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Raptor – Chapter 1-2

Written by shadar :: [Friday, 09 October 2015 21:14] Last updated by :: [Wednesday, 18 November 2015 10:59]

Chapter 1

It was November, and I was unlucky enough to land on one of the old refueling outposts that are located halfway between wormhole jump-points. They called it Monk’s World.

The PortsOfCall data on Monk’s was pretty thin, with most of the info describing the anti-matter plant for refueling ships, along with some info on the shore accommodations. The stats weren’t too bad: gravity at 1.3 along with lots of liquid water. Average temps around 20C at the outpost. Atmosphere had a bit too much oxygen, but was perfectly breathable.

It sounded like a great place to suck in some air that hadn’t been through everyone’s else’s lungs a thousand times. Plus with the higher gravity, I could get a decent workout. I was really looking forward to that when my holo-reader display turned black and huge red letters floated in the air:



Extreme bio-hazard if exposed to the raw atmosphere.

Microscopic parasitic infestation.

Medically benign symbiotics.


Infectious upon death of the host.



Those dire warnings were followed by a bunch of medical data. I quit reading when the holo filled the air in front of me with greatly enlarged pictures of bugs that belonged in my worst nightmare. Too many heads and arms and legs and whatever else sticking out of them.

Damn it. Bugs. Why did it have to be bugs?

My usual policy is to never get off my ship at red letter ports, but given the Chief Engineer was having trouble refueling the ship’s AMAT core, Captain Janeway ordered us all off. Mala, the ship’s Exec, whispered worriedly that the minimum safe distance for a total core breach was ten kilometers. She’s an ex-Marine and usually cold as ice. When Mala gets worried, I get terrified.

I grabbed my bug-out bag and ran for the exit.

A dozen of us exited into a transparent sealed vestibule that led to the underground tube train station. The planet looked tropical and surprisingly pretty considering the dire warnings, with lots of trees and flowers. Two other ships were docked at refueling stations, and a half dozen rather decrepit ships sat in a field just outside the landing area, with vegetation and trees growing up around them.

The gravity was brutal after months of low ship’s gravity. It was all we could do to stagger down the vestibule on weakened legs. Ground pounders laughingly call it Spacer gait.

We’d barely made it halfway to the tube station when Janeway sent a second message: “New issue. Find a place to stay for a few nights. Or so.”

I quickened my pace. Janeway underplayed everything. In a rare moment of mirth, Mala described the time they’d lost engines and were headed towards a miles-per-second collision with an asteroid. At the last moment, Janeway keyed the intercom to announce: “Might want to hang on for a bit, kids. Could get bumpy.” In the end, the ship grazed the top of a mountain on that tumbling, airless asteroid, losing some antennas. You can’t cut it closer than that, but Janeway treated it like a fender-bender.

So when he started talking about antimatter leakage and delays of days, “or so”, and Mala worried whispered about anti-matter detonations, it was time to look for another ship. Two days can easily become two weeks or two months if something major was broken. We might wind up joining those other abandoned derelicts. Boats that were too badly broken to be worth repairing this far from a depot.

Or we could blow up. The glassy, kilometer-wide crater called Dirk’s Folly told the horrific tale of a a major AMAT breach. I wondered if Dirk, whoever he’d been, had been any dumber than our Chief Engineer.

PortsOFCall said the tube train that we were walking toward ran underground from the landing pads to a decontamination station and then into the settlement itself, passing under a huge granite hill along the way. Refueling and minor maintenance tasks were done by robots. Nobody touched atmosphere here, let alone breathed it.

I hate Decon stations, but it was either that or stay on the ship and risk vaporization, assuming I could talk Janeway into it. Lesser of evils won. I’d rather be a little fried than vaporized.

As usual, Decon was an agony. Despite the tube car’s shielding, I wanted to scream as the itchy, burning pinprick sensation from the disruptor beam got to me. Some of my worst nightmares live there, but I managed to hold it together until that long minute of agony ended. Worst Decon ever. Monk’s was serious about pest control.

Once inside the dome, my nerves still buzzing and body slightly numb, we all waddled toward the nearest bar to toast having our feet back on dirt. This is the most sacred of all Spacer traditions. You could jinx an entire ship if you didn’t participate.

I stopped for a single drink. Nobody said I had to get drunk with the rest of them. The synthesized booze was awful. I choked down a synth-beer before escaping to wander further into the settlement. Long experience had taught me that a soft bed was more important than good booze. Sleeping in plus gravity was hard enough after a few months of 1/7th gravity. And unlike the rest of the crew, I wasn’t planning on passing out drunk under a bar table.

There were only two choices for accommodations; the usual Rastafarian hovel that you find at every port and the Granite Hotel, named for the massive rock outcrop they’d hollowed out to house it. PortsOfCall said the Granite had protected its guests during the last crash at the spaceport.

No surprise. The crash that is. Given this port’s usual clientele, serious crashes are much more likely here than at most. Modern ships rarely stop for fuel — they have the tankage to make their runs non-stop — so spaceports like Monk’s exist solely for fueling the ancient Terran ships that still clank and clatter around the galaxy, all of them pre-QED antimatter-fueled tramps that broke down, crashed or just blew up far too frequently. Many of those ships were hundreds of years old, and most of them had been flying continuously that entire time. There were no minimum safety or technical standards enforced on these outer routes. Once you left Core space, the rules were simple: if you could lift off you flew.

Unfortunately, it’s far harder to land than to lift off, and crews of some ailing ships couldn’t fix all their launch problems while in-transit. Sometimes it all went horribly wrong at the end.

In contrast, modern cargo ships are all owned by wealthy Scalantran mate-groups. When their ships got old and started breaking down, they sold them to wealthy Terran traders. From there they progressively trickled down to less and less prosperous owners over another century or two until they wound up like Janeway’s ship: a tramper. The bruised apples are always at the bottom of the barrel.

His ship didn’t even display a proper name on the hull. Just the model number it had been given when it was refitted for Terran use: FleetCargo Model SH-1T. The crew called her Shit because she was. Janeway was the only one who called her Shirley.

The crew was a surly bunch whose only entertainment seemed to be getting drunk. I’d never seen so many alcoholics on a single ship. Still, they’d named her right. These SH-1T’s are the sorriest pieces of space junk flying.

The last of my credit got me checked into the Granite Hotel. They had a nice room near the top of a hollowed-out cavern. Like most Spacers, I don’t trust things that crawl, creep or slither on the ground. I wanted to be as high as possible. In every way imaginable.

It took me an hour to get settled at the hotel, at which point I walked back to rejoin the rest of the crew at the bar. They were still hard at it, slamming down shots. Even on-board ship, they pulled shifts while seriously hung over, chomping down AlphaBio to prevent liver damage. But that’s the way Janeway’s ship ran — one drug to kill you, another to keep you alive.

Monk’s was even worse. All the local patrons were astoundingly wrinkled and ancient looking. Way older than my great-grandfather. Yet to a man they were slamming down shots as fast as the crew. Drugs or not, how did they still have working livers?

I’ve always preferred exercise and a toke on some weed to booze, so I got up to go for a walk, hoping to work some strength back into my legs.

I’d barely gone two blocks when the roar of an arriving ship made the air tremble, even here inside the granite dome. A quick glance at a public access display identified it as the Comanche, a tramper carrying a commune of farmers headed for Dickson 3, a newly terraformed planet that was just opening up for colonization. My walk could wait. I returned to the bar to join the locals as they ogled the new arrivals.

A line of short, stout farmers and their families soon appeared, rocking their way down the street as if the heavy gravity didn’t bother them. Their powerfully-muscled bodies were almost as wide as they were tall. If not for the beards, it would have been hard to tell the men from their women.

Zetans. They came from a first generation world that had very heavy gravity. Like many other colonists, they’d been genetically tweaked by the Seeders, in their case thicker bones and muscles to handle the high G’s. They proudly called themselves Dwarves, a name that came from the ancient legends of Earth.

The Dwarves walked right past the bar while busily sucking in great lungfuls of Monk’s air. Given the extensive air filtration, the air here was better than most, but Zetans would easily pleased in any case. They never went anywhere without their farm animals, even slept with them, which explained the barnyard odor that swirled in their wake. They were also infamous for fertilizing their crops with their own fecal matter. I could barely imagine what their ship must smell like.

OK. So maybe Janeway’s ship wasn’t the absolute bottom of the barrel.

Despite the reek, the barkeep tried to coax some of the men in, handing out small glasses of beer for them to sample. Several of them tried it, only to spit it out like rat poison. They gave the barkeep an earful for his efforts, telling him that no decent man should contaminate their organic selves with chemically-processed beer and synthesized liquor. For the Zetans, it was either Organic or nothing.

I was about to resume my walk when several young, bright-eyed Dwarvish girls slipped through the back door of the bar, announcing they were ready to party. They bordered on cute, assuming you liked some serious muscle on a girl. Dwarves don’t really fill out until their third decade, which is when they become fertile. These girls were positively skinny by Dwarvish standards.

A short-haired blonde settled onto the stool next to me. Her eyes were brown and tiny, and set deeply into a broad, pudgy face that was forgettable at best. In contrast to her tiny, sunken eyes, she had bigger biceps than me, and I work out whenever I can. She was all sinew and muscle built on an impressively female chassis, but given her Zetan genetics, would be far stronger than any human man. Most Spacers would have a problem with that, but not me. I was just happy for some female company. Flesh and blood always trumps sleazy sex-programming and the worn-out SynFlesh of the usual sexbots. But I’m a bit of an oddity for a Spacer. My comrades prefer the sexbots, but I’m not into the kinds of extreme fetishes that most of them enjoyed.

The sexbots that you find in every spacer bar are nearly indestructible, not to mention more flexible than a real woman. Yet they come across as humans with all the usual imperfections. They could easily pass the Turing test — as long as they thought they were talking you into buying some “optional services”. Everything about them felt, worked and smelled authentically human, and they knew every way of making love from every culture in the galaxy, alien or human. They would drip with desire and proclaim unbounded willingness, agreeable to anything, right up to the point where you hit your credit limit. Then you’d become invisible.

But that wasn’t what I was looking for. I like real women, despite their often undecipherable emotions and all the strangeness and wonder of getting to know someone you may or may not even like. But then, I grew up on a planet, and not in the virtual reality simulations aboard a starship like most Spacers. Call me old-fashioned, but I still like the challenge of talking a real girl out of her panties, and not just by flaunting my credit chip.

I began the time-honored ritual by buying her a drink as we tried to get to know each other well enough to discover if there was enough chemistry to make the next step. As always, I stacked the deck in my favor by discretely opening a tiny vial of synthesized Supremis pheromones. Thanks to my mangled face, I need serious help in the chemistry department.

You ever heard about the Raptor World?” I began.

Her face lit up in surprise. That wasn’t the opening line she’d been expecting. “Raptors? You mean like the dinosaurs back on old Earth?”

Kind of. But meaner. Bigger too.”

I think I heard about them,” she said, tilting her head as she tried to bat those tiny eyelashes. “Something about cloning them from DNA they found inside amber or something. But they got loose.”

No, that was just a bit of ancient fiction. The monsters I’m talking about are very real and highly intelligent to the point of being arguably sentient. They’re native to Apex Prime, over in the Argent Sector.”

Monsters? How big are they?”

Big enough to bite you in half.”

Her eyes danced as she slid closer to me. Everyone loves a good tale while getting drunk in the relative safety of a bar in the middle of absolute nowhere.

I was on Apex Prime looking for xintanite deposits a number of years ago,” I started. “My job was to lead an away team of four geologists and a three-man security team. We went deeper into that damnable jungle than anyone had dared go before. We were careful and we were prepared, using the latest tech to cloak our movements and minimize our scent and sound, but those damned raptors found us anyway. They can smell better than a dog and have the eyes of an eagle.”

I wasn’t going to tell Darcy that a “number of years ago” was actually fifteen. Thanks to my frequent wormhole transits, I look younger than I am.

We shot our way out of the first raptor attack, killing at least a dozen of those razor-clawed monstrosities. They were seven feet tall and fast as a cheetah and they had WAY too many teeth. Double rows of razor fangs to be exact. Hard scaly bodies too. Tough as nails to stop, but we’d brought the right firepower for the job. Or so we thought.”

I paused to let that sink in.

What we didn’t know was that this first group were just babies. When Momma came to their rescue, she stood twice their height, and was seriously pissed when she saw all her dead raptorlings. It took a half dozen exploding rounds to bring her down. We thought that was the end of it, and then something started ripping trees out of the ground as it headed our way, the ground shaking from its footfall. The mate of the female we’d just killed was eight tons of pure muscle welded onto a twenty-five foot tall armored body with twelve-inch razor fangs.”

Darcy stared at me wide-eyed. “Jeezus geezus …” she purred.

The big male quickly bit Rogers’ head off and swallowed it in a single gulp. Given that Rogers was our security chief, this was not a good sign. Then it grabbed Higgins and ripped him in half at the waist before gulping down both halves. Higgins had been our number two Security guy. Even worse, Gibbons, the third member of my supposedly elite security team, lost his Mark 9 while trying to escape the slaughter of his buddies. He ran away into the jungle. He didn’t make it far.

That left me with my laser along with a small disruptor. That and a smattering of personal sidearms that the geologists carried. I fired my disruptor first, but the beast was too large for the field. The disintegrating glow spread outward to surround its body as per normal, but instead of shrinking inward to vaporize the raptor, the field shimmered and faded uselessly away. Same with my second shot. Too much body mass. Cursing, I switched to my laser and fired two full-power bursts, each of them burning huge patches from its scaly hide but without penetrating deep enough to damage any vital organs.

The big raptor wasn’t going to give me any more shots. He began leaping to the side whenever I fired, moving with the dexterity of a very athletic dog. I needed to focus on one spot if I was going to penetrate that hide, but the moment my beam touched him he’d leap thirty feet at a hop. He knew about lasers.

The geologist closest to the beast emptied his entire magazine of armor-piercing ammo into its face. Those rounds could take down the biggest Terran game, but it just pissed off the raptor. He roared in pain as it shook its head, madder than ever. We all started firing, and our combined firepower drove it back, its forelegs moving in a blur as it swatted away most of our bullets. Clearly we weren’t going to be able to kill it with these puny weapons.

I yelled for the survivors to follow me as I made a run for the ship, firing back over my shoulder as I ran. We’d barely made it out of the clearing before the enraged raptor mowed down several trees to race ahead and cut us off.“

This is the point in my story where most people just laugh and walk away, thinking I was making it all up. Bullet—proof dinosaurs. Right. I don’t blame them. Spacers are infamous for their long-imagined fantasies involving aliens and monsters. Wildly imagined tales about desperate fights to stay alive. Most of it’s bullshit.

The reality of interstellar space travel is that it’s incredibly boring. Months and months of crushing routine, bad food and stinking air. That said, nobody really wants excitement when you’re light years from the nearest port, stuck inside a pressurized can sailing through an infinite vacuum. Most Spacers keep to themselves when off-duty, filling the time before their next shift by plugging into the myriad of virtual reality nets that every ship shared.

But the muscular blonde girl sitting beside me at the bar wasn’t a Spacer. She was a farmer, and she seemed truly interested in my story, enthralled even. She shivered as she drank my tale in, her imagination racing, eyes wide, lower lip trembling with fear.

That’s just awful,” she moaned. “I can’t even imagine … how could anyone survive that?” Her eyes were full of wonder as her voice trailed off.

I couldn’t help but grin. I had a great audience today. Even if my night ended here at the bar, I’d chalk tonight up as a win.

I continued my tale. “I kept firing my laser at the beast, trying to burn the same spot on its belly. I was trying to ignite its scaly flesh – the atmospheric oxygen levels were very high on that world. Unfortunately, that’s when the trigger-happy geologists started running out of ammo. The beast went after the first shooter who ran out, darting in to bite the poor bastard. The man’s head and shoulders disappeared inside that huge, razor-toothed mouth, and then blood spurted in all directions as the beast bit down while shaking its head back and forth, neatly sawing him into two pieces. With a flick of its head it tossed the dead geologist’s upper trunk into the air to catch and swallow it like an oversized dog treat. Then it then sucked the organs out of the lower half of that poor bastard’s body, intestines hanging from its toothy mouth as it looked around for its next victim.”

Darcy began gripping my arm painfully.

The rest of the geologists panicked. They ran off into the jungle despite my best efforts to keep them together. The beast caught them from behind, one at a time, delivering horrifically lethal bites. Once they were all dead, the huge raptor turned and charged at me.”

What did you do?” Darcy gasped.

Only thing I could given it was running right at me. I held the trigger of my laser down as I blasted the beast’s face, melting most of one eyeball. I switched to the second eye and the beast roared and shook its head as it ran right past me, blinded. I ran the other way, but it started sniffing loudly, searching for me. As I said earlier, they can smell better than dogs.”

Darcy’s eyes were huge, her mouth hanging open as she tried to envision that.

It roared and stomped around, blindly squashing what was left of its victims as it tried to separate the smell of dead human from live. I took advantage of the confusion to run deeper into the jungle, my hands shaking so badly that it was hard to change the power cell on my laser. I waited until the beast was sniffing around the opposite side of the clearing and then ran for the ship, clawing my way frantically through the dense underbrush.

Unfortunately, they can hear really well too. The beast came after me, moving as fast as a flitter, snapping tree trunks like twigs. It caught up with me to slam its foot down on my back, burying me in the deep muck, which saved my life. For the moment anyway. The beast lifted his foot to try and stomp me again, but that gave me just enough time to squirm to the side. I thought I was going to escape by burrowing under the muck, but he slammed his foot down on my legs, breaking one of them. Reduced to crawling and in terrible pain, I looked up in horror at that double row of razor teeth as he reached down to bite me. I knew with absolute certainty that I was going to be eaten alive.”

I paused there, as I always do. Time to let it all sink it.

Darcy wiggled on her stool with excitement, blinking as if surprised. “But … but you’re still here, with me. Alive and all warm and manly. How could you have, you know …?”

Survived?” I finished for her. “I was saved by an angel.”

She frowned. “What?”

Those razor fangs were starting to close around me, Darcy, when something hit that raptor hard enough to send him flying backward and away from me. All eight tons of him. Unfortunately, the beast caught me with its claws as it was knocked away, just a single swipe, but that was enough to nearly rip my face off.”

She reached up to gently run her fingers along the deep grooves that cut diagonally across my face. “How big were those claws anyway?”

Nearly as big as its teeth, and so sharp that I didn’t feel anything at first. I was too busy trying to crawl away, blinded by my own blood. The beast was back on his feet in a second, sniffing loudly as it leaped forward to land right on top of me, straddling me as it reached down with those horrible teeth a second time. Once again, something hit it hard at the last possible moment, knocking it away from me. I rolled onto my side to look up through blood drenched eyes – and saw something completely impossible.”

I paused to take a long sip of the fresh beers the bartender placed before us. He was listening too.

What? What did you see?” Darcy asked, breathlessly. “Tell me...”

I set my beer down, and stared into her eyes. “I saw a little girl sitting on the raptor’s head, arms and legs wrapped around its face as she struggled to pull him back and away from me.”

Darcy’s face froze, and then she laughed hard enough to blow the foam off her beer. “Right. I mean, come on, seriously now? How little?”

A kindergartner, more or less.”

That’s crazy,” she said, shaking her head as she wondered what kind of sick fetish I was into.

Crazy, yes. Absolutely,” I nodded. “I’ve heard it said that people can be overcome by personal fantasies of salvation at the exact moment of death. The mind’s final desperate act of denial. But a little girl saving me? Where did that come from?”

I gather you don’t have any children?” Darcy asked.

I shook my head and then continued my story. “The little girl hung on as the raptor went crazy, spinning around while writhing and stamping so hard that it felt like an earthquake. He finally grabbed her with those lethal claws and shoved her into its toothy maw and bit down hard.”

What?” Darcy gasped. “A little girl. Eaten right in front of you? God, that’s horrible!”

That wasn’t my first thought, Darcy. I’m ashamed to say that I was thinking ‘better her than me’. I figured I might be able to get away. I mean, we’re talking primal instincts here. It was all so unreal, like I was living on borrowed time. I just figured she was my mind’s final fantasy of salvation.”

Darcy stared at me for a long moment. “But she wasn’t was she?”

I shook my head slowly. “She was so real that the monster started to retch and gag as she stuck sideways in its throat. I wasn’t going to wait around to see how that came out. I turned and crawled further into the jungle, still blinded by my own blood, dragging my broken leg behind me, praying the beast would choke on her. I had to crawl over the gory pieces of my away team that were scattered all around the area.”

I saw the usual judgmental look in Darcy’s eyes — she was blaming me for running away. But she hadn’t been there. You couldn’t fight a beast like that. No one could. Not without Mark 9’s.

I’m not proud of panicking that way,” I said a bit defensively.“But that girl obviously had some kind of power.”

Power? What are you talking about?”

Something had knocked the beast away, twice, and nobody else was around but her. And unlike the men, who’d spurted in all directions when bitten, I hadn’t seen any blood when the monster chomped her.”

Darcy looked doubtfully at me, judging me. “So you left a little girl to be eaten alive?”

She was already eaten.”

You left your men too.”

They were all dead. Nothing but raptor chow.”

She glared at me, her eyes accusing. “So, did you hide in a cowardly hole like a rat or something?”

I shook my head. “This was raptor hunting ground. They’d find my scent and dig me out of anything I could squirm into. My only hope was to get to the ship, but to do that I had to circle around the clearing. The beast was thrashing and stomping around blindly, knocking down trees while giving off a choking growl as it tried to sniff the air.”

So you did run away,” she said, the light in her eyes fading.

Crawled maybe. At first, yes. But I kept thinking of that girl. I realized in my bones that she was something more than human. I couldn’t leave her there.”

Aren’t you forgetting one detail?” Darcy asked doubtfully. “Like her being eaten and swallowed alive and all?”

Actually, because of it. Remember, I’d seen the way the beast had ripped everyone else to shreds before eating them. But not her. The raptor had clawed her and bitten her several times, but there hadn’t been any blood. That’s why he’d resorted to trying to swallow her whole.”

Darcy’s eyes narrowed doubtfully.

I still had a few shots left in my blaster. The raptor was blind and staggering around while struggling to breathe. I figured maybe it would finally stand still long enough for me to kill it.”

But how?” Darcy asked. “I mean, you’d already shot it with every weapon you had.”

I just had to hit the same spot about a half dozen more times with my laser. So I turned and hopped back into the clearing on one leg, half blinded by blood, screaming at the top of my lungs to get the monster to face me. When he did, I started blasting away at the burned spot on its belly.

The beast rose to meet me, standing two stories tall, and gave off a strangled roar as it lunged straight at me. There was no further thought of running. It was him or me. I was beyond fear. My hands were steady as I concentrated my firepower on the burned spot on its belly and kept firing as he charged, scales blackening and burning away until raw flesh was visible. Still he came. He was almost on me, its huge mouth opening to reveal those huge blood-stained fangs. Yet instead of reaching down to bite me, it suddenly stumbled and twisted itself like a snake as it began clawing at his mouth.”

What … how …?” Darcy asked, eyes big.

That’s when that little girl reappeared. She was standing inside that horrible mouth, arms up over her head, feet buried between those sharp rows of teeth as she held its jaw wide open.”

No …!” she gasped. “But how could she …? You said raptors could bite right through a person.”

I was struck dumb, unable to comprehend what I was seeing. It was so wrong seeing that little girl surrounded by hundreds of huge razor-sharp teeth, her matted, blonde hair wrapped around her body, covered in saliva and God knows what. I stood there helplessly as the raptor tore at her with its claws, trying to dislodge her from its teeth. A mighty blow finally knocked her hands loose, and those double rows of teeth closed around her, chomping her again and again, like she was chewing gum or something. Still no blood. In desperation, the beast leaned its massive head way back and gulped her down. This time she didn’t stick in his throat.”

Oh God …” Darcy moaned. “That poor little girl.”

Somehow seeing that was more horrifying than watching my entire team get killed. Yet it was all I could do to hold my laser on target now. My arms were growing heavy, my body weakening as everything started to shift into slow motion.”

Jeessuuss …” Darcy cried, eyes as wide as saucers.

My body was slowing down more and more each moment even as my mind seemed to race faster. My legs grew so numb I fell to my knees, my arms to weak they fell at my sides. I couldn’t pick up my blaster to keep firing.”

Darcy gasped as she imagined that. Everyone has experienced nightmares where they’re being chased while moving in slow motion, or even worse, unable to move at all. Combine that with the primal horror of being eaten alive, and you’ve got the granddaddy of all nightmares. Our ancestors must have endured unspeakable horrors to pass along those kinds of instinctual fears.

Darcy grabbed my hands, holding me with bruising strength. “Yet … you’re here. Alive. Only a few scratches. How …?”

I could see the pulse pounding in her sinewy neck as a musky scent rose from her lap. The synth-scent was getting to her, her imagination racing ahead, filling in details that I hadn’t described yet. Supremis pheromones are famous for enhancing the visual cortex and sub-cortical pleasure centers, unleashing both the libido and the imagination. She started squirming faster on her stool, looking like she was going to climax right there.

It was time for my tale to do the same.

The raptor started to claw around blindly for me, spinning like a dervish as it roared in anger. I used the last of my fading strength to crawl under the exposed roots of a huge tree.

He sniffed around loudly, searching for me, its huge lungs huffing and puffing like an ancient steam engine. He worked left of me, then right, circling around, getting closer each time, narrowing in on me. He finally stuck his nose against the tree roots and inhaled deeply, and then let out a deafening roar as he began tearing at the roots. His claws ripped roots the thickness of my thigh from the ground. I shrunk back further and further under the tree as its claws raked the base of the trunk, working left and right, wood splintering as he began probing under the roots, pawing with the dexterity of a cat. My back was finally jammed against the thick roots on the far side, but I wasn’t far enough away. One razor claw snagged my enviro suit and the beast dragged me helplessly out from under the tree. I struggled to make my arms work, but all I could manage was to jam the barrel of my laser against my own temple. Far better to vaporize my brain than to be eaten alive. I pulled the trigger with the last of my strength, yet instead of instant oblivion, the weapon beeped three times. The battery was dead.

I flopped back in helpless horror as the raptor held me down with one clawed foot as it slowly leaned down, sniffing me. There was no escape now as it slowly worked its way down my body to pause in front of my belly, jaws open. I’d read somewhere that predators like to eat the entrails first.”

Oh God …” Darcy moaned, her enhanced imagination running wild.

The venom from that earlier slash finally overcame me. My breathing grew labored. I used my last breath to scream.”

Darcy stared at me, eyes wide.

The beast froze at the sound, and then began gagging. Its huge belly bulged outward, swelling until it exploded right where I’d been shooting him. A tsunami of hot guts and fetid, half digested meat washed over me, including some horribly recognizable bits and pieces. The stench was overwhelming. And there she was, sitting in the middle of all that nastiness, the little blonde girl. She smiled up at me, white teeth gleaming as if she was playing a game. She leaped upward to land on the beast’s neck, wrapping her little legs around its thick neck.

The beast clawed viciously at her with the same talons that had torn my face apart, but she hung on, its claws not even scratching her. Muscles flexed more impressively than made sense given her age, and then there was a loud SNAP. The beast’s eyes rolled up and went dark as it toppled forward to fall with a thunderous crash.”

But wait …” Darcy demanded. “I thought you said raptors were impossible to kill except with armor-piercing explosives?”

I nodded. “That’s still true — for anyone born human. This little girl had just proven beyond all doubt that she was something else. Despite having been swallowed twice and clawed dozens of times and gnawed with those horrible fangs, she seemed completely unharmed. Even weirder, she was now floating above the downed raptor, her little fists clenched as she scanned the jungle around the clearing for any more danger.”

Floating? What do you mean, floating?”

I drained my beer, leaving my young admirer wondering for a moment. “Levitating. Flying. Whatever you call it.”

Darcy tilted her head as she dropped her hand into my lap, gasping: “Oh, don’t tell me … no, she wasn’t! All that blonde hair?. Super strong and unhurtable. Able to fly. But she couldn’t be …?”

I grinned wildly. “Yup. She was a true-blue honest-to-god Supremis.”

Darcy stiffened at that word, her eyes narrowing suspiciously. “Wait a minute. Way out there on that rim planet? The Supremis are nearly extinct, and what’s left of them live on the other side of the galaxy.”

Do you know any other blonde kindergartners who can kick dinosaur butt?”

No,” the farm girl said with a shake of her head. “But as I learned it, the Supremis are all created by some kind of machine back on their home-planet and they never leave their corner of space these days. Certainly children never leave. Never have.”

Darcy might be a farm girl from a commune, home-schooled and all, but she wasn’t ignorant.

Don’t believe everything you read,” I said as I rested my arms gently on her muscular shoulders, easing her closer to me. She felt massive. “There are few places in the galaxy where the Supremis have not gone.”

But that was long ago. Before they nearly wiped themselves out. And that poor little girl …” Darcy whispered, shaking her head slowly, lip quivering. “Was she abandoned on that horrible planet all by herself?”

I had no idea at that moment. It was all I could do to keep breathing. The venom was spreading to my organs. Fortunately she gave me some bitter leaves to chew. I nearly choked on them, but whatever was in them, it quickly counteracted the venom. Soon I could breath easily again, but I still couldn’t move. All I could do was stare into the girl’s unusually large, blue eyes. She shook her head as she combed her fingers through long bloody blonde hair.

I started to open my mouth to try and thank her, but she quickly looked upward as a shadow fell over us. I followed her gaze to see something coming at us, flying directly out of the sun’s glare. I couldn’t pick up my laser, but I managed to tilt my disruptor barrel enough to fire at what I assumed was one of the flying raptors they’d warned me about: twelve-foot wingspans and razor teeth. My aim was perfect, and the annihilating particles enveloping the flying creature. To my horror, I saw those vaporizing energies surrounding a tall, blonde woman, the heat of vaporization lifting her pale hair high over her head as it twisted wildly in the collapsing beam. Yet instead of contracting to a tiny point and disappearing with a puff of atomic steam as usual, my disruptor field shimmered and vanished harmlessly, leaving behind the most beautiful woman I’d ever seen. The little girl flew up into her arms as they hugged, the two of them floating over my head.”

Wow … her mother?” Darcy gasped.

I nodded, my blood pressure rising. I’ll never forget the wonder of watching them floating there like angels.

The woman was dressed in a slinky black metallic outfit, the back cut down to the dimples at the base of her spine, with the front consisting of little more than a couple of strips that crossed the middle of two very large, firm breasts. The black fabric continued upward over that amazing chest until it tapered to a red choker, leaving her shoulders and arms bare. The bottom of her exotic outfit hugged deliciously rounded hips like a second skin before flaring to end in a filmy micro-miniskirt. Beneath that, the longest, sexiest legs I’ve ever seen.”

A Protector!” Darcy breathed.

I nodded, my eyes wide and dreamlike now, my entire body getting into it. Some memories never lose their potency.

She pushed the girl behind her as she floated over me like some kind of exotic Christmas ornament, the golden strands of her hair still sparkling from the disruptor field. Her blue irises seemed to give off more light than they took in. She was blessed with the high cheekbones of a model, along with flawless, sun-kissed skin that was the shade of burnished gold. Everything about her screamed healthiness, her entire body shaped by long smooth curves of superbly toned muscle.”

Darcy made a face. “Yeah, I’ve seen those life-sized Supremis statues the Scalantrans sell. Way too perfect. Like gravity didn’t affect them. But they’d got to be wildly exaggerated, not the least their height. Some of those statues are two meters tall.”

I shook my head. “There is no exaggeration, Darcy. In fact, those statues are but pale images of the real thing.”

Darcy leaned closer and whispered: “My mother says they’re goddesses. You know, from an ancient time.”

I shrugged. “All I know is that no artist could improve on such perfection, and I’ve yet to see anyone truly capture their presence in art. Even the best photos fail to capture this nearly invisible glow that surrounds them. It is said that our minds see the glow even if our eyes can’t. Orgone energy or whatever.”

Darcy swallowed hard as she nodded, her eyes holding mine.

You know what I’m talking about, Darcy. Surely I’m sure I’m not the first to see a Supremis’ likeness in you.”

A half hour ago, that would have been the most outrageous flattery. But Darcy was looking better every minute. My vial of scent was spreading its magic, affecting me as well, despite my high tolerance.

She smiled sexily as she slid closer to me, gulping down my outrageous flattery like a starving puppy, along with more of my synth-scent. “Tell me more about her,” she breathed. “Everything I’ve heard about the Supremis makes them sound so impossibly sexy.”

Darcy’s engorged nipples tented her thin top. I don’t know how it works, or even why, but everyone gets ridiculously turned on by Supremis pheromones. Part of it is the wild stories we’ve all heard about their endless libido, or perhaps the ways the pheromones empower their lovers so they can make love all night long, giving them superhuman endurance. All I know for sure is that after inhaling the scent from my illicit vial, people forget about limits, boundaries, and rules. Their fantasies come alive, coloring everything and everyone around them.

Darcy slid forward to wrap her muscular thighs around me as she pulled my face against her warm, hard chest, one huge nipple teasing my lips. She wiggled herself in my lap, rubbing against me almost hard enough to hurt, seemingly unable to contain herself. Making love on a bar stool isn’t exactly comfortable under the best of circumstances, although the sexbots do it all the time in sleazy bars like this. But human girls are usually a lot classier.

Plus all that muscle worried me. Dwarvish muscle weighs and feels about the same as wet hardwood. Rumor has it that a Zetan woman could crush a man between their legs, her vagina holding him so tightly that he can’t escape. I prayed those Spacer rumors were as exaggerated as usual.

I struggled to rise from my stool, trying to slide her gently from my lap, but she wrapped her legs tighter around my waist. She was ready to go at it right here in the bar. It took all my will power to reach behind her and cap my little bottle of scent. We’d both had enough of that.

I have a nice bed over at the Granite, my lady. Top floor. We could share it.”

Darcy answered by kissing me passionately, her hand boldly slipping down the front of my pants to encircle me, holding me tightly, which made me all that much harder. She was a farm girl, not a lady.

She began to whisper my praises, calling me her wild stallion. Which of course was way over-the-top given that farm girls like her have actually seen stallions doing it.

Chapter 2

We fell out the front door of the bar to head to the hotel. We made it there, but moment the elevator doors closed we gave ourselves up to the passion. I don’t remember how we made it into my room and onto the bed.

What I do know is how commune farmers stay warm on cold nights — they have very hot women. Her dwarfish muscles weren’t confined to her biceps. She could do things with her vagina that rivaled the best sexbots, and like them she kept going all night. Even with the pheromones, it was all I could do to keep up with her.

She was so impressive that she had me wondering what it would be like raking dirt for a living. With a woman like her, the nights at least would be crazy good. And supposedly commune girls are into sharing as well, so variety wouldn’t be an issue.

I strangled that thought off by remembering how the older Dwarves look. Darcy’s arms would eventually be bigger than my legs.

Even worse, I tried to imagine a farmer’s work day. Sweating under a hot sun, swatting stinging insects while digging in hard ground to plant something that might not even grow. Even if it did sprout, most farmers were lucky to make ends meet. When they didn’t, they either starved or they wound up on tramp ships like Darcy’s, heading to some other pile of dirt with some seeds in their pack and a pocketful of hope.

But she had more to offer than just sex. She was offering me a way off this rock. Her commune always had room for men with the right skills, she claimed. Welcome aboard and all that jazz. She said it would take nearly six more months to get to their new planet. We could fuck all the way there.

I almost packed my bags right there, but thankfully, long exposure to my synth-scent has given me a tolerance to its effects, allowing me to think with something other than my dick. I already knew her ship wasn’t going anywhere near the Riegel system, so even if I managed to jump ship at the next stop, I might not be any better off there than I was here.

I was trying to think of a polite way to refuse her when her Comm beeped urgently. She was being recalled to her ship. Unlike our useless crew, her Engineer had completed refueling, and ahead of schedule.

She made one last appeal by going crazy on me, begging me to come with her. She claimed they really needed a Facilitator like me. I wouldn’t have to work in the fields and I would get a double share of their crops. But I had to go with her. Right now.

That when reality crashed in. She didn’t want me. She wanted a Facilitator for her commune. This hadn’t been a random encounter. I wasn’t the one taking advantage of her with my synth-scent. She’d come into that bar to seduce me.

I told her no, and she put one of her marvelously muscled legs to work to kick me out of the bed so hard that I flew across the room. I lay stunned against the far wall while she stood on the bed, screaming at me. She angrily blamed me for wasting her night, calling me a slack-muscled pinky-dicked loser.

Far from being insulted, I was relieved. I always feel guilty about using synth-scent to get a woman. But in this case, all I’d done was to make it easier for her to seduce me.

While Darcy was scrambling around looking for her clothes, all the while talking like a crazy woman, I crawled off into the bathroom and locked the door behind me. For all I knew, she was going to shove me in her bag and Shanghai me. Or angrily break me in half over one of her tree-trunk thighs.

Outside the thin door of the bathroom, I heard her cursing and crying into her Comm as she begged for more time. It sounded like she was going to catch hell for failing to recruit me. She paused at the bathroom door to make one last appeal, claiming that as a Facilitator I’d have my choice of any woman. Or all of them. Even her younger sister, who was way, way hotter than she was.

Oh Jesus! My hand started fumbling for the lock, and then I thought of her leading me proudly back to her ship by my dick. I’m not an overly prideful man, but she was disrespecting my profession. No Facilitator would ever trade professional services for sex. We have an ethical code, after all.

Her Comm beeped a final time. The emergency tone. Last call. She cursed and stormed out the door, slamming it so hard that she ripped it half out of its frame.

I cowered in the bathroom until I heard the roar of her ship taking off, and then crawled out to wade through the junk she’d left strewn across the floor. I wedged my broken door closed and collapsed into my thankfully empty bed. I could already feel the bruises forming. Twisting to the side, I reached across the chair to get my scent vial. A few hits of Supremis pheromone is the best pain killer in the universe. I fumbled around, growing increasing alarmed when I failed to find the vial. I forgot my bruises as I leaped out of bed to search all my pockets, my shirt too. Everywhere I could think of.

It was gone!

I finally realized that I’d gotten almost everything about Darcy wrong. She had the heart of a gypsy, not a farmer. That vial had cost me half a year’s pay, and that was back when I was getting paid very well. It was also my piggy bank if things ever got truly awful. There were synth-scent buyers in every port.

I felt naked and defeated without it as I collapsed into a corner of the room in despair, feeling sorry for myself. Damn that prosecuting attorney back on Anders. If not for that asshole’s grand plan to take down a drug kingpin I’d still be working.

This last hellish year had started with the cops bursting through the front door of Mr. Big’s house as I grabbed my bug-out bag and ran out the back door. I didn’t stop running until I got to Ander’s spaceport. Not the heavily-guarded passenger entrance, but the maintenance portal. There were always people on the docks who could get a Guilder up to the transit station without unnecessary paperwork. Every ship had maintenance access holes that were big enough to crawl into, and a Shuttle’s time to orbit was barely an hour.

Once I made it up to the transit station, I signed onto the first ship out, which turned out to be Janeway’s. Since he wasn’t rated for carrying passengers, the ship’s log declared me as Life Support Technician Third Class. I don’t know anything about life support, but he agreed that a Facilitator could be useful to him from time to time. We understood each other. It was just commerce.

We barely made it off the station before they put all departures on hold. PriFly ordered us back to the dock, but Janeway had already set the Comm Failure code into his transponder. Apparently one of his crewmen had been killed in a brawl on the station.

We were lucky they didn’t send an interceptor after us, but shooting down a tramper would draw a lot of heat from the Guild. Despite their ancient ships, the Guild carries the bulk of the freight between dozens of star systems. They are also the least expensive way to get around the galaxy, if you don’t mind uncomfortable, slow, and often dangerous travel in a completely obsolete ship. Anyone with real money flew on the ultra-modern Scalantran tradeships, which were luxury liners in comparison. Once I make it big, I’m going to fly Scalantran too.

In the meantime, I was stuck with this hung-over crew of Terrans whose Chief Engineer had to be the worst in the galaxy. Their previous Chief had stopped a bullet with his forehead during some kind of squabble. The shooter had fled the ship, leaving Janeway desperately trying to avoid getting dragged into an investigation and trial that could ground him for months. So he hired the first Chief Engineer he found, who was fortunately drunk enough at the time to accept me as a member of his team.

Now, months later, I wasn’t sure if this new Chief was as incompetent at spaceship engineering as I was at Environmentals, or whether there was something seriously wrong with our ship. Either way, we were barely flying and the air was awful. I half suspected a competitor was paying him to crash us, or at the best get us grounded. The Guild would never condone that of course, but the Chief had proudly proclaimed that he wasn’t a Guilder. Only the best and the worst Engineers were independents. It didn’t take long to figure out which one he was.

Now I was here on Monk’s. I could manage the hotel bill at the Granite for a few weeks, but then I was going to have to bunk in the roach-infested traveler’s hostel on the other side of the cavern with the rest of the crew.

The Rastafarians always have a free bunk available, and they provided a couple of meager meals a day. Just enough to keep you alive and motivated to get the hell out of there. But I’m not complaining. They help stranded Spacers on every world. I spent a lot of nights under their roofs when I was starting out. All I had to do was listen to their religious pitch and smoke their sacred weed. I had no problem with the last part. Smoke enough of that shit and everything got cool.

But before I started down that hazy path, I needed a plan to get off this rock. I started by inquiring at the Guild office about available berths on ships leaving Monk’s. They just laughed, telling me it would be years before that happened. Maybe never. I had to ride the same horse out of town that I rode in on.

So much for Guild help. I usually do better on my own anyway.

My next stop was Operations, where I checked on the schedule for arriving ships. It was a long list, sometimes more than one a day. My hopes started to rise until the Station Agent told me that no one was crazy enough to jump ship here, let alone travel here with the intent of staying. This was just a refueling stop.

It was common knowledge that every tradeship flew at legal capacity (if not well beyond), so it came down to someone getting too sick or injured to fly before a captain would leave them here and pick up a new crewman. Even then, sick crewmen would do anything to hold it together long enough to launch off this rock. Someone probably had to die before I could get a ride out of here. Fortunately for me, every world has people who can make that happen. For the right price. Not that I was eager to go that way.

It got worse. Ops told me that if I stayed here too long, I’d never be able to leave. The most basic rule of interplanetary travel was: “If you catch it there, you cure it there.” The horror of Monk’s World was that their indigenous parasites weren’t curable. Worst of all, everyone who made an extended stop here got infected. 100% within nine months.

Now I regretted not shipping out with Darcy when I had my chance. Scratching dirt was a damn sight better than being infested with incurable parasites and permanently quarantined here.

There was one last legal way — schedule a passenger pickup. Most Captains will fly a part of their route with an empty berth as long as a full fare was paid up front. Unfortunately the cost of that was beyond my current credit limit.

An ordinary man might have been discouraged at this point, but I’m a Facilitator. Doing the impossible is my stock in trade. I’d gotten here on the grey, but I could always travel completely black if I had to. Hidden away in a box in the cargo hold to avoid Customs. Long as they sent enough air down to the hold and I had food and water, I could last for weeks. Been there. Done that.

I returned to my hotel room to sleep on it. Darcy’s athleticism had really drained me. Her screams of ecstasy had been accompanied by bear hugs so powerful they emptied my lungs and nearly broke my ribs. If not for the invigorating effects of the synth-scent, she’d have broken parts of me for sure. Nobody ever said that sex with a real woman was safe. Especially not when they have many times your strength.

I filled the hot tub in my room, mesmerized by the gushing flow of water from the tap. Of all the things I miss in space, water is the most dear. Janeway’s ship offered smelly recycled water that dribbled out the tap. Space stations were only a little better. But on a planet, even a crappy one like this, water was everywhere.

I sank into warm bliss, the water deep enough to nearly float. I could definitely get used to this. A few taps on the waterproof holo-screen brought up the local free channel, which turned out to be a fixed camera that provided a live view of the ocean that lay just beyond the spaceport. There, to my amazement, squeezed into a narrow band between ocean and jungle, was an achingly beautiful crescent beach.

Beaches are my absolute favorite places, and given that most Terran planets have oceans, I can usually find a beach to explore while I’m ground-side. But this beach was like no other I’d seen.

There was only one problem, and it was a big one: every organism on this planet was lethal to humans. But instead of being huge and armed with razor teeth, Monk’s predators were too small to see without a scope. They crawled through body orifices and then into the circulatory system to feast on your blood — and then move in. Technically they were symbiotic parasites, and every successful symbiont wants to keep its host alive and healthy. Monk’s bugs were brilliant at doing that. They excreted drugs that created a sense of bliss in their host while simultaneously improving their health.

That didn’t sound all bad until I read the fine print in the Welcome to Monk’s brochure in my room. It matter-of-factly reported that every attempt at parasite removal had ended in suicide. Once you became addicted to their drugs, neither body or mind could function without them.

God I hate bugs, especially the kind that want to turn me into their zombie.

Still, my thoughts drifted back to that awesome beach. THE beach. The most perfect one in all the known galaxy according to the Commerce Commission. I’m a bit of a beach nerd, and I’ve never seen anything like it.

Any reasonable man would have locked himself in his room (or stayed drunk in the bar) and would have never, EVER come out unless it was to board the ship they were leaving on. That was the safest way of course, but being the contrarian I am, I called to ask the front desk if they had a shield suit available for guests who wanted to walk the beach.

Doing things differently was how I made my living.

My ex-wife hadn’t been so charitable. She claimed I have this defective gene that was going to get me killed. She’s undoubtably right as far as it goes, but in my family we call it “a sense of adventure”. Needless to say, we also have a family history filled with untimely and often exotic demises. If I was truly sane I would have listened to her. But then I’d never have become a Facilitator.

The hotel people reassured me that they’d made preparations for Spacers who wanted to walk the beach, claiming that it was perfectly safe while wearing a Sulpter Model 3. I know that suit well. It’s an obsolete military model that I’d once sold by the thousands. S3’s are cheap and very reliable, and while they can deflect medium-duty combat lasers and most types of projectiles, they are vulnerable to the latest hyper-velocity Vendorian alloy rounds. But a S3 was serious overkill for keeping bugs away, and the model is famous for its triple redundant reliability.

I looked completely ridiculous an hour later when I exited the airlock to trudge down that warm, perfect beach. An oversized pair of metal boots were laced up my calves to stabilize my feet against the frictionless shield, and I wore the usual ventilated metal skinsuit and backpack power supply, both essential parts of the Sulpter.

I didn’t care how I looked. I was goggle-eyed. Everything around me was incredibly healthy and clean, and so colorful and so beautiful that it almost hurt.

Monk’s great deception.

The shallow water to my left extended seaward to a protective reef, with large, white waves breaking against distant coral. The surface of the calm lagoon varied from aquamarine to purple depending on the depth. Tiny fish jumped across the surface as they caught invisible bugs. Larger fish snatched the little fish in mid-leap, with an occasional massive fish rising with a wild splash to take a few of the larger fish. Nature was alive and well here on Monk’s.

Looking ahead, I slowly traced my eyes around the crescent of sparkling sand until it faded into the blue ocean haze. The beach was wide and firm with a very gentle slope toward the water, and was bordered by a primordial-looking forest. The trees overhung the beach to shade a luxurious fringe of soft grass. Brightly colored flowers were everywhere, especially in the trees. Even the sand was amazing, with white quartz crystals accented by larger glints of sparkling blue diamond.

I stood there, overwhelmed and ecstatic, feeling as if I was experiencing the dawn of a new world, the only sound being the distant crash of surf. Well, other than the occasional buzz of my shield as it deflected an invisible swarm of attacking bugs.

The hotel physician had briefed me on the bugs as I got suited up. He claimed that beyond the bliss that they create (with the effects literally coming from the bug’s poop), they dramatically slowed the aging process. According to him, no one had died of natural causes in the nearly four centuries that Monk’s has been populated. Nor anyone from disease. People healed from what would normally be mortal injuries.

Interestingly, the bugs weren’t infectious between people, so I was safe inside the dome (at least until a stray bug got in to home in my uninfected self). Once they do infect someone, and both host and symbiont adapt to the arrangement, the bugs job was to keep their host alive indefinitely.

That sounded good until I realized I’d have to spend every one of my immortal days working here on this God-forsaken rock. A Faustian bargain if I’ve ever heard one. The doctor, who was of course infected like the rest, confirmed what I’d read in my room. Every Monkian eventually put a bullet in their brain. It was the only way out of an immortal life. Nobody really wants to live forever.

As you might expect, Monk’s Health and Customs are super-vigilant and infamously hard-assed. The problem was that when that bullet finally pierced a host’s brain, the bugs swarmed invisibly out every orifice until they found another host, often infecting many people in the process.

The doc claimed that if an infected person ever left Monk’s, the entire Monkian economy would collapse. Ships would avoid the planet to prevent the delays and extensive med checks and ship decontamination that would be required after they docked here. Any infected persons who made it off Monk’s would be captured alive and stuffed into a robotic orbital isolation pod, eating their recycled poop and synth nutrients while breathing piped in air for the rest of their immortal life. Which might not be too long. Every one of those pods is equipped with a big, glowing red button that would blow the hatch to suck its occupant out into vacuum. It was the only way out. The bugs couldn’t overcome that, and they couldn’t infect anyone else in space.

I pushed that depressing thought away as I focused on the beautiful, lonely beach in front of me. As long as my shield power pack lasted, I was invulnerable, and an S3 power pack is good for many days. The security staff had insisted I return before sunset given that some dog-sized critters called Liz-wolves came out of their dens at dusk.

I desperately needed the exercise. Staying fit had proved impossible on Janeway’s crappy ship. He ran the ship on 1/7th gravity to save money, and his idea of a gym was a weight machine down in the backfield of the gravity engine. Every square foot of deck that wasn’t required for ship operations or basic crew accommodations was devoted to cargo, piled high above us wherever we went.

In stark contrast, Monk’s World was a plus gravity world, 9/7ths to be exact. Perfect for rebuilding fading muscles. All I had to do was move.

I started slowly, barely able to walk at first with the powerpack on my back. I kept pushing myself and before long I was lumbering along in the sand at a respectable speed. Beach runs are always the best.

Unfortunately, the damn bugs zoomed in on me as I sweated, more coming all the time, zapping themselves against the shield, which momentary became impenetrable. So many bugs were hitting that the shield didn’t have time to recover and exchange air. I got hotter and started sweating profusely, my legs beginning to cramp. I sucked on my hydration bottle, only to find it was empty.

This was not good. I was several miles from the dome now and I was exhausted and overheated. I needed hydration in the worst way. I suddenly realized why the Sulpter rental had been so cheap — these bastards make their money rescuing dehydrated hikers. They’d gone out of their way to show me the Rescue button on my suit while advising me about the exorbitant fee they’d charge if they had to come out and get me. More money than I had, which would get me tossed out of the hotel. Once at the Rastifarian’s hovel I’d have to survive on synth-protein bars and water instead of enjoying prime rib and good wine. With all the ships passing through, the hotel was able to trade for real foodstuffs.

I wasn’t going to give those bastards the satisfaction. I might be hot and tired and thirsty, but I was determined to limp back to the dome, pushing past the leg cramps. The bugs seemed to sense my predicament, and more and more of them came, forcing continuous shield repulsions. The air in my suit grew so stuffy that I was having a hard time breathing. I grew alarmed, and the first tentacle of fear began twisting my guts. If this kept up, I’d be faced with a choice of asphyxiation or turning off the suit and letting them have me.

Or pushing that damnable red button.

I gritted my teeth and pushed on. All I had to do was follow the shoreline until I saw the tunnel entrance.

A half mile later, I was on my knees, crawling, out of hope, when the sun set. And just like that, the bugs were gone. Cool clean air flowed over me as the shield opened enough to let air molecules through. Soon I was cooled down and breathing normally. Overhead, the stars had begun to come out, a few bright ones first, then a dazzling array. Monk’s World was located in a very bright arm of the galaxy, and it had two moons, both of which began rising from the ocean, one slightly above the other. One was very large, filling a quarter of the sky. Those blue-white orbs sent their cool light filtering through the mist which had started to rise over the jungle, washing out all color except the sun’s final deep purple glow. I stood to bask in the awe of it all, drinking in the beauty of this amazingly beautiful world, my eyes wide open as I stared up into heavens that became alive. A continuous firework of tiny meteors began streaking through the upper atmosphere, several per second.

I stared, dazzled by the display, only to be briefly blinded when a much larger fireball raced across the deep purple sky. Instead of fading out like the others, it made a sharp turn just before reaching the horizon, and then flew a series of shallow S-turns while descending rapidly, heading back toward the spaceport.

Realization pushed away my pleasant mood – a ship was coming in way too fast, trailing smoke. I was watching the beginnings of a crash at the spaceport.

My blood ran cold. If this was a AMAT powered ship, then I was already a dead man given I was standing well inside the minimum safe distance for a core breach. I was looking for something to hide behind when I realized that what I’d initially assumed was a large ship in the distance was actually a close-in Singleton, a class of short-range work ship that was barely large enough for a single occupant to stand at the controls. They were far too small for an AMAT engine. So small, in fact, that their occupant had to work, sleep, eat and do all other required tasks while standing in the same spot.

The Singleton looked as if it was going to pass inland of me while circling back toward the spaceport, but then it suddenly turned directly toward me and dove toward the beach, descending with frighting speed. I ran for the tree line, only to be knocked of my feet when the tiny ship plowed into the sand a hundred yards ahead of me. I dove face first to curl up, covering my head with my arms as falling bits of disintegrated spaceship began raining down as a plume of sand and crash debris arced high over me. The heavier parts hit my shield hard enough to make it growl alarmingly. That was followed by a shower of falling sand, each grain sizzling as it was deflected. It seemed to go on forever.

When I finally dared to lift my head, I found the beach covered in pieces of twisted, smoking spacecraft. The heavier parts were buried at the end of the huge trench it had plowed along the beach.

Some poor devil had just bought it.

I began crawling further away from the smoking gash in the beach, fearful of a further explosion, when I was shocked to see something rising from the wreckage. A person wearing a half melted spacesuit climbed over the edge of the crash crater. I struggled for long seconds to get to my feet, the weight of my power pack threatening to topple me over, but after a couple of tries I managed to stand. When I looked up again, the survivor was walking toward me, moving very gracefully. Definitely a female, and remarkably slender and tall. Her hips moved with an athletic, fluid sensuousness despite the burned suit and heavy gravity.

Well, it wasn’t exactly a her. It was an android, of course, and given its exaggerated figure, likely built on a sexbot chassis. But why was a bot wearing a spacesuit? Vacuum couldn’t hurt a synthetic. Nor apparently could a violent crash, explosion and fire.

The bot paused about twenty feet in front of me to wrestle with its helmet, which seemed to be melted to its suit. It gave the helmet a powerful wrench which tore the pressure collar completely off. No surprise there. Bots are incredibly strong. The real surprise was the riot of sunshine blonde hair that the helmet released, the wavy strands falling nearly to its waist. The bot gave a quick flip of its head to toss every perfect strand over its shoulder to reveal a singularly beautiful face. Large doe-like blue eyes dominated a broad, youngish-looking face with high cheekbones. This was no ordinary bot.

Are you functional?” I shouted to it.

Instead of the usual self-diagnostic that a bot would run in response to that question, this bot gave me a crooked smile while tilting its head — a very human gesture. “They say a good landing is any one you can walk away from.”

It spoke Federation English with what sounded like a Nordic accent. No surprise there. The Vendorians have been making bots that can pass for human for a very long time.

I waved toward the wreckage as the tension drained out of me. “That was NOT a good landing.”

Something about the bot put me at ease, but I resisted the urge to lower my guard. Sexbots start by making you forget that they are bots, and they are very good at finding ways to help you empty your wallet.

But sexbots don’t fly spaceships.

Well, I’m walking,” the bot said as it spun playfully around on one toe, acting like a girl in her teens. It shrugged. “My ship’s sure a goner though, and this cheap suit melted.”

The bot turned its back to me while crossing its arms to grab two handfuls of micro-meteorite stopping PlasSteel, and slowly tore the extremely tough spacesuit open to reveal a white, nearly transparent gown of wispy fabric. Slender, tight muscles flexed as it leaned down to run a finger down each leg, effortlessly ripping the tough PlasSteel, the entire suit collapsing into a pile around its feet.

The wispy top of its angelic-looking outfit ended in a micro-skirt, which in turn revealed long, slender and very fit legs. She looked absolutely stunning in that nearly transparent outfit. Yet strangely familiar in a way I couldn’t place.

I found myself staring at an impossibly perky backside. A master artist couldn’t have drawn such perfection, but it was definitely not a sexbot model despite the figure. Not only was it way too perfect, but the strength it had shown while tearing that suit open was found only in combat models.

Most bots are designed to mimic humans, flaws and defects and all. Not this one. No human could be this slender yet have such marvelous definition. Nor such perfect beauty. Was this one of the ultra high-end models the Vendorians called Companions? Rich men’s toys, and a huge step up from the sexbots that worked in the cheap bars where Spacers drank.

I gawked in frank appreciation as the bot turned slowly around to face me, revealing large breasts that sat nearly perfectly round and unnaturally high on its chest, almost as if it was floating in zero-G. Despite its nearly transparent gown, it didn’t show any sign of embarrassment or self-consciousness. That was unusual. Most bots are designed to mimic human emotions, including modesty, but not this one. And that face — my God! It had been cleverly conceived to capture the blush of youthful beauty combined with the smoldering sexuality of an experienced woman.

Despite a fitness level that was off the charts, there wasn’t the slightest hint of vascularity or bulkiness to mar those tight, flawless curves of golden skin. Yet when it moved, hard muscles revealed powerful forces working beneath that tight syn-skin.

I felt my hackles rise as a shiver ran down my back. Companion models are internally the same as Frauliset combat models. I remembered meeting this bitter old Federation Marine who’d told me that a Frauliset could kill a man a hundred ways before he even knew he had it coming. He’d once had a Fraul pick up twenty-tons of armored flitter and toss it half a block to land on top of him. He survived because the Fraul assumed she’d killed him, not realizing he’d dug a hole to dive into. He said that Fraul went on to kill everyone else on his team.

I knew how that felt.

Needless to say, that old Marine didn’t like bots. Any kind of bot.

I’d done my research after that, learning that Companion bots are the premier bodyguards. Loyal only to their owners. Able to warm their bed as well as any sexbot, yet also stop nearly any kind of attack, often doing both things at the same time. I’d once read this bizarre article once about a Companion bot who’d held up a small building during an earthquake while straddling its owner during sex, with hundreds of tons of raw strength coursing through each leg. Astoundingly, she’d held that damn building on her back while her owner finished what they’d started. That amazing scene had been the source of many intense dreams over the years.

But the strangeness of this bot went beyond even that. I’ve been around bots all my life, and they always give themselves away in some small way. Whether it’s subtle flaws in body language or some kind of extrasensory communication or the lack of it, I can always sense something missing in a bot.

Yet I sensed no falseness in this one.

A surge of excitement filled me as I considered another possibility. Companion bots weren’t modeled on humans like all other bots, but rather on the mighty Supremis. What if this wasn’t a bot?

I suddenly grew self-conscious. Staring lustfully at a scantily dressed bot was no problem, but I’d never do that to a living, breathing girl of this one’s apparent age. The Supremis are a subspecies of human who pretty much think like us. They’re genetically enhanced in radical ways, but still biological.

I swallowed hard as a flush of warmth filled me, my body starting to get into it now. My feet seemed to be floating on air, yet it was her feet that slowly lifted from the sand. I gawked as she reached down to brush the sand from those impossibly long legs. Levitation didn’t prove anything. Fraulisets have the power to levitate, thanks to anti-grav Tech attached to their chassis.

Shockingly, her blonde hair began to glow brightly as the night came upon us, a gust of wind carrying bright strands across across her face, partially hiding eyes that were also glowing an unnatural bright blue. Orgone? Both Frauls and Supremis are powered by that stuff.

My concern grew as she walked uncomfortably close to me, standing barefoot directly in front of me. She had a couple of inches height on me and I was wearing boots.

She leaned down to study me, the tip of her nose sparkling as it touched my invisible shield. Yet instead of jumping back in pain like anyone else would do, she seemed amused, poking her finger into my shield to provoke a deep buzzing sound as it repulsed her. I swore she’d never seen a shield suit before. That made no sense. Bots are loaded with every kind of data when they are created.

I stared up into those widely-spaced eyes, startled to find her faceted irises were a purer shade of blue than any sky. The sun had long set, but her eyes and hair continued to glow as if a ray of sunshine remained just on her.

You are Sainter James, is that not correct?” she asked, her voice sounding slightly metallic as it was distorted by my still buzzing shield.

I froze, fearing the worst now. I hadn’t used my Sainter James identity since my near arrest back on Apex Prime. Was this a bounty hunter? Had that planetary prosecutor put a price on my head?

Perhaps you should introduce yourself first,” I said warily.

She tilted her head and gave me the most amazing smile ever, girlish dimples tugging at my heart strings. Yet it was a woman’s eyes which stared into mine.

Ya. I’m Danya. Danya Even’star. At your service.” She bowed slightly.

I’ve heard that insane mix of Nordic gutturals with French intonation before — but only in videos. It was a Supremis accent. But that didn’t prove anything. Fraulisets can be programmed to speak any language or dialect so perfectly that even native speakers can be fooled. More importantly it was what she didn’t say. Bots are legally obligated to announce that fact on first contact to ensure they were never mistaken for a natural being. Fifth law.

It could still be a hacked Frauliset — a scary thought. Hackbots are extremely dangerous given the best (and most illegal) programmers can override Clarke’s Laws. Once you opened that door, a bot could do anything, including murder. A Fraul could reduce me to pink mist with a single punch — even inside a Sulpter field.

I should have been terrified, but instead I felt all floaty, my body alive and tingling and turned on. Pheromones? If so, they were cleaner and stronger than my former vial of synth-scent. I’ve never heard of a Fraul with pheromone emitters, but I suppose anything is possible with the high-end models.

Well, it seems you’ve found your man, Danya,” I replied cautiously, unable to tear my eyes from the sparkle of hers. “Although I go by Peter Scanton now.”

She grinned broadly as she relaxed, and then spun around on her toe again, squealing in happiness like a young girl. “Oh, thank Skietra! I thought I’d lost you when my ship was separated from yours at the end of the transition. When I came out of that wormhole, everything was all twisted around. Took me a while to find your tiny outpost. Singleton’s have very poor sensors.”

She certainly didn’t talk like a bot.

That is definitely not my outpost,” I laughed, pointing toward the distant spaceport. “And unless the rats down in steerage have staged a mutiny, I’m not in charge of any ships either. Just a simple crewman on a Terran tramper.”

Rats can really do that?” she asked, looking puzzled. “And if so, why would they put you in charge if you are so simple?”

OK, maybe she was a bot after all. Bots are famously incapable of deception, and they take a very literal view toward most things. Attempts to program humor into them have failed in ways that are profoundly humorous on their own accord. My fine sense of humor was clearly wasted here.

What kind of bot are you? I’ve never seen one like you before.”

Bot? You think I’m a bot?” She sounded offended.

I mean, what else. I mean, hell, you survived that crash!”

She gave me a little curtsy. “Actually, I’m Supremis, kind sir. And as I said before, I’m at your service.”

I was both thunderstruck and terribly embarrassed. This was a real flesh and blood young woman?

She laughed at the look on my face. “The bots must be getting really, really good if you thought I was one.”

I quickly looked down as I shrugged, feeling silly now. Her nearly transparent gown was suddenly improper given her young age. “I’ve heard there are bot models who imitate the Supremis, but I haven’t ever met one. I just assumed given the crash and the way you floated on air …” my voice trailing off as I looked back up, focusing on her face. “You really took a Singleton through a wormhole?”

She nodded proudly. “I attached my ship to yours before you raised your shields, which helped keep my ship in one piece.”

I lifted one eyebrow as I glanced over at the smoking wreckage.

Well, for a while anyway,” she laughed, watching my eyes. “The challenging part was living without pressure. I hate empty lungs. Always feels as if I’m going to suffocate and I need to breathe, but it’s just a reflex.”

She was talking about breathing hard vacuum. “This is all very hard to process, Danya. I mean, wormhole jumps are dangerous even inside a proper ship with grav compensators and life-bubbles to protect us. Your Singleton had none of that.”

She placed her hands on her hips and stood straighter. “It was very uncomfortable, yes, but I’m made out of pretty tough stuff. Unfortunately my ship lost hull integrity and its engines were ruined. The only thing working was that crappy scanner. I had to fly the ship myself to follow you, and that took some time to figure out.”

I tried to wrap my head around “fly the ship myself” with ruined engines. Using her own flight power? The Supremis are supposedly born with some kind of biological gravity engine in their chest.

But by the time I figured out how to navigate, I’d lost your ship off the scanner,” she continued. “I feared I’d lost you for good. And you are my best hope.”

Me …?” I sputtered. “I mean, I’ve never done business with the Supremis, either directly or indirectly. And why would a Supremis need a Facilitator in any case? People give you guys stuff just for showing up.”

She smiled cutely as she tilted her head the other way while staring into my eyes. I swore she was looking right through me. “You really don’t recognize me, do you?”

I shook my head. “Trust me, I’d definitely remember meeting you.”

Do you at least remember working for KazKan Minerals?” she frowned.

Oh shit! Was she here to bust me for borrowing those classified survey reports on my way out? If so, I had no defense. Sulpter shields have been known to fail when a Supremis wraps themselves around it and squeezes hard enough to overload it, draining the power source until the field collapses. A lot of good soldiers have died that way.

You do know about the parasites here?” I asked, making sure she wasn’t going to shut down my shield.

You mean those tiny things that are attacking me? Are they dangerous?”

Extremely. That’s why I’m wearing this Sulpter.”

She lowered her hands while backing away a few steps, looking down to brush some invisible bugs from her breast. “Oh. I’m sorry. Didn’t know.”

So, KazKan Minerals, huh …?,” I said cautiously. “They fired me back in ‘04 after I led a disastrous landing on Apex Prime. I was the only survivor. But how could you know anything about …?”

That’s when it hit me like a sledgehammer.

She saw my wide-eyed look of recognition and laughed, smiling so beautifully it hurt to look at her. “So … you DO remember me.”

I froze, eyes wide as my memory began to interweave images of that little girl with this young woman. The morphing grew disturbing. Tongue-tied, I tried desperately to think of something witty to say, but all that came out was: “My, my, my, you really have grown up.”

I cringed as I heard my own words. Could I have said anything more creepy?

She just laughed again as she put her hands on her hips and stuck her chest out proudly, firm nipples tenting her filmy top. “Yes. Both up and out you might say.”

Supremis females are enormously proud of their breasts given that’s where they store their Orgone energy. She was magnificent.

I understand you are a Facilitator,” she continued.

I … I am indeed,” I said, heart racing. “We have a way of getting things done that supposedly can’t be done.”

Then we are in the same business,” she beamed, waving her arms. “I do impossible things too.”

Strangely, despite her near nudity, she didn’t look naked, if that makes any sense. Her angelically filmy top made her look sexier than if she’d truly been naked. I shook my head as my nose twitched to the familiar scent of pheromone. Not my crude synthetics, but the real thing. Delicious. I had to force myself to focus. “Yeah. Impossible like jumping a wormhole in a Singleton.”

She smiled proudly. “Trust me, I’d have much preferred to be in your ship with you and not out there in vacuum.”

My heart leaped again. Was that a come-on? “All I know,” I blurted out, trying not to let my thoughts get too far ahead of me “is that I’ll forever be thankful to you for saving my life. But given your mother’s reaction when she flew in, I figured you weren’t supposed to show yourself.”

She shook her head, blonde tresses flying. “No. I was supposed to let nature take its course with the raptors. Otherwise more men would come, or so mother said.” She paused to wink at me. “But I don’t always do what I’m told. Then or now.”

Thank God for disobedient children,” I laughed.

Mother would disagree,” she said, tilting her head again to look at me strangely. “If not for my insisting on claiming a Kiraling bond with you, she’d have destroyed your ship and left you for the raptors.”

Memories of that day flooded in, unpleasant and raw despite the years. Had it really been that close? Saved by a kindergartner? Then it hit me — why was she talking about having a Kiraling Obligation with me? She was the one who saved me. I owed her.

Well then, my young lady,” I said, bowing low, “given you saved me twice on that fateful day, I believe it is I who owes you the favor.”

She shook her head, eyes wide and clear. “You tried to save me too, despite your frail nature. You could have just run away. But you weren’t thinking just of yourself.”

Desperation can sometimes turn cowards into heroes,” I shrugged.

You are being far too modest. You came back for me.”

I bowed again, unable to resist her charms. “I could do no less, even if it bought you only an additional second of life.”

See, I love that kind of bravery. It’s so very human.”

Well, now that you’ve found me, anything that is within my power is yours to command.”

You’re sure?” she asked, eyes narrowing. “Anything at all?”

Of course. I’d have been raptor chow if not for you.” I winced at my crude, backwater analogy, but it was the simple truth.

Yes,” she nodded gravely. “Raptors are indeed partial to human flesh. Especially Grish. That’s the raptor who was trying to eat you.”

She had names for the raptors?

I have to tell you, Danya, back on that day, your mother swore me to secrecy. Upon penalty of death I was not to reveal your presence. She didn’t tell me why, but it was clearly very important to her. I’ve never said a word to any government official or scientist.”

Just pretty girls in bars. But Spacers say crazy stuff when they’re hitting on women. Nobody takes anything anyone says in a Spacer bar seriously.

Then I guess I should thank you for your discretion,” she smiled. “If word got back to my home planet about me, they’d have found a way to destroy me. After all, I’m a naturapik.”

I stared at her, jaw dropping. I’d had no idea of the potential consequences of my little story. “Isn’t that kind of dramatic for just being born. And what makes you a naturapik, whatever that is?”

A Supremis conceived off our home planet. My mother was a radical — she had an old fashioned view of natural reproduction, which after the destruction of the naturalists on our sister planet, Aria, has become a capital crime. The raptor world was our hideaway, at least until you showed up. Mother didn’t think anyone would be crazy enough to deliberately land there.”

I chuckled. “Exploratory geologists would prospect in Hell if they could get in alive.”

Well, nobody else landed there after you published your report about the ‘deserted planet overrun with ravenous flesh-loving raptors with a taste for humans’. You made them sound way worse than they are.”

I shook my head. “Not possible. They are the most dangerous animals in the known galaxy.”

She shook her head. “There’s a lot more to them than you know. But I can understand why you think that way. When we last met, you were having a bad day.”

So, she did have a rudimentary sense of humor, which made me smile. As far as that day went, bad didn’t begin to cover it, but I wasn’t going to argue. “But I’m not sure I can help you with anything. I’m having trouble even helping myself right now.”

I figured I’d disappoint her right up front.

She nodded slightly as she looked down to nervously draw a circle in the sand with her big toe. “I’ve been working with this professor on Riegel 5 who studies raptors. Dr. Daniel Tegrans. He’s very famous. Do you know him?”

Yeah,” I growled. “I know that bastard all too well.”

She looked up, concerned. “What did he do to you?”

He make me look like an idiot. Shortly after word spread of my disastrous encounter with the raptors, he asked me to review a scientific article he’d written about them. It was appallingly bad. He didn’t understand raptors at all, or was deliberately downplaying the danger. I angrily tried to convince him to write about the horrors I’d seen, but he insisted on making them sound more intriguing than dangerous. So I publicly attacked him, claiming his article was grossly in error. It didn’t matter. His article went viral, fascinating millions, primarily children. The bastard’s wife started selling a series of VR programming and toys for children, each one featuring a cute little raptor. Nobody wanted to listen to some crazy Spacer claiming that raptors were terrifying monsters who love to eat people alive, savoring children the most. So they shut me out.”

You were right, of course,” she nodded. “They truly are unimaginably dangerous to Terrans. And I suppose if it came to it they would eat children first. But they are also very intriguing, assuming you can stay alive. The professor was right about that part.”

Intriguing my ass,” I blurted out. “No parent would buy a raptor toy for their child if they knew those lizards like their food squirming and screaming right to the last bite.”

Also true, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that they are extremely intelligent with highly-developed personalities,” she argued.

All the more to eat us,” I said, shaking my head. “But to be honest, I doubt Dr. Tegrans cares as much about raptors as you think. My guess is that he wants to study the artistry of goddesses. Up close and deeply.”

She looked blankly at me for a moment, and then smiled hesitantly, tilting her head as she studied my face, not getting it. Then her eyes opened wide and she smiled brightly, those cute dimples tugging on my heartstrings again, almost unbearably.

No, he wouldn’t do that. I mean he couldn’t. He’s too old.”

I shrugged. “The old can worship as strongly as the young.”

She chewed on that for a moment, looking confused. “Mother always said you Terrans have many different kinds of humor. Also that you use twisted words and lies to further your …” She paused in mid-sentence as she saw the look on my face. “Oh, I’m sorry, I know that sounds terrible, doesn’t it. What I meant is that Terrans are clever with words. Saying one thing while meaning another.”

Where I come from,” I replied with similar honesty, “it is said that Supremis are too plainly spoken, even when the truth hurts. Too sure of their power. Flaunting their beauty for their own gain.”

She flashed me that blinding smile again, dimples and all. “Then you must teach me to speak more cleverly. And to flaunt less.”

It would be my special honor.” I bowed again, strangely thankful to break eye contact. Her face was so intensely beautiful that I felt as if I was falling.

She paused for a long moment, looking unsure of herself for the first time. Almost like she’d reached the end of a prepared script and now had to improvise. She crossed her arms over her breasts while turning modestly around to look back over her shoulder at me.

To be honest, I’m not sure what to do now that you’ve agreed to help me. I figured it was going to be harder than this to convince you. Mother said if I was ever confused or uncertain or needed to be persuasive, then I should just offer sex. Humans are always grateful.”

I stared wide-eyed as her naive words clanged off the sides of my skull, her reference to offering sex sending a riot of thrills racing through my body. Yet there was an exploitive, superior note to her words that set me back, like she was viewing me as a lesser creature. Yet the innocent smile on her face said she didn’t mean it that way. She was just being completely open.

I thought about her mother’s advice to “just offer sex”, and began to wonder what else Supremis mothers told their children? If your daughter is invulnerable to injury or disease, not to mention pregnancy, what is the risk?

But I’m not sure about the sex now,” she continued before anything truly stupid could come out of my mouth. “You’re terribly weak and frail and soft, and that shield thingy makes it even worse.”

I shriveled a bit at her words, despite knowing that I shouldn’t feel insulted. Supremis are infamous for not understanding the euphemisms and indirections and little white lies we Terrans use to to avoid offending each other. Frank honesty can be intimidating and rude.

Well, maybe in comparison...” I started to reply indignantly. “Nobody else has complained.”

Her face fell, her glow of confidence evaporating. “Oh no, I’ve offended you. I’m so sorry. I … I don’t know anything about talking to Terran men.”

So you’re more comfortable with women. I can understand that.” I cringed inside. My ex-wife had run off with another woman. The love of her life she said. Until that day, I’d thought I was the love of her life. She certainly was mine.

Danya looked confused for a moment, and then her eyes opened wide with recognition. “Oh, no. No, that isn’t what I was saying at all. Not that way. I simply haven’t met a man, any man, since that day we met so long ago. I grew up with just my mother and my great-grandmother and a few of her friends. All women.”

I stared, trying to digest that. She’d never had a playmate her age? No cousins or siblings? No boyfriends? Was that even possible? By reputation, the Supremis are all hyper-sexual.

But I thought you said you worked with that professor?” I said.

Whom I’ve never met. Wave-net only. My great-gran claimed he would give my project credibility. She was the one who tracked you down with her Embassy resources and sent me to intercept your ship, trying to hitch a ride without anyone knowing.”

Another wave of paranoia washed over me. I thought I’d adequately covered my tracks. Which meant FederPol. They monitored pretty much everything. I hadn’t worried about them because FederPol doesn’t open their databanks to anyone, including local planetary prosecutors. The Supremis Embassy shouldn’t have had access either, which said that someone with FederPol access had been seduced into giving up the keys. A common Supremis ploy.

I swallowed hard. I just needed to play this through. “So now that you’ve found me, what can I do for you, Danya?” I dared to ask. I was clearly dealing with an inexperienced girl. Possibly a fragile personality too.

She held her breath for a brief moment, which was even more worrisome. Why was it so hard to say?

She finally blurted it out: “I want you to help me set up a raptor zoo on Riegel 3.”

I stared blankly at her, not believing what I’d just heard, dumbfounded by the mere thought. This had to be another of her attempts at a joke. Nobody would put those monsters in a zoo.

An open zoo,” she continued in earnest. “Not on, Riegel 5, the snowy planet, but the tropical one that’s closer to the star. I want to fill it with raptors, living free and natural.”

But … I mean, how?” I gasped. “More importantly, why? They’d eat any zookeepers who tried to feed them. And if they got loose, hell, they’d eat their way through the entire ecosystem.”

That’s the idea,” she nodded, her face beaming enthusiasm. “Nobody lives on Riegel 3, and there are no native animals with sentient possibilities either. Just jungle animals seeded from Old Earth, most of them breeding out of control. Massive overpopulation. They will become the raptors’ food supply.”

I wondered how many of those species were apes or monkeys. Did raptor’s like monkey as much as human? I felt a sudden stab of primate fellowship, but I kept my mouth shut. The first rule of any Facilitator is to not ask anything you don’t absolutely need to know. Deniability is a shield.

She happily continued, talking rapidly, face gleaming. “I want to build a network of stealthy but shield-protected viewing areas that are connected via tunnels to the spaceport so people can view raptors in their natural habitat. As they feed, hunt, mate, socialize. As they talk. Out where people can see them, smell them, understand them. Where the visitors can feel like they are among them.”

I knew a rehearsed sales pitch when I heard it. “Yeah, but who in their right mind would want to see such horrible lizards, let alone be among them?” I shuddered as I recalled that terror. “We are their favorite food after all.”

The one-way Zellon shields will ensure the raptors don’t know that people are there, but the visitors can see, hear and smell everything from inside.”

Just watching them feed will be sickening to the point of traumatizing.”

I think a lot of people can handle that as long as they feel safe. And raptors are extremely intelligent, maybe even more than humans in some ways. The Terrans on Riegel 5 will come to see them in that kind of natural habitat. It will be a destination, with underground hotels and everything. My grand-gran tells me that the Scalantrans will even arrange tours from the Core planets if there’s sufficient interest.”

The magnitude of what she was suggesting staggered me. “But you need permits and titles and all kinds of connections to take over an entire planet. Even more to fundamentally change its animal eco-system.”

She shook her blonde head. “Not this planet. It’s overpopulated with an undesirable animal population. My great-gran Alisa has already made all the proper arrangements.”

That must have cost her a pretty penny.”

She shrugged. “Granny Alisa has no money, but she can be very persuasive, and she’s a famous scientist. She first explored the Cygnius 275 wormhole, back before we knew anything about it. She nearly died there.”

I smiled as I considered what she meant by ‘persuasive’. Anyone but the Supremis would call that corruption or worse. Yet strangely, I found her unpretentious frankness refreshing. She was completely unguarded and natural, which seemed strange given she was invulnerable and inviolate in every other sense. Or perhaps that openness was because of it. What did she have to fear?

But she won’t help me any further,” Danya continued as my thoughts raced. “I’m supposed to prove myself by doing this project alone.”

Alone? Yet here you are, talking to me.”

She rolled her eyes. “She meant, without the help of other Supremis. Obviously I’ll need a ship to transport the raptors and I need food, lots and lots of meat, and a thousand other things, including Terrans to help me. You are a man who knows how to get things done, any kind of thing, are you not?”

But raptors?” I asked weakly. “They’re little more than stomachs with big teeth.”

No,” she said, shaking her head defiantly, eyes flashing. “They are much more than that. It’s not their fault that they evolved to eat meat, or that they’re constantly ravenous, or that they now love the taste of human flesh above all else. That was the fault of your team. Scientists think they get smarter when they eat the brains of other animals. Whatever is true, they did seem to grow more complex in their thoughts after they ate the other members of your team.”

I didn’t need to hear any of that. It was bad enough to have fed their stomachs, but their brains too?

But why would you want to turn an entire planet into a zoo? Far better they live on their God-forsaken planet and we all stay far, far away from there. Or go build your viewing area there, if you insist.”

Her eyes narrowed. “I can’t. That horrible corporation you work for has engineered a virus that is going to kill all the raptors. Just so some greedy Terrans can mine the planet in safety. An entire species wiped out for some stupid ore.”

Stupid?” I gasped. “Xintanite is anything but. It’s the most valuable commodity in the galaxy. And I don’t work for that company any more. Haven’t for a long time.”

Whatever,” she sighed, growing impatient. “I want to save this species. But obviously no one understands them as I do.”

Surely, given your abilities, you could protect them. KazKan Mining doesn’t own any full-out warships.”

She nodded slowly. “That’s what I planned to do at first. It would be easy for me to stop the mining company ships from coming, catching them far out in space. Damage them, but not so much they couldn’t return home. If I wanted, I could make the planet off-limits to anyone but tourists. But my great-gran says that no power is great enough to keep men from their lust for riches. Not without killing a lot of them. And there are beings with powers even greater than mine who would object to that.” She shrugged again as she looked back up at me. “My grandmother told me instead that I had to find a win-win. That’s why I need you.”

I felt flattered, but still wary. “She’s an ambassador, Danya. That’s what they do. Finding ways to avoid wars. And yes, stopping ships in open space, damaging them, that’s an act of war. Force ultimately begets more force.”

You sound just like my great-gran. Anyway, that’s why I’m here,” she grinned, dancing on her toes. “I found a way. I have investors who will build the visitor centers and set up the shuttle flights from Riegel 5. They’ll earn their money back through admission profits and related sales. But only if I get the raptors safely there.”

I think you’ve got the wrong guy. I’m dead broke and stuck on this rock. My ship might be terminally broken. I’m not flying anytime soon. I can feel it.” I nodded toward the smoking hole and the wreckage what was spread all over the beach. “And you don’t exactly have a working ship either.”

She stood tall, sticking her chest out, leaning forward slightly, her proud nipples brushing against my Sulpter shield to send sparks flying.

If she was trying to impress me, it was working.

You don’t need an AMAT or engine now, silly. You’ve got me.” She reached up to cup herself. “Do you have any idea how much power I hold?”

I shook my head dumbly, unable to even think while staring at her overflowing hands.

More power than your ship’s engines,” she declared proudly.

All I know about Supremis flight power is that they can fly very fast. They’re born with organs that behave like biological gravity engines, which somehow metabolize Orgone which they store in their breasts. Crazy stuff.

Danya, we’re talking about powering a deep-space ship. An old tramper like the one I’m on, cargo and crew and all, hell, it has to weigh at least ten thousand tons.”

So?” she challenged me, lowering her hands to rest them on her hips. “Do you still think I’m a little girl? Barely able to wrestle raptors?”

Or survive being eaten by one?” I offered, refusing to take that bait.

Grish was born with a black heart. He hated mammals; me most of all. He’d been chomping on me since I was a baby. But raptors aren’t all like him. Most of them are my friends.”

This conversation was moving from amazing to weird. Had she grown up so starved for playmates that she’d adopted raptors as her friends? Friends who routinely tried to eat her? The mere concept of good and bad raptors made no sense. They were all ravenous beasts, every one of them guaranteed to eat any human they met. How could that ever be good?

The way I see it,” she continued, looking up at the darkening sky, “I will rescue your ship by becoming its engine. Your Captain and crew will agree to work for me because they have no choice. Plus I’ll pay them enough so they can fix their engine for real after I’m done with the ship.”

That might cost hundreds of thousands of credits. Where do you get money on the raptor planet?”

Same place your old company wants to. The ore. I dug up and refined a few tons of xintanite. 99.9% pure.”

I stared at her, eyes bugging out of my head, my mind racing. Purified Xintanite ore sold for more than a million drocnas a kilo, given that so little of it was required to make Vendorian steel. Not to mention its scarcity. “Tons? Exactly how many tons?”

A little over five.”

I gasped as I struggled to do the math in my head. “That’s … uhm … roughly five thousand kilos times a million. Five billion drocnas? Nearly eight billion Federation credits!”

Will that be enough?” she asked innocently.

Enough? Holy shit, Danya, you could buy an entire fucking planet for that. But the very last thing you want to buy is that rust bucket I’m flying on. Especially given its current state of repair.”

I don’t want to own the ship. I just want to use it for a while.”

Well, I’m not the one to ask. That would be Captain Janeway. But I think you’re nuts.”

Regardless, I will pay you as well, Peter, given I’m keeping you from your other work. Would a billion be enough?”

I was thunderstruck, my mouth opening and closing without sound. I’m lucky to clear a hundred grand a year, and this was far from an average year.

Drocnas or credits?” I asked incredulously.

Whatever,” she shrugged.

I couldn’t help but chuckle. “Well, a billion would help a bit with my expenses.” If she was going to pull my leg, I could return the favor.

Instead of smiling, she nodded gravely, taking it seriously. “So is it is a deal then, as I think you say?”

You can’t pay me that much,” I gasped.

Why not? This won’t be easy for you. I can’t guarantee your safety, although I will try.”

I shuddered as I thought of traveling on a ship full of raptors, every one of them salivating over the taste of my flesh. If there was one thing worse than being stuck on this rock until I got infected, that was it. Regardless of money, no reasonable man would agree to such a thing. Money was useless after you became a steaming pile of raptor shit.

And of course, if we do become partners,” she continued matter-of-factly, “you can teach me about human relationships, and how to speak cleverly. And I will teach you the truth about raptors.”

My brain exploded. Did she mean what I was thinking? Relationships for a Supremis always meant sex. I choked that thought off. The second rule of being a Facilitator flashed before my eyes: “Never making decisions with your dick.”

But then there was the money. That ridiculous sum. Rule zero said “Go for the money.” Hell, with that kind of wealth I could buy my own island on some tropical planet. Maybe even an entire continent. I could build my dream house on the perfect beach and live there for the rest of my life, soaking up the sun while Danya danced around naked in the water. Children frolicking.

I blinked that ridiculous fantasy away. The island, the beach … maybe. The girl … no way. Children … impossible. Supremis are already children of the galaxy. Danya could have any man, or every man. I was just going to briefly work for her. With benefits?

I couldn’t help but fixate on that. This could be the most excellent adventure ever. It would also completely change my life, presuming I still had one. And hell, I needed a new story. I was getting tired of telling that old one.

I knew I was breaking the second rule, but I stuck out my hand. “Deal, partner.”

She cocked her head as she looked down at my hand like it was some kind of snake. “Do you know how insulting it is to offer a handshake to a Supremis?”

I pulled my hand back, feeling sheepish. “It’s just an old Terran tradition. I didn’t realize …”

We believe that an agreement of this magnitude requires a far more intimate sharing of flesh.”

More … intimate … flesh?” I repeated slowly, stuck in brain-lock. She was reeling me in like a fish on the line.

But as you said, we need to convince your Captain first. Otherwise our deal is useless.”

She turned her head suddenly to look down the beach behind her. “Which, by the way, I think we should do very soon. There is a large group of predators stalking us under the trees on your right. They look hungry.”

Categories SWM Library | Raptor

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