Thursday, June 30, 2016
We set off, moving towards what looked like a small outbuilding next to the landing pad. Much as we’d been on Haven, we were agog at being in wide open space. I wondered how long it would be before I would take walking in the outdoors for granted.
As we walked towards the building, Firef dropped back, allowing Nosdu to lead the group. I was not surprised to see him heading for me. Anrel, meet your next admirer.
“You must be Matara Shalia,” the Dramok said when he reached me. Only he didn’t look at me. His eyes were wide, drinking in the sight of a baby.
I quelled the urge to say, “No, she’s Anrel.” It felt kind of whiny, but my reaction had nothing to do with my daughter being in the limelight. I’ve always had a thing about people not looking at me when they speak to me. I’m weird that way.
So I got off my brat kick and simply said, “Yes, I’m Shalia Monroe.”
“And this wonderful child is—?”
“Anrel.” He repeated it like a benediction. “It’s been so long since I’ve seen a baby this small. My sons have been grown for decades.”
“So you’re clanned,” I remarked. “And a father as well. It’s nice to have a family man in charge of the complex.”
“It was one of the requirements,” Firef said, finally looking at me with a smile. “Management is required to have experience with being a mate and parent. The committee in charge of the Earther Mataras thought it best.”
I glanced at the youthful Nosdu. “So the Imdiko is clanned to a Matara and has children?”
“Clanned to an Earther, yes. His first child is on the way. Due next month.” Firef seemed proud to relate that. “He was promoted only two weeks ago and given a waiver since his fatherhood is so near. He’ll probably have a million questions for you, but if he becomes a pest—”
“He won’t bother me, no matter how many questions he asks,” I promised. “I’ve been the nervous new parent and know how it feels. I had a ton of questions and worries myself and welcomed any help I could find. I still do, as a matter of fact,” I added with a laugh.
Firef grinned. “I know he’ll appreciate that.”
We’d reached the little building. It turned out not to be a building at all. Most of the front wall slid upward, revealing it to be a huge elevator-conveyance car. I knew the Matara Complex was underground in a former mine, so going into the earth was no surprise. I was sad to say goodbye to the great outdoors so soon, however.
We boarded the transport and bid adieu to the blue skies as the door dropped closed once more. No matter the size, conveyances all look pretty much the same: gray, metal, utilitarian. Blah.
“Residential,” Nosdu said. I noticed his gaze had riveted on Anrel. His expression was half-delighted, half-terrified. Yep, I knew the feeling. Nosdu was probably going to be one of my very best friends in the foreseeable future. I gave him an encouraging smile when he glanced at me.
It wasn’t even two seconds when the conveyance door opened again. At first I thought we hadn’t gone underground. The landscape was much like before, except the colorful trees were a lot closer. The sun was as brilliant, the sky stretching just as wide as before.
“Oops,” Candy muttered next to me, her look amused.
Firef and Nosdu stepped off however. After a moment’s hesitation, we followed them. Then nine women stood stock still, our necks craning as we had a look around.
I’d known the ceiling of the underground was one tremendous vid displaying the weather conditions of the world outside. Yet I hadn’t expected it to look so real. Only the distant rock walls seen between stands of trees betrayed the illusion. It felt like we were actually outside. Hell, there was even a breeze to cool my exposed skin. I was amazed. I’d never seen a large-scale vid that could display with that amount of high-resolution. I truly couldn’t tell that I was underground.
Among the colorful trees with their startling ivory-colored trunks and branches, a few dwellings dotted here and there. I guessed these were homes for the Kalquorians since Nosdu had directed the conveyance to take us to a residential area. They weren’t like Earther homes at all. They were rounded creations with swooping curves. It was like seeing some sort of stone formations that had been weathered by the elements over time.
They were interesting to look at, but Candy grabbed my arm and pointed up into the trees themselves. Darn if there weren’t treehouses in the branches. And when I say treehouses, I don’t mean the kinds of things pre-teen boys would build back on Earth. I mean treeHOUSES. Actual structures meant to be lived in. I could see stairs winding around the trunks, leading to various levels where closed rooms and balconies affixed to thick networks of branches.
“Gorgeous,” I breathed in appreciation. “But heaven help anyone who’s a sleepwalker up there.”
We set off down the stone path that led from the conveyance. It opened into an even wider lane that curved off to our left, parting the pastoral landscape that managed to look cultivated and yet natural all at once. We made the turn and gaped yet again.
The Matara Complex loomed on the horizon. Again, the vids I’d seen of the place did not match the reality. It was breathtaking.
Like the smaller homes we passed, it was rounded with graceful undulating curves along its roof and exterior. Again I thought of ancient rocks worn by wind and water into sculptural beauty that only nature could create. It looked made of granite, but there was a sheen that spoke of polished rock. Near the top were a few openings, lovely arched windows or doors, fit for a cathedral’s stained glass. The structure was astounding.
When we stepped inside, it was no less awe-inspiring. The courtyard, which sat squarely in the center of the complex’s open middle, was an explosion of color. First there were flowerbeds blooming like they were afraid they’d never get the chance to do so again. The scents they put off would put the most expensive cologne to shame. It was amazing.
The beds separated pie-wedge shaped sections of the courtyard. Each section was tiled in a different color. Yellow, blue, green, red, so on. And each section had a different function. I saw small whirlpools, almost all of which were taken up by small groups of women who looked at us new arrivals with mild curiosity. Most wore full body bathing suits like we’d had on Earth, but a few wore scantier pieces that we couldn’t help but widen our eyes at. Old Earth repressions had us glancing at each other as if to say, can you believe she’s wearing that?
Another section looked sort of like the outdoor sitting area of a café. It had low tables, seating cushions, and firepits. That part was full too, with a ton of women drinking and eating and whooping it up. One woman seemed to be the center of attention. Fancy wrapped presents surrounded her, along with nine Kalquorian men who looked daggers at each other.
Nosdu spoke in an undertone in Kalquorian to Firef, but I caught what he said. “Matara Penelope has invited all three clans she’s seeing to her birthday party.”
Firef sighed as he looked the situation over. “Ask Security to send in a few more guards just in case.”
While Nosdu muttered into his com, Firef gave us all a bright smile. “As you can see, we have many activities and opportunities for relaxation here.”
He wasn’t kidding. We walked around the pie wedge courtyard, getting a good look at a huge pool where several women swam about, and an open area in the purple section where we were told meditation, exercise classes, and dance lessons were held.
The green section threw us all for a loop. Raised platforms covered in soft, billowy mats filled the area. It was another heavily populated area, but I don’t think anyone in my group avoided taking a step back. It didn’t matter that we’d all looked over the vid introduction to the complex long before we got here.
The skimpy bathing suits some of the women here wore in such a public place had been an eye-opener. Women lying on the platforms, wearing even less and getting massages turned out to be quite shocking. But the Tratsods that performed the massages … no, none of us were quite ready to see those.
They had this orangey-pink skin on their lumpy round bodies that made my eyes want to scream. Seriously, nothing should be that color. It’s wrong. Add in all those slippery, slimy looking tentacles, and the rest of me wanted to scream too. And don’t even get me started on the tall, thin stalks that made their eyes hover over the rest of them. Ick, ick, ick.
It was so bizarre to see how many women allowed those completely inhuman things to slide over their oil-glistening skin, rubbing tentacles all over backs and shoulders and thighs. I couldn’t imagine any sane person willingly touching a Tratsod. The only nice thing about them was the soothing humming sound they made. If I closed my eyes and somehow brought on amnesia so I didn’t remember what they looked like, they could have droned me straight to sleep. I noted Anrel’s lids drooping heavily as we stood close to the area.
Firef and Nosdu watched us with amusement as we made faces at each other. The Dramok said, “Not particularly pretty to us, are they? But we aren’t nice looking to the Tratsods either. Still, once you get past their appearance, you cannot find a better massage anywhere.”
I’ll have to take his word for it. I’m in no hurry to have one of those critters on me. Ew.
We moved on, the two men shepherding us into the complex itself. “The ground floor is taken up by our offices, along with other activity and relaxation areas,” Nosdu told us. “Plus you will find classes in our language, geography, and history to familiarize yourself with your new home. We also offer lessons in a variety of hobbies such as cooking, art, music…”
Anrel got my attention with a little whine. Away from the hypnotic droning of the Tratsods, she was wide awake again. She made a face, one I knew well.
Our administrator and his second had led us to a workout room with state-of-the-art machines. “You have the worst timing,” I cooed to my little bundle of now smelly joy. “Mommy would have really liked to check this room out.”
Candy overheard me and leaned close. The auntie sniff test is pretty much identical to the mommy sniff test. I think it might be ingrained in women or something. She snickered and nodded. “Someone’s made you a present.”
I sighed and sidled over to Firef as Nosdu continued to play tour guide. “Where can I change the baby?” I asked quietly so as not to interrupt the Imdiko.
“Change the – oh.” Firef got the same look on his face so many men tended to when a diaper was full. Panic. Maybe like the women’s sniff-for-poop test, that terror is ingrained into the male gender or something. You’d have thought I’d asked him to do the honors of changing the baby.
“There is a lavatory right over there. We do have a few children on the premises, we have everything you need, it’s not a big deal,” he jabbered.
I managed not to laugh. For not a big deal, Firef acted like the complex was coming under attack or something. He really hadn’t parented a young child in a long time.
I said, “You know, I wouldn’t mind just taking Anrel to my quarters and cleaning up there. She could do with a bottle anyway and it’s almost time for her nap. I can catch up on what the complex offers later,” I said.
“By all means, Matara,” Firef said. “The child’s needs come first, of course. And if you want a full tour later, I’ll be glad to see to it.”
He was out of his depth but so nice. I was glad I hadn’t laughed at him, even though it was funny. “I doubt it will be necessary, but thank you.”
“Is everything all right?”
Firef and I turned to see Betra heading our way. The rest of the tour group had wandered on, leaving Firef and I standing alone in the hall.
“You’re here already!” I said happily. “We’re fine. Just ducking out of the sightseeing over a certain someone’s stinky drawers.” I turned to Firef. “Dramok Firef, this is Imdiko Betra. He was my liaison on the transport and a – a good friend.”
The men exchanged bows. Firef had the overly polite attitude of a man who knew exactly what ‘good friend’ meant in this context. “A pleasure, Imdiko.”
“Mine as well, Dramok.”
The niceties over, Firef conducted us to my quarters, which were on the fourth floor of the complex.
“Shall I wait until you have settled the baby and show you around your rooms?” Firef asked.
“No, that’s okay. Go ahead and re-join the group if you’d like.” Anrel was starting to fuss, and all my attention was on getting her comfortable again. I barely looked around before laying her on the main room’s lounger and diving into her diaper bag. “It looks small enough that I’ll find my way around.”
“There is also an orientation recording stored on the vid system. Any questions at all, please let me know. I’ll check on you in about an hour?”
“That sounds great.” I dug out a clean diaper, wipes, and powder.
Betra ushered Firef out as I set about taking care of Anrel. As soon as the administrator was gone, my sweetie said, “I’ll get her formula ready.”
Doody duty was accomplished fast enough, and Anrel burbled happily once more as I looked around for a waste bin.
Wow, the quarters really were tiny. What Kalquorians referred to as a ‘greeting room’ was just big enough to have no more than half a dozen people at a time. There was a small oval table in front of the lounger … which was about the size of an Earther loveseat. A few seating cushions were arranged on the other side of the table. A basket of flowers sat on the table. The vid bar was hung on the wall opposite the lounger. That was all there was to it. Had I not come from the cramped confines of a transport, I might have been disappointed. It was about the size of my sitting room on the Pussy ‘Porter.
“Cozy,” I told Betra.
He nodded. “I suppose with all the amenities elsewhere in the complex, they don’t anticipate you needing a lot of actual living room. It’s still a lot larger than my quarters. You even have a tiny sort of kitchen.”
He made good points. I picked up Anrel and we went on our tour of our new home.
I thought his description of the small space with its cooling unit and meal warmer as a kitchen was a tad extravagant. But it was fine with me, especially since the cooler was full of premade meals that would take no time to thaw and heat. Better still, there was a coffee dispenser. Apparently I’m not the only caffeine addict to come to Kalquor. Thank you, prophets.
“This place has a dining hall as well, if I’m not mistaken,” Betra reminded me.
“Yeah, I remember that from the vid. Look, they’ve got a stock of formula and pureed foods for Anrel. It looks like they prepared for us pretty well.”
That was a relief. I wondered how many other women in the complex had small children. I’d seen a couple of toys in the hall of my floor.
“I think she gets a room of her own too. Let’s check it out.”
There were two sleeping rooms all right. The smaller one had a miniscule bed obviously intended for a child. Anrel’s crib was supposed to come with the rest of our belongings. I thought there was just enough room for it to squeeze in on the other side of the bedside shelf. The bathroom was pretty much a shower stall, smaller than what I’d had on the ship. The toilet facility had its own tiny space closed off from the rest.
As I wandered back into the greeting room, I mused that it was not that much different from what I’d had on the transport, plus all those amazing amenities on the ground floor to boot. Certainly nothing to pout about.
I burst into tears anyway.
Betra’s arms were around me in an instant, holding Anrel and I close. He didn’t try to talk me out of the sudden onslaught of sadness. He let me weep for a couple of minutes as Anrel goggled at her new surroundings. Thank goodness I wasn’t upsetting her.
When I could talk, I was angry with embarrassment. “Well, that was stupid,” I said, rubbing my eyes impatiently. “I don’t know what I’m so teary about. Except this place looks empty. When my stuff gets here, it will be fine.”
“Sure it will,” Betra said, his gentle smile full of understanding.
“And Katrina and Candy will be here. Plenty of coffee. Everything I need.”
“I just won’t have – have—”
I couldn’t finish with the words you and Oses. I was too busy boo-hooing again.
“You’ve got us for two weeks,” Betra reminded me.
“I know, I know. But damn it, it feels like I’ve lost everything right now.”
“You made a home for yourself on the transport,” he said. “It’s got sentimental value. I get it, Shalia. I do. So if you need to cry it out, do so.”
I didn’t want to cry though. I wanted to be tough, like I’d been during the Tragoom attack just before we made it to Kalquorian space. I wanted to be fearless. Instead, I was falling apart.
Bit by bit, however, I started to pull myself together. Betra made me a cup of coffee for an official welcome. He presented it to me with a grinned, “See? All is not lost.”
The marvelous bastard made me laugh in spite of my angst. I raised my cup to him in a toast. “I guess I’ll survive somehow.”
Monday, June 27, 2016
I watched my belongings get carted out by members of the cargo crew, ready to be taken down to Kalquor. I held Anrel as all our material possession left our quarters for the last time.
This was it. This was goodbye to the Pussy ‘Porter. We were leaving for good.
With one last look around, I walked out. I joined the rest of my group at Betra’s office door. Several of the women, including Megan, were weeping as Betra stepped out, ready to lead us to our shuttle. Another last.
He smiled at everyone, his gaze lingering on me for a moment. “Now don’t be sad,” he admonished the rest. “If Katrina was here instead of spending all the time she can with her clan, she’d remind you that you’re about to go to a planet full of men who haven’t had the privilege of knowing you yet. Fresh meat awaits you, Mataras.”
There was laughter as he teased them, even from those crying. On the heels of that, Heather called out, “Thanks for taking such good care of us, Betra. We’ll never forget you.”
“Especially Shalia,” Megan added, drying her eyes. She gave me a playful nudge.
Betra grinned, but there was a hint of sorrow behind the humor. “She’s stuck with me for a couple of weeks yet, I’m afraid. You might see me around the complex until the transport heads back out.”
That earned him some cheers. “Good,” someone said. “I meant to get you a thank-you gift, but the last Tragoom attack kind of threw my plans off.”
Betra flushed but looked pleased. “The only thanks I need is your safety and happiness. It has been an honor to know you all.”
With that, the inevitable could no longer be postponed. We followed Betra to the in-ship conveyance, all of us staring at the familiar hallways as we went. Another last. Another goodbye.
Crewmembers we passed bowed and gave us their best wishes for happiness. Even the roughest Nobeks seemed sad to see us go. A couple gave me feigned shocked looks as I passed. “Where do you think you’re going, Matara Shalia? Didn’t the weapons commander tell you that you’re in charge of ship’s defenses now? And tell Matara Katrina that she’s in command of morale!”
“Ha-ha, guys,” I called back. “Don’t let Captain Wotref hear you talk like that. Even I can’t keep you safe from him and Siko.”
That earned me a few laughs. Then I was in the conveyance and the door closed on the Matara section.
It seemed I only blinked and I was in the shuttle bay. We went to our assigned craft. Betra would not be sharing this ride with us. Our care was being passed on to the administration of the Matara Complex. Betra’s official duty to us was over.
Each woman in the line hugged Betra in turn just before boarding the shuttle. He was thanked over and over, implored to take care of himself, and even given a few tearful kisses.
I was last with Anrel. Betra stroked her cheek when she held her arms out to him, wanting her uncle to play as he so often did. “I’ll see you both within an hour or two. You probably will have barely seen your quarters before I get there.”
“We’ll be waiting,” I smiled. “See you soon.”
I boarded the shuttle and found my seat next to Candy, who was so excited she fairly bounced in her seat. Seeing her thrilled to get to Kalquor made me think her intense infatuation with Nobek Stidmun might have fizzled out.
I settled Anrel on my lap and switched on the restraint field. The shuttle’s stabilizers would keep our flight smooth, but I don’t take chances with my baby.
The engines cycled up, their quiet hum growing into a purr. There was the barest suggestion of motion. We were lifting off. We were leaving the ship.
Most of us were quiet. Even Candy had settled down, though one knee bounced furiously as she expended whatever nervous energy remained to her. Anrel sat on my leg, her arms waving slightly as she looked around with wide eyes.
Window vids appeared along the walls of the cabin. “Landing in three minutes,” came the pilot’s voice over the public address as we exclaimed to see Kalquor curving on either side of our shuttle.
It hung mistily before our vessel, a blue-green globe growing huge in an incredibly short space of time. Then we raced into the atmosphere on the day-lit side of the planet, and the brightness turned blinding. Our eager stares jerked away from the vids, and I covered Anrel’s eyes with my hand as she yelped a startled complaint.
The brightness toned down just as fast as it had come on. We blinked to see clear blue skies outside the ship and a sparkling emerald sea beneath it. I’d never seen water so green. It was beautiful, like liquid emeralds.
After a few moments, sea vessels began to appear. I stared at them, wondering if any were the cruise ships Cifa owned with his siblings. They were gone in an instant however, passed over by our quickly flying shuttle.
I could tell we were slowing down, however. By the time a swath of pink-sanded beach passed beneath us, we were still moving at a fast clip, but at a sane pace.
I saw silvery-gray cliffs on the horizon, pockmarked with arches dug into their faces. I’d been told about the homes dug into the rock, and Candy and I exclaimed over the balconies we saw carved out of the stone. We even saw some people, mostly the dark Kalquorians, standing or sitting on the balconies. It looked really amazing, and I thought how wonderful it must be to live right by the ocean, able to walk out on one’s own terrace to enjoy the sea breezes and view.
We flew over the cliffs, and the shuttle slowed way down as it approached a landing pad. There were several smaller shuttles parked there. Ours flew over it and then banked around, turning in a slow circle towards the far corner of the large landing area where a few other shuttles that looked like ours sat. I surmised they were from the Pussy ‘Porter, having brought some of our shipmates down to Kalquor ahead of my group.
Our vessel settled among its fellows, landing without even a bump. I saw a pair of Kalquorian men walking our way before the window vids winked out. Then the pilot spoke again.
“Mataras, allow me to be the first to welcome you to Kalquor. I hope you will find much happiness here.”
The hatch opened. We’d arrived.
We filed off the shuttle. Some of the women jumped up, ready to go. I was slower to rise from my seat, a little reluctant to so quickly quit my last link to the Pussy ‘Porter. However, I was not allowed to poke along. With Anrel in my arms, the women still on board the shuttle moved aside to let me pass. Lady with a Baby gets all the respect … even when she doesn’t want it.
I had no choice but to move my rump down the aisle and off the shuttle. I blinked in the bright sunlight as I emerged on the landing pad under a cloudless sky. Anrel scrunched up her face, her pupils turning into slits. She made a noise of complaint.
The rest of the women filed out as I held one hand over Anrel’s brow and one over mine. My sight adjusted a bit at a time. The two Kalquorian men I’d noted approaching the landing pad stood close by, but it was what was behind them that arrested my attention.
A forest stretched across the horizon. That might not have impressive in most cases, but I’d never seen prettier trees. Their leaves were gorgeous jewel-tones, as if someone had decked them out in gemstones. Sapphire blue, citrine yellow, ruby red, purple amethyst, and emerald green splashed joyfully beneath the sky’s canopy.
“Mataras, allow me the privilege to be the first to welcome you to Kalquor,” the taller of the two men who’d come to greet us said. His pleasant face beamed.
None of us had the heart to tell him the pilot had already taken that treat. We simply smiled and murmured hellos.
“I am Dramok Firef, director of the Matara Complex,” he said. He was the taller of the two, an older man with gray streaking from his temples. The stripes in his otherwise black hair suited his calm, handsomely craggy face. He reminded me of a not-as-careworn version of Captain Wotref. “This is my assistant, Imdiko Nosdu.”
The younger man bowed. He was lanky, almost like a gawky teenager but with muscles. His face was as sweet and innocent as a young child’s. I heard a few muffled awws from the ladies of my group. The sound made him flush. He mumbled, “Welcome, Mataras.”
“We are currently between liaisons right now,” Firef said. “Our last one has been clanned, and the newest one—”
“Has also been clanned and is enjoying her honeymoon,” Candy laughed. “So do we see you until Katrina takes up her duties in a couple of weeks?”
He smiled and nodded. “Imdiko Nosdu and I will do our best to answer your questions and resolve any concerns until Matara Katrina joins our staff. You should feel welcome to consult with anyone on our team. If one person can’t help you, they’ll find someone who can.”
He nodded to Nosdu. The Imdiko smiled at us and said in a quiet voice, “Now we have a welcome from Emperor Clajak and Empress Jessica for you. After that, we will make our way to the complex, give you a tour, and let you settle in.”
He held out his hand. He held a small object I couldn’t quite make out, pointed it in the air, and pressed it with his thumb. A huge vid screen appeared in the air, showing two people, one Earther and one Kalquorian.
At first glance, I would have said Emperor Clajak was the more impressive of the two. He was certainly bigger than his empress, loaded with muscle and an aura of easy confidence. His mane of steely-gray hair hung to his broad shoulders. It framed a handsome face wearing a smile that hinted at cockiness.
He bowed to us … or to the recorder he’d faced when he’d videoed the piece. He rose up straight and tall, every inch the self-assured Dramok. “Greetings Mataras,” he said, his voice like silk against my ear. I wasn’t the only one who shivered at those honeyed tones. “I am Dramok Clajak, Emperor of the Kalquorian Empire. My empress and I, along with our clanmates Emperor Egilka and Emperor Bevau, are delighted you have chosen to make our planet your home. This is your home, Mataras. You are among friends.”
He looked to the tiny woman at his side. Empress Jessica was small in stature, especially when compared to her clanmate. Yet the confidence that Clajak wore like a second skin was hers as well. In fact, it seemed to permeate her. Her eyes flashed with a lively fire.
“Welcome one and all,” the elfin-faced empress said. “We are so glad you are here. No doubt there will be an adjustment period, but the staff of the Matara Complex will do all they can to make it a smooth one. We are sure you will enjoy the perks of living there. We have tried to anticipate all possible comforts, but do not feel afraid to make your wants known. You will find the mostly male staff ready to accommodate your wishes to their best abilities.” She grinned at us as if she was talking to her best girlfriends.
Clajak had watched her throughout her speech, his slightly arrogant face turning soft with regard. I could tell he saw his Earther mate as an equal. He was obvious in his love and respect … that he displayed those emotions openly impressed me greatly. Empress Jessica was a lucky lady.
When she finished talking, he again faced us. “You are Kalquor’s future. We thank you for coming with the utmost gratitude. May the Empire serve you with honor and bring you joy.”
The vid ended. Nosdu tucked the portable player in a pouch on his belt as Firef stepped forward. “Indeed we are grateful you have come to us. Anything I or my staff can do to make you happy, just let us know. And now, Mataras, if you will follow me, we will take you to the complex.”