Thursday, October 29, 2015

July 28, part 1

Tep and Feru lowered the boom on me, just as Betra warned they would. I have been ordered to take shore leave for my own good.

I’m irritable about the matter, but not quite as irate as I was yesterday when I first heard about it. Katrina had been forewarned by her Imdiko sweetheart Dr. Ret. She immediately volunteered to sit with Anrel while I spend a couple of hours in sunshine and ocean. Tep made a point of showing me how good all of my baby’s readings are.

“She’s thriving,” he said with a smile. “The medication continues to keep her well oxygenated and she’s put on two pounds since we started with intravenous feeding. Anrel is doing great.”

Then Oses showed up. He said nothing, just looked at me expectantly. I know when I’m beat.

“Let me get dressed for my trip,” I sighed. “Is Betra coming with us?”

“He’s already on the shuttle,” Oses said. “Don’t forget the underwater vid recorder. You’ll want it.”

Oh boy. A thrill went through my girlie bits to hear that. Then I realized he’d said it in front of Tep, who smirked at me. Damn it, that man is still hearing all about my extracurricular activities.

I had nothing particularly swim-appropriate as far as clothing was concerned. On Earth, we’d worn neck-to-ankle outfits that were light but made to not cling when wet. I had the idea that at some point I wouldn’t be wearing a thing in the Alneusian sea. I chose a frothy blouse and skirt for whatever actual dry shore time Oses and Betra might allow me to have.

We were off to Alneusia within twenty minutes. The shuttle ride was wonderful in that it was uneventful.  It set down on a small landing pad near the beach.

I’d forgotten how much I loved being on the seashore, and this small spit of land on the mostly water-covered Alneusia was lovely. In the distance, I could see massive many-limbed trees spreading a canopy of green broad-leafed branches. They reminded me a little of southern oaks on Earth, but probably 50 times bigger. I bet I could have used just one of the dark green leaves as a blanket. I marveled, thinking as big as they seemed from miles away, they were probably even more impressive up close.

The beach itself was pearly white, shining with a luster that dazzled the eye under the twin suns that blazed overhead. The sand was coarse, almost crystalline like small bits of quartz. I was glad to have my slippers on. This was not sand to dig one’s toes in. Their source dotted the land and heaved out of the golden stretch of water that hugged the coast: massive rock formations. They were craggy but awesome sights, these outcroppings of massive ivory stone. I saw a few Earthers and Kalquorians scaling them, playing at rock-climbing and standing atop them to gaze out at the seemingly endless sea.

The water was beautiful. In the distance it appeared as blue as any of Earth’s oceans, an indigo plain where the occasional  white dash of a wave would appear. As it approached the beach where I stood it shaded to turquoise, then aquamarine, then a pale blue that transformed into the appropriate shade of  seafoam green. Finally it turned that strange and spectacular gold that lapped the pearly shore with whitened foam. I’d never seen anything like it.

If not for the harsh sand of the shore or the oppressive heat of the twin suns beating down on me, I would have happily sat there for hours. I wanted to listen to the surf hiss its way back and forth and look out over the tranquil setting. I’d always loved the beach back home. One of my favorite all-time splurges had been renting a small condo on the coast for a long weekend (all I could afford). I’d had my morning coffee on the balcony, gone out to walk the sand and take a dip when I got a bit warm, then sat in a folding chair until lunch. A nearby snack shack had provided me with a quick sandwich and some water, and then I was back on the beach again. Sometimes I would read or walk or swim a little. Mostly I just sat and contemplated the beach and ocean. When dinner time rolled around, I went back to my room and made something simple. I ate out on the balcony, feeling divine in the sea-salt air. A couple of times I thought it worthwhile to go down to the condo’s pool, where I talked a little with honeymooning couples or those celebrating anniversaries or simply taking a few days vacation like myself. People on holiday were relaxed and happy and nice. I enjoyed the company because it was fleeting, with no demands to make or expect.

Afterwards it was back to my room for a cocktail ... on the balcony again, of course. Then off to bed with the window open, sea breezes wafting in, the drone of the ocean lulling me to sleep. There was no excitement, no tourist escapades, no educational value to the weekend whatsoever since I visited none of the nearby museums. Just me, my thoughts, and the beach. It was one of the best times of my life, and I was just about devastated when it was time to re-join the real world.

I remembered that glorious weekend now as I stood gazing over the Alneusian sea. I’d been younger and more innocent, believing life might hand me many more escapes like that one. For an instant I wished I could have that time back, that I could be free and unfettered Shalia with no knowledge of Armageddon or trophy-gathering Ofetuchans or body-stealing biological weapons or stalking Dramoks. Had I known fear back then? Of course I had, in the form of an overbearing government and men who took advantage of a woman’s helpless second-class status. Yet through the warped lens of memory, it seemed a far more innocent time. For a little while I mourned the Shalia who no longer existed. I felt grief that some sweet part of me had died when I wasn’t looking. It was like looking up a childhood friend only to discover she had been killed years ago ... and I’d never known until right now.

But then I thought of what I had now and what lay ahead of me. Anrel, blood of my blood, the child I had made ... she was now. Wonderful friends in Candy and Katrina ... they were now. Betra and Oses standing on either side of me, also looking out over the ocean and thinking their own thoughts ... they were now. Alneusia with its singular beauty beckoning to leave behind the past and embrace the moment ... that was now.

Clans Aslada and Seot ... they were in my future. Kalquor ... the future. A new life, one of promise and who knew what joys? It waited for me in the future. All I had to do was step away from regrets and the past pain of things not realized. All I had to do was embrace what I hadn’t planned on and perhaps find something better than what I’d hoped for.

I felt it again, that calm quiet joy that I’d known for one stolen weekend, the anticipation of all the good that life could offer. I wouldn’t find happiness in sudden fame, in unlimited fortune. It was only to be found in the company of good friends, stalwart lovers, and in my baby daughter’s health and growth.

I looked up at the men on either side of me, the Imdiko and Nobek who were mine to cherish for this short time. More than ever, I appreciated them in that instant. Like that long-ago weekend, they were a fleeting moment ... but then, all of life is. Betra had gotten it right weeks ago when he’d said, “I will take the happiness granted to me now.”

I took the men’s hands in mine, feeling their strength and grateful to be the recipient of their care. I smiled up at them, my lovers for now and friends for as long as I drew breath. “Show me what this place has to offer,” I said.

Betra grinned brightly. Oses did the Nobek version of happy by twitching his lips upward. We headed towards an open-sided shelter set near one of the outcroppings on the shore.

Under its roof we got some shade from the twin suns’ glare. There were small booths within which a second species native to Alneusia, the Chamelko, were busy directing us visitors.

The Chamelko are an amphibious race. Like us and the planet’s main species which carries its name, they are sentient. However they are not as intelligent or as abundant as the people we call Alneusians. Alneusians see their co-inhabitants as a race to be helped along and taken into all considerations when it comes to the planet they share. The Chamelko are delighted to do work for the Alneusians, seeing the superior race like older siblings or parent-like. They do not travel space as such is beyond their intellectual capacity. Left to themselves, they hunt and gather their food and play games when they have time for it. They have speech that the Alneusians taught them as well as their own dialects. They also use the tools the Alneusians supply them with in exchange for simple services.

When Oses, Betra, and I approached one of these Chamelko, it took us in with its independently moving pair of eyes. It was weird seeing one yellow eye pointed at me and another at Oses. Then the one looking at me diverted to look at Betra.

In ... zi ... di,” it intoned, its suction cup tongue reaching out of its mouth to lick its sloped forehead between words. It nodded its gray, triangular head. “Di.”

I kept quiet, not understanding a word. I guess Oses had a clue though, because he nodded to our new acquaintance. “Jid. Di. Di getu.”

Vo klid?”

Jid. Vo klid. Ga un Kakur.” Oses spoke slow and careful, as if he worked with a young child.

The Chamelko moved the eye gazing at Betra to stare at something beneath the table surface between us. It considered a moment before reaching three of its seven arms down. It brought up three woven trays which looked like they were made of dried seaweed. It set them on the table between us. Each held a stoppered vial. The one in the middle, in front of me, contained brown liquid. Those in front of Oses and Betra were greenish-brown. Each tray also held a small metallic box the size of my palm. There was a button on each box.

“Any thumb or finger on the button, pet,” Oses told me. “It’s your acknowledgement that the Alneusians have permission to watch and record our activities in their habitat for study.”

He and Betra did so without hesitation. I noted the Imdiko’s grin was bigger than ever and twice as naughty. I couldn’t help but laugh at him as I gave my own okay by squashing my index finger on the button.

“Now drink the liquid. It’s to keep you from any bacterial infections that might result from us having sex underwater.”

Someone had thought of everything. The fact that my medicine looked slightly different from the Kalquorians told me that I was getting a dose made specifically for Earther. It still looked kind of gross, like sludge. At least it didn’t look like the green slime my boyfriends were gulping down.

Wrinkling my nose in anticipation of drinking something foul, I unstoppered the vial, closed my eyes, and tipped it into my mouth.

It wasn’t awful. It wasn’t great either. It was like the broccoli of preventative medicine ... good for me, but boring without cheese sauce. I swallowed it and put the vial back on the tray.

The Chamelko waved a couple of arms to the right. “Im dek.”

Oses and Betra gave it a slight bow. The Imdiko said, “Vi dak.”

“This way, Shalia,” Oses said, leading us in the direction the Chamelko had waved. “We’ll find a respirator to fit you and then we can go into the water.”

He and Betra had already come out here a couple of times, so of course they knew the way. We left the shelter and its booths of twitchy-eyed Chamelkos and headed toward another shelter.

Partition walls had been set up inside this shelter. Clear full-face masks hung from hooks. Even an Earther rube like me could figure out how they worked. The masks were made to envelope the front of the skull from behind the ears forward. There were thick elastic bands that would go about the back of a person’s head, holding the mask into place. At the bottom of the mask itself was a round intake valve and a release valve. Between them was a mechanism that spun within a separate containment ... an oxygen mix extractor, which would pull breathable gases for me right out of the water’s chemical composition.

I saw also what I thought might be a microphone. The tiny discs where an Earther or Kalquorian’s ears would sit made me think of speakers.

“We’ll be able to talk and hear each other?” I asked. That would be great since I was a complete stranger to everything about this planet.

“Yes, so don’t worry about not being able to say sholt,” Betra snickered. “We’ll hear you if you do.”

I looked at him suspiciously. “Why? What’s going to happen that might make me call a halt?”

Oses’ smirk wasn’t making me feel any more confident. “You’ll see. Let’s find a mask that will fit you.”

We did so on our third attempt. The edges of the mask, when fitted properly, made a vacuum seal around my head which would keep the water out. The intake valve allowed regular air in so long as I wasn’t submerged, so my brief moment of claustrophobia came and went in a big hurry.

Betra and Oses already knew their sizes, so they were outfitted pretty quick. We also had protective footwear, rubbery coverings that stretched to accommodate our differing sizes. We took our facemasks back off and set off for a cove that would allow us to disrobe in relative privacy. My companions would have stripped right where we were, but I saw too many familiar faces among those on shore leave.

“I’m glad public nudity is no big deal to you two, but I’m not about to show myself to everyone here,” I insisted.

Betra and Oses exchanged a look I couldn’t quite read. Betra said, “But you’ll be observed by the Alneusians.”

“Who aren’t human. They don’t even look close to human. Plus I won’t be running into them in the corridors of the transport for the next two months,” I said.

The two men looked at each other again. Then Oses shrugged. “There is an area on the other side of those rock formations over there that not too many explore. We’ll undress and go into the water there.”

He was right about the cove being deserted. I was able to strip my light skirt, blouse, and underthings and step into the golden water without anyone but Oses and Betra seeing me.

“Will we see any of the Alneusians?” I asked after my facemask was in place.

“Probably not.” Betra’s voice in my ear had a weird echo-less quality through the speaker. “They like to give research subjects the illusion of privacy so we’re not inhibited in any way.”

Research subjects. Well, I suppose that’s what we were to our hosts, but I had the uncomfortable image of being pinned down like a frog in readiness for dissection. Eep.

I waded through the waves anyway, following Oses as Betra kept pace next to me. I got another flash of claustrophobia as the water closed over my head, but a couple of normal breaths steadied me again. I breathed perfectly fine through the Alneusian version of a respirator.

At first there was little to see. The water was clear enough though everything had a golden tinge to it. The harsh crystalline sand continued underfoot, making me grateful for the stretchy foot covers. Some of those little crystals looked sharp.

Oses and Betra were clear as day beneath the water. Our natural buoyancy took over, and we began swimming. I don’t know if Alneusian seas are somehow denser than those of Earth or if I was just that out of shape, but I was huffing a little after a few minutes. All at once I started laughing.

Betra and Oses turned to look at me questioningly. I told them, “Tep kept talking about me getting fresh air. Does oxygen extracted from water count? Because it doesn’t seem like it should.”

They both grinned. Then Oses said, “You’re lagging behind a little. Grab onto my shoulders and I’ll swim for us both.”

I was more than ready to take him up on the offer. I rode on the Nobek’s back as he took us deeper into the depths.

All at once, the ground beneath us disappeared. I gasped to see what was beyond the shelf that dropped into the sea.

Perhaps fifty feet beneath us was a lush landscape, an astounding meadow beneath the waves. Plants were abundant, swaying to and fro in the invisible currents as if possessed by wind. Bright seaflowers bloomed in profusion in shocking shades of pink, purple, and red. The ground they grew from was darker, with only a few glittering motes of the pearly quartz-like sand that littered the shore.

There were rocks and tiny caves among the many plants. I saw miniscule creatures scuttle and dart into their cover, hiding from us as we neared.

“Don’t take anything from the environment,” Betra warned me. “It’s not allowed. If you see something you’d like, point it out and I’ll put in a request for an approved specimen to be harvested.”

“Is any of it as pretty out of the water?” I asked. I remembered how most shells and such on Earth rarely held onto their luster once dried out.

“Not really, but they can be treated to regain the look.”

I showed him the vid recorder that fit so neatly in my hand. “I think I’d rather capture them in their natural setting.”

I switched it on, still hanging onto Oses’ massive shoulder with one hand. I shot the sea floor as we glided over it, making sure to get shots of Betra swimming naked. He looked amazing, his dark skin tinged gold with the surrounding water. Hopefully he’d tow me later so I could capture similar footage of Oses. If not for the mask sitting like a strange bubble over his face, Betra would have looked like some fabulous merman.

He pointed at something ahead. “The atabetin and orfica forest.”

I peered in the direction we were heading in. With an excited gasp, I aimed my recorder.

This ‘forest’ had the biggest damned flowers I’d ever seen in my life. Rising from a bed of ferns the length of my body, they were five-petaled wonders, twice my size. They were white at the tips, shading to pink, then red, then mauve at the center. They looked just like gigantic Earth flowers, except they were underwater. There were even golden stamen-like protrusions coming from the middle where the petals met.

Tall plants surrounded the flowers. From a distance those looked like the cattail plants that had grown in profusion around the marshes I had once lived near. Long thin leaves waved as if to beckon us as the velvety brown tubers – which is what I was later told they are – nodded in agreement.

“Shall we go closer?” Oses asked. I was too enraptured by the huge flowers to pay real attention to the undercurrent of humor in his tone.

“Yes, yes,” I said. “Can I touch them?”

“Sure,” Betra said, his amused voice almost falsetto.

I really should have taken note of how they sounded. I should have known a trap was being laid for me.

I decided to let go of Oses, making my own way to the first of what looked like acres of flowers stretching as far as the eye could see. I swam around it, shooting video from first this angle, then another. Backing up a bit to get the entirety of my subject. “Get in close so I can get the scale of it,” I called to Oses.

“I have a better idea,” he said, reaching towards me. “Give me the recorder and I’ll vid you next to it.”

I didn’t think to wonder why Betra laughed. I guess I figured he was enjoying me enjoying myself. I can be so dense sometimes.

But no, I handed over my vid recorder, delighted with the idea of having footage of me next to the huge waterflower. I swam right to the thing, noting with interest how the white-to-mauve petals waved in my direction. One petal seemed to reach towards me as I reached my hand towards it, as if we would shake hands.

My fingertips brushed the white part of the petal. It seemed to shiver, as if delighted by the touch. I grinned, touching downy softness. Hello, flower. I’m Shalia from Earth. Pleased to meet you.

I stroked the part of the massive petal as far as I could reach. It was so soft! I thought that if I had a mattress made of such material, they would need a crane and a legal warrant to haul my ass out of bed. I could have wallowed on the flower, it was so cozy. I had the urge to rub my face against it and wondered how weird that would seem to Betra and Oses.

I had no clue how weird this encounter was about to get.

I felt that softness brushing against my legs, more of it drifting up my back. It was like being caressed by a dove’s wing. I wondered how I felt to the flower, what it got out of its investigations. The petals wound about my ankles, my wrists, the softness holding me. Tightening on me. Trapping me. I suddenly couldn’t move.

“Hey!” I yelled.

Laughter burst through the speakers at my ears. I’d been had. I looked up to see Oses and Betra ... well out of grabbing range of the flowers ... kicking their feet so that they executed slow somersaults in the water over my head. They were enjoying their little joke.

Trouble was, the joke wasn’t quite over. I felt something poke tentatively at my abdomen. Looking down, I saw the flower’s three golden stamens stretching to touch me. They slithered about, searching.

“Is this thing trying to have sex with me?” I shouted to the Demented Duo still laughing their heads off. “Because if it is, you’d better believe I’m fucking saying sholt!”

“No sense of adventure,” Oses snickered as he swam close and began to untangle my limbs from the amorous foliage. “The Plasians love the orfica blooms. They say as soon as one unloads its pollen, you can always find another ready to take over.”

“Neverending sex with a partner who doesn’t make any demands or arguments,” Betra chortled, holding the eager stamens away from my girl parts while Oses freed me. “Some would appreciate that. You might even want to give us Kalquorians up. Are you sure you don’t want one smuggled on board the transport for your personal use, Shalia?”

“What I want is the knife Larten gave me,” I shot back. “For the flower and then you two. You all need your stamens trimmed. What a couple of jerks. I do not want to be pollinated.”

“Too late,” Betra said, still laughing it up. “Why do you think the water in this area has such a gold color?”

“Are you serious?” I spluttered. “Get me out of here.”

As Oses got each limb loose, I waved it around to avoid re-capture while he freed the rest of me. At last I shook free and swam out of range of the fornicating flowers. The two idiots I’d come with grinned up at me.

“If you think you’re getting laid after that, think again,” I told them.

Actually I did appreciate the prank. If I’d been the one to play it, I’d be laughing as hard as those two goons. It had been a good one. I wanted them to make it up to me though. Being made up to is always good. I waited to see what they’d come up with to do so.

Oses said, “It was Betra’s idea, if that gets me out of trouble. Here, let me punish him for you.”

With that, the Nobek suddenly turned on my liaison. He grabbed Betra and shoved him down towards a few of the cattail-looking reeds that bunched close to my amorous posey.

The long leaves of the tuber plant shot towards the falling Imdiko, snagging him much the way the flower petals had captured me. His surprised yelp rang out. The velvety cattail moved towards him.

My mouth dropped open. Oh hell, were all the plants on this planet horny for humanoids? That cattail was a hell of a lot bigger than the flower’s stamen too. With Betra’s dislike of anything remotely penis-like near his ass...

Then the cattail opened up, becoming a hollow cylinder. It attached itself to Betra’s primary cock, enclosing it. The next cry out of my liaison was not one of horror.

He did sound mad though. “Oses, you asshole! You did that so you could have Shalia to yourself!”

The Nobek was laughing again. He swam up to me to watch Betra struggle weakly against the plant, which – and I am not lying – seemed to be giving the Imdiko a blowjob.

“It won’t stop until he, ahem, fertilizes it,” Oses choked between guffaws. “It does the same thing to the Chemelkos. It’s a symbiotic relationship. Other creatures’ semen triggers the atabetin’s fertilization response, which allows them to seed the water and propagate the species.”

I watched Betra give up and let the plant have its way with him. His sighs were a bit disgruntled. “This planet is fucking weird,” I opined. “Do you like that sort of thing?”

Oses shrugged. “Like Betra said, willing partners and no demands. It has its points.”

Kalquorians take open mindedness to new levels. As for me, I’m not touching another plant on Alneusia. I’ll stick to good ol’ humanoid sex, thank you. That gets crazy enough for me.

Monday, October 26, 2015

July 27

We’ve reached Alneusia. Most of the gang has gone on shore leave, but I’ve elected to stay on board and be with Anrel. Feru and Tep are not happy with me on that account. They are pushing me to get some fresh air, maybe take a walk on the beaches or a swim in the ocean. I know Betra and Oses would also like me to go down on the planet. They hint that the water sports we’d engage in down there are like nothing I can dare imagine.

How can I though, with what lies ahead for my daughter?

The Solns responded to Tep’s inquiries. They have suggested a surgical procedure to correct the heart valve problem. I haven’t gotten the particulars on it, because Tep himself is still looking over the process.

“I won’t lie to you,” he told me in that firm, no-nonsense voice of his. “I’ve never had to operate on such a tiny body like Anrel’s. That and her level of strength are what give me pause. However, the Soln hive has sent me step-by-step directions and how we might implement the surgery using nanobots.”

I shuddered to think of the tiny robots, which look like little black bugs, crawling around inside my baby. “It sounds pretty invasive,” I ventured.

“Actually, the incision point would be so small as to make it extremely safe,” Tep said. “The nanos will be sterilized and they’ll do only what I tell them to. It’s better than my big Kalquorian hands blundering around her thin arteries and little heart. Let me familiarize myself with the whole procedure before making a final decision. If I feel without a doubt that I can carry this out, I’ll let you know.”

In the meantime, Anrel continues to be on medication and an IV for feedings. I hate seeing her little self connected full time to the incubator, but what can I do? At least she continues to put on weight and do well overall. And she still loves to suck on her fist.

Betra and Oses got back from their first foray on Alneusia. Both seemed quite relaxed and happy ... I’m glad their water activities are giving them so much fun. I am curious as to what it is they’re doing there given the fact Betra won’t have actual intercourse with Oses. When I asked, they would only grin at me and tell me I had to come down to the planet to find out.

“I’m not leaving Anrel,” I insisted.

“Why? There is not one thing you can do for her. If it’s just that you don’t want her left alone, you know someone will sit with her while you take a break,” Betra said.

I didn’t want to admit he was right. Candy, Katrina, and the men they keep company with had already offered, as had Feru. Everyone is after me to take a little time for myself. I know perfectly well if Anrel has any medical problems, I can’t help. But I can’t shake the feeling I’d be selfishly abandoning her just to have some fun. It seems wrong.

I said as much. Oses rolled his eyes. Betra blew out a sigh.

“I hate to tell you this, but Feru and Tep are discussing issuing a medical order for you to take some shore leave,” my liaison said. “You’re not getting enough exercise even with Resan’s physical therapy. You need to breathe some real air. You have to give yourself a break for emotional well-being.”

It pissed me off that the psychologist and doctor were conniving to make me leave Anrel’s side. “They can’t do that!”

Oses raised an eyebrow at me. “They can. If they believe your physical and mental welfare is dependent on taking some time off, they have the authority to insist you do so. If you refuse, they will have me as head of ship’s security order a team to escort you to the planet.” He gave me a dangerous smile. “In such a case, I am bound to obey their orders.”

That news left me fuming. Everyone was ganging up on me. Maybe it was for my own good, but I didn’t appreciate being strong-armed like that.

I gave Oses a frosty look. “Well then, I’ll go to Alneusia when you are ordered to take me there.”

And fuck the whole bunch of them until then.

I was a little mollified when Betra gave me a package. “Clan Seot ordered some gifts for you from a couple of Alneusian businesses. I went ahead and picked them up for you.”

“More presents?” I was touched. Between Meyso getting the Solns to help Tep and the generosity of Clan Seot, I was being spoiled silly. I tried not to act too giddy over the package for Betra’s sake, but his expression was only curious.

He saw that I noted his interest. “I suppose you want to open this in private.”

“Well, I doubt they’ve sent anything personal,” I said, sitting down in the chair next to Anrel’s incubator. I started to open up the sealed box. “Oses liked the last round of gifts.”

The Nobek chuckled. “We’ll have to get that vid recorder out again. I don’t suppose it’s waterproof? If I am able to get you on Alneusia—” he let the innuendo hang in the air.

I got the box open and crowed delight at the first thing I saw. “No, that vid recorder isn’t waterproof, but this one is.”

I lifted the clear-shell cased vid recorder from the box. It stood to reason that the ocean-living Alneusians would have cameras perfect for underwater recording. Cifa had bought me one. The attached note said Get in some practice on shore leave. I have no doubt you’ll have many ideas of the vids we can create for the cruise line and travelogues.

Oh man, could I ever come up with some amazing footage with a vid recorder like this. I almost hoped Tep and Feru would force me to go to Alneusia just so I could try it out.

Seot’s gift was in a tiny box. I read the note before I opened it. It said My defense plants have supplied these to several worlds including Alneusia. It’s up to you whether you use them for yourself and Anrel, but it might help settle your mind on safety issues. Give the implantation instructions to the transport’s medical staff. It’s not a difficult procedure.

I opened the box to find two small cylindrical tubes inside. Tiny metal squares, barely a quarter of the size of my pinkie fingernail, rattled within them. I held them up for Betra and Oses to see, my look questioning.

Betra’s jaw dropped open and one corner of Oses’ mouth twitched up in a grin. “Planet range sub-dermal trackers,” the Nobek told me. “Expensive to produce. Only the richest and highest priority targets in the known worlds can afford them. Even our last and present Imperial Clans don’t have them.”

“I don’t think it’s the cost that keeps them from doing it. At least one of them has issues with someone being able to track them down. Emperor Clajak used to disappear a lot to avoid duties when he was a crown prince.” Betra snickered.

“But what are they?” I asked.

“You implant them surgically under the skin,” Betra explained. “If you go missing, the manufacturer – Dramok Seot’s firm, in this instance – activates the tracker. It will find the signal anywhere on a planet twice the size of Kalquor. In space, it can track a similar distance.”

“For real?” My mind boggled at the range of the tiny transmitters. “I didn’t know anything could track that vast an area.”

Oses took one of the tubes from me and eyed its contents with appreciation. “As I said, this technology is insanely expensive to produce. You could buy yourself a fleet of ships with one of these.”

“And Seot gave you two.” Betra’s voice was awed. “One for you and one for Anrel.”

I saw why they were so impressed. Holy prophets, the things were worth a fortune. But what struck me more than Seot’s incredible generosity was the peace of mind he offered. If Anrel had one of these ... and crazy Nang got to her and tried to take her away from me...

“I could find her anywhere,” I breathed.

“As long as she’s not taken off-planet or out of range. People would be searching before a kidnapper could get that far. A fine gift,” Oses said, handing the tube back. “One that would have made it much easier to find you on Finiuld’s ship, phased or not. I hope you will consent to having it implanted.”

“I think that’s pretty much a no-brainer,” I affirmed. “I’ll talk to Tep about it today.”

Larten’s gift was last and had me blinking in confusion. “Well. Next time the kitchen serves up ronka that hasn’t been properly tenderized, I’ll be ready.”

I held up the biggest, scariest knife I’d ever seen in my life. Double-edged, serrated, and over half the length of my forearm not counting the grip, it was perhaps the most brutal weapon I’d ever encountered.

Betra was taken aback. “By the ancestors, why would Nobek Larten send such a thing?”

Again, Oses held his hand out and I took exaggerated care in giving him the knife. The damned thing looked sharp. I had a vision of it slicing through Oses’ fingers like butter.  The weapons commander eyed it with a keen gaze.

“A beautiful blade if you know how to use it. It’s light, perfectly weighted and the right length for Shalia. I doubt you’d find a finer wrought knife outside of Joshada.” He crooked a smile at me. “But forget about using it to cut your food. This is a fighting knife.”

Betra shook his head. “Again, why?”

“Isn’t it obvious? Larten wants Shalia to be able to defend herself if she must. A thoughtful gesture, but she’s not trained for it.” Oses twirled the blade on the tip of a finger and drew blood. His grin was bright, the crazy Nobek. “I can give her a few lessons.”

“A knife.” Betra rolled his eyes. “Of all the things to give a woman you’re supposed to be romancing.”

“A woman who attracts trouble just by getting out of bed in the morning,” I reminded him. “Do you really think you can train me so that I don’t hack my own ears off, Oses?” It sounded like a cool skill to have.

“A little, at least enough to be safe with it. I’m adequate with knives, but hand-to-hand is my best skill. I’m not surprised Nobek Larten would opt for knives, however.”

“Why is that?” Oses sounded like he knew something.

“When I checked his background, I found he was once courted by the Empire’s elite fighting force.  That group of warriors is connected to our ground troops but operates independently. Larten went in on a trial basis and did well before he decided it wasn’t for him.”

“I wonder why he didn’t go through with it?” I mused.

“Probably because he met his Dramok around that time. The elite fighters never clan because they are constantly deploying to trouble hotspots. There is no home life for that bunch.”

Betra looked impressed. “Just to be invited is a high honor. He must be good.”

“Larten was trained in blade fighting by no less than then-High Commander Bevau. Our current Nobek emperor.” Oses grinned at me. “To use your Earther parlance, Emperor Bevau is a bad-ass when it comes to knives. He remarked in Larten’s records that he was one of the best fighters he’d ever trained.”

Wow. Praise from one of Kalquor’s emperors sounded like a pretty big deal. I needed to be more impressed than ever with Larten.

When Oses gave me my knife, I took it with a lot more reverence than I’d had before. I curled my hand around the rough metal grip. For all its solid looks, the blade was light. I moved it about, looking at how the light caught on its coldly beautiful edges.

“Until I start training you on the basics, get used to holding it every day,” Oses encouraged. “Think about it not as a tool or weapon. You should come to regard it as an extension of your arm, a part of your own body.”

I nodded and looked over all the goodies Clan Seot had sent. Useful things, things I could definitely appreciate. They along with Clan Aslada, Oses, and Betra ... as well as Candy, Katrina, Tep, Feru, Clan Wotref ... heck, tons of people were looking out for me and Anrel. I am a lucky gal.