Thursday, May 4, 2017

December 14, early

When I woke this morning, it was to stunning scenery. First was the sight of Clan Seot crowded around me, sitting up in bed. They were already dressed, though scantily so in skintight swim shorts, sort of like the training shorts Nobeks like to wear during physical exercise. Seot and Larten were quick to shower me with kisses and ask me how I was feeling. Um, pretty happy, though seeing them without those shorts might have been better.

I figured out what that tiny nod to modesty was about as I spied Anrel, perched as usual in Cifa’s arms. He was feeding my happy little girl, who cooed at him between mouthfuls of some bright orange pureed concoction. He wasn’t able to smooch me, but he promised to grant me a proper morning greeting as soon as Anrel was finished with her breakfast.

Speaking of food, that was another welcome sight. As if to herald the opening of my eyes, my stomach growled, complaining of all the calories it had worked off the night before. Larten chuckled and waved a tray full of yumminess…and a mug of coffee…in front of my face. I sat up pretty quick at the delightful summons.

That was when I saw the final piece of the heaven-on-Kalquor puzzle. The huge window vid showed a stunning cove of green-blue water so clear I could see ocean critters flitting under the surface. The beach beyond boasted sand so white that at first I thought it must be snow. A stand of trees with broad burnt-red leaves canopied the area where vegetation began, shading members of the ship’s crew as they scurried about, setting up a pavilion and other things.

“Sweet prophets,” I breathed, staring at the idyllic vista. “Where are we?”

“A small island owned by the company,” Cifa said, spooning orange mush in Anrel’s smiling mouth. “We bought it in anticipation of bringing passengers here for swimming and sports. A private beach all for us. I thought we’d do our first vid shoot here.”

“This is the place for it, all right,” I agreed. “When do we go ashore?”

“As soon as you’re ready,” Seot said, stretching luxuriously as he set aside his empty food tray. “No rush. We can take all the time we want.” His eyelids drooped lazily as he eyed me obvious pleasure. Had Anrel not been there, I think he would have made sure our arrival on the island would be quite late.

His gaze felt intense, much as it had been last night. It was almost excessive in the light of day. I gave him a quick smile and got to work on shutting my stomach up.

As I ate and listened to Seot and Larten talk about getting a low-impact kurble game going on the beach while Cifa made baby noises at Anrel, I watched the window vid, enraptured by the view. A view that got better as Stidmun suddenly sliced through the air and into the water, apparently having dived from the main deck. He surfaced a moment later and laughed silently at someone above…probably Candy. His hands made ‘come here’ motions, and his lips moved. All at once, a ball of pink with trailing blond hair hurtled into the water a couple of feet away from the too-handsome Nobek, splashing him to make him splutter. I giggled at Candy’s perfectly placed cannonball. Atta girl.

The pair frolicked and were soon joined by the members of Clans Erom and Orim. I eyed the whole batch, an extremely photogenic group. “Any problem getting this party crowd to perform for the vid?” I asked Cifa.

He responded with a loud, “Ha! Erom and his Imdiko love to jump in front of a recorder. The trick is to make sure they aren’t sneaking in crude gestures that end up transmitted throughout the galaxy.”

Larten burst out with laughter. “Tell her about that one promotion they almost ruined. The around-the-world cruise fiasco.”

Cifa groaned. “I had an elaborate spot produced by a high-end company that charged by the minute. It cost the cruise line a ton of money. As you’ve see, my brother’s clan is quite striking, so the production company used them as the main characters in the advert.”

“Erom’s clan played a little joke?” I guessed.

“Not so little.” Cifa glanced at the playful gang cavorting as they made their way to the beach. His lip curled, apparently at Erom and Habo. “The two jerks had a scene where they were supposed to be signaling each other from opposite sides of our largest ship’s swimming pool. They did a kind of wave—” he set down Anrel’s spoon and demonstrated.

It looked innocent enough, if a bit strange for a wave. His thumb folded over his palm. He flicked his hand twice to the side, then snapped it down towards his forearm. Seot snickered, but I didn’t see what the problem was. It made me think of a signal for the members of a secret club, the kind of coded gesture young kids might come up with.

“Yeah, it’s not a big deal if you’re Kalquorian,” Cifa acknowledged. “The producers didn’t know what it was, but I did when I saw the nearly completed project. We’d just hosted a big cruise for a tour group from Irtser, and that particular gesture had started a big fight between two tribes in attendance.”

“Lots of damage to the ship,” Seot said in a tone that hinted at suppressed amusement.

“That’s putting it lightly. We had to stick it in dry dock for a month while it was repaired.” Cifa shook his head. “We’ve got a decent-sized clientele from Irtser, and the promotion would have run there.”

“What does it mean?” I asked.

Larten gave a sharp nod to Anrel, and Cifa covered her ears so the Nobek could tell me, “It means ‘fuck you, your parents, as well as your parents’ parents, and then die.’ That’s a loose translation, but essentially what it boils down to.”

Cifa took his hands off Anrel’s ears. “I didn’t know those two idiots had slipped the gesture in until the advert was almost fully edited. My already insanely expensive promotion went into the red due to the additional work to find and put in other footage. All to replace Erom and Habo’s stupidity.”

“The cruise fortunately recouped your losses,” Seot reminded him gently.

“That’s good,” I said. I tried to feel sorry for Cifa, who was still obviously ticked off with his brother and his brother’s clanmate, but it did strike me as a funny trick. With effort, I smothered the laugh that wanted to come. “I’m sure you gave them plenty of reasons to never do it again.”

“Are you kidding me?” Cifa sighed. “They try something like that every chance they get, and they get plenty of chances because they look so good on vid. Our three clans are pretty much the faces of this company.”

“I’ll keep an eye out for anything strange,” I assured him. “And I don’t charge by the minute, so any major changes won’t bankrupt you.”

He finally smiled. “Not that you aren’t worth every bit I’d pay you if you’d let me.”

I waved him off…but not in a way that would offend anyone from Irtser. “You’re taking me on the cruise of a lifetime. That’s payment enough.”

“Don’t worry. I’ve got plenty of ways to show my appreciation. I hope you noted some of them last night?”

I nearly choked on my coffee. I was about to reply to that naughty hint when I saw something new on the window vid. “It looks like Joelle is ready for some beach fun.”

My stepmother had appeared in a small boat, rowed by a couple of hunky crewmembers. She seemed rather red-faced, and she ducked her head as if embarrassed. I noted both men’s mouths moving, their lips forming the same shapes. “Good night, are they serenading her?”

Cifa laughed, his head thrown back in genuine amusement. “Of course. Tej and Pexet will sing for any woman who can’t run away. They refuse to accept they have terrible voices, and they insist on singing the most drippingly sentimental Plasian tunes they know.”

Larten’s dark face was as merry as a Nobek’s could get. “Look. Bazi and Ila are trying to save Matara Joelle from her terrible fate. Sound on.”

The room was suddenly filled with the most awful, off-tune caterwauling one could ever imagine. Tej and Pexet were horrendous. I couldn’t even call what they were doing ‘singing’. Joelle had covered her ears and huddled in her seat. I thought I heard hysterical peals of laughter, though her shoulders might have been shaking with sobs. It was that bad.

Meanwhile, the two Kalquorian women on the beach stood at the water’s edge. I’m sure they were screaming at the top of their lungs, but distance and the bellowing squalls of the rowers nearly drowned them out.

“Tej! Pexet! Stop it! You’ll make her poor head explode!”

“If you don’t shut up, I’ll shove sand down your throat! I mean it!”

Their Imdiko and Dramok clanmates had fallen in the sand, laughing at poor Joelle’s plight. The Nobeks, Stidmun included, watched the commotion, shaking their heads from side to side as Candy stared openmouthed with confusion. She winced from time to time as the crewmen screeched particularly discordant notes.

Anrel unleashed a wail, her little face screwed up with displeasure. Seot immediately ordered the sound off, and we all fussed to make the baby smile again. Once she was her usual bubbling self, I told Cifa in my sternest voice, “Those two are to not sing any time my child is within a mile of them. I mean it.”

Cifa was damned near giggling, a sound that went badly with a man who had such big muscles. “Yes, Shalia. Anrel does make an excellent excuse to muzzle that pair at long last. Though I have always enjoyed seeing my sister’s face when they start up.”

I checked the vid and had to laugh too. They’d made it to the beach, and Tej and Pexet were now kneeling before Candy and singing to her. She seemed to be trying to talk them out of it as Ila and Bazi threw handfuls of sand at the two men, trying to ward them off. Joelle was running down the beach, away from the nightmare. The men were still laughing, the Nobeks now included.

So much for paradise.

Cifa handed Anrel off to me. “I’ll go get those two under control before we take Anrel out where she can hear them. I’ll see you all on the island.”

I got myself ready with a green bandeau top and matching bottom and sarong Clan Aslada had bought for me. I felt pretty exposed, but it was in keeping with what the Kalquorian women and Candy wore. I still almost changed into a one-piece soaksuit, like the modest one Joelle sported. After all my sexual hijinks this last year and then some, I still had Earther issues. I wonder if I’ll ever get over them all.

While I dressed, Seot hung over Larten as the Nobek got Anrel ready in her little blue-and-purple ruffled soaksuit. The guys were getting good at taking care of her, and I was impressed the Nobek didn’t have to be reminded to slather her in sunblock.

We were ready to join Cifa and the rest on the beach at last. The untalented duo of Tej and Pexet were nowhere to be seen, but Seot and Larten wanted to row the little boat themselves anyway.

When we landed, the rest converged on us with cheerful good mornings. Anrel was the belle of the beach with the women and Imdikos vying to play with her. The rest of the men busied themselves setting up a low-impact kurble tournament. I was glad to see Joelle had returned from her desperate retreat and teased her about being regaled with song.

“Good night,” she groaned. “What a ruckus those two made. Fortunately, Cifa promised severe retribution if they opened their mouths for the rest of the cruise. I think we may be safe now.”

I glanced at my Imdiko suitor. For once, he wasn’t fawning over Anrel. Instead, he was unpacking vid equipment from a black bin.

I could have helped him, but I elected to play with Anrel, wanting some quality time before I got to work. I always delight in her joy at being allowed to play in surf and sand. Though the sand was white instead of the pink of the beach back in the capital, it was every bit as powder soft. I showed off how Anrel has begun working on standing up. She ended up with quite the cheering section.

Too soon, Joelle tapped me on the shoulder. “I think Cifa is waiting for you. He’s been standing there watching you for the last five minutes.”

“Well, he could have said something. I’m not a mind reader,” I huffed, though I’d known from glancing that he was standing around, his expression one of anticipation as I’d busied myself with Anrel.

“Get going,” Joelle said. “Anrel has no shortage of babysitters here. I promise to keep a constant watch, if it will make you feel better.”

“Fine, I’m going,” I said. I stood up and brushed the sand off that had attached itself to me.

“Don’t feel like you’ve got to do all work and no play,” Joelle said in a low voice, winking at me. “Take as much time as you want.”

I thought about telling her I’d had plenty of play the night before, but I thought better of it. Joelle probably didn’t want all the nitty gritty details of my sex life.

I went over to Cifa, who beamed at me. “Ready to get some footage?” he asked. “I thought we could start with some underwater vid work.”

“Sounds great,” I said, thrilling to the idea. “Do you have a particular spot in mind?”

“There’s an amazing reef about a mile down the beach. Let’s check it out.”

We set off, making our kurble-playing Nobeks and Dramoks pause to let us pass. I noticed Stidmun and Larten were already bleeding. Low-impact game, my ass. They looked happy though, the crazy things.

“No broken bones,” I warned Seot.

“The crew is trained in medical care,” he protested. “Captain Carip is a licensed physician.”

“You heard her,” Cifa said, scowling slightly. “We’re not diverting this cruise to find a hospital.”

The Dramok made a face at us, but it was good-natured. Since Cifa seemed satisfied he was taken seriously, I went along without any further admonitions.

I noticed my companion had a couple of packs slung over his beefy shoulders. “Do you need me to carry anything?”

“It’s just air masks, swim fins, some water and snacks,” he said, his tone lighthearted, as was normal for him. “Enjoy the walk. Isn’t it gorgeous here?”

It was indeed. The sun was warm on my shoulders. The sand was soft as feathers beneath my feet. The sea whispered to us as it cautiously approached and then retreated with shy, sighing sounds. The air was musical with the calls of the unseen drills…a far better sound than tone-deaf Kalquorians attempting Plasian love songs. The green-hued sea melted against the blue sky on the far horizon.

Add in the gorgeous man walking next to me, his hair blowing back in the salt-kissed breeze, and I had to call it paradise.

“Pitch me a tent here,” I told him. “I’m never going home.”

He grinned. “I’m tempted to agree with you. The only thing that keeps me from doing that – besides my clan – is that I’d start to take it for granted and forget how special it is.”

“Stop being right,” I pretended to grouch. “I’d like to think I could appreciate this every moment of every day. People aren’t made like that, are they? Earthers have a saying; ‘familiarity breeds contempt’.”

“Then we’ll leave and keep coming back to remind ourselves how wonderful it is.”

I spotted something colorful in the transparent water ahead. “Is that it? The reef?” I asked.

“That’s it. The formations here aren’t like rock anywhere else on Kalquor. They’re made of a special blend of deposits and elements that are nutrient-rich…like an insanely strong fertilizer. A large and varied number of sea plants and animals make their home on it. Even though my company owns the island, the government protects that reef. We had to jump through a lot of legal hoops and sign a bunch of contracts agreeing that our cruises won’t impact it in any way.”

“But we’re okay to swim around it? Will tourists be able to as well?”

“With guides to make sure nobody touches anything. Guests will have to sign a waiver in order to visit the reef area and pay heavy fines if they do anything to cause damage.” Cifa looked proud. “With the company taking control over the island and listing it as a private holding, any trespassers can be prosecuted. That will serve as an extra layer of protection for the reef.”

“A good deal for the environment,” I noted.

We were now directly across the splash of colors, looking over an artist’s palette of rainbow hues, shaped in an oval that stretched far into the distance. The water was so clear, I could see the reef almost as if through glass, but for the ripples that made the pigments shiver.

Cifa swung the packs off his back and placed them on the sand. He opened them and withdrew a face mask, much like the one I’d used on Alneusia, the ocean planet. That memory gave me a little pang, for I’d had one of the best days of my life with Betra and Oses there.

This mask was lighter, and I mentioned it to Cifa, along with a few other little details about my excursion with my former transport mates.

He told me, “These masks operate much the same as the one you used on Alneusia, but the oxygen extraction on ours has to be switched out every three hours. That’s actually a good thing around this reef. It gives less chance for any damage to occur.”

I noted the tiny speakers in the mask, which would fit on the front two-thirds of my head and completely cover my face. “We’ll be able to talk down there. Awesome.”

“Imagine if we’d brought along Tej and Pexet,” Cifa teased.

“I’d rather not.” I gave him a wicked grin. “Their voices would scare all the critters in the water away and get you into trouble with the government.”

“Yeah, I need to put a permanent ban on those two swimming out here.”

We put our flippers on, which were made of a stretchy material, so they fit my feet perfectly. I laughed at how long they were, doubling my footprint. Armed with vid recorders, Cifa and I duck-walked into the water. When it reached my waist, we dove in.

The reef was a kaleidoscopic beacon, impossible to miss in the transparent water. Cifa swam slowly, allowing my more vigorous kicking to keep up. “If you get tired, let me know,” his voice echoed hollowly in my ear. “I don’t mind towing you around.”

That brought another vision of Alneusia to mind, the one in which I had gripped Oses’s shoulders as he swam…and Betra had made love to me from above. I sighed. When Cifa looked at me questioningly, I covered by saying, “It’s beautiful already. If only I had gills.”

He grinned, and my heart pitter-patted at the adorable face that almost didn’t belong to that hunky body. “Wait until we’re in the middle of the reef. It’s like a whole other world.”

He was right. I was blown away by this underwater garden of blue and orange fronds, of golden and silver flowers, of variegated leaves of all colors. It was a wonderland of stunning plants and equally gorgeous creatures, some that looked like thin hair ribbons, some that looked like party balloons, and some that looked like wondrous bejeweled butterflies.

“Alneusia has nothing on this,” I told Cifa as I recorded fantasy vistas under the sea. “I’m glad you told me not to touch. I would, if only to reassure myself it’s not a beautiful dream.”

Cifa was rather spectacular too, so I made sure I got shots of his swimming with the reef as a backdrop. He did the same with me.

“I’m no videographer,” he confessed. “You’ll probably get nothing but garbage from what I’m recording, but I can always hope. The subject matter is definitely gorgeous.”

“Such a flatterer,” I teased, but I warmed to the compliment.

“Not at all.” He swam close to look me in the eye. “After last night – well, that was just special on top of already astounding. How did I get so lucky to have the chance to be with you, Shalia?”

All at once, the reef, as amazing as it was, didn’t exist for me anymore. There was only Cifa, his heart in his eyes. Tears filled mine as emotion walloped me. “I think I must be the lucky one,” I whispered. “Except I keep waiting for something to go wrong. It always does.”

He shook his head. “Then you’re overdue for things to go right. I’ll do my best to see that it happens.”

I was hyperaware of Cifa for the rest of our swim. The reef was as gorgeous as before, but my awe of it was secondary to the presence of my companion. The touch of his hand, the flash of his smile, the warmth of his body as it brushed against mine…it was all so profound. We might have been the only two people in the universe for that too-brief swim. Because though we were in the water for the full three hours of oxygen available to us, it went by far too fast. Nothing particularly special happened, and Cifa didn’t continue to wax sentimental. Yet I could only describe it as magical, though I have no idea why it felt that way.

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