Author’s note: This stage of the narrative is pretty heavily entangled in what was happening with Rantarian’s series, “Salvage”, and the character of Jen Delaney migrated from that series to this one and back again during the next few chapters.
If you have not already read “Salvage”, then now would be a good time to do so. The necessary chapters are part of the essential reading order
Three years and seven months AV
Alliance Embassy Station
Of all the warp-capable species in the known galaxy, perhaps the one that most resembled humans were the Qinis.
Not that anybody would ever confuse one for the other. Qinis were tall, taller even than Vzk’tk, and their slender bodies were an exercise in long, gently curving lines that made the human form look positively squat and gauche. They had large, expressive eyes set in their noseless faces above surprisingly feminine lips, and even though the eyes were slightly too wide-set and aimed apart to grant broad peripheral vision at the expense of binocular range-finding, the overall effect was, in an exotic way, actually rather appealing to the human sense of aesthetics.
Which was another way of saying that Rylee thought they were weirdly sexy. Especially when you threw in the large, pointed ears that swivelled this way and that seemingly with minds of their own.
Then there was their fashion sense. The Qinis bucked the interstellar trend by favouring clothing for more than simple utility. Practically every species at least wore a few pockets, packs, pouches and bags strapped onto their bodies, but by and large the interstellar community had zero nudity taboos: Clothing was an uncomfortable necessity when the wearer needed protection from some environmental or personal hazard, nothing more.
Only the Qinis and Gaoians seemed to differ from that general attitude, and even then, while the Gao had discovered long ago that clothing was practical and useful, they had largely constrained themselves to colourful overalls that left their shoulders bare.
The Qinis were different. They had fashion shows, trending designers and labels, the works. Admittedly, by human standards, Qinis clothing was far from modest - Rylee had been to a few fashion shows in her time, and the Qinis seemed to go for the kind of breast-baring, strangely cut artistic pieces that had made her internally roll her eyes while politely applauding. The objective of Qinis clothing seemed exclusively to be the artful enhancement and decoration of their physical features, rather than concealment, warmth or function.
At that objective, however, they succeeded admirably. She was finding it hard not to stare, or fantasize.
Not that anything could ever come of such speculative fantasies, of course. That gracile frame and its stately movements were the product of crystal-delicate long bones, upon which the muscles were strung more like gossamer than like the mechanical powerhouse of a moving creature. Any kind of an intimate tryst with a Qinis would have inevitably and swiftly become an agonising introduction to the joys of bone fractures, no matter how gentle the human tried to be. They were fragile even by the standards of other nonhuman species, having evolved on the lowest-gravity cradle world thus far known to the interstellar community.
It had come as a surprise to everyone that they had sided with the Celzi, in fact. Their kind simply were not warriors at all - too fragile, too slow, too gentle and esthetic. Siding with an open rebellion had seemed like a very strange move from them, but in fact they had become the industrial base of the entire Alliance, having long since mastered the engineering arts of automated assembly and resource extraction, keeping all the heavy lifting and physical exertion safely on the far side of a sturdy entourage of robots and drones. One Qinis engineer could mine asteroids with her left hand while directing the construction of a battlecruiser with her right, all while relaxing at a party wearing a stately and decorative robe of diaphanous fabrics hung with gems and loose-wound wire.
Next to which, Rylee felt downright dowdy in her USAF dress uniform, though she noticed that some of the Qinis males were eyeing the uniform’s cut speculatively. Either that or they were eyeing her - maybe humans were just as strangely beautiful to Qinis? It was hard to tell.
At least she didn’t need any such guesswork when it came to the Russian ambassador to the Alliance, who may as well have opened the conversation with “Hello Captain Jackson, would you like to have sex with my wife while I watch?” and was clearly not going to let a merely arctic reception dash his hopes. The wife in question - a bored-looking pencil sketch of a blonde supermodel - seemed to exist purely to agree with her husband and give Rylee a look that said that the sex would be a wonderfully pleasurable exercise in athletic hate-fucking, though she had relaxed the moment Rylee’s disinterest in the veiled proposition became apparent.
Snubbing the lecherous creep would have been in violation of her briefing, however. Rylee had been given explicit instructions to try and leave a positive impression on everyone there regardless of species or allegiance, so she spun a careful half-truth that left the wife satisfied that Rylee wouldn’t be in their bed tonight and the ambassador equally hopeful that she would, and excused herself in search of more tolerable company.
She found it in the form of a small knot of Gaoians. Their body language was a little hard to read, but looking at which way their feet pointed she decided that the group was having two separate conversations - one between four males with dark colouration and a tall female with much more silver and white in her fur. The other conversation was between an obviously younger female and… she peered at the markings on his face for a careful second to make sure…
The Gaoian pilot looked up and around at the happy exclamation of his name, and his ears pricked up adorably. “Rylee!” he said, and the translator filled his tone with genuine gladness to see her. “I was told you were here somewhere.”
They shook hands, gently. “Rylee, this is Sister Niral. Niral, Captain Rylee Jackson, pilot of Earth’s first superluminal vessel.”
“Ah, so this is the one you wouldn’t shut up about.” Niral teased. She shook Rylee’s hand also, and both women met each others’ gazes and stifled giggles as the young male’s ears drooped a little, cementing Rylee’s conviction that she liked Gaoians.
“I guess Pandora made an impression.” she commented.
“You both did.” Niral said. “Truthfully, if you were a Sister, I’d be a little bit jealous.”
“You two are together?”
“I’m… not averse to the idea.” Niral said, mischievously flattening her ears sideways. Rylee had to admire her cool and confidence, she didn’t even glance backwards to see Goruu’s expression prick up in delight that completely ignored species boundaries.
“Well, nothing to be jealous of here.” Rylee said, and winked at Goruu. “I’d break him.”
Niral chittered a nervous laugh as Goruu wilted in embarrassment, turning heads from the other Gaoian group, who dropped their conversation and joined the new one around Rylee. The tallest and probably oldest male scratched the top of Goruu’s head, further contributing to his embarrassment.
“Ah, Rylee Jackson, this is Mother Yimyi.” Niral introduced her, then indicated the older male who had scratched Goruu’s head. “Clan-Father Amren of Clan Firefang, Fathers Gu and Yemin, and Brother Roni.”
Rylee decided she was glad that Amren had been facing away from her when she first approached the group or else she might have mistaken him for Goruu. Aside from some extra grey fur, his markings were practically identical to the younger male’s. Family resemblance?
There was an exchange of polite small-talk, which Rylee had only limited reserves of patience for: she decide to make the conversation mean something.
“I’ll confess.” she said, picking her words carefully “I was a little surprised to run into a familiar face at this little soiree.”
“You’re wondering what the tukki the Gaoians are doing at an Alliance party, seeing as we’re members of the Dominion councils.” Mother Yimyi said, cutting straight through the delicate language, and drawing a generally amused and agreeable response from the males. Rylee decided that she really liked Gaoians, and relaxed.
“That, yes.” she agreed.
Amren scratched his ear and indicated, with a subtle tilt of his head, the whole room. The walls have ears was a subtle reminder that didn’t need translating. “As the Celzi are keen to point out, theirs is a war of secession based on the right to self-determination.” he said. “Which is a principle that we stand behind.”
“I sense a “but” coming…” Rylee said.
“But.” Yimyi said “we have reservations about the Celzi’s “you get what you grab” approach to territory. The Dominion, for all its flaws, and for all the arrogance that makes it think it can sell every planet in the galaxy and make money off the sale, at least offers a moderated and civil approach to expansion and colonisation.”
“So you’re here looking to… what, build bridges? Heal the rift?”
“It’s not a plan that all of the clans agree with. Many of our idiot gung-ho warrior clans are eager to pitch in with the war.” Yimyi said.
“The Firefangs are a warrior clan.” Amren pointed out, though his tone carried no objection.
“But not an idiot gung-ho one.” Yimyi soothed.
“What’s holding them back?” Rylee asked her.
“The Clan of Females. Our attitude is that we don’t feel all of the available diplomatic options have been exhausted yet and we are not happy to fully commit Gao to a war that was started by other species when there are still opportunities for non-violent contact.” She looked, if Rylee was any judge, smug. “And the male clans don’t do anything which the Mother-Supreme has expressed disapproval for, if they’re smart.”
She tilted her head, but Rylee wasn’t sure what, if anything, the gesture meant. “In truth, your own species’ ascension has provided an excellent opportunity. Inside the Sol demilitarized zone, with these two embassy stations in place, we now have the most open and accessible point of contact between the two sides for… twenty cycles or longer.”
“Then there’s the way your own factions are seeking to play the rivalry to your advantage” Amren interjected. “Both sides know that for the human race to commit to siding with the other would be disastrous. Not least because a lot of hapless, innocent soldiers would get crushed by a force who drastically outmatch them. We’re hoping to persuade the Alliance and Dominion both that it’s in the best interests of both factions to declare a ceasefire and negotiate a permanent peace before that happens.”
“Know when to walk away with what you’ve already got while you still have it, kind of thing?”
“Exactly. An astute and sensible policy.” Yimyi said approvingly.
“I learned it from a very wise man called Kenny Rogers.”
An aide approached and murmured something quietly to Mother Yimyi, who took Father Amren’s arm. “If you’ll excuse us, it seems the Qinis ambassador wishes to speak with us.”
“Of course.” Rylee said.
The other Fathers and Brother also made their apologies and scattered to mingle with the assorted Alliance members and humans.
“Want to get out of here?” Niral asked.
“More than anything. Are we allowed to?”
“We have talamay and a game you might like in the shuttle.” Goruu said.
The Gaoian diplomatic shuttle turned out to be surprisingly comfortable. The similarity in size between Gaoians and humans meant that Rylee felt nicely accomodated-for, rather than dwarfed by furniture built larger than human demands required.
Goruu handed her a glass of Talamay. “Be warned, I heard this stuff does something funny to humans.”
“Funny how?” Rylee asked, sniffing it.
“There’s a human living on our homeworld.” Niral said. “Apparently after a few glasses of talamay she giggled a lot, fell asleep and woke up feeling awful.”
“I thought I smelled alcohol.” Rylee said. “Screw it, I’m off duty.” she took a sip and was rewarded by something that tasted surprisingly like Fanta.
The Gaoians shared a faintly confused glance. “The alcohol? That just flavours it and kills microorganisms… doesn’t it?” Goruu asked.
“You guys don’t get drunk?”
Again there was a blank look. “The translator seems to be getting confused?” Niral said. “Of course we aren’t imbibed, we imbibe the drink.”
“That word didn’t even translate.”
“Really? Okay, well it means, like…. altered brain chemistry leading to a changed state of mind.”
Difficult though it was to read their expressions, Niral and Goruu were clearly drawing a complete blank.
“…wow. You guys are missing out. What’s this game?”
They introduced it to her. As a veteran of countless airbase games of poker, picking up the bidding and bluffing side of the game was trivial, though the unfamiliar cards and a few different mechanics kept it interesting and cost her a couple of early hands. A couple of hours flashed by with all the speed of good fun, good company and good drink, and all three of them became quite thoroughly acquainted as they played.
Maybe it was just the alcohol giving her confidence, but she was feeling certain that she was about to lure Goruu into running a perfectly solid hand into the teeth of her own carefully-assembled counter to it when something in the Firefang’s pocket chirruped. He fished out a device that looked practically identical to a smartphone, consulted it, and growled.
“They need me back at the party.” he said. “Hopefully I won’t be long….”
“We’ll be fine.” Niral assured him, and watched him go with what Rylee took for undisguised physical attraction.
She laughed as the Sister turned back and skewed her ears, embarrassed. “Oh yeah, you two are gonna bang.” she said.
Niral gave her a curious look. “You’re very… forthright about that.”
“I’m teasing, Niral. I can’t blame you, he’s a great guy.”
This earned her an even stranger look.
“…what?” She asked.
“We only just met, Rylee… do you mind if I ask you a very personal question?”
Rylee sipped her Talamay then shrugged. “Sure.”
“That’s three times now you’ve spoken about Goruu as if you’d consider him as a potential mate.”
Niral ducked her head in what Rylee had learned was an emphatic Gaori nod. “You said ‘I’d break him’, you just said that he’s a ‘great guy’.”
Rylee sipped her drink, mentally noting that she’d need to stop soon: her head was starting to go genuinely fuzzy. “Does that bother you?”
“Well… maybe this is just a species thing, but that’s how a fellow Gaoian female would talk if she was also eyeing him up for a mating contract. And just before that you sounded as if you thought the idea of me and him was…”
“So what’s your question, Niral?”
“Am I…. what, are you asking if I would have sex with Goruu if I could?”
“I… well, I’m not sure. That’s a very strange idea to me, Rylee. But… okay, would you?”
Rylee felt an uncharacteristic rush of heat to her ears but forced herself to be truthful. “Privately, just between us girls? …I don’t know. Part of me wants to,” she confessed.
Niral made a soft growling noise, which Rylee speculated could only mean disbelief. “But he’s not even your species!” she objected.
“You couldn’t have cubs!”
“So… okay, is sex only about having cubs for you guys?” Rylee asked.
“That’s why we have mating contracts. Are you saying your species do it for other reasons?”
Rylee thought about that for a second, then sat up and set her drink down. “How would you react if I told you that I’ve had sex with other women?” She asked.
“…I… that’s just such an alien idea, Rylee. Why would you want to? Two females can’t have cubs together.”
“Because it’s fun! Doesn’t sex feel good for Gaoians though? Physically? Does the word ‘orgasm’ translate for you guys?”
“Well… yes. To both questions.” Niral said. Her ears were pointing almost completely opposite directions to one another: had she been human, Rylee suspected that Niral would have been bright red, squirming in her seat and fidgeting with her hands. “But that’s just… nice, you know? It’s not the point of mating.”
“Okay, so that’s how things are for your species. Fair enough.” Rylee said. “For mine, sex is about a whole lot more than having children. It’s… equally or even more about fun, pleasure and emotional intimacy.” Rylee said. “That’s more true for some people than for others, but in my case I don’t plan on ever having cu-, uh, children.”
“…You don’t? Ever?!”
“Nope. I’m doing important work where I am. Getting pregnant and taking maternity leave would take me away from all the action, and by the time that changes, I’ll be too old. But I like getting laid, and all I’m after from sex is the fun and not the commitment.”
She poured herself another drink and rested her head back again. Niral couldn’t resist probing for more information, however. Strange though it was, she hadn’t come to Earth out of a lack of fascination for this species, and Rylee had opened up a whole world of new questions that she would prefer not to leave unanswered.
“But… mating still leads to procreation for your kind, right? Can you consciously choose not to have cubs?”
“In a way… here.” Rylee stood up and shrugged out of her jacket, tugged off her tie and pulled her shirt over her head. She sat down wearing only a dark grey undergarment that covered and restrained her breasts.
Niral’s jaw threatened to drop. The human pilot’s body was an education in alien anatomy all by itself, layered in muscle atop solid muscle, each leaving a firm impression through the skin. There were so many of them! The overall effect was alien, but not ugly: Rylee’s body hinted at the incredible strength that was stored inside it, but also at agility, poise and exceptional control.
Seeing her staring, Rylee barked one of those human laughs, looked up, grabbed a structural spar on the ceiling and, after testing its weight-bearing capacity, hauled herself up into the air, pulling her legs up until they were pointed straight out in front of her, parallel with the ground. She found her pose and became perfectly still, a study in huge forces all finely balanced against one another.
“I had two dreams when I was a little girl. I was either going to be an astronaut, or join Cirque du Soleil” she said, conversationally. In a rapid yet smooth movement she flipped around until she was gripping the bar behind her, and lowered herself back to the deck. She alighted with a thump, and wobbled a bit on her feet.
“Woo. Yeah, I’ve had enough Talamay.” she said, collapsing back onto the couch, which creaked alarmingly under the impact of a weight it hadn’t been designed to handle.
“That was incred… wait, you can do that in Earth gravity?” Niral asked.
“Sure can! I can’t hold it for as long but… yeah, I need to show you Cirque du Soleil sometime, those guys make me look clumsy.”
She finished her drink and slid the bottle away from her. “Anyway… about choosing to not get pregnant from sex: feel here.” she said, indicating a crease between two muscles in her upper arm, neither of which even existed on Gaoians. Niral did so, tentatively, and recoiled when Rylee laughed and jerked away. “Firmer! You can’t hurt me and if you don’t really go for it you’ll just tickle me.” the human demanded.
Niral ducked her head in a nod and complied, firmly trying to bury her fingers in Rylee’s arm. It was like trying to push her hand through Tarimit wood but she felt, just below the surface, a little nub of matter that was even harder than the flesh around it.
“What is that?” She asked.
“Contraceptive implant. It releases a hormone that occurs naturally in human women and stops us from ovulating when we’re pregnant. Basically, it tricks my body into thinking I’m pregnant all the time, so I never actually get pregnant. So I can have all the sex I like without risking having a cu- a child.”
“But if you did have one, couldn’t your Sisters… no, wait, you don’t have a clan of females, do you?”
“Nope. If I had a kid, I’d either have to give up my career to look after them, which I’m not willing to do, or put them up for adoption or foist them on my brother or parents, which sounds immoral and irresponsible to me. And while I’m pro-choice, I’m dead-set against ever having an abortion myself, so I’m always care… what?” She paused upon seeing Niral’s expression.
“Ah… yeah. Termination of pregnancy.”
“You’d KILL an unwanted cub?” Niral looked sickened and horrified, her ears flattened themselves back along her skull and her eyes widened.
“I wouldn’t!” Rylee protested. “That’s how I see it too, I think it’s disgusting and wrong, and I take every precaution I can to make sure I never need to even consider it.”
“But you said… pro-choice? So you think other human women should be allowed to do that?”
“I think they should have the choice. When they choose to do that, well… it’s on their soul, not mine.” Rylee lamented. “Nobody wants for that to happen, nobody likes it, it’s just… you know, it’s seen as being the better alternative to giving the child a shitty life, you know? And the fact is that giving people the choice and the education to avoid having to make it works a lot better than just outright banning the practice.”
Niral still looked shaken, but she collected herself and thought about it. “I… that’s incredibly sad, Rylee. And upsetting. To think that a mother could ever find herself weighing her cub’s happy future against its life and deciding the kindest thing to do would be to…” She trailed off, unable to finish the sentence.
The human had the decency to look troubled. “Yeah.” she agreed.
“Couldn’t you just… not have sex unless and until you were willing to have little ones?”
Rylee sighed. “Some people try. They don’t usually succeed. We’ve got this whole “abstinence-only” thing where I’m from, and the kids who try to follow it are the ones who usually wind up having babies first because they can’t stop themselves, they get horny, they get laid, they don’t take the right precautions and… boom. Unwanted teenage pregnancy, and that often leads to a lot of problems for the child down the line.”
“It’s that powerful?” Niral inquired. “Your mating drive, I mean? That you can’t stop yourselves?”
“Hell yes. We do all kinds of stupid shit when it overtakes us: completely lose our focus, act without thought for the consequences…”
Enlightenment smote Niral in the forehead. “OH! You’re like the Vgork!”
Rylee frowned. “I don’t think I’ve met a Vgork…”
“Their males have this thing where the more highly placed they are in the social order, the more often they need to mate or else they’re overcome by a berserk rage. It usually ends badly.” Niral looked alarmed “Oh stars, and you’re a lot stronger and harder to subdue than they are…”
“No! No, that sounds a lot worse than we have it.” Rylee interrupted, soothingly. “We just get irrational and careless, but we CAN restrain ourselves. It’s just uncomfortable and distressing. Physically painful, even. So yes, we could ‘just not have sex’, but at the very least it’s frustrating.”
She set her head back again, staring off at nothing.
“And… you feel the mating urge towards Goruu? Despite that he’s not human?” Niral asked.
Rylee didn’t look up. “It’s…not exactly. It’s more like… I like Goruu as a person; I hope we’ll be friends, and usually I like to have sex with my friends. That’s kinda colliding with the fact that he’s not human in my head and, yeah, it’s weird for me too.”
She looked up and smiled sheepishly. “And I’m sorry if this makes you uncomfortable, Niral, but the same goes for you.”
Niral gave her a long, flat-eared stare. “It does?” she squeaked.
“Absolutely!” Rylee exclaimed. “And if you’re wondering how to take that, take it as a compliment. You’re a beautiful person. But neither of you are interested and even if you were we couldn’t possibly do it without you risking serious injury, so that’s where it ends.”
She sighed. “I know I’ve said that the, uh, ‘urge’ is a powerful thing, but emotionally well-balanced people have no problem with their interest not being reciprocated, and I wouldn’t even be up here if a lot of highly qualified people didn’t agree that I’m emotionally well-balanced. So yes, I ‘feel the urge’ towards both of you, but it’s under control and fading. But if there was no physical danger involved and if you both consented to it, I’d jump at the chance. Does that sound fair?”
“It sounds very strange and alien, but… You’re not Gaoian, I shouldn’t be surprised that you don’t behave exactly like Gaoians do. So, yes, that sounds fair.”
Niral looked the human in the eyes, and the vulnerability in the deathworlder’s expression took the worst off that discomfort. For all the intimidating controlled strength and thoroughly alien sexual morality, she was still talking to a fellow emotional sophont who had exposed herself to potentially serious social consequences out of trust and honesty. The human immediately became less dangerously alien in her eyes, and was again just Rylee.
“…Friends.” she agreed, and chittered happily when Rylee sagged with relief.
“Thank you, Niral.”
“I do have one more question, though.” Niral told her, as Rylee began to put her shirt back on.
“Is your attitude… typical? Of humans?”
“Oh, no! No! Far from it. I’m REALLY open-minded, and I decided a long time ago not to have any hangups about it.” Rylee said.
“Because the people who mind don’t matter, and the people who matter don’t mind.”
Niral thought about this. “I think that’s probably not an idea that works so well for Gaoians.” she said. “But you ARE controversial, then?”
Rylee grimaced. “Controversial, yeah. That’s putting it mildly. There are places on Earth where I’d be buried up to my neck and have rocks thrown at my head for being so sexually liberated.”
“…I’m sorry, was that an exaggeration or not? Because after the abortion thing…”
Rylee looked uncomfortable and a touch ashamed. “It wasn’t. Sadly.”
Again there was that disbelieving chirrup from Niral and an expression of mild horror.
“We can be kind of shitty to one another sometimes.” Rylee said. “I’d never do something like that and neither would anybody I care to associate with.”
“I understand.” Niral told her. “There are violent bigots in every species.”
Rylee smiled, and the last of the tension fled her entirely. “Thank you for understanding, Niral.”
“Thank you for trusting me enough to tell me these things.”
“What things?” Goruu asked, stepping back into the shuttle.
“…Female! Female things.” Niral squeaked, scooping up her cards. Goruu hesitated, then quirked his head in a Gaoian shrug and sat down at the card game again.
Rylee suppressed her smile. Gaoians were so cute sometimes.
Scotch Creek Extraterrestrial Research Facility
Martin Tremblay’s welcome to the Operation Stolen Star briefing room was the squeal of forty chairs as forty pairs of boots propelled their wearers to attention.
“As you were.” he said, acknowledging the collective respect and approaching the lectern at the front of the room as the men sat back down.
Its current occupant, Captain Owen Powell, was the commanding officer of the Stolen Star unit, and Tremblay couldn’t have asked for a better unit lead. Powell had regained the rank of Captain after enduring the British special forces tradition of demotion back to Private when he had joined the Special Boat Service.
“General.” He said.
“Apparently I have to make a speech.” Tremblay said, to general mirth. “I promise it’ll be quick.”
Powell stepped aside. “Take it away, sir.”
Tremblay adjusted the lectern’s microphone and considered the men in front of him for a second. Canadians, British, Americans, Australians, and a smattering of others, all with long, impressive and heavily classified service records.
“The last hundred years” he began “have been full of firsts. Not all of them were illustrious ones. But they’re all worth remembering. The first world war, the first use of a nuclear weapon… but I think there have been many more positive ones than negative: The first man in space, the first man on the moon, the first woman to travel faster than light.”
“Except.” he said, adjusting the mic again “…not really. Yuri Gagarin, it turns out, was not the first person in space, nor was Rylee Jackson the first to exceed lightspeed. Those honours both, according to the information we have, belong to a Roman soldier called Lucius Bellator Maximus.”
“Have we had our heroes stripped from us by alien action? No. Because that Roman didn’t go into space knowingly or willingly. Gagarin did. Jackson did. And it was human skill, science and engineering that let them do it.
“So, are you going to be the first men to set foot on an alien world? No. Are you going to be the first men we send there? Absolutely, and that’s an honour that sets you alongside the giants of history.”
“Theirs, however, were missions of discovery. Their objectives were to break new boundaries for the sake of breaking them, to prove that they could be broken. You are called to something higher. Not to impugn discovery as a cause, but I personally rate freedom even more highly, and you are being called upon to travel to another world not only to prove that it can be done, but to defend that world and to turn it into the vehicle of our liberation from a prison we do not deserve.”
“The future liberty of the human race may rest on your ability to get this job done. I am in absolutely no doubt that we have never been in safer hands.”
There was polite applause as he stepped back, and shared a salute with Powell. “Carry on, Captain.”
“The Ambassadorial party is staying on this station overnight.” Goruu said, after Rylee had gone. It had been surprising and both alarming and funny to see the usually graceful human pilot stumble back towards the spartan bunk she had erected for herself under one of Pandora’s wings, failing to even keep to a straight line.
“They’ve had quarters made up for them?” Niral asked him.
“Yes. There are nest-beds up there for us as well…”
“That’s a pity… and here I thought we had some privacy tonight. I had this contract all ready for you to sign…” Niral said, holding it up.
The expression of delight on Goruu’s face was priceless.
Jennifer Delaney. Mid-twenties, space-babe pirate queen, colonial governor, wilderness survival expert, full of alien medicine and thus possibly immortal, and all alone.
Well, except that the last time she’d done piracy was months ago now, so that maybe didn’t count any longer, and the colony in question had been a pile of smoking rubble the last time she laid eyes on it. Being bombarded from orbit and then invaded tended to do that to a place. They’d made a good escape there, after an “out-of-the-frying-pan-into-the-fire” fashion.
The point was that the pirate queen and colonial governor bits maybe didn’t apply any longer. But she was keeping the space-babe part.
And then there had been… other stuff. Honestly, it was all kind of a blur, now. A long, confusing, relentlessly violent blur that she knew had involved nearly dying a couple of times. She’d lost track of Darragh who was maybe kind of useless but at least he’d have been something resembling company right now. And she was trying not to think about Adrian’s fate, with all that fecking fire foam that did weird things to their brains, and the ship venting atmosphere, and the way she’d left him to die because if she’d tried to save him they’d have both perished…
She was trying, she reminded herself irritably, not to think about it.
She had only ever bothered to remember one planet’s coordinates, and that fact had saved her life… but then the bastard escape pod had landed on the wrong end of the continent.
Bereft of alternatives, she’d squared her shoulders, hoisted her gear and started walking.
At least Cimbrean was a Class 4 world, which meant that survival wasn’t exactly difficult… But her four-month trek across half a hemisphere had turned up a leaf that, when boiled, produced something that tasted almost like a cup of sweet tea. Which was nice.
On reflection, Jennifer Delaney, mid-twenties, space-babe discoverer of almost tea, ex-pirate and governor of a hole in the ground just didn’t have the same ring to it.
“Shut up, Jen.” She chastised herself. That muddled second-guessing of herself was an Old Jen habit. But the old Jen would have dithered and died alongside Adrian aboard that cruiser. The old Jen wouldn’t have seen a five-thousand-whatever hike across a whole continent and just accepted it as the next in a long series of trials she would overcome. The old Jen would have broken down in tears at least twice as often during these last four months as the new Jen had.
Pirate queen and colonial governor or not, she was toughened, a survivor, somebody who knew how to keep putting one foot in front of the other no matter what a sadistic universe decided to throw at her. She had all of that that going for her.
Everything else, not so much. Her shoes had given up their ghosts inside the first week of hiking, and while the foot-wraps she had fashioned from the sleeves of her shirt had stopped her feet getting cut up and bloody, they hadn’t stopped her soles from hardening to the consistency of her nan’s patent ossified soda bread. The datapad that had been guiding her back to the only thing that even vaguely resembled civilisation on this world was a more recent casualty, lost in a cliff-based accident.
That had been four valleys ago. It was remarkable just how hard it was to find the bombed-out ruin of a mansion without a map. At least she had been all but on top of it when the little device had gone bouncing down the rocks, never to be recovered. She had only needed to explore four valleys before the fourth finally yielded her glimpse of home… at the other end of it, a good day’s trek away, and night was falling.
Oh well, it wouldn’t be the last time she made camp anyway. And at least there were lots of the sort-of-tea bush around.
She set up her camp with the practiced skill of somebody who had done it every night in a row for four months, boiled herself a cup of tea-ish and a healthy vegetable stew, and fell asleep beside the fire.
Morning brought warm sunshine and morning mist, which she set off through in the best mood she’d felt for some time, walking stick in hand. Something birdlike thrummed past her head and perched in a nearby tree, angled its multifaceted eyes at her and preened a shimmering wing, singing a warbling song that reminded her of a Nightingale. It was beautiful.
Her well-thrown rock knocked it off its perch with a squawk.
Happily singing the chorus to “Linger” - the only part of the song she could remember - she strapped the bird-ish’s broken carcass to her bag. “Meat stew tonight!” she told it.
Somewhere inside her, the old Jen, the I. T. girl who had been inconsolable for a week when her gerbil had died, whimpered. The new Jen, however, was a practical, weathered survivor and ignored the old Jen’s objections in favour of valuable protein.
That was her day, walking along the soft sort-of-grass by a burbling stream in the warm summer sunshine of an alien world, collecting alien plants, herbs and sort-of-mushrooms and telling a dead alien sort-of-bird about how she was going to cook it. It was mid-afternoon when she stepped out of the woods and found herself standing in front of the palace ruins. The front gardens, originally a gorgeous masterwork of horticulture tended by little drones and automated systems, had been bombed down to a muddy paste, and were now grown over by a thicket of small bushes and tall sort-of-grass.
“And you thought you’d never make it on your own, you eejit.” she told herself aloud, grinning at her own success.
Despite the bombardment, the landscaping was still mostly intact, as were the stone steps that curved around what had once been an ornamental pond but was now a crater, and up to the front of the building itself, which was basically an expanse of rubble interestingly punctuated by half-intact walls.
Oh well, at least there was the material here to get a roof over her head, if nothing else.
She set her bag down by what had once been the front entrance, leaned her walking stick against it, and began to explore the ruins. She wasn’t sure what she was looking for, exactly: a change of clothes, maybe, or some emergency rations. What she found instead was her bath.
It was almost perfectly intact, standing proud in the middle of its tiled bathroom floor, though the rest of the bathroom was long gone. A few shrapnel scars notwithstanding, there it was: her bath.
Hardly daring to hope, she crept up to it, and turned the faucet on. There was a gurgle, and horrible brown sludge vomited out of the tap.
Oh well. You couldn’t have everything in life. She’d just have to haul and boil the water herself.
Fetching enough water to fill the bath was a job that took most of her remaining daylight hours. She made and ate her not-quite-bird stew, slept, feeling filthy and gritty, and dreamed of hot water.
It was a dream that she spent the whole of the next day’s morning and afternoon turning into a reality. From the moment she woke she set to work on it, building her campfire and setting up the small boiling tin that had been in her escape pod right next to the bath. For hours, she got into a rhythm of scooping out some water, boiling it, pouring it in, scooping some out, boiling it, foraging for firewood… The water heated so slowly, but it definitely heated, and if there was one thing that Jen had learned from her months of cross-country hiking, it was how to let her mind entertain itself while the body worked.
Finally, by the early evening, the bath was the perfect temperature: steaming, but not painful. She had no soap, no bubble-bath foam or bath bombs, but it was still a hot bath, the first she’d had in months and months.
Smiling like all was right with the world, she disrobed, stepped up onto the bath’s plinth, raised her foot and dipped it gently in. A long sigh of the deepest contentment escaped from her.
She looked up. There was a speck of brightness in the sky, a spaceship that gleamed in the sunlight, casting its sonic boom ahead of it as it lost speed and turned.
Jennifer Delaney addressed the universe in general: “Fuck. You.”
Scotch Creek Extraterrestrial Research Facility
The middle of the chamber was a careful scaffolding, built to millimeter tolerances, all of which had been filled by vehicles. Three Navistar 7000 trucks were squeezed in, each full of crates, bags, boxes and, here and there, just enough room for the soldiers to sit, each hugging his gear. Most of the remaining space was taken up by a pair of Kawasaki Mules, and the last was occupied by an example of the very latest in human military technology.
Tremblay was considering it when the troopers arrived. They had all pitched in with parking and loading the trucks the night before, and were now shaved, rested, geared up, well fed and as ready for indefinite deployment off-world as anybody ever could be.
It wasn’t an occasion for pomp or speeches. The project was top-secret for a reason. There were no politicians present, only soldiers ready for deployment, and the gaggle of military scientists who would be sending them there.
Captain Powell joined him by the weapon system.
“I’m amazed they agreed to release one of these for the colony’s use.” Tremblay commented.
“Bit disappointing really. I was pushing for a WERBS.” Powell said, drawing a laugh from the general.
“You may as well have asked for a couple of nukes, eh?” Tremblay told him. “Besides, ET’s going to brown his pants enough when they see this thing in action.”
“If, sir.” Powell said, not bothering to disguise his smug confidence. “If they see it in action.”
“Fair point.” Tremblay turned to the SBS officer and extended a hand, which Powell shook. “It’s been a pleasure having you on base, Captain.”
“I bet it has.” Powell grinned.
Tremblay suppressed his smirk. “Carry on, captain.”
As the captain shouted his men into place on the trucks, Tremblay stepped back across the concrete to where Ted Bartlett was tapping on a tablet computer, looking thoughtful.
“You’re certain you got that inertia problem sorted out?” Tremblay asked him, quietly so none of the soldiers could hear.
“Two months ago, general.” Bartlett reassured him.
“…Good.” Tremblay said, watching the men load up. “Good.”
Bartlett tapped out a few last things, then looked up. “All aboard? Zone clear?” He shouted. There was a general thumbs-up and nodding. “Zone clear!” He shouted, and tapped a button on the tablet.
A block of purest possible black immediately enclosed the trucks, Mules, soldiers and weapon system.
“Don’t you think a countdown might have been appropriate?” Tremblay asked as the scientists and technicians began to vacate the vacuum chamber. “Give it a sense of occasion?”
They were the last to step through the pressure door, which Bartlett closed and locked, before acknowledging the question with a shrug.
“That was definitely a camp back there… look, here’s a pack and walking stick.”
Kirk looked around, holding some kind of scanning device, then pointed with one of his longer arms. “There’s a heat signature over… that way.” he said, and stepped daintily over the rubble to pursue it.
Julian followed, weaving through the bombed-out shell of what had obviously been a lavishly grand and expensive property once upon a time.
The heat signature turned out to be a huge stone bath, steaming gently. Relaxing in it was a red-haired woman, head resting on the side, eyes closed, floating gently with her arms splayed and her breasts just breaking the surface of the water.
“Woah!” Julian exclaimed and turned a one-eighty, feeling heat rush to his cheeks.
“You boys are either an hour too early, or four months too late, and I don’t know which.” said the woman. Irishness lilted off every syllable, heavy with weary resignation. “Go away, I’m having a bath.”
Kirk leaned down and whispered in Julian’s ear: “Any advice on how to deal with… this?”
Julian shook his head, eyes wide as he stared desperately off towards the distant mountains - no! Not the mountains, the hills - no! The wall, yes. The wall seemed safe. “You’re on your own.”
Kirk chuffed a loud coughing sound, which Julian had learned was the equivalent of clearing his throat. “Jennifer Delaney, I presume.” He stated, making a good shot at seeming to be completely unfazed. Julian knew there was no reason why he should be - she wasn’t his species, and aliens seemed to have no hangups about nudity, but after that reception, being fazed should have gone as read.
There was a sigh, and a sloshing of water. “I’m not going to persuade you to go away, am I? Aye, that’s me. Oh for crying out loud man, you can turn around. Am I the first woman you’ve seen in years or something?”
“Um… yes.” Julian said.
“Oh. Really? Well you can turn around anyway.”
Julian did so, carefully. She had turned and folded her arms atop the edge of the bath, and sunk down into the water a little. Technically, she was just as modest now as if she had been fully clothed, but that did little to pacify Julian’s starved libido.
“So who are you two, anyway?” she asked.
“I’m, uh. Julian.” he said. “Julian Etsicitty. This is Kirk.”
“Krrkktnkk A’ktnnzzik’tk.” clarified the man himself. “…Kirk. And yes, I’ve seen Star Trek.”
“I always preferred Doctor Who.” Jen said. “Etsicitty, that’s… what, Navajo?”
“Uh… yeah. I’m impressed.”
“I used to work in I. T.” she said, plainly convinced that this was an explanation. When their blank expressions told her that it wasn’t, she sighed and clarified: “lots of boring office hours sat on a computer with nothing to do, lots of clicks on the “random” button on Wikipedia because there are only so many cat pictures a girl can look… at… look, I’m trying to take a bath here.”
“Here? Now?” Julian asked.
“I hiked for four months halfway across a continent to get to this bath. I spent all day filling it myself by boiling water in a tin this big.” She spread her hands to demonstrate and Julian cursed his eyes for their traitorous flash downwards. Fortunately, she didn’t seem to notice. “I’m not getting out until I’m good and soaked, not even if the planet’s exploding.”
“We, ah… came here to help you get Cimbrean up and running as a colony of Earth…” Kirk said, looking around at the desolation.
“Great! Thank you! I could use the help. But right now I. Am. Taking. A. Bath.” she repeated. “If you boys would be so kind as to go get started on doing whatever it is you’re going to do, I’ll join you as soon as I’m done here, how does that sound?”
It sounded absurd to Julian, but he would have sooner gone back to Nightmare armed with nothing more than a toothpick than say so to Jen’s face. Fortunately, Kirk seemed able to take almost anything in his stride, and so he simply bowed and said “As you wish, governor. I’ll oversee the deployment personally.”
“Hang on!” Julian protested. “What happened here? Kirk said this was a mansion last time he saw it.”
“Taking a bath.”
“Come on, Julian.” Kirk said, gripping him by the arm and politely pulling him away. Julian emphatically did not look back as Delaney rolled back over with a splash and a happy sigh.
“CONSIG is green!”
“On schedule, too.” Bartlett said, happily. “Pressure is at… twenty millibar. We’ve passed the line, go to send.”
“Capacitors primed, ready to release, stage one field at niner-eight per cent.”
“Right.” Bartlett acknowledged General Tremblay with a nod. “Sending in three… two… one… Send.”
Inside the Jump Array chamber, vast amounts of energy were shunted from alien-derived supercapacitors into an arch of exotic equipment that swept up and over the black cuboid of stasis-enclosed man and machine. There was a ripple, like light on the surface of a lake, and the stasis field and everything inside it vanished.
The floor shook with a solid thump, and in the total silence of near-vacuum, a centimeter-long piece of truck wing mirror fell to the concrete, neatly snipped off by the edge of the spacetime distortion field..
“Major…” Tremblay said.
Bartlett grimaced. “Woops.”
Jennifer Delaney, mid twenties, space-babe pirate queen, planetary governor, wilderness survival expert, possibly immortal, discoverer of alien space tea and feeling truly clean for the first time in much too long.
Her clothes, however, were not clean. Not even remotely. They were stained, greasy, torn, and, not unsurprisingly, had an undignified aroma to them as if they had been worn by a sweaty young woman for four whole months, along with all that entailed.
Why did she even still have them? Why didn’t she have a towel? She’d had plenty of time to look for one.
She threw the vile garments into the bath in the (probably forlorn) hope that this might result in them becoming at least cleaner to the point of being viable to wear until a replacement showed up, and then marched nude out of the bathroom and towards where her bedroom had once been. Hopefully something of the small wardrobe she had accumulated there might still be intact enough to salvage, or fashion some crude clothing from.
Navigating a demolished alien palace by memory turned out to be trickier than simply remembering where the walls and stuff had been, though, and pretty soon she found herself thoroughly lost. She was just debating swallowing her pride and calling for this “Kirk” fella to help her out when she rounded a corner and found herself on the back patio.
There were at least thirty men there, all unloading crates and equipment from the back of several large green military trucks that had been parked on what was once the lawn. They gave a general impression of soldier-ness, and were all staring at her.
The old Jen, who’d had nightmares about pretty much this exact scenario, surfaced long enough to mutter, under her breath, the complaint. “Oh, fuck everything”, but then the new Jen was back in control.
She planted her hands firmly on her hips, issued a death glare which caused a platoon of hardened veteran special-forces soldiers to start desperately looking at everything but her, and demanded:
“Well? Which one of you eejits wants to stop gawking first and hand me some fecking clothes?”