams don’t have noses, unfortunately.

Ammunition dealers went old school and created copper jacketed, hollow point, shattering rounds. They filled the slugs with mercury and other common toxins.

It seemed the enemy could be easily blinded by ultraviolet light. The scientists decided the sun in their home system must be weak, or perhaps the light was reflected and they had no nearby star. The creatures’ ocular receptors exhibited nearly invisible shields, which were not natural to their biology, and shimmered slightly on the recordings when filmed from certain angles. The scientist somehow determined what the shields were made of, something about how the shields reflected light and therefore what they protected against. These protective devices projected electronically from a button adhering to their skin over a prominent bone in the forehead.

Our soldiers mounted ultraviolet light projectors, each with their own minute power source, on their weapons above the scopes, and also sewed them onto webbed, adjustable vests which the soldiers wore on their torsos over their other gear. The combination of signal disrupters and ultraviolet beams would blind the Nameloids. Eye shields, of course, were designed for the soldiers’ protection. Theirs didn’t depend on electronic signals, so the disruption devices would have no effect on them. Humans suffer eye damage from UV light as well, especially the weaponized version.

During the design of this equipment, a group of five soldiers were sent to me repeatedly to make sure the equipment functioned well, especially the vest. We needed to make sure the soldier’s were able to move without restrictions while wearing the mesh harness. Also, they needed to be able to get at the things they carried under the webbing.

Since I was familiar with the ways in which many different species fight, the defense department asked me to help, which made me feel good.

We started in the gym, and while running through even the most basic movements, it became clear the webbing wasn’t fine enough. Thumbs and fingers kept getting caught in it, destroying the soldiers’ ability to get their hands on weapons and whatever else they would be carrying and might need. We even had a few injuries. Different webbing was sourced.

We also found that the vests needed to be redesigned because they not only blocked access to weapons, but in several cases, on the men with built up shoulders, they cut into armpits.

You would think after all these centuries the military would have these kinds of things figured out, but apparently, this is not the case, because humans keep getting taller; especially the ones who are born and raised and otherwise spend a lot of time in space.

I didn’t know if the Nameloids were fighters, or how they’d fight, so I couldn’t try to mimic them. The ones I’d seen looked large and clumsy, but presumable those weren’t soldiers. Anyway, I had a lot of fun grabbing soldiers by their vests and tossing them around the mat room. Discussions ensued. It was just too easy to grab those vests and slingshot the poor devils.

In the end, they solved the problem by ditching the vests, bonding the ultraviolet light emitters onto patches, and having the soldiers sew them directly onto their combat uniforms in a specified pattern.

After all was said and done I reflected on the process and wondered why the military hadn’t started with the patches instead of using the webbing? Well, hindsight is often twenty-twenty. I didn’t say anything. Maybe they thought it would be easier to issue the webbing with the emitters properly placed and already attached than to give the soldiers the responsibility of getting the patches sewn on right, or maybe some other consideration was in effect, I just didn’t know.

Anyway, for a short while, a lot of seamsters and seamstresses made extra TanNotes by sewing for the soldiers. Even members of the Faire textile trade got in on the job. The military made sure the sewers on both Faire and KekTan received the diagrams showing how and where to sew the damn things on.

Kitty revealed the information about eight heavily armored ships the Nameloids had put in orbit around Earth. After they’d negotiated the contracts for service, she’d been instructed by them to put the Anything Goes in orbit between these vessels and the planet while conducting business.

The human military had done a good job of beefing up its ranks in the decade since the pox had taken so many, encouraging the Mek and other protected planet members to join and serve, and most of the Odok ships were out of dry dock. They were fully manned and mekked and had been patrolling the invisible borders of the Galactic Union, protecting the planets and people within.

Usually without much to do except routine boring patrols, the soldiers grew excited about their prospects.

It was generally acknowledged that the marines would bounce in first to take out the Nam ships in orbit, and destroy any defenses on the planet which might be capable of shooting into space at incomers. Plenty of ingress points for our Odok vessels existed in Earth’s space, and the Nams would be taken by surprise.

Secondly, several ships working in precise formations would encircle the Earth, following night around the planet. They’d direct electromagnetic transmitter disrupters toward the planet’s surface. Nam electronics, including their eye shields, would fail; then those ships would be bounced out.

The next team would beam wide swaths of the UV light down onto the surface, blinding the aliens. After this, hundreds of thousands of fighters would land to take the big cities. The Nams didn’t seem to like the countryside much, only small work groups went outside of their cities, Kitty reported.

These assaults would occur during the busiest times of the Nameloids’ day, which Kitty said was between 8 PM and 12 AM, Earthtime.

The Mek pilots and infantry were pumped. All the ships stolen from Trakennad Dor when we slaves had made our escape[8] were to be used, along with the Odok fighters. The Mek were eager to kill Nameloids for us, since humans had enabled them to live and thrive as free kin on their very own planet.

This encompassed my interpretation of what I was able to glean of their plans; soldiers don’t talk about freely. Loose lips sink ships, you understand, but there’s this, sort of, osmosis of information…

Further details escaped me. Maybe I had the gross picture correct, or perhaps not. Who knew what was what? Not I. I’m just an ignorant civilian; an ignorant civilian with lots of Very Important Friends who are certain I can keep my mouth shut, and who sometimes even ask my opinion. I am, after all, a very old, extremely experience alien killer, and supposedly, a long time ago, I’d been a soldier. I remind them, when necessary, that those memories are long gone. To this, they say, “Once a soldier, always a soldier.” My opinions are respected, which is pleasant enough.

I am such a shameless fraud.

Unlike previous military leaders, today’s commanders wanted as few casualties as possible. Soldiers were expensively trained specialists, and they and their costly equipment couldn’t be wasted uselessly on battlefields. The ancient practice of throwing overwhelming numbers of soldiers and billions of dollars worth of equipment at the enemy, I’m pleased to say, went out in the years following the Middle Eastern wars in the early twenty-first century.

After the Western World regained its senses, enough people realized the ends hadn’t justified the means; too many civilians and soldiers had been killed and maimed, too many businesses, communities, and historic sites were demolished, and too many enemies had been made and perpetuated through memories and stories of atrocities passed down through families and friends. Openly acknowledging, in the following decades, that certain types of political leaders, soldiers, and groups of soldiers within armies will always commit atrocities – there’s no way around this – had the effect of causing the acceptance of war and other types of interference, to wane. Too little cooperation and good will had been created.

Throughout the many wars and other manipulations characterizing Earth’s various countries’ behaviors, corrupt leaders, whom the people hated, had been chosen and propped up in many places. They did not work for their constituents building roads, housing and other buildings, supporting food production, transportation, sewage removal and treatment, delivery of clean water, electricity, and the means of heating and cooling buildings. Instead, they filled their own and their families’ and friends’ bank coffers. Same old story repeated endlessly. Tolerance for this kind of deceit and manipulation, and corruption diminished.

We’d finally learned. We harnessed our technology and massacred fewer and fewer soldiers and civilians. We subdued our own lusts for massive destruction.

We built coalitions instead of competitions, leaving cultures, communities, and families intact. We suppressed greed and excessive accumulation. Humanity’s goals became providing every human with adequate food, shelter, clean water, and cooperative work. We strove to provide everyone with what we all needed, not to deprive others for our own selfish enrichment. The result of all this sensibility – worldwide crime and terrorism plummeted and all groups benefited. This is what I had learned during the past decade by examining the human history that occurred after my death on Earth in 2008, before I mysteriously began finding myself resurrecting other creatures bodies and living their lives.[9]

But this particular war would include massive casualties. All the Nameloids would die. Many soldiers would, too, despite precautions. The Nams must have endured attacks before. After all, they went around stealing entire planets, which was why they’d evolved the disease infection tactic to devastate any probable opposition. They’d teased out deadly diseases from our history and retrieved samples, possibly from corrupted workers at our own research and storage facilities, they altered the diseases on the genetic level to be more virulent, had aerosolized and weaponized them, and had unleashed them on Earth.[10] They’d killed most humans, but not all, and now we had many allies who realize the Nameloids could do the same to them.

Researchers identified the original diseases the Nameloids had inflicted on us as one bacterium and three viruses. They’d all been individually deadly in their time, but each could be survived, often with lifetime complications. Their vectors and other modes of infection had long ago been eradicated. Sanitation practices, vector exterminations, and the genetic modification had decreased the incidence and virulence of these diseases in human populations to null and void. We’d never developed vaccines to use or effective antibodies to defeat these organisms, and because the Nams recombined them; human populace succumbed quickly and in a big way.

Until they recovered me, with my alien recombinant immune system, that is. The docs found specific genomic modifications in my makeup which enhance my auto immune defenses. Other changes in my genome negated the ability of my hyped up defenses to attack my own body. They copied the modifications, created a delivery system, and modified the genetic code of the remainder of humanity.

The vaccine delivered the reengineered sequences to specific areas in an individual’s DNA, sliced out the original genomic sequence, inserted the new, and voila, enhancement achieved.

Deaths from the reintroduced disease combination continued occurring for a while because the vaccine couldn’t cure those who’d already become ill. Medical intervention came too late for them.

This became the first time humans had altered their genetics on a population-wide basis. Controversy still raged regarding the morality of changing the entire human population on a molecular level, however, the counterargument went, those humans survived to argue, which they wouldn’t have without the treatment. The voices of those who refused treatment became silent as, one by one, they succumbed and died. Future consequences, however, had yet to emerge.

The new sequences passed through to the fetuses of treated patients, protecting babies from residual infections, which could have finished us off as well. This represented quite a triumph.

No one has any idea how our interference will affect future generations. Have humans changed themselves irrevocably? For better, or for worse? No one knows, but they lived on to find out.

These Nams would all die for what they’d done, no question about it. Humans have quickly and easily remembered their lust for destruction and revenge. I hoped the inevitable coming carnage will cure them of those impulses. Humans with enhanced immune systems raging across the Infinite in Odok ships? Oh, no, no, they cannot become like those who had almost destroyed them.

It’s easy enough to let the genie out of the bottle, but it’s quite another matter to stuff that wily critter back in.

I had already started to influence many prominent and concurring military leaders, politicians, journalists and newsies, authors, musicians, influential celebrities of all stripes, and political activists. After the devastation, peaceful messaging will commence, because social media is alive and well in the twenty-third century, and spans multiple galaxies.

 

 

Klon volunteered. Such a good sport! He made his own calculations and decided to side with the humans and their Mek allies. With Klon on our side, we won’t fail. The Board of Supervisors discussed the issues, and then put their participation to a vote among the crew.

The Trakennad Dor decided to go to Earth on Kitty’s recommendation and negotiate entertainment business with the Nameloids. Scientists and intelligence experts would be hidden in plain sight as fighters and crew to collect useful information. Specifically, they desired details regarding planetary protection, intelligence about whether the Nams had any kind of defense against E.M. attacks, and if so, what could be done to disable these.

The Trakennad Dor wasn’t anything like the Odok ships, but a regular vessel with typical fuel-burning engines, traveling in real time. The vessel couldn’t get anywhere near light-speed, much less ignore it, unlike our alien Odok ships.

Earth was a long, long way away. Humans had scattered to the farthest omega destination on their maps by the time the infection was discovered. Recently they’d gathered around KekTan and several other planets, and even an artificial station created in empty space, so as not to make too easy a target of themselves. The idea of amassing on one planet alone had died forever. That was not the way to survive in the Infinite. Humans from the three surviving self sufficient planets were being encouraged to join the services of humankind, explore space, and to disperse their gene pools. Outsider humans have been invited to settle on the self sufficient planets. Humanity will do alright.

Klon’s ship underwent outfitting with scientific equipment. He’s very pleased with himself, and eager to set off.

The question then became, how to get them to Earth? The Space force performed tests to see if they’d be able to use an Odok ship to carry Trakennad Dor to the arm of the Milky Way in which Earth resided. A crew in an empty fighter ship was slaved to the Harald Sundaramoorthy. (You may have noticed the interesting names of the Space Force’s ships. Names and ancestries have gotten mixed up since my time. Racial and tribal bigotries became a thing of the past a while ago, because when you begin dealing with aliens, a human being is a human being, no matter their skin color, the shape of their eyes, or their differences in language and dialect.)

The Harald Sundaramoorthy bounced locally. It worked! The slaved ship transported along with the Odok ship to the egress destination. This was history making stuff. Suri and her team chewed holes in the data. How did the Odok ship expand the field to include the fighter in the phenomenon? They wanted to know.

They tried the same trick with a ship closely approximating the mass of Trakennad Dor, filling it with volunteers to see its effect on the passengers. Success again! The game was on.

They finished tricking out Trakennad Dor with every piece of equipment they thought they’d need to collect data on the Nameloids and their technology. They slaved Trakennad Dor to the Harald Sundaramoorthy. The plan was to get Klon and Company close enough to Earth so he could motor in under his own power, contact the Nams, and negotiate his services while the scientists and soldiers surreptitiously collected data. The military chose an egress point in the selected galactic arm. The Harald Sundaramoorthy would bounce both ships in, set Klon’s ship loose, and wait for them to return. Then they’d re-slave the Trakennad Dor, and bounce back through several points which were not located near any human inhabited planet, just in case of the slight possibility the Nams could follow.

The Nameloids were sluggish, but they were also highly advanced technically. I hoped their defenses would be surmountable with human technology and cunning combined with the element of surprise.

 

 

I walked from our apartment to the lift and palmed the pad. The wait seemed longer than usual. When my carriage arrived, the doors opened and Mad greeted me.

“Hello, Mad. Busy today?”

“Yes, Ghee, sorry about the wait.”

“No matter.” I’d relearned the forgotten phrase from Buster.

“I’m very busy today,’ he said. “You, too?”

“I’m going over to bother Jack.”

“I’m sure he’ll be pleased.”

“I think he’s finishing up with the Apsaragin trade agreement today.”

“Oh, that’s a good one. I read about it in The Best of Times.”

The Best of Times was the big, professional newspaper on KekTan. Many mid sized and smaller ones are available. The Mek had found out about newspapers from human archives and created their own industry. Newspapers were almost as popular as cats, printed in English on paper made of a fibrous crop, and of course recycled. They weren’t about to cut down their trees, or buy someone else’s. Mek are conscientious about over-consumption, and this makes them quite frugal in most ways.

Since the Mek had no writing, they’d adopted English. They took classes in other human languages, too, and formed clubs. Spanish was popular, and many Arabic dialects as well.

Mek love to practice the different sounds, the ones they can make, at least. Some of the sounds had to be modified, though, because of their wide mouths and tongues.

I’m continuously surprised at the Mek capacity to learn and adopt cultural artifacts, and their interest in darn near everything.

Mad let me off in the bright lobby and I strolled through. Many humans and Mek waved at me as I made my way toward the big glassed entrance, looking for Danny. He wasn’t receiving well-wishers today, probably out hunting, or sleeping outside in some secluded, warm bower. I stood in the shade of the building, letting my eyes adjust. Mad was right, the block bustled more than usual. Cats, humans, aliens, and Mek strolled on the slidewalk I stood on, and the slidewalks, the wide median, and the opposite walkways. Personal hoppers, sort of like jet packs, buzzed overhead, and above them flew small rental car-like vehicles, called ‘fliers’, and cabs for hire. Farther overhead, ‘copters and private fliers like our own Maiden Faire zipped around. On the ground level thruways, public trams and buses competed for space. They didn’t burn fossil fuels, and emitted no exhaust.

The humidity was a little high. I started my walk toward Jack’s building, grateful for the air conditioned walkways. The Diplomatic building was about five blocks away – big Mek blocks sprouting enormous, glass-encased buildings.

I walked opposite The Best of Times block, with their many colorful scrolls, which circled all the way around and up the sides of the building. Mek permeated their cityscapes with color and movement, oddly tempered by cool, calm visions of the natural areas of KekTan visible on indoor walls. They were a species still discovering themselves.

All the sidewalks and slidewalks were shaded with a clear, tough, polarized material. These coverings doubled as energy collectors which cooled or warmed pedestrians, depending on the season or time of day. Even though the walkways only felt the full touch of the sun on certain portions or for short periods of time each day because the buildings shaded by them, they could collect energy from reflected light. This powered the slides, lighting, and climate controls; they were that efficient. The wide medians had covers as well.

Mek construction collected energy in every possible way. The exterior glass walls of building were collectors, as were the roofing materials. Even the wheels on the various forms of rolling transportation transferred energy to the vehicles.

The glass walkway roofs used their energy to cool and dry the air and blow it downward, making a welcome breeze about the head and shoulders. The cooled air sank to the sidewalks, reducing their temperatures an average of eight degrees. The citiwalks on KekTan sort of reminded me of the misting patios of Palm Springs, California. I’d been there once.

In the winter, the system warmed and moistened the air, and blew the heat up from the bottom so it rose to the top of the angled canopy. The sidewalks had warming strips embedded in them, too. When you had to cross the street, between canopies, the real weather got to you. This made pedestrians cross fast in order to achieve the comfort of the sheltered walks. Pedestrian traffic on KekTan was efficiently managed this way.

I like this city. It’s marvelous, and I walk whenever I can, as does everyone else, even when I go shopping because Mek porters are everywhere. They help carry my purchases and put them in the Maiden Faire or a cab when I’m done. Of course, my building has many porters as well. Mek have become quite sociable and service oriented. This has become another one of their trademarks, which of course, enables them to keep an eye on everyone. Mek security is unmatched in the Infinite; everyone says so, although this is an untestable claim. No matter. The evidence is incontrovertible.

I reached the Diplomatic building and entered the cool lobby. Mek, humans, and many aliens waved and nodded at me. I walked to the lift going to Jack’s level and greeted Gam. He smiled widely, and I noticed he’d lost a few front teeth. He closed the door behind me and we began the upward trip.

“Been to the arena ship lately, Gam?” I asked.

“Yeth, Ghee,” he lisped, “I won my match. Going tomorrow to get new teeth. They’re growing them for me.”

“Well, I hope you’ll take a few days off, then. You don’t want to rush back to work.”

“Yes, thath right. I’ve got a new litter coming. Got to be there for the birthth.’

“Of course. How exciting!”

“The queen hath a puthed in faith, how do you thay?”

“Persian, if it has long hair, American shorthair otherwise.” I knew damn well he remembered those words. Mek devoured every detail about cats; he was just being inclusive.

“I found a tom with a big nose for her. For the kittieth.”

The Mek do NOT like the potential of disabling manipulations.

“Can I come see them?”

“Yeth, you mutht.”

The Mek had taken to dentistry pretty handily. They often had their round, pointed teeth fixed or replaced.

The lift doors opened. Jack stood in the hallway, smiling.

“Darling,” he said.

“Sweetheart,” I replied, and hugged him thoroughly.

Gam chuckled as the lift door closed.

“Colonel Wad is here.” Jack informed me. “He had interesting news.”

“Tell me.”

“No, I’ll let him.”

I pouted attractively. With my face, all of my attempts to appear attractive wind up looking comical.

Jack politely tried to hide his laugh by turning and pulling me toward his suite.

We entered his office and Colonel Wad turned from the cooker, stirring his fresh brew. The spoon clinked rhythmically on the insides of the mug. It smelled like Faire ‘Colombian’.

Colonel Wad was short even for a Mek.

“Colonel Wad, I’m happy to see you again.” I smiled warmly.

We migrated to the couch. Mek weren’t big on handshaking, as they had to reach up, which sometimes caused ignorant others to snicker at them. They thought big, and didn’t appreciate being reminded that their stature left them wanting. This was the only insecurity I’d discovered in them. It seemed a little ridiculous, because Colonel Wad, or most any of the adult Mek for that matter, could make cat food out of most anyone without breaking a sweat.

“You as well, Ghee. I have excellent news. Should I just blurt it out, or string you along?”

“Blurt, please.”

“The Harald Sundaramoorthy and the Trakennad Dor have returned. They’ve reported that the Nams are gone.”

“Gone? What… ”

“They’ve vacated your planet.”

“They’re gone?” I stupidly repeated.

“They’ve left nothing behind.”

“Not even landfills, Ghee,” Jack said. “They picked the planet clean. They even scrubbed the air and water of pollutants.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Apparently it’s what they do,” Colonel Wad said, “They take the processed materials. They took it all and left a clean and naked planet. You can go home, if you want to, but we hope you will stay with us on KekTan,” he said to me. Then to Jack he said, “All of you.”

“Wish we could get their technology,” I blurted out.

“No shit, huh?” Jack concurred.

“Would have been a fine prize,” Colonel Wad nodded his big head in agreement. “Did you realize that a few of the fighters on Klon’s ship are familiar with the Nameloids?”

“No. I didn’t.” I replied.

“Oh, yes. Two had their planets overtaken this way as well, but no one can say where the Nameloids come from or where they go back to.”

“Too bad,” Jack said.

“Yes,” Colonel Wad agreed. “Well, I’ll go and let you ponder the imponderables.”

We showed the Colonel to the lift while he finished the coffee. He handed Jack the empty mug and said goodbye.

As we walked back to Jack’s office, I looked at him and asked, “Well, what now?”

He replied, “Let’s go and have a look.”

[][Chapter Eighteen
Deena’s Final Betrayal]

 

 

Pakchikt would not go to KekTan to surveil the prey and discover her routines. He appeared too obviously different and would attract far too much attention.

Deena said she couldn’t go either, because of her unusual type, and she would be recognized immediately. Her attempts to surveil ‘Buster’ would be questioned.

The Mek, it appeared, believed security paramount.

Pakchikt decided to go back to the planet on which Deena’s existence came to his attention. The pleasant society had a few grubby little areas within which he felt sure he’d find someone to do the work for hire.

He allowed Deena to tie herself to him, and carried her down the castle walls in the depths of the inky black night. Little outdoor lighting illuminated the castle; much of Faire for that matter was dark. Most of the inhabitants preferred to sleep at night.

The guards were quite unsuspecting. When they passed on their rounds, he simply stopped crawling on the walls above them and pressed against the cold stones to flatten their silhouette, or hid amongst the crenellations. The guards rarely, there being little need, looked up. Once they made the discovery of Deena‘s escape, they would have no idea how it had been achieved.

The tricky part involved reaching the nearby forest. Since Pakchikt was strong and insanely fast, Deena hung on to his segments while he raced across the dry, hard ground. The grass he crushed in passing smelled delicious to her. She’d been imprisoned in that stuffy castle too long. The tall, cold forest blocked even more light, and the mossy, moldy, moist scent of soil made her feel the need to sneeze, though she successfully gave in to the impulse almost silently.

Pakchikt raced along. His ship was hidden a full day away at half his fastest pace, but he couldn’t carry Deena the whole way. Eventually, she had to get off and walk, so he could rest. She coiled the rope and carried it. Just less than three days passed before they reached his ship, because Deena moved much more slowly than Pakchikt, though she still possessed excellent strength and stamina.

His pin-pointy feet would make it impossible for soldiers to track them until the point at which she’d jumped off to run. At any rate, they didn’t notice her vacancy for three days, and only then because she didn’t pick up her weekly supplies at the one ground floor entrance not bricked over. Deena and Pakchikt arrived at his ship an eighth of a day before the soldiers realized her absence. Their quick ships equipped with infrared detectors were searching a wide circumference around the castle when Pakchikt sped Deena into space and away from Faire.

He decided on a trajectory empty of commercial traffic. The traffic he’d spotted from space on his arrival clustered on the other side of the castle, dictating why he’d set down where he had.

His speedy ship allowed him to avoid alerting military patrols in orbit until he passed them. They gave chase briefly, but Pakchikt’s small, powerful craft left them behind. They noted his course and passed on the information, but of course he was wise enough to change course once out of the range of their sensors. The identifiers they’d picked up from his craft had been falsified. Taken by surprise, the only action available to them was to put out a BOLO.

Deena reveled in the joy of leaving them behind, stumbling and stammering in surprise.

“Caught ‘em flat-footed,” Deena sneered as she leaned back on a sort of passenger’s ledge at the rear of Pakchikt’s tiny bridge. He inserted the tips of several of his segmented forward legs into depressions in the console, changing their course once again, and cranked himself around to look at her feet.

“What does this mean?” he asked her.

She looked at his hundred feet, then her two.

“When humans aren’t ready to run, it takes several moments or more to get going. Our knees aren’t bent, we’re not rolled forward on the balls of our feet,” here she pointed to the area she described, “poised to push off the ground and run. It’s an expression meaning they couldn’t react fast enough to catch us.”

“Yes. You are correct. They stood flat-footed. Are you hungry?”

“I could eat,” Deena said. Deena had done a lot of daily running and stair climbing inside the castle. Almost a decade’s worth, so she ate whatever and whenever she wanted. She was curious to find out what he’d stocked for her.

His own meal was moldy smelling, some fungus or lichen, she guessed, but he’d had the foresight to put up plenty of human food for her from the last planet he’d visited having humans on it. However, the quality was only adequate. Deena didn’t mind, this was her first meal as a free person in many years, and she heated the hell out of everything to kill any bugs it might be harboring. She carefully kept that saying to herself, though.

Pakchikt was a giant bug, like a centipede. Deena used to kill his like in the castle, and around her home on Earth. As a bird,[11] she might have eaten a lot of what could have been his cousins, or ancestors.

She wondered if she would have to kill Pakchikt. Would he try to kill her after he’d finished with Ghee? Probably. It was something Deena would do, were she in his place. No reason to leave anyone alive to describe you, and what you’d done. She’d like to be able to steal his ship, as well, but there was no way for her to fly the craft. The ship had been built for giant flat creatures with multiple pointed limbs, not humans, and anyway, she wasn’t a pilot.

Deena long ago stopped thinking about God. She didn’t even pray anymore. But this new development had her contemplating Him once again. She’d decide a while ago that what she’d thought of as His test to determine her fitness for entering Heaven had gone on too long. Then again, what use had God of time? She felt conflicted. Infrequently, she wondered if killing Carol on Earth constituted the mistake which informed God’s decision to leave her in this unending life of repeated betrayals. But no, this couldn’t be right.

She had been in control of Freda’s Home Emporium, everyone had danced to her tune, the right tune. Then Carol had hired on and revealed herself as a danger. Carol caused people question Deena, people who had not questioned her before, like some of the managers and the other workers. Deena then pulled out all the stops and ran Carol off the job with the help of her coworkers – the one’s who knew Deena would be a danger to their jobs, too, if they didn’t go along with her. The problem with college educated people is they think they’re better than you and they think you should be replaced with people like them. Oh, no, Deena had not allowed Carol take away her job and leave her at the mercy of the welfare state, ridiculed and humiliated. No, Deena was convinced she’d done the right thing. She’s vanquished her enemy then, just as she’d vanquish her new enemy, Ghee-nye, now.

Ghee-nye had been doing well when last Deena had seen her. Ghee-nye had defeated Deena that last time. The Fairans took many decades to finally revolt against her, but eventually, with Ghee-nye and her Meks’ help, they’d done as the land squids had before them, by murdering her, and the birds even earlier, when they didn’t come to her rescue by annoying and distracting the prey bird, like they should have.[12] You just couldn’t trust people, or any other thing, for that matter.

Deena deemed total and complete control, maintained by threats and actual violence toward nonconformists, as the only solution to her social dilemmas.

How long would this creature take to turn against her? He surely wouldn’t until after he killed Ghee-nye. He believed Ghee-nye must be this other creature he wanted, because Deena had fooled him. Buster and Ghee-nye looked similar. She’d explained the scarring. Deena could hardly wait to see Ghee-nye dead. Deena knew, with absolute certainty it was Ghee-nye and her short, wide, predatorially mouthed friends, pretending so hard to be sophisticates, who had inflamed the Faire Admirals long suppressed desires to get rid of her. God damn them. She knew because they were the ones who had benefited afterwards, while she lived trapped in that damn castle.

Oh, she understood they wanted her out of the way, who wouldn’t? Everyone wants to be Queen, or King. No one wants to be servant. The Fairans had done well since they’d dethroned and imprisoned her. She couldn’t begrudge them. Faire seemed to prosper. She’d watched this from her upper window.

Faire would never be hers again, but another planet might be. She could be Queen again somewhere, and everyone would work for her benefit, in another completely controlled society – her society. Would God then realize she was working for Him, acting very much like Him, and would He see then that she was able to impose His will on others? Through her, He ruled. For Him, she would rule. The perfect partnership, God and his servant, and then, then, would he let her die and go to her Heavenly reward? Finally?

But why hadn’t he let her die and go to Heaven during the many decades she’s successfully ruled Faire? She must have missed something. She’d failed to accomplish His will somehow. This was a test, right? Yes. Life and Judgment were both tests, and she hadn’t passed yet. Slow, Judgment was so slow. Surely she was making a fool of herself in front of God by not understanding and accomplishing whatever He wanted her to do. Think, fool, think!

She hadn’t pushed Christianity on the Fairans because they’d already practiced it. Should she have signed some decrees, or something, ordering Christianity to be the one religion of the planet? This seemed trivial, the Fairans didn’t need orders to practice their faith, and God must have seen that.

This test had all started with Carol, on Earth. Deena couldn’t remember any existence before her life as Deena on Earth. She’d begun all this creeping around in different bodies after she died in the car accident, when she’d only tried to scare Carol, but had managed to kill herself as well. Deena had rewritten her own history in her mind, and convinced herself she hadn’t been trying to kill her foe, only scare her. God had intervened and killed them both, and set them on this path, creating this test for them. For them? Was Carol being judged, too? Had Carol been put in a body like hers, like this strange undying shell currently trapping Deena? Could Carol actually be Ghee-nye?

Suddenly Deena knew. She knew it like she knew her own mind. Carol was Ghee-nye. Carol, the self-righteous, goody-two-shoes, corporate snitch bitch, was Ghee-nye. Of course! Why hadn’t she realized this before? Stupid, stupid, stupid!

Probably Carol had gone on a journey similar to hers after their deaths: resurrecting dead creatures, living those lives, being tested. But Carol had failed, too, obviously. She damn sure wasn’t in Heaven. Probably, in each incarnation, Carol snitched on someone and was being punished, just as she, Deena, kept failing her tests, falling short of killing, conquering, controlling, or destroying those who would defeat her! Of course! She must prevail thusly to enter Heaven. She must kill Carol, up close and personal, not by accident, but deliberately, to pass the test, to conquer the enemy, to succeed.

Which must why God had sent this bizarre creature to her. Deena smiled at Pakchikt over what seemed to be a fried chicken drumstick. Pakchikt would take her to Ghee-nye, to Carol, but Deena would be the one to kill her.

 

 

Pakchikt entered his ship with a scrawny, grubby human male. He’d left Deena on board when he went to find the man they would use to spy on ‘Buster’. The bug said the man needed to be corruptible, but have a clean record, so as not to attract the attention of the Mek while he was on KekTan, surveilling his target. Pakchikt spent two local weeks finding this guy.

The bug went to his bridge as Deena played host. The man called himself Baren. She showed him where and how to clean up, and gave him the new clothes the bug had bought for him. Pakchikt said the man’s new fabrics would be unremarkable on KekTan, but he should buy local clothes once on the planet to blend in even better.

Baren exited the cleaner and put on the clothes he’d been supplied with. Deena showed him the food storage and waited as he made himself a meal. While he ate, he asked her about the job.

“It pays well,” he complained, “too well. Are you certain all I need to do is watch someone?”

“You need to identify her patterns, determine what she does regularly, where she goes, who she visits. Especially you need to tell us if she’s planning to go off planet.”

“That’s all?”

“Yes.”

“I won’t ask why.”

“Don’t.”

“He’s compensating me very well.”

“I don’t know about that. Is the amount enough to encourage you to keep your mouth shut?”

“Yes. I could disappear after, retire.”

“Do this right, and all your problems will be over.”

“I will.”

“Baren,” Deena spoke softly, “Don’t ever say her name. We don’t want to be overheard on the frequencies and alert people that she’s being followed. Use the code name ‘Buster’.”

“Okay. I don’t know her real name anyway.”

“Good, but you might hear it on planet.”

“I understand. Don’t worry.”

“Good. We keep some cookies in this drawer, Baren.”

 

 

Deena and Pakchikt waited in the ship in orbit around KekTan for Baren to contact them, which took only four days. The big insect had given the man a communicator. The receiver was inside the bug somewhere. Deena wasn’t privy to the conversations, but Pakchikt told her Baren had managed to sit next to ‘Buster’ and her husband in the café in the lobby of the building they lived in. He overheard them talking about going to Earth.

Earth. Back to Earth! Deena felt a thrill inside. Of course. Everything finally came full circle. This would end where it all began.

“So we go to Earth?” Deena asked Pakchikt.

“I don’t know any planet called ‘Earth’, but if they’re going in an Odok ship, we can travel with them if I can get this ship close enough before they bounce out. They’ll pull us along with them. It’s tricky, but we have to get to her on that planet. Security’s too tight here.

“Did you pay Baren?”

“Not yet. He needs to find out which ship she’s going on. Then I’ll give him the account pass. I set up an account for him on KekTan. He can go anywhere from their world, or stay there. It doesn’t matter to me. We’re going to Earth to kill this Buster, then I’ll finally get to go home and collect my payment.”

And get this bomb out of me, he thought.

Baren got the name of their vessel, and Pakchikt managed to move his speedy little craft right next to the monster ship before it disappeared.

The bug was a damned good pilot, inhuman really. Deena barely contained herself as his little skiff sped away from the big ship to the safety beyond the curve of the planet Earth. Then he set it in an orbit from which they could see the Odok vessel on his instruments.

“How come they haven’t detected us?” Deena asked. “They must have a lot of equipment.”

“Camouflage shields,” Pakchikt replied. “They make this ship appear like its surroundings. The electronic signatures are contained, and the heat and exhaust comes with us until we’re clear and I purge it.”

“Nice,” Deena sighed. “But this isn’t Earth. Earth has cities, and this planet’s empty.”

“The Nameloids steal everything,” Pakchikt said. Deena couldn’t comprehend what he meant, and thought there’d been a mistake in translation somehow, but it didn’t matter. If Carol was here, this was where she wanted to be.

Five shuttles exited the big ship, showing in clear view on the sensors of their little one. Pakchikt followed them down and landed nearby, behind rolling hills and a grove of trees. They waited until the landing party started to explore the area. Cautiously they left the camouflaged ship and entered the trees, and watched.

 

 

No more Freda’s, I thought ungraciously, though I kept the comment to myself as we orbited Earth. I knew for sure this world was Earth because of the sun and the moon, and the familiar shapes of the continents, but nothing man-made remained. No smog, no cities, no satellites, no International Space Station, nothing at all. Space junk didn’t orbit with us. I could tell where the cities and highways had been, though. Raw soil and rock stood out like scars and wounds.

“Oh, no, the original Constitution and Declaration of Independence are gone,” I said.

“No White House. No Eiffel Tower, Sydney Opera House, Taj Mahal, Gherkin, or onion domes,” Jack said.

Kek and Nok glanced at us and back at Earth.

“Nothing,” Suri said. “Pure.”

“Let’s go,” said Kitty, “I want to put my feet on Earth before I die. I’ve never been here.”

We went. The planet was really beautiful; I hadn’t remembered my home being so lovely. The lack of smog allowed the air to smell sweet and crisp. Where we landed, the weather was a little chilly. Rolling hills surrounded us, covered in small groves of pine and deciduous trees. The leaves were in full fall color.

I wanted to take a walk. We’d donned clothing which repelled insects up to five yards, and we’d been warned to stay away from animals because we didn’t know if the enhanced vaccines had gone endemic or not.

“There might be predators, as well,” Colonel Wad said. “They don’t recycle those.”

We took weapons with us, handguns, and went for a walk. We went into the trees. We went up a hill. Kek and Nok were having a fine first time on the planet which spawned their benefactors. Suri and Kitty helped each other; they weren’t used to rough ground. General Wad and several soldiers followed and flanked us. General Wad smiled widely. The deputies stayed with the ship.

The trees were beautiful. They made long, deep shadows, and the scent of soil and leaf litter brought back many deeply buried memories. I’d been out in the forests of KekTan, but I realized Earth made its own unique scent which permeated me and was familiar and comforting. I hoped when the Mek got home, they’d recognize this phenomenon about their own planet. Was it too soon? Had they been on their planet long enough to be sentimental like this? Maybe the Mek born on KekTan would be someday, when they returned to their home after a long stint in space. It felt like walking into mom and dad’s warm, dinner-scented home on Thanksgiving Day. My cells and the Earth seemed to be communing.

“Will people come back here, do you think, Jack,” I nearly whispered like in church.

“Oh, yeah,” he said simply.

We pulled ahead of the others, hiking toward a rocky outcrop. I wanted to climb it and look around.

When we gained the boulders I started up a low spot between two big rocks. Jack stopped and looked back. The others were walking close enough behind us, so I continued up. I’d forgotten how much stronger and more agile I was than Jack. I pulled ahead quickly.

 

 

Deena heard Carol coming. She broke away from Pakchikt and ran ahead.

What are you doing? Pakchikt thought. He raced after her. Caught flat-footed, he rued. Had he misjudged? Was Deena going to warn the prey?

 

 

Suddenly, incongruously, Deena stepped out in front of me, pulled my weapon out of its holster, and shoved me back a few steps. She wore a look of utter disdain.

Stunned, I found footing on a couple of rocks and balanced myself.

A creature, a wicked looking thing, snaked up behind Deena and crawled over the rocks behind her, up to her. I heard Kek howl in anger and anguish behind me.

It happened in slow motion. The thing came closer. Deena stiffened and two spear-like things protruded through her abdomen. She yelled, “Fuck!” The spears pierced me, through my chest. I immediately stilled, and knew the weapons had hurt me badly. Then the beast pulled its prongs out of me, and out of Deena, and the spears punched through us both again. The creature had hunched up behind Deena immediately before it plunged them through us a second time, and I saw that the spears were attached to its head. They burned as they went in and out, and in again. A chemical taste welled up in my throat. Poison? The second time, the weapon broke my spine. I hung, unable to speak or move. The creature pulled its spears out of us and scuttled back the way it had come. It moved rapidly on what seemed like a hundred pointy limbs.

I must have fallen; my head hit something hard – a rock? My vision blurred. I heard the sound of running and weapons firing, but they seemed so far away.

Jack rushed up and fell down on his knees beside me. His strong, gentle hands cradled my head. The scent of his citrus soap, sweat, and breath became my universe. For a moment I felt his wet cheek against my face, and then, nothing. I died.

[][Chapter Nineteen
The Realm of Conscience]

 

 

I woke in total darkness.

Yes, I woke up again.

I wished someone would turn on a light. Then, there was light – a total white brightness, but I didn’t feel pain in my eyes. I tried to lift my hand, but nothing happened.

Carol, a masculine-seeming voice echoed in my head.

No, you don’t have a head, so my voice is not echoing in it. You can speak, just think the words.

God? I asked.

No, there is no one here called God.

Where the fuck am I now? I thought angrily.

You’re here with us, a feminine voice lilted, in The Realm of Conscience.

Yes, she lilted, damn it, in my head.

Two sighs.

No head, said the male again.

You mind explaining? I’m afraid I shrieked a little.

Okay…

Okay is American slang, I know that much at least, I thought TO MYSELF.

Yes, we are speaking American, said the female. Rather, you’re interpreting American from our projections into your conscience.

They weren’t visible to me, but I sure felt like they’d glanced at each other.

No head, no brain, no eyes, said the male.

I took a deep breath. No, I imagined taking a deep breath.

Better. You’re starting to understand, the female said.

Understand what? And while you’re explaining, why don’t you introduce yourselves?

An excellent idea. I am Derek, and this is my sister, Paige.

You are in The Realm of Conscience, Carol, which is where we reside.[13] We are the ones who’ve been fucking with your life, admitted Paige.

You’re gods, I stated.

No.

There’s no one here called ‘God’? I asked.

No. There are no gods here.

It’s possible a personality existed here before us, perhaps many, throughout the past, but they must all have allowed themselves to dissolve into the Communal Conscience at one time or another. There’s no one called God here now. There’s no way for us to know if any gods existed here at another point in time, but we are the only ones here now.

What are you, then?

Once, like yourself, we lived on a planet, but our planet had two suns, and their orbits were decaying, said a new voice. Female. I am Kwyan.

And? I prompted.

I was a ruler of the planet, along with three others, during my adult life. We ruled long, and when I died, by some fluke, my conscience didn’t disperse in to the Communal Conscience like all others. My conscience remained intact here.

Kwyan continued. I struggled with what to do with myself, and while I struggled, I realized that this is where the dead come. Not their bodies, but whatever animates them. You call it ‘conscience, personality, soul, essence, spirit’. We had similar ideas about this phenomenon.

The Communal Conscience is all around us. Where we are, we call The Realm of Conscience.

Where are you? I thought at her.

We can be anywhere in the Communal Conscience, and wherever we are, that is The Realm.

The one named Paige spoke again. I don’t know how I was able to tell the difference between them, but now I was starting to. We witness the souls as they enter the Communal Conscience and… you might say ‘go into solution’ here. Think of conscience as a sugar cube. Think of Communal Conscience as water, and the personalities dissolve into it when they get here.

When a creature is born, the necessary amount of personality separates from the Communal Conscience and enters the newborn. Each type of creature requires a different volume of conscience. You’d be surprised how much conscience a single cat has.

Oh yeah, I thought, the Mek understand that cats have soul, alright.

Yes, they do. This was definitely Paige. With each personality I sensed a different… flavor… in my mind.

We held you together every time you died, and found you suitable fresh corpses to inhabit.[14] We’re holding you together now. Derek, this time.

To what end? I wondered.

To affect change, of course, Kwyan said.

Are you sure you know what you’re doing? I was feeling a bit peeved, and not at all corporeal. I couldn’t move or feel anything.

Certainly. This was Derek again. He sounded a little miffed in reaction. We see the past, present, and future. We affect changes in each.

I’m not sure that’s Kosher. What gives you the right?

We have a strict and rational morality, developed among a people whose planet became increasingly unstable. To be immoral meant death to yourself or someone else. There were, therefore, no choices in this matter, especially near the end. This was a new voice.

Who are you? I asked petulantly.

Vagn.

Okay… folks, say I take your words for all this. Why me?

We tested many species, including humans. We chose humans because your morality was similar to ours, though primordial at best, and most of you choose to ignore correctness when this suits. Your planet was stable, so the consequences of your ignorance weren’t so severe, unlike with us. You developed a penal code and ethical values. Most of you understood a gross interpretation of right and wrong, though most of you did not define, illuminate, and champion the subtleties.

Why are you speaking in the past tense?

We experience no sense of time here, Carol. Do not be alarmed, Earth lasts a long time. Paige again.

Because the Nams cleaned up your stinking world, Derek sniffed.

Oh shit. I remembered. Jack.

I went into a sudden rage. I rampaged, and I don’t know how long the fit lasted, but when I finished, I was spent.

When I began paying attention again, I felt like I was floating, and space was all around me. Dim light bounced off dust particles. All around stars twinkled and galaxies twirled. Behind me was a huge, dense cloud. Well, there was no behind except the opposite of where my attention was focused. The cloud seemed to pulse and spasm in various parts of itself. Shockwaves disturbed the dust.

My field of vision consisted of all directions at the same time. The view was beautiful, but a little disturbing. The spasms and pulses seemed like contractions.

Kwyan spoke again. I began to explore my power…

Vagn interrupted her. Abilities, Mother, don’t scare the Earthling.

I swear Kwyan threw Vagn a look, but the picture in my head (conscience? mind?) was dust, reflected light, and the darkness of space, so how did I know this?

Every once in a while a pinpoint of light would appear. Some winked out while others remained steady. I stared hard at a few of them; I could “see” many at once, if I chose to.

and I realized I could affect creatures – their thoughts. I put thoughts into their minds; I put thoughts into my son’s mind…

Carol, you’re not the only one.

Hush, son, I want to finish the narrative so we can get to the more important things. I moved Vagn to learn what he needed to know so that when he died, he would also be able to hold his conscience together here, in The Realm, with me.

More shock waves affected the dusty surroundings, pushing some of the fine seeming mist together into many clumps all around me. The clumps were reeling a little. They wobbled and awkwardly, slowly they began to spin.

Which worked, Paige was saying, and then they began to work on us.

Us? I wondered.

Kwyan said, Paige and Derek, and others whom you will not meet now, are my and my contemporaries’ descendants.[15] Our species would have died out if not for our intervention in their time.

I wondered why I had achieved the ability to hold my conscience intact after my death, when no one else seemed to have been able to. It must have been a fluke, because I was alone here then. Perhaps other flukes have occurred throughout eternity, others like us may have existed here before, we don’t know. They are not here now.

I manipulated Vagn, and when he died, he came here. I’d tried with others, but had no success. Vagn had had the benefit of my mothering, my teaching, my guidance. None of the others had.

Vagn said, We had to find a way to create the mental evolution in others of our kind which mother and I had experienced…

Kwyan interrupted her son this time. We explored the possibilities…

Vagn said, …to enable them to remain intact here…

Kwyan said, …of causing them to learn what they needed to learn. We implemented the necessary circumstances, and then they began to improve on their own.

Vagn said, …in order to populate The Realm of Conscience with members of our own species.

We are able to perceive possible timelines, imagine alterations, and witness the effects. We wait as our chosen and altered timelines unfold in our minds, and follow them into the future. We compare these to the current, ongoing timeline, and choose what to effect in order to achieve our goals. We are privy to all possibilities, from any tiny point in time.

We imagined many events which might cause disruption in our own society. We explored all circumstances which might result in some of our people embracing our Way of morality more tightly. In this way we sought to save some of them in order to bring them here after they’d died, before the broken solar system we’d lived in collapsed.

We found one event which would create the circumstances we wanted, and we caused the event to happen.

The event was the crash landing of the Harald Sundaramoorthy on our planet, Carol.

We sent the ship to our system and it crash landed on our planet, before our times.

Three survivors brought their alien perceptions into our society, disrupted the inhabitants’ adherence to the Way, and caused a breach in our culture.

I sent Vagn back to Enistan, our planet. He resurrected a youthful corpse and spent that lifetime becoming revered as a follower of the Nartan Way. By the time the Royal Families were threatened, he had positioned himself so the youngest children would be brought to him. He raised them, and taught them the Nartan Way, as I had taught him.[16]

While events unfolded, happily, the children began to surpass us in their abilities.

Eventually, as we all do, they died. They were able to hold their consciences together here.

Paige added, We were able to recruit a few more before our planet succumbed to the forces which destroyed our world, our race, and our culture.

Okay. Good for you. I applaud your success. Now, what about me? I demanded. I was still floating and watching the swirling clumps of dust condense further, drawing the surrounding dust into themselves.

Vagn was the one to reply. We had several tasks for you, and you performed them as we expected. You affected several creatures, and the eventual evolution of higher consciousness in several species; the bugs slightly, and the blobs, eventually, and significantly. Your interaction with one of those strengthened his unorthodox – for his society – views, and he taught these differences to his offspring, and they to theirs. He spoke to anyone else who would listen and not condemn him for his strange thoughts. You affected Klon and the Mek and many of the aliens on that wretched ship, and later, those individuals affected several more and their civilizations. You affected Doc, Suri…

Enough, son. We will not reveal all to you, Carol.

I’ve been of significant help, I realized.

Yes. You were easy to influence.

I didn’t like that. I don’t like what you just said, I stated rather sternly. What gave you the right?

Would you rather have dissolved into the Communal Conscience? Derek asked.

I thought of Jack. The thought ached like the wound from a poisonous spear. If I had died as Carol, on Earth – my first death – I wouldn’t have experienced any of the rest.

Yes! I cried out. A spasm of pain seemed to rock me.

The dust spheres were spinning rapidly now. They’d become quite dense. At different times, they each stopped acquiring the dust around them but continued spinning, creating space around their rotating bodies. Several of the spinning balls still had dust surrounding close to them, and this began to settle into discs. I watched this for some time, until the last rotating body accomplished its feat.

No, I whispered.

Then I noticed movement beside me; a thing struggled there. I seemed to be back in the bright whiteness, but I was still aware of the dust balls rotating, dust discs revolving around some of them, their revolutions around pinpoints of bright light, and the darkness beyond. The dust balls seemed to be shrinking into themselves, condensing.

What is that? I asked, focusing on the struggling thing.

Deena, Paige replied. We chose the two of you, polar opposite human personalities, to determine who would be the stronger, the more successful.

You tested us.[17]

Yes. We observed that Deena would never be selfless, while you were rarely totally selfish. You tended to think of ways to benefit others, and accomplishing this made you happy. She wanted only to benefit herself, exclusive of others, and at their expense, and accomplishing that made her happy. You both behaved in predictable ways in every given situation.

You caused the whole nightmare.

Yes.

I asked you to let me stay with Jack. I begged you.

We tried everything, explored every possibility, reviewed every timeline and imagined all consequences. We couldn’t do it. Ghee had to die, to influence future events and effect further change.

Your imagination is weak, I thought angrily.

We are limited to the timelines that present themselves to us. We cannot create them.

Carol, we can give you more bodies, and you can initiate more changes for us, and benefit many creatures and many races. We are able to manipulate matter somewhat, enough to fix the broken parts that would continue to allow life to seep out, so that when we put you into these bodies, you will have an excellent chance to heal them.

You are so good at this, so predictably good.

We are offering you immortality and the ultimate adventure.

All I conceived of was loss. I ached from grief. They somehow perceived this.

You can affect so much more than loss, Carol. Lives can be saved. Cultures and even species can be enlightened. The enrichment of experience for so many, such leaps in understanding, in science, in morality, and…

You had no right! I screamed. Jack, I whispered. I had another galactic fit. My anger would not be sated. They gave up trying to console me.

I floated, gazing about me. Attraction, coalescence, spin, gravity, density, chemistry, atmosphere. The dense, spinning spots became planets right before my eyes, and I recognized the blazing bright spots had been suns. The solar systems were all repellant of each other and began to incrementally move away from each other.

I’d become calm again.

You’ve been in this star-forming region for hundreds of billions of years, Paige said quietly. We experience no time here.

We’re in the spiral arm of an eventual galaxy which has no biological life yet, Derek said. Soon, though.

We thought you’d like the view, Paige murmured.

I felt humbled now, and exhausted.

I do. Thank you for everything. For all the experiences I wouldn’t have had if you hadn’t interfered. I’m tired and I need to rest, and I’m hurt and I need to heal.

They seemed to be conferring. I rested. I cleared my… mind.

Carol Eugenia Shapley is dead, Kwyan said. She must remain dead. Even her death had ramifications; she won’t be coming back. But we can put you in a different human body, whose life was… inert, if you will, back in your time if you like, or any other. You can have a full, human life. Your inhabitation of any body we choose for you will have positive ramifications for humanity, more so than if the body had simply died. The tradeoff will be acceptable, but we will not allow you to make any changes to the differences we’ve caused you to make in your… travels. We will not send you back to the species in the times you’ve already experienced, except for your own. We perceive no destructive changes you can make there. Alternatively, you can chose to dissolve into the Communal Conscience and be no more.

What about Deena?

She won’t plague you again. She will be allowed to dissolve into the Communal Conscience. Throughout the rest of time, the various, shall we say, atoms, of her conscience will be gathered with the… particles of others to create a variety of different personalities for a multitude of new beings.

But she will never be Deena again.

However, others live, have existed, and will be born who are also brutally insane.

There are many like her in every place and at every time. We don’t have control over the making of souls. They seem random to us.

Kwyan spoke. You are so utterly predictable. Even at this stage, you worry about the fate of your nemesis.

Predictably, I suppose, I said, I’ll take it – the human body in my time, but I don’t want to hear from you again. I did a lot for you, apparently, and you didn’t ask for my consent. I’m very angry with you, and I won’t have you manipulating me any more. I want a life that is my own.

Your will is our command, rang out all their voices at once, and then I swear I heard those assholes laughing.

 

The End.

[]End Notes

 

[1] Alien Purgatory

[2] Alien Purgatory

[3] Alien Purgatory

[4] Alien Purgatory

[5] Alien Purgatory

[6] Alien Purgatory

[7] Alien Purgatory

[8] Alien Purgatory

[9] Alien Purgatory

[10] Alien Purgatory

[11] Alien Purgatory

[12] Alien Purgatory

[13] Alien Faith

[14] Alien Purgatory

[15] Alien Faith

[16] Alien Faith

[17] Alien Purgatory

 


Alien Exodus

I’ve attempted to write this novel as a collection of short stories which unite into a full length novel. In these stories we meet a collection of sexers who travel space plying their trade. Two of these pleasurers are constructs who look just like Ghee-nye, sans scars and lumpy bumps. An intergalactic assassin pursues a garbage collector in a recycle ship who is one of the constructs sold long ago. Klon reemerges with his sidekick, Lukan, a furry six and a half foot monster who looks like a white bat, and they stage a comeback for Ghee. John Jack Knott, Kek, and Nok keep an eye out for her safety, and in the end, Vagn, Paige, Derek, and Kwyan reveal all. Well, some.

  • ISBN: 9781370302024
  • Author: Mary Margaret Branning
  • Published: 2017-05-16 22:50:17
  • Words: 69080
Alien Exodus Alien Exodus