Black Velvet

Cover Illustration by Oouna: https://www.oouna.com/ https://www.furaffinity.net/user/oouna/

© 2019 Snekguy. All rights reserved.

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Disclaimer: This work of erotic fiction is intended for adults only. The story contains the following themes: long tongue, kissing, size difference, voyeurism, sweat, oral, large breasts, vaginal, rough, creampie, petting, massage, dancing, bathing, public sex, femdom.

CHAPTER 1: INTO DARKNESS

Jules sat in his crash couch as he fiddled with the bulky, black combat armor that he was wearing over his two-piece suit, rolling his shoulders as the heavy ceramic plating settled. He was already going to weigh thirty percent more than usual when they touched down, he wasn't too thrilled about having all of this extra weight to lug around on top of that. He could feel the engines of the dropship making the hull vibrate beneath his feet as it made its way down towards Borealis, the arid planet visible through one of the small portholes in the hull of the troop bay.

It looked so hostile, even from a distance. The majority of its surface consisted of barren desert, with average temperatures that rivaled the Sahara and a crushing gravitational pull of one point three Earth standard. The only life that he could see was confined to the lakes, the patches of blue water shimmering in the glare of the world's twin suns, like country-sized oases. They were massive, making the Great Lakes of the United States look unimpressive in comparison, and around each one was a band of greenery. Thick, dense rings of tropical jungle encircled each and every lake like the walls of a fortress, trapping moisture to create a sort of micro-climate within their bounds. He could see the way that the rain clouds seemed to cluster around them, each lake having its own weather system that scarcely spilled beyond its borders. These were the Borealan territories, each one spaced hundreds of miles apart, what passed for states or countries on this alien world. As he gazed through the glass, he wondered which of them would be his destination.

He felt somewhat out of his element. Traipsing around in alien jungles was not part of his job description, but it was his responsibility to investigate and then make a recommendation. The inhabitants of the Araxie territory had made an official request to join the Coalition, and Jules had been sent by the Security Council to evaluate them and to ensure that they could meet the commitments that membership entailed.

The multi-species alliance known as the Coalition had been formed to tackle the hurdles of interstellar security. Coalition space now made up a roughly one hundred light-year bubble, with four member species including humanity, and at least two that had recently applied to join. The United Nations represented the human colonies, the UNN being their military branch, fielding a vast navy that usually took the brunt of the defensive responsibilities. Along with various other member species were the Borealans, the inhabitants of the planet that Jules was currently speeding towards. They were a feline species, hardy and well suited to their harsh environment, with a notoriously bad temperament. At eight feet tall and weighing around seven or eight hundred pounds on average, they were monstrous from a human perspective, the high gravity of their home planet imbuing them with proportionally impressive strength. Their innate resistance to injury and their repertoire of natural weapons like vicious claws and sharp teeth made them excellent shock troopers, making Borealan packs a common sight on the front lines.

Borealis was not a unified planet, however. They had no equivalent of the United Nations, and so the Coalition had to treat with each territory on an independent basis. The largest and most well-known of the territories was Elysia, they had the closest ties to the Coalition, and their territory provided the majority of the Borealan troops that fought alongside UNN soldiers. They were the most influential and the most technologically advanced territory on the planet, but even so, they had only recently discovered gunpowder when the UNN had made contact with them. Now, they had access to modern ships and weapons, trading in goods and technology with the rest of civilized space. There was some debate as to whether changing the course of their history in such a manner had been wise or even legal, but a rampaging Bug fleet would make no such distinctions.

Betelgeusian hive fleets harassed the outlying planets on a regular basis, attacking indiscriminately with their biomechanical vessels, their ruthless life cycle demanding that they attempt to seize and colonize any habitable planets that they could reach. It made sense for the different species in this arm of the Milky Way to band together against the common threat.

A hiss of static came through on the intercom, the pilot's voice echoing through the troop bay.

We should be hitting the atmosphere shortly, secure your harnesses, and prepare for landfall. Things might get a bit bumpy.”

Jules strapped the harness across his chest, pulling it tight, glancing over at the alien who was seated across from him. She was an Elysian, obviously female, her sparse clothing leaving little to the imagination. She was sitting in one of the specially designed seats, larger and reinforced for use by her kind, her yellow eyes fixed on the window as she waited patiently for planetfall. At about eight feet tall, her round, furry ears would have brushed the ceiling were she to stand at full height.

Most Elysians had pale skin and rusty hair that bordered on orange, and this female was typical of her territory. Her ginger fur was striped with faded markings like those of a tiger, and her exposed skin was pale and smooth. Unlike their Polar cousins, the Borealans who lived in the more temperate equatorial regions were not fully furred, their coats were confined to their forearms and their lower legs to give the impression that they were wearing fuzzy elbow gloves and knee socks. There was hair on their heads and on their long tails, but the rest of their bodies were naked, much like humans. Their body plan was similarly humanoid, it was only the digitigrade legs ending in paw-like feet, and the four-fingered hands tipped with wicked claws that gave them away. Their faces bordered on the feline, with a pink nose that reminded Jules of a cat, but their features were not so alien as to be off-putting.

This one was a Ranger, so he had been told, Elysians who lived primarily in the jungle band of their territory, and who made excellent guides and hunters. She had joined him on the jump carrier up in orbit, a massive UNN ship that ferried troops and supplies across interstellar space, but she hadn't said much so far. It seemed that she had traveled from Elysia to the carrier upon special appointment by the Patriarch, the Alpha of Alphas, and the leader of her territory. The Patriarch claimed that he wanted to provide a qualified guide in order to ensure the safety of the expedition, but Jules suspected that her appointment was as much about keeping tabs on the mission as ensuring its success.

Her orange hair was cut short in a bob, practical, and he noted that her skin was covered in faded scars in many places. The aliens lived packs not dissimilar from wolves, and they fought for their social position using their claws, brutal bouts that left them bloody and scarred. It wasn't as bad as it sounded. The resulting wounds were trivial by their standards, but never the less, Jules found his eyes drawn to the curved talons that protruded from the ends of her furry fingers. They looked like meat hooks.

She wore primarily form-fitting, brown leather that clung to her figure, it looked tough and durable. Her top was comprised of a vest that fought to contain a pair of weighty breasts befitting her exaggerated stature, and below it, she wore a pair of shorts that ended at her knees. Her midriff was bare, her muscular abdomen on display, and around her wide hips were various belts from which pouches and containers dangled. It looked as though she was carrying all of the tools and supplies that she needed on her person. She wore no shoes, preferring to go barefoot, the claws on her toes scraping on the metal deck. Her tribal getup was decorated with beads and feathers, much in the same style as the jewelry that she wore. Pendants made from precious stones and shells hung around her neck, and colorful plumes from alien birds protruded from her hair. It was all obviously handmade, but that was no dig against its quality, the care and detail that had been poured into every bracelet and stitch made his own clothing seem synthetic and bland in comparison.

The centerpiece of her outfit was the fur cloak that she wore, the strands of hair catching the light, refracting and glittering with a mesmerizing iridescence. It was rainbow spider pelt, a giant arthropod that haunted the Elysian jungles and whose coat was prized for its beauty. Jules had read that hunting one was a rite of passage for the Rangers, proof of their skill and bravery.

Draped across her chest was a kind of bandoleer, its leather loops threaded with massive bullets in brass casings that were designed to be fired from the enormous rifle that was resting against her shoulder. It was as long as Jules was tall, a primitive but devastating weapon that fired a single slug at a time, comparable to what one might have seen on a battlefield during the nineteenth century back on Earth. While the Elysians had access to the standardized railguns and plasma rifles that the UNN supplied, they might not be available to everyone, or perhaps this individual simply preferred to use more traditional weapons. Much like her clothing, it was clearly made by hand. The wood was lovingly engraved, inlaid with metal reliefs that were decorated with scenes of hunting, as much a piece of art as a simple gun. As primitive as it was, he didn't fancy being on the receiving end, those bullets looked large enough to put down an elephant.

She looked so out of place amidst the bare metal and the exposed wiring of the dropship, yet this environment was not new to her. She was not some barbarian, staring slack-jawed and marveling at the magical iron bird in whose belly she was riding. It had been six or seven years since the Borealans had joined the Coalition, and if she was as old as she looked, then the existence of aliens and the prevalence of their technology might have been the status quo for most of her adult life.

The other occupants of the dropship were all Marines. Three of them were spaced out around the troop bay, fiddling with their tablet computers and checking their weapons. They wore Navy-blue uniforms beneath their black body armor, and each one was armed with an XMR configured as a railgun. The modular rifle platform was the standard-issue firearm of the UNN, made from black polymer, the barrels lined with the telltale copper-colored rings. It could be configured by the user to perform various roles, and it could be scaled up for use by the Coalition's larger members.

These were not your average Marines, however. They were scruffy, and their uniforms were not up to spec. Back on the carrier, everyone had been prim and properly groomed, the Marines had looked just the way that they did on the recruitment fliers. These guys had rolled their sleeves up all the way to expose tattoos and scars, two of them foregoing their shoulder armor entirely. Another had let his beard grow out, and he wasn't wearing a helmet at all, preferring a faded green bandanna and a pair of dark sunglasses. Much like the Ranger, they had trinkets and small decorations made from beads and feathers attached to their clothes in places. They had a few additions made from leather, one of then sporting a bandoleer that had been modified to hold magazines, and one of them even had a Borealan-style engraving on his chest-piece. These guys weren’t fresh off the boat. If Jules had to guess, they had been deployed to Borealis for a long time. Some of those scars looked suspiciously like claw marks.

The dropship lurched as it entered the atmosphere, Jules reaching down to grip his seat, his knuckles white and his eyes wide as the vessel began to shake. He glanced at the Marines, and none of them seemed concerned, the one with the bushy beard wasn't even strapped in.

When he turned his eyes to one of the windows, he saw that flames were licking at the hull, the nose of the craft burning as the friction of reentry blasted it with searing heat. The blackness of space slowly gave way to a deep azure, the ship leveling out, and the vibration fading as it began to glide towards its destination on its stubby wings.

Is all of this firepower really necessary?” Jules asked once he was able to hear his own voice over the noise. The bearded Marine slammed a magazine into his XMR's receiver with a click as if to make a point, locking it into place as he grinned across the bay from behind his opaque sunglasses.

Never been on a Borealan safari before, Mister Lambert?”

Jules shook his head, his combat helmet shifting with the movement. He reached up to straighten it as the Marines exchanged amused glances.

Araxie is uncharted,” the bearded man elaborated, “we don't know what kind of critters we might encounter down there. Not to mention the fact that the locals might not be as friendly as they make out.”

Better to have it and not need it, than to need it and not have it,” the one with the engraved chest plate added. Jules inspected the relief more closely, noting that it portrayed the same insignia that was sewn into the patch that the man wore on his sleeve, but larger and more stylized.

I'm Simmons,” the one with the beard said, then he gestured to the man with the decorative chest-piece who was sat beside him. “This is Edwards, and that over there is Velez.” The third man waved to Jules with a gloved hand, his tan skin covered in colorful tattoos where it was visible on his arms and his neck. “It's our job to make sure you don't get eaten.”

So...we don't know anything about our destination?” Jules asked.

She does,” Simmons said, pointing his thumb in the direction of the Ranger. She turned to look at them, seeming somewhat annoyed that they were involving her in the conversation.

The Araxie are an elusive people,” she explained. Her voice was gruff and husky, yet distinctly feminine. “We know only that they inhabit the dense jungles of their territory, and that they are seldom seen beyond its borders.”

But you can guide us through the jungle?” Jules asked.

Maybe,” she replied with a shrug, shifting the weight of her weapon as it leaned against her. “I am familiar with Elysian jungles, but Araxie is not Elysia. The terrain will be subtly different, there may be new breeds of animals and unknown plants. The territories are as islands on an ocean of sand, separated by natural barriers for millennia. I cannot say what we might find there.”

So, why do you think they're coming out of the woodwork now?” Jules continued.

Trade with aliens has made Elysia prosperous,” she said, “now other territories seek to expand their influence. They want technology, weapons, powerful allies.”

Well, it's not as simple as just signing a piece of paper,” Jules continued. “If they'll be permitted to join the Coalition or not depends on several factors. For example, they have to commit a certain percentage of their gross domestic product to defense spending, and they'll be required to provide troops or material support of some kind for the war effort. They must commit to inter-species cooperation, work towards integrating their society into the interstellar community, and pledge to respect the sovereignty of their neighbors. Then the Security Council has to vote on it, of course, and all of the different representatives have a say. I'm here to evaluate whether they can live up to those commitments.”

Nobody asked any further questions, perhaps they weren't fans of politics, and so Jules sat back in his seat and went quiet as the dropship descended towards the ground.

Have you guys spent a lot of time on Borealis?” he asked, the silence getting uncomfortable after a few minutes.

Yeah, you might say that,” Simmons replied. “We must look pretty different from the boys in blue that you met on the carrier.”

Yeah, they were a little more...uniform,” Jules replied.

Borealis is a tough place, it's hot, high gravity. Command doesn't pay much mind to enforcing dress standards as long as we do our jobs properly, and UNN uniforms don't exactly breathe too well.”

The locals like to decorate their gear,” Velez added. “They're fond of engraving, damascening, jewelry, things like that. You spend enough time with the mad cats, and you'll pick up some of the local customs.” He brandished a sidearm, Jules recognizing it as a modular handgun, its tactical black finish coated in some kind of decorative enamel that had no doubt been applied by the aliens. Velez noticed that Jules' eyes were wandering to the knitted scars on his forearms. “Another local custom,” he explained with a toothy grin. “Borealans tend to get physical when you piss 'em off, but once you start to understand how they think, they're easier to deal with than you'd expect.”

These Marines certainly seemed to have adapted to their environment, and Jules was starting to suspect that those who could not adapt would be taking the first transfer off the planet that they could get.

The dropship hit a pocket of turbulence, Jules gripping his seat again, peering out of the nearest window as the vessel banked and weaved to shed velocity. He could make out foliage now, the canopy of a vast jungle zipping past far below. The bands of greenery that encircled the lakes had looked deceptively small from orbit, but now he could really appreciate their sheer size. It was like flying over the Amazon rainforest. As they dropped lower, the jungle seemed to extend infinitely in every direction.

I don't suppose they'll have a landing pad ready for us?” Jules asked apprehensively, and Simmons just laughed. “Do we even have a destination?”

We're gonna put down in the nearest clearing, and then we're gonna make our way through the jungle towards the coordinates that we were given,” Edwards explained.

So how long will we have to spend in the jungle?”

We have enough supplies for a few days,” the Marine replied. “Hopefully, it won’t take that long.”

The dropship circled for a while, the pilot searching for a place to land amidst the thick jungle canopy. He finally found a suitable clearing, the thrusters on the belly of the vessel flaring as it hovered, the landing gear deploying with a clunk as it began to slowly descend. Jules watched the trees rise up to engulf the vessel through the portholes, casting them into shadow as the canopy blocked the harsh rays of the twin suns. There was a tremor as the ship touched down, and then the troop bay was filled with movement. The three Marines rose from their seats, slinging large rucksacks over their shoulders and collecting their gear. The Ranger stood at full height, moving towards the landing ramp as she waited impatiently for it to open.

Jules fumbled with the clasp on his harness as he freed himself from his crash couch and made to join them. The ramp began to open with a hydraulic whine, the sliver of light growing as the relatively dingy bay was illuminated, and then he reeled as a wall of heat hit him. It was like opening the door to an oven, hot, humid air that carried the alien scents of the jungle flooding the bay. Immediately, he began to sweat, already regretting his choice of attire. His companions didn't seem bothered by it, this was just a regular day for them. They hadn't just spent several weeks on a climate-controlled jump carrier.

He watched as they descended the ramp one by one, the Ranger following after them, her hair and the short fur on her tail and forelimbs blown by the idling engines. Jules was almost afraid to leave the confines of the ship, but he didn't have a choice, slowly making his way towards the ramp. It only seemed to grow hotter as he left the bay, it was difficult to breathe at first, the heat searing his throat. As he set foot on the planet and left the artificial gravity field of the dropship behind, his legs very nearly buckled, Jules stumbling as what felt like two bags of sand were deposited on his shoulders. The gravity was nightmarish. He leaned over with his hands on his knees, trying to catch his breath. They had warned him about this, the doctors back on the carrier had made him undergo a physical before they would even let him set foot on the planet, but their warnings hadn’t done it justice. The armor that had already been uncomfortably heavy now felt like lead weights, just standing up was a feat of athleticism.

You'll get used to it,” Simmons said, looking back over his shoulder. “Just take it easy, let us know if you need to take a break.”

No wonder the Marines were so ripped, just moving around on the surface of Borealis was the equivalent of a strenuous workout. What he had first dismissed as machismo was now revealed to be a product of their environment. They weren't gym rats, their muscles were a result of the crushing gravity. He couldn't imagine living here long-term the way that they did, he had only been on the surface for a matter of seconds, and he already found himself counting down the minutes until the assignment would be over and he would be allowed to leave.

What's our heading?” Edwards asked, Velez lifting a wrist-mounted computer and tapping at the touch screen with his gloved fingers.

If we go due North from here, then we should reach the coordinates that they gave us before nightfall.”

We came down pretty close then, that's good. I didn't fancy spending the night in the bush.”

There was a gust of wind, the dropship kicking up dust as it began to lift off, Jules stumbling forwards to get clear of it as it rose into the air. The fern-like plants that carpeted the ground blew like waves on the surface of a lake, the treetops rustling and shaking as the ship angled its nose upwards and fired its main engines. Jules shielded his eyes against the glare of the suns as he watched it climb into the sky and vanish, the glint of its metallic hull lost in the haze. Well, there was no going back now...

Stay close,” the Ranger said, Jules nearly jumping out of his skin as he turned to see her standing a foot away from him. He had to crane his neck to look her in the eye, the top of his head scarcely reached her bust. “The Patriarch has tasked me with keeping you alive, so do not wander.”

I hadn't planned on it,” he mumbled, her yellow eyes meeting his. They looked like a cat's eyes, the pupil a vertical slit. Her furry ears swiveled like a pair of little radar dishes, tracking the sounds of the forest around them, her pink nose twitching as her striped tail waved back and forth idly. Her senses were probably many times more sensitive than his own, he could see the benefit of having one of these aliens as their guide.

We shouldn't waste time if we want to make it to our destination before sunset,” Simmons said, waving his comrades forwards. These guys didn't seem to strictly adhere to the rank structure that Jules had become accustomed to during his stay on the carrier, but Simmons called the shots, he was obviously the squad leader.

The Ranger left his side and took point, her rifle clasped in her furry hands as she approached the edge of the clearing. Her padded feet made her alarmingly quiet as she vanished into the brush, the odd rustle of leaves and the snap of a fallen twig the only thing giving her away. Jules didn't feel as though someone so large should be able to move so quietly, it was unnatural, spooky. The three Marines followed after her, making far more noise as they pushed into the jungle. Jules hurried after them, his joints already aching as the planet put more strain on them than he was built for. At least they hadn't made him carry one of those massive rucksacks...

The jungle was so dense that once he was beneath the canopy, he lost all sense of direction. It was just green everywhere he looked, his eyes struggling to focus. It was oddly gloomy, the thick leaves high above him blocking out the suns, a few bright rays finding their way through here and there to create what looked like puddles of golden light on the ground. There was a thick bed of plants that reached up to his thighs, it was like wading through a green ocean, waxy leaves that were wet with moisture impeding his progress.

Everything looked slightly off, he couldn't identify any of the plants, and what flowers were visible were exotic and unfamiliar. The gnarled trunks of the tightly-packed trees were covered in layers of clinging moss and hanging vines, their roots jutting from the soil, threatening to twist ankles and trip the unwary. The oversized boots that they had insisted that he wear slipped in the wet mud, and he cursed his employers for failing to properly prepare him. He hadn't realized that jungle literally meant that he would be traipsing through miles of untamed rainforest. The Elysians lived on the borders of a jungle, after all, and they were perfectly civilized.

So...does this high gravity...not bother you?” Jules panted as he took up formation behind Edwards. The Marines were clearing somewhat of a path for him, and the Ranger was using a knife the size of a sword to cut through vines and other native flora that blocked their way.

You grow accustomed to it after a while,” Edwards explained. “We rotate out to one of the orbiting ships every six months, though, just for a couple of weeks. Stops us from developing too many joint problems.”

Joint problems?” Jules asked, climbing over an exposed root.

Oh yeah, the human body isn't designed for this kind of gravity. It'll wear down the cartilage on your joints after a while, gives you a kind of arthritis. It's all good as long as you take time off to recover, and you take your meds.”

So...why do you and the others...stay on Borealis?”

Edwards shrugged, holding a flexible branch out of Jules' way as he let him pass.

I guess I got into the routine. Borealis is a...strange planet. There isn't anywhere else like it. It's harsh and inhospitable, but it's also beautiful, wild. If you can cut it here, then going back to civilization feels like putting the kid gloves back on, y'know? Borealans do things differently, they have a unique attitude, and I guess it just clicks with some people. The brass doesn't complain, the more experienced personnel they have down here, the better. Working on Borealis has...a bit of learning curve.”

Yeah, I read the pamphlet that they hand out to new arrivals,” Jules muttered. “Calling the locals antisocial would be an understatement.”

They're not antisocial,” Edwards chuckled, “they're just...differently social. The mad cats aren't so bad once you get to know them. There's a method to their madness, a kind of primal logic that starts to make sense once you understand how they think.”

You look like you've gotten to know a few of them,” Jules said, gesturing to the scars on the Marine's forearms.

Let's just call those beginner's mistakes.”

Some of those mistakes look like they required quite a few stitches.”

You should see the other guy,” Edwards replied with a grin. Jules couldn't tell if he was joking or not.

***

After walking for a while, they took a break, stopping amongst the tangled roots of one of the larger trees to pass around canteens and catch their breath. The heat and humidity were nightmarish, as if the increased gravity wasn't bad enough. Jules was coated in a layer of sweat, the salt stinging his eyes, the intense humidity preventing it from evaporating so that it wasn't even cooling him down properly. The Marines were sympathetic, despite their grizzled exteriors. They probably remembered their first few days on Borealis in acute detail, and they didn't seem to mind that he was slowing them down.

Simmons insisted that everyone stay hydrated, practically force-feeding Jules some kind of sugary sports drink on top of the liters of water that they were required to consume. It seemed like far more than was necessary to quench his thirst, but the Marines knew better than he did, so he made an effort. On top of the copious amounts of water that they carried in their packs, the Marines also had food and other emergency supplies. Edwards passed Jules a protein bar along with a small container about the size and shape of a tube of toothpaste. It was full of an amber-colored, sugary substance that had the consistency of honey. The Marines called it Jarry Juice, but they didn't elaborate on where it came from or what it was made of. It tasted good, and it made him feel reinvigorated, so Jules didn't press the issue.

The Ranger kept her distance from the humans, perched on one of the taller roots like a gargoyle as she surveyed their surroundings, on watch for native animals perhaps. She certainly seemed on edge, like she was expecting something bad to happen. Her imposing rifle was always at the ready, her fuzzy ears twitching at every unknown jungle sound. There were birds in the canopy, Jules couldn't see them, but he could certainly hear the racket that they were making, and the buzzing of insects was incessant. Fortunately, none of them seemed too interested in biting him.

Jules stood and brushed away some of the fallen leaves that were clinging to the seat of his pants, his boots sliding in the mud as he stumbled over to where the Ranger was sat. Networking was important, if he wanted the best and most up to date information that he could get, then he would need to engage with the alien as well as with the Marines. She seemed to be the only one who knew anything about the enigmatic Araxie.

One of her ears swiveled to track him as he approached her from behind. Remembering what the pamphlet had said about how to behave around Borealans, he decided not to pat her on the shoulder to get her attention, clearing his throat instead.

So...seen any monsters yet?” She turned to look back at him, glaring down at him from atop her perch. She didn't seem angry, more annoyed that he was interrupting her silent vigil. “What's your name?” he continued, taking a seat on another raised root beside her. The gnarled wood was uncomfortable, a large knot stabbing him in the butt, but he tried to hide his discomfort as she watched him with her feline eyes.

You would do better not to distract me, human.”

Oh, sorry,” he said as he retreated a little further back. “Are you expecting something to come after us?”

I cannot say,” she replied tersely, looking out into the densely packed trees. “My people have not charted this territory, its native animals are a mystery to us. There are many dangerous creatures in the jungle band of Elysia, and there may be many here as well.”

I wanted to ask you about that, if it’s alright,” he continued.

Very well,” she grumbled, “but make it quick.”

My job here is to evaluate the Araxie and see if they meet the requirements for joining the Coalition. The more I know about them, the more informed my decision will be. Do your people know anything about them at all? Rumors, hearsay maybe? At this point, I'll take baseless conjecture, it's better than going in blind.”

The Ranger sighed, but she didn't send him packing. She turned one ear in his direction as she kept the remainder of her senses focused on the trees.

The Araxie are as shadows, little is known about them besides that they prefer to remain unknown.”

Can you elaborate?” he asked, frustrated by her less than informative answer. “Why do they choose to stay hidden? How do you know of them at all if that's the case?”

Do you know of the Rask?” she asked.

The Rask? I've heard of them, yeah, they're another Borealan territory. They supply front line troops for the Coalition. They trade primarily in weapons, and their exports aren't much to write home about, mostly raw materials like ores and unrefined metals for use in the Martian shipyards.”

The Rask are desert pirates. They make their living traveling the barren lands between the great lakes, raiding trading caravans, and mounting incursions into lesser territories.”

Not anymore,” Jules interrupted, “one of the conditions that they agreed to when they joined the Coalition was to cease all illegal activity and to respect the sovereignty of neighboring territories.”

She didn't reply, merely giving him a sideways glance before continuing her tale.

The Rask stopped raiding near the borders of Araxie a long time ago, long before your Coalition arrived on Borealis. They are a stoic people, accustomed to cruelty and hardship, there isn't much that strikes fear into a Rask. But something about Araxie kept them away for good. Maybe it was superstition, perhaps the stories that they returned home with were exaggerated, but they never again dared to set foot inside this jungle. They claimed that it was cursed, taboo.”

That certainly explained why she seemed so nervous, but he couldn't let her stop there, the story intrigued him.

So, what stories did they come back with?” he asked. “What had them so spooked?”

The raiders that made it home spoke of shadows, ghosts striking from the trees. They came at night, shrouded in darkness, attacking quickly and then retreating before the Rask could retaliate. They were said to be silent, invisible, with no discernible scent to set them apart from the jungle itself. It may be hard for you to understand, human senses are so dull compared to ours.” Jules let the implied insult slide, shrugging his shoulders as he waited for her to get to the point. “But for a Borealan to be unable to see a foe, unable to hear or smell them, that is something that troubles us deeply.”

I think I'm starting to understand. So they might be lurking just out of view, and you would have no way to know that they were there at all?”

She remained silent, scanning the trees, her massive rifle clutched in her hands. She didn't seem scared exactly, just on edge, hypervigilant. Jules had to admit that it was a disquieting thought, joining her as he peered between the moss-covered trunks, the deep shadow cast by the canopy playing tricks on his eyes the longer he stared. There could be anything out there, in a jungle this thick, you could scarcely see fifteen feet in any direction. It was gloomy, the lines of sight broken up by plants and trees, the sounds and smells unfamiliar. He felt an involuntary shiver crawl up his spine.

Perhaps we should get moving,” he muttered, “Simmons said that we shouldn't dawdle if we want to make it to our destination before sunset. Somehow, I feel even less enthusiastic about spending the night out here now...”

She grunted affirmatively, and as he made his way back to where the three Marines were sat, he turned to look back at her.

You didn't tell me your name.”

It's Yuta,” she replied.

***

How much further?” Edwards asked, Velez's face lighting up with an orange glow as he checked the instruments on his wrist-mounted computer. The suns were starting to dip below the horizon now, making the already shadowy forest even darker and more foreboding, the sky stained pink in the scant places where it was visible through the thick canopy.

I don't understand,” Velez replied, wiping the sweat from his brow with the back of his gloved hand. “This should be it, but I don't see anything. There are no buildings, no people here to greet us. Do we even know what we're looking for?”

There was indeed nothing to differentiate this patch of jungle from anything that they had seen so far. It was deserted, and there wasn't a single artificial structure in sight, no evidence of any Borealan activity whatsoever. The Marines glanced around warily, their hands creeping instinctively towards the rifles that were slung across their chests.

They just gave us the coordinates, no further instructions beyond that,” Simmons said. “What’s your take, Yuta?”

She stopped, her leather clothing creaking as she rested the ornate barrel of her gun across her shoulder. She didn't seem as bothered by the humidity as the humans were, the Rangers spent their lives in these jungles, so Jules had been told. Her skin glistened where it was exposed, beads of sweat catching the light like droplets of dew on a blade of grass. She was certainly an impressive woman.

My guess is that they do not wish to reveal the location of their village to outsiders,” she said. “They do not trust us, they will likely lead us to our final destination once they have made contact, and they determine that we are not a threat.”

They called us, not the other way around,” Jules complained from the rear. The lull in their hiking gave him the opportunity to sit down and take some of the load off his legs. His joints ached, and his muscles burned, he couldn't remember ever being so exhausted in his life. He sat heavily on the bed of ferns and leaned against the trunk of a nearby tree, catching his breath. They wouldn't let him take off the heavy armor, but he had at least been able to hang the stifling helmet from his belt, Jules running his fingers through his damp hair as he took in gulps of the humid air. Simmons passed him a canteen, and he took a long draw from it, screwing the cap on and handing it back to the Marine before continuing. “Why would they be suspicious of our motives? They know who we are and why we're here. They invited us, didn't they?”

It doesn't matter,” Edwards said, shrugging off his pack and joining Jules beneath the tree. “We don't have any choice but to play by their rules. That's obviously the way that they want this to go.”

You sure about the coordinates, Velez?” Simmons asked.

I'm sure, boss. You can check for yourself. The magnetic poles are a bit fucky on this rock, but we got the GPS satellites up and running a few months back. It's all good.”

Alright,” Simmons said, his eyes darting about as he examined their immediate surroundings. He seemed almost as wary as Yuta was. “We'll make camp here, and if nothing happens before morning, then we'll put a call through to command and ask them for instructions. Keep your eyes peeled, I don't like being at a disadvantage. Yuta, you’re on first watch.”

***

Jules had imagined them starting a crackling campfire, but there was no wood in this humid hell that wasn't soaked through and rubbery, making starting a fire through conventional means practically impossible. Instead, the Marines had brought some kind of camping lantern with them, a cylindrical device that folded up for transport and then opened to reveal a bright bulb that illuminated the jungle around them. It created an island of light in the pitch blackness, the humans clustering around it as though it might protect them from the unknown dangers of the alien rainforest.

Jules watched as swarms of Borealan insects bumped into the glass, like moths drawn to a flame. They were large and stocky, and they had two sets of wings like dragonflies. Perhaps more lift was required for them to stay airborne in this high gravity environment. The glow reflected off their colorful shells, iridescent like the carapace of a beetle or the wings of a butterfly. The forest was full of what sounded almost like cicadas, and every so often, there was a strange and haunting howling that set his teeth on edge. Did Borealis have wolves? He didn't want to find out.

Once everyone was settled in, hunger became their most immediate concern, the mood lightening as they passed around MRE packets and snacks. Jules couldn't remember the last time that he had eaten a real meal. He had been cooped up on the carrier during its long voyage from Earth to Borealis, it could take months for vessels to cross such enormous interstellar distances, and the food in the mess hall hadn't exactly been gourmet. He was used to eating lunch in some of the high-end coffee houses and restaurants near the United Nations building back in Brussels, where he did most of his work, and so the switch to eating from a metal tray in the company of hundreds of people had been jarring.

Now, however, he hardly cared. The smell of a packet of ravioli being warmed by a flameless ration heater was just as appetizing as the scent of a freshly baked cream cheese bagel or a steaming bowl of French onion soup.

Eating with the Marines was a social affair, they traded food packets and bartered for snacks like kids on a field trip, Jules marveling at the variety of their contents. He was pleased to see that his tax money was going towards something worthwhile, he had only been in the bush for a day, but he could already see what a comfort good food would be to an army on the march. By the time they had finished their impromptu haggling, he had found himself with a main course of chicken and spring vegetables, along with a packet of crackers with salmon paste, and a cinnamon bun for dessert. There was also a nut and raisin mix, instant coffee, some kind of powdered fruit drink. It wasn't just fuel, it was a real meal.

He watched Yuta as he ate his chicken with a plastic fork, the alien keeping a lookout, her rifle always at the ready.

Isn't she going to eat anything?” he asked. His question was directed at Edwards, who was digging into a packet of ravioli beside him.

Someone'll relieve her after a while, then she can get something to eat and a little shut-eye.”

Can you guys even see anything in this?” Jules asked, looking about the dark jungle pointedly. Beyond the glow of the camping lantern, everything was near pitch black, like the jungle had been washed in a layer of dark ink.

Sure can,” he replied through a mouthful of food. He paused to swallow, then pointed to the helmet that was hanging from Jules' belt. “Borealans might have good eyesight, but that's beside the point. Put your helmet on, and I'll show you.”

Jules set his packet of chicken down on the ground between his boots, taking a moment to ensure that it wouldn't fall over, then unclipped the helmet from the belt on his armor and pulled it over his head. Immediately, the ambient sounds of the jungle became muffled, the padding on the inside trapping heat and warming him more than was pleasant.

Edwards leaned closer and pushed a button on the exterior of the helmet, about where Jules' ear was, and suddenly he could hear clearly again.

These helmets have all kinds of functions,” Edwards explained, sliding down the full-faced visor. He hit another button, and suddenly the ghostly, green glow of a heads-up display flared to life. It was unobtrusive, occupying the extremities of the faceplate like something from a videogame, displaying numbers and values that meant nothing to Jules. He felt the Marine press the helmet again, and then the view changed. Rather than simply being transparent like a pane of glass, everything was suddenly tinted green, Jules looking about the camp in awe. It was like someone had just switched the lights on, albeit green ones, he could see the jungle around him with almost the same clarity that he could in direct sunlight.

Night vision,” Edwards explained, “there are other functions on the helmet too. You can access them with the analog buttons near the ear or through the display on your wrist guard. Just turn the screen on, yeah, that's it, then you can navigate the menu to switch view modes. There's no weapon linked to the system right now, so don't bother with any of the combat functions like the scope or the ammo counter.”

Edwards sat back and continued his meal, Jules amusing himself by playing with the helmet. He switched to infrared mode, the warm bodies of his comrades displayed in shades of red and orange, while the cooler foliage around them was colored in hues of blue and black. There was a thermal imaging mode, which was apparently a different setting, showing heat sources in shades of white that made them stand out against the dark background. There was even a function that tagged the squad of Marines with glowing numbers that floated above their heads on his display. As he turned up the sensitivity of the microphones, he was able to hear the buzzing of the nearby insects and the chewing of the Marines in greater detail. Yuta had gloated about how her species had superior senses, but these helmets certainly seemed to make up the difference.

He turned his head in her direction, confident that his eyes were obscured behind the opaque visor, using the zoom function and the night vision to get a closer look at her. She was sat on a root maybe a dozen feet from the rest of the group, in profile from Jules' perspective. Like eyeballing women on a beach from behind a pair of dark sunglasses, he looked her up and down, taking in the curves and contours of her feminine figure.

The leather getup that she wore was so tight that she might well have been sewn into it, leaving very little to the imagination. Her thighs were thick and muscular, yet soft, and there was a subtle dimple where the hem of her shorts pressed into her flesh. She had an hourglass figure with wide, child-bearing hips that tapered into a muscular core, her impressive six-pack on display. The night vision was a little grainy, but he could make out a lot of detail, the humidity making her skin moist.

Her rear too was packed with muscle, yet soft and springy, the fat molding around the root that she was sitting on despite the tightness of her shorts. As his eyes roamed upwards, her bust leapt out at him, a pair of breasts larger than his own head fighting against the leather that contained them. They were massive, heavy, but not inappropriate considering her immense stature. He chuckled to himself quietly as he considered that despite her lack of a rucksack, she had plenty of weight to carry around.

One of her ears swiveled in his direction, and he quickly averted his eyes, picking up what remained of his meal and raising his visor to continue eating.

CHAPTER 2: GHOSTS

Despite how tired Jules was, he found it almost impossible to sleep. The Marines had no issue using rocks as pillows, but even the bunks on the carrier had kept Jules awake at night. The armor actually helped a little bit, the interior was padded, and so it eliminated the problem of sharp rocks and roots prodding him in the back. It only covered his torso, however, which meant that his butt was exposed to the rough ground.

He tossed and turned, trying to get comfortable, grunting in annoyance as an errant stick jabbed him through his clothes. He crossed his arms over his chest, staring at the canopy above him, the twinkling stars just visible between the breaks in the leaves. Everything was still illuminated by the glow of the lantern, the three Marines spaced out between the roots nearby, one of them snoring intermittently.

Yuta was still on watch, she didn't seem to have tired at all. After what she had told him about the forest ghosts sending the Rask packing, he wasn't sure that she would even let one of the Marines relieve her from her post, perhaps not trusting the humans to keep them safe.

Back home, when he had trouble sleeping, he would turn on his bedside lamp and read a book for a while. He couldn't do that here, and so he decided to play with his helmet some more instead, flipping down the visor and switching through the view modes. He was amused to see that the heat vision mode could detect small animals in the branches above him, what looked like birds, and maybe what passed for squirrels on Borealis. He couldn't make out any detail, just colored splotches, but he watched them run up and down the branches, leaping between the trees every so often.

There was so much activity here, but it was all just out of view, the local creatures were just as wary of the humans as the humans were of them. He propped his head up against the trunk of the tree lazily, yawning as he scanned the surrounding jungle.

Something near the top of one of the trees directly across from him caught his eye. The tree that they were sat under was a large one, and it created a kind of small clearing beneath its canopy. At the edge of the clearing, and perhaps halfway up one of the trunks, was an orange blob. It wasn't one of the smaller animals, it was much larger, bigger than a man if he had to guess.

His heart skipped a beat, his blood running cold, and he switched to a different filter in an attempt to get a better look at it. The whitewashed heat vision mode showed the same vague shape, it was lighter than the dark background behind it, but he couldn't make anything out when he switched to night vision mode. How deep into the foliage was it?

He zoomed in on the thing slowly so as not to lose track of it, switching modes again as he focused his eyes on the spot. There was definitely something there, something that Yuta had not seen.

Yuta,” he hissed, keeping as quiet as he could while still raising his voice enough to get her attention. She turned a single ear in his direction, her tail flicking back and forth in annoyance.

What is it? Do not distract me.”

I see something,” he whispered. “It's up in the trees.”

Where?” she asked skeptically.

Up in the trees to your right, up off the ground.”

She slowly turned her head in that direction, her ears pointing forwards as she scrutinized the jungle. Jules waited for her to raise the alarm with bated breath, but she merely gave him a dismissive glance as she looked back over her shoulder at him.

I see nothing. Your eyes are playing tricks on you, get some sleep.”

I'm looking at it right now,” he insisted, pointing to the red blob. As soon as gestured at it, the thing moved, retreating deeper into the canopy. Yuta snapped her head back around, standing and shouldering her rifle as it rustled the leaves and made the branches creak. Whatever it was, it was fast, heavy, and smart enough to recognize that it had been discovered.

What is it, some kind of animal?” Jules whispered.

Quiet!” she snapped, her rifle pointed at the trees. “Wake the others.”

He crawled over to Edwards as she had instructed, the Marine sleeping soundly nearby, and shook him. The Marine jerked awake and sat up straight, clearly alarmed, Jules lurching backwards in surprise.

What's up?” the Marine asked groggily.

Something is in the trees,” Jules whispered.

Edwards reached for his gun, which was propped up against a nearby root, closing his visor and hitting buttons on the side of his helmet. He stood and gave Velez a kick with his boot, who then roused Simmons in turn, the three Marines soon joining Yuta as they stood back to back and aimed their weapons at the canopy.

Sitrep,” Simmons ordered.

Movement in the trees,” Yuta replied.

I saw it with the heat vision,” Jules added, “it was hiding in the branches.”

Any idea what it might be, Yuta?” Simmons asked. “You're our expert on Borealan jungles, give me something I can use.”

I...I didn't see it, but it sounded heavy.”

It looked big,” Jules said, “bigger than a person.”

I'm not picking anything up on the thermals,” Velez said, swinging his XMR about as he searched the treetops. “If there was anything here, it's gone now.”

Maybe local fauna?” Edwards suggested. “Even Yuta isn't familiar with the local ecosystem. Might have just been some curious critter checking us out.”

No, it only ran when I pointed at it,” Jules added. “It wasn't a dumb animal.”

I don't like it,” Simmons muttered, “it's too much of a coincidence. The Araxie sent us coordinates that led us to the middle of nowhere, and now they're taking the opportunity to spy on us. Mister Lambert, as our resident diplomat, is this kind of behavior at all normal?”

Normal is a relative term,” Jules replied. “If what Miss Yuta told me about the Araxie is accurate, then their interactions with outsiders thus far have been profoundly negative. If they invited us or not, they may be very suspicious of our motives.”

How did they contact the UNN at all?” Simmons asked. “If they're so xenophobic, then how did they get access to a transmitter, and how did they patch into the UNN comms system? It's not like they sent us a carrier pigeon, right? Yuta, is there no trade between the Araxie and other territories at all? No contact?”

That I know of, no,” the Ranger confirmed.

Fine. We'll wait until the morning, and then if no Araxie show up, we'll put a call through to command and ask for some new instructions. Lord knows I have better things to do than play these stupid games.”

Simmons lowered his weapon, and everyone else followed suit, Jules watching from his hiding spot between the roots as they left their tight formation. Simmons had brought up a good point, how had the Araxie contacted the UNN? He wasn't sure if the Borealans had invented radio by the time they made contact with humanity, and if the technology had been confined to Elysia and their trading partners. There was so much that they didn't know about this planet, it was a source of endless frustration. Could this territory be hiding a secret society of super-advanced Borealans? It didn't seem likely, there was no evidence of that from the air, no glittering radio antennas or skyscrapers protruding from the canopy.

Yuta, you're relieved,” Simmons commanded. The Ranger's ears drooped, perhaps she felt that she had failed in her task of keeping her charges safe. “Get some sleep, Velez and I will take over until morning. That goes for you too, Mister Lambert. Let us worry about the ghosts for a while.”

Jules returned to his place at the foot of the tree, lying down and struggling to get comfortable, Yuta curling up behind an adjacent root. She seemed to be sulking, and he thought it best to leave her be. He didn't think that she would be sleeping much tonight, and nor would he. Edwards, on the other hand, was already snoring. As Jules closed his eyes, he wondered how the Marine could switch off like that.

Images of the formless blob of heat flashed in his mind, invisible even to Yuta's superhuman vision, silent save for when it had made its speedy escape. It must have been an Araxie, the specters that the Ranger had described to him, but what were they doing? Why hadn't they made contact yet? Only time would tell.

***

Jules' troubled sleep was interrupted by someone shaking him awake, and he opened his itchy eyes to see that Yuta was standing over him like a mother cat protecting her kitten. As he rose to a sitting position, he saw that the three Marines had taken up defensive positions, using the protruding roots for cover as they aimed their weapons at the jungle beyond. They looked like they were dug into foxholes, the barrels of their rifles resting on the uneven wood as they tried to keep a low profile.

Jules flipped down his visor and turned on the thermal imaging view mode, and after a moment, the dark trees that surrounded them came to life. It almost looked like the forest was on fire, there were dozens of heat signatures surrounding the clearing, whatever was creating them silent and unmoving. They were just watching...

Fear gripped him, Yuta gesturing for him to stay down and out of the line of fire, Jules all too happy to oblige.

Contacts all around us,” Velez said, “I count at least twenty.”

They've taken no hostile actions yet,” Edwards added, “what do we do?”

Keep your weapons ready,” Simmons said, “don't fire unless I give the order.”

They were speaking out loud for Yuta's benefit, but Jules could also hear them inside his helmet, they must all be linked up to some kind of local radio channel.

What do we do, Yuta?” Simmons continued. “Any advice? You're our Borealan expert here, is this some kind of challenge?”

They are Araxie,” she hissed, keeping her long rifle pointed at the trees as she exposed her sharp teeth in a snarl. “It is as the Rask described, they came at night, silent and undetectable. I do not know their customs. In my people's culture, challenges are made face to face, we do not skulk in the darkness.”

Lower your guns,” Jules said, the Ranger looking back at him with a confused expression as he lay on the ground behind her.

Mister Lambert?” Simmons asked, waiting for him to clarify.

I’m willing to bet that the last outsiders these guys met were pointing guns at them too. They brought us here for a reason, they've been watching us, evaluating us. If we're going to prove that our intentions aren't hostile, we can't do it looking down the barrel of a rifle.”

That's a pretty major assumption,” Velez said, “how can you be sure that they won't just attack us as soon as our guard is down?”

I'm not sure, but what I do know is that we need to be diplomatic here, we need to show them that we aren't a threat.”

As afraid as he was, this was his area of expertise, and he rose to his feet unsteadily as his heavy armor weighed him down. He tried to move forward, walking past Yuta, but he felt her massive hand impact his chest plate as she held him back. It was enormous, the size of a dinner plate, her sharp claws scratching the black material with an audible squeak. She looked to Simmons, and he nodded his helmeted head at her, the Ranger withdrawing her arm and letting Jules continue.

We really doing this, Sarge?” Velez asked. He sounded nervous, not happy about setting down his weapon in the face of what to the Marines must seem like an impending attack. It must go against his every instinct as a soldier.

Do as he says,” Simmons replied, “we can't shoot our way out of here in any case. We’re here to make contact with the Araxie, not to kill them all.”

The Marines lowered their weapons as Jules took a few more tentative steps forward, leaving the safety of the roots and standing in the open amongst the bed of ferns. He felt exposed, vulnerable, but perhaps that was exactly how the aliens wanted him. He flipped up his visor to show them his face, the heat signatures giving way to pitch darkness, the only light coming from the camping lantern. He couldn't make out a damned thing, there was no sign of anything, no movement at all save for the natural waving of the leaves in the breeze. He extended his hands to show that he was unarmed, waiting for some kind of reaction.

Just when he was starting to think that he had made a colossal miscalculation and that his head was about to be blown off his shoulders, the leaves in the tree directly ahead of him began to rustle. It was hard to see in the darkness, illuminated only by the yellow glow of the lantern, but something was descending from branch to branch. It was stealthy, the wood creaking as it put what must be considerable weight on the limbs of the tree, what looked to Jules like a living bush dropping to the ground quietly. The mass of leaves and fronds stood up, rising to around eight feet, consistent with the height of a Borealan.

As it stepped closer and more light was cast on it, he saw that it had a humanoid figure. The leaves and other assorted plant matter seemed to be sewn into some kind of cloak that was draped about its head and shoulders, obscuring its features, a kind of camouflage that made it very hard to spot in the dense jungle. From beneath the mesh, two green eyes reflected the glow, like a pair of mirrors as they stared back at him. It flowed like water, graceful, so light on its feet despite its imposing stature that he could scarcely hear a twig snap or a fern rustle as it moved.

The closer it came, the more he had to turn his head up to look it in the eye, until it was towering over him so close that he could have reached out and touched it. As afraid as he was, he was determined not to be intimidated. This whole scenario might have been deliberately engineered to put the newcomers on the wrong foot, to scare them, and to influence the proceeding negotiations. Perhaps the aliens thought that they could throw him off with this theater, but he was a seasoned politician, not one to shy away from confrontation. The fire in his belly gave him the courage to speak up, the Marines and the Ranger watching from the safety of the roots as his voice rang out confidently through the silent forest.

You are the Araxie delegation that was sent to meet us, I presume? My name is Jules Lambert, I'm here on behalf of the Coalition Security Council.” The alien cocked its head at him, the leaves on its camouflaged cloak rustling. Did it even understand English? He continued regardless, the creature watching him curiously. “If you would be so kind as to lead my companions and I to your base of operations, we can begin the inspection.”

In...spec...tion?” the alien hissed. Its voice was low and raspy, not unlike Yuta's.

Yes, I've been sent to carry out an inspection in order to determine if your territory meets the requirements for becoming a member of the Coalition. Our presence here was requested by the Araxie. I'm assuming that you're a representative of the people who transmitted the coordinates of the meeting place? We'll be needing accommodation for the duration of our stay, of course, and it's customary to appoint a liaison that can act as an intermediary while we perform our duties.”

The creature seemed taken aback, and Jules couldn't help but feel that he had gained the upper hand over the situation. The initial fear and tension had been diffused, and now the alien was just standing there looking rather foolish and unprepared.

I...take you back to village,” the alien said. He noted that its voice was low, almost like it was whispering. “Patriarch of Araxie request you, we take. Come.”

The rest of the Araxie began to descend from the trees all around the clearing, each one of them dressed in similar garb. They flooded down from the canopy with the same silent grace, sliding down the gnarled trunks and using their claws for purchase. It looked as if an army of shrubs were launching an attack. Jules looked around, trying to conceal his alarm. There had been even more of them hidden in the trees than he had first assumed. The aliens were so quiet, stealthy. If the Marines or the Ranger had mistakenly fired on them...

Simmons led the others out from between the raised roots, the Marines slinging their rucksacks over their shoulders, Edwards pausing to collect their lantern. Rather than folding it up and stowing it in his pack, he held it by the handle and used it to light their way in the darkness, perhaps not fully trusting the motives of these Araxie. Jules could sympathize, their ways were certainly strange, but not so strange as to be out of place or unexpected on this alien planet.

The stranger led them through the jungle, his comrades boxing them in on all sides. Jules wasn't quite sure whether they were being escorted or guarded. The aliens seemed to blend into the scenery if he lost track of them for even a moment, the camouflaged specters vanishing into the background like characters in a magic eye puzzle. No wonder the Rask had described them as ghosts, they were nigh invisible when they wanted to be. If it hadn't been for the thermal cameras on the helmets, the party would never have figured out that they were being observed until the Araxie had chosen to reveal themselves.

In a way, it was a form of diplomacy. Observe and study, wait for the most opportune moment to make contact for maximum impact. Awe, intimidate, take the lead in the negotiations. Thanks to the helmets, now Jules was in control. The aliens had been exposed before they were ready to play their hand, and it had thrown a spanner in the works.

The Araxie dodged and weaved through the jungle, their feet scarcely seeming to touch the ground. This was their domain, and it was hard for him to keep up. Yuta was similarly accustomed to traversing these environments, and the Marines fared a little better, but they had to stop after a while to let Jules catch his breath. He leaned against a tree and took a long draw from one of the canteens, Simmons foisting more sugary sports drinks on him, along with more of the strange honey. Jules wasn't a fitness buff, but it was probably full of sugars and electrolytes, things that would keep him hydrated and energized.

As he drank from the bottle of unnaturally blue liquid, he took the opportunity to examine the Araxie more closely. The one who had first descended from the trees was nearby, lurking just beyond the glow that was cast by the lantern like a vampire afraid of the sunlight. It was definitely a Borealan. He could make out a furry, black tail protruding from the cloak, and beneath the leafy hem were a pair of paw-like feet. They were clawed, identical to those of Yuta save for the darker coloration of its coat.

They're like ghillie suits,” Velez volunteered, startling Jules as he leaned in to whisper from behind.

Ghillie suits?” Jules replied, wiping his mouth with the back of his sleeve before fastening the cap.

Yeah, they're camouflaged suits used by snipers and scouts, designed to make you blend into the environment. They're covered in strips of cloth or replica foliage, breaks up your silhouette, makes you look like you're just part of the scenery. Can't hide them from the thermal sensors on the helmets though,” he said as he tapped his visor with a gloved finger. “I wonder what kind of weapons they use, I don't see any rifles...”

Jules glanced over at the nearest alien, its green eyes reflecting the light as they peered back at him, making them seem to glow in the gloom. The ghillie suits, as Velez had called them, were certainly intricate. There were pieces of dyed fabric woven into the mesh to give the appearance of leaves, and there were even some real pieces of foliage that looked like they had been sourced from the local environment.

Simmons slid in from the side, taking a seat beside the pair as he glanced between them conspiratorially, taking his sports drink back from Jules and stowing it in his pack.

Where are they leading us, Velez?” he whispered. “Do you still have a connection to the GPS satellites?”

Affirmative, Sarge. They're leading us pretty far from the original coordinates, and they're swerving all over the place, I've been keeping track. If I had to guess, I'd say that they're trying to make us lose our bearings, but I don't think they know that we have global positioning.”

Either they don't want us to be able to find our way back, or they're really anal about keeping the location of their village a secret,” Simmons mused. “We can call a dropship down right on top of us if we need to, but they don't have to know that right now. Let's keep our lips sealed for the time being, don't give them any unsolicited information about our tech or our capabilities, we've already seen how our thermal optics caught them off-guard. We might need to get out of here in a hurry, so having them think we're lost and helpless works to our advantage. You too, Mister Lambert. Don't show them so much as a tablet computer or a watch if you can avoid it.”

Understood,” Jules said with a nod. As uncertain as their situation was, things were starting to become rather exciting. “There's something else that's bothering me, Sergeant Simmons,” he continued. “These Borealans speak English, or at least some of them do, albeit in a somewhat limited capacity. How did they learn the language while being completely isolated from outside influences?”

There's a lot that doesn't make sense here,” Simmons muttered under his breath. “Perhaps when we reach our destination, we'll finally get some answers. In any case, keep up the good work Mister Lambert, that was a good call you made back there.”

Jules nodded, pride welling in his chest. Simmons moved over to where Edwards and Yuta were sitting, the three talking in hushed voices as he relayed the plan. So, all Jules had to do now was play dumb? That should be easy enough, he didn't know half of the technological capabilities of the equipment that the Marines used himself, and so there was little danger of him blowing their cover.

After a few more minutes, Simmons ordered them to move out, and the ghillie suited Araxie led them off into the darkness of the jungle once more.

***

They trudged through the dense undergrowth for what felt like hours, Jules' joints aching as though he had been carrying around a rucksack full of bricks. All he wanted to do was get under a stream of cool water and wash off the layer of sweat that clung to him, but he doubted very much that the Araxie had any shower cubicles on hand.

Suddenly, the lead Araxie stopped them, its cloak rustling as it extended an arm and gestured for them to halt. Its limb was covered in black fur, and even the pads on its clawed fingers were jet black, in contrast to Yuta’s pink.

From here, you must walk in my footprints,” it warned. “The same steps.”

The Marines exchanged glances, then tightened their formation, following in a line behind the alien as it led them forwards. Yuta was at the rear, just behind Jules, he could feel her eyes on his back. She had been watching him like a hawk the whole way, like she didn't want to be more than a few feet away from him lest he need her to pull him out of some proverbial fire.

The Araxie took a winding path over what looked like relatively clear terrain, there were fewer trees here, and there was a carpet of dense ferns covering the ground. Jules' first instinct would have been to walk straight across, but he didn't take the ominous warning lightly, tracing Edwards' footsteps as the Marine marched ahead of him. To their left and right, the other Araxie were taking similarly circuitous routes, seemingly committed to memory.

Feels like I'm walking across a minefield,” Edwards muttered, glancing back over his shoulder at Jules. “My guess is traps, we must be getting close to their HQ. These guys really don't like uninvited guests...”

Jules glanced about the meadow warily, trying to spot anything that might give away a tripwire or a pitfall. What kind of traps would the Araxie make?

There,” Yuta hissed, pointing with a clawed finger. “The soil has been disturbed.”

He followed her finger and looked to where she was pointing, but it took him a minute to spot what she was referring to. There did indeed seem to be some misplaced soil, a few of the black specks clinging to the tops of the fronds of the ferns were it didn't belong. She had eyes like a damned eagle, he would never have noticed if she hadn't pointed it out, certainly not without the light from the lantern. The Araxie had dug a pit somewhere nearby, perhaps they had filled it with sharpened sticks to impale the unwary, or maybe they would simply rely on gravity to do the job. Considering the higher gravity on Borealis and the sheer weight of the Borealans, a fall like that could do them some serious damage, regardless of how dense their bones were.

He lurched suddenly as something lifted him off the ground. When he got his bearings, he saw a pair of fuzzy arms cradling him like an oversized baby, and he looked up to see Yuta's face peering down at him.

W-what are you doing?” he stammered. He struggled, but she was inhumanly strong, keeping a tight grip on him. After a moment, he felt her pointed claws press into him through his clothes, and he tensed up. It was a clear warning to stop his fidgeting.

It is dangerous,” she replied tersely, “and you are clumsy.”

I'm perfectly capable of walking on my own,” he protested, but she ignored his complaints.

I was ordered by my Patriarch to keep the humans safe. You are the most vulnerable and the least experienced human. If you should stumble and fall into a trap, I would be disgraced before my Alpha and my Alpha's Alpha. I would lose standing.”

Edwards stifled a laugh as he looked back over his shoulder at the pair, then he turned his attention back to the path, careful not to deviate from the trail. It was no use arguing with the Ranger, and so Jules swallowed his pride, taking advantage of his newfound elevation to observe the movements of the nearby Araxie. They were coordinated, moving as a cohesive group despite how spread out some of them were. It was hard to see much beyond the limits of the light cast by the lantern, the long shadows dancing as it waved back and forth in Edwards' hand, but he could make them out a lot more easily when he switched his helmet to infrared.

The Araxie at the head of their group came to a stop before a wall of tangled vines and creepers. It looked like the growth had spread between the trunks of two large trees, and the undergrowth here was even denser than usual, to the point that it appeared quite impassable. The wall extended all the way into the canopy, and it didn't look like there was a way around. The jungle to either side of this natural barrier was too dense for even a small human to squeeze past.

As Jules watched, the lead alien reached out with one of its furred hands, parting the vines like a curtain. Jules caught a scant glimpse of what lay beyond before the creature vanished inside, and the vines fell back into place behind it, melding into the background as though it had never been there at all. He used his helmet to peer through the darkness at the rest of the Araxie, seeing that they too were vanishing into their own respective curtains of vines that were spaced out around the forest. It played tricks on the eye, one second they were there, and then they weren't. Even knowing that these secret entrances were here, they were so well camouflaged, and they blended so expertly with the scenery that Jules doubted whether he would be able to locate them a second time. In combination with the traps, stumbling across this location would be practically impossible.

Yuta set her ward down on the ground, moving to the front of the small procession of humans.

Stay behind me,” she said, reaching out to pull back the curtain. It took some effort, Jules could see that the weight of it surprised her, which indicated that it was probably woven from real vines and plants rather than being some kind of elaborate facade. She poked her head through, looked around for a moment, then gestured for the humans to enter as she held it open for them.

They emerged into an open space that was perhaps the size of a football field, but more rounded in shape, the night sky visible above them in places where the canopy was thinnest. The thick trunks of the ancient trees that encircled the clearing looked as large and as strong as the buttresses of any fortress, curtains of vines, and other smaller plants bridging the gaps between them where they weren't so densely packed so as to be impassable. The jungle enclosed them on all sides, like a natural wall that kept the clearing out of view and protected from the outside world.

The interior wasn't completely clear of trees, however. It was like the difference between the unchecked growth of a wild forest, and a carefully tended orchard. The stout trunks were spaced out in a way that seemed artificial, likely planted and tended by the Araxie.

That wasn't all. Built around the bases of the gigantic trees were clusters of buildings, nestled between their roots. At first glance, they almost reminded Jules of beaver dams or maybe bird nests, but this was yet another facade. They were far more sophisticated than they first appeared, dome-shaped, with rounded roofs that were strewn with leaves and other concealing plant matter sourced from the forest that served to disguise their true nature. They were built from sturdy wood, squat, but clearly very structurally sound. There were no windows, only a solitary door on each dwelling. The structures appeared to be about the right size to accommodate several people of Borealan stature.

From the air, this would have looked like any other patch of forest. It was no wonder that the satellites hadn't seen anything out of the ordinary. It was as if they had draped a gigantic ghillie suit over their entire village.

Guess we found their base of operations,” Simmons muttered.

Coordinates locked,” Velez whispered, “one button press and I can broadcast its location to Command.”

Do it,” Simmons said with a nod, “let them know our new coordinates.”

Jules couldn't help but feel a little guilty after overhearing the exchange, but it wasn't as if the Araxie had laid out the red carpet for them. Trust had to go both ways, and the Araxie had shown them nothing but suspicion thus far.

How big do you reckon those trees are?” Edwards asked.

That's got to be at least a couple of hundred feet tall,” Jules replied as he craned his neck to look up at the canopy. “Maybe fifty feet around the trunk.”

Their tech level looks low,” Edwards continued as they proceeded deeper into the village, turning his head to take in the strange scenery. “All wooden huts, no electricity that I can see, no comms gear.”

It resembles one of the more remote Ranger outposts from deep inside the Elysian jungles,” Yuta said, “but we are still members of the Elysian territory. We still trade in goods and technology, the hunting posts are just too far from the city to benefit from many of its amenities. This is even more remote, more isolated.”

The Araxie that had escorted them fanned out now, perhaps returning to their posts or maybe their homes, leaving only one alien to lead them onwards. There was nobody else in view, no villagers peeking out from the doorways of their wooden huts, not one person going about their daily business. Were they hiding?

Jules activated the trusty heat sensor on his visor and looked around the village, searching for clues as to the whereabouts of its inhabitants. The first thing that stood out to him was that many of the wooden dwellings had heat sources inside them that looked like fires. The aliens must use them for cooking, because there was no way that anyone needed to warm themselves in this stifling, soupy hellscape. He hadn't seen any plumes of smoke, which would undoubtedly give the location of the village away, so that meant that they must have a method to make smokeless fire. Jules was no outdoorsman, but such a thing was likely possible with the right fuel and the proper conditions.

There was nobody moving around inside the houses, nobody tending the fires that he could see. The structures in the village were cold and deserted. Were they out hunting, maybe?

He felt Edwards nudge him with his elbow, and Jules turned his head to see the Marine pointing at the treetops. Jules looked up to see a mass of heat signatures nestled within the canopy. The Araxie had all fled to the branches like cats escaping a dog. There were dozens of them up there, maybe hundreds, peering down warily at the intruders from a safe height.

Their guide led them deeper into the trees towards what felt like the center of the village, until a far larger structure came into view. This one was constructed all the way around the base of one of the trees, ringing it and extending a short distance up its trunk. There were two guards posted at the door, these ones also clad in a camouflaged cape that obscured their features, long spears clasped in their hands. The weapons were maybe twelve feet long, enormous by human standards, and they were tipped with wicked spearheads that seemed to be made from metal.

Hang on,” Velez muttered as they approached the building’s large door. “Look at those spears...”

What about them?” Edwards asked.

Don't you recognize the tips? Those are the bayonets used on XMRs, the ones configured for use by Borealans.”

Holy shit, you're right,” Edwards hissed under his breath. “What the fuck are they doing with those? I thought they had no contact with the outside world? How did they get their hands on UNN weaponry?”

I have a feeling we're about to meet the head honcho,” Simmons interjected. “When we get inside, let Mister Lambert do the talking. That's what he's here for.”

They all nodded their understanding, Jules along with them.

Their cloaked guide opened the door with a creak, and they stepped through into a dingy room. Jules took his helmet off and stowed it under his arm, wanting to make a good first impression when they were introduced to the Araxie leader. Diplomacy could not be conducted from behind an opaque visor.

The structure was large even by Borealan standards, the ceiling perhaps twenty feet above their heads, the wooden support beams and rafters that anchored it to the gnarled trunk of the tree shrouded in darkness. There was a gentle slope to it, perhaps designed to let rain and moisture run off the roof, and there wasn’t a window in sight.

Calling it dimly lit would be an understatement. The only light came from hanging lanterns that were suspended from the ceiling on lengths of knotted rope. They resembled the thuribles that you might find in a church, but instead of burning incense, these seemed to house candles. They did such a poor job of illuminating the room that it almost seemed pointless. Their flickering glow cast dancing shadows on the wooden walls, and as Jules' eyes adjusted to the darkness, he was finally able to make out some more detail.

Much like what he had seen of Elysian culture, everything here was intricately decorated. The walls were covered in engravings and hanging animal pelts of indeterminable origin, what might be horns or antlers from similarly unknown animals proudly on display. The rough bark of the tree trunk that made up the core of the room had been stripped away, exposing the smoother wood beneath, from which were hung woven tapestries. It was too dark to make out what they depicted in any clarity, but it was impressive all the same. The wooden floorboards had been covered with rugs that looked like animal skins, the roots of the tree must have been selectively stripped away to keep the floor level. There were various pieces of furniture scattered about the circular room. He could see chairs and benches clearly built for Borealans, their legs carved to resemble the paws and claws of animals, like something you would have seen in a Victorian-era study. There were shelves on the walls and a few tall tables that were loaded with unknown items and trophies, all equally difficult to make out in the gloom. It came across to Jules like a hunting cabin as built by someone who only had access to archaic tools and materials.

From around the trunk of the tree strode something very large, the dim light from the candles reflecting off its black coat to give the impression that it was carved from a solid slab of onyx. It was a Borealan, at least eight and a half feet tall, putting it near the upper limit for its species. As it drew closer, Jules realized that it was unlike any Borealan that he had seen before.

He was familiar with the Elysians and the Rask, with their partial coverings of fur, and he had seen pictures of Polars who were entirely enveloped in a fluffy coat that helped them survive the cold climate of their home territory. This creature was covered from head to toe in jet black, velvety fur, so shiny and slick that it almost made him look wet. It was obviously a male, broad-shouldered, and sporting the muscle tone that living on this planet necessitated. The thin fur clung to his figure such that Jules could make out muscles and veins, even in the dim candlelight. Despite his stature, he was not as stocky as the other Borealans. He was less toned than Yuta, lithe and sinewy like a swimmer or a gymnast as opposed to a weight lifter or a bodybuilder.

The alien's gait was graceful, quiet. Just like his ghillie-suited subordinates, he seemed to flow through the environment like water. His eyes were a striking, reflective green, staring down at his guests with enlarged pupils as they peered back at him in turn.

Unlike the other Araxie that they had encountered, this one was wearing only a pair of leather shorts and a harness that went over his shoulders and across his broad chest, almost like some kind of primitive tactical rig. There were pouches and bags sewn into it, along with other tools and items. Jules could see small vials of liquid in a leather holster, what must be a canteen, as well as a large knife sheathed on his hip. In contrast to the colorful beads and feathers that the Elysians favored, the decorative flair here was made mostly from animal parts. It wasn't garish, there were no bright colors or patterns that might draw attention to the wearer, it all seemed very muted and practical. There were small bones, tufts of animal pelts, and he wore a kind of hanging loincloth made from fur over the top of his shorts.

Welcome,” the alien said, his voice deep and gruff. “I am Bozka, Patriarch of the Araxie.”

My name is Jules Lambert, I'm here on behalf of the Coalition Security Council,” Jules replied as he tried to put on an air of confidence. Once again, he was determined to stay on top of the situation. He wasn't going to let this alien's sheer stature and his strange appearance throw him off, which might well be the intent. “This is Sergeant Simmons, Corporals Edwards and Velez, and our Elysian guide, Yuta.”

The two Borealans exchanged suspicious glances. It was odd seeing them together, they were so similar and yet so different. There were Borealans with varying hair colors and skin tones analogous to human races, but there were also subspecies that were far more distant from a genetic standpoint, more akin to the differences between a human and a neanderthal. That wasn't to say that one population was archaic while another was modern, just that they had adapted to different environments and diverged often in total isolation from one another.

You speak for the Coalition?” Bozka asked, glancing between the humans and examining their strange clothing and equipment.

I represent the Coalition, yes,” Jules replied as he tried to direct the alien's attention back towards him. This Bozka needed to understand that he was treating with Jules and Jules alone. “Your government made an official request to join the Coalition, correct? It's my job to evaluate your territory and ensure that you're capable of fulfilling the commitments that being a member entails. I'm authorized to negotiate treaties on behalf of the CSC, and then make a recommendation to the council, which they will then vote on.”

You will...test the Araxie?” Bozka asked, cocking his head.

In a way, yes. When you have the time, I'll run you through the different criteria and requirements, and I'll be needing unrestricted access to your territory while I'm here. Government, military, banking institutions...if you have them.”

Jules was starting to suspect that the government might consist entirely of Bozka, and if they had any banking institutions, their vaults were probably full of shiny beads. Could the Coalition mandate that five percent of the territory's GDP be committed towards defense spending if the gross domestic product was comprised primarily of animal hides and leather slacks?

No, things in the Araxie territory were not as they seemed. Much like the ghillie suits worn by their soldiers, this primitive exterior was masking something deeper. The bayonets, their language skills, the transmission...

It will be so,” Bozka said.

The Araxie in the ghillie suit who had led them here stalked past them, whispering to the Patriarch in their own language, none of the humans able to understand them. Jules looked over his shoulder at Yuta, but she shook her head, indicating that she had no idea what was being said either.

I am told that you require accommodations, and a...liaison,” Bozka said as his underling stepped away. “Tell me, what is liaison?”

A liaison is someone who can act as an intermediary during our stay,” Jules explained, “someone who can interact with the locals and speak their language. Someone who knows the local customs and who can assist in negotiations.”

I believe I understand,” the alien replied, gesturing to one of the tall tables with a long arm. He wanted them to sit on the stools that were spaced out around it. Jules did as he was asked, the Marines following suit, clambering up onto the seats. They were scaled up for use by Borealans, making them far too large for a human. It made Jules feel like a child sitting in a booster seat. Yuta, on the other hand, seemed perfectly at home. She crossed her arms and leaned them on the table as the Patriarch sat down opposite them.

The first thing I'd like to ask,” Jules began, “is what prompted you to contact the Coalition? What's your motivation for wanting to join?”

Is it not obvious?” the Patriarch asked.

I have some ideas, but I’d like to hear it from you.”

The Coalition strengthens the other territories. You give them weapons, technology, power, and protection. Those who do not wish to swear allegiance are left behind, at the mercy of those who do.”

Jules exchanged some worried glances with the Marines, Yuta raising an eyebrow.

That's...not our intention,” he replied. “The Coalition is a voluntary assembly of like-minded governments that offers mutual protection against common threats. By bringing new governments into the fold, we strengthen and enlarge the alliance with the ultimate goal of improving security and stability across Coalition space. We provide weapons and equipment along with training in their operation, but only in the context of bringing a member's security forces up to specification. Any trade beyond that is usually carried out by independent organizations.”

The Patriarch did not seem convinced, but Jules wasn't quite sure what he was suggesting. He might be laboring under the misapprehension that the Coalition would just give out crates of guns and free spaceships like candy. Trade was an important benefit of joining the Coalition, but as he had explained, that was usually carried out by independents. It wasn't the Coalition who provided the Elysians with their spaceships or their appliances, those were independent traders.

I have not understood all that you have said,” the jet-black alien continued, “but the Coalition strengthens our enemies. They attack us with Coalition weapons, your technology makes them strong.”

That's not possible,” Jules replied, a frown darkening his features. “One of the core tenets of Coalition membership is a respect of sovereignty. Any member state that was found to be engaging in hostile actions against a neighbor would be violating the terms of that membership. They would be expelled.”

The Patriarch stood abruptly, making Jules jump and setting the Marines on edge. Yuta bared her teeth reflexively, the fur on her tail puffing up like a startled cat. The Patriarch remained soft-spoken, however, making his way towards the door.

Come, I have something that you must see.”

Jules slid down off the stool, confused, his companions following after him as Bozka led them out into the village. Some of the villagers had come down from their hiding places now, milling about and craning their necks to get a look at the newcomers. They were all similar to Bozka in appearance, their lithe bodies covered in a coat of silky, black fur that made them hard to spot in the darkness. They were all dressed sparsely, the males wearing shorts and the females wearing a combination of shorts and leather slings to conceal their breasts. Most of the aliens wore some kind of utility belt from which satchels and small bags were strung, or a chest rig covered in pouches. A few wore the camouflaged cloaks over their shoulders, it appeared that they could be flung over the wearer to conceal them in an emergency. There were children, too, or perhaps kittens would be a better term to describe them. They were squat, chubby creatures that clung to their mothers like monkeys as they watched the humans with wide eyes.

The two guards who had been posted outside the Patriarch's dwelling flanked him on either side, their bayonets glinting in the starlight. How had they obtained those bayonets? It must have something to do with the Patriarch's claims, and Jules was beginning to feel a sinking sensation in his gut. Something was very wrong here.

Bozka led them through the giant trees, weaving between the domed huts that were built around their roots, eventually arriving at a wooden box. It was maybe nine feet by nine feet, constructed from sturdy wood, and on the near side was a barred door made up of thick poles that had been tied together with strips of leather. Two Araxie were standing to either side of the door, their camouflaged cloaks draped over their shoulders, their spears clasped in their hands. They were guarding it, their eyes scanning the jungle beyond warily, Jules’ gaze drawn to the inky darkness behind the bars.

Bozka said something in his native tongue, the guards sharing a glance before turning towards the barred door. One of them opened it, while the other stood ready, the bottom end of his spear poised to jab as if he expected to face some kind of dangerous animal.

Jules took a couple of steps backwards as he heard the sounds of a scuffle, claws scraping against wood, vicious spitting and hissing like they had an angry tiger locked up in there. The two guards dragged a third figure out into the open, its hands bound behind its back, one of them giving it a swift swipe to the back of the legs with the haft of his spear to bring the captive to their knees.

A curtain of matted, blonde hair obscured its face until the second guard took a handful and raised its head, forcing it to look the Patriarch in the eye.

Rask!” Yuta spat, her voice dripping with venom. It was a male Borealan with ebony skin and straw-colored fur on his forelimbs and tail. He glared back at them with his yellow eyes, he looked crazed, practically foaming at the mouth as he hissed and growled at his captors. He was covered in scars, Jules couldn't tell how recent they were, and he was wearing what looked like the tattered remnants of a dark blue UNN combat suit. It was similar to what the Marines were wearing, their black armor placed over the top of it. This one had been modified, it didn't look standard issue. It was overlaid with leather in places, and there were patches and markings that he didn't recognize. It was torn, stained with blood, it looked like the Araxie had been roughing him up.

What is the meaning of this?” Jules snapped, his eyes darting between the prisoner and the Patriarch.

The Rask have been raiding our jungles for months,” Bozka explained, “they have been attacking us with Coalition weapons and supplies. Rifles, radio equipment, Coalition armor, and food rations.”

Clawless bitch!” the Rask hissed, his insult apparently directed at Yuta. She recoiled, her disgust palpable as she bared her sharp teeth at him.

We ambushed a raiding party some time ago, this one survived the battle,” the Patriarch continued. “We took him captive along with what weapons and gear remained, interrogated him, learned how to use his radio equipment.”

So that's how you put a call through to the UNN,” Simmons mused, “you captured a transmitter from the Rask.”

What were they doing with UNN gear?” Velez asked, “where did they get it?”

From your people, obviously,” the Patriarch replied.

No, no,” Jules said as he shook his head emphatically. “We supply the Rask government with weapons and equipment, yes. But they signed treaties assuring us that they would ban piracy and that they would respect the articles of the Coalition charter, one of which prohibits hostile action against neighboring territories. He must be some kind of criminal, an outlaw.”

Is this true, Rask?” Yuta asked. The Rask turned his eyes up to her, a wide grin on his face. He didn't reply, he merely chuckled to himself. One of the guards jabbed him in the gut with his staff, the laughter halting as the sandy-haired alien groaned and doubled over.

Stop that,” Jules demanded, the guard looking up at him in surprise. “There are conventions that deal with the treatment of prisoners, too. If you want to join the Coalition, then mistreating a captive in full view of the Coalition diplomat who was assigned to evaluate you is a bad way to go about it.”

Do you protect your allies over the victims of their crimes?” Bozka asked sternly.

What? Absolutely not, and this person is no ally of ours. But that doesn't mean that you can beat a subdued prisoner, regardless of what his crime was.”

The guard looked to the Patriarch for confirmation, and Bozka nodded his head.

Can you show us what you recovered?” Simmons asked, “maybe we can figure out where it came from.”

Again, the Patriarch nodded silently. He set off into the village, flanked by his two guards as the others began to drag the Rask back into his cell. Jules looked back over his shoulder as they shoved him inside and shut the door. He would have to go through the charter with the Patriarch and make sure that he understood the concept of prisoner's rights. If he discovered that the Rask was being denied food and water, or tortured for information, the Araxie would have to shape up pretty damned fast.

They usually come in wheeled vehicles,” the Patriarch explained as they walked. “We do not know how to operate them, nor do we have any use for them, and so we let the jungle reclaim them. Once the Rask are dealt with, we bring back whatever we can carry. Some of it has obvious uses, like blades, and rifles. What we cannot identify, we store at the edge of the village, where it can do no harm.”

They arrived at another wooden shack, this one far larger than the prison cell. Jules could see no weathering or moss growth, which indicated that it might have been constructed more recently than some of the other structures. Bozka led them inside while his guards took up positions at the door, Jules and his companions stepping into a dark room. The Patriarch retrieved an item from his rig and then reached up to light one of the hanging candles with some kind of flint or maybe a magnesium tool, striking the two halves together until they produced a spark. The room was lit by the flickering flame, and Jules was immediately reminded of a tool shed. Instead of tools, however, it was packed with recovered UNN technology. There was a whole armory in here.

The Marines began to walk around the room, examining the items as Jules looked on. Every wall and surface was strewn with pieces of armor, weaponry, and other random gear.

Ceramic armor made for Borealans,” Simmons muttered as he struggled to lift one of the massive chest-pieces. “XMRs, magazines, batteries, spare barrels and parts. Grenades, flares, laser designators. What have you got over on that side, Edwards?”

We got some self-filling canteens, the ones with water condensers. Plenty of MRE packets, ten thousand calories apiece, the Borealan variety. Medkits, this looks like a tablet computer, a collapsible shovel.”

This is some kind of powder revolver,” Velez said as he showed them a handgun that looked as though it weighed more than the average rifle, visibly straining as he turned to place it back on the table. “Not UNN-issue, there's other Rask shit here too.”

How do you know this stuff came from the Rask?” Jules asked.

Velez turned around to show him a serrated dagger that was closer to the size of a machete, a cruel gut hook shaped into the pointed end.

Because the UNN doesn’t make anything like this, and I’ve never seen anything like it in Elysia, either.”

So, some of this gear came from the UNN, and some of it didn't?”

Hard to say exactly where it came from,” Simmons said as he turned an oversized XMR over in his hands. It looked identical to those used by the Marines, except that it was blown up in scale, designed to be used by the larger member species of the Coalition. “Someone has scratched out the serial numbers on these. It looks like UNN tech to me, though. This is mil-spec, it's not surplus. Same goes for the armor and the grenades.”

They were definitely manufactured by the UNN,” Edwards confirmed as he opened one of the MREs and spilled the various packets onto a table, examining their contents. “This is all standard-issue. Someone is misappropriating Coalition supplies, if that's happening before or after they reach Borealis, I have no idea.”

Jules fished in his pocket for his tablet computer, the screen lighting up his face as he began to type.

We need to document everything that was recovered, and I need to take some statements. I'll be making a full report, and there will certainly be an investigation into the Rask activity. Will that be enough to assuage your concerns, Patriarch Bozka?”

That sounds satisfactory,” he replied. He still seemed suspicious, but the fact that they were doing something about it was a show of good faith, at least.

CHAPTER 3: WINE AND DINE

The negotiations dragged late into the morning, Jules and Bozka sitting around one of the carved tables in his dwelling while Yuta and the Marines milled about outside. It wasn't that they were prohibited from sitting in on the discussion, but the recent events and their strange new environs were of far greater interest than drawn-out political discussions. Not only was going through the conventions and ensuring that the Patriarch understood them all a difficult and time-consuming task in itself, but many of the concepts were entirely alien to him, requiring a more in-depth explanation than usual.

Defense spending must be five percent of the territory's GDP, which due to both conceptual and language barriers, he had to explain was the total sum of the territory's economic output. The Araxie supplying troops to the Coalition was simple enough, as was the pledge to tolerate diversity and inter-species cooperation. Based on Bozka's outrage at the Rask raids, it was obvious that he understood what it meant to respect sovereignty. They went over the minutia of the charter for hours, everything from prohibited weaponry to sapient rights, until the sunlight finally began to peek over the jungle canopy.

If everything is clear and you agree to the terms as laid out, the next step is the evaluation,” Jules said as he resisted the urge to rub his eyes. He had been staring at the glow of his tablet's screen for so long that it left afterimages when he looked away. “I will require unrestricted access to your territory. I'll need to interview people and make an estimate of your economic output, inspect your armed forces to determine if and how they might be incorporated into our own, and I'll need to determine whether you can meet the stated requirements.”

Your laws seem just as you have explained them to me,” Bozka replied. “I see a great reverence for life, which is something that your people and mine both share. But I worry that these laws are merely talk, that your Coalition states one thing, yet does another. The Rask too agreed to these same terms, did they not?”

I can assure you that these laws are ironclad,” Jules insisted. “Anyone found violating them would face criminal charges, and any government found to be routinely infringing on these conventions would be expelled from the Coalition. We take it very seriously, but you have to understand the scale of the territory that we police. We have tens of billions of citizens spread out across dozens of planets, they live light-years apart, piracy and crime are a problem even in our own sphere of influence. We don't promise a Galaxy free of injustice, but what we can promise is that all Coalition members will work towards rectifying injustice wherever they find it. We are stronger together, and if the Araxie face threats more dire than even the Rask, we will be required by law to protect you. Our Marines and our carriers will be at your disposal.”

I do not fully understand much of this technology,” Bozka said as he drummed his claws on the wooden surface of the table. “These carriers, they are vehicles that can transport armies between the planets? So, if Araxie was threatened by an enemy, they would come to our aid?”

That's correct,” Jules said with a nod, “but it's not just about protection. You'd be gaining access to an economy that spans known space. You could trade in technology and weapons, products, and materials that can help elevate the Araxie and make you the equals of the Elysians and the Rask. Medicines that cure diseases and make you live longer lives, amenities, and conveniences. There's so much potential.”

I fear for our way of life,” the Patriarch continued, “too much change happening too quickly could erase our culture. Yet I do not have a choice. If I do not ensure that the Araxie are brought into the fold, we will not be able to defend ourselves. Our territory will eventually be conquered or absorbed by another, be it the Rask or the Elysians or someone else. We need weapons and technology that only the Coalition can provide, all in service of countering a threat that your people had a hand in creating...”

We're going to be looking into this problem with the Rask regardless of whether you join or not,” Jules explained, “I can assure you that they will be dealt with accordingly if it's discovered that they're engaging in criminal activity. But if you want my opinion, I think you should talk to Yuta. She's Elysian, the Rangers live in the jungles of their territory much as you do, perhaps she can give you some more insight into how joining the Coalition changed her society. If you won't take my word that our intentions are good, then perhaps she can convince you. Do you have any other questions?”

This process is...complicated,” the Patriarch grumbled. He was probably used to alliances being formed and broken based on the whims of all-powerful leaders, but the Coalition did not function that way. There were councils, votes, hearings. Jules couldn't even guarantee that the Araxie would be accepted when everything was wrapped up, he could only put forward a proposal, and the Security Council would then vote on it. It could be months yet before they had a definitive yes or no answer.

The Patriarch unfastened a small canteen from his belt and popped the cork, taking a quick draw before gritting his teeth and hissing. Whatever it was, it didn't go down easy. Bozka offered the canteen to Jules, but he refused, returning his eyes to his tablet. Knives, little bottles of spirits, fire lighting tools, and who knew what else. Why did the Araxie carry everything on their person rather than storing it in their homes? Perhaps they tended to range further away from the village than he imagined?

The suns rise,” the Patriarch said. “Soon, the village will sleep. But before that, we should eat. Will you and your people join us?”

Oh, your people sleep during the day?” Jules asked. “I suppose that makes sense, it explains why you don't need much light to see by. We should adjust our schedules accordingly. And, of course, I'm sure everyone would be happy to eat with you.”

That seemed to please the Patriarch, and he stood up from the table, clasping his furry hands together with a muted clap. He was no doubt glad to escape the proceedings for a while, even Jules was happy to take a break.

They exited through the large door, the dark sky turning a shade of deep blue above their heads as the twin suns rose. Edwards and Velez were sleeping, the latter using his rucksack as a pillow, while Simmons and Yuta were chatting nearby. They were probably discussing the situation with the Rask. They halted their conversation as Jules and Bozka approached, Simmons turning to greet them.

How are the negotiations going?”

We're making progress,” Jules replied with a grin. “The Patriarch has invited us to eat with him, I thought that you and the others might join us?”

Sounds very diplomatic,” Simmons replied, “I'm game.” He walked over to Velez and gave him a kick with his boot, the swarthy Marine jolting awake. “Grub's up,” Simmons said. Velez roused Edwards, and the two stood, yawning and blinking their eyes groggily.

By the way,” Jules began as they trailed behind Bozka, “we're going to have to change our sleep schedules. Looks like the Araxie are nocturnal, so we'll need to be awake at the same times they are.”

Not a problem,” Simmons said, “we're used to catching some shut-eye whenever the opportunity presents itself. We're rarely on a set schedule when we're out in the bush.”

The Patriarch led them through the village until they arrived at a giant felled tree. One of the larger examples had toppled over at some point in the past, the massive network of torn roots extending out like skeletal fingers. Jules wasn't sure what force could have brought this massive behemoth down, it was at least fifty or sixty feet in diameter and maybe two hundred feet long from what he could see. It was covered in moss and plant growth, carpeted in a blanket of greenery that made it look like the jungle was slowly reclaiming it.

As Bozka made his way towards the tangled roots, Jules realized that there was a massive door built into them. The alien opened it and ushered them inside.

The humans looked about in awe as they emerged into a truly gigantic, hollowed-out tree. The Araxie had carved away the dead wood with an expertise and finesse that could only have been attributed to a master woodworker. The curved ceiling was at least forty feet above their heads, the same hanging candles suspended on ropes present here, too. It was far better lit than the Patriarch’s dwelling, and the heat was stifling due to the fire pits that were spaced out along the structure's length, casting the hall in their flickering glow. The floor beneath their feet was level, not made from planks, but actually carved from the wood of the dead tree itself. The growth rings were still visible, serving as a kind of natural decoration.

It seemed as though they had carved holes into the trunk to expose the earth beneath it, then they had filled those holes with stones, transforming them into fire pits that were presently being used for cooking. They burned without smoke, stocked with what looked like charcoal or something similar, their heat adding to the already sweltering temperature of the jungle.

Long tables lined the center of the hall, spaced out between the fire pits. They appeared to have been carved from the wood of the tree as well, along with the benches to either side of them. Their legs transitioned seamlessly into the floor, the same growth rings visible in their varnished surfaces. It must all have been treated with some kind of stain to prevent it from rotting, especially in this excessively humid environment. Everything was one seamless piece of wood, a single engineering project of massive scale. They must have known exactly what they were going to make from the tree before they had started cutting away the excess wood, carving it from the inside out, every bench and pit carefully planned.

The curved walls were decorated with trophies from hunts, there were the horns and antlers of truly massive animals, and pelts that sported exotic patterns and colors. The hall was packed with Araxie. They were sitting at the long tables, and eating from a buffet of strange foods, others rotating spits over the fire pits that were laden with the carcasses of native animals. The smell of cooking meat was enticing, it was like the scent of a barbecue wafting over from a neighbor's yard, but the heat was making Jules sweat buckets. It was like a sauna in here, he didn't know how long he could tolerate it.

Bozka led them over to one of the benches, and they all sat down in a row. Jules found himself sandwiched between Yuta and the Patriarch, their size making him feel minuscule. Just like the stools back in Bozka's dwelling, these benches were far too tall for a human, his feet swinging a clear foot off the floor. The table was a little high too, but not so much that he couldn't reach it.

The Araxie sitting across from him scrutinized him curiously. They all looked very similar to the Patriarch, with a full coat of black fur that seemed to shine in the light and a pair of striking, emerald eyes. They were dining on the legs of some kind of local animal that was analogous to a deer or a cow. It had muscular thighs, the hooves still attached, the skin crisped like roasted chicken. They didn't use cutlery, they dug their hook-like claws into the meat like knives, their sharp teeth shearing away chunks of flesh. When the sauces and juices matted their furry hands, they extended long, rough tongues to comb their fingers like a cat grooming itself. They were so flexible, almost like tentacles, coiling around their digits and leaving the fur shiny and clean in their wake.

We Araxie pride ourselves on our dishes,” Bozka explained, waving his long arm across the table. There were earthen jugs that contained what looked almost like gravy, and there were massive, wide trays that were piled high with veritable mountains of meat. There even entire animals the size of wild hogs. There were drinks too, including water, and other colored liquids that Jules couldn’t identify. “Freshly killed meat roasted over open flames, flavored with oils and sauces. Take your pick.”

Hang on,” Simmons said, pulling a device from one of the pouches on his uniform. They had removed their black armor for the time being, but the suits that they wore beneath were covered in pockets and small bags. “While we appreciate your hospitality, humans have different nutritional requirements to Borealans. We need to scan the food first to make sure that it won't make us sick.”

This tool can tell whether food is safe to eat?” Bozka asked, looking over at the handheld scanner.

That's right, think of it as a kind of...electronic nose.”

Yuta reached across the table and hooked a large hunk of flesh in her claws, bringing it into range of the Marine, oils raining down onto the wooden table. He ran the scanner over it, reading from the small display that was mounted on the tool.

It's basically just animal protein and fat. It's cooked properly, if a little on the well-done side. It should be alright for humans to eat, but I'm going to recommend that Mister Lambert abstain. If you get food poisoning or you react badly to something, you won't be able to perform your duties. You'd do better to eat one of the MREs instead.”

Yuta had no such concerns, raising the chunk of flesh towards her mouth and sinking her teeth into it gleefully. It seemed almost relieving for her to be able to tear into something, stripping away meat with her pointed teeth and chewing contentedly. After a few bites, she set the meal down on the table and reached into one of her pouches, withdrawing a glass vial of brown liquid with a screw-on cap. She opened the container and upended it onto the meat, some kind of grease or oil spilling forth. When she was done, she put the bottle back in the pouch and took another bite, nodding as if to indicate that the taste had been improved.

What was that?” Jules asked, looking up at her.

Fish oil,” she said over a mouthful of her food, “it's a seasoning.”

Oils are like ketchup or mustard to Borealans,” Edwards explained, leaning forward across the table so that Jules could see him. “They all have their preferred flavor, vegetable or fish oil, usually. They carry it around with them wherever they go.”

Bringing a bottle of your preferred brand of ketchup to a restaurant with you would be in extremely poor taste, but the Patriarch didn't take offense, Yuta tearing away a piece of meat with her claws and passing it to him. He seemed to like the taste, giving her an approving nod.

Jules was handed an MRE packet from one of the rucksacks. He was a little disappointed that he couldn't sample the alien food, but Simmons was right. It was best not to take risks, he couldn't negotiate the Araxie's entry into the Coalition if he was vomiting his guts out in the jungle. Edwards was also forgoing the meat, choosing an MRE for himself as well.

I wanted to ask you something,” Jules said, Yuta pausing her chewing to glance down at him as he began to cook one of the self-heating rations. She was most of the way through the leg of who-knows-what that she had been eating. Jules found himself marveling at how much meat she could put away in one sitting. She required a ludicrous quantity of food and protein to maintain her gigantic, muscular body. He thought back to the Borealan MREs that they had found amidst the stash recovered from the Rask. Ten thousand calories apiece, enough to feed the average human for four or five days.

What is it?” she asked.

That Rask back there...why was he speaking English? Was it just for our benefit?”

Many of the territories are at odds, or otherwise isolated from one another,” Yuta explained. “I do not speak Rask, the Rask likely does not speak Elysian, but any Borealan who deals with humans knows English by necessity. It has become somewhat of a common tongue as of late.”

A lingua franca,” Jules mused, “I see. Why did he call you clawless? What does that mean?”

She looked uncomfortable, and he wondered if it had been a bad idea to repeat the word. Perhaps it was a slur or a curse word of sorts. It had sounded innocuous enough to him, but it clearly had some hidden meaning.

There was a period in our ancient history that we are not proud of,” she explained. “In those days, the Borealans were just starting to leave the equatorial deserts, and we were colonizing the lakes. Wars were fought over territorial boundaries, and those eventually resulted in the territories that you see today. Sometimes, when we conquered tribes that were attacking from the deserts, we would make them slaves. We forced them to build our cities and harvest our crops.”

There are similar periods in our history,” Jules said with a solemn shake of his head, “many of our ancient cultures kept slaves. The Romans, the Egyptians...”

Unruly slaves had their claws filed down or torn out,” Yuta continued, “and they came to be known as the clawless. The practice was barbaric, but more than simple mutilation, it was un-Borealan. If a slave had the strength to challenge his master, then he should not be a slave, it went against the very core of what makes us who we are. It prevented them from gaining status, of asserting themselves. It was outlawed before long, but the term clawless still persists. It's usually used to refer to someone who is cowed by external factors, forced to curtail their instincts. Some Rask like to refer to Elysians as clawless, they say that we are slaves of the humans, that we go against our nature by working alongside those that they deem to be weaker than themselves.”

I see,” Jules muttered, “so it's a status thing. They think that Borealans should be the ones in charge?”

It runs deeper than that. It's hard to explain to someone who is not familiar with our ways, but Equatorials resolve conflict with violent bouts. Challenges are met with claws and teeth, and then the loser must submit to the victor. The strongest and fittest Borealan is Alpha, but this is not the way of your people. The desire to overpower and dominate is strong, but those instincts must be controlled, redirected if we are to work alongside other species. When we provide soldiers to the Coalition, they must undergo special training that teaches them to obey a human of high rank as if he was their Alpha, despite the fact that subduing him would be child's play. Some Rask see this as being un-Borealan, and so they call us clawless. The Rask soldiers undergo the same training, with varying success I might add, but they seem to use the term exclusively as an insult to refer to Elysians these days.”

What about you?” Jules asked, glancing up at her as she resumed eating. “You take orders from Simmons, and you don't seem like you want to twist his head off.”

We Rangers are disciplined, patient,” she explained as she licked a droplet of grease from her chin with her prehensile tongue. “For a hunter, it can be no other way. I have also worked with humans before, which might be why the Patriarch chose me for this task. If my Alpha orders me to obey a human in his stead, then I will do so without question.”

She almost seemed flowery when she spoke of her Alpha, staring off into space as she stripped another mouthful of flesh from the bone, her round ears twitching excitedly.

So...you think highly of your Alpha?” Jules asked, watching her reaction closely.

Oh, yes!” she replied enthusiastically. “He is the strongest of our Ranger outpost, wise and powerful. Even if anyone had the desire to challenge him for leadership, I doubt that they would succeed. I still bear the scars from the first time he subdued me,” she added as she thrust her hips towards Jules. She directed his attention towards a trio of healed claw marks that ran across her abdominal muscles, the pink flesh standing out against her white skin. “I'll never forget the ache of his teeth sinking into my neck as he mounted me.”

Her eyes glazed over again, Yuta smiling warmly as though she was reliving a fond memory.

Alright then,” Jules muttered, his eyes wide as he turned his attention back to his food. That didn't sound like something to reminisce about to him, more like a reason to make a police report, but to each their own…

As Jules looked across the table at the Araxie, he wondered what their social structure was like. They certainly seemed laid back compared to the Elysians and the Rask, there was no snapping or bickering, nobody was asserting their dominance over anybody else that he could see. They were all eating communally, passing around dishes and chunks of meat. He could see a few chubby kittens sitting in their parents' laps as they were fed smaller morsels.

A drink for our guests,” Bozka bellowed, raising a hand into the air like a thespian performing a stage show. After a moment, a female approached from the other end of the felled log, a tray laden with large earthen cups balanced precariously in her furry hands. She looked like a waitress at a diner, maneuvering around the other seated villagers. There was an angry yowl as she stood on someone's tail, the sound making Jules jump out of his skin, and he watched as she appeared to apologize profusely before continuing on her way.

She was much like the other Araxie in appearance, covered in a coat of silky fur that was as black as night, the sheen of her coat reflecting the light from the fires as she passed them. Her hair was equally dark, cropped fairly short, and her eyes were that same striking shade of green. She wore the leather shorts that he had become accustomed to seeing, along with a leather belt from which was hung a kind of loincloth made from a silvery pelt that made him think of a wolf. On her upper body, she wore a leather vest that was quite different from the slings that most of the females favored. It covered in pouches and pockets, much like the rigs that the guards wore. The garment was closed tightly over her bust, and beneath it, he could make out slivers of white fabric. It looked to Jules like she was wearing bandages beneath it, was she recovering from an injury perhaps?

She approached the table where Jules and the Patriarch were sat, leaning forwards in an attempt to place the tray before them and jostling one of the other aliens with her hip. The other Araxie had such grace and poise, but this one was downright clumsy. Even Bozka seemed to be pulling away from her a little, as if afraid to get too close to her lest she elbow him in the nose or spill the drinks on him.

She began to place a cup in front of each of them, reaching around the Patriarch precariously as he leaned backwards to give her more room. She placed one before Bozka, one before Jules, but when she reached over to set one of the cups before Yuta, she knocked Jules' drink over with her arm. It toppled onto its side, spilling its contents across the table and pouring into his lap.

Oh! Forgive me!” she exclaimed as Yuta bared her teeth, and Bozka sighed with exasperation.

Zuki, can you not be relied upon to perform even the simplest of tasks?” the Patriarch snarled as Zuki danced on the spot nervously.

I-I'll fetch a rag,” she said.

It's quite alright,” Jules said, “there's no need for that. I was soaked with sweat anyway, this is hardly a step down.”

The Patriarch snapped something at her in their native language, and she scurried away, disappearing into the far end of the massive log.

My apologies,” the Patriarch said as he reached into one of the many pouches on his rig and produced a strip of cloth. He handed it to Jules, who began to mop up some of the drink that had spilled on his suit. It seemed to be some kind of wine, it was sticky, and it smelled strongly of alcohol. “Zuki is clumsy, we try to find ways to keep her busy and out of trouble.”

It's fine, really,” Jules insisted. “The humidity in this jungle was soaking my clothes long before I ever arrived in the village. They should have given me a damned wetsuit...”

***

Once the meal was over, they left the magnificent log dining hall, most of the natives having slowly trickled away by that point. The suns were higher in the sky now, and the day was coming to an end for the Araxie. The Patriarch seemed tired, squinting his eyes against the bright light, his pupils reduced to almost reptilian slits. The aliens weren't just well suited to a nocturnal lifestyle, they seemed downright uncomfortable in full sunlight, like it was hurting their eyes.

I will show you to the accommodations that you requested,” the Patriarch said as he led them through the deserted village. Perhaps this was why none of the structures had windows, the Araxie wouldn't want the light spilling into their homes while they slept. It was still fairly dark beneath the canopy as far as Jules was concerned, but if these aliens could see clearly in an environment where he needed night vision to see ten feet in front of his face, then they must have sensitive eyesight indeed.

They stopped at one of the domed houses that was built into the base of one of the trees, the tangled roots closing around it like the spindly fingers of a skeletal hand. The wood was coated in a layer of moss, droplets of water clinging to the fuzzy carpet, and it had been draped with fallen branches and leaves. It would have been tough to spot if nobody had pointed it out, it just looked like a mound of dirt at first glance.

This house should suffice during your stay,” Bozka said as he gestured towards it. “The pack that lived here was killed to the man during one of the Rask attacks some days ago.”

Oh...my condolences,” Jules muttered, taken off-guard.

They are survived by two kittens who are being cared for by another pack. There are enough beds for all of you, along with what amenities we can provide here.”

This wasn't coincidental, the Patriarch had brought them here to make a statement. Jules couldn't help but feel a little manipulated. Bozka was trying to make them feel guilty, trying to garner sympathy in an attempt to influence the coming evaluation, no doubt. He was more devious than he had first appeared. Jules looked over at the solemn faces of the Marines and decided not to make his observations known. It wouldn't do anything to improve their relationship with the Araxie.

I will return at nightfall, and then we can proceed with the inspection,” Bozka said. He bade them goodnight, or good morning in this case, and then he slunk off into the village.

You think that's true, what he said about the pack who lived here being killed by the Rask?” Velez asked once he was out of earshot. Jules was surprised, the Marine was more perceptive than he had given him credit for.

Maybe, maybe not,” Simmons said. “We have to keep in mind that these guys have an agenda, they want something from us, and they'll do whatever's necessary to get it. Just don't let your guard down. They've been good hosts so far, but we don't really know much about them yet.”

Agreed,” Edwards said with a nod.

Simmons took the lead and opened the heavy wooden door of the house with a creak, the rest of the group stepping in behind him. Yuta closed the door after her with a loud thud, plunging them into darkness. Before Jules had time to complain, Edwards had retrieved the collapsible lantern from his pack, kneeling to place it in on the wood floor. It illuminated the space, Jules looking around as he examined what would likely be his home for the next few days. It looked like a log cabin that you might find in the backwoods of some national park, mostly made up of exposed paneling. He was surprised that there was no draft, and it was actually quite a bit cooler on the inside than out. He walked over to one of the walls and placed a hand against it, trying to find a break between the pieces of wood. They were fit together more tightly than seemed possible, he couldn't have pushed a slip of paper between them. Perhaps the humidity caused the wood to swell, and the Araxie used that to their advantage.

The dwelling was comprised of a single large, circular room with six cots spaced out around the circumference. The beds were made up of a wooden frame with fabric suspended between them, like a kind of hammock. There were a few shelves and a small table, but there was no bathroom and no kitchen. The entire village much eat together in their giant felled tree, there were no facilities for preparing food inside their homes it seemed. There was a fire pit made up of stones that was built into a hole in the middle of the room, and there was still some ash left over from the last time it had been used. Maybe they could roast food over that fire if they needed to, they certainly didn't need it for heating. Jules examined the fire pit, reaching down between the stones and rubbing the ash between his fingers.

I can't imagine lighting a fire in his heat,” he muttered.

It's probably for the winters,” Yuta explained. “The dimmer star eclipses the brighter one twice a month, which causes a brief period of intense cold. These jungles will freeze over such that the leaves on the trees will seem to turn to glass. We generally hibernate during those periods, the Araxie may do the same.”

Does that happen even in the deserts?” Jules asked.

Yes. The nights in the deserts are frigid, even without the eclipse. Have you never been in a desert at nightfall before?”

Can't say that I have,” he replied with a shrug. “I do most of my work in an air-conditioned office, my biggest problem is usually female coworkers turning up the thermostat.”

Yep, it gets cold as fuck,” Simmons confirmed. “You think it's too hot right now, but come winter, you'd throw yourself into a pile of mad cats if it would warm you up.”

And it would,” Velez chuckled.

Guess they shit in the woods,” Edwards said as he claimed one of the hammocks, dropping his heavy pack beside it and starting to kick off his boots. “I don't see a bathroom.”

I don't see any personal effects either,” Velez added as he walked around the room. He was right. There were no hunting trophies on the walls, no pelts, or antlers. There was nothing to indicate that anyone had lived here recently save for the ash in the fire pit, no clothing or tools, no decorative flair. It looked like it had been abandoned for some time. “I don't like being lied to,” the Marine added.

We don't know that Bozka isn't telling the truth,” Jules said hastily. “He might be leaving out details, bending the facts, or it might have happened exactly as he said it did. But as Sergeant Simmons so aptly put it, the Araxie want something from us. We should keep that in mind.”

There was a loud creak as Yuta lay down on one of the hammocks, the frame screaming its protest as she shuffled to get comfortable. She was fully clothed, while the Marines had begun to remove their armor and their boots, stripping down to their blue jumpsuits. Jules slipped off his own boots, the mud that still clung to them making them stick to the floor, then he made his way over to one of the empty cots. It didn't look like he was going to get much privacy, this was certainly no luxury hotel, but it hardly mattered. He was so tired, and his joints ached so much that he could probably have slept soundly on a bed of nails.

He collapsed onto the fabric, an immediate sense of relief washing over him as all of the weight was taken off his legs. It scarcely took a minute for his eyelids to grow heavy. If he closed them, he could almost pretend that he wasn't dozens of light-years from home, stranded in an alien jungle with only the cast of an action movie and a village full of strange aliens for company. Hopefully, he would have sweet dreams about hazard pay...

CHAPTER 4: WARGAMES

The key determinant for any invitation to new members is whether their admission to the Coalition will strengthen the alliance and further the basic objective of Coalition enlargement, which serves to increase security and stability across allied space.”

Jules lowered his tablet and looked up at Bozka, the alien mulling over what he had been told as he scratched his furry chin with one of his clawed fingers.

You ask what the Araxie can do for your Coalition?” he finally asked.

I suppose that's a more succinct way of putting it, yes,” Jules replied. “While I am not a military man myself, I believe that Sergeant Simmons is more than capable of evaluating Araxie combat performance, and making a recommendation as to how they might be incorporated into Coalition units.”

Simmons nodded, Yuta and the other Marines milling about nearby. The air was thick with humidity, and the suns had only just set, their dying embers painting the sky in pinks and reds. This was morning for the Araxie, and the village was rousing, the inhabitants going about their business. They no longer hid from the newcomers in the trees, paying them very little mind now, a few curious stares and lingering glances were all that Jules had received today.

Packs were going hunting, marching towards the curtains of vines that concealed the village in groups of five or six, sporting nets and spears along with the tools that they carried on their person. Others were walking to and from the giant felled log, likely seeking out their breakfast, and still others were setting off on unknown pursuits. Jules noted that none of the activities were divided along gender lines. There were just as many females as males in their hunting parties, and there was no shortage of males tending to unruly kittens.

You guys do wargames? Training?” Simmons asked. “Sparring, play fighting, anything like that?”

We do,” Bozka replied, “and I think I understand what you are proposing.”

Me, my two Marines, and our Elysian guide against a pack of your best soldiers. Bring whatever weapons and gear you want as long as it’s non-lethal, and we'll have to work out some ground rules. The last squad standing wins.”

Are your weapons not far superior to our own?” the Patriarch asked skeptically, “it hardly seems fair.”

Seems fair to me,” Simmons replied with a shrug of his armored shoulders. “You’ve been holding your own against the Rask, right? They have XMRs and body armor, so you must have been doing something right. What weapons do you field anyway, are we talking black powder rifles? Bows and arrows?”

We have been aware of the powder weapons used by the other territories for quite some time,” Bozka replied as he began to walk. Jules and the others followed behind him as he continued to talk, he seemed to be leading them towards some new area of the village. “For generations, long before this recent wave of attacks, we have struck fear into the hearts of any who would trespass in our lands..”

Yuta, didn't you say that the Rask were too afraid to come to Araxie?” Jules asked.

That was my understanding,” she replied tersely, clearly not fond of being called out.

She is not wrong,” Bozka replied as a group of locals stepped out of their way, watching curiously as the humans passed them by. “The Rask do not seem to learn, they attack and are defeated, then they develop a fear. They grow bolder over time, they forget the warnings of their elders, and they attack once again. In recent months, it has become far worse. They are emboldened, perhaps by their new alliance with your Coalition. They attacked in large numbers and with much equipment, I fear that next time, we may not be able to hold them back.”

I'm surprised that such a small village has been able to hold out for so long,” Jules said.

Don't be foolish,” Yuta chuckled, “this will only be one of many villages.”

The Elysian is correct,” Bozka said. “This is the largest village, and it is the seat of the Patriarch, but there are a great many more spread out around the jungle band. In a way, we have the Rask to thank for uniting all of the tribes under one leader. There is safety in numbers.”

Indeed,” Jules added, hurrying to keep up with Bozka's loping strides. “That's the philosophy of the Coalition too, but replace the villages with entire planets.”

How do you stay in touch?” Velez asked, “I thought you guys didn't have radio until very recently?”

We use couriers to transmit messages between villages,” the Patriarch replied. “But if we can obtain more radios, then we can improve coordination and communication.”

It was nice to see him optimistic about some aspect of the Coalition for once.

They arrived at another wooden structure, this one larger than the average dwelling. Rather than having a single door, there were several entrances that were sealed with small curtains made from fabric, not unlike the material that had been stretched across the bed frames.

The Patriarch guided them inside, once again plunging them into darkness, and then he lit another candle with his portable tool. Simmons chuckled, Jules gasping as the flickering light was cast on what was undeniably an Araxie armory. The walls were stacked with weapons, and there were dozens of the camouflaged cloaks that the Araxie guards and hunters wore, the garments laid out on top of tables. There were spears, knives, nets, and all kinds of tools that Jules couldn't even identify.

We Araxie prefer something a little more...discreet than the powder weapons of the Elysians and the Rask,” Bozka said as he reached out and took one of the weapons down from a metal hook on the wall. He handed it to Simmons, who began to turn it over in his hands.

Well I'll be. You Araxie are full of surprises...”

Is that a fucking crossbow?” Velez asked.

It was large, maybe four feet long and change, and it looked heavy. It resembled a rifle, with a buttstock and a trigger that were almost certainly modeled after the powder weapons used by the other territories, but there was a bow at the far end of the contraption instead of a rifled barrel. The string was suspended between two surprisingly short, flexible limbs, and there was a cocking stirrup at the end of the barrel that was large enough for a Borealan foot. It looked oddly advanced for such a primitive class of weapon, the aliens had obviously borrowed design elements from some of their more advanced counterparts while being unable or perhaps unwilling to reproduce them in their entirety.

This is a fucking beauty,” Edwards said as Simmons handed it to him, almost buckling under its weight. “I used to mess around with compound bows back on Franklin. Look at this, wood and metal construction, the flight groove is so straight that it almost looks machined...”

He shouldered the weapon as best he could, Velez doing him the courtesy of placing a hand under the barrel so that he didn't topple forward.

It's heavy as all hell, but it's actually pretty light for what it is, they shaved off all the material that they could get away with. Look at the one-piece stock, see how they've hollowed it out? It's got a good grip, almost feels like a pistol grip, and they sanded all of the wood smooth. The thumb hole is placed too far back for a human, but this must be a dream to shoot for a Borealan. Here Yuta, give it a try.”

He passed it to the Ranger, and she weighed it in her hands, shouldering it and closing one eye to look down the iron sights.

It handles well,” she muttered, “but it can't match the stopping power of an Elysian rifle.”

Maybe not,” the Patriarch said, “but it is near silent. If you fire an Elysian rifle in the jungle, then everyone within earshot will know where you are. They would be able to hear you clear across the band. With these weapons, an entire pack of Araxie can fire from cover and go undetected. An Elysian rifle fires a single round, and so does an Araxie crossbow. The bow must be cocked before it can be fired again, but a powder rifle must be reloaded, and so the overall rate of fire is not so different.”

You fought the Rask with these?” Simmons asked skeptically.

How else do you think we were able to recover their equipment?”

So, Araxie armed with crossbows have defeated Rask raiding parties armed with XMRs?” Velez said, whistling his approval. “I guess all the firepower in the world doesn't help you if you can't figure out where you're getting shot from. How do you get through their armor?”

One simply aims for the neck,” Bozka replied, “there are many joints in the armor where weak points are exposed. Many do not have helmets such as yours, and our bolts can punch through Rask-forged plate armor.”

Yeah, those helmets are fucking expensive,” Velez chuckled.

These compound bows don't fuck around,” Edwards added, “wouldn't surprise me if these things could fire a bolt at three or four hundred feet per second. You can hunt big game with them, no reason you couldn't use them in war. If it'll kill a moose, it'll probably kill a mad cat.”

The Patriarch reached into a large quiver that was resting against one of the tables and withdrew a long arrow. Rather than an arrowhead at one end, it had what looked like a little bundle of cloth.

This is what we use for sparring,” Bozka said, brandishing the odd arrow. “It will not kill, but...it might hurt somewhat.”

Soft-tipped arrows?” Simmons asked, examining it more closely. He reached out and squashed the tip between his fingers. “Works for me. So, your guys can use these arrows, and we'll use the laser sights on our XMRs. There's no way to make a railgun fire slow enough that it won't be lethal, but if your guys see a green laser pointer on them, it means they have to play dead.”

The Patriarch grinned, exposing his sharp teeth, Simmons returning the smile.

This, I like,” Bozka said. “Proving ourselves through combat rather than inspections. No offense, Mister Lambert.”

None taken,” Jules replied.

***

The pack of Araxie stood in an orderly row, their features concealed beneath the hoods of their ghillie suits. All that Jules could make out were their green eyes, seeming to glow as they reflected the light. They wielded their massive crossbows, along with all manner of other weapons and tools that were strapped to their rigs and belts. They looked formidable, and for the first time, Jules began to wonder if the Marines would be able to come out on top in their little game. Maybe technology wasn't everything, this was their home turf, and they looked as disciplined as any UNN soldier.

Any questions about the rules?” Simmons asked. “You can use any tool in your arsenal as long as it's non-lethal. If you're going to use blades, tap your target with the hilt, keep the cutting edge angled away. We don't want any accidents in the heat of the moment.”

Bozka relayed the instructions in their own language to ensure that they understood, the aliens replying in unison with a guttural grunt of affirmation. They certainly behaved like soldiers, perhaps finding a place for them would be easier than Jules had first assumed.

The Marines were in full combat gear, their black armor plating layered over their Navy-blue suits, and their helmets secured with the visors down. Their XMRs were unloaded, but they still looked dangerous, the magnetic rings that lined the barrels glinting in the low light. Velez aimed his rifle at the nearest Araxie and switched on his laser sight, a glittering, green beam extending from a blocky device that was attached beneath the barrel to paint a bright target on the alien's chest.

That means you're out,” he said.

And what of the Elysian?” Bozka asked, gesturing to Yuta. “She cannot use her powder rifle.”

She can use one of the Borealan-sized XMRs that you captured from the Rask,” Simmons said, “one of them probably has a laser sight. It's this device here, see?”

I will send for one,” Bozka said, giving an order to one of the Araxie who then strode off into the village.

We'll go out into the jungle first,” Simmons continued, “then your guys will have to hunt us down. It'll give us a good idea of what they can do in a fight. Mister Lambert, you need to stay here. Even if we're using strictly non-lethal methods, there's still a danger that you could be injured.”

Of course,” Jules replied, “I wasn't expecting to be conscripted. Though I wasn't quite sure, since you had me wear the armor,” he added as he gestured to the heavy plating that he was wearing over his clothes. “It is a shame that I won't be able to see the Araxie's performance for myself, but I'll just have to rely on your report, Sergeant Simmons.”

Oh, but you can,” the Marine said with a grin. “Why do you think I asked you to bring your armor with you?”

Simmons stepped forward and unclipped the helmet that was hanging from Jules' belt, securing it over his head and dropping the visor.

In-picture squad view,” the Sergeant said.

Excuse me?”

If we link all of the helmets up together over an ad-hoc wireless network, you'll be able to see a window that shows the view from each of our helmet cams. You can even switch between them and set one to full-screen mode. It's the same tech used for the in-picture sights on the XMRs. As long as you're within a certain range, it should work well, although there might be some interference from the jungle considering how dense it is. We just have to get you linked up...” He took Jules' wrist and began to navigate the menus, grumbling as he became frustrated. “Damned twenty character codes...” He brought up his own wrist display and began to type at it with a gloved finger. “You ever try to connect to a wireless network at a spaceport? I bet you have, you look like the business lounge type to me. Imagine that, but with military-grade encryption. There we go!”

A new symbol appeared on Jules' HUD, a little connectivity icon blinking up in the right corner.

Welcome to the squad,” Simmons said. “You can switch views through the menu here.”

He tapped at the touch screen, and then three windows appeared, each one showing a different view from one of the Marines. They were tagged with the numbers that he had seen when he had been messing with the settings the first time. One of the views expanded as Simmons swiped, and Jules was amused to see himself, the view from Simmons' helmet making him feel as if he had just switched places with him.

You got it?” Simmons asked.

Yeah, this is great,” Jules chuckled. “You think they'll notice if I just put this helmet in my suitcase and take it home with me?”

Probably,” Simmons laughed, “these things cost an arm and a leg.”

By the time they were done setting up the helmet, the Araxie that Bozka had dispatched had returned with one of the recovered XMRs. She passed it to Yuta, who removed the magazine and looked the weapon over.

Filthy Rask, it's not hard to keep these guns clean,” she grumbled as she picked grains of sand out of the joints between the plastic housing with her claw. It did indeed have an under-barrel laser sight, and so it looked like they were good to go. “Someone must watch over my charge while I am gone,” Yuta added, looking pointedly at Jules.

I will see to his safety,” Bozka replied.

Right, let's get moving,” Simmons said. The Marines followed behind him as he set off towards the nearest exit. “Give us a good half-hour's head start, then send your guys in after us.”

***

Simmons parted the leaves of the waist-high ferns as he slowly advanced through the undergrowth, Edwards and Velez flanking him on the left and right. He raised a hand to his helmet, cycling through view modes using the physical controls.

Nothing on the thermals,” he said, his voice coming through with a crackle of static. He turned up the microphones, the onboard computer filtering out the louder sounds of jungle wildlife, enhancing the quieter footsteps and the rustling of the leaves. He switched back to night vision mode, casting the forest in shades of ghostly green.

Jules was seeing the world from the Marine's perspective, it was like watching someone play a videogame, the tension was palpable. It had been about fifteen minutes since the Araxie had left the village in pursuit of the squad, and the mock attack could come from any direction with no warning.

The view panned over to Yuta, who was aiming her XMR at the trees, her round ears swiveling independently of one another. She looked in Simmons' direction and shook her head, indicating that she hadn't seen anything.

Jules swiped over to Velez, the view from his camera expanding to fill the visor. Jules could see the tattoos on his forearms as he waved his weapon around, searching for their opponents.

The thermal cameras had revealed the hidden Araxie during their first encounter, and Jules wasn't sure if the aliens understood the technology. As requested, he hadn't revealed the details of how he had spotted the scouts, and he doubted that anyone else had either. How would the Araxie counter what was essentially a superpower that negated their most valuable asset, their stealth?

Keep your eyes on the canopy,” Edwards whispered, “that's where they'll be coming from.”

Hang on, picking something up,” Simmons said. Jules quickly switched back to his view, watching as the Marine knelt close to the ground. “Disturbed soil, residual heat, something living came through here recently. Yuta, any ideas?”

The Elysian strode over to him, Simmons looking up as she crouched beside him on her digitigrade legs and pawed at the ground.

These are Borealan footprints, for sure. The Araxie came through here, the tracks are fresh.”

Good, then they must have gone past us. We might be able to get the drop on them.”

It could be a trap,” Velez warned, “keep your eyes open.”

Spread out in a line formation, ten-foot spacing,” Simmons ordered as he rose to his feet and shouldered his rifle. “Make sure your tagging is on so you don't lose track of each other.”

What about Yuta?” Velez asked.

I can smell you from half a mile away, and that goes double for you, Velez. I'll know where you are.”

Edwards suppressed a laugh as they spread out, moving cautiously through the jungle, stepping over exposed roots and maneuvering around the thick trunks. The going was tough. In some places, the undergrowth was so dense that the Marines had to find another way around the obstruction. They couldn't even see each other besides for the identifying numbers that floated above their heads in a shade of vibrant blue.

There was a sudden yell as Edwards' window turned into a blur of motion, Jules quickly switching over to it.

What's going on?” Simmons demanded. “Edwards? Report!”

His view was still blurred and erratic, the sound of rustling clothing and creaking branches joining his heavy breathing as he struggled and fought against something. When Jules could finally make out a clear picture, Edwards was upside-down and surrounded by leaves. Had he dropped his helmet? No, he was still looking around, there was some kind of mesh encasing him.

I got caught in a fucking net,” he said, grunting as he struggled to free himself. “I'm up in a tree!”

The other Marines began to pivot, switching between view modes as they checked the trees around them for movement. Infrared, night vision, they couldn't make out anything.

I got something!” Velez shouted, then he cursed under his breath. “Ignore last, fucking birds...”

There's no way they have eyes on us from any significant distance,” Simmons said, “there are no clear lines of sight in this soup. If they can get a clear shot at us, then we'll see them on the thermals too.”

On Velez's view, a red blob peeked out from behind one of the trunks, high in the branches of one of the trees. Against the blue and black hues of the jungle, it stood out like a sore thumb, Velez swinging his rifle towards it. There was a loud thud as one of the soft-tipped bolts impacted nearby, the Marine throwing himself into the cover of some raised roots as he strobed his laser at the figure.

They're taking potshots at me, don't know if I hit ‘em!”

Simmons was under fire now, too. Even without the benefit of invisibility, the Araxie were incredibly stealthy. They stayed out of sight until an opportunity presented itself, only visible in infrared, which in Jules' opinion made the gunfight incredibly disorienting. He couldn't make out the usual details that he could in full light or in the night vision mode, it was all colored blobs.

Movement!” Velez shouted, sweeping his rifle across the canopy as an Araxie darted out from behind the cover of a tree trunk. Jules could see the colored handprints where it had gripped the wood, slowly fading into cooler shades as it moved away. It left footprints too, its body heat smearing the branches like its feet were soaked in orange paint. The laser swiped across its midsection, a volley that would have cut the fleeing figure in two if this was a real combat situation. “Got one!”

Simmons was still pinned, the bolts impacting the roots that he was hiding behind with alarming force. It was a good job that the Marines had armor on, it would have been like getting hit with a riot control bean bag otherwise.

He tapped at his helmet, enabling the in-picture scope function, the view from his XMR's sights appearing on his HUD in a window. He slammed his shoulder against the roots, lifting his rifle over his head, aiming over the cover while keeping his body concealed. There were two of the Araxie in his sights, their body heat giving them away as they lurked in the dense leaves, their ghillie suits making them all but invisible to the naked eye. A laser pointer appeared on the chest of one, then the head of the other, the two Araxie ceasing their attack and lowering their crossbows.

I got two of 'em,” Simmons said, “there should be three left.”

Velez was now taking cover behind a tree, glancing around erratically as he searched for targets. His view jerked suddenly, Velez yelling in surprise and apparently pain as his hand shot to his neck, and he let his rifle hang from its sling.

Fuck! I got shot in the neck, I'm out.” One of the Araxie had scored a good hit on him, just like with the Rask, they knew to aim for the joints between the armor. “God damn, that hurts like a motherfucker.”

Simmons emerged from cover, making his way over to his squadmate, guided by the glowing tag on his HUD. He must be moving to take out the Araxie that had shot Velez. He jogged, keeping his weapon shouldered, turning his head this way and that as he cycled view modes. Thermal was great for firing, but not for navigating the dense jungle.

He paused at the base of a tree to catch his breath, and then his microphones picked something up. It would have been inaudible to human ears, but not to the sensitive equipment, the scraping of claws on wood immediately alerting him. Simmons turned to face the trunk and aimed up into the branches. One of the Araxie had been slowly creeping down the tree towards him, hanging upside-down as it used its claws to grip the bark. It would have plucked him off the ground and taken him out if he hadn't heard it. He flashed the laser at its face, the alien dropping to the forest floor with far less noise than something so heavy should have made.

Got you,” Simmons said, turning and making his way towards Velez again as his assailant sat down and grumbled to themselves. After a moment, he arrived at his location, the tattooed Marine sitting idly at the foot of a tree with his XMR resting across his lap.

Which way did it come from?” Simmons asked, looking down the sight of his gun as he searched the trees.

Can't tell you, Sarge. I'm dead,” he replied as Simmons looked back to see him run his thumb across his throat and stick his tongue out dramatically.

There was a sudden commotion as something large and heavy smashed through the undergrowth to their right, snapping branches and kicking up dirt, Simmons turning to watch as Yuta emerged from between the trees. She toppled head over heels, wrestling with what looked like a bush. No, that was an Araxie. It must have tried to sneak up on her, and she had denied them their easy kill. They were fighting like two alley cats, wrestling and rolling around, screeching and hissing angrily. The Araxie leapt to their feet and threw off their cloak, exposing their shining, black fur. It was a male, and he crouched low, flexing his claws as his green eyes fixed on Yuta.

The muscular Elysian had taken a defensive posture, ready to grapple as the two faced off. Jules wasn't even there, but he could feel the power that they radiated, the weight. It was like watching two angry Siberian tigers settling a dispute. He was a little worried for them, the aliens played rough, and Yuta was apparently accustomed to violence. Hopefully, she didn't get carried away and cut her opponent to ribbons.

The Araxie leapt at her, but it was a feint. He dug his clawed paws into the dirt, rapidly changing direction. Despite his weight, he was so light on his feet, almost like he was floating above the ground without even making contact with it. His flexible, sinewy body weaved through the jungle like a snake, the bulkier Elysian struggling to keep up. He got behind her and pounced onto her back, closing an arm around her throat as if to choke her into submission.

Yuta was having none of it, bellowing as she reached behind her back and gripped her assailant by the scruff of the neck, using her superior strength to drag him over her shoulders and slam him to the ground with a monumental thud. She pinned him with her weight, straddling him as he rolled onto his back and tried to get up, pressing her fuzzy forearm into his neck. He gripped her arm, but she was too strong, his claws leaving red welts in her exposed skin as he struggled.

The Araxie slowly relaxed as he realized that he couldn't escape her, Yuta's pale skin dripping with sweat, her ample chest heaving as she glared down at him with her amber eyes. Her gaze lingered a little too long, her thighs tightening around his writhing body, the Borealan wetting her pink lips with her long tongue.

That's enough, Yuta,” Simmons said, his words snapping her out of it. “He's out for the count.”

She hesitated for a moment, almost as if she was considering ignoring the order, and then she released the Araxie and stood over him. She extended a hand, and he took it, her bicep bulging from beneath her damp skin as she pulled him upright. The Araxie rubbed his throat, but he seemed otherwise unharmed.

Yuta yowled suddenly as a well-aimed bolt hit her in the back of the head, bouncing off her skull like a foam dart. She spun around and snarled angrily at the forest, her assassin out of sight.

Now it was just Simmons and the last Araxie, the walking dead retreating out of the line of fire, Yuta rubbing the back of her head with a scowl on her face as the dark-furred male tried not to laugh at her. It was more than his life was worth.

Through Simmons' helmet cam, Jules could see the residual heat left over from where the Araxie had sniped Yuta, the imprints of their hands and feet fading into a duller shade of orange. It made a trail, Simmons following it with his rifle at the ready as he moved deeper into the trees. He checked the ground every so often, searching for disturbed soil or residual heat, wary of more nets and traps.

The attack could come from any angle, and Simmons didn't have eyes in the back of his head, but at least the rapidly fading heat trail gave him some idea of what direction his quarry might have fled in. There was a sudden rustle of leaves as an explosion of reds and oranges drew Simmons' attention, but it was just birds, the mass of heat signatures breaking up into smaller blobs as the animals dispersed into the air.

Although he had only allowed himself to become distracted for a scant moment, his opponent took full advantage, the sound of snapping twigs and rustling undergrowth alerting Simmons that something large was racing towards him from behind. The alien was too fast. By the time he had swung his XMR around and brought it to bear, the hilt of an Araxie blade was pressing against his belly. Simmons raised his hands, admitting defeat as the alien drew back and sheathed its knife. That thing was the size of a sword, if this had been a real fight, Simmons' guts would be all over the forest floor right now.

I'm out,” Simmons said, the rest of the squad groaning in unison. “Looks like the Araxie win this one.”

Can someone come cut me down now?” Edwards asked. “I think all of my blood is pooling in my head...”

***

Jules removed his helmet, running his fingers through his damp hair as the Marines returned, the squad of Araxie in tow. As well as being a good test of their combat capabilities, the exercise had apparently been good for morale building. The two squads were mingling and chatting as they made their way back towards the armory where Jules and the Patriarch were waiting. Yuta especially seemed to have taken a liking to one of the Araxie, it was the male who she had tangled with in the jungle, judging by the fact that his cloak was slung over one of his shoulders while the others were still wearing theirs.

Jules had relayed what he had seen to Bozka, but the Patriarch would no doubt quiz his soldiers on what had happened too. He looked pleased with himself right now, his chest was puffed out, and there was a smile on his furry face. He clapped his hands together as he welcomed everyone back, the Araxie standing to attention.

I trust that the demonstration was sufficient, Sergeant Simmons?”

I have to say, I'm impressed,” Simmons replied as he rested his hands on the XMR that was dangling across his chest plate. “I knew that your guys would use the local terrain to their advantage. That’s not something that could be relied upon if they were being deployed as part of a Coalition detachment, but they showed a good understanding of tactics, and they used their weapons effectively. I think that if we gave them some suppressed rifles and used them as advanced scouts, they'd be an asset to us. We already use Borealans as designated marksmen and scout snipers, so there's already a role for them. Maybe their affinity for stealth could be applied to other scenarios, too. Reconnaissance behind enemy lines or sabotage operations, for example. In short, they passed the test.”

I am pleased to hear it,” the Patriarch said, his demeanor downright jovial.

If you could prepare a report that I can include as part of my recommendation to the Security Council, that would be great,” Jules added. “Just a few paragraphs explaining what you encountered, and how you foresee the Araxie being integrated into the Coalition.”

I can include footage of the fight, too,” Simmons said. “These helmets record everything.”

That will be perfect.”

What next?” Bozka asked, “will you continue your inspection?”

Yes,” Jules replied. “I'm going to wander around and talk to the villagers, interview a few of them and see what the general attitude is like in Araxie. It would be best if you weren't present, Patriarch. I'd like to get the most natural responses from them that I can. I will require the liaison that I mentioned earlier, however, someone who can serve as a guide and translator.”

As you wish,” Bozka replied. “It is the hunting season, and there are few Araxie available who are not tasked with catching or preparing the meat, but...I'm sure that I can find someone suitable. If you and your Marines would like to return to your dwelling so that you might change out of your armor, I will send someone to fetch you.”

Of course, thank you,” Jules said.

CHAPTER 5: LIAISON

Is there a bruise?” Velez asked, turning his head so that Edwards could see his neck.

Stop being such a pussy,” Edwards laughed as he removed his chest plate, “it can't hurt as much as the time that pissed off Elysian opened you up. Your arm looked like a piece of fresh salmon.”

Yeah, well I was in shock that time, dulls the pain. This hurts like a bitch.”

Where's Yuta, anyhow?” Simmons asked.

She said she was going to get something to eat at the log,” Velez replied as he rubbed his neck. “But if you ask me, she's taken a liking to that one Araxie soldier. It's pretty easy to mistake Borealan bedroom eyes for a murderous stare, but I know the difference.”

One of you should go keep an eye on her, make sure she doesn't create an international incident,” Simmons grumbled. “Are you going to need an escort while you perform your duties, Mister Lambert?”

No, I should be fine,” he replied. “I want to get the most natural reactions from the locals that I can. It can be hard to get a gauge on their real attitudes towards aliens and the Coalition if you're surrounded by soldiers.”

Alright, just keep your phone with you and give us a call if you need anything.”

Will do,” Jules said with a nod.

There was a sound like nails drumming on a table, Jules turning to look at the door.

Is that the Araxie equivalent of knocking?” Edwards asked.

It's probably your liaison,” Velez added.

Simmons walked over to the heavy wooden door and swung it open with a creak, and standing behind it was the female that Jules had encountered in the hollowed-out log hall. Zuki, that had been her name. She was still wearing the leather vest, and what looked like bandages beneath it.

My Patriarch sent me to serve as guide to the one known as Mister Lambert,” she said hesitantly, glancing between the humans as if she didn't know who was who.

You can call me Jules,” he said, straightening his tie as he made his way over to her.

Oh, it's you!” she said, her green eyes widening. “I apologize again for earlier, when I spilled that drink on you. The Patriarch says that I am to treat you as my Alpha and assist you with anything that you might need.”

I'm not sure about all that,” he replied with a chuckle, “but I appreciate the help. What we're going to be doing today is walking around the village and interviewing various citizens...uh, villagers. I need to take statements in order to determine what the general attitude towards outsiders and the Coalition is like here.”

Zuki nodded her head, waiting by the door as he approached. When he left the wooden building, she followed behind him, her tail flicking nervously as she glanced down at him. All of the Borealans that he had encountered so far had seemed supremely confident, in control, but this one was a lot more submissive. Was it because she had been ordered to treat him like her Alpha? What did that entail, exactly? He could see how an Elysian might be afraid of their Alpha, anticipating ruthless punishment for the most minor infractions, but he hadn't seen any of that behavior from the Araxie so far. Sure, the Patriarch had snapped at her when she had clumsily overturned the cup into his lap, but any waitress would have gotten a dressing down in her position.

It was especially strange when contrasted with her sheer physical presence. At eight feet and at least five or six hundred pounds, she rivaled an African lion. Her body was lithe and muscular, her thin covering of velvety fur doing little to conceal the sculpted abdominal muscles on her exposed midriff, and the brawn on her arms and shoulders. It reminded him of a racehorse in a way, subtle veins visible beneath her coat, her fur so fine that it might have been mistaken for skin at a glance. It shone like it was damp, catching the light to make her body almost reflective, further accentuating her musculature. It might be a result of the humidity in the air, or maybe it was sweat. He couldn't tell, and he thought it impolite to ask.

Her hips were broader than a man's shoulders, and her thighs were almost as thick around as oil drums, packed with firm muscle that let her leap into the trees with the ease and agility of a housecat despite the gravity. Everything about her was reinforced, thick and strong enough to deal with the inescapable pressure that was always weighing down on her, and yet she still managed to be graceful and agile. She was not all muscle and sinew, however. A cushion of soft fat clung to her thighs and rump like padding, giving her an exaggerated, womanly figure.

She seemed almost afraid of him, and yet she could have lifted him clear off the ground with one hand and probably thrown him into the jungle canopy like a shot putter.

So your name is Zuki?” Jules asked, trying to make conversation and break the ice.

Y-yes,” she replied, “that is my name.”

Well, try to relax a little, Zuki. We're not going to be doing anything too exciting, all I might need you to do is show me around, and do a little translating for me if necessary. Will that be alright?”

Anything you need, Mister Lambert,” she replied hastily.

Just Jules will be fine.”

Of course, my apologies.”

So, where do you think we should start?” Jules began. “I thought we might head over to the log and interview some of the patrons, but we might do better to start off somewhere a little quieter. What we want here are truthful reactions, I want to know what the people who live here really think.”

About what?” Zuki asked with a curious tilt of her head.

I just want to gauge the general attitude towards aliens,” he replied. The Araxie being open to living in a multicultural society was of the utmost importance. Needless to say, xenophobes didn’t do well in an environment where so many different species were forced to live and work together. The Coalition would be establishing a presence in the territory, too, and they didn’t want their ambassadors to be eaten. He held his tongue, however, not wanting to give the alien a script that she might be able to communicate to the interviewees in their own language in order to color their replies.

Zuki thought for a moment, chewing idly on one of her sharp claws.

Perhaps where the kills are prepared? It's usually quiet over there.”

If you think that's the best place to start, then lead the way,” Jules said as he gestured for her to take the lead. She hesitated, nibbling on her claw again, then she strode forward on her long legs as Jules followed beside her. She led him through the village until they arrived at a gruesome scene. A group of Araxie were crouched beside a pile of dead animals, the earth beneath their paws soaked with blood and offal. Jules turned his nose up, he was no vegetarian, but he preferred his meat separated by cut and sealed in plastic film.

This was where they obtained their meat, along with the pelts and horns that they used both as clothing and as decoration throughout the village. There were strange animals that somewhat resembled deer or elk, with rust-colored fur that was covered in spotted white patterning, their antlers branching out like those of a moose. There were larger animals that resembled cows or maybe wildebeest, though not quite as imposing as the latter, their brown coats being cut away to expose the hundreds of pounds of fresh meat that lay beneath.

The workers reminded him of people filleting fish on a dock, they were using large, curved knives to expertly strip away the hides and dice up the meat with practiced finesse. They worked quickly, accurately, it was a veritable assembly line of butchery.

This is where we prepare the kills that the hunters bring back,” Zuki explained as she gestured to them. “They provide us with meat, clothing, and some other things.”

It must take a lot of meat to feed the whole village,” Jules mused, avoiding stepping in a stream of blood that was following the contours of the land as it drained away. The scene was turning his stomach a little, but it wouldn't do to start losing his breakfast right now. Trying to ignore the smell of spilled guts, he made his way carefully over to the nearest Araxie, stepping around piles of entrails and other discarded offcuts.

Excuse me,” he began, trying to get her attention. “Hi. I wonder if I might have a few moments of your time?”

The Araxie was busy using a serrated blade to cut into the fused rib cage of some native beast, she was putting some real elbow grease into it. The animal finally broke open like a treasure chest to expose its innards, the Araxie reaching inside and selecting an unidentifiable organ, examining it as it wobbled like a plate of jello in her palm. She set it down on some kind of tarp, then stood at full height, cleaning her blade with a rag as she turned to face him. She looked down at him, then back up at Zuki with a confused expression.

What is this that you've brought me, Zuki? What have you been tasked with this time?” she asked in fairly good English.

The Patriarch says that the aliens are to have our full cooperation,” Zuki warned, “I am to be his guide today.”

I wanted to ask you a few questions,” Jules interjected, getting her attention as she shifted her green eyes to him.

Very well, but make it quick. I have work that I must complete.”

Jules pulled his tablet out of his pocket, the alien following it with her eyes, then he began to scroll through the list of questions that he had formulated during the long journey to the remote planet.

How would you describe your attitude towards outsiders, generally speaking? Are you excited about the prospect of coming into contact with alien cultures? Apprehensive?”

He waited for her reply as she frowned at him.

What is the purpose of these questions?” she asked, glancing at Zuki again.

I just want to determine the attitude of the Araxie towards aliens,” Jules clarified. “You're not being cross-examined, just give me the first thought that pops into your head.”

I suppose...I am worried for Araxie,” she said, continuing to clean the blood from her knife.

What about contact with aliens worries you, exactly?”

Not aliens necessarily, but our experiences with the Rask and the other territories have not been positive. We have survived by staying hidden, by avoiding the scrutiny of others. But now, we face new threats. The Patriarch believes that we must forge new alliances, obtain new weapons so that we might defend ourselves. I do not question his wisdom, he is Patriarch for a reason, and I will do as he commands. Yet I fear that we might lose what makes us Araxie in the process.”

I see, so you're worried that contact with aliens might erase your native culture?”

I suppose,” she said, sheathing her blade in a holster on her rig and planting her hands on her wide hips. “We wish to survive in a rapidly changing world, but if surviving in this way makes us forget who we are, we have not fully survived. We have lost a part of ourselves.”

A reasonable fear,” Jules said, taking notes as she spoke. “And how would you feel if the Coalition established an embassy here, or a naval base?”

What are those?” she asked.

An embassy is a building where ambassadors live permanently, they negotiate on behalf of their government and represent their interests in a foreign land. A naval base is a military outpost where ships can land, and soldiers can be garrisoned.”

I suppose that would be alright,” she replied with a shrug. “You and your companions have not caused any trouble...yet. If there were more like you, I would see no reason to object.”

One more question,” he said, trying to reassure her as she shifted her weight from one foot to the other impatiently. “Let's imagine that a war broke out on some far off planet, a conflict that didn't impact life in Araxie in the least. Now, let's say for the sake of the argument that the Araxie were called upon to defend their allies, keeping in mind that your territory was not under direct threat. How would you feel about that? Your soldiers would be sent far away to fight and die for a cause that was not their own, to protect their allies in the Coalition.”

She pondered the question for a moment, fidgeting with her rig absent-mindedly.

If those allies would then defend us in return...perhaps I could see the value in it. But if too many of ours were lost, then I would object. We are not mercenaries, after all.”

Thank you for your time,” Jules said, looking up from his tablet as he finished taking down her responses. “I'll leave you to your work.”

She nodded, glancing at Zuki again before returning to the nearby carcass and plunging her hands into its chest cavity, digging through its organs as Jules looked on and tried not to gag.

Do you two know each other?” he asked. Zuki turned her eyes to the ground, her tail drooping. Was she embarrassed?

I am well known in the village...”

He didn't press her for details, she looked unhappy, so he decided to change the subject instead.

Alright, let's move on, shall we? Where to next?”

Her ears pricked up at that, and she nibbled on her claw again as she considered.

Maybe one of the guards at the wall?”

If that's what you think is best, then lead the way!”

She nodded, hesitating for a second before setting off again, Jules following behind her. It was so strange to be awake at night, it made him feel like he had a case of insomnia. The jungle was dark even beneath the sparse canopy of the village, and he hadn't brought his helmet this time. His eyes had grown as accustomed to the darkness as they could manage, but even so, he had to watch his step carefully lest he twist his ankle in a root or trip over a fallen branch. The twilight gave everything a kind of relaxed feel, the heat and humidity making him think of some tropical island after sunset, he could almost pretend that he was a short walk from a beach resort. Maybe he was slowly growing accustomed to that, too.

I've been wondering,” Jules began as he walked beside her, “how is that all of the Araxie that we talk to seem to have such a good grasp of English? If you have no contact with the outside world, then how did you learn it?”

The Patriarch tasked us with learning your language,” she replied. “It is the language of trade and war, so he says.”

Trade and war,” Jules muttered, “I suppose that's true enough...”

It was as Yuta had said. With no common Borealan language between the different territories, it was easier for them to communicate in English, which was the one language that they were all required to learn if they wanted to deal with the Coalition.

Once we had access to the radio machine, we could access knowledge,” she continued. “It, uh...I don't know the terms. It pulls down the words from the sky, and then it talks to us, teaches us language and other things.”

So, you've been using the radio that you captured from the Rask to access the satellite network and download information?” Jules asked. “I'm impressed. One of you must have figured out how to access online dictionaries and encyclopedias. I suppose a field radio with a touch interface could be used as a rudimentary computer if you only needed it to perform basic functions, it can't be any less powerful than a phone. How long ago was that?”

Six months, maybe. Some of us speak Rask, and they interrogated the captive until he taught them how to use it.”

Six months? It didn't take you long to learn the language then.”

It's not too complicated,” she replied with a shrug. “It's easier to speak than Rask, that's for sure, there are no yowls or guttural growls.”

And...the captive Rask that I was introduced to has been your prisoner for six months now? What are you going to do with him? Will he be released eventually?”

It's not my job to know that,” she said, “they wouldn't trust me with such an important task. You would do better to ask the Patriarch or one of the guards. I do know that we cannot return him to his people now, he has seen our village, he knows too much about us.”

How does that make you feel?” Jules asked, “don't you think that he should be able to return home at some point? When the conflict has ended, for example? The way I understand it, Borealans are social creatures, what would happen to him if you decided to keep him in that cage for the rest of his life?”

If those are the consequences of attacking us, then he only has himself to blame,” she said as they made their way through the trees. “Oh, we have arrived...”

Jules found himself standing before one of the curtains of vines that concealed the village from outside view. This one looked just as dense and as impenetrable as the others had. Zuki was not interested in the vines, however. She pointed to one of the trees that the great curtain was strung between.

Up there,” she said.

Up in the tree? Is that where the guards are?”

She nodded, Jules walking up to the base and placing his hand against the rough trunk. There were claw marks all over it, the damned thing looked like a giant scratching post. Lots of Araxie had obviously climbed up and down it over the years.

How do we get up there?” Jules asked, “are they going to throw us a rope ladder or something?”

How do you mean?” she asked, looking confused. It suddenly dawned on her, her furry ears twitching with surprise. “Oh! You don't have claws, you can't climb trees. I didn't consider that...” She thought for a moment, looking up into the branches. “Maybe I can carry you up there.”

Don't trouble yourself,” Jules replied, “we can just go interview somebody else. I'm sure the village is full of people who we could talk to. Besides,” he added as he gestured to her vest, “I wouldn't want you to exacerbate your injury.”

Injury?” she asked, cocking her head.

Yeah...your chest. I couldn't help but notice.”

Oh...don't worry about that. I'm fine.”

Before he had time to protest, she bundled him up in her arms, his stomach lurching as she crouched on her long legs and propelled herself into the air. He felt like a joey in its mother's pouch, the alien leaping at least ten feet straight up. There was a sound like creaking wood as she plunged her sharp claws deep into the bark, latching on as she held him in one arm and gripped the tree with the other. She began to clamber upwards, buffeting him as he clung to her furry forearm for dear life, the ground below already so far away that slipping from her grasp would guarantee a swift death.

Her coat was as wet as it looked, the fine, velvety fur damp with moisture. It really was incredibly soft and smooth, almost as if she was wearing a bodysuit made from tight-fitting silk. He could feel her muscles moving beneath it as she scaled the trunk.

They arrived in the branches, and she deposited him on a wooden platform, pulling herself up and landing beside him with a thud that shook the floor. It was like a treehouse, there were wooden boards that made up a flat surface, ringing the trunk and supported by the branches. It had been invisible from the ground, he would never have guessed that there was anything up here. There were a few chairs scattered about, as well as a few wooden chests that must contain weapons or supplies. It was spartan, but it was indeed a guard post.

There was an Araxie wearing a ghillie suit sitting on a chair that faced out into the jungle beyond the village, and he turned to look back at them, his green eyes flashing.

I thought that was you, Zuki. Even the dead could hear you coming.”

Jules ignored his strange comment, pulling out his tablet computer, the blue glow lighting up his face in the darkness.

My name is Lambert,” Jules explained, “I wondered if I might have a few moments of your time?”

Snuff out that light,” the guard snapped, “do you think I'm posted here because I enjoy the view? If there are any Rask out there, it will give us away!”

Oh, sorry,” Jules said as he hastily switched off the screen and returned it to his pocket. “What is it that you're doing up here, exactly?”

The Patriarch has tasked me with watching the jungle for signs of the enemy. There are two dozen guard posts like this one scattered around the perimeter of the village. Should the Rask find us here, then we would be the first line of defense.” He nodded to a large crossbow that was hanging from an iron nail that had been driven into the tree trunk, ready to be used at a moment's notice. “Zuki, why have you brought this human here?”

I...” she hesitated for a moment, then seemed to muster her courage. “The Patriarch has tasked me with being liaison to the human. He wishes to tour the village and get to know our people better.”

What is liaison?” the guard asked skeptically.

It is a human word that means trusted guide and confidante,” she replied proudly, the guard raising an eyebrow. Jules didn't correct her, choosing to let her have her moment instead.

I just wanted to ask you a few questions,” Jules added, the guard turning his green eyes towards him. “I'm doing a survey, if you will.”

If it does not require me to abandon my watch, then ask away,” the guard said as he turned his back on the pair and resumed his vigil. Jules didn't have his list of questions on hand without his tablet, but he remembered what he had wanted to ask the Araxie soldiers well enough. He went through the usual list of questions, asking about what the guard's opinion of the Coalition was, how he felt about an alien embassy in Araxie territory, and what he thought about an influx of new technology. Most of his responses were rather neutral, but when it came to military matters, one of his round ears swiveled backwards so that he could listen to Jules more closely.

Mutual defense pact?” he asked, keeping his eyes on the jungle. “What is that?”

It means that if someone decided to attack you, like the Rask, then we would be bound by our agreement to intercede.”

This, I like the sound of. You would send soldiers?”

We would send soldiers, a carrier with a support fleet, supplies, and weapons. If someone were to attack Araxie, it would be as though they had attacked us as well.”

But if you also made this pact with the Rask, then who would you send aid to?”

We wouldn't support the aggressor, if that's what you're asking,” Jules replied. “Besides, if the Rask government truly is sanctioning these attacks against your territory, then they're breaking the terms of the agreement that they made with us. When your Patriarch showed me the captive that you took from one of the battles, and the store of weapons that you captured, I assured him that I would see to it that my people investigate the incident. If we find that the Rask have been engaging in clandestine operations that violate the law, then they will be heavily sanctioned, likely expelled from the Coalition.”

My job is to protect the village,” he said, turning to look back over his shoulder at Jules for a moment. “If the Coalition can make that job easier, then I see no reason to object. Every day our enemies grow stronger, and I fear that soon, we may be unable to hold them back. The Patriarch is right to seek help from your Coalition, I just hope that he is putting his trust in the right place...”

That seemed like their cue to leave, Jules clearing his throat after a few moments of silence.

Thank you for your time,” he said, “we'll leave you to your work.”

He turned and walked back towards the edge of the platform, suddenly remembering that he couldn't get back down without Zuki's help. He gripped a nearby branch for support and leaned over the edge, his head spinning as he gazed down into the darkness. The ground was so far away that he could scarcely make it out.

Let me assist you,” Zuki said. He opened his mouth to protest but quickly shut it tight as she scooped him off his feet. He stifled an alarmed yell, the sound escaping his throat as more of a terrified grunt as she stepped off the edge into the void. She gripped the rim of the platform with one hand as she fell and swung herself towards the trunk, digging into the bark with her claws and sliding down towards the ground like a fireman descending a pole.

She landed heavily in the fallen leaves and twigs below, absorbing the impact with her massive, spring-like legs. Jules realized that he was clinging to her like a baby monkey, quickly loosening his hold as she lowered him towards the forest floor. He brushed himself off, trying to conceal his embarrassment, wiping away the moisture from her shiny fur that was dampening the pants of his suit.

If you could warn me next time you do something like that, I would appreciate it,” he muttered.

Of course, sorry,” she replied sheepishly.

So, where to next?”

Are you not hungry, Mister Jules? We could get something to eat at the great hall, and ask more questions of the people there at the same time.”

Of course, Borealans needed to eat frequently, and in absurd quantities. They had been walking around the village for all of what passed for morning here. Truth be told, he was starting to get a little peckish.

Alright then,” he replied, Zuki's eyes lighting up. “We'll need to head back to the house where I'm staying and pick up an MRE though, Sergeant Simmons told me that I shouldn't eat the food here.”

Oh, if you think that's best,” she replied. “Come, I know the way.”

And it's just Jules,” he corrected. “If we're going to be working together closely, then you can drop the honorific.”

Does that make us...friends?” she asked expectantly.

Sure, why not. I don't see why we can't be friends.”

That seemed to please her, and there was a distinct spring in her step as she led him back into the village.

***

Jules clambered up onto the Borealan-sized bench beside Zuki, setting his MRE down on the table, the sounds of innumerable conversations in a language that he didn't speak echoing through the hollowed-out interior of the giant log. It was no less impressive than upon the first viewing. The way that everything was hewn from the same enormous hunk of wood, the scents of cooking meat, and the bustle of aliens as they drank and feasted. It was like something straight out of the medieval period. Replace the exotic meats with mutton chops, the strange drinks with mugs of frothing mead, and it might have been mistaken for some kind of ancient tavern.

He opened up his MRE packet and spilled its contents out onto the table, sifting through them and turning them right side up so that he could read the labels. He arranged them into a three-course meal, setting his main course of beef ravioli in a meat sauce to cook using the flameless ration heater, starting on a packet of biscuits. He spread a little container of jam on them with a plastic knife, Zuki watching him curiously.

Is that all you're going to eat?”

This is enough food to feed a human for a whole day,” he said, gesturing to the scattered plastic packets.

Well...I suppose you are rather small.”

What are you having?”

She leaned forward, looking up and down the length of the table. It seemed to be a kind of buffet, as far as Jules could tell. The Araxie would leave their seats to walk up and down it, selecting chunks of meat and other food items at their leisure. Some simply ate what was within reach, perhaps too pressed for time or too lazy to assemble a wider selection. The meat itself was on large earthen dishes, but the aliens ate their portions directly off the table. It must be varnished or treated with something that stopped the juices from the food from soaking into the wood. It was a rather messy affair overall.

I don't know...” Zuki mumbled, chewing her claw indecisively. She seemed worried, glancing around the table at the other Araxie. Now that he thought about it, she had chosen a seat for them that was fairly out of the way. There were no other aliens sitting beside or across from them, the other patrons were all eating in tightly-knit groups. Were they packs, maybe? Groups of friends? Where was Zuki's pack? All of the Borealans were intensely social creatures, that was his understanding, but Zuki had been alone so far. She wasn't the only one, of course. The guard on watch in the tree had been by himself too, probably because his job required it. Jules wasn't sure about his clumsy companion, however.

She came to a decision and rose to her feet, bumping him with her wide hip as she passed by and turning to apologize profusely. He waved her off, the Araxie heading down the table towards one of the mounds of meat, the other felines who crossed her path giving her a wide berth. She really was uncoordinated, and everyone seemed to be well aware of it. She spilled drinks, bumped into people, tripped over her own feet, and stepped on tails. It certainly wasn't behavior that he had come to expect from the Araxie, the rest of her people were so impressively stealthy and graceful.

Zuki leaned across the table as she reached for what looked like a very large rack of ribs. The aliens who were sitting at the bench in front of her parted, leaning away from her warily as if she was a bomb that could go off at any moment. True to form, the hunk of meat slipped out of her fingers, bouncing on the wooden surface and splashing a nearby Araxie with flecks of juice. Rather than snapping at her, he merely rolled his eyes and began to clean himself with his tongue as she apologized profusely, as if her clumsiness was merely expected.

The bandages, her apparent lack of a pack...could she be the survivor of a Rask raid, and could she have sustained some kind of lasting injury that impaired her coordination? It was certainly possible. Then again, she might just be a complete ditz, and her bandages could be unrelated. He would never know unless he asked.

Zuki returned to her seat beside him, the rack of ribs shaking the table as she set it down. She wasted no time, digging her claws into it and bringing it to her mouth, her sharp teeth scraping on the bone as she tore off mouthfuls of barbecued meat. Jules eyed his steaming packet of ravioli, feeling a twinge of disappointment. What he wouldn't give to exchange the MRE for a juicy piece of alien steak, but it was safer to do as Simmons asked. He plunged his plastic fork into the packet and speared a piece of beef and pasta, chewing it as Zuki ate noisily.

What do you keep in all those pockets?” Jules asked, gesturing to her vest with his fork. She paused her chewing, her cheeks full of meat, then swallowed as she looked down at her clothes.

Lots of things, don't humans have pockets?”

Of course we do, but I've noticed that all of the Araxie seem to carry a lot of gear around with them in their day to day lives, and I wondered why.”

Many tasks take us far from home,” she explained over another mouthful of meat, “it's easier to just keep everything that we need with us. Hunting, gathering fruits and berries, going on patrol. Is it not the same for you? What if you needed to start a fire, or find your way if you were lost? What if you needed to catch food in an emergency?”

If I was going camping or hiking or something, I suppose I'd bring all of those things, but I wouldn't carry them around with me every day.”

Let's say I wanted some seasoning for this meat,” Zuki began, reaching into one of the many pouches on her vest. She retrieved what looked like a glass test tube with a cork in one end, popping it open and sprinkling a white powder onto her meal. “I always have it with me, if I'm at the great hall or out in the jungle.”

Is that salt?” Jules laughed, “you carry a salt shaker around with you?”

Why wouldn't I?” she asked, stowing the vial.

What else have you got in there?”

She rummaged in one of the pockets again, this time pulling out a strange tool like the one that the Patriarch had used to light the candles.

Firestarter,” she said, striking the two rods together to produce a spark. She returned the tool to its pocket and fished out a small bundle of wire that was threaded through a metal hook. “Fishing line,” she added. Next, she brought out a small, serrated knife that was stowed in a leather holster. After that came a roll of cloth that looked like bandages, she even had a small sewing kit stowed in one of her pouches for repairing tears and patching up her clothes on the go.

Why on earth would you need all of this on your person?” Jules chuckled, marveling at her repertoire of odd tools and supplies. “Why not just go home and get what you need?”

Because I don't know when I might need it, or where I'll be at the time.”

I mean, I can see how it would come in handy, but it seems excessive to me. If my clothes tear, then I go to a tailor, or I’d go home and repair it if I knew how to sew. Same for fishing, if I want to go fishing then I'll go home and get my rod, I don't need to keep it on me at all times.”

If I was on a long hunt or a patrol that took me miles from the village, I wouldn't be able to see a tailor or return to fetch a fishing line,” she said as she took another wet bite of her meal and paused to chew for a moment. “An Araxie should be prepared at all times.”

Do you go on many hunts far from the village?”

Well...not me personally,” she replied a little sheepishly. “I'm a little too...loud to be a hunter. I'm not very good at fishing either, I usually drop the line, or my footsteps alert the fish. They don't like me going on patrol, they say I'll alert the enemy. I don't leave the village much at all, really.”

What kind of work do you normally do when you're not serving as my trusted liaison?” he asked, her ears pricking up at that.

They give me lots of jobs to do around the village,” she replied, taking another bite. She didn't elaborate, which led Jules to assume that they were just bouncing her from job to job in an attempt to find something that she was good at, or maybe just to get her out of their hair for a while.

Is stealth really that big of a deal for the Araxie?” he asked, stirring his ravioli with his fork.

H-how could it not be?” Zuki stammered, “everyone wants to prove their worth by becoming a great hunter or a soldier. Providing for their pack, protecting the territory, the sheer feats of athleticism and cunning.” She leaned an elbow on the table and rested her face in one of her furry palms, staring into space wistfully as she gnawed the meat from one of the pale bones. “I wish I could be like that, leaping from tree to tree as silent as a whisper, bringing down prey before they're ever aware that I'm there. Every pack would want me to join them, none of the males would overlook me...”

Jules was surprised, he had expected there to be cultural differences between the different varieties of Borealans, but the Araxie seemed to have a society where one's value was based entirely on their ability to go unseen. It made sense, in a way. Stealth was a viable hunting strategy. They had probably selected for those traits during their evolution, and in a primitive society like this one, a person's value to the tribe was likely measured by how much meat they brought home. Their survival also seemed to depend on staying hidden and using guerrilla tactics to ward off their technologically superior enemies. It was easy to see how Zuki didn't live up to those ideals.

There must be ways for you to make yourself useful that don't require you to be a hunter,” he said, snapping her out of her daydream. She blinked at him, setting down her meal and pawing at it half-heartedly as she considered.

There are lots of other jobs that are important. Preparing the meat, being a guard, making tools and clothes. I'm not especially good at any of those things. I'm not very good with my hands,” she said as she flexed her thick fingers, each one tipped with a sharp claw.

From what I know about Elysians and Rask,” Jules continued as he fished another piece of ravioli out of the sauce, “they form packs based on who is the strongest and toughest. Is that not the case for Araxie?”

That sounds rather barbaric,” she chuckled, “I suppose it suits their demeanor. Here, the Alpha of a pack is the most well-liked, the most skilled and charismatic. They're usually divided along the lines of their professions. The most successful hunting pack is led by Roza, for example. Everyone likes him, he's the most skilled tracker in the village. Then the soldiers are led by Lozka, she's the best shot with a crossbow, and she's killed more Rask than anyone. She's so agile, and she's practically invisible when she wants to be. I bet she could take her pick of any male in the village.”

Zuki seemed to be spacing out again, and so he cleared his throat to get her attention.

What did the Patriarch do to become the leader of the territory?” he asked.

Oh, Bozka is the smartest and most experienced Araxie there is,” she replied enthusiastically. “He's a great hunter and a soldier, he's charming and patient, he knows about all kinds of things. Using the Rask radio was his idea, so was hollowing out the log to make the great hall. Everyone looks to him for advice, he always knows what to do.”

So what, did they vote for him? How does it work here?”

Well, the Alphas of all the different packs have to decide on a successor to the current Patriarch or Matriarch, and then he or she has the final say in whether the candidate is accepted or not.”

I see, so it's as much a popularity contest as who is the most capable? How about people with different professions, can they be part of the same pack?”

Sure they can,” Zuki said with a shrug of her furry shoulders. “Not every pack is so specialized, only those at the top of the hierarchy. The higher their position in the village, the stricter the requirements, and the higher the expectations that are placed on them. Some are made up of Araxie who just happen to like each other and get along well. Mostly they just eat together and go home to the same dwelling, but they're of low rank, and so they don't hold much sway. There are perks associated with being a member of an elite pack, but also many responsibilities. Lozka must manage all of the different soldiers and guards on the Patriarch's behalf, as she is the highest-ranked among them. Roza is responsible for all of the hunting that goes on, it's up to him to ensure that we have enough to eat and that we hunt the right game in the right seasons.”

I think I'm starting to understand,” Jules said. It was a roundabout form of meritocracy in a way, the Araxie naturally concentrating the most competent members of their society into groups. It wasn't without its social element, however, and he doubted that any ill-tempered or unpopular Araxie would become Alpha of their pack by the sound of things.

Perhaps it was Lozka's pack that had fought against the Marines in the wargame, that would make sense. There had only been six of them, and so the rest of the guards and soldiers must be members of their own respective social groups, all arranged beneath Lozka like a pyramid.

What about you, do you belong to a pack?” he added.

She hesitated before replying, prodding the rack of barbecued ribs with her claw as Jules finished off his ration packet.

I've been in...a few. Bozka is always trying to find a place for me, a role that suits me. I'm too clumsy to be a carpenter or a smith, I'm too loud, and I'm not a good enough shot to be a hunter or a soldier. It's not that they don't like me, I'm just...not good at anything...”

You're good at this,” Jules said, trying to cheer her up. “Perhaps you can be the Alpha of the first-ever liaison pack, how about that?”

You really think so?” she asked, a smile tugging at the corners of her mouth.

I don't see anybody else acting as liaison to the Coalition, do you?” he said as he gestured to the other Araxie in the hall dramatically.

She smirked and returned to her meal, taking another bite of her ribs.

I like you, Mister Lam...Jules. You're different from everybody else. It's refreshing.”

CHAPTER 6: PEEPSHOW

Jules spent the rest of the day with Zuki, interviewing people in the great hall and around the village, recording all of the information on their attitudes towards the Coalition and aliens that he needed. She was remarkably diplomatic. Everyone in the village seemed to know her, even if some of them were wary around her, and she was able to translate the local dialect when the Araxie in question had a poor grasp of the English language. All in all, the endeavor would have been next to impossible without her help, both due to her knowledge, and her people skills. She escorted him back to his hut when they were done, and he bade Zuki goodnight, or rather good morning as the sun was starting to rise.

He swung the door open with a creak, noticing that Edwards and Simmons were already in their hammocks. Edwards was snoring, and the Sergeant seemed to be asleep too, He closed the door as quietly as its squeaky hinges would allow, slipping off his boots, and making his way towards his own bunk. Yuta and Velez were missing, they might be on watch or something like that.

Walking around the village all day in the high gravity of Borealis had exhausted him, and it was a relief to take the weight off his legs. He sank into the stretched fabric of the bed, staring at the wooden ceiling. He tried to get to sleep, but the Marine's loud snoring made that difficult, Jules scowling across the room at him. There was no pillow with which to cover his ears, but perhaps there was another solution...

He reached down towards the floor with some difficulty, as the bed was higher than was convenient for a human, picking up his black helmet. He slid it over his head and used the switches near the ear to shut off the built-in microphones. Blissful silence ensued, and the interior of the helmet was lined with padding, too. Sure, it was hot, but there was no escaping the heat and sweat regardless of whether he was wearing a helmet or not. He could deal with it.

Jules closed the visor to block out the light of the rising sun that was creeping in under the door, then noticed that one of the icons was still flashing. Curious, he tapped at the buttons, and three windows opened up. It was the helmet camera views from when he had been observing the wargame, it seemed that they had never turned the function off. Those of Simmons and Edwards were dark. They must be powered off, or perhaps they were in a backpack or facing a fall.

Wherever Velez was, his view was active, but the window was currently too small for Jules to make much out. The Marine probably didn't know that Jules was able to observe him, was it ethical to essentially spy on him?

Jules considered for a moment, then shrugged, expanding the window to fill his visor. No harm, no foul, right? Velez was sitting down somewhere, likely at the foot of a tree. Jules couldn't make out any of the wooden huts or other structures, so he must be somewhere on the outskirts, perhaps near the vine wall that concealed the village from outside scrutiny. What was he doing out there?

Borealans do come on pretty strong,” Velez said. Was he talking to somebody? He turned his head, looking up at Yuta, who was sitting beside him on a root. She looked surly, she was resting her fuzzy forearms on her knees and staring at the floor.

It is...frustrating,” she muttered, “it took all of my self-control to prevent myself from knocking him to the ground and taking him right there. I thought that it might jeopardize the mission, cause an incident. Everyone would be angry with me, Sergeant Simmons, Lambert, my Patriarch. I would lose face.”

I think it was the right decision,” Velez replied as he turned his head back to face the trees. “These Araxie aren't like Elysians, they do things differently. More importantly, their pack structure seems to be different. They might look like Equatorials, but they don't act like them, you should probably keep that in mind and treat them more like you would a human.”

I suppose,” she muttered. “A human wouldn't understand, but both you and the Araxie send out...signals...that are easy for us to misinterpret.”

Are you kidding?” he laughed, glancing up at her. “I'm more than familiar with that, how long do you think I've been on this rock? See these scars?” he asked, showing her the pink trails that crisscrossed his exposed forearms. “I'm covered in them, and these ain't battle scars if you catch my drift.”

An Elysian should know better than to behave like that towards a human,” she muttered disapprovingly as she stared at the old wounds, “your kind are too fragile.”

We're tougher than we might look,” Velez said. “Besides, you get used to it after a while, some of us even start to like it. None of us would be here if we didn't want to be.”

Why do you and the others stay?” she asked. “On Borealis, I mean. This environment is so hostile to your kind, and yet you endure it.”

There's an element of freedom to being here, I suppose,” he replied as he leaned back against the tree and looked up at the branches high above. “The dress code is pretty lax, for one. You can drink all the alcohol you want while on the job because Borealan drinks are weak as piss, you can mingle with the locals, shoot the shit. Command doesn't give a fuck as long as you do your job properly. I couldn't be walking around sipping on a thermos full of raises the hair and eating meat right off the bone while on duty if I was deployed on a carrier, they probably wouldn't even let me roll up my sleeves. Then there's the hazard pay, which is pretty sweet. By the time I'm ready to pack it in, I'll be able to buy a nice plot of land on one of the colonies.”

I see,” Yuta muttered, “and what of the people? Most humans do not adapt well to Borealan social life.”

He shifted his weight, reaching up and pulling back the collar of his uniform. Jules couldn't see what he was showing Yuta, but she seemed surprised by it.

Is that...?”

A mark, yeah. I got pretty serious with a local girl who lived near the embassy during my first tour. It didn't work out, but she liked me enough to make sure that everyone knew that I was spoken for. You guys have a hell of a way of showing affection, I'll give you that. It ached for days, and I had to go get a tetanus booster.”

She likely didn't know that it wouldn't heal,” Yuta said, “but the fact that the scar remains even after so much time is oddly...romantic.”

Velez laughed at that, his helmet jostling on his head.

In a lot of ways, Borealans are easier to deal with than humans, if you can believe that,” he continued as his companion looked on. “You're straight to the point, I always know where I stand with a mad cat. You don't lie, you don't act polite, you've got no filter. If you feel something, then you just say it.”

Right now? I'm feeling frustrated...disappointed,” she grumbled, baring her teeth and sinking her claws into the root that she was perched on. Like a cat with a scratching post, it seemed to relieve some of her tension, Jules watching as she dragged her claws along its length to leave deep furrows in the wood.

Like I said, not everyone who wants to fight you wants to fuck you,” Velez added with a shrug that made his helmet cam wobble. “You probably scared him off by coming on too strong, these Araxie won't be used to that kind of behavior.”

But you are?” she asked skeptically, peering down at him with her yellow eyes.

I got the scars to prove it, don't I? What, you think I can't handle a horny mad cat? I know tricks that would make your tail curl, if anyone couldn't handle it, it would be you.”

Is that so?” she replied, raising an eyebrow. “One so experienced should know to be more careful with his words around a seasoned warrior.”

Velez locked his fingers behind his helmet and crossed his legs, propping them up on a nearby root, his casual response to Yuta's not-so-subtle threat seeming to annoy her. He was remarkably comfortable around the alien, making no effort to protect himself even as her long tail began to flick back and forth with irritation. Even Jules could see that she was getting angry.

I might have to be careful...if there was a seasoned warrior in earshot.”

Yuta bared her teeth, a low, menacing growl making the hair on Jules' arms stand on end.

You would do well to watch your tongue, human,” she hissed.

So, are you going to stop being a pussycat and make something of it, or am I going to have to sit here and listen to you whine some more?”

Jules was shocked, Velez's behavior was completely uncalled for. They had been having a perfectly civil discussion, and now out of the blue, he was insulting her. Why? Was he trying to anger her?

Jules looked on, his blood running cold as the Borealan slowly rose to her feet, standing at her full eight-foot height and looming over the Marine ominously. She looked like she was about to tear him to ribbons. Jules wondered whether he should call for help, if he should wake Simmons and Edwards and warn them that their comrade was about to be eaten, but Velez made no move to escape her. In fact, he seemed wholly unconcerned.

There was a flurry of blurred movement, and when the camera stabilized again, it was pointing at the canopy. Velez had been knocked onto his back. Yuta appeared from below frame, crouching over him and reaching down below the view of the helmet cam. She must be grabbing the Marine's neck, was she choking him? She leaned down closer and bared her sharp teeth, her nose an inch from the camera, and Jules couldn't help but pull back as if he was the one being pinned beneath her. She glared at Velez, the slits of her feline pupils dilated into round, dark circles. Then her expression softened, and her snarl morphed into a wry smile.

You are brave for one so small, Velez.”

Call it a professional courtesy,” he said, his voice muffled by her grip on his throat as she drew closer. Jules couldn't make anything out, but he could hear a wet, lurid sound that could only have been a deep and passionate kiss. It went on for longer than a kiss should have been able to last, the alien finally pulling back and letting the Marine take in a gasp of air. Jules watched, his heart skipping a beat as at least a foot of slimy, pink tongue slowly slid out from beneath the camera. It was so long and dexterous, glistening with her saliva, returning to her mouth like she was sucking up a giant strand of spaghetti.

Should he take off the helmet? Jules' heart was beating like a jackhammer, he could hear his blood rushing in his ears. What if Velez and Yuta somehow found out that he had been watching them? He should respect their privacy, remove the helmet, and pretend that he hadn't seen a thing. And yet…

He popped open his visor and glanced over at Simmons and Edwards. They were both still fast asleep in their hammocks. As long as Velez didn't close his visor, and why would he, he wouldn't notice any icons or indicators on his HUD that might let him know that he had an audience. Jules slid the visor back into place, his eyes glued to the display, watching in perfect visual clarity as Yuta drew back and began to remove her clothes.

Her midriff was already bare, her six-pack flexing beneath her pale, damp skin as her furry hands slowly crawled up towards her leather vest. The light from the rising suns peeked over the top of the jungle canopy, casting its rays on her, making every bead of sweat and moisture that clung to her body glisten. She looked to Jules like a Greek statue in motion, her porcelain skin akin to white marble, her muscles too perfectly sculpted to be real. Only the droplets of sudor that followed the deep, shadowy channels that her abs cut into her flat belly dispelled that illusion, her muscles flexing and shifting as she began to unbutton her top.

The vest was held closed by little pieces of string that looped around buttons, and she unfastened them slowly with her clawed fingers, teasing Velez as he lay beneath her in the dirt. She was putting on a show for two men, unbeknownst to her, the pressure in Jules' pants becoming uncomfortable as the first few buttons popped open to reveal her cleavage.

She had larger breasts than any human woman could have supported, the two globes squashed together by the vest, his eyes drawn to the deep furrow between them as they wobbled softly with her every movement. Here too, the humidity in the air gave her lily-white skin a wet shine, like she had just climbed out of a swimming pool. The resolution on the camera was sharp enough that he could make out every pore.

As she moved lower, unfastening more buttons as she went, their enormous weight began to spread her top apart. With every button, they opened the garment further, trembling as their weight was redistributed. When she reached the final button, they exploded from their leather prison, parting the vest as their support was removed. The twin globes of milky flesh bounced like rubber as they fell free, wobbling enticingly. They were as large as her head, which was itself larger than that of a human, and they looked as heavy as the backpacks borne by the Marines.

Velez shed his gloves hastily, reaching up a hand and plunging it into one of her boobs, his fingers sinking into its rounded surface up to the knuckle. It was like watching someone knead dough, the meat of her bosom spilling between his digits as though he was taking a handful of clotted cream. He squeezed and mauled, rough, greedy. Yuta didn't seem to mind his brashness, arching her spine towards him, sucking her lower lip into her mouth and biting it with a pointed tooth.

The Marine planted his other hand on her midsection, tracing the wide curve of her hip, and stroking her washboard abs with his thumb. The moisture appeared to make them slick, his fingers gliding as though frictionless, her toned stomach twitching at his touch as her muscles flexing beautifully. His tanned, tattooed skin contrasted with hers, but one thing that they had in common were their scars. They were faded on Yuta, they seemed to have healed better, but both of them looked like someone had tried to carve a road map into their hides.

Was that really what life was like on this planet? Anger and passion, pleasure and agony, it was all so extreme and so beyond the realm of Jules' experience. Here were two warriors at the pinnacle of their physical fitness, all muscle and sinew, like avatars of their respective genders. Their bodies bore the scars of both love and war, the two seemed indistinguishable at times on Borealis. Would Jules look like these people if he stayed here long enough? His body sculpted by the gravity, his skin a patchwork of claw marks and bites? At this point, he was almost glad that those were not his own hands crawling across Yuta's flesh. She was a monstrous woman, even the musclebound Marine didn't seem like he would be any match for her.

As Jules watched, Velez caught one of the Borealan's nipples between his fingers, Yuta shuddering as he pinched it.

I thought you said you knew how to handle me?” she complained, reaching down behind the camera. She must have cupped his head in her palm, pulling him upright and plunging his face into her breast. The camera went dark, but Jules could still hear the shuffling, along with the sound of Yuta's gruff voice.

Bite me,” she said, then there was an appreciative growl. When she released Velez, Jules saw that there were pink tooth marks around her areola. It looked painful, but she had definitely enjoyed it. Her cheeks were flushed, and she wet her lips with her pink tongue as she peered down at the Marine.

She leaned back, her heavy breasts bouncing as their weight shifted. Jules couldn't take his eyes off them. They were like two enormous mounds of jello, inexplicably keeping their teardrop shape, even as they battled against the harsh gravity of the planet.

Now, her clawed fingers roamed down towards her leather shorts, Yuta struggling with the buckle on one of her belts. Carrying around a whole arsenal of tools and supplies in pouches and bags might be useful when exploring jungles, but it was certainly a hindrance when one needed to disrobe for a spur of the moment romantic encounter.

Seeing that she was becoming frustrated, Velez helped, reaching for another buckle and starting to unfasten it. Her hands were so much larger than the Marine's, the span of his fingers would scarcely have filled her palm. The Borealan had three thick digits and a thumb that ended in wicked claws, with cat-like pads for grip, her hands covered in soft fur that made them look like they belonged to some kind of sports team mascot. Together, the pair hastily removed her three belts, the microphones in the helmet picking up the clattering and shuffling as they were discarded in the fallen leaves nearby.

Now, Yuta was able to remove her shorts. There didn't seem to be a fly of any kind, and so she stood, hooking her thumbs around the waistband and dancing on the spot as she fought to drag them down. They were so impossibly tight that it was a real struggle, and Jules wondered how she had even gotten into them in the first place, the leather creaking audibly as she moved. The motion had the perhaps unintended side effect of making her breasts bounce up and down, knocking together with a clap that he could hear through the microphone. Every impact sent a ripple through her flesh like the surface of a lake being disturbed by a pebble.

She dragged her shorts down over her round thighs, putting more of her pale skin on display, revealing a pair of simple undergarments that resembled a smaller pair of shorts. Once they were over her muscular thighs, she pulled off her leather shorts and cast them aside, turning her attention to her underwear. They were made from something akin to cotton, and unlike with the shorts, she took her time. Yuta's yellow eyes met Velez's as she teased him, slowly sliding down her panties, revealing a tuft of silky fur that must be the alien equivalent of pubic hair. It looked velvety and soft, nothing like the coarse, curly hairs that you might find on a human.

Jules watched, transfixed as she exposed herself to the Marine, standing over him and ensuring that he had a good view. As the cotton-like material pulled away, a clear strand formed, linking the crotch to her loins. She was practically dripping, and as the garment fell away, Jules' eyes were inexorably drawn to the enticing gap between her muscled thighs.

Her womanhood was rosy and flushed, swollen with desire, a sliver of glistening pink visible between her puffy lips. Jules didn't know what he had been expecting, maybe some kind of unrecognizable alien organ that more resembled the gaping maw of a horror movie monster than a pussy, but her loins were wonderfully familiar. He suddenly became painfully aware of the way that his erection was tenting his pants, straining against the fabric as though it was trying to escape in an effort to seek out Yuta of its own volition.

Jules flipped up his visor for a moment, looking over to check that the other two Marines were still dozing. He wanted desperately to slip a hand beneath his waistband, but he wasn't about to do that in the company of two other people, even if they were sound asleep. When he returned the visor to its down position, Yuta had taken a step forward, crouching over the camera as she used her furry fingers to part her labia. The flesh within was rosy and wet, her opening twitching with anticipation as it leaked droplets of her excitement.

Let's see if that mouth of yours is good for anything besides talking,” she said with a rumbling chuckle, baring her sharp teeth in a grin. She lowered herself down, practically sitting on the Marine's face, jostling the helmet. The view was now pointing upwards, Jules could see the hourglass curve of her hips tapering into her toned stomach, and above it was the undersides of her hanging breasts. She looked down over the mounds of her boobs, smirking, her feline eyes flashing with lust as she began to grind. Velez's lips must be pressed up against hers, but it was below the camera. All that Jules could see was her chiseled body moving atop him. He could hear it, however, a lurid smacking that could only be the Marine doing his best to please her.

His tattooed forearms appeared from below the frame, gripping her thighs, as thick around as tree trunks. Despite the muscle that bulged from beneath her smooth skin, his fingers delved deep into her fat, as supple as melting butter. She reached down above the camera, seeming to press Velez deeper, and then there was a sound like nails on a chalkboard.

Hey, watch it,” Velez sputtered. “Those things ain't cheap.”

Jules heard her drum her claws on his helmet, the alien grinning at him mischievously as she pressed her boobs together with her impressive biceps.

I can grip your helmet or your hair, your choice...”

Alright then, helmet it is,” he muttered. She laughed, and then appeared to force him back between her legs, biting her lip lasciviously and rolling her head back as she resumed her grinding motion. Jules was enraptured by the way that she moved, her body writhing as though she was dancing, her abdominal muscles tensing in a hypnotic rhythm as she made a slow figure of eight with her hips. She could probably have crushed the Marine's head between her thighs like a melon, helmet and all, but she had such fine control over herself. The fat that sheathed her thighs and her heavy breasts quivered with ever staccato thrust, how could someone so hard and strong be so soft and feminine at the same time? It seemed like a contradiction, and yet here she was.

They kept it up for a minute or two longer, her movements becoming irregular, her appreciative shivers making her breasts shake as the lurid sounds continued from out of sight. When she pulled back, she was panting heavily. Her cheeks were flushed red, globs of her juices sliding down her inner thighs. It seemed that Velez really did know what he was doing after all.

Enough foreplay,” she grumbled, brushing her damp hair out of her face. She seemed almost annoyed, perhaps she hadn't expected the Marine to be able to back up his bragging, and it had taken her off guard. Velez didn't need to be asked twice, he looked down and began to fumble with his pants, quickly freeing himself. Rather than removing his trousers entirely, he just opened his fly and poked his erection through it, Yuta eyeing it greedily as she stood over him. The encounter really did seem rushed, but there was a kind of clumsy passion to it, an urgency.

She positioned herself over the Marine and crouched, taking his pulsing member in her hand, Velez grunting as it was engulfed in her silky fur. It looked like it probably felt amazing, like getting a handjob from someone wearing a mink glove, his spine arching as she squeezed him in her palm. Wasting no time, she drew closer, pressing his member up against her slippery loins. Jules could see the way that his glans spread her lips apart, exposing the pink flesh within, her lubricating fluids dripping down his shaft with the consistency of syrup. They weren't going to use any kind of protection? Of course, they were different species, pregnancy was impossible.

They shuddered in unison as she leaned more of her weight on him, her lips pulling back to reveal her sharp teeth as he slid inside her after a moment of resistance. She took him to the hilt in one smooth motion, her fluffy mound pressing against his belly, her claws sinking deep into the roots to either side of her as she took hold of them for support. She must be incredibly heavy, but she was careful not to put too much weight on Velez, perhaps just enough that he could really appreciate it.

Wouldn't a human penis be very small compared to that of the eight-foot-tall Borealan males? Perhaps not, judging by the expression on her face, or maybe her musculature just made her tight enough that the difference in stature was mitigated. Either way, her eyes were tightly closed, and she seemed almost wary of moving. Her heavy breasts rose and fell with each breath as she grew accustomed to the feeling of having the human inside of her.

She rose slowly on his shaft, more its length gradually becoming visible. It was soaked with her juices, the creamy fluid clinging to it in globs, and she paused with only the tip still lodged inside her. Jules tried to imagine what that must be like, how having those walls of velvety, slimy muscle massaging him would feel. How long had it been since he had broken up with his last girlfriend? Four years, five? He couldn't even remember what it felt like anymore, the memory was vague and distorted.

Yuta fell down on Velez again, letting her immense weight carry her, their hips slamming together with an audible clap. She found a slow, punishing pace that looked hard enough to bruise, the wood splintering where she gripped it with her claws as her tempo gradually increased. She was fucking the life out of Velez, but he didn't make a peep to express his discomfort, the only sounds that escaped his lips were distinctly carnal. As Jules watched, he began to push into her, his hips rising from the leaf-strewn ground to meet her downward thrusts. How could he want it to be harder than it already was? She was going to fracture his pelvis at this rate.

Velez reached up and took hold of her thighs again for leverage, his fingers sinking into her doughy flesh, the Marine grabbing at his feline partner as best he could manage in their unconventional position. The humidity had already been unbearable when they had been sitting idle, and now sweat was pouring from Yuta's glistening, muscular body. Every bead of moisture sparkled in the light, like a field of grass coated in morning dew, every impact making it rain down onto Velez. He must be overheating too, but Yuta was doing the lion's share of the work, taking the lead as the pace of their impromptu lovemaking became frantic.

She twisted and writhed, Jules' eyes drawn to her abdominal muscles as they tensed and shifted beneath her shining skin, moisture dripping from her sumptuous breasts as they bounced and wobbled. Surely neither of them could take much more of this? Their sex was so athletic, harsh and raw, like two wild animals rutting in the throes of their heat.

Jules couldn't help but feel a little inadequate. He had never experienced that before, he had never made love with such intense passion and urgency, such primal need. It was a whole different universe to what he was used to. Dispassionate romps with ex-girlfriends flashed in his mind, one night stands, and online dates that had no chemistry and went nowhere. The chemistry here was not in question, it could only be described as a violent chemical reaction akin to an explosion.

Yuta brought her hips down on her partner like a sledgehammer, driving him into the ground beneath her with ruthless vigor, the camera shaking along with the helmet. She released her hold on the splintered roots, her biceps bulging as she tore her claws from the wood, the alien so strong that Jules half expected to see her rip them out of the ground. She doubled over, letting her wet hair fall over her red face, and planting her hands into the dirt to either side of the Marine's head with an alarming thud. Her breasts hung in front of the camera as gravity tried to wrest control of them, swaying as she rocked back and forth, sweat dripping from her pale skin as she drove his erection against her insides like she was trying to scratch an itch.

I'm nearly there,” she snarled, “don't you dare stop...”

It should have been a comely plea, but it came off more as a threat. The rumbling sound coming from deep in her throat that followed might have been purring or growling, Jules couldn't tell. Velez reached up a hand and plunged it into one of her breasts, mauling her damp flesh like he was trying to mold wet clay. She shivered and rumbled again, lowering herself to give him easier access to her pendulant bosom, practically waving them in front of the helmet cam. They looked so impossibly soft, deforming in the Marine's grasp, and then returning to their original shape when released. He pinched her firm, pink nipples as she rode him, her breathing growing heavier and less regular as their encounter dragged on.

The sordid sounds of their coupling were audible even to the microphones. They boosted the low end and dulled the high end, intended to let the user hear quiet footsteps and shuffling leaves while also drowning out the deafening sounds of gunfire and combat. Jules could hear Yuta's soft moans and resonating growls, the wet sounds of her loins sucking on the Marine's shaft like a greedy mouth, even the thunderous beating of her massive heart as her excitement mounted. He had never been so aware of sound before in the context of sex or pornography, it pierced him to the core, his member throbbing in his pants as he watched and listened intently.

Yuta leaned ever closer, keeping the pace as her long, dexterous tongue slid from her mouth like the tentacle of some sea creature. It was wet with her saliva, as reflective as her sweat-soaked skin, a strand of her drool dangling from the tapered end as it wound its way beneath the camera.

There was a sound like choking as their lips met, Jules unable to accept that her entire organ was currently coiling around inside the Marine's mouth. It must have been a foot long, was she pushing it down his throat? Talk about a deep kiss...

Velez jerked and bucked, but he didn't try to fight her off, the pair relaxing into a slow and almost loving embrace. Jules couldn't see anything, Yuta's hair was blocking the camera, but he could hear the unmistakable sounds of smacking and kissing. Could it be possible that Velez was used to this treatment by now? Could one become accustomed to having a clear foot of writhing Borealan flesh fill their cheeks?

They remained locked together for a minute or two, their making out punctuated by the sounds of Velez taking a gasping breath of air whenever Yuta deigned to allow it. When she pulled away, their lips were linked by a sagging rope of drool that broke and fell to his chest plate, Yuta licking her lips with a sordid expression on her face. Velez's hands were all over her, squeezing her breasts and taking handfuls of her thighs, roaming behind her to test the firmness of her round ass. Jules was disappointed that he couldn't see it from his vantage point, it had looked incredible through the tight fabric of her shorts.

Is that all you've got?” Velez chuckled, Yuta cocking her head at him like a curious dog. “I thought the Rangers were tougher than the Elysian city folk?”

She slowed her merciless thrusting, sitting atop him and letting more of her weight press him down, the Marine grunting as she grinned at him. Even though they weren't moving, Jules could still see the way that Velez was twitching and flexing inside of her. Yuta's juices leaked forth to join the sweat and humidity, seeping around his shaft, the sordid concoction soaking into the Marine's clothes. There was such lust in those amber eyes, hunger, greed. Nobody had ever looked at Jules like that before, he had never seen that expression on anyone. It was like a blend of a predator lording over its captured prey, and the wantonness of a lover who has abandoned all pretense of modesty.

I might hurt you,” she whispered, her voice low and breathy.

If I'm not limping tomorrow, then I'd consider it a bad lay,” Velez replied.

Her lips curled into a wry smile at that, her furry hand reaching down towards his throat. She gripped his neck as she began to move again, harder and faster. Jules still got the sense that she was holding back, how could she not? An unrestrained Borealan would probably turn a human to pulp, and he imagined that two of the aliens going at it would be enough to destroy most buildings.

That's...more like it,” Velez grunted, Yuta watching him intently with a confident smirk as she rose and fell on his shaft. Neither of them could hold out for much longer, Jules could see the way that Yuta's lashes fluttered with every thrust, the way that her eyes lost focus. He could only assume that Velez was similarly overcome.

With a look of determination on her face, Yuta switched up the pace, going faster and faster as her human partner began to writhe beneath her. She held him by the throat, keeping him still so that he couldn't wriggle free, licking her lips with anticipation. The Marine wasn't trying to escape, not really. Much like his earlier insults and goading, it was likely an act designed to push her buttons. He knew what Borealans liked, how to play them, how to appeal to their predatory and dominant nature.

Yuta faltered suddenly, her abs tensing as she doubled over, a sound like an angry tiger interrupting the muted moans and gasps. She stopped moving, twitching and shivering, Velez grunting like someone had just punched him in the stomach. The alien went as still as a statue, her eyes tightly shut, a series of tremors making her shining body shake. Jules could see her muscles tensing rhythmically, he could only imagine how her insides must be clenching around Velez's member as her climax tore through her. The Marine held onto her thighs for dear life, groaning as he reflexively pushed up into her, his own orgasm following not far behind.

They stayed locked together, lost in the throes of their pleasure, Yuta's ample bosom heaving as she panted and shivered. When she finally started to come down from her high, she opened her eyes and blinking groggily, as if waking from a dream. A warm smile brightened her face, and she began to chuckle giddily. She leaned down and kissed the Marine again, this one shorter and less invasive, appreciative rather than sordid.

I needed that,” she laughed, rolling her head back and loosing a satisfied sigh.

Let me know if you need anything else,” Velez said, “I'm always happy to help.”

I'm sure you are,” she replied, glancing down at him with a sly grin. Velez winced as she slowly rose from her crouched position, his still erect member sliding out of her, followed by a lurid blend of their sexual fluids. A blend of thick, cloudy semen and her clear juices drooled from her puffy lips in a sagging web, clinging to her inner thighs. She stooped to retrieve a canteen from one of her discarded belts, upending it and washing away most of the gunk, then she began to slip her underwear back on.

It's a good job that these Araxie don't know the scent of a human male yet,” she muttered, “I'm going to stink of your seed for days.”

Velez laughed at her observation, then began to move too, the helmet jostling. Jules decided that it was time to shut off the feed before he pushed his luck too far.

The view went dark, and he stared up at the gloomy ceiling of the Araxie dwelling through the visor, the HUD displaying useless information in shades of glowing green. The pulsing of his heart in his ears slowly subsided, and soon, all that he could think about was the uncomfortable bulge in his pants. Why had he watched that? It had just left him frustrated, a little jealous maybe...

He took off his helmet and returned it to its place on the floor beside the hammock, closing his eyes and trying to get some sleep. He was now too distracted to pay any attention to the snoring. When he closed his eyes, all that he could see was Yuta's gyrating body, her massive breasts and her chiseled muscles glistening with sweat. If he managed to get any sleep at all tonight, then it would certainly be troubled...

CHAPTER 7: GRAND TOUR

You look tired,” Zuki said as she walked beside Jules, “did you not sleep well?”

I guess not,” he replied, rubbing his red eyes and yawning widely.

What are we doing today?” she asked eagerly, her round ears twitching as she waited for his reply.

I think I got all of the statements that I needed yesterday,” he said as he brought up his tablet computer and scrolled through his notes. “Today, I need to review the economic status of the territory. I need to get a good gauge of your economic output, figure out what kind of products you can export, and what we should prioritize for import. You'll probably qualify for a development grant or some kind of economic assistance too, I'll need to put in an appropriate request.”

Can I see that?” Zuki asked, pointing to his tablet.

My tablet? Sure,” he replied as he passed the oblong device to her. She was surprisingly gentle with it, holding it with the fleshy pads that protruded from her dark fur and avoiding scratching it with her sharp claws.

So, it's like...electronic paper? You record things on this, and it remembers them?”

That's right, yes. Those little symbols in rows down at the bottom are called a keyboard. Rather than writing a character of the alphabet like you would on a piece of paper, you just press one of those, and it appears on the screen. Then you can string them together to make words.”

And it's all done through touch,” she added, tapping at the glass experimentally and watching as gibberish appeared on the text document. “Like the radio that we recovered.”

Yeah, most of our computers use a touch interface, I'm not surprised to hear that your radio does too. In fact, it probably made figuring out how to use it a hell of a lot easier. If it was all just switches and buttons labeled in an alien language, rather than intuitive icons, you would have had a much harder time.”

I've never used it myself,” she added, her green eyes fixed on the display as she swiped and tapped. “I've seen it, though. It looked a little like this, only smaller, and embedded in the machine.”

Do you want to learn how to use this?” Jules asked, Zuki's ears twitching as she looked up from the glowing display. “Maybe you can be my assistant today and take down notes for me.”

Really?” she asked excitedly, but then her ears drooped as she turned her eyes to the ground. “But won't it slow you down?”

It might slow the work down a little,” he replied with a shrug, “but it's not like we're on a strict timetable here. Who knows, maybe you'll be good at it, and you'll be able to handle this kind of business later down the line if your territory gets admitted.” She nodded, smiling as she returned her attention to the tablet. “Don't worry about learning all of the symbols if you're not too familiar with the English alphabet yet,” he added. “You can just talk into it, and it will record your speech as text if you need it to.”

Alright,” she replied, beaming at him.

So, show me what your territory produces.”

***

Zuki stopped outside what looked like a small farm being tended by a group of Araxie, the land tilled and upturned, the plot surrounded by a crude fence made from carved wood. Some of the workers paused to examine the newcomers, and Jules was amused to see that their rigs were laden with gardening tools. Trowels and shears were slotted into leather holsters, pouches that looked like they might contain seeds and other such things dangling from their belts.

This is one of our gardens,” Zuki explained. “We grow several types of flowers and root vegetables for food and medicine. Right now, they're planting the new seedlings in the fresh soil. We collect fallen leaves and let them rot here so that their nutrients fertilize the earth, then we take the seedlings that sprouted indoors and move them here so that they can grow larger.”

You know a lot about farming?” Jules asked.

I did this job too...for a short while,” she replied.

What kind of yield do you see each season, is this something that you think you might be able to export? Alien foods are a booming market in Coalition space, people will pay a lot of money to sample exotic dishes.”

Only enough for this village, but perhaps we could grow enough to sell them if you think there would be a demand.”

Make a note of that,” he said, Zuki tapping at the screen of the tablet as he walked around the perimeter of the fence. He watched for a while as the farmers used their tools to dig holes in the soil, placing the green chutes inside them and then packing them with dirt. He had never seen a Borealan farming before, every one of them that he had come into contact with until recently had been a warrior. A society couldn't be run entirely by warriors, of course. They still needed farmers and masons, laborers, and cooks.

When they were done at the farm, they made their way through the village to another wooden structure. This one was domed, but partially open to the air, as if someone had taken a large bite out of the nearest wall. As he approached the opening, a wave of heat sent Jules reeling. It was like a furnace inside, and it smelled strongly of smoke, the sound of metal on metal emanating from within.

Zuki led the way, and he followed after her reluctantly. It was already hot enough on this planet to begin with. As he stepped into the building, he was met with the sight of a large Araxie, illuminated by the orange glow from some manner of stone kiln. He was wearing a thick pair of leather gloves, as well as a kind of full-body apron made from similar material that protected him from the sparks and floating embers, the garment charred black in places. His companion was pumping a set of massive bellows, stoking the roaring flames as he used a pair of long tongs to manipulate a shaft of metal that was currently buried in the hot coals. It was a primitive forge, Jules realized, watching as the Araxie smith pulled the glowing bar from the furnace and began to shape it with a hammer that a human would have had trouble lifting.

This is where we make things like tools, weapons, nails, and other things like that,” Zuki explained.

What metal are they working with?” Jules asked, trying to raise his voice over the din of the hammering. Sparks flew where the hammer impacted the bar, and he took a couple of steps back to get out of the way, the alien examining his handiwork before plunging it back into the fire.

Mostly redrock,” she explained.

Redrock? Is that some kind of metal?”

Oh, in your language, it is called...iron.”

Do you mine it?” Jules continued, surprised. He had a hard time imagining the Araxie digging tunnels beneath the rainforest and bringing up minecarts full of ore for smelting.

No, we don't have to dig. There are a few ore deposits in the territory that are accessible from the surface, we get most of it from bogs deep in the jungle.”

Their methods were primitive, limited by their harsh environment and their lack of basic materials, but he had seen how crossbows with components and bolts made from this metal performed. They had refined their limited methods into an art form.

Doesn't the iron rust in this humidity?”

No,” Zuki replied. “Or at least, not for a very long time. The ore that we get from the bogs is often impure and contains...I'm not sure of the English word. We call it stoneglass, it forms a protective coating over the metal.”

Jules didn't know the first thing about metalworking or ores, and so he couldn't help her, but they certainly seemed to know what they were doing.

How do you know so much about smithing? Let me guess...”

It was my job to wade into the bogs and collect the ore for a time.”

And that job didn't suit you either?” he asked incredulously. He couldn't imagine how one could perform that job so poorly that they would be fired.

I would sometimes drop the ore on the forest floor and lose it,” she explained, shifting her weight from foot to foot as if the topic of conversation made her uncomfortable.

What's he making right now?” Jules asked, wary of getting much closer to the flames.

Looks like crossbow bolts,” Zuki said, peering over his shoulder at the blacksmith. As Jules watched, the smith pulled the rod of iron from the forge again, placing the glowing end on his anvil and hitting it with his hammer. Sparks flew as he shaped it into a point, then his assistant brought over a sharp chisel that he positioned over the shaft, the smith striking it to cut off a piece of metal. He quickly picked up the detached piece with a pair of tongs, then hammered the larger end flat. He placed the finished bolt into a large cauldron of water, the liquid hissing and bubbling as it cooled.

Jules leaned over the iron cauldron to get a better look. There was a large pile of the bolts at the bottom, they must have been making them all day, or rather all night.

I guess you guys have needed to make a lot more of these lately,” he muttered.

They moved on from the smith, Zuki bringing him to a building that was surrounded by wooden racks. A few of them were adorned with stretched animal skins, and there were Araxie treating the pelts with some kind of gooey mixture that they were painting on with brushes. Zuki explained that they were tanning and treating the leather so that it could be cut into pieces and made into clothing. When Jules asked how the hides could be left out to dry in the middle of the night, she explained that they were left out during the day while the Araxie were asleep, and then recovered later.

The hides are cured with salt,” she said. “Then the fur, along with any remaining residue, is removed.”

He didn't need to ask, she had probably done this job at some point as well. She led him inside the building proper, and here there were more Araxie cutting the newly tanned leather into strips in order to make belts and other such products. He watched as one of the villagers carefully stitched a vest that she was fashioning from a piece of hide, noting that she wasn't using a needle to sew. She held the thread between her padded finger and thumb, then used the sharp claw on her index finger to make a small hole in the material through which she pushed the strand. They didn't need thimbles or needles, it seemed, they were naturally equipped for this kind of work.

As well as tailoring the clothes and rigs, several more Araxie were making bags and pouches from the offcuts. There was minimal decoration. Unlike the beads and feathers favored by the Elysians, the Araxie seemed to prefer more muted colors. What little flair they added to their garments aided in camouflage rather than in drawing attention to themselves.

They were also making the ghillie suits that were so prevalent amongst the soldiers and guards. They fashioned a fine mesh from thin strips of leather, almost like a fishing net, then the garment was handed over to a circle of waiting Araxie who joked and chatted as they wove bunches of fabric into it. They were designed to resemble foliage and underbrush, dyed in greens and browns that were remarkably similar to the tones of the jungle. As a final touch, they added a few real leaves sourced from the local forest to complete the illusion. The resulting cloak was surprisingly realistic. Even sitting idle on a rack, it could be mistaken for a bush. It was only upon closer inspection that its true nature could be discerned.

Their next stop was a small plot of land that was ringed by a makeshift fence, the wooden posts that were driven into the soil connected by woven reeds that formed a barrier, the earth within muddy and covered in tracks. There was a structure that resembled a large chicken coop at the far end, with a roof that slanted in one direction so that any rainwater that slid off it was collected in an adjacent trough. Zuki opened a gate, but Jules was wary. This was obviously a pen for some kind of animal, and knowing Borealis, it was unlikely to be cute and cuddly.

Don't be afraid,” she said, trying to reassure him as she gestured for him to follow her. “The first time that I saw them, I was scared of them too, but they aren't dangerous. They're perfectly tame.”

What exactly is perfectly tame?” he asked skeptically, eyeing the coop. Something the size of a dog to a Borealan would be as large as a tiger to a human, and it might see him as food rather than as one of its masters.

They're called...I suppose the closest translation would be egg lizard,” Zuki explained. “They're not dangerous, they mostly eat small mammals and insects.”

I am a small mammal,” he complained, eliciting a laugh from her.

Alright. Stay there, and I'll show you,” she said as she closed the gate and made her way over to the center of the muddy pen. She clapped her hands together, calling to the creatures, cooing in the way that one might call over a pet. There was a doorway at the top of a small ramp, the coop raised off the ground on short legs, perhaps to keep it clear of the damp. From the darkness emerged a reptilian snout, a forked tongue flicking out to taste the air. After another few moments of coaxing, the animal flopped clumsily down the ramp on four stubby legs, blinking its beady eyes. It looked to Jules like a monitor lizard, maybe four feet long, and covered in rough scales. It was patterned with blotches of black and yellow, resembling the dappled light that made it through the jungle canopy during the day.

It powered over to Zuki on its little legs, pushing its snout into her waiting hands and rubbing its face in her fur affectionately. She laughed, scratching its scaly head with her claws, the creature seeming to enjoy the sensation.

More of the alien lizards followed behind it, their feet slapping on the wooden ramp as they rushed to greet the visitor, crowding around her and jostling for space as she petted them.

See?” she chuckled, “they're very friendly.”

Jules opened the gate cautiously and took a step inside, his boots sinking in the sticky mud. He closed it behind him with a click, and then one of the creatures turned its head towards him. Without hesitating, it motored its stumpy legs, crawling through the mud and stopping at his feet as it sampled his unfamiliar scent with its pink tongue.

Hey there...little guy,” Jules muttered, recoiling from the thing. When it had decided that he wasn't food, it peered up at him, blinking a pair of yellow eyes as if it expected something from him.

She wants you to stroke her,” Zuki explained, still occupied with the pack of lizards that were battling for her attention.

Jules reached down with a trembling hand and brushed the animal's head. Its scales were coarse and dry, like crocodile skin. He patted it as one might pat a dog, and it seemed to enjoy that, closing its eyes and forcing its head into his hand. He grew more confident as it rolled over onto its back in the muck, its legs splayed as it waited patiently for him to rub its belly. He knelt beside it and scratched the smooth, interlocking scales on its underside. The creature made no sounds, no chirps, or hisses. It simply lay still as it quietly enjoyed his petting.

What do you use these things for?” Jules asked, the lizard waving its legs in annoyance when he let up his stroking. “Do you eat them?”

No, they're too small, they wouldn't make much of a meal. They lay eggs. These are all females, and when you separate them from the males, the eggs that they lay go unfertilized. We use them in cooking.”

Oh, so they're like...lizard chickens,” Jules mused as he patted the creature on its chubby belly.

Chicken? What does that word mean?” Zuki asked.

It's a bird back on Earth that we farm for its eggs and meat.”

They played with the lizards for a little while longer, then the animals returned to their coop. Perhaps they were not nocturnal like their Araxie masters, their camouflage certainly seemed designed to make them harder to see in sunlight.

Zuki made her way over, and Jules held the gate open for her, closing it behind her.

Where next?” he asked.

There are a few more things to see,” she replied. “Is this the kind of information that you needed?”

Yeah, and it's also just interesting to see how you live. There are some things that are so strange and alien, yet other things that are immediately recognizable to me. If nothing else, the xenobiologists and anthropologists are going to have a field day once they're able to travel here.”

What are those?”

They're just different words for researchers, they'll want to study you and the way that you live.”

Why would they be interested in us?” Zuki asked, looking confused. “Aren't your people far more advanced than ours?”

Yes, but that's not the point,” Jules continued as they began to walk to their next destination. “We don't want to learn new building techniques from you, or how to farm lizards. Araxie culture is unique, it has intrinsic value, it's of interest to all kinds of people. They'll want to buy your leather clothing and your iron tools, some will want to study them, and some will want to preserve them in museums. Others will just want to own them as curiosities. They'll want to come here and document the mundanities of your everyday lives, record your cooking recipes, your language, and your history. People will map the jungles and make a detailed record of every species that lives in them.”

Why?” Zuki repeated. “Why would they travel untold distances just to write down our recipes and buy tools that they would have no use for?”

Humans are just innately curious about alien cultures, I suppose,” he said with a shrug. “Back in my apartment in Brussels...no, that doesn't mean anything to you. In my dwelling on Earth, I own a Krell water jug. It's made of dried clay, it's crude, primitive. It serves no functional purpose, it just sits there on my shelf, and I look at it occasionally. But it has value to me. It's an artifact created by a completely alien species, they live light-years away from us, and they developed entirely independently on a completely separate planet. Their culture is unique, they made this object with their own hands. Through some galactic contrivance, that object came to be on my shelf. I look at it, and I marvel at how far it came to get to Earth. How strange it is that a race of giant, swamp-dwelling reptiles developed to a point where they could make a clay jug and sell it to a trader, who then sold it to me.”

Zuki still looked confused, cocking her head at him as if he was talking gibberish.

Take that tablet, for instance,” he said as he pointed at the device that she was still holding in her oversized hand. “That tablet has traveled about seventy-five light-years to reach you. It was made by humans on Earth, a completely alien culture, and now it has found its way into your hands. Don't you think that's incredible? You're holding something right now that was made in another star system, with techniques and alloys that are completely alien to you. There's nothing exactly like it in your whole territory.”

She stared at the tablet, her ears twitching as she considered.

What is it like where you come from?” she asked.

Where should I start?” he chuckled.

You don't live in jungles, do you? You're like the Elysians, you live exposed under the open sky, in stone houses.”

Exposed was an interesting choice of words, it sounded as though she didn't approve of the idea. For a people who lived their entire lives beneath a forest canopy, perhaps the thought of having no trees to climb and no hiding spots made them uncomfortable.

Not exactly, but we're more similar to the Elysians than to the Araxie, yes. I live in an apartment on Earth when I'm not traveling, which is most of the time, come to think of it. My house, if you can call it that, is half a mile high. I share it with thousands of other humans, and my personal living space is scarcely larger than one of your wooden huts. I do have a great view of the city from the eightieth floor, though.”

Why is it so high?” she asked, raising her eyebrows as she no doubt tried to visualize such a thing with no real frame of reference.

Living space is at a premium on Earth. When we can no longer build out, we build up. My home is like a forest in a way, but instead of trees, it's made up of giant towers made from glass and metal.”

Do all humans live that way?”

No, not by a long shot. There are dozens of colonies in UNN space, we live on planets and moons, asteroids and space stations. There are ranchers on Franklin who herd cattle on thousands of miles of uninterrupted grassland, living in portable homes called crawlers. They drive around on massive treads and follow the livestock as they migrate.”

What’s grassland?” she asked.

A big stretch of open area with no trees. Like a clearing, but much larger. On the Jovian colonies or in the asteroid belt, you might find people living beneath the surfaces of moons in winding tunnels, building cities inside massive chambers in the rock. On Europa, you'd find oxygen miners living in settlements on the ice sheet. On Kruger and Hades, people live in small towns made from prefabricated buildings that are dropped there by transport ships. On Mars, you'd find people living in crowded cities beneath glass domes that protect them from radiation and allow them to breathe. Then there are people living in completely artificial space stations and on ships, some of them might not have set foot on a planet in decades.”

Why would they choose to live somewhere where they can't breathe?” Zuki asked.

Very few people have a choice,” Jules explained. “Habitable planets are rare, comfortable planets even rarer. Most people are going to have to deal with some kind of inconvenience or hazard in their lives, like having to use a rebreather because the local atmosphere isn't breathable, or having to wear special clothes whenever they venture outside because the temperature is too low to support human life.”

Colder than winter?”

Much, so cold that it would kill you instantly if you weren’t wearing protective gear. Even on planets that are relatively similar to Earth in terms of their environment, and gravity, there’s almost always hostile fauna or some other problem that has to be overcome. Some people relish the challenge, they're true pioneers, but others have no choice. They lack the agency or the resources to get out. It really makes me appreciate this place,” he said, looking around at the pristine nature as they walked through the trees. “There must be, what, a few hundred million Borealans at the most? Maybe close to a billion? You have centuries yet before you start to run out of living space, maybe you never will if you handle things properly. We had to figure it all out for ourselves, but if your people can learn from our mistakes, well...you might never have to live in a skyscraper or on a planet with no atmosphere where spending too much time outside gives you cancer.”

Now he was just ranting, and he was certain that Zuki hadn't understood all that he had said, but the tone of his voice and his expression at least conveyed what his words couldn't.

I want to learn,” she blurted. “The Patriarch fears that joining the Coalition may erase our culture and our way of life, but I see it as a way to preserve it. We do not have to become like the Elysians or the Rask, nor do we have to become like your people. If we are mindful, then we can preserve our identity even as other aspects of our lives change.”

That's what I believe too,” Jules replied, surprised that she had come to the same conclusion that he had. “The world around you is going to march on regardless of what choices you make, you can get left behind, or you can take the reins and be in control. It can work! Take the Krell, for instance. They have a pre-industrial civilization that has remained unchanged for eons, and yet they're members of the Coalition. There's no reason that the Araxie can't do that too.”

I rarely leave the village,” Zuki said, her eyes wandering to the floor again. “I've never left the territory, of course, few Araxie have. But I would like to see these things that you describe, maybe I can bring back knowledge, be of use to my people...”

She was starting to look unhappy again, and so Jules tried to focus her on something else.

Tell me what notes you've taken so far,” he said, gesturing to the tablet. “I'm not sure what I'm going to do without my liaison when I have to return home, it's nice to be able to engage with people and not have to worry about taking their statements down. Makes the encounters feel more natural and conversational.”

She perked up at that, tapping at the tablet. She was becoming remarkably proficient after only having been introduced to it that same morning.

I took down all of the statements and all of the noteworthy things that you pointed out,” she said as she turned the screen towards him and leaned down so that he could read the text. Jules ran his eyes back and forth, becoming more impressed with her work as he went.

Well, besides a few minor errors in the speech recognition, it looks great! You even categorized everything by profession. How did you know to do that?”

When I worked as a farmer, one of my responsibilities was to write down the yield from the vegetable patches,” she said with a smile. “I had to order everything by type of vegetable, which field it came from, and which pack was responsible for that field. I thought that this might be similar.”

Good job,” Jules said. He had given her the tablet to make her feel involved, to cheer her up, but he was no longer patronizing her. It was a genuine compliment, and it seemed to fill Zuki with fresh confidence that he hadn't seen in her before.

Come on,” she said, tucking the tablet under her arm and marching into the village. “We still have work left to do.”

***

Jules rubbed his temples, nursing a headache as he slaved over the tablet's glowing screen. He was hunched over one of the tables in the wooden hut, a sliver of daylight peeking under the door, further confusing his disrupted sleep cycle. Everyone else was asleep in their hammocks, and Zuki had returned home to get some rest, but he was far too busy to join them.

It had been hours, but he had almost finished writing the report that was to be delivered to the Coalition Security Council. He had collated all of the information that he had collected over the last few days. The data on the general feelings towards aliens and the Coalition that had been expressed by the territory's populace, the economic evaluation, the report from Sergeant Simmons concerning the military applications of the Araxie soldiers.

He was recommending that the territory be admitted, and he had outlined what he thought would be the best ways to begin integrating the aliens into the alliance. Development funds, a strict embargo on civilian trading until measures to protect Araxie cultural heritage could be outlined, peacekeeping forces deployed to manage the problems with the Rask. It was complicated, bureaucratic, and ultimately tiresome. But if the council agreed upon and implemented his plans for the territory, then the transition would be made as painless as possible for the locals.

Once it was complete, all that was left to do was deliver it. He could transmit the file instantaneously, there was a quantum entangled communications satellite that had been placed in Borealis orbit in order to facilitate faster than light communication. A change in the file system of one was immediately reflected in its counterpart, no matter how far away it was. But Jules preferred to deliver his report and make a case for the Araxie in person, not only as a professional courtesy, but because he liked to do things face to face. Accurate information and a good plan was one thing, but in many cases, it all hinged on the delivery.

He would present the document to the Patriarch in the morning, or rather the evening, ensure that he understood everything, and then make any necessary modifications or concessions that he desired. The mission in Araxie was finally coming to its conclusion, but while Jules longed to be free of the oppressive gravity and the sweltering heat, he was also going to miss Zuki dearly. He felt like he was just starting to get to know her, but more than that, she was beginning to find something that she was good at. She had the makings of a diplomat, but she might never reach her full potential if her people continued to dismiss and ignore her. Sure, she might make a lousy hunter and a poor farmer, but she was cut out for a job that didn't even exist yet in their society. They would need her in the coming years, but they didn't know it yet.

A sudden thought struck him as he sat in the darkness, illuminated in the glow of the tablet screen. It was not unheard of for representatives from a prospective member state to travel to the headquarters of the Security Council in order to plead their case and add weight to a recommendation. Not only might that help to sway the council, but it would also be an opportunity for Zuki to leave her home territory and learn some valuable skills in the process. Had she not expressed a desire to do just that?

He should consult with Zuki before pitching the idea to Bozka, make sure that she really wanted to go through with it, and that she understood what she was getting herself into. Still, he was confident that she would be onboard. She might only be away for a few weeks at the most, and she would be returned home once their work was complete, but it would be quite the adventure for someone who had never known anything but her jungle home.

CHAPTER 8: CALL TO ADVENTURE

I can really go?” Zuki asked, practically dancing on the spot as nervous energy consumed her. Her ears were pricked up, and her eyes were bright, her troubles forgotten.

It's ultimately up to your Patriarch,” Jules replied, “but there's no reason that you can't come if he permits it. There are already Borealans where you'll be going, you'll have food that you can eat, the environment is suitable for your kind. It might be frightening, however. I need to make sure that you're prepared for that. You'll be seeing things that you might not understand, things that are completely beyond your comprehension. But you'll be safe, and you’ll be with me the whole time, you won't be in any danger.”

I can do it,” she insisted, nodding her head emphatically. “I'm not scared, I want to do this.”

Okay, okay. Calm down,” he chuckled. “I've finished writing up the report, so all that's left to do now is present it to the Patriarch, and get his blessing. If he likes what he sees, then we can leave, and you can hopefully come with us.”

Are we going now?”

Yes, I just need to round up the Marines and the Ranger,” he said as he pulled his phone from his pocket and tapped at the screen for a few moments. “Alright, they're going to meet us at the Patriarch's house. Time for the moment of truth.”

***

When they arrived at the wooden dwelling that ringed the tree at the center of the village, Simmons and the others were already waiting for them. Jules couldn't help but notice that Yuta and Velez were sticking close together now, palling around in a way that they hadn't done in the days leading up to their encounter. They were invading one another's personal space, sharing lingering glances, and wry smiles. If it was obvious to Jules, then it must be obvious to the other Marines, too. Velez had not confronted him about his private VR show, so it was safe to assume that there was no function on the helmet to let him know that he had been observed.

So, your report is all ready?” Simmons asked as Jules approached and greeted them.

Yes, everything is done. I was up all night putting the finishing touches on it. I have a proposal to present to the Security Council that I think covers all the bases and makes the transition as easy as possible for the Araxie. We'll have to see what the Patriarch thinks about it. If he gives me the go-ahead, then I'll be returning to Fort Hamilton as soon as possible.”

Oh, are you off to the Pinwheel when this all wrapped up?” Edwards asked.

That's where the council meets, yes. What about you guys?”

We'll be returning to Elysia,” Simmons said, “we're usually deployed in the capital as part of the Coalition's commitment to planetary defense.”

Long, sunny days full of jack squat,” Velez added. “Best gig in the corps.”

Where's Bozka?” Jules asked, looking around.

We sent someone for him,” Yuta said, “he should be here soon.”

After a minute or so, both Yuta and Zuki turned their ears in the same direction, their heads following soon after. There was a short delay before the humans heard it too. Bozka emerged from the trees with two guards wearing ghillie suits in tow, fallen leaves crunching underfoot as they made their way towards the group. They greeted one another, then Bozka turned to Jules expectantly.

I am told that you have completed your evaluation of my territory, is that right?”

Yes, Patriarch. I've written up a detailed report that I intend to present to the Security Council, along with my recommendation for how to begin integrating Araxie into the Coalition. I'd like to go over it with you and ensure that everything is to your liking. We won't be doing anything in Araxie territory without your blessing, of course.”

Very well,” Bozka replied, “how long will it take?”

Probably a few hours,” Jules said apologetically.

In that case, we should proceed inside. I will have my people bring refreshments.”

Do we need to attend?” Velez asked, Simmons giving him a stern glance.

No, that won't be necessary,” Jules replied. “But I would ask that Sergeant Simmons joins us, just so that he can shed some more light on the military aspects of the proposal. Zuki should come too, her help has been invaluable so far.”

The rest of you are dismissed,” Simmons said, “I'll call you when we're ready to move out. Go back to the house and start packing your gear for the walk out of here.”

There was a chorus of yes Sir's as they moved off, the Patriarch opening the door to his dwelling as his two guards took up position outside. Jules and his colleagues followed behind him and took seats around one of the wooden tables, the light from a flickering candle that was suspended from the ceiling their only illumination. Fortunately, the tablet computer created its own light, its blue glow painting Jules' face as he began to read.

***

And that's about everything,” Jules said, taking another sip from a clay mug filled with water that had been provided to him by one of the Patriarch's attendants. “Do you have any more questions?”

It had taken almost three hours to get through everything, and the Patriarch had remained mostly silent throughout, what questions he asked mostly concerning terms and phrases that he didn't quite understand. Simmons had chipped in to explain military terms, and to provide more context for a lot of what he had contributed to the report, while Zuki hadn't made a peep. She had watched and listened attentively, but she had so far remained silent. She seemed nervous, not to be in the presence of the Patriarch, but rather worried that he might not permit her to leave the village.

You spoke of peacekeepers,” Bozka said. “What is their role, exactly? To help defend us from the Rask?”

In a way, yes,” Jules replied. “If we garrison some UNN soldiers here, it should dissuade the Rask from attacking. If what you suspect is true, that the Rask are launching clandestine raids in violation of the terms of their agreements with the Coalition, then the presence of Coalition soldiers here should nip that in the bud. They wouldn't risk exposing themselves and potentially causing an incident. On the other hand, if these Rask are just raiders operating without the knowledge of their government, then the peacekeepers will be able to help you fight them off. If you need help urgently, then we're not going to wait months for the council to deliberate before we commit, especially when we already have Marines nearby who can be easily redeployed.”

That will be of great help to us,” Bozka said, “and I have your assurances that our sovereignty will be respected?”

As outlined in the document, the Coalition won’t take any actions in your territory without your prior approval.”

That seemed to set the Patriarch more at ease, and Jules could understand his apprehension. He was about to sign off on the future of his territory, the decision that he made today would be a tipping point in their history, the weight of the world was on his shoulders.

Then I agree,” Bozka stated, more confident now.

Excellent,” Jules said, breathing a sigh of relief. If the Patriarch had refused, then all of his work would have been for naught. “If you'd just sign your name at the end of the document next to mine, then we can wrap this up in a neat little bow.”

A bow?” he asked, confused.

I just mean that we'll be finished.”

The Patriarch nodded, reaching across the table as Jules turned the tablet to face him. He hesitated with his claw hovering an inch from the screen.

What...do I do now?”

Just touch your pad against the screen,” Zuki said, “imagine that you have ink on your finger.”

Bozka wrote his name in his own script, it looked like claw marks, vertical like Chinese or Japanese text. It was all Jules needed, and he saved the file, sharing a quick glance with Zuki as she waited with bated breath.

There is one more thing that I wanted to ask you,” Jules said. “I would like to take Zuki back to the station with me for a short time, a few weeks at the most.”

Oh?” the Patriarch asked, glancing between the two in surprise. “What for?”

It's my belief that bringing along a representative from your territory might help sway the Security Council's vote in your favor. Having someone in your village learn the ins and outs of Coalition bureaucracy and protocol will be a big help to you in the coming months, too. Zuki is the perfect candidate, she's shown an affinity for this kind of work, and she has been very helpful during my stay here.”

Zuki is good at this work?” Bozka asked, making no attempt to disguise his disbelief.

Mister Lambert says that I may one day become a diplomat,” she said, “that I might learn skills that will benefit the Araxie.”

I see no reason to refuse, as you have no duties to shirk,” he grumbled. “Very well, if you think that you can be of use to your people, then you have my permission to go with the humans. If nothing else, it will at least keep you out of trouble for a while.”

It was somewhat of a scathing approval, but Jules would take it, and Zuki was struggling to contain her excitement.

Then that's all we need,” Jules said, rising from his seat and tucking the tablet under his arm. “On behalf of the UNN and the Coalition, I want to thank you for your hospitality and your assistance during the inspection, Patriarch. I will make sure that your cooperation goes on record.”

Then it is done?” Bozka asked, “you will return to your people and plead our case?”

I'm very confident that we can push this proposal through. I don't expect much opposition from the council, but it's now my job to see that you get the support that you need.”

Then we may yet live to see the end of these dark times,” the Patriarch said as he rose from the table. “Zuki, go to the armory and see Jakka, have him outfit you with whatever tools and supplies you need. You are traveling far from home, and the journey will no doubt be arduous. Take care, and do as the humans say.”

Yes, Patriarch. Thank you,” she said as she left her seat and hurried through the door.

Will you need any supplies for your journey?” Bozka continued as he turned his attention back to Jules and Simmons. “An escort, perhaps? My scouts know this area better than anyone, and they will see you to your destination safely.”

No, thank you,” Simmons replied. “We have everything that we need. If you could have one of your people lead us through the traps at the outskirts of the village, however, that would be helpful.”

Of course,” Bozka replied.

They proceeded outside and said their farewells to the Patriarch, then Jules and Simmons headed back to the dwelling that they had called home for the last few days, one of the two Araxie guards in tow. Edwards and Velez were already waiting, their rucksacks laden with supplies, and their heavy armor once again affixed over their uniforms, while Yuta loitered nearby with her massive rifle slung across her back. Jules and the Sergeant hastily collected their own belongings, and strapped on their armor, clearing out the small wooden hut until it looked just as bare as the state that they had found it in. Again, Jules wondered if the story about the pack that had lived there was a fabrication or not. Maybe he should ask Zuki about it once they were in space, she seemed to be on first-name terms with everyone in the village due to her notoriety. If anyone knew, it would be her.

Speaking of which, the alien was nowhere to be seen yet. Jules adjusted the straps on his armor uncomfortably as he searched the gloom for any sign of her.

What's the holdup, Sarge?” Velez asked.

We're waiting for Zuki,” he replied, “she'll be coming with us.”

Uh, is that a good idea, Sarge? These people have never seen a spaceship before. Riding a dropship up to orbit is probably going to scare the soul out of her.”

Not my call, Mister Lambert thinks she'll be useful.”

She's adventurous,” Jules added, “I think she'll do just fine.”

The sound of snapping twigs and crunching leaves announced Zuki's approach, the party turning to see her stumble out from between the nearby trees with what looked like the entire contents of the armory strapped to her body. Every pouch on her vest and every pocket on her shorts was full to bursting with supplies and gadgets, the poor creature weighed down by a rucksack that could have fit three people inside it. She had a large, sword-like blade hanging from her hip in a holster, and one of the crossbows was draped across her chest on a sling along with a bandoleer of iron bolts. She also had one of the camouflaged cloaks draped across her shoulders, she looked about ready to circumnavigate the globe.

Wait for me,” she huffed, struggling over to them. “Don't leave without me...I'm ready!”

What's all this?” Jules asked, looking her up and down as she stopped beside him and doubled over to catch her breath.

You said that we would be traveling far from the village,” she panted, “I brought everything that I might need. I have weapons, food, medicine, and tools.”

You won't be needing any of that,” Yuta said, a little more disdainfully than Jules would have liked. “We will only be traversing the jungle for a short while, and then we will be boarding a ship.”

Oh,” she muttered diffidently, “then what should I leave behind?”

You won't have any need of weapons, and you will be provided with all of the food that you require. What else do you have?” Yuta asked, Zuki beginning to look herself over as though she didn't exactly know. The Ranger sighed and walked over to her, beginning to rummage through her pockets. “What is this?”

A bundle of kindling,” Zuki replied.

Unnecessary,” Yuta said as she dropped it to the ground. She pulled out more objects and tools from Zuki's vest and discarded them in a pile. It was like watching some kind of comedy act, they just kept coming and coming in quantities that didn't seem possible. All that was lacking was a classic snake in a can gag. When the Ranger was done, Zuki's load had been significantly lightened, and there was a large pile of junk beside her on the ground. Jules could see knives, fishing wire, candles, bundles of fabric. It was as though someone had emptied the bug-out bag of a prepper.

I won't need my sewing kit?” Zuki asked, “or my looking glass?”

No,” Yuta replied, reaching into one of the pouches on Zuki's belt and pulling out a bundle of what looked like cotton bandages. Zuki stopped her before she dropped it on the pile, plucking it from her hand and replacing it in its leather pouch.

I need those...”

The humans have better medicine than anything that you can bring with you,” Yuta insisted, but Zuki wouldn't budge. Eventually, the Ranger just shrugged and continued her pat-down. “Take your crossbow off, you won't be needing to shoot anyone where you're going. The ammo belt too.”

Zuki struggled with the weapon, trying to pull it over her head, but the sling got caught on her rucksack. It then became tangled in the straps of her pack, hanging from her back where she couldn't reach it. After a few moments of fruitless spinning, Yuta became frustrated and ordered her to turn around, removing her heavy rucksack and the crossbow along with it. She separated the two, and then returned Zuki's pack to her, placing the weapon on the forest floor.

Can I keep my cloak?” Zuki asked.

I don't see why not,” Yuta replied with another shrug, “but you won't be using it to hide on a spaceship.”

We should pick up the pace,” Velez called out as he tapped at the display on his wrist. “The shuttle pilot has found a place to put down that's only a couple of hours South-East of the village, shouldn't take us long to get there.”

Alright, let's move out,” Simmons said. “Are you good to go, Zuki?”

I think so,” she said, glancing excitedly at Jules.

Yuta, take point. Velez and Edwards, I want you watching the civvies.”

That's us,” Jules whispered to Zuki with a grin. “Just do as Sergeant Simmons says, he's our Alpha, so to speak.”

As they set off towards the nearest vine curtain in a rough column formation, Zuki tripped on the discarded crossbow and almost toppled over, Yuta catching her and righting her.

Try to be more careful,” the Ranger muttered, Zuki smiling apologetically at her.

When they came to the massive wall of plant matter that was strung between two of the stout trees that made up the perimeter of the village, the guard held it open for them, straining to lift the heavy material. The humans walked beneath his arm, Zuki and Yuta ducking through after them, and then the Araxie let it fall back into place behind him. They emerged into the jungle proper, Jules turning to look back at the vines. His eyes were already telling him that there was nothing there, even though he knew better. The camouflage really was effective. Before them lay the minefield of traps and pitfalls, and while Zuki could probably have led them through herself, Jules was happy to have someone a little more...experienced on hand.

Trace my steps,” the guard said from beneath his ghillie suit. “Walk where I walk.”

He led them along a winding path, invisible to all but him. Jules had to wonder how many people and animals had succumbed to these traps. Had any Rask even made it this far, and had they met their fate on sharpened poles, or at the bottoms of pits? Yuta was staying conspicuously close to Zuki, perhaps worried that the clumsy alien would trip over her own feet and fall face-first into a landmine or something to that effect.

When they reached the edge, the guard turned back, and Jules took what might be his last look at the hidden village. There was no time for sentimentality, Simmons ordered them to press on, Yuta using her massive machete to cut away some of the hanging vines and undergrowth that was blocking their path.

It's been so long since I left the village,” Zuki said as they clambered over roots and squeezed between tree trunks. “There are some jobs that take people deeper into the jungle, like hunting or collecting resources, but I haven't done any of those for a while.”

Are you excited?” Jules asked.

Yes, and a little afraid,” she admitted with a nervous giggle.

I'll tell you a secret,” he said as he paused to hop over a root, “I get scared too. I never liked space travel, I don't like fieldwork. But sometimes my job calls for it, and I have no choice.”

You didn't want to come to Araxie?”

Not at first, but I'm glad that I did. I'm no adventurer, I don't do well in jungles and deserts, I'm far better suited to a climate-controlled office that has a drinks machine within walking distance. I guess coming here broadened my horizons. I can see why the Marines choose to stay, even if it's a little harsh for my sensibilities. This planet really is untamed, there's nothing artificial or synthetic about it, the people included. So much of my job revolves around formality, protocol, bureaucracy. There's none of that here. It's refreshing, in a way.”

Is it so different from where we're going?”

Oh, yes. Where we're going, even the ground beneath your feet is made of metal, the air that you breathe is treated and recycled. The sky is painted on the roof, and the suns are just giant lamps. It has its upsides, though. The heat and humidity are constant, it never rains, and there's no mud. You can take a shower any time you want, pick up a sandwich, or have your clothes laundered. You can sleep on a real bed.”

Our beds aren't real?” Zuki asked, confused.

Just wait until you've spent the night on a mattress, you'll never want to go back to a hammock.”

Some of us like the mud and the heat,” Edwards interjected as he appeared from the thick brush on their right. He and Velez were flanking the group, watching out for any local wildlife. “Me? I can't sleep on those cushy mattresses, they're too damned soft. It's like trying to sleep on a bed of quicksand.”

Don't you and the others have to return to orbit every few months so that your joints don't give out?” Jules asked. “What do you do then?”

Yeah, they make us take a few weeks of mandatory leave once every six months or so. I'm pretty sure we could handle it if we had to, but the doctors disagree. You ever seen a medic pull rank? It's scary, they'd give an angry Borealan a run for their money. I hate being out of the high-G,” the Marine grumbled as he waded through a waist-high patch of ferns. “Our bodies adapt to it, our motor functions, too. You end up trying to bring a spoon to your mouth and hitting yourself in the face with it, trying to lift objects and flinging them into the air. The human body wasn't designed to switch environments on the fly like that, it fucks you up.”

I can imagine,” Jules mused, the conversation reminding him of the strain that was currently being put on his legs. “I feel like every step down here is a workout. I should start a gym in Elysia, I'd make a killing.”

A killing is right,” Edwards laughed. “Take it from me, don't actually work out in this environment. If you have to for some reason, then make sure you drop the weight to account for the gravity. I've seen too many Marines injure themselves trying to bench press thirty percent more than they can handle because they eyeballed it. One-point-three Gs doesn't sound so bad, it's only thirty percent more than on Earth, right? That is until you actually get here and take your first step, then it's like someone dropped a sack of rocks on your shoulders.”

How does it work, gravity?” Zuki asked. “What makes it different where you come from?”

Gravity is the force you feel that pulls you towards the ground, that makes objects fall,” Jules explained. He couldn't very well blame her for her ignorance, it wasn't as if Newtonian theory was something of critical importance to the Araxie in their daily lives as hunters and farmers. “The mass of a planet determines the gravity, so Earth has less mass than Borealis, which means that things fall a little slower and they weigh a little less. When humans travel to Borealis, we weigh more than we should, which makes moving around here harder on us.”

I think I understand,” she said, turning sideways to squeeze between two tree trunks. “So if I went to Earth, I would weigh less?”

That's right, and you'll be able to experience it for yourself soon enough. UNN ships and stations all have their AG fields set to Earth-standard.”

AG fields?”

Artificial gravity fields. Don't ask me how those work, I might have passed high school physics, but I'm no theoretical physicist.”

Will it...be dangerous for me?” she asked, starting to look a little worried.

No, you won't be on the station for long enough to incur any ill effects. If you were to stay a lot longer, you would need to take medicine that stops your muscles from atrophying and your bones from losing their density, as well as maintain a pretty strict exercise regimen. Lots of Borealans stay on the station long-term, and they're able to manage the side effects just fine.”

Just take it easy for a few days,” Edwards added, “try to stay conscious of the fact that you're in a different environment so that you don't break things and walk into walls.”

I'll try,” she replied.

***

They heard the sound of the dropship's engines long before they emerged into the clearing, the ferns and grasses that carpeted the ground whipped to and fro by the backwash of the idle vessel. Zuki seemed alarmed by the sight of the bulky, ocean-grey ship with its stubby wings and its vectored thrusters, but she followed after her companions obediently as they made their way towards it. She reached up and covered her round ears with her hands as they approached the open landing ramp, her fur blown by the wind, pausing at the bottom as everyone else climbed up into the troop bay.

It's alright,” Jules shouted over the din of the engines, extending a hand to her from the top of the ramp. “There's nothing to be scared of!”

She turned and looked back over her shoulder, perhaps longing for the safety of the dense undergrowth and the darkness of the canopy. For a second, Jules was worried that she might refuse to board the craft. After a moment of hesitation, she took a tentative step up the ramp, her claws clicking against the textured metal. Jules waved her forward, encouraging her up into the troop bay, her hands slowly descending from her ears as she realized that the noise wasn't as apparent inside. As she stepped into the ship, she stumbled, her eyes wide with alarm as she gripped one of the handholds on the ceiling to stop herself from toppling over.

W-what's happening?” she asked.

Remember, we talked about gravity? This is what it feels like, this is Earth standard.”

I feel...weird,” she muttered.

Take a seat,” Yuta advised, pointing to one of the Borealan-sized crash couches that lined the walls. The troop bay was designed to accommodate multiple species with a dozen or so human-sized seats, and half as many larger ones for Borealans. There were also handholds where a couple of Krell could stand in the walkway.

Zuki sat down in one of the padded chairs, slotting her long tail through a hole in the backrest and squirming for a moment to get into position. Yuta then pulled the safety harness tight around her chest, checking that it wasn’t uncomfortable before taking a seat opposite her. Jules wondered if the aliens were told to take seating arrangements that would balance out their weight across the spacecraft, because a full pack of six must weigh around four thousand pounds, or two tons. That wasn't trivial by any means.

Jules and the Marines strapped in too, Jules sitting beside Zuki on one of the smaller chairs, reaching over and squeezing her furry hand in an attempt to reassure her.

We'll be taking off soon,” he explained, “things might get bumpy. Don't be afraid, we're perfectly safe in this ship. The straps will keep you in your chair. See those round windows? If you look through them, you'll be able to see Araxie from the sky, a bird's eye view.”

She was holding his hand tightly, her fur still damp with humidity. The deck beneath their feet began to tremble, the engines spooling up as the ramp began to close with a pneumatic hiss. It sealed with a mechanical clunk, the ship rising slowly off the ground as the landing gear stowed in its belly. The dropship wobbled and lurched as it began to climb, the chassis threatening to shake apart as the main engines fired, sending it shooting into the sky on a plume of blue-tinted flame.

Zuki squeezed Jules' hand as she shut her eyes tightly, but despite her crushing grip, he didn’t try to pull away. If she had to endure the fear and uncertainty of her first spaceflight, then he could handle a little pain on her behalf.

As the dropship rose into the upper atmosphere, the turbulence gradually abated, the shaking and rumbling finally ceasing as the sky outside faded from an azure blue to a darker shade that bordered on black. Yuta and the Marines began to climb out of their seats, Jules unstrapping himself and then leaning over to help Zuki with her harness.

It's safe to get up now,” he said, “and you can let go of my hand.”

Oh, sorry,” she muttered. As the blood returned to Jules' fingers, he took her arm and helped her up, Zuki standing on unsteady feet as she looked about the cramped bay.

Go over to one of the windows, take a look outside,” Jules said as he guided her towards one of the portholes. Beyond the reinforced glass was the blackness of space, bright, unfiltered starlight twinkling as the haze of the atmosphere fell away beneath them. Zuki pressed her black nose up against the window, her breath fogging the glass as she peered through the small opening.

Far below was the curvature of the planet, the bands of green jungle that encircled the lakes standing out like oases in the barren stretches of desert. Her green eyes brightened, her fear forgotten as a new sense of wonder overrode it.

Is that...my home?” she asked in disbelief.

You see that ring of greenery down there? That's Araxie.”

It looks so small...I feel like I could hold it in my hand.” The dropship banked, Zuki's claws screeching against the metal of the hull as she gripped it in alarm. “What are those?” she asked. She was looking out at a cloud of objects, their grey hulls reflecting the sunlight to make them gleam as they floated along in a lazy formation.

That's a Coalition planetary defense fleet,” Simmons chimed in from across the troop bay. “That big one is a jump carrier, and the smaller ones nearby are the support fleet. CIWS ships, torpedo frigates, destroyers. Looks like there's a cruiser in formation too. I think the Martian fleet is posted at Borealis right now, if the carrier is the UNN Saragarhi, then the cruiser might be the Chennai or the Jaipur. The battleships must be deployed somewhere else.”

Yes, that's right,” Jules added. “I flew in from Sol on the Saragarhi. I took a ship from Earth to Mars and then transferred to the carrier. I didn't realize how big they were, it's like a floating city. There's a damned grocery store on the ship.”

Yeah,” Simmons chuckled. “Thousands of people live on them for months, sometimes years at a time. Calling it a city might be an exaggeration, but it would certainly qualify as a mobile town.”

What do those words mean?” Zuki whispered to Jules. “Sara...garhi?”

They're names,” he replied, “we name our ships like we name people.”

The dropship angled its nose towards the formation of ships, the vessels growing in size alarmingly quickly until they were close enough to make out the windows that lined their hulls. They came in all shapes and sizes. The carrier was like a spaceborne whale, its vaguely bullet-shaped, bulbous hull broken up by the hangar bays on its flanks where a steady stream of smaller fighters and transports flew in and out like bees from a hive. The bays were open to space, save for the shimmering force field that kept in the atmosphere, but let solid objects pass. Along its belly was an array of massive railguns mounted on flexible arms, and there were torpedo tubes visible along the top of the behemoth, along with point defense turrets dotting its length. The enormous main engines at the ship's rear were currently idle as it drifted along its orbit.

The torpedo frigates were angular and blocky, as were many of the smaller ships, their hulls designed to have a low radar cross-section. They bristled with weapons and missile ports, almost appearing to stand still as the planet rotated slowly past beneath them. It seemed like overkill to Jules, the planet looked so serene, space was so quiet and peaceful. Yet an enemy fleet could jump in at any time and lay siege, and if that happened, then this defense fleet would be the first to meet them.

Borealis is right on the edge of Coalition space, and it's pretty close to Fort Hamilton,” Simmons continued. “At least in astronomical terms. It's not too hard to keep a large, impressive fleet stationed here to keep the locals happy.”

Are we going to dock with the carrier?” Jules asked, noticing that the dropship was changing course.

Yeah, my guys will be switching to another shuttle and riding it back down to Elysia. I assume the flyboys will be able to get you two wherever you need to go.”

It's been a pleasure, Sergeant,” Jules said. He turned and offered his hand to the Marine. Simmons seemed surprised, but he took it firmly and shook it.

When they told me that I'd be babysitting a paper pusher on a jungle expedition, I was prepared for the worst, but you're alright, Lambert. I hope you and Zuki can get the council to vote the way that you want. Best of luck to the both of you.”

Zuki watched through the porthole as they entered the carrier's hangar, her eyes tracking another dropship as it exited beside them, blasting off into space and leaving a trail of chemical residue in its wake. They swayed as the ship decelerated, and then there was a rumbling sound as the landing gear deployed, the dropship bouncing gently as it set down on the deck.

It taxied deeper into the cavernous bay, joining the many vessels that were parked inside. The idle ships were being tended by crowds of people clad in the yellow overalls that identified them as engineers and flight crews, checking landing gear and using snaking pipes for refueling, carrying supplies to and fro. Zuki hadn't looked away from the window the entire time, and Jules had to pat her on the back to get her attention.

We've arrived,” he said, the Araxie turning to look down at him.

It's so big inside...it looked smaller from a distance.”

The ramp began to descend, and along with it came the sounds of machinery and conversations. The hangar was like a giant auditorium. The noises of roaring engines, power tools, and men shouting over the din were unpleasant even for a human. Zuki covered her ears again, looking miserable, blinking her eyes against the harsh light. Jules remembered that they were nocturnal creatures, the bright halogen lamps that lined the ceiling might be too much for her. She really did look like she was being overstimulated.

Wait here for a minute, I have an idea,” he said.

Jules, Yuta, and the Marines descended the ramp and bade one another farewell with a few handshakes and pats on the back. Yuta clapped her enormous, furry hand between Jules’ shoulders and very nearly knocked him off his feet. It seemed that even the Ranger had warmed to him somewhat during their short time together.

Maybe we'll see you around,” Edwards said, grasping his hand and shaking it vigorously. “Borealis is a small planet, if you ever stop by the embassy in Elysia, we'll probably cross paths again.”

There should be someone coming to escort you to your next assignment,” Simmons added, “stay near the ship for the time being. And good luck!”

Jules watched them as they made their way off into the hangar, weaving through the crowds of personnel and ducking under the wings of parked fighter craft, off to report to a superior or perhaps heading straight to their next shuttle. They really did look out of place amongst the prim and proper carrier crew, like they had been dropped in from another time period. He was left standing on his own beside the dropship, all there was to do now was wait. After a few minutes, he pulled out his phone and connected it to the carrier's intranet, trying to find a way to contact someone who could point him to his next destination.

You need any help, Sir?” the dropship pilot asked, his boots clunking on the metal ramp as he made his way down to the deck. He was wearing a flight helmet with the visor down, and so Jules couldn't make out his features. Engineers were already swarming the ship, tapping on tablet computers and walking around it as they inspected the airframe, two of them hooking up a heavy fuel line beneath one of the wings.

I'm waiting for an escort, but there's no sign of them yet.”

Just put a call through to fleetcom, and they'll get you sorted out,” he advised. “My orders were only to bring you guys back up to the carrier, so I'm not sure where they want you next. If you need to get out of the hangar, there are exits at intervals along the back wall. See the yellow line on the floor over there? Stay on the near side of it, that's where the ships taxi in.”

Thanks,” Jules said as the man wandered off into the bustle of activity. Everyone seemed to know where they were going besides him. He did as the pilot had advised, calling fleetcom on his phone via the carrier's network, and asking for further instructions. The voice on the other end of the line told him that there was another dropship ready to transfer him to a waiting vessel, and that his escort was on the way. He also put in a request for something that should ease Zuki's discomfort.

In the meantime, he ascended the ramp again to check on his Araxie companion. She was still covering her ears, looking up at him and pouting as he entered the bay.

Someone is on their way, we won't be here for much longer,” he said.

Why is there so much noise?” she complained.

Don't worry, they're bringing something that should help.”

The escort finally arrived, a man wearing a blue UNN uniform, and holding another tablet in his hand. Judging by his complexion and his dark, curly hair, he was likely a Martian. He was struggling to get his other arm around a large, black helmet.

Mister Lambert? I was sent to escort you to your next shuttle,” he said. His Indian accent confirmed that he was probably from Mangala or one of the other Martian habitats. It was somewhat rare to see Martians outside of their shipyards and domed cities, but this was a Martian carrier, after all.

Ah, excellent. You brought the helmet,” Jules said as he jogged down the ramp and took it from him. He returned to Zuki's side, tapping at the controls on the side of the helmet for a moment, changing the settings as the man watched curiously. “Move your hands,” Jules said, Zuki obliging as he placed it onto her head and closed the visor. Immediately, her demeanor changed. She stopped slouching, sitting up straight and alert, turning her head as she looked around the bay. He couldn't see her expression, but he could tell that his plan had worked.

It's not noisy anymore, and everything is darker!” she exclaimed. Her voice was somewhat muffled by the full-faced visor. “The light doesn't hurt my eyes!”

I turned down the volume on the microphones and tinted the visor. You should feel like you're back in an Araxie jungle as long as you wear this. Well, at least in terms of the volume level, and the brightness. This a combat helmet designed for Borealan auxiliaries, like the ones your people recovered from the Rask.”

Now that she was essentially wearing earplugs and sunglasses, her earlier curiosity and energy returned, her long tail waving back and forth excitedly as she followed him down the ramp and into the hangar.

This must be your...uh, companion,” their guide said as he craned his neck to look up at the alien. She seemed even more out of place here than the Marines, with her covering of black fur and her tribal garb. “This way, please.”

I'm surprised that we're being transferred to another ship,” Jules said as he walked beside the man, keeping one eye on Zuki to make sure that she didn't wander off. “I was expecting to be traveling on another carrier.”

No, Sir. When the Captain heard that we had a UN diplomat onboard, she chartered a Courser to take you straight back to the station.”

A Courser?” Jules asked, his eyes widening. “That's great news! That'll cut our travel time down from weeks to hours!”

It could take weeks or even months for the massive carriers to cross the gulfs of space. They used their jump drives to leapfrog into a higher dimension, or perhaps a completely separate universe, where the laws of time and physics operated very differently. It was impossible to exceed ninety-nine percent light speed in conventional space, but in superlight, that limitation could be circumvented. It was possible to be massless, for time to run in peculiar and illogical streams, or for the distances between two points of space to be closer together. A ship could travel at impossible speeds, following the swells and currents of time in order to reach a destination far sooner than would otherwise be possible. It would then be ejected back into realspace a number of light-years away, where it would coast as its array of nuclear reactors charged the drive ready for another jump.

Many of the ships in the fleet were not equipped to keep up, either being too small to house the number of nuclear reactors required, or otherwise being unable to generate enough energy to match pace. The carrier didn't simply house fighter craft, it also dragged the rest of the fleet along in its superlight wake, pulling them with it during its journey.

A Courser was the most optimal ratio between mass, carrying capacity, and power consumption that the Navy could build. They were small vessels compared to the massive jump carriers and cruisers, but they were designed to be as fast as possible, built to ferry important personnel and critical information over great distances where slower methods just wouldn't suffice.

What's that!?” Zuki yelled over the din of the hangar, pointing to a lumbering creature nearby. It was around sixteen feet long from its elongated snout to its oar-like tail, covered in armored scutes and hard scales in shades of spinach green that tapered into a lighter beige on its underbelly. Its many-toed feet slapped on the deck, its tail dragging behind it as it marched along. It was carrying a large container of some kind in its arms, the weight of which was probably more than even a Borealan could have lifted. It looked for all intents and purposes like a hunched, bipedal alligator, and the only clothing it wore was a yellow poncho that hung across its broad shoulders to identify it as a flight engineer.

That's a Krell, one of our allies in the Coalition,” Jules explained as he turned and made her lower her arm. “Please don't point at them, it's rude.”

The Krell proceeded on its way, Zuki watching in awe as it vanished behind a dropship.

If we could pick up the pace?” their escort suggested, waving them forward.

The hangar was large enough that it took them a few minutes to walk from one end to the other, and this was only one of the two bays, there was another of equal size on the adjacent side of the ship. Zuki's head was on a swivel. Everywhere they went, there was something new to gawk at, and Jules ended up having to hold her furry hand to keep her oriented. When they finally arrived at the waiting dropship, she was more eager than ever to mount the ramp, strapping herself into one of the seats with no prompting from Jules as she awaited the next adventure. That helmet had done wonders, and he wondered how long she would be allowed to keep it. As Simmons had said, they were expensive pieces of tech.

This dropship will take you over to the Courser,” their escort said, “Captain Varma sends her regards.”

Jules sat down beside Zuki and strapped into his seat, the pilot's voice coming in over the intercom with a hiss of static.

We're queued for takeoff, it's going to be a couple of minutes. Please secure your harnesses and remain seated until we're docked.”

Zuki looked down at Jules, practically bouncing in her seat, and he reached up to raise her visor so that he could see her face. Her green eyes were bright, her round, dark pupils slowly shrinking as they adjusted to the light.

How are you liking the Coalition so far?” he asked, “is it living up to your expectations?”

Everything is so big!” she exclaimed, turning to peer out of one of the nearby portholes. “Is it all made out of metal?”

The ships? Yes, for the most part. There are also polymers and plastics, other advanced materials, but they're mostly made out of metal.”

I can't imagine building something so big,” she muttered.

Well, we don't have thousands of blacksmiths hammering carriers together by hand,” he chuckled.

I know. The Patriarch says that the Coalition makes machines that build other machines.”

That's right,” he said, surprised that she had understood a concept that must be quite abstract for someone with her background. Her language skills were very good, and she had quickly learned how to use the tablet computer, too. She was much more astute than anyone gave her credit for.

The dropship lurched as it began to taxi, Jules joining Zuki as they watched through the nearby window, the vessel moving towards the shimmering force field that took up the entire left wall. The blackness of open space was visible just beyond the translucent barrier, tinted slightly blue, the energy shifting and moving almost imperceptibly like the surface of a pond. There was another dropship in front of them in the queue, which angled its nose towards the field of twinkling stars before coming to a stop, a slanted panel rising from the deck behind it. It was blasted black with scorch marks, designed to absorb or deflect the backwash from the engines so that they didn't fry the ships and personnel that were directly behind it in the surprisingly busy bay. Its main engines spooled, spewing blue flame like a blowtorch as the craft rapidly accelerated and shot out into space. Their own dropship was next up, rolling along the deck on its wheeled landing gear and getting into position.

Prepare for launch,” the pilot said, “you may feel some acceleration.”

The troop bay began to rumble as the engines ramped up, the deck shaking beneath their feet, and Zuki reached up to close her visor again as Jules gripped the armrests on his crash couch with white knuckles. No matter how many times he flew in spaceships, he never got used to the physics of it. The way that his inner ear warned him that he was being accelerated, flipped upside down, and thrown around with G-forces that threatened to turn his insides to pulp.

He was pressed into his seat, the hangar whipping past so quickly that he scarcely had time to notice. He blinked, and then the whitewashed walls and the harsh lighting of the carrier's interior had been replaced with the inky darkness of the void. There was a clunk as the landing gear retracted, and then it was smooth sailing, their breakneck speed unnoticeable once the initial acceleration was over and done with.

The dropship turned once it was at a safe distance from the carrier, Jules watching the goliath of a ship shrink to the size of a toy as they burned away from it. The fleet was in close formation, but that still put them kilometers apart. He turned his head, trying to see in front of the dropship, and was able to catch a glimpse of the Courser through the cockpit canopy as they neared it.

The ship was shaped like a knitting needle, pointed and streamlined, the engines and the nuclear reactor that powered its drive housed far at the back of the sleek hull where they would pose less of a danger to the occupants should anything go awry. Although being described as small, it was still far larger than their dropship, almost like the Washington monument had been flipped on its side and equipped with afterburners.

The pilot maneuvered the dropship alongside it, but this time, there was no hangar to land in. The troop bay ramp remained closed, and instead, an umbilical walkway extended from the near side of the Courser. It looked like a metal frame wrapped in flexible material. The pilot lined up with it, and then there was a loud thud as it locked, the two vessels now mated.

You can leave your seats now,” the pilot said as the intercom crackled, “please proceed down the umbilical.”

Jules unclipped his harness and stood, Zuki following after him as he made his way towards the front of the troop bay, nearer to the dividing door that separated it from the cockpit. To their right was another small door, which opened automatically as they approached it. There was a rush of stale air, its scent different enough that even Jules could tell it apart with his dull, human nose. Before them was the umbilical, an extensible, metal frame that resembled the load-bearing jib of a crane. It led towards a second door that was perhaps fifty feet away. The white material that protected them from the vacuum beyond seemed flimsy and thin, like a plastic tarp had been haphazardly draped over it. As Jules set foot on the metal walkway that ran along the bottom, the entire structure emitted a worrying creak. This was the spacefaring equivalent of a precarious rope bridge hanging across a ravine.

It's perfectly safe,” he said, with a little less conviction than he had intended. Zuki took his word for it, ducking inside and following him as he made his way towards the other end. The journey was mercifully short, and the pair soon found themselves standing on the deck of the Courser.

This ship was not a luxury cruise liner, that much was obvious at a glance. The grey hull material was exposed in many places, pipes and electrical cables snaking across the walls and ceiling, the deck made up of textured sheet metal. The lights were dim, casting dark shadows, the musty air conveying the scents of oil and fuel. It was very industrial, the Courser was a precision machine engineered to perform its intended role as efficiently as possible with little concern for comfort.

There were cargo bays and crew quarters of limited size, but with any luck, he and Zuki wouldn't be needing to explore them. The journey to Fort Hamilton, or the Pinwheel as it was colloquially known, shouldn't take more than a matter of hours in a vessel of this class.

A voice came in over the ship's intercom, the pilot of the vessel greeting them.

Welcome, Mister Lambert. I've received orders to take you to Fort Hamilton. If you and your companion would like to take a seat and strap in, we can get underway shortly. There are bits beneath your seats.”

Ah, bits...he had almost forgotten about the discomforts of superlight travel. He spied an intercom mounted on the wall, its white color standing out against the grey metal, and pressed the red button that would let him speak to the pilot.

Thank you, we're just getting seated. I have a first-timer with me, so let me make sure she's ready and seated before we jump.”

Of course, Sir. Let me know when you're ready.”

As the door sealed shut behind them with a hermetic hiss, he guided Zuki over to one of the seats that lined the walls, not dissimilar from those used on the dropship. Despite how much larger the Courser was, there wasn't dramatically more room, with jutting pipes and machinery occupying much of the extra space. She sat down, and he fastened the harness about her chest, then he began to close a pair of manacles over her wrists that were bolted to the armrests of the chair.

What are those for?” she asked, a hint of concern creeping into her voice.

We're about to undergo a superlight jump,” Jules explained, making sure that the fit was snug enough to prevent her from moving around. “It's going to be...unpleasant.”

Unpleasant?” she asked, “why?”

The ship is going to be moving to another place very quickly, it's going to be...how do I put this in a way that you can understand? Hell, I don't understand it, but the ship is going to disappear and then reappear in a different location. You're probably going to experience some muscle cramps, spasms, loss of consciousness. You might black out for a short while, it might make you nauseous or give you a migraine. I won't lie, it sucks, but it will be over quickly. These straps are to prevent you from hurting yourself or anyone else. Do you understand?”

W-will it hurt?” she asked, her voice wavering.

It might hurt, but not for long. I don't want to scare you, but it will go a little smoother if you know what to expect. I've done this before, so has the pilot and everyone on that carrier. Simmons, Edwards, Velez, they've all done it too. It's perfectly safe.”

I...I don't know,” she mumbled through her helmet, but it was too late to turn back now.

Do you trust me?” he asked, flipping up her visor and looking up into her worried eyes.

Yes...”

It'll be alright,” he insisted, and Zuki nodded. He knelt and fished inside the mesh netting beneath her seat for the container that held the bit. It was Borealan-sized like the chair, designed to stop her from biting her tongue off during the jump. “Bite down on this,” he said, and she opened her mouth as he placed it inside. He worried for a moment that her teeth or her jaw size might be too different from those of the Equatorials for the bit to do its job, but it seemed to fit.

Before taking a seat, he walked over to the intercom and informed the pilot that they were ready, hastily fastening his harness and slotting his own bit into his mouth. He shook his head and rolled his shoulders as he prepared himself for the jump. He didn't close the manacles, he had done enough jumps that the effects had begun to diminish to the point that he tended not to flail around. It got a little easier every time. Some of the more seasoned captains and pilots could even stand during a jump, so he had been told.

Here we go,” he said, feeling the ship begin to turn as it oriented itself towards its destination. The jump drive began to charge, the hair on Jules' arms standing on end, Zuki's fur rising like she was standing next to a giant plasma globe. He wanted to hold her hand to reassure her, but she would likely crush his bones to dust.

The Courser released the energy that it had built up, tearing a rift in space and time, Jules' consciousness ceasing as his body was dragged along with it into a dimension that was beyond his capacity to experience.

***

Jules awoke as if from a dream, his head pounding. He opened his eyes and tried to get his bearings, but his vision was blurry, his muscles twitching as the sharp pain bounced between his temples. His extremities tingled like he had slept on them wrong, and when he moved his fingers, all he felt was pins and needles.

Where was he? He couldn't remember, but wherever he was, he must be recovering from one hell of a hangover. As his vision began to clear, the room around him came back into focus, and he blinked as the light from a ceiling lamp sent a stab of pain shooting into his brain.

Wait, it was coming back to him now, his awareness clawing its way to the forefront of his mind. He was on the Courser, they had just completed a jump. He spat the bit out of his mouth, the molded plastic bouncing on the deck, then he took a moment to collect himself before unclasping his harness and standing on shaky legs.

Easier every time, my ass,” he muttered to himself as he stumbled over to where Zuki was sat. She was slumped in her chair, her visor closed over her face, the only movement coming from the slow rise and fall of her chest and the twitching of her fingers.

He leaned closer, flipping up the opaque visor. Her eyes were closed, and he examined the bandages beneath her leather vest. Should he sate his curiosity, open her vest while she was still out, and sneak a look at what those bandages were concealing? He glanced up at her to make sure that she was still asleep, then reached a hand down towards her leather garment.

No. He shouldn't be doing this. She had told him that she trusted him, and whatever she was concealing was none of his business until she decided to open up about it. As he withdrew his hand, Zuki's eyelids fluttered, a sliver of her green irises catching the light as she slowly came too. She mumbled in her own language, Jules unable to understand her, looking around as her confusion morphed into alarm. She tried to move, then found that the manacles restrained her, baring her teeth as she fought against her bonds. She hissed and spat, her claws raking at the armrests, but the Borealan seats were designed to withstand this.

Zuki,” Jules said, his voice soft and reassuring. “Zuki, it's Jules, calm down. You're on the Courser, remember?”

He watched her slowly switch from a kind of animal fear and confusion to a state of awareness, recognition in her eyes as she peered back at him.

Jules...I didn't like that.”

He laughed sympathetically, reaching over and patting her on the shoulder.

Just stay in your seat for a minute or two until the dizziness wears off, don't try to stand yet. You'll start to feel better soon, I promise.”

All of my muscles hurt,” she groaned.

Something about superlight doesn't agree with living nervous systems. Wherever we go when we jump...we're not supposed to be there. There are no long-term effects, at least that we know of, but it sure does suck.”

He reached down and opened the manacles, Zuki rubbing her temples beneath the helmet with her padded fingers as she slowly recovered.

Jump complete,” the pilot said over the nearby intercom, “we're going to be coasting for about four hours while the drive charges, and then we'll be ready for the final jump to Fort Hamilton.”

We have to go again?” Zuki grumbled.

It'll be alright,” Jules replied. “When you're ready to get up, we'll go talk to the pilot and see if we can hang out in the crew quarters for a little while, get something to eat and drink. Would you like that?”

She nodded, flipping down her visor to block out the light.

***

How do you like it?” Jules asked, watching as Zuki fished a piece of meat out of her ration packet with her hooked claws. She was digging into one of the Borealan MREs, which in theory, had everything that her enormous body required. If it tasted good was another matter entirely, but the human ones were pretty nice, so he had no reason to think otherwise. Her helmet was sitting on the table, and Jules had turned down the lighting in the room to make it more suited to her sensitive eyes.

It's okay,” she replied, reaching into one of her many pockets and upending a vial of salt into the plastic packet. She then closed it and shook it vigorously. The Araxie seemed to prefer their meat a little saltier than the Elysians, or at least Zuki did.

The crew quarters were cramped, as small as it was possible to make them while still being able to accommodate a Borealan or a Krell, as long as they hunched over when they stood up. They were sitting to either side of a small table beside one of the few portholes in the ship's hull, somewhat like a booth in a restaurant. There were two bunks crammed into the room, along with a bathroom that even a human passenger would have found cramped. It was more like a prison cell than a cabin, but it was all that they could fit on a ship of this size.

Zuki chewed on a hunk of nondescript meat as she stared out of the window, the stars beyond seeming to stand still. There was no evidence that they were moving at all, no point of reference, no sensation of acceleration.

Where are we now?” she asked.

Nowhere, really,” Jules replied as he leaned back in the padded seat. “We're between Borealis and the station, somewhere in interstellar space. There's nothing out here, no planets or asteroids, it's completely empty save for a little gas and dust.”

Like a desert,” she muttered.

In a way, yes. You could say that it's like being between two Borealan territories.”

I thought that being outside the walls of my village was far from home,” she added, chewing on another piece of grey meat. “But now, I'm further from home than any Araxie has ever been. The best hunters, the best soldiers, they have never ventured this far.”

Are you...feeling homesick?”

No, it's just a strange feeling. I'm looking at the stars, and I don't recognize them, I can't see any of the patterns that I'm used to seeing in the night sky.”

We've actually jumped far enough that those stars will have changed position. They're all objects in three-dimensional space, so as your perspective changes, the constellations will shift along with it.”

There's an old Araxie legend,” she began, “about how the Gods pulled a dark blanket over the world when night came so that the sun was blotted out. The Araxie couldn't see at night, they were blind. The first Patriarch of our people used his bow to shoot holes in the sky in defiance of the Gods, and the sunlight spilled through so that the Araxie could see in the darkness.”

Oh, like a firmament? Some ancient human cultures had similar ideas, they imagined that the sky was a roof, a solid structure like a dome.”

Of course, we Araxie are not ignorant,” she quickly added. “We know that such stories are only myths and that the stars are much like our own suns. But still, I can't help but think of it when I look out there.”

I don't think it's ignorant,” Jules said as he watched her stare out into space. “That story is a part of your culture, something unique to you. I want to help you protect that, be it from the Rask or the Bugs. Sometime soon, that story will be stored in research papers and data centers all over Coalition space, and it will be effectively immortal.”

A culture cannot exist without its people,” she replied.

I suppose not, but we're trying to preserve those too,” he chuckled. “There might be Araxie living on other planets one day soon, spread out all around the Galaxy. If a disaster or a plague should strike, or a war or something of the sort, your people would be rendered effectively immortal too. If something came along and destroyed the whole planet, there would still be Araxie living elsewhere.”

Where might we live?” she asked curiously.

Oh, you want examples? Off the top of my head, the Epsilon Eridani system has a habitable jungle planet that the Coalition is having a pretty hard time colonizing due to the harsh terrain. What do you think about that? A jungle that spans an entire planet?”

We could live there?”

I don't see why not,” he added with a shrug. “I'm not saying that you should relocate your whole population, the Araxie territory belongs to you, and we're going to make sure that your borders are protected. But if you sent maybe a few thousand people there to start a colony, you'd be helping out the Coalition, and you'd be starting a kind of backup territory just in case. It's not a done deal, we still have to convince the council, but I'm optimistic.”

A jungle that spans an entire planet,” she wondered, dipping her long tongue into the MRE packet and licking up the sauce.

They were distracted from their conversation as the intercom crackled to life, the pilot's voice coming through again.

Mister Lambert, if you and your companion would like to return to your seats, we'll be able to jump again shortly.”

That's our cue,” Jules said apologetically, “are you ready for another jump?”

No,” she grumbled. “But if it must be done, then I have to accept it...”

Very pragmatic,” he replied.

CHAPTER 9: PINWHEEL

The Courser pierced through the fabric of reality like a needle, spraying a rainbow of colorful gasses in its wake in an expanding cloud as it emerged from superlight. It drifted for a moment, the auto-pilot system taking control while the pilot slowly came back to his senses.

Before it was the Pinwheel, a giant, spoked torus that resembled a cartwheel as it slowly rotated in orbit above a red and dusty planet. It was surrounded by ships. Giant carriers unloaded their crews as hulking battleships docked in its cavernous bays for repairs, smaller vessels swarming like flies as the station's white hull reflected the unfiltered sunlight from the system's pale star. Even the thousand-foot long carriers were dwarfed by the station, its dry docks able to accommodate several at once. It was so large that no artificial gravity field could fully cover it, which was the reason for the spinning torus that rotated around the central hub.

By the time Jules was awake again and walking around, the Courser was already using its chemical engines to burn towards the station. When Zuki came to, he helped her out of her seat. Her legs were still shaky, and she was unsteady on her feet, but he didn't want her to miss the sight.

There are so many,” she said, blinking through her headache as she watched the behemoths drift around the station. Jules wasn't in the Navy, but he couldn't help but feel a sense of pride at the sight of the vessels. Each one of those capital ships was the size of a small town, and was armed with the cutting edge of human technology. Fort Hamilton was the largest military base in Coalition space, and so there were enough ships here at any given time to make up two or three fleets. As they gawked, a massive jump freighter emerged from superlight nearby, in full view of their porthole. Like a puff of glitter, the cloud of gasses slowly dissipated in its wake as the gigantic vessel drifted, the jets of blue flame along its hull flickering as it righted itself. The freighters were civilian ships used to transport goods across interstellar distances. They were made up of a long, skeletal structure that was loaded with massive cargo containers. The cockpit and living quarters were at one end, and the engines and reactors were at the other, making it look a little like a half kilometer long cotton swab.

Zuki's feline eyes widened as she watched the colorful burst of gas, as if the ship had punched a hole through a rainbow, its main engines firing to leave a streak of flame across the sky like blue paint smeared across a black canvass.

Oh look, there's a Phobos class battleship,” Jules said as he pointed to a vessel that was undocking from one of the bays. “See how it seems to be split into two halves? The hull is built around a giant magnetic cannon, like a really big rifle. They're designed for taking out enemy capital ships and even cracking planets.”

There's so much,” she muttered, overwhelmed perhaps by both the quantity and size of the ships. “What enemy warrants all of this? Will they become our enemies too if we join you?”

Our main enemies are the Betelgeusians,” he replied, “and they're the enemy of every living thing that isn't a Betelgeusian. They would attack you whether you were a part of the Coalition or not. They're giant insects, hive creatures.”

We had no idea that any of this was out here,” she said, “that any of this was going on. It makes me feel...small.”

Your territory might be small, but it's no less important than a human colony planet. These are the ships that would jump in to defend Araxie in the event that someone attacked you.”

He neglected to add that due to both Elysia and Rask already being members, the whole planet would need to be defended by necessity in the case of a Bug attack, as a single hive ship making landfall could very well spell doom for Borealis.

The Courser followed a route that steered it clear of the other vessels, only the pilot knowing exactly where they were going. Jules and Zuki watched as the station continued to grow in size, and before long, it had filled their entire field of view with its curved, white hull. It was far less smooth up close. There were all kinds of antennae and radar dishes along the rotating torus, the indents of airlocks, and other miscellaneous pieces of machinery pockmarking its surface. There were no windows on the habitat itself, only on the inner hub that served as the control center.

The ship veered towards one of the yawning hangars, larger even than those of the jump carriers, the same flickering force field holding in the atmosphere. The vessel matched velocity with the rotation, the intercom crackling.

Please return to your seats while we land,” the pilot advised, “we'll be docking with the station shortly.”

Jules gestured to the nearby seats, and they sat down, close enough to the window that they could still see out of it. After waiting a couple of minutes for final clearance, the vessel drifted forwards, the pilot making minute corrections as he threaded the needle-like ship into the gaping opening. The closer they got, the larger it seemed. This was not one of the drydocks used to accommodate the largest classes of ship, but it was still enormous, it would not have been too difficult to maneuver a frigate into one of these bays.

They passed through the shimmering, blue barrier, and then Jules felt a reverberation through the deck as the landing gear deployed. The Courser bounced as it touched down, and then the main engines powered off, the hum that he had grown so accustomed to hearing over the last few hours going silent.

We've landed,” the pilot said. “Welcome to Fort Hamilton, Mister Lambert. Please watch your step on your way down the ramp, and proceed directly to the back wall behind the yellow line.”

Thank you,” Jules replied over the intercom, releasing the button and waving for Zuki to join him. “We're finally here! Are you ready? Don't forget your helmet.”

She retrieved the helmet from where she had set it down on the chair beside her, standing and slotting it over her head.

I'm ready!” she announced excitedly.

Follow me closely, and don't wander off. This station is really big, and there are lots of people here. It could be very easy for you to get lost.”

She nodded, sticking close as he walked towards the door from which they had entered the craft. It opened automatically, and beyond was the same umbilical that had anchored their dropship to the Courser when they had first boarded it. This time, it was angled down at a shallow inclination that led to the deck of the hangar. Zuki ducked in behind him as he made his way down, his boots clanking on the metal, and then he emerged into a wide-open space. It was like being inside some kind of massive underground cave, except made from shining metal and white plastic, a veritable technological cathedral. The ceiling must have been a hundred feet above them, and the distance from the force field on their left to the back wall on their right was at least five or six hundred feet.

There were catwalks all along the walls, men in yellow jumpsuits walking back and forth along them, and embedded in the high ceiling were bright lamps spaced at intervals that lit the whole space in a pale glow. As Zuki emerged from the umbilical, Jules turned to take in the scenery, noting the enormous clumps of machinery near the force field that served to raise and lower the blast shields. They could close to seal off the bay from space, like a garage door built for a giant. The stars wheeled past beyond its ever-shifting bounds, so wide and open that looking at it for too long gave him vertigo. The bays were built into the top and bottom of the donut-shaped habitat, as being built into the sides would have simply flung their contents into space due to the inertia.

Other ships were sitting idle on the deck, mostly small dropships and one Warden patrol vessel that seemed to be undergoing a refit. There were engineers everywhere, carrying objects and crates, or just walking to their next destination. There was already a group of engineers approaching the Courser from the direction of the back wall, paying no attention to its occupants, fixating on the elongated hull of the ship.

Jules appraised it too, it was so strange to have seen it floating in space, and now to see it sitting on the deck on a set of appropriately large landing gear. They were thick and sturdy, supported by huge hydraulic pistons and adorned with hanging cables, multiple rows of wheels that were as tall as a man with thick tires making contact with the ground.

Zuki was even more impressed, spinning slowly on the spot as she craned her neck to look up at the ceiling, Jules taking her hand and guiding her towards the back of the hangar. They reached the yellow line that was drawn on the deck, dodging past the occasional engineer or a Navy pilot clad in blue as they made their way towards one of the exits into the torus.

As they stepped through into the main habitat of the station, Zuki faltered, pausing by the door to take it all in. Before them was what looked almost like a city street, with a concave ceiling and a flat floor that extended into the distance in both directions, eventually curving out of view. The roof above their heads was adorned with a painted mural, depicting a blue sky with fluffy, white clouds. Great lamps were spaced out at intervals to provide light and warmth, approximating the glow of a sun, and there was even an artificial breeze coming from the ventilation system. If one closed their eyes, they could almost convince themselves that they were standing on solid ground.

The deck beneath their feet was made from a matte-white material akin to polymer, and everywhere they looked, it was packed with people of all races and species. There were humans in both military and civilian clothing, the throngs parting before towering Krell, packs of Borealans weaving through the crowds of smaller beings as they went about their business.

To either side of the street were the facades of buildings, extruded from the white hull material to give the impression that the occupants were planetside, rather than walking through an artificial structure. It was reminiscent of something that you might find in a theme park, or on a movie set. Behind those sculpted bricks and fake wood panels were hundreds of feet of machinery, air vents, and water pipes. Beyond those vital systems was the armored hull that protected the occupants from the vacuum of empty space.

The planters packed with foliage and flowers added to the illusion, carefully tended trees and shrubs adding some color to the station, their leaves rustling in the breeze. The designers of this great machine had done all that they could to conceal the fact that it was a space station, and for the most part, they had succeeded. When Jules was standing on the torus, the sense of claustrophobia could almost be silenced, that niggling voice in the back of his mind that reminded him that deadly vacuum was only a few hundred feet away.

It's a world,” Zuki whispered, Jules barely able to hear her over the loud chorus of a thousand blended conversations. “A world inside a ring.”

More like a city,” he replied, “but it is rather impressive the first time you see it. Come on, we need to book a hotel room. I’d usually make a reservation before we arrived, but the Borealan accommodations are never fully booked.”

He was especially glad of the helmet now, the noise on the station would have driven Zuki crazy, and the sun lamps were configured to mimic a sunny day on Earth. She didn't seem too bothered by the crowds, she was more curious than anything, her head turning to track every new person that passed her by. He took her massive hand is his, struggling to get his fingers around it as he guided her along the walkway, following the colored lines that were drawn on the floor to guide pedestrians. They were in the military quarter right now, and they needed to get to the tourist quarter where the hotels were.

They passed by barracks and other such structures, transitioning into another quarter of the station, the spartan and functional facades replaced with more elaborate stores and food stands. The sights and smells were a ceaseless distraction for Zuki, her head snapping around each time she found something new and interesting.

She practically dragged Jules over to one of the large windows that faced the street, other pedestrians veering out of her path, pressing her visor up against the glass and staring at the wonders contained within.

What are those?” she asked, prodding the pane with her padded finger.

That's a souvenir shop,” he replied, looking past her at the shelves stocked with mugs and keychains.

Souvenir?”

It's like an item or some kind of token to remind you of where you've been. They sell toys, shirts and cups with logos on them, scale models of the station. Things like that. Do you want a keychain?” he added, looking up at her as she fixated on the trinkets. “We can get you a keychain, they're only like two creds.”

I don't know what those are,” she replied.

Come on, I'll show you.”

He took the lead and guided her into the store, Zuki ducking under the low doorway, the ceiling inside high enough that she was in no danger of hitting her head. There were a few other people browsing, but they paid her no mind. Anyone who spent more than a few minutes on the station would soon become accustomed to the sight of the ever-present aliens that populated it.

Don't pick anything up, and try not to knock anything over,” he warned. “These items are for sale, so look with your eyes, not your paws.”

While Fort Hamilton was primarily a Naval base, the sheer size and scope of the station made it an engineering marvel that attracted sightseers and tourists from across known space. It hadn't taken long for civilian businesses to begin operating in order to serve the personnel, and then the tourists, until the station had quickly exceeded the scope of its original design. Stores and restaurants occupied vacant space, unused barracks had been converted into hotels, street vendors hocked their wares to Marines on shore leave and visiting dignitaries alike. There was scarcely an inch of space on the torus that wasn't put to good use by someone who wanted to sell something or provide a service.

Jules led Zuki past a rack of hats and sunglasses, then past a shelf stocked with chocolate gifts and candies. There was clothing, bags, novelty postcards, snow globes, models. All kinds of tat that might entice a tourist with a loose wallet. They arrived at a spinning rack that was laden with colorful, enameled key chains, located beside a shelf that was stocked with travel pillows. There were some in the circular shape of the station, others adorned with text, Jules gesturing to them as Zuki crouched down to get a better look.

Let me know if you see one that you like.”

I can touch these ones?” she asked, her hand hovering near the rack. She had taken his earlier warning very literally, but considering how likely she was to drop things or break them, that was perhaps for the best. He certainly wanted to avoid a bull in a china shop scenario.

Yes, you can touch them. You have stores back in Araxie, right? You understand the concept of buying and selling?”

The Patriarch provides us with what we need to live and to work, but we trade for unnecessary things.”

Do you use money?” he asked.

Money...tokens that can be traded in place of goods? Yes,” she replied as she fished inside one of her pouches. She withdrew a handful of square coins, passing one of them to him. They were large and heavy by human standards, each one stamped with some kind of marker in their native language that he couldn't read. “We don't have much use for them in the village, they're mostly used when we trade large quantities food and tools between settlements, or when a pack visits another village without bringing anything to barter with. I thought that I should bring some with me.”

What are they made of?” he asked, weighing the coin in his hand.

Iron, it can be smelted and used to make tools.”

Interesting. Rather than using a gold standard, you guys have an iron standard, because it's a practical material that retains its value...”

People will always need iron,” she said with a shrug. That was something that he should bring up with the council, they didn't want to decimate the Araxie economy overnight by introducing advanced materials and goods too quickly. In a way, these simple coins held more value than the currency that the UNN used, which existed almost exclusively as ones and zeroes hidden away in digital bank accounts. He certainly couldn't melt down his credits and make a trowel out of them, that was for sure.

Well, credits are like these coins. We don't really trade, at least not in the way that you do, we use money for all of our transactions.”

He handed the coin back to her, but she insisted, closing his fingers around it.

Keep it, it will pay for one of these,” she said as she plucked a keychain from the rack. Jules didn't refuse, it was an interesting keepsake, perhaps he would display it beside his prized Krell jug. She held up one of the little enamel badges by the chain, Jules chuckling at her odd choice. He had expected her to go for one of the ones shaped like the station, but instead, she had chosen a garish I love Pinwheel badge with a large cartoon heart in place of the love.

You sure you want that one?”

Yes,” she replied adamantly.

Can you read it? The red symbol stands for love, it says that you love the station.”

I like this one.”

Well, there was no accounting for taste. Jules led Zuki over to the counter, and she watched with interest as he tapped at the screen of his phone in order to complete the transaction. The woman who was tending the register wrapped the keychain in brown paper and give it to Zuki, who immediately stashed it in one of her pouches

Where is the money?” Zuki asked, the cashier looking her up and down. She soon realized that the alien was new to the station, her confused expression turning into a smile.

The money is digital,” Jules explained, before quickly realizing that the word held no meaning to her. “I mean...the money doesn't have to be on my person, it's stored somewhere else. I use my phone to transfer a sum, the recipient accepts it, and then it all happens automatically. Somewhere, a computer will automatically move the money from my account to theirs.”

Enjoy your stay, Ma'am,” the cashier said as she tried to suppress her smirk.

Oh, I am!” Zuki replied enthusiastically.

On their way out of the store, Jules stopped her and asked her to give him the keychain. She rummaged in her pouch and did as he asked, Jules opening the packet and reaching up towards her chest.

You're supposed to wear it,” he said, “do you want it on your vest?” She nodded, and he affixed the keychain to one of the many buttons that secured the leather pockets, the gaudy enamel badge dangling there. “What do you think?”

I like it,” she replied, no doubt grinning beneath her helmet. “Now all the people here will know that I love their territory.”

Indeed,” he chuckled. “Come on, let's get going.”

Jules led Zuki through the tourist quarter, the innumerable distractions slowing them down considerably. It was her first time visiting the station, not to mention her first experience of interstellar society, and so he didn't want to rush her. She seemed to stop at every shop window, sniffing around every food stand and restaurant. She was fascinated by the simplest of things, like holographic menus, and interactive kiosks with maps and station information. These were all things that even most visitors to the Pinwheel took for granted, but for Zuki, it was all new. The idea that she could see her location on a three-dimensional representation of the torus filled her with a child-like wonder that endeared her to all passers-by.

What is that smell?” she suddenly asked, stopping Jules dead in his tracks as he tried to pull her along.

What smell?”

Don't you smell that?”

Nope,” he replied, “we humans don't have very sensitive noses.”

Come on, this way!”

She took the lead and dragged him through the throngs of people, a pack of Equatorials clad in blue uniforms and black combat armor growling at her when she got in their way, but she paid the surly aliens no mind. As they neared this mystery destination, Jules began to smell it too, the scents of cooking meat rising to his nose.

Zuki stopped before a replica storefront that was built into the hull of the station, sandwiched between two larger establishments. It was scarcely five feet wide, adorned with a colorful awning that made it resemble a food cart that might be found on the streets of a major city. There was a printed menu taped to the side of the building, it was apparently a sandwich shop. The smells were emanating from inside, and from the darkness emerged a large, furry shape.

It was a Polar Borealan, a variety of the species that hailed from the frozen poles of the planet. Her body was covered in a coat of thick, white fur with spotted patterning, her width as impressive as her height. The aliens had insulating blubber that made them appear fat by human standards, but this one was unusually large to the point that the overhang of her pudgy belly rested on the countertop, and her unwieldy breasts threatened to spill out of the oversized t-shirt that she wore beneath her apron. She looked like a giant marshmallow that had been crammed into the tiny booth.

Hello there. What can I do for you?” she purred in a vaguely Russian accent, her question directed at Zuki. She looked the helmeted Borealan up and down, cocking her head as she narrowed her blue eyes. “I've never seen a Borealan like you before, little one. Where did you come from?”

I am Araxie,” Zuki replied.

Araxie?” the Polar asked, her eyes widening and her round ears pricking up. “The only stories I've heard about that territory tell of impenetrable jungles and ghosts swooping down to carry away the unwary. But you don't look like a ghost...”

She's here to represent her people in their bid to join the Coalition,” Jules explained.

And to sample the best food on the station, apparently,” the alien added with a sly grin.

What is making that smell?” Zuki demanded from beneath her helmet.

That would be my unique blend of Borealan and Earth cuisine,” the alien replied without missing a beat, “you won't find the same dishes served anywhere else.”

Can we buy it with money?” Zuki continued. The Polar pretended to consider the request for a moment, scratching her fuzzy chin with a black claw, the mountain of furry flesh that made up her bust wobbling with every movement.

Money, you say? Well, it's a little unorthodox, but since you asked so nicely...” She gestured to the menu that was taped up beside her, leaning on the counter again, her breasts seeming to pour across its surface like an avalanche. “You can pick something from the menu, but the longburger is the house special.”

Longburger?” Jules asked skeptically.

A sandwich of my own invention,” she replied proudly, placing a hand on her chest and making it jiggle. “I take minced beef sourced from free-range cattle raised on Franklin, I lay it out on a sesame roll that I split down the middle, then I layer on cheese and vegetables. I heat the cheese so that it melts just enough to hold the whole thing together,” she added with a wave of her fluffy hand, “and then I lather it in oils and sauces from the homeworld.”

Can we, Jules?” Zuki asked excitedly, bobbing on the spot.

Alright then,” he conceded, unable to refuse her. “But let's make it to go, I want to get to the residential quarter before the sunlamps are dimmed.”

One longburger coming right up,” the Polar said, swinging her immense weight around and making her way towards the back of the booth. The smell was enticing, but Jules had eaten on the Courser not too long ago, so he wasn't quite ready for another meal yet.

After a couple of minutes, the Polar returned with a truly enormous sandwich, wrapping it in a long paper bag and slapping it down on the counter. It was long and wide enough that one could have split it into maybe six regular-sized sub sandwiches, and used it to feed a whole group of humans. Zuki was transfixed by the sight, watching the steam slowly spiral towards the ceiling as it rose from the open end of the bag.

One longburger for the cute couple,” the Polar said with a smirk, giving Jules a knowing wink.

Oh, we're not...this is strictly a professional thing,” he insisted as he tugged at the collar of his shirt and averted his eyes.

The customer is always right,” she replied with a toothy grin.

What do I owe you?” Jules asked, reaching for his phone.

Twenty-six credits.”

Twenty-six...for a sandwich!?” he complained. Oh well, at least Zuki was happy. He couldn't rob her of her meal at this point, and the Polar probably knew it. “Daylight robbery,” he muttered as he authorized the transaction. Zuki picked up her giant sandwich and flipped up her visor just enough that she could get it into her mouth, taking a large bite and cooing happily as she chewed.

Come again!” the Polar called after them as they headed off into the crowd.

Not likely,” Jules muttered under his breath.

***

They eventually arrived at the residential quarter of the station, rows of buildings lining the walls to either side of the walkway. This was where officers, civilians, and other people who weren't assigned to the barracks lived. The facades of the apartments were even sculpted to look somewhat like row houses, helping to sell the illusion that the occupants weren't living inside the hull of a space station, but rather on a city street. Jules' apartment back home might have been on the eightieth floor a high-rise tower block, but there was no space to build up on the torus, only out. It gave the whole place an oddly quaint feeling that contrasted with its technological nature, at once archaic, yet undeniably modern.

The Borealan-sized apartments were at the far end of the quarter relative to the direction that they were traveling, and so they walked past the smaller human-sized examples as they made their way along the subtly curving street. These were always packed, it was very difficult for a civilian to get a reservation on the station, as there were always more visitors than there were rooms to accommodate them. The Borealan apartments, on the other hand, were usually vacant. Those were only reserved by the more adventurous souls who were willing to deal with the oversized furniture and the borderline unusable household appliances that had been scaled up for use by the eight-foot aliens. The UNN had anticipated far more Borealan visitors when the planet had first been contacted, but their interest in tourism was almost non-existent, with the vast majority of the felines on the station living in the barracks and serving as Shock Troopers. The Krell had no interest in vacations either, they remained in their own barracks, where they had access to the basking pools and heat lamps that their kind so enjoyed.

There are so many dwellings,” Zuki mused, finishing off the last few bites of her sandwich. The sheer quantity of food that the Borealans could eat never ceased to amaze Jules. He was amused to see her stow the empty paper bag in one of her pouches, perhaps to be discarded later.

Amidst the rows of buildings was one that had been converted into a sort of lobby, like you might find in a hotel or an apartment complex. This was where the quarter was managed by the station personnel. Jules instructed Zuki to wait outside as he stepped into the building, or rather moved deeper into the station's hull, as the outward appearance of the lobby was purely for show. He was met by a concierge who was standing behind a counter with a faux-wood finish, who looked up from her work to greet him with a polite hello. After a brief inquiry as to whether any of the Borealan apartments were available for rent for a party of two, she checked her holographic display and presented him with a key card.

He waved it at Zuki on his way out, and she cocked her helmeted head.

It's a key,” he explained, “we have a place to stay while we're here.”

After checking the number on the card, they set off again, seeking out the corresponding apartment. After a few minutes of searching, they found it, Jules stepping up to the door and flashing the card in front of a reader that was embedded in the frame. There was a click as it unlocked, the door sliding into a recess to allow them entry.

He had never been inside one of the Borealan apartments before, even the door was scaled up for use by the aliens. As he stepped over the threshold, and the interior lights automatically turned on, he found it hard to contain his surprise. It was massive. Not just in terms of everything being blown up, making him feel like he had been shrunken down to the size of a child, but the space itself was huge. It was an open-plan apartment with a living area and kitchen, and to the rear wall were what must be the bedroom and bathroom, which were section off behind their own doors for privacy. There was a monumental couch that could have seated five or six humans sitting side by side, which was facing a large monitor that was mounted on the wall above a roaring holographic fireplace. It was rather convincing, if a little transparent when viewed from certain angles, the orange flames licking at the marble stonework.

The kitchen had counters that were at a convenient height for a Borealan, as were the chairs and the dining table. All of the plates in racks above the oversized sink and all of the appliances were similarly large. He could have fit his own apartment back in Brussels into this space two or three times over.

This is a human dwelling?” Zuki asked, marveling at the carpeted floor beneath her feet.

Not quite, it's a Borealan dwelling built in a human style. Hang on...” Jules made his way over to a nearby control panel that was mounted on the wall. It controlled thermostat, lighting, and other functions in the apartment. He tapped at the touch screen until he located the lighting options, lowering their intensity to a level that Zuki should find comfortable. “Try taking your helmet off,” he said, “it should be dark enough for you now.”

She slid the heavy helmet off her head, shaking out her cropped hair, her round ears twitching. She blinked her eyes, waiting for them to adjust to the gloom, then nodded appreciatively.

That's good, it doesn't hurt my eyes.”

Go explore,” Jules suggested, waving his arm about the room. “This is your home for the time being.”

Where will you stay?” she asked.

Huh? I'm staying here, with you.”

Like...a pack?” she asked, her tail flicking back and forth in the way that it did when she was excited or unsure.

I suppose Araxie packs all live together, don't they? Is that a problem for you? Do you want me to stay in another apartment?”

N-no,” she replied hastily, “I just...I haven't had a pack of my own for a very long time. I usually sleep alone.” Her ears began to droop, and Jules hurried to think of a way to cheer her up.

You and I can be a pack,” he said, her ears pricking up again as she glanced over at him with wide eyes. “We'll be the diplomat pack, how about that? You're the only envoy that your people have, you know, that makes you the best Araxie diplomat by default.”

Really? We can be a pack?”

Sure, why not? Unless you need more than two people to form a pack. Who gets to be Alpha, do we flip a coin?” he chuckled.

You are Alpha,” she said with a deferential bow of her head, “you are the more experienced diplomat. Lead me, and I will follow your command.”

He had intended it to be a friendly gesture, but she seemed to have taken it a little more seriously than that. Should he perhaps clarify what he had meant, take it back, maybe? No, she looked so happy now, he didn't want to deflate her excitement. Besides, it was innocent enough, and they would be living and working together for the duration of their stay on the station much as a real pack did.

Alright,” he continued. “First command, make yourself at home, go look around. Also, let me take the helmet...”

She handed it to him, and he placed it gingerly on the glass coffee table in front of the couch. Sure, it was designed to protect the wearer from impacts and energy weapons, but he wasn't about to take any chances with something that probably cost more than his car.

Meanwhile, Zuki headed off into the apartment with a spring in her step, both from her good mood and the low gravity. She examined the living room first, placing a hand on the couch cushions and pressing down on them experimentally, her ears twitching as she heard the springs beneath them creak. She noticed the fireplace next, crouching before the shimmering projection and warming her hands. After a moment of hesitation, she reached forward to bat at the semi-transparent flames, looking on in wonder as she watched the crackling fire pass through her hand.

It's a hologram,” Jules explained, “it's not real.”

I feel heat, but I don't smell smoke,” she said as she reached out towards the marble. Her hand passed through the stone, too, and she blinked in surprise.

There's a space heater behind the wall, this way, you can have all the benefits of a real fire without dealing with cutting wood and inhaling smoke. Also, you can't really start fires on a space station, that would be really bad. Seriously, don't start any fires...”

But how will we cook food?” she asked, reaching inside the burning logs and waving her fingers about.

I'll show you,” he said, walking over to the kitchen. Zuki followed behind him, watching as he gestured to a microwave that was sitting atop the counter. “This white box is a microwave, it cooks food. You open the door on the front, put your food inside, and then it's ready to eat in a few seconds. Looks like we also have a stovetop, an oven, plenty of options. I don't know how much time we'll have for cooking, though, and I'm not much of a chef.”

Inside that tiny thing?” she asked, leaning down to get a closer look at the appliance. “You couldn't fit much meat in there.”

There's also a fridge,” he said, “come check this out.” He opened the door, cool air spilling out, Zuki reaching a furry hand inside and wiggling her fingers.

It's cold! Like winter.”

That's how we store food and keep it fresh,” he explained.

We dry and salt our meat to store it for long periods,” Zuki replied as she swung the door back and forth.

Maybe we'll pick up a few things while we're here if we have the time. I need to go call my superiors and see if I can arrange a meeting with the council any time soon. I'm not sure how much time we'll have to bum around, it depends on how full their schedule is, but they tend to drag things out...”

He walked over to the couch and climbed up onto it with some difficulty, as it was two feet higher than it should have been, pulling out his phone and connecting it to the station's intranet. He heard a loud crash, and he leaned over the armrest to look back at the kitchen. Zuki was standing there with two halves of a broken plate.

S-sorry,” she mumbled, setting it down gingerly on the counter. “The low gravity is still throwing me off...”

It's alright,” Jules sighed, “maybe I can write off the security deposit as a business expense.”

He put a call through to the station's UN representative, inquiring as to when the Security Council might be available to hear his report as Zuki explored the rest of the apartment like a curious cat. Fortunately, there were no more alarming sounds that might indicate broken appliances. When the call was over, he set his phone down on the coffee table beside the helmet, calling Zuki over.

What did they say?” she asked, poking her head through the bathroom door.

It will be about four days before the council can meet with us, which gives us a lot of time to kill.”

What will we do until then?”

I don't know,” Jules replied with a shrug, “what do you want to do? We have the run of the station, a place to stay, I'm pretty sure I can just bill the UN for any expenses. One of the benefits of being a diplomat.”

People...don't usually ask me what I want to do,” she said timidly.

It's a big station, there's a lot to see. What interests you the most?”

I...don't know.”

Perhaps he was phrasing the questions wrong, she had no idea what there was to do on the Pinwheel, she had no frame of reference.

We could go explore more of the station, we could go back to the tourist quarter and check out more of the stores. We could go pick up some food to stock the fridge, you can pick out some alien dishes to try. There's a huge database that we can access from the apartment if you want to learn about the Coalition or the member species.”

Oh, that last one,” she said excitedly. “If I am to become a diplomat, then I must learn more in order to best serve my people.”

Alright, come sit next to me, and I'll show you how to work the browser.”

She walked over to the couch and planted herself beside him, the frame creaking under her weight, the dent that she created in the cushions drawing him towards her. He lifted a remote from a compartment in the armrest, showing her the buttons on its face.

This big red one turns the monitor on,” he explained, pressing it and watching as the screen above the holographic fireplace flickered to life. “This button here goes forward, and this one goes back, like turning the pages of a book. Understand? Hang on, let me dial the brightness down a little bit. You aim the remote, and the little cursor on the screen moves, then you can use this button to select articles to read. Here, you try,” he added as he handed her the remote.

Just like with the tablet, she adapted quickly to the intuitive controls. With a little assistance, she was soon accessing the station's database and reading entries about the different members of the Coalition. There were also video files that she soon figured out how to play, showing documentary-style scenes from alien planets. For the words that she didn't understand or couldn't read, there were accessibility features like an interactive dictionary and text-to-speech functions. She seemed transfixed, and so he left her to own devices for a while, taking to his tablet to catch up on some work.

***

The great sunlamps that lit the station had begun to dim, simulating dusk as the walkway outside the apartment was cast into shadow. There would be enough light to see by in the artificial night, and while there would still be plenty of people going about their business, it was the time when the least traffic was clogging the torus.

Jules had finished his work for the time being, and Zuki had been glued to the monitor for hours, her black fur reflecting its glow. Even outside of the jungle, she still looked wet, and he wondered if it was the sheen of her fur or maybe something else. He was tired from his journey, but as much as he wanted to sleep, the environment outside was now more suitable for her sensitive eyes. Perhaps she would be able to explore the station at night without needing to wear the stifling helmet.

How are your studies going?” he asked, leaving his seat at the kitchen table and wandering over to the living area. Right now, she seemed to be halfway through an article on the Valbarans, a recently contacted species who were also making a bid to join the Coalition.

There's so much,” she marveled, not able to tear her eyes away from the monitor. “There's more here than all the writings of my people a hundred times over, I wouldn't be able to read all of it if I tried. And the worlds...they're so different. I saw pictures of the Krell world. It was like our iron bogs, but extending all the way to the horizon, with sparse trees that were as pale as bone. I saw your Earth, I saw the glass canyons reflecting the light of a single sun. How would I ever explain these things to my people?”

That's part of being a diplomat,” he said, hopping up onto the couch beside her. “You have to convey concepts and ideas that are alien to people, make them understand, translate them in a way that helps them see things the same way that you do. Take me, for example, my job is to argue the case for Araxie joining the Coalition before the council. Now, the council is made up of a representative from each member state, they've never been to Araxie. They don't understand how you live, what kind of problems you're facing, what kind of help you need. So it's my job to make them see things from your perspective.”

She set down the remote, turning her green eyes towards him.

When you go back to your territory,” he continued, “you're going to have to act as an intermediary between your people and mine. It's like being a translator, but for concepts instead of just words. Let's say that the Coalition wanted to build a uranium mine in Araxie, and your Patriarch didn't really understand what that entailed, what the ramifications would be. That's where you come in. You would explain to him what that is, and how it might impact the territory, and then he could make a more informed decision. You're going to learn how we think, how to negotiate, how to navigate our bureaucracy.”

You really think that I can do all of those things?” she asked.

I think that you're the only Araxie who can.”

That put a smile on her face, and she turned her attention back to the monitor.

How about we take a break and go outside?” Jules asked. “It's nice and dark now, so you won't need to bring the helmet. We could go check out the tourist quarter maybe, I've never been there at night before. We could get some food, too, I need something to keep me awake.”

Alright,” she said with a nod.

CHAPTER 10: NIGHTLIFE

The station certainly wasn't deserted by any means, but they could at least walk without having to weave through the crowds. The usual bustle of tourists had been replaced with engineers and personnel who were on night shifts. Weary travelers headed in the direction of the residences or the hangars to catch their next flight, while other people who had cause to be awake when the majority of the population were fast asleep went about their business. That also meant that the noise level was lowered, all the better for Zuki.

They were headed back in the direction of the tourist quarter when she froze in her tracks, her eyes fixed on a pack of dusky-skinned, blonde-haired Borealans wearing UNN jumpsuits who were coming in the opposite direction. Before Jules could comment, he suddenly felt his feet leave the deck, Zuki whisking him up in her arms and barreling towards the cover of a cluster of trees in a nearby planter. Something blotted out the light, and Jules realized that she had wrapped her camouflaged cloak around the both of them, cocooning them as she hugged him tight against her body.

Her leather vest was pressed up against his chest, and she had a furry hand on the back of his head, pushing his face into the nape of her neck. Her coat was silky and somewhat damp against his cheeks, so fine that it almost felt like skin, her rapid heartbeat pumping in his ear as she breathed warm air in his hair. He could feel the heat that her body radiated, and her scent was...oddly alluring, hotboxing him in the tight confines of their impromptu disguise. She smelled like blackberries, some component of whatever she used to treat her fur when she bathed, masking an underlying feminine scent that reminded him of exertion. A sudden wave of embarrassment overcame him, and he tried to pull away, but she had too tight of a hold on him.

Uh...Zuki?” he mumbled into her shoulder, struggling to keep his hands away from her bosom as she squashed him against her. Whatever the reason for the bandages on her chest, she didn't seem to be in any discomfort. “What gives?”

Quiet,” she hissed, “there are Rask on this station!”

Yeah, I know,” he replied, his voice muffled. “They're just auxiliaries, they won't hurt you.”

But...”

I know you're afraid of the Rask, but this is neutral ground. If they tried to attack you here, the MPs would be on them so fast they wouldn't know what hit them.”

She hesitated, then seemed to relax a little, pulling back the cloak and releasing him from her hold. He stood and straightened his clothes, pushing through the leaves of a small bush and stepping off the raised planter. The pack of Rask were staring at them in confusion. From their perspective, a human and a Borealan had just darted across the walkway and transformed into a shrub. Zuki watched from her hiding spot warily, her head peeking out from beneath the ghillie suit.

She's new here,” Jules said, laughing nervously. They looked him up and down, then continued on their way, one of them peering back over her shoulder with a scowl on her face. If they recognized Zuki as an Araxie, then they didn't show it in any way, and Rask weren't afraid of confrontation.

Zuki crept out from behind the bush once they were suitably far away, flinging her cloak back over her shoulders.

You don't have to be afraid of them,” Jules said, “they've undergone their integration training if they're walking around on the station. They're our allies.”

That doesn't change what they did,” she grumbled.

But those Rask in particular didn't do it, they might not have any idea of what's going on in Araxie. We have to assume that they're innocent until we find evidence to prove otherwise.”

If you say so,” she muttered.

Come on, let's keep going.”

After walking for a few more minutes, he noticed that she was shivering a little, and she had wrapped the cloak tighter about her shoulders.

What's wrong?” he asked, “are you cold?”

It’s so cold and dry here,” she grumbled, hiding beneath her leafy cowl.

Ah, I suppose your home territory was unusually hot and humid by our standards. Wearing such sparse clothes can't be helping, shall we get you something warmer?”

Is winter coming? Will the people here be sleeping until the suns return?”

Well, there are no seasons on the station,” he explained. “It's a controlled environment.”

What does that mean?” she asked, glancing about as if the answer might be in the air around her.

We decide the temperature, the humidity, the air pressure. It's not going to get any warmer than this. The sunlamps will come back on in the morning, but that's about it. I'm sure there are clothing stores that cater to aliens on the station, let's go see if we can find you a jacket or something.”

The great sunlamps that were embedded in the ceiling had been dimmed enough to mimic a city street at nightfall, but as the pair cleared the residential quarter and entered the tourist quarter, the walkway was bathed in colorful neon. The stores here were adorned with glowing signs and decorations designed to draw the eye of pedestrians, animated graphics, and holograms dancing in store windows. It looked like a Christmas celebration, Zuki's green eyes sparkling as she gazed about in wonder.

Is it too bright for you?” Jules asked, “perhaps we should have brought the helmet after all.”

Zuki didn’t even seem to be listening to him, there were too many sights to see, her head on a swivel as she tried to take it all in at once. Her feline eyes reflected the neon glow, making them glitter, her furry ears moving independently of one another as she listened to the strange sounds coming from all directions.

The street here was a little more populated, but it was still less crowded than during the day. He had to keep in mind that time zones across Coalition space were a jumbled mess and that spacelag between star systems could be extreme. There were even tidally locked planets that didn't have a day and night cycle at all. Still, he was surprised to see that there was somewhat of a nightlife on the station.

Zuki veered off and planted her wet nose against a nearby window pane, looking past the glass at a three-dimensional hologram of a dancing, cartoon cow. Jules wasn't sure what it was advertising, but Zuki was enthralled.

What is that?” she asked breathlessly.

It's a cartoon, like an exaggerated drawing. There's nothing that really looks like that.” She was getting a little distracted, and so he took her by the hand and guided her along. “Alright, we're looking for a clothing store, one that sells Borealan stuff. I've seen them wearing casual clothes, there must be something...”

After walking through perhaps half of the tourist quarter, the afterimages of the neon signs and flashing advertisements burned into his retinas, Jules finally spotted what they were searching for. There was a brightly-lit sign above one of the stores advertising clothing on one side, and then something in a Borealan script that he couldn't read on the other. He led Zuki through the door, this one large enough that she didn't have to duck, and they emerged into a room packed with aisles full of clothes. It looked like any department store that you might find on Earth or one of the more cosmopolitan colonies, but smaller, as everything had to be crammed into the station's limited space. In contrast with its limited floor space, many of the furnishings inside were scaled up to Borealan proportions, it gave the place a very odd and mismatched feel.

Alright, this looks promising,” he said as he led her down one of the isles. “What have we got here? Krell ponchos, hats, human-sized jackets...here we go.” They stopped before a rack of larger garments that seemed suitable for Zuki.

What's your style Zuki?” he asked, “I think this blue sweater is your color.”

But my color is black,” she replied, gesturing to her furry body.

I know, it's just an expression. How about we get you this knitted turtleneck?” he asked as he reached up and took the long sleeve in his hand. “This looks pretty warm, and then you can wear your vest over the top of it so that you still have access to all of your...stuff. Pick out a color, and you can go try it on, see if it fits.”

She scrutinized the sweaters for a moment, then pointed to a green one.

That one's a little...festive,” he mumbled, “but if that's what you want...” He pulled it off the rack and handed it to her, then guided her over to one of the changing booths. They too were around eight feet tall, this store had clearly been built with the aliens in mind. “See if that fits you, I'll wait outside. No, close the door so that people can't see you.”

She closed the door to the booth, the hinges squeaking, and Jules heard her begin to shuffle. After a moment, he heard a bump, and then the door slowly began to swing open. She must have knocked her elbow against it or something. Zuki's vest was lying on a bench in front of her, and her back was to him, the sweater pulled halfway on. Her arms were most of the way into the sleeves, but it looked like she couldn't locate the hole for her head, struggling with the garment. She must not have known how to lock the door.

As he reached forwards to push it closed again, his curiosity got the better of him, his eyes drawn to her exposed body. Much of her torso was on display. The silky fur that covered her was so fine and thin that he could even make out the indent of her spine, along with the dimples on her lower back that were peeking out above her belt. Every detail was visible, the wet sheen of her coat catching the light, making her shine beautifully as she twisted and wriggled. He could see her from the front, too, watching her reflection through the full-length mirror. The subtle outlines of her abdominal muscles shifted beneath her dark, glossy exterior, flexing as she attempted to free herself from the turtleneck.

Her upper back and chest were bandaged tightly with something analogous to white cotton that contrasted with her black fur, and for the first time, the mounds of her breasts were visible. They were smaller than Yuta's had been, but the Equatorials were more heavily built than the lithe Araxie, so that was to be expected. Zuki's were still as large as his head, even if they were being compacted by the tight bands of fabric.

Something else caught his eye, a sliver of pink, and he noticed that there was a hint of a scar visible beneath the bandages on her abdomen. It was just peeking out where the bandages met the top of her six-pack.

Could it be evidence of some kind of injury as he had first suspected? If he could convince her to see a doctor on the station, they might be able to help her, but she seemed so cagey about it.

Zuki finally succeeded in pulling the sweater over her head, her face popping out from beneath the collar like a jack in the box. Her eyes met his through the mirror, she seemed curious rather than angry or embarrassed, and he reached behind the open door to point to the lock.

You, uh...need to lock it,” he explained. “Just push the little bar through the rings to stop it from swinging open.”

She crouched down to examine the lock, unconcerned about Jules seeing her in a partially undressed state, playing with it for a moment and making it click.

Oh, I get it!” she finally replied as she closed the door and locked it. When she reemerged, she was wearing the leather vest over the garment, as Jules had suggested. While it was a little baggy, it seemed to fit her pretty well. Araxie were slimmer and had a somewhat smaller build than the muscular Equatorials or the chubby Polars. He understood why she had gone with green now, it very nearly matched her camouflaged cloak, but not quite. Even on the station, she was still trying to be stealthy.

How does it feel?” he asked, “is it comfortable?”

It’s warm, fuzzy,” she replied. Her ears swiveled as the narrow slits of her feline pupils widened, Jules following her gaze, turning to see a member of staff approaching from behind him. She was a fellow human, perhaps a foot shorter than Jules, with blonde hair and a name tag on her shirt.

Can I help you find anything?” she asked.

We were just looking for clothes that will fit my friend here,” Jules replied, pointing a thumb over his shoulder at Zuki.

We have the widest selection of alien clothes on the station, what were you looking for in particular? We have some leather jackets in stock if you're looking for something from the homeworld, they're handmade.”

I think we're good for jackets, thanks. Do you have any pants for Borealans? Something for cool weather, maybe?”

Let's see what we can find,” she replied, Zuki following behind them as the woman weaved between the aisles. There was a crash, and Jules spun around to see Zuki hastily straightening a revolving display of sunglasses that she had bumped into. He noticed that there were larger pairs up at the top, and while he couldn't figure out why anyone would need to buy sunglasses on a climate-controlled space station, they would be an ideal alternative to Zuki's helmet.

Oh, good find,” he said as he walked over and reached up to select a pair that looked like they might fit her. “Try these on.”

She looked at them curiously, not knowing what to do with them, and he had her lean down so that he could place them on her face. Her round ears were too high on her skull to support them, so they were designed with a strap that secured them about her head.

Oh! It's dark, like the helmet,” she said as she stood up and looked around.

Yeah, except that they don't weigh five pounds, and they also don't cost more than I make in a year if you break them.”

The store employee guided them over to the trousers, waiting patiently as they examined the wares. There were jeans and overalls, as well as flowing, gossamer skirts that reminded Jules of a sari. Perhaps those were of Borealan origin as well as the jackets.

That's a lovely cloak you're wearing,” the woman said, “is it made out of leaves?”

Those are just pieces of fabric made to look like leaves,” Zuki explained, “it's for hiding from our enemies.”

Is that so?” the woman mused, tapping a finger against her chin. “You know, I think we might have something more suited to your tastes in the back. Wait here a moment...”

She hurried off into a back room of the store, and after a few moments, she emerged with a large pair of pants bundled in her arms. Zuki's eyes lit up at the sight, they were patterned with forest camouflage in shades of green and tan, like you might expect a soldier to wear. They weren't military surplus, they were clearly sweatpants that had been colored that way for show, but the Araxie had already fallen in love with them.

These will break up my silhouette!” she exclaimed, reaching down gingerly and taking them from the woman. She seemed more conscious of her strength and her weight in this low gravity after having broken the plate, she was being very gentle. “Thank you, clothing lady!”

Happy to help,” the woman chuckled.

Jules followed Zuki back over to the changing booths and waited as she tried them on, and when she emerged again, she was sporting a complete outfit. The pants were a little baggy, but she seemed to like them. She had transferred her belts to the loops on the waistband to prevent them from slipping down. He was amused to see that there was a small hole at the back where her tail pushed through, which also served to hold them up. She didn't have her leather shorts in hand, so she must be wearing them beneath it.

They passed by the register so that Jules could pay for the clothes, thanking the employee again for her help, then they walked back out into the street.

Better?” Jules asked, looking up at Zuki.

Yes.”

All the coolest people wear sunglasses indoors,” he said with a grin. “Let's go find some food. You want something to drink, too? You guys had alcohol back in your territory, right?”

Alcohol? Like at the great hall?” she asked.

Do Araxie only drink in the great hall? I guess you could consider a cafeteria or a bar the equivalent of a great hall, yeah. Places where people meet to socialize and eat. The restaurants are probably closed by now, but I'm sure we can find something.”

They wandered through the tourist quarter for a while, just people-watching and searching for a place to get some food. Jules had rarely had the time to explore the station during his prior visits. He had always been occupied with UN business, and he had never been out for very long after the sunlamps were dimmed, as the day and night cycle on the station was synced with that of Earth.

There weren't very many aliens here, perhaps they were either asleep because they were on duty, or maybe they preferred to stay in the military quarter where they had their own bars and recreational facilities. There were a few Borealans, however. He could see a chubby Polar wearing civilian clothes who was standing head and shoulders above everyone else, as well as a solitary pack of what looked like Elysians who were in uniform. The humans that surrounded them were all dressed in casual attire, a few of them wearing more revealing outfits, which might suggest that they were headed to some manner of nightclub.

The station's illusion of normalcy was even more convincing at night. With the neon signs bleaching the white hull material in shades of blue and green, it really did feel like you were walking around in a trendy district of a terrestrial city.

They followed one group of people to some kind of club, there was a surly looking Borealan at the door who must be acting as a bouncer, and he gave them the stink eye as they neared. Perhaps two-piece suits and ugly sweaters weren't considered part of the dress code for clubbing. The music was far too loud for Zuki anyway, so they moved on.

The Araxie certainly wasn't complaining, even the most mundane of things were a novelty to her, every shop window a new dimension of wonder and excitement. By the time they found a suitable place to eat, they were near the end of the tourist quarter, and they had been exploring and chatting for maybe an hour.

It was somewhere between a pub and a restaurant. The signs on the sculpted exterior advertised drinks, but they seemed to serve food too, and there was no loud music or flashing strobe lights to disturb Zuki. As they entered through the door, this one also large enough for a Borealan or a Krell, the scent of smoke hit them like a wall. The air was thick with a grey haze, adding to the dinginess of the place, and what music was playing was calm and unobtrusive. It wasn't exactly a dive bar, the station was far too clean and well maintained for such things, but it certainly lacked the artificial veneer of the other places that they had visited.

The walls were covered in plastic panels painted and textured to resemble wood, as shipping real wood all the way out here would have cost an arm and a leg. There were various pictures hanging up, mostly framed paintings of UNN vessels and battle scenes, along with a few elaborate flags covered in emblems and seals. The lights on the ceiling fans that were creating vortexes in the swirling smoke were dim, making them more pleasant for Zuki's sensitive eyes, their yellow glow casting the room into deep shadow. There was a bar at one end of the fairly cramped space, similarly made from imitation wood, and the rest was occupied with round tables. Most were human-sized, but a few of them were larger, the chairs that surrounded them reinforced to hold more weight. The padding on them was scuffed and worn, the stuffing protruding through the faded leather in places, as if claws had torn holes in the material.

There was a pack of Borealans surrounding one of the tables, the largest and meanest of them swilling some kind of alcoholic beverage from a glass as he puffed on an e-cigar, watching as the strangers entered. They had variations of red and brown hair, with skin that ranged from pale to tan, which meant that they were probably Elysians. Jules got the impression that they were off-duty, as they wore a combination of their blue UNN jumpsuits and more casual clothes, like worn leather jackets that looked as if they had been through hell and back. They looked hand-made, the sleeves adorned with various Navy patches. The pub was mostly empty save for the pack and a handful of scattered humans.

He walked up to the counter where the bartender was waiting, looking over the various taps with their colorful logos. The man had the air of someone who had previously been in very good shape, but age had taken its toll on him, leaving him a little soft around the middle. Judging by his cropped hair and the tattoos that were peeking out from beneath his rolled-up sleeves, he was likely an ex-Marine. If he was the owner of the establishment, that would go some way to explaining the decor. There was a door behind him and to his left from which enticing smells emanated, that must be the kitchen.

Hey, do you guys serve food?” Jules asked. “Can me and my friend here get a table?”

The bartender nodded, leaning beneath the bar to retrieve a pair of laminated menus and handing them to him.

I'll send the waitress over to take your order in a few minutes.”

Jules waved Zuki over to one of the larger tables, and she sat down as he switched out his Borealan-sized chair for a smaller one. The legs scraped on the floor, disturbing the pack of aliens, their round ears twitching in irritation. The tables were spaced fairly close together, so sitting further away from them wasn't an option. Jules' seat ended up being a little too low for him to comfortably reach the table, but it was serviceable enough. There was some muted laughter from their neighbors, they seemed to find it amusing.

Alright,” he said, clapping his hands together. “I am famished, there's nothing quite as hearty as pub food. Let's see what's on the menu.”

Zuki held up her laminated card, frowning at it.

I don't know what any of these mean,” she said.

Don't worry, I'll read them out to you. They do steak and fries, burgers, onion rings. Fish and chips, prawn cocktail, you can get pies. Oh, Yorkshire puddings, you don't see those very often.” She looked at him in confusion, cocking her head. “Uh...right. This is all meaningless to you, isn't it? Alright, let's start with the basics. You like meat, right?”

Yes,” she replied, nodding enthusiastically.

Do you prefer meat over fish?”

She nodded again.

You've already tried beef, so let's try some pork pies maybe. Fries are like root vegetables that are cooked in oil and salted, you like salty food, so you'll probably like those. Steak sauce is pretty salty, maybe you can use that as a condiment.” He moved on to the drinks menu, poring over the different beers and lagers that were in stock. There was a wide selection, lots of craft stuff. What had Velez said about Borealan drinks? They were weak, that was it, so he should probably refrain from giving Zuki any spirits. “If you don't like sweet stuff, I know that ale is pretty bitter, we'll see if you like that. Four percent alcohol should be fine.”

A woman wearing an apron over a dress shirt and a long skirt walked over in their direction, stopping at the pack's table. She must be the waitress, and she seemed to know the Borealans. Perhaps they were regulars here.

Any of you guys need a refill?” she asked as she rested her elbows on the table, which was nearly at chest height to her. “How about you, Noza?” The big male with the e-cigar shook his shaggy head and rumbled, apparently that was a no. “It's probably for the best,” she said, looking back over her shoulder at him as she made her way towards where Zuki and Jules were sitting. “We all know you drink like you're fresh out of I.T.”

There was a chorus of laughter from the aliens, and the fact that the large male didn't have anything to say in response was proof enough that the two were on friendly terms.

Are you guys ready to order?” she asked, bringing up a tablet computer.

Sure,” Jules replied. “I'll have the steak and fries, and a stout beer. Can I get an order of pork pie and fries for my friend, and whichever pale ale you recommend? Actually, better make that a double order.”

We do have a second pricing option for Borealan portions,” she said, gesturing to the menus. “They're just under the regular prices.”

Oh, I didn't see that. Thanks.” His eyes widened as he looked at the prices, they were three or four times that of the human portions. He should have expected as much, but he wasn’t about to disappoint Zuki. “Yeah, we'll take a Borealan portion of pork pie and fries then.”

She collected their menus and returned to the kitchen, vanishing through the swinging door to the right of the bar. The Elysians sitting across from them had noticed Zuki now, and they seemed intrigued by her strange appearance. The Araxie weren't just newcomers to the Coalition, they had very little contact with the rest of Borealis to the point that they had faded into myth, and so the sight of one must have been confusing to the Elysians.

The large male leaned across his table, his leather jacket creaking as he plucked the e-cigar from his mouth and exhaled a plume of smoke. Much like Yuta, his exposed skin was a patchwork of healed scars, and his mane of red hair made him look like a hybrid between a lion and a Scotsman. To say that he filled out his jacket would have been an understatement, he might have been even larger and more developed than the Ranger had been.

What territory do you come from, stranger? I can't place you.” His voice was so low and gravelly, it sounded to Jules like it had been pitched down in editing software.

M-me?” she asked hesitantly, turning to look back at him. He nodded his shaggy head, waiting for her to reply. “I am Araxie.”

The pack murmured, exchanging skeptical glances.

There are no Araxie,” Noza scoffed, chewing on the end of his e-cigar.

They are said to guard the jungles of their territory,” another added. “Like ghosts, they appear and disappear as they please.” This one sounded more superstitious, but Noza reached back and gave him a playful shove, at least by Borealan standards.

There are no ghosts, only the excuses of explorers and scouts, and their sad attempts to save face. The jungle is too dense to chart, that is all.” He turned back to Zuki, looking her up and down. “What are you really, stranger? Do not play games with me now. The child of an Elysian and a Polar maybe, too ashamed of your heritage to speak of it?”

I am Araxie,” she insisted.

She's telling the truth,” Jules interjected, the Borealan turning his yellow eyes on him.

What do you know of it, little one?” Noza asked.

I've traveled to the Araxie territory, that's how.”

You are no Ranger,” the alien grumbled, “do you mean to tell me that a human braved jungles that an Elysian could not?”

I might not be a Ranger, but I did have one with me. Perhaps the news hasn't reached you yet, but the Araxie are making a bid to join the Coalition. If all goes well, you'll probably be serving alongside them in a little while.”

Is that so?” Noza replied. Jules waited for some kind of rebuttal, but the large male seemed to accept it, relaxing back down into his seat with a creak. “So tell me, Araxie, why do your kind stay hidden within your jungles?”

We prefer to be left alone,” she replied. Jules noted that she didn't seem wary of the large male, but then again, she hadn't interacted with any Elysians besides Yuta.

And how were you able to stay hidden all this time? Elysia sent expeditions to Araxie during the wars for the lakes, but few returned.”

None may trespass in Araxie territory,” she announced. It sounded like something that she had been told, perhaps by her teachers or the Patriarch. “An Araxie must know how to strike without being seen or heard, to tread silently, to attack from cover and then vanish just as quickly.”

Guerrilla warfare, the humans call it,” one of Noza's packmates added. “Hit and run tactics, traps, and sabotage.”

Not ghosts then,” Noza mused, “just stealth and subterfuge.” Jules expected a stereotypical response from the warrior, something along the lines of calling the Araxie fighting methods cowardly, but he seemed more impressed than anything. “Are you a soldier, little one?”

I am a diplomat,” she announced proudly.

Are you bothering our other customers, Noza?” the waitress interjected. She was carrying a dinner plate the size of a dustbin lid that was laden with a mountain of food. It looked heavy, but she was clearly practiced, making her way to the table and placing it before Zuki. The Araxie looked up at her with wide eyes, as if unsure that this plentiful bounty was really for her, and the waitress gave her an affirmative nod.

I'll be back with your meal in a moment, Sir,” she said to Jules before turning back towards the kitchen. Noza let them eat, returning his attention to his pack.

Go ahead,” Jules said as Zuki examined her plate, “that's for you. I'd use the cutlery though, that pie looks pretty juicy, and you don't want it getting all over your fur.”

This?” she asked, holding up her fork. Jules left his seat and sidled around beside her, demonstrating how to use the cutlery. She had taken so quickly to the tablet and the computer in the apartment, but somehow, using the knife in conjunction with the fork required a level of coordination that seemed almost beyond her. To Jules' surprise, the pack of Elysians didn't snicker or make any comments, perhaps they remembered their own first forays into human dining etiquette. She eventually got the hang of it, Jules watching as she cut into the golden crust of the pie, chunks of pork in a sea of gravy spilling out along with a lazy plume of steam.

Watch it’s not too hot,” he warned as she speared a piece of meat and brought it to her mouth, her eyes widening as she chewed.

Good?” Jules asked.

She nodded enthusiastically, fishing out another piece. The portion was truly massive, taking your Borealan friends out to dinner could break the bank pretty quickly. Oh well, it was another charge that he could write off a business expense. Technically, he was entertaining a foreign dignitary...

The waitress returned with his meal, as well as their drinks, Jules sitting back down as she placed them on the table. The steak was just right, and the fries were great, large wedges of potato seasoned with salt and some vinegar. He picked up the glass of beer, taking a long draw, feeling the cool liquid pass down his throat and into his stomach.

That's good,” he mumbled, setting it back down on the table. “See what you think of the beer, Zuki.”

Zuki eyed the tall pint glass, leaning forward and using her long tongue to lap at the foam on top. She smacked her lips for a moment, considering, and then lifted it to her mouth. She took a swig, licking her lips contentedly.

I like it,” she said, “it's so cold. It feels nice on my tongue.” Jules saw that the pack of Elysians behind her had taken notice now, one of them nudging another with his elbow and nodding in Zuki's direction.

There wasn't much time to chat as they ate, Zuki was wolfing down what looked to Jules like an entire pie, and she seemed particularly fond of the fries to the point that he offered her some of his own when she began to run out. When he demonstrated how they could be dipped in the gravy, she had a look on her face that could only be described as bliss. She drank the ale quickly, too. He considered suggesting that she slow down, but there was no way that she could get drunk on one beer, surely?

By the time she was almost done with her meal, the glass was half empty, Zuki rocking back and forth in her chair happily as her tail waved to and fro behind her.

I like this station,” she said over a mouthful of a pie crust, “everyone here has been so nice to me. Some people avoid me back home, they think I'm clumsy, that I'm not good at anything. But they never give me a chance to prove otherwise!” She pointed her fork at Jules, droplets of gravy falling to the table. “You're giving me a chance to prove myself, Mister Jules. You think that I can become a great diplomat,” she added as she drove the fork into a fry and then popped it into her mouth, continuing to talk as she chewed. “And then even the Patriarch will have to listen to me, everyone in the village will depend on me. They'll all look to me for advice, and I'll be able to...did I eat all of the fries?”

She was starting to slur her words, was she really getting drunk on the ale? It couldn't have been more than about four percent alcohol content.

Zuki, uh...maybe you should go a little easier on the beer,” he suggested.

But I like this drink!” she blurted, lifting the glass and spilling a little on her furry hand as she took another draw. She set it down clumsily and then grumbled to herself, beginning to comb her fur with the cat-like barbs on her tongue where it was wet. “You know what we need? Fries, let's have more fries.”

I'll order you some more fries next time the waitress comes back, but you have to slow down a little. Try to make it last, alright?”

As they continued to eat, Noza and his pack seemed to grow more interested in them. Eventually, the imposing male leaned across the table again, blowing smoke from his feline nose like a dragon as he puffed on his e-cigar.

You handle your drink well, even if you look like an oversized kitten, Araxie.”

Jules gave Zuki a skeptical glance. Getting so tipsy on just half a glass of beer didn't seem too impressive to him.

What are you drinking?” Jules asked, Noza raising a glass of pink-tinted liquid.

It is an Elysian spirit, we call it raises the hair. Your friend here is drinking three or four times the volume of alcohol that we are.”

Why didn't anyone warn me?” Jules complained, “how was I supposed to know how much Borealans are supposed to drink?”

We assumed that she knew how much she could handle,” Noza replied with a shrug of his broad shoulders. “She's doing well, in any case. That amount would have floored most of the cats that I know.”

I think we might have found something else that you're good at, Zuki,” Jules said as she lifted her glass to her lips and took another drink. “Will she be alright? Should I stop her?”

It's not strong enough to do her any damage, just don't give her anything stronger. A shot of your Vodka will send an Elysian to the infirmary, and I doubt that the Araxie have much more of a tolerance. Or perhaps they do...”

Noza scratched his bearded chin for a moment with a curved claw, then began to whisper conspiratorially with his pack. After a few moments of deliberation, he addressed the pair again, his tone of voice suggesting that he was issuing a challenge.

I propose a contest,” he said, “to determine whether this Araxie can out-drink an Elysian. A game, if you will.”

A game?” Zuki asked, her ears pricking up at the prospect.

What kind of game?” Jules asked warily. Noza snapped his fingers, then one of his packmates fished in her breast pocket, withdrawing a pack of playing cards. She tossed it to Noza, who opened the pack and fanned them, Zuki staring at the colorful cards.

Martian Poker,” he replied with a toothy grin.

I'm not familiar with it,” Jules said, “what are the rules?”

A card is dealt to each player,” Noza explained, “placed face-down on the table. The players pick up their cards without looking at them and hold them against their forehead. Everyone is able to see your card besides you, then, you must decide whether to participate in the round or to fold. The goal is to be the player with the highest value card. If you fold, you must drink a shot of beer. If you play and lose, you must drink two.”

A shot of beer?” Jules asked, raising an eyebrow.

As I said, beer is strong by our standards. You can play if you wish, human, but your...natural advantage would make it rather pointless.”

Alright,” Jules replied with a dismissive wave of his hand, “I guess that makes me the designated driver. How about it, Zuki, do you want to play with them?”

I want to play,” she said, “teach me!”

Zuki slid her chair over to join the pack, Jules watching from the adjacent table as they began to demonstrate the rules of the game. He should probably step in if things started to get out of hand, he sure as hell didn't have the strength to drag a blacked-out Borealan through two quarters.

Before long, the waitress returned to check on them, standing with her hands on her hips beside Jules as she watched the aliens deal cards.

Is Noza roping more people into playing that stupid game of his?”

Does he do this often?” Jules asked.

Only with the other Borealans. He won't play with humans because he always loses, and as for the Krell...well, who knows if they even understand what he's saying to them. I can go box his ears if he's bothering you.”

That's quite alright, I think Zuki is having fun. She doesn't get out much.”

Bit of a homebody, then?”

You could say that,” Jules chuckled. “I'm Jules, by the way.”

I'm Ashleigh, but people call me Ash. We don't get many customers at this time of night, what brings you two all the way down to our end of the quarter?”

My friend is actually nocturnal.”

I see,” Ash laughed, “that's as good an answer as you could have given.”

So...what's the deal with you and Noza, if you don't mind my asking?” Jules continued. “I've only known one Elysian, but she would probably have taken my head off if I had talked to her the way you do.”

He's a big pussycat,” she snickered. “Noza is older than a lot of the recruits that you see around the station, they tend to get more mellow as they age, more set in their ways. He'll still swipe at his friends if they're out of line, but they know their boundaries pretty well by this point.”

And what about you?” Jules asked.

Well, he's been through I.T like every other cat they let loose on the station, so he knows to behave himself around the rest of us. If he lets me pull his tail and poke fun at him, it's only because we've...well, you know how Borealans get.”

What do you mean?” Jules asked, raising an eyebrow.

Oh, are you and your friend not..? Sorry, I assumed you were an item. That's usually the case around here when you see a human and a cat together.”

No, we're just...friends,” he said as his cheeks began to warm. It wasn't exactly a revelation, he had witnessed the violent and passionate encounter between Velez and Yuta first hand, after all. But still the idea of Ash, who couldn't weigh more than a hundred pounds, getting intimate with this behemoth who must weigh near ten times that was shocking. He stopped just short of asking her how the mechanics of that even worked, that wasn't the kind of question one put to a stranger.

His thoughts were interrupted by an excited yell. Zuki had apparently won a round, and Noza was pouring a bottle of beer into shot glasses.

She does seem to be having fun,” Ash chuckled, “do you guys need anything else?”

Oh, Zuki wanted more fries,” Jules said.

Sure thing,” Ash replied. She paused before leaving the table, giving him a sly look. “They don't look down on that kind of thing here, y'know. Some of the Marines even see it as a rite of passage.”

She set off towards the kitchen, leaving Jules to nurse his beer as he watched Zuki laugh, holding a playing card up against her furry forehead. She looked so cute in that ugly sweater...

What did Ash think she saw between the two of them? Why had he blushed when she had brought up her relationship with Noza? He downed another mouthful of the cool liquid, trying to clear his head. Zuki looked over at him, waving to him with a padded hand, and he realized that he had been staring at her. Maybe he was the one who needed to lay off the booze.

***

Zuki threw back her head, downing another shot of beer as Noza looked on in disbelief. Jules wasn't entirely sure what the end goal of the game was, perhaps to be the last one sober enough to leave the table when it was over, but the Elysians already looked smashed. One of them appeared to doze off, losing his balance and planting his face into his Alpha's shoulder. Noza spat like an angry tomcat and nudged him away, the drunken Elysian snapping out of his stupor and attempting to sit up straight again.

Another!” Zuki exclaimed, swaying in her seat a little as she slammed the empty shot glass back down on the table. Another of the Elysians, this one an auburn-haired female, emptied her glass in turn and then grimaced as if it had contained something far stronger than beer. Apparently, they had both lost a round to another player. She then slumped in her chair and began to slide down beneath the table. Noza bared his sharp teeth, reaching down and grabbing her by the collar like a mother cat scruffing her kitten, his bicep bulging beneath his tight jacket as he repositioned her limp body.

Would that I could have assembled a pack with stronger stomachs,” he muttered, glaring around the table at them. “Would you so easily give up if this were a battle?”

S-sorry my Alpha,” one of them slurred as he reached for his glass and knocked it over, spilling the contents. As drunk as Zuki was, she showed no signs of slowing, washing down her beer with a handful of fries as she waited for the dealer to shuffle the deck.

She's on a roll,” Ash laughed, sitting at the table beside Jules as she watched the game. “I mean, she isn't winning, I'm not even sure she can read the cards. She's out-drinking everyone at the table, though.”

Yeah, I should probably intercede,” Jules sighed. “Not to be a buzzkill or anything, but I'm not sure that I can handle a drunk Borealan on my own.”

Looks like Noza is about to call it anyway,” she said, nudging Jules and gesturing to the Alpha. “That's the look he gets when he's about to give up.”

How do you know?”

Because I've drunk him under the table on more than one occasion.”

Noza looked surly, grumbling under his breath, then he slammed his massive hands on the table. Every glass on its surface jumped, and every one of his drunken packmates snapped to attention.

I concede,” he growled. “You win, Araxie.”

She clapped her hands together happily as he scowled at her from beneath his bushy eyebrows, the two a complete contrast of one another both in appearance and temperament. She lifted her cup of fries and upended it into her mouth, chewing happily. Noticing Noza’s grumpy demeanor, she offered him some, but he refused with a dismissive gesture. She was a remarkably functional drunk, he had to give that.

It's been fun,” Jules said, checking the time on his phone. “But we really should be going, it won't be long before the sunlamps turn on again.”

Come again soon,” Ash said as Jules rose out of his seat, “I'm sure that Noza will want a rematch at some point. It was nice to meet you two.”

Likewise,” Jules said.

Zuki slid her chair back and stumbled to her feet, her tail waving around clumsily, knocking against the chairs behind her. When she turned to face Jules, it swiped across the table, upending the rest of the shot glasses and splashing one of the Elysians with beer.

S-sorry,” she stammered, the alien glaring at her.

Zuki, are you going to be alright?” Jules asked, “it's quite a walk back to the apartment.”

Whassat?” she mumbled, giggling at him. “I'm f-fine!” She took a few more steps towards him, leaning her weight on the table and threatening to upend it. “I handle my drink very well, my new friends said so!”

Drunk Zuki was a disaster waiting to happen, she was clumsy enough when she was in full control of her faculties. Jules feared that she might somehow trip and open an airlock, venting the inhabitants of the station into space in some kind of Rube Goldberg sequence of drunken accidents.

Jules slung her arm around his shoulders, his knees buckling as he tried to support her weight, but there was no hope. She was too tall, too heavy, the only way he was going to get her back to the apartment under his own power was if he somehow gained access to a flatbed truck.

Noza stood suddenly, barking orders in his native tongue, hissing and spitting like two cats squaring up for a fight. The two most sober Elysians jumped to their feet, making their way over to Zuki and taking her from Jules. They draped her arms around their shoulders, holding her upright as they walked her towards the door, the Araxie babbling to them drunkenly about how much she had enjoyed her fries.

The drunken state of your companion is mostly our fault,” Noza said, “we will walk her home.”

Oh,” Jules replied, raising his eyebrows in surprise. “Alright. Thank you, Noza. We're staying at the far end of the residential quarter, in the Borealan section. Will that be okay?”

He nodded, shoving one of his sleepier packmates who struggled to stay awake, blinking her eyes groggily as she leaned on the table.

Xoti, Reza, remain here and sleep it off. You two are in no state to go anywhere.”

Ash sidled up beside him, hugging his muscular forearm and making his leather jacket creak. It was as thick around as a human thigh, and the top of her head barely reached his bicep. She peered up at him with a smirk on her face.

You're a sweetie, Noza. Hurry back.”

That seemed to embarrass the giant alien somewhat, and he nodded to her, his mane of red hair bobbing. With another growling order, his packmates guided Zuki out onto the torus, Jules following behind them.

CHAPTER 11: PACK ACTIVITIES

Thanks, Noza. I appreciate the help,” Jules said as he walked beside the giant male at the front of the pack. His strides were so long that Jules had to practically power walk to keep up with him. He was still somewhat wary of the giant creature, his sheer mass alone made him intimidating, even if he seemed friendly enough. Zuki was being guided along behind them, two of the pack members still supporting her weight as she stumbled and chatted incessantly.

It is our duty,” the Alpha replied.

So,” Jules began, trying to find a topic of conversation that might break the ice. “Based on what Ash tells me, you've been serving alongside the UNN for a long time?”

Nearly seven years now,” he said in that deep, gravelly voice.

So, you must have signed up about the time Elysia joined the Coalition?”

That's right.”

You must have been a soldier beforehand, right? Most of the Borealans that you see around the station are, uh...less mature than you are.”

The young are usually more eager to enter into service. They see it as a way to prove themselves, a trial by fire. The older generations are more skeptical. My home territory is seeing a period of unprecedented peace, there are none who stand against Elysia. Those who come of age have little opportunity for practice besides harmless dominance bouts. Leaving the planet, and participating in the Coalition's campaigns is the only way that many will see real combat and have a chance to wet their claws.”

How about you?” Jules asked, jogging for a moment to catch up with him.

War has become...a habit for me,” he mumbled as he stared into the gloom. “Peace does not suit me. When I realized that there were no territories on Borealis that could threaten Elysia after our pact with the Coalition was made, I signed up to become an auxiliary.”

Most humans want to retire after a certain point,” Jules continued, “they get a pension and go live out the rest of their days on some peaceful colony.”

Borealans were not made to wither and fade as you do,” he grumbled. “Putting down one's rifle does not change one from a soldier to a baker or a farmer. My place is on the battlefield.”

So, are you between battles right now?”

The carrier that I serve on was damaged in an engagement, it is being refitted in drydock.”

I see, you have some shore leave then.”

Three months,” he growled, “I might have gone stir crazy was it not for Ash.”

Jules didn't press him for more details, he wasn't sure if the Borealan would get offended, or if he would give him far more information than he actually wanted. Instead, they chatted about Araxie for a little while as they walked along the curving deck. The grizzled old soldier wasn't interested in the diplomatic side of things, but Jules could shed a lot of light on the territory itself and what he had found there. He was careful not to reveal too much, like how the Araxie villages were hidden, and what methods the Araxie used in combat. In the unlikely event that the council rejected his proposal for some reason, he didn't want to open the territory up for invasion by its neighbors.

According to Noza, there was a period of Borealan history in which the scattered desert tribes that inhabited the wastelands had banded together to fight for control over the lakes. When the fighting was over, and the dust had settled, the territories as they exist today had come into existence. Shortly after this period, the Elysians and other territories such as the Rask had sent scouting parties and teams of explorers out to survey neighboring lakes, Araxie among them. Just as Yuta had said, those who survived returned with tales of ghosts striking from the shadows. Araxie had been deemed either too dangerous or too difficult to explore and so it had faded into myth, somewhat of a Bermuda Triangle in Borealan culture. Noza did not seem to know that the Rask had recently been launching raids, and Jules did not see a reason to tell him at this juncture. It was another potential security issue that he didn't want to risk exposing.

Jules found it interesting how the warrior talked of the deserts like a human might talk of oceans. On Earth, it was massive stretches of water that separated the continents. In the age of exploration, sailors would have braved storms and scurvy to sail them for months on end in hope of new discoveries and untold riches. On Borealis, it was the deserts between the territories that had to be traversed. Noza talked of massive caravans that trekked across the inhospitable seas of dunes between the solitary oases of greenery and water, seeking out new trade routes, and making contact with new lakes.

Jules wanted to know more about the Rask, and Noza told him stories of desert bandits, the pirates of these sandy oceans who made their living raiding caravans and poorly defended nations. Until someone qualified interviewed the Rask prisoner back in Araxie, and a real investigation was launched, it was difficult to say whether the Rask Matriarch was aware of the clandestine actions of her people. But the more he learned about them, the less likely it seemed that they had abandoned their age-old profession with the simple signing of a treaty.

This is our place,” Jules said as they arrived at the door to the apartment, fishing in his pocket for the key card. He swiped it, and the door slid open, Noza entering first. He appraised the open-plan room, then waved his packmates in, Zuki still strung between them.

There's a bed in the back room,” Jules began, “you can just-”

The two Elysians ignored him, depositing Zuki unceremoniously onto the massive couch, the frame creaking under her weight. She giggled, seeming to enjoy being thrown around, mumbling to herself as she slowly drifted off to sleep and lay still.

I guess she can sleep on the couch,” Jules added.

If that will be all, then we shall head back,” Noza said.

Thanks for the help Noza, I hope that I'll see you around the station,” Jules replied as he offered him a tiny hand. Noza cocked his head, perhaps not used to shaking hands with a human, but he accepted the gesture and enclosed it in his furry mitten.

Take good care of your friend,” he rumbled, then he turned to the door. He snapped his fingers, and his two companions fell in line, one of them closing the door behind him. Jules found himself alone with the passed out alien, her chest slowly rising and falling as she slept off her drunkenness. She looked so peaceful in her sweater, and he was pleased that he had been able to show her a good time. She had really been coming out of her shell since she had arrived on the station, her confidence was growing. There was nothing like a new environment to give a person a fresh start.

It looked like he would be sleeping in the bed tonight, or rather this morning, as he was on Araxie time. He gingerly removed Zuki's sunglasses, setting them on the coffee table beside the helmet, then closed the blinds on the windows before heading off to the bathroom to brush his teeth. He didn't want her to be woken up when the sunlamps turned back on.

After freshening up, he was ready for bed, opening the large door that separated the bedroom from the rest of the apartment. Even the bed was massive, it was the size of a large dining table, strewn with thick sheets and large pillows. After kicking off his shoes and pants, he climbed up onto it, realizing that it was nearly as hard as one too. It was firm and unyielding, it would have to be, considering how heavy the aliens were. He felt like a toddler climbing into his parents' bed as he wrapped the heavy sheets around himself, staring at the dark ceiling.

As he closed his eyes, images of Zuki's smiling face flashed in his mind, the playing card held against her forehead. He saw her glistening, chiseled body moving as she struggled to get the sweater over her head in the confines of the changing booth, as if he was standing before her again. He tossed and turned, trying to stave off the intrusive thoughts that were bombarding him, eventually settling into a troubled sleep.

***

Jules woke from a dream in which he couldn't breathe, as if a heavy weight was crushing his chest. He blinked his eyes groggily, still half asleep as he ran his fingers through the imitation fur of the sheets. It felt like he was being pressed down into the mattress, but they were made for Borealans, after all. Wait a minute, the sheets hadn't been imitation fur...

He looked down to see Zuki's round ears. Her head was resting on his chest, and her arm was draped around his midsection. He could feel the warmth of her breath through the thin fabric of his shirt. She was breathing slow and heavy, clearly fast asleep. He had no idea what time it was, perhaps it was day, but Zuki must have crept from the couch to the bed in a drunken stupor at some point. As clumsy as she was, she really could be stealthy when she wanted to be.

Despite her weight, she wasn't crushing him, she was merely sinking him deep into the mattress beside her. He had been absent-mindedly stroking her furry head in his sleep, running his fingers through her silky hair like she was a pet dog.

He tried to wriggle free of her, attempting to move her arm without disturbing her. She grumbled in her sleep, her brow furrowing, and he had to stifle a yelp of surprise as she pressed the tips of her claws into his side and pulled him closer. Apparently, she wasn't going to be moving any time soon.

That blackberry scent reached his nose again, and he began to relax. Her round, fuzzy ears twitched as she slept, perhaps she was dreaming about something. Jules reached a hand down and prodded one of them, watching it flick. Amused, he trapped it between his thumb and forefinger, rubbing it softly. Beneath the fuzzy fur was a silky membrane, Zuki slowly wriggling as he massaged it, loosing a contented sigh that sent more warm air washing across his chest.

She had pulled back the covers, but she was warm, still clad in her knitted turtleneck sweater. He stroked her ear for a few minutes longer, watching as she shifted and murmured, then he began to run his fingers through her hair. It was so strange to him that they had hair as well as fur. Zuki's was cropped fairly short in a kind of messy pixie cut. It was silkier than human hair, more closely resembling fur. As his fingers brushed her scalp, she hugged him more tightly. She was probably still wasted, she had no idea where she was or what was going on.

Her hair too was slightly wet, almost like she had left the shower some time ago, and it had nearly dried. It couldn't be the humidity, perhaps it was some kind of natural oil, or maybe sweat to help her shed excess heat in the roasting jungles of her home territory? Either way, he liked the way that it felt.

Jules roamed lower, rubbing the back of her neck, finding the thin fur there just as damp. It so closely resembled skin when it was wet, so pleasant to the touch...

Zuki's reflective, green eyes opened for a brief second, her long lashes fluttering. Jules pulled his hand away in a momentary panic, worried that he had crossed a line. Zuki seemed to have no clue that he was even there, mumbling something about fries and then shifting her weight in the bed. The springs creaked as she pushed her wet nose into the nape of his neck, her breath tickling his skin. She wrapped her arm around his chest and tugged him closer, pressing his shoulder into her bosom, Jules feeling her flesh yield beneath her sweater.

He didn’t know what to do. His skin was tingling, like his senses had been kicked into overdrive, and he was hyperaware of wherever her velvet coat was brushing against his skin. She nuzzled, perhaps dreaming that she was sharing a bed with one of her own kind, her fuzzy tail coiling around his nearest leg possessively like a furry snake.

He wasn't sure if he would be able to wake her if he tried, and escape was clearly impossible. Instead, he closed his eyes, listening to the rhythm of her deep breathing and the pulsing of her massive heart as he let her body heat permeate him. There were worst places to sleep, he thought to himself, resting his hand on top of hers.

***

The next time that Jules opened his eyes, he was met with a pair of green orbs peering back at him. He sat up with a start, Zuki pulling away as her round pupils shrank back down to feline slits. She was still lying beside him on the bed, propped up on her elbow.

Were you...watching me sleep?” he mumbled as he rubbed his eyes.

Is that bad?” she asked.

Well...we don't usually invade other people's personal space. I’m surprised you’re still here, I figured you would have left when you woke up.”

Why?” she asked, cocking her head at him.

You came in here drunk last night, I assumed that you didn't know where you were.”

I knew where I was,” she replied cheerfully. “Oh...you don't look happy. Do humans not sleep together as Araxie packs do?”

So that was it, Araxie packs all slept together in a heap, and he had told her that the two of them were a pack. In her mind, he might as well have left the door open in invitation. It wasn't as if her motives weren't honorable, it was just a...cultural misunderstanding.

It's alright,” he said, trying to reassure her. “Do you not have a hangover? You were really putting them away last night.”

Putting them away?” she asked curiously.

I mean that you were drinking a lot. You out-drank that whole pack of Elysians. That Noza guy was pretty nice, he and his friends carried you back here. You don't have a headache then?”

Nope,” she said with a shake of her head.

Okay then,” Jules mumbled. “Fuck, what time is it? This nocturnal schedule of yours is fucking with my sleep pattern.”

Nighttime,” she replied.

Very helpful,” he grumbled, swinging his legs over the edge of the bed and hopping to the floor.

What are we going to do today?” Zuki asked, following behind him as he made his way out of the bedroom and into the kitchen.

Damn it,” he complained, looking over the empty cupboards and the derelict fridge. “The first thing we need to do is go get some coffee and some cereal at least, or I'm not going to survive this. Let me just get a shower, and I'll go out and pick up some food. There must be a general store or something around here that's open late.”

Shower?” she repeated.

I need to bathe,” he clarified.

Oh, me too. I was going to ask you about that. Is there a spring or a lake somewhere that I can wash in?”

On a space station?” he asked, giving her a sarcastic look. “That's what the shower is for. Come on, I'll show you.”

He led her into the bathroom, which was cramped for a Borealan, Zuki bumping into him with her wide hip as they jostled for space. It was downright king-sized by Jules' standards, however. There was a toilet and a sink in one corner, along with a shower cubicle in the other. The floor was tiled, and there was a grate in the middle where excess water could drain away.

This glass box here is the shower,” he said as he opened the sliding door and stepped inside. He detached the showerhead on its flexible tube and began to type at a waterproof touch panel that was mounted beneath it. “The water comes out of here, and then you use this panel to control the flow and temperature. Let's say that you wanted a slow flow of water at...thirty degrees Celsius, you just change the sliders here, and then...”

Zuki's eyes widened as a stream of water began to flow from the metallic showerhead, Jules interrupting the jets as he ran his hand beneath it.

Water comes out of there?” she asked in disbelief. “Where does it come from?”

I guess you guys don't have indoor plumbing? There are giant tanks in the station that purify the water, and then it's pumped through pipes in the walls until it ends up here. What you use will drain away, and then it will be purified again for later use. When you take a shower, just try not to waste too much of it, or the bill will be astronomical.”

She reached for the showerhead, and he passed it to her, Zuki taking it by the handle and turning it over as she examined it. She tapped at it, her claw clicking against the metal, the alien smiling as she ran the jets over her furry hand. She accidentally angled it towards Jules, spraying him in the face and soaking his shirt.

S-Sorry,” she began, but he raised a hand to silence her as he spat out a mouthful of warm water.

It's alright, I was going to take a shower anyway...”

***

Jules finished drying his hair with a towel, buttoning up his shirt and slipping on a pair of shoes. It was so liberating to be able to wear loafers once again, rather than the boots that the UNN had supplied him with. When he stepped out into the apartment, sliding an arm into the sleeve of his jacket, Zuki was once again flipping through articles as she sat on the couch before the large monitor. She seemed to fill every free moment with research, she was quite the student. Once she had learned the basics of how the Coalition functioned, then he might be able to start teaching her more advanced laws and regulations to further her goal of becoming a real diplomat.

Do you want to come with me and pick out some food?” he asked.

No, I'll bathe while you're away,” she replied with a shake of her head. “Can you bring more fries back?”

I'll bring you more fries,” he laughed, closing the door behind him on his way out.

***

Jules set his shopping bags down on the step outside the door to the apartment as he rummaged in his pocket for his key card, swiping it across the sensor. He stooped to retrieve his bags, the door opening automatically, a wave of humidity washing over him as he stepped over the threshold. Immediately, he began to sweat. It was like being back in the jungle again, the entire apartment had been transformed into a sauna.

Zuki!?” he shouted, searching for her through the thick haze of steam. “What did you do?”

He could hear the loud sound of water impacting tile, so he made his way towards the bathroom. The door was ajar, and when he leaned inside, he saw Zuki sitting in the shower cubicle beneath a stream of water. It was so hot that it created an obscuring haze around her. She had removed her new clothes, clad only in her leather shorts and her vest, which were apparently waterproof. She opened her eyes when she noticed him, smiling happily, blinking through the sheets of water as they cascaded over her head. She was soaked to the bone, relaxing in the heat.

You're back!”

Zuki, what are you doing? I thought I told you not to waste water?”

I-I'm not wasting it,” she stammered, confused by his reaction. “If you turn the red bar all the way up, it makes steam. Isn't it nice? The air isn't so cold and dry anymore.”

Jules ran his fingers through his now damp hair, sighing in exasperation. There was no point in being angry with her if she didn't understand what she had done wrong. Looks like he'd be trying to pass off the water bill as a business expense too...

Alright, let's turn off the water now, I brought back food.”

Fries?” she asked, her ears pricking up.

Yes, I got fries.”

She climbed to her feet excitedly, slipping a little on the wet tiles before finding her balance. She tapped at the touch panel with a padded finger, and the flow from the showerhead slowly abated, Zuki stepping out of the cubicle as droplets of water rained from her sodden fur.

I'll get you a towel,” Jules said, “just wait here and-”

She suddenly shook herself violently like a wet dog. The shiver passed from her head to the tip of her tail in a wave, sending hot water spraying around the room. Fortunately, Jules was able to take cover behind the door, avoiding the worst of it. He peeked out from his refuge, frowning at her.

Sorry,” she said with a grimace, “do humans not like water?”

It's not that we don't like water, but we generally don't like getting our clothes wet, no. Stay here while I get you a towel, I'm not having you walking around the apartment while you're wet.”

Give me a minute to change,” she said, moving towards the door. She slowly closed it in his face, almost apologetically, and then he heard a click. She must have locked it this time, she had figured out how that worked. By change she probably meant that she had to reapply her bandages. His curiosity was getting the better of him, he would have to ask her what they were concealing eventually. Whatever it was, she seemed self-conscious about it.

He went to fetch a towel, then waited by the door until she emerged once more. Apparently, the Araxie hadn't invented towels, they just shook themselves to get dry. That might not be an issue in an extremely humid jungle, but was not acceptable in an apartment. After a quick demonstration, she got the gist of it, drying herself off as the humidity that lingered in the air slowly faded away. Once the shower was turned off, the vents that cycled oxygen into the building got rid of any excess moisture pretty quickly, returning the atmosphere to its usual state.

There was a problem, however. She was so large, and she had so much fur that a single towel wasn't going to get the job done, it was quickly rendered too damp to be of any use. Jules considered just throwing their limited supply of towels at her until it was done, but then a better idea occurred to him. Zuki watched curiously as he rummaged through a drawer beneath the sink, searching through the combs and toothpaste that had been provided.

Most hotels usually have one,” he mumbled, closing the first drawer and opening a second. “If I can just...here we are!”

He withdrew a blow dryer, brandishing it like a gun.

What's that?” Zuki asked warily.

Don't worry, it's just a blow dryer. It's a little noisy, so don't be afraid, alright? Kneel down here, and I'll dry you off.”

He plugged the cable into the wall, the Araxie kneeling to put herself at about chest height to him, and then he hit the activation switch. It began to blow a stream of hot air, Zuki's initial apprehension melting away as he played it across her head.

It's so warm!” she giggled, her eyelids fluttering as he dried her face.

Hold still, I need to dry your hair,” he said as he delved his fingers into the damp strands. She shivered contentedly, leaning closer to him as he combed it, swaying slightly as if he was putting her under a trance. Her eyes were closed, her round ears twitching at his touch, her breathing growing deeper and more relaxed.

That feels nice, when you stroke my hair,” she mumbled.

What?” Jules asked, having difficulty hearing her over the din. He switched off the blow dryer for a moment as he waited for her to repeat herself.

I like it when you stroke my head,” she said, opening her green eyes for a moment and batting her lashes at him. “You have no claws, it feels...nice.”

Oh, do the claws get in the way when Borealans do that?”

She nodded, her now puffy hairdo bouncing with the motion. He remembered stroking her soft ears when she had crept into bed with him the day before. Did she remembered it too, or had she been too drunk at the time? He decided not to comment on it, moving down to her neck and shoulders, keeping his hands above the boundary of her bandages. He asked her to stand once her arms were done, Zuki turning slowly on the spot as he dried her midsection, keeping his hands to himself now as he relied on the blow dryer to do the work. As much as he would have liked to run his fingers across her soaking, muscular belly, it was hardly appropriate.

Uh, you should probably take those off,” he said as he gestured to her leather shorts and her vest. “Just hang them up to dry on the rack over there, and put on the clothes that you bought yesterday. I'll go fetch them for you. You understand how to use the blow dryer, right? Just hit this button here when you want to turn it on and off. Do your, er...do under your shorts, and I'll go...I'll get your clothes.”

Jules made a hasty exit, hearing the blow dryer turn on again as he retrieved her clothes where she had discarded them on the couch, bundling them up in his arms. When he arrived back at the bathroom door, he opened it a crack, pushing them through. After a moment, he felt her take them from his hand.

She spent another minute getting dressed, then finally stepped out. Her exposed fur was as puffy as could be, considering how short and fine it was, and he had to stifle a laugh. The festive turtleneck was the cherry on top.

What?” she asked, cocking her head at him.

You look as fuzzy as your sweater,” he chuckled.

Jules recovered his shopping bags and deposited them on the kitchen table with some difficulty due to its height, upending them, and spilling their contents across its imitation wood surface.

What's all this?” Zuki marveled, her eyes shining as she looked over the packets of food.

Those bags of frozen fries are for you, and the rest is food. I don't think we can get away with eating out for every meal, so I picked up some stuff that we can cook at home. As an experienced bachelor, I know my way around a kitchen.”

What is a bachelor?” she asked, “I thought you were a diplomat?”

Never mind,” he mumbled, quickly changing the subject. “I also brought the ingredients to bake a cake, I figured it was something fun that you could participate in.” Without burning the place down or creating any electrical hazards, he neglected to add. “Before you ask, I realize that you probably don't know what a cake is, but you'll find out soon enough.”

He had Zuki help him put everything away, he actually couldn't reach some of the higher cupboards and the freezer at the top of the Borealan-scale refrigerator. She seemed pleased to be of use, and it reminded him that she saw their relationship very differently than he did. To him, they were just friends sharing an apartment, there was nothing unusual about that. He had lived with plenty of roommates before. But to Zuki, they were a pack, and he was her Alpha. He didn't fully understand the dynamics of Araxie social groups, but their pack structure at least seemed less stringent than those of the Equatorials, she was not as submissive as Noza's packmates had been towards him, and she didn't seem to expect a great deal of instruction. Still, he wondered if there would be any other surprises along the lines of her expecting to share a bed with him. Maybe he shouldn't have been so frivolous with his declaration that they were a two-man pack, but as long as Zuki was happy, there was little reason to complain.

Now, I'm going to make some coffee and cook us up some breakfast,” Jules said. “Then, we're going to bake a cake.”

***

First comes the ingredients,” Jules said, pausing to fasten his apron before spreading the bags and packets out across the table. “Put this on,” he added, throwing a balled-up apron to Zuki. She fumbled with it for a moment, then pulled it over her head. It was human-sized, barely large enough to cover her chest, and she couldn't fasten it around her torso.

Oh, right...guess I didn't account for your size,” he said. “Actually, your leather clothes should be mostly dry by now, go put those back on. This could get messy, and we don't want to get your new clothes dirty.”

She did as he asked, returning a short time later clad in her leather pants and her vest, the apron discarded. She moved over to the table, her eyes darting eagerly between the different items.

What are all of these pouches for?” she asked, leaning closer to sniff at a bag of powdered sugar.

First thing's first, I need you to warm the oven up. See that white box with the glass door built into the counter over there? Go turn the rightmost knob to one hundred and ninety degrees. Good job, now fetch me two of those pans from the cupboard above it, the round metal bowls.”

Jules pulled up a chair to stand on so that he could reach more easily as Zuki trotted back over to him with two baking pans, setting them down on the table beside him. He felt a little ridiculous, but it made things simpler.

So far, his hunch had been right. Baking a cake was the perfect activity for Zuki. He was trying to simulate how he thought a pack might behave, involving its members, instructing them in the task at hand. It was a little different from a pack of Araxie hunting an animal or fighting a skirmish, but the principle was the same. Everyone had a job to do, and they looked to their Alpha for leadership.

Alright. Next, I want you to butter the pans,” he said as he passed her a stick of butter. Zuki sniffed at it, seeming to enjoy the scent, and then she began to peel away the wrapping. “Don't lick it,” he chided, Zuki pausing with her pink tongue an inch away from it. “Cut off a piece and use it to coat the interior of the pans, we want to make them slippery.”

She discarded the wrapper and took the stick of butter in her fist, squeezing it to test its softness. Before Jules could complain, she began to paint the inside of the nearest pan, like she was drawing with an oversized crayon. Whatever, it would get the job done.

Meanwhile, Jules began pouring the ingredients into a large mixing bowl. He cracked four eggs against the rim one by one and began to whisk them, the yellow yolks breaking and running together. Zuki finished the second pan, standing beside him with the partially melted butter in her hand as if she didn't know what to do with it.

Throw that in here,” he said, and she dropped it into the bowl. Immediately, she began to lick her buttery fingers, combing her fine fur with the barbs on her tongue. Jules kept up his whisking, instructing Zuki to start opening the packets.

We need one tablespoon of baking powder, use that plastic spoon over there to measure it. Read the packets and figure out which one we need.”

She examined the different bags, narrowing her eyes as she read the text.

Is it this one?” she asked, lifting one of them up.

That's right, good job. Open it up and measure out one tablespoon, then pour it into the bowl while I'm mixing.”

Zuki tore into the paper bag with her claws, spilling some of the baking powder onto the table, then dipped the plastic measuring spoon into the mess.

I guess we're only going to be baking one cake,” Jules muttered, “shake the spoon gently until all the excess powder falls off. There you go, now it's measured properly, dump it in.” She brought the spoon over to him and poured it into the mixture, watching with fascination as he beat the eggs and butter into a thick cream. “Good, now we need two tablespoons of milk, the bottle is in the fridge door. Think you can handle that?”

She nodded as she cracked open the fridge door, blinking against the bright light that it cast, rummaging for the milk. She quickly realized that it was a liquid, and Jules could practically see the gears turning in her head as she tried to figure out what to do with it. After examining the bottle for a moment, she asked him how to get it open, having never seen a screw cap before. He showed her how to turn it, and then provided no further instructions, curious to see how she would tackle the problem of measuring out the portions.

She seemed to want to upend the bottle and pour it into the measuring spoon at first, but then thought better of it, turning and pulling a cup from the countertop behind them. She filled the cup with milk, and then dipped the spoon into it, leaning over and pouring it into the bowl.

Nice work,” he said as she poured the second spoon into the bowl and then raised the glass to her lips, drinking what was left. “Now we just need to add the flour. It's the heavy bag, that one over there.” Zuki reached across the table and picked it up, looking to Jules for confirmation. “That's the one, yeah. Open it up. Just be careful, because-”

There was a puff of white powder as Zuki broke the bag open with her sharp claws, the contents escaping in a cloud as if a smoke grenade had just gone off in her face. She dropped it in alarm, causing a second explosion as it impacted the counter. As it settled on the table, she coughed, expelling another puff of powder. Jules couldn't help but laugh, her black fur had been stained a ghostly white, it was all over her face. The dust clung to her coat, sticking to her forearms and even her torso where she wasn't covered by her vest and her bandages.

Are you alright?” he chuckled.

It's so dry and bitter,” she grumbled, sticking out her long tongue as she tried to rub the flour off her face. It was already clumping up and sticking to her naturally damp fur.

Don't lick it,” Jules warned, “looks like you'll have to take another shower once we're done. It's not toxic or anything, so don't worry.”

He helped her measure out the flour that they needed, Jules getting covered in it too as he scooped what was left into the remnants of the bag. After a little more mixing, the contents of the bowl were transformed into a smooth batter, which he then poured into the two baking pans. Zuki leaned closer to watch the thick mixture as it spread out to fill them, creating a completely flat surface.

Jules placed them in the oven and then started on the filling, mixing the ingredients in another bowl and then putting it in the fridge to cool.

All of the ingredients are done,” he announced, reaching behind his back to untie his apron. “Nice work Zuki, now you can add baker to your list of skills.”

She gave him a broad smile as her tail flicked back and forth excitedly, looking pleased with herself. With her covering of flour, she was a little intimidating, like she was wearing some kind of skull face paint.

We've got about twenty minutes until the cake will be ready,” he continued, “we should probably get cleaned up. We've already racked up a huge water bill, so why stop there?”

I might need your help,” Zuki grumbled as she tugged at a clump of flour that was caked into her hair. “This white stuff is all sticky.”

My help?” he asked.

Your hands don't have claws,” she explained, “you're good at bathing.”

Oh...you want us to get into the shower together so that I can wash the flour out?” he asked as his cheeks began to redden.

Is that a problem?” she asked, her round ears tracking him like little radar dishes. “You seem troubled. It's common for members of an Araxie pack to bathe one another.”

No, no...it's just that...well, I suppose that we'll both be clothed, so there's no reason to worry about it. It's no different than wearing a bathing suit.”

They made their way over to the bathroom, disrobing outside the door. Zuki seemed to like the water temperature as hot as it would go, which meant that the steam would dampen his clothes if he hung them on the rack inside. He unbuttoned his shirt and slipped it off, kicking off his shoes and starting on his pants. There were no swimming trunks on hand, and so he would have to make do with his shorts. Hopefully, they wouldn't become too clingy when wet. He pulled off his socks, feeling Zuki's eyes on him, this was the first time that she had seen him wearing only his briefs.

He must look as strange to her as she did to him, perhaps even moreso. While Jules might compare her to a cat or a panther, animals that were somewhat familiar to him, it was doubtful that there were any creatures native to Borealis that looked anything like a human.

Your feet,” she chuckled, pointing down. “They look like fingers.”

Of course, Zuki hadn't seen a human's bare feet before. She had probably been expecting an appendage a little more suited to walking. He wiggled them, and she laughed again, which went some way towards dissolving the tension.

His eyes widened in surprise as she shrugged off her leather vest, stooping to lay it on the carpet. When she stood back up again, she was wearing only her shorts and the bandages that were tightly wrapped around her bosom. She had to have seen the unspoken question in his eyes as they wandered towards her chest, but he didn't press her for details, nor did she volunteer any new information. That she was willing to remove her vest in front of him was a step in the right direction, at least.

They walked into the bathroom, and this time, Jules was careful to close the door so that the apartment didn't get filled with steam again. Zuki's claws clicked against the tile floor as she slid the panel to the glass shower cubicle open and shuffled inside, Jules following after her. It was a tight fit for the two of them together, and it was only thanks to Zuki's slim build when compared to her Polar and Equatorial counterparts that he was able to squeeze inside with her. He found himself pressed up tightly against her furry body, the cold glass to his back, his naked skin sliding against the alien's damp coat and her leather shorts. She was so casual despite their proximity. Borealans were social creatures, apparently sleeping and bathing together was common practice.

The lights embedded in the ceiling had been dimmed to make the Araxie more comfortable, just like in the rest of the apartment, and it was rather murky with Zuki's shadow looming over him. Her green eyes seemed to sparkle in the gloom, reflective like those of a cat, catching whatever light was available to them as she peered down at him. When they were this close together, he had to crane his neck to look her in the face. It made him feel...odd.

She turned around to face the touch panel so that she could turn on the shower, her fluffy tail batting him in the face, and her rump pressing up against his stomach due to her stature. She seemed oblivious, Jules pulling his hands away so as not to accidentally cop a feel as he was trapped between her ample rear and the glass. Her shorts creaked as she moved, so tight that they left very little to the imagination, thin enough that he could feel the firm muscle that they concealed.

He was distracted as a shower of warm water began to splash against her head, raining down on him as she interrupted the stream. She was large enough that she was preventing the majority of the water from reaching him, turning to face him again when she noticed.

Oh, sorry,” she mumbled as she repositioned herself to put the showerhead to their right. Now the hot water cascaded over Jules too, and he reached across to tap at the panel, changing the settings so that the spray was wide enough that neither of them was left in the cold. The fit was no less tight, and he found himself pressed up against her flat stomach with the bandages an inch from his nose. He stood in silence for a moment, listening to the sound of the water raining down on the tiles, watching her muscles move beneath her fine fur.

What next?” she asked, snapping him out of his stupor.

Oh, right. There should be some shampoo on the little shelf behind you, some bottles, pass them to me.” Her soft rump pressed up against him through the leather of her shorts as she spun around, and when she turned again, she was holding three bottles in her hands. “Give them here,” he said, taking them from her and examining the labels. “That one's a conditioner, might need that later. Here we are, shampoo. If you can use this on hair, I'm sure it will work on fur as well, and they wouldn't have put it in here if it was toxic to Borealans.”

He upended one of the bottles into his cupped palm, Zuki wrinkling her nose at the smell.

What, don't you like the scents of ocean spray?” he asked sarcastically. “I guess it's a little chemical-y, but it's all we have right now. So do I just...rub it in?” he asked as he played his eyes over her stomach. The flour was clinging to her midsection between the bandages and her beltline, the shorts riding low on her wide hips.

We're a pack, are we not?” she asked.

Alright...”

Jules rubbed his hands together, spreading the slimy shampoo and creating a lather, then he delved his fingers into her fur. It was so incredibly fine and silky, like cat fur, but even shorter. It barely felt like hair at all, especially when it was soaked through like this. If he had been blindfolded, he might have assumed that it was naked skin. Zuki tensed at his touch, her taut abdominal muscles growing more defined as they flexed, the deep channels that they carved into her tummy clearly visible as they caught the dim light.

He was reminded of Yuta's toned six-pack, shining with beads of sweat that dripped across her porcelain skin, but Zuki was built differently. She was slimmer, more lithe, and more lightly muscled. If Yuta was a bodybuilder or a wrestler, then Zuki was a gymnast or a swimmer. There was a wonderful malleability to her as he kneaded the soap deeper into her fur, her flesh yielding beneath his fingertips as he massaged her.

Zuki sighed, twisting as he spread the slippery foam down towards the boundary of her low-hanging shorts, globs of it sliding out of view beneath the leather. She was so flexible and limber, somehow able to move her upper body independently of her hips, swaying like she was dancing slowly to a rhythm that only she could hear. He had to struggle to stay focused, the way that her abs twisted and shifted beneath her shining fur mesmerizing him.

He traced the wide curve of her hips, the sticky flour little more than a pretense now as he explored her soaking, sinewy body. He slid his hand below her navel, skirting the boundary between her mound and the shorts, making slow circles with his thumbs as he rubbed the lather deeper. Zuki twitched and shivered as he came tantalizingly close to her belt, her tail batting against the walls of the cubicle as it waved back and forth. Was that a sign of indecision or excitement? He couldn't tell.

His cheeks were burning, but that might just have been the hot water that was rapidly steaming up the glass, making them feel even more isolated from the rest of the world.

After a few minutes, he realized that the flour was long gone and that his fingers were sliding against clean, silky fur. Zuki opened her eyes to peer down at him when she felt him slow, thin slivers of green visible beneath heavy lids, her bandaged chest rising and falling as she took in staggered breaths.

Y-you're clean here,” he stammered, pulling back his hands and watching as the water carried the suds away. Like waking from a trance, Zuki seemed to come to, then she slowly began to kneel in front of him. He watched with wide eyes as she sat down on the tiled floor with her legs crossed, putting her face just below chest height. He swallowed conspicuously as she glanced up at him, the water still cascading over them, and he prayed that she wouldn't notice the swelling beneath the damp fabric of his briefs.

Do my head next,” she insisted, and Jules breathed a sigh of relief. Of course, she wanted him to wash her hair. He needed to get his mind out of the gutter...

He filled his hand with another blob of shampoo from the bottle, Zuki closing her eyes and smiling contentedly as he began to knead it into her hair. He massaged her scalp with his fingers, rubbing the lather in as deep as he could manage. She seemed so relaxed, swaying a little and leaning into him, her eyelids fluttering when he neared her fluffy ears. Wanting to see what would happen when he stroked them, Jules took one of them in his fingers, rubbing slowly as he worked the soap into her velvety fur. She shivered, sitting up as straight as a board, her tail ceasing its back and forth wagging as it stood erect.

Were her ears really so sensitive? Granted, it felt good to have your hair washed by someone else, anyone who had ever been to a hair salon could attest to that. But Zuki seemed enraptured, more like a dog being scratched behind the ear, cocking her head as if trying to encourage him. Now he was beginning to feel as if the tables had turned, that washing her hair was merely a pretense to get him to pet her.

He moved on to the second, taking it in his fist. The round flap was just the right size to rest comfortably in his palm, the cartilage flexible enough that it didn't hurt her when he began to squeeze and knead it like a kitchen sponge. He found a gentle rhythm as he pressed his thumb into the fluff that sprouted from it, making slow circles, and he could have sworn that he heard Zuki purring softly through the noise of the running water. He could feel the muscles that let it rotate and angle itself twitching at his touch.

Borealan claws didn't seem to be retractable like those of Earth cats, and while they had soft pads on the ends of their fingers that let them grip things through their fur, there were clearly some activities that their sharp claws just got in the way of. A good massage wasn't something that they would be accustomed to, they wouldn't be able to press their fingers deep into a knotted muscle without carving their subject up like a Sunday roast.

When Jules was done with her hair, he moved down to her face, careful not to get any of the suds in her eyes as he spread them across her forehead and her cheeks. Just like the rest of her body, her face was covered in almost imperceptibly fine fur, Zuki pushing her cheek into his palm as he washed her. He used his fingers to scratch her as he would a cat, the tension draining from her body as she sagged like a deflating balloon. Her tail lost its rigidity, returning to its waving motion, batting against the glass walls of the cubicle.

Emboldened, he cupped her face in both hands, feeling her lean more of her weight on them as he rubbed her cheeks. He noted that she had no whiskers, and unlike a cat, she had a pair of full, almost jet-black lips. Seeing his hands touching her face gave him a new appreciation for her size. Her head was easily the equal of that of a lion or a tiger, with a massive skull made from dense bone. The muscles that powered her jaws were so developed, nothing like those of a human, he could feel them beneath his fingers as he stroked.

That feels nice,” Zuki sighed, her eyes unfocused as if she were falling asleep. “Really nice...”

He carefully washed the bridge of her feline nose with his finger, making her giggle, and then he gently guided her head into the stream of water to clean away all of the shampoo. Her fur now looked even shinier than before, her short-cropped hair damp and heavy.

Next, he moved down to her neck and shoulders, finding himself wondering how she would react to an actual massage. When he was done washing off the clumps of wet flour, he asked her to put her back to him.

What are you doing?” she asked as she shuffled on the floor, looking over her shoulder at him.

I want to try something, tell me how this feels...”

He placed his hands on her neck, moving slowly down towards her shoulder blades, probing with his thumbs. Zuki was basically humanoid, her anatomy shouldn't be too different from that of a human. A litany of ex-girlfriends had taught him enough about giving back massages to know his way around the different muscle groups, as well as how to make up after an argument...

He traced the bumps of her vertebrae, feeling the thick columns of muscle to either side of her spine that joined to the firm muscles in her neck and shoulders. Her upper back was as hard as rock, especially between her shoulder blades, rigid and unyielding beneath his fingertips. Zuki shuffled uncomfortably as he probed, her tail flicking in what might be irritation.

That feels weird,” she complained.

Your muscles are so hard and ropy,” he grumbled, “they're full of knots.”

What does that mean?”

That you have bad posture, some kind of strain maybe. It's not like you work a desk job, so I don't know what's...”

Jules found an especially large knot between her shoulders, applying pressure with his thumb, Zuki going haywire. Her ears twitched, and her tail tensed, her spine going as straight as a rod. He could feel the tension building, Zuki sucking in a breath through her teeth, then sinking back down again as he worked out the knot.

W-what was...that?” she mumbled.

You've never had a back rub before? I figured as much, your claws would get in the way. Keep still, let me work out these knots. It might hurt a little at first, but it will feel good, it's a good kind of hurt.” She looked back over her shoulder at him skeptically. “Just trust me.”

Alright...”

Jules moved from her neck to the bottom of her shoulder blades, where the bandages began, kneading with his fingers and putting pressure on her muscles. They were so rigid, packed with stress, not nearly as malleable as they should have been. The muscles that carved the beautiful channel that ran down her spine were so full of knots that they felt like a pair of old ropes, she had built up so much tension here. He might achieve better results with the heel of his hand rather than tackling each knot individually, and so he began to drive it deep into her muscle. She was larger and stronger than a human, and he so had to apply more pressure than he was accustomed to, but the results were immediate.

As he slid his hand up between her shoulders, Zuki let slip a surprised gasp, her spine arching and her clawed fingers scraping against the tiled floor. He had hit several trigger points at once, easing the tightness and tension that must have been building up for years, all of that stored stress melting from her body as a wave of pleasure that bordered on pain rippled through her.

That feel better?” he asked, leaning over her shoulder. “Should I apply more pressure?”

Zuki was trembling like a leaf, and she gave him a silent nod, biting her lower lip with her sharp teeth. Jules drove the heel of his hand even deeper, tracing the dimple of her spine towards her neck, pausing here and there to massage especially troublesome spots with his fingers. Right now, Zuki should be feeling a sweet ache, a sense of relief and warmth spreading through her shoulders and her chest.

Her breath caught in her throat as he reached her neck, resting his hands around it and using his thumbs to push into the taut muscle. Here too, there were innumerable knots and pressure points. Perhaps this was merely a consequence of the higher gravity and the strain that it put on her body? The only other person that he had seen such tension in was an ex who had worked as a clerk, spending eight or nine hours of her day hunched over a computer.

Zuki stiffened like a statue, then relaxed, another wave of aching pleasure washing over her as she let her head sag forwards. The hot water cascaded down her back, making her fur slick, all the better for Jules to slid his hands up and down with little friction.

Does it hurt?” Jules asked, pausing for a moment.

A little, but don't stop,” she mumbled. “I...I've never...” She trailed off as he resumed his massage, every stroke of his fingers making her shift and dance as though he was plucking at the strings of a marionette.

How are you doing that?” she asked, her voice weak and wavering. “It feels like you're reaching inside me...I can feel it everywhere...”

Your muscles are just knotted,” he explained, “it happens because of stress or...bad posture...”

His eyes were drawn by the way that her hips flared at this angle, her rear filling out her tight shorts as her tail batted at his shins. The lower back was another problem area for stress and tension. Perhaps she would let him massage her there too? With a start, he realized that he was at full mast, thanking his stars that she was facing away from him right now.

What was he doing? How had it come to this?

We need to stop,” he stammered, Zuki opening her eyes and looking back over her shoulder at him.

Why?”

T-the cake will burn.”

Oh, the cake...”

She reached up and shut off the shower, the steam slowly clearing as Jules opened the door to the cubicle and stepped out, the water seeming to take some of the tension with it as it evaporated from his skin. The frenzied beating of his heart began to slow now that he was no longer in that steamy, confined cubicle with her. Zuki shook herself again, but he was already wet, so it hardly mattered.

Let me get dry,” he said, keeping his back to her so that she couldn't see his erection. “Then I'll blow dry you again. Don't touch it with wet hands, because it's electrical, you might get shocked.”

Okay,” she replied, perhaps wondering why he was facing away from her. Only when a towel was safely wrapped around his waist did he dare to turn to her again. She looked genuinely relieved after his massage, who knew how long she had been living with that upper back pain. She seemed even more limber than usual, her eyes glazed over as the residual pleasure continued to smolder.

Feel better?” he asked. She nodded, and then rolled her neck experimentally, a grin spreading across her face.

I can't remember the last time that I felt this good, so much of the ache is gone. Humans have magic hands.”

I guess we do by your standards,” he laughed as he rubbed his forearms with the towel. “Right, kneel down, and let me dry you off.”

She sat in front of him obediently, and he began to dry her hair, running his fingers through it again as she cooed happily. She seemed even more affectionate than usual. She was in a daze after her massage, practically giddy, rubbing her furry face against his hands. He was a professional, he was accustomed to office life where certain boundaries should not be crossed. Sexual harassment suits were no joke, he should know better, he should put more distance between him and his ward. Yet he couldn't help himself, he couldn't keep his hands out of her velvet fur, he couldn't keep his eyes off her perfectly sculpted body. Her adorable personality melted through the walls that he erected like a blowtorch. What were the differences between be friends, packmates, and lovers in their culture? He had no idea.

The sooner they completed their task here and parted ways, the better. But why did the idea of being separated from her fill him with such dread? He needed to get his head on straight before things got out of hand...

***

Jules put on his oven mitts, opening the door to the oven and withdrawing the first of the two baking pans. The cake had risen nicely, filling the pan and creating a sort of muffin-top that slightly overhung the rim. Steam wafted from it as he stood on his toes to reach up and set it on the counter, then retrieved the second. He looked around for Zuki, noticing that she was missing. What the hell was she doing?

Zuki?” he asked, walking over to the bathroom door and knocking on it. It swung open, and he peeked inside to see that it was empty. “We're going to finish the cake, are you coming?”

He made his way back over to the counter, scratching his head through the mitten in confusion. Had she retreated to the bedroom to reapply her bandages this time? He stooped to check under the kitchen table, not sure what he was expecting to find, but she wasn't there either.

Suddenly he felt something behind him, the hair on his neck standing on end as a dark shape rose up, his heart skipping a beat as a pair of furry arms wrapped around him.

Got you,” Zuki whispered, chuckling at his reaction. “See? I can be stealthy too.”

What are you doing?” he laughed in surprise. Her fur was all puffy from the blow dryer again, and she was wearing her sweater and pants. She seemed especially chipper after their shower, full of energy, somehow more confident.

I just wanted you to see how quiet I could be.”

I'm impressed, I suppose?”

Are we finishing the cake now?” she asked, eyeing the two pans.

Yeah, fetch me the filling that we made, it's in the fridge.”

She did as he asked, crouching and opening the door to the fridge, then passed him the bowl. He pulled off the plastic film and dipped his finger into it, holding a blob of it up to her.

I know that Borealans don't have much of a taste for sweet things, but I think you'll like dairy, so give this a taste and tell me what you think before we put it on the cake.”

He expected her to scoop it off his finger with her claw or something, but she leaned down closer, his face reddening as she closed her smooth lips around it. They were full and puffy, as black as coal, shining as though she had applied some kind of colored lipstick. The inside of her mouth was so warm, and she began to draw gently on his digit, her flexible tongue coiling around him like a snake as it cleaned away the cream. It was prehensile, she had such incredible control over it, a pleasant shiver running down his spine as her slick flesh grazed his skin. She drew back, licking her lips and leaving him standing there with a damp finger, his heart pounding in his ears.

Tastes good!” she said, Jules snapping out of his stupor.

Uh...good, yeah. Let's...use that then.” He turned back to the counter, glad to be facing away from her once more so that he could hide his flushed cheeks, using a spoon to scoop out the cream filling and spreading it on the top of one of the cakes. When that was done, he tasked her with fetching a jar of strawberry preserves. It was another sweet ingredient, but the Borealans seemed to like fruity flavors and scents when it came to drinks and soaps, so perhaps she would appreciate this too. He spread it, then paused to appraise their handiwork. “Alright, now we just need to stack one half of the cake on top of the other...”

He lifted one of the pans with his oven mitts, careful not to burn himself, and dumped it on top of the other as Zuki peered over his shoulder. He twisted the pan, freeing the cake as best he could, and then pulled it away. After sprinkling a little confectionery sugar on the top, it was done.

Voila,” he said, “one cake.”

Can we eat it now?” Zuki asked.

We have to let it cool for a few minutes, then we can eat it,” he replied as he stooped to turn off the stove.

Want to sit together while we wait?” she asked, her tail flicking back and forth in anticipation.

Sure,” he said with a shrug, following her over to the couch. She waited for him to climb up, then she took a seat on the carpet in front of him, pushing her back up against his knees. She rolled her head back, resting it in his lap as she peered up at him, upside-down from his perspective.

Rub my neck again?”

Alright...”

Her black lips curled into a smile, and she reached down, lifting her sweater as if she was about to pull it off.

Hold up, I can give you a massage without you taking off your sweater.”

Oh, okay then.”

She shuffled to get more comfortable, waiting expectantly, and he felt her shiver excitedly when he reached down and began to rub her neck. He couldn't be as thorough in this position. Leaning forward on the high couch was a little awkward, and the sweater did impede him somewhat, but she was enjoying it regardless. She leaned back against him as if encouraging him to push his fingers deeper into her muscles, her breathing becoming deep and regular as he slowly moved down her back. She insisted that he rub her head, and he obliged, feeling her sinewy body writhe and wriggle as he massaged her furry ears. She was clearly in heaven, and once again, he found himself wondering where the boundary between friends and lovers was drawn in their packs. Was he simply grooming her right now like monkeys in a troupe, or was it something more? He was afraid to ask, lest she make assumptions about which outcome he was hoping for.

She really was like a cat, forcing herself into his lap and demanding attention whether he liked it or not. At least she was starting to come out of her shell now, there was less of that meekness and deference that he had seen from her back in the Araxie village.

You know,” he began. “If your upper back was in such a sorry state, then your lower back probably is too. Maybe I could give it a look later tonight?”

Yeah,” she sighed, swaying as he pressed his thumbs between her shoulders. “Let's do that...”

Can I...I mean...if you took off your bandages, I could do your whole back. Or maybe I could give you a massage through the bandages? Would that hurt you?”

She tensed up a little, becoming more alert. Maybe he shouldn't have broached the subject at all? What kind of injury would be a source of such shame or embarrassment for her? Something disfiguring, perhaps? He didn't know what the standard of beauty was for Araxie.

I shouldn't,” she mumbled.

If you're hurt,” he continued, “if you have some kind of injury...we have doctors on the station who can help. They run some of the best medical facilities in the Coalition, whatever is wrong, I'm sure they can fix it. They treat Borealans here all the time. Skin grafts for plasma burns, replacement limbs, nothing is off the table. I should know, I sat in on the last budgetary meeting.”

Is the cake cooled enough now?” she asked, dodging the question entirely and changing the subject.

Yeah,” Jules sighed, disappointed by her reaction. He had hoped that he had earned enough of her trust by this point to get her to spill the beans. “Let's go get it.”

***

I don't know about the taste,” Zuki said through a mouthful of fluffy sponge cake, “but I like the texture. It's chewy.” She swallowed, then used her winding tongue to lick between the two halves, scraping away the blend of cream and jam in a manner that Jules found more than a little suggestive.

We'll call it a partial success,” he said, taking a bite from his own more meager slice. “We should probably make something more savory next time, but I want you to experience more than just meat. There's a lot that you can do with potato, you know.”

Whassat?” she mumbled as she chewed.

It's the root vegetable that fries are made from. We could make you roast potatoes, or maybe bake them and serve them with tuna. We could fry them in oil, I bet you'd love that.”

She nodded as she finished off her cake, Jules doing the same before setting his empty plate on the coffee table.

What do you want to do today?” he asked, “we've got a whole night ahead of us thanks to your weird sleep schedule. We could go explore more of the station, play some games, watch some movies. What do you think?”

I want to study,” she insisted, pricking her furry ears up.

You want to study?” he repeated skeptically. She had the run of the station, a technological marvel full of wonders beyond her comprehension, yet all she wanted to do was learn about interstellar law?

You said that we had four days before the council will meet with us, and one day has already gone by,” she continued. “I must learn as much as I can if I am to become a diplomat before I have to return home. Will you teach me?”

Of course I'll teach you,” he replied, “I'm just surprised that you only want to study. I expected you to want to explore the station, meet more aliens, things like that.”

There will be time for that later if I become a diplomat. Right now, my priority must be to serve my Patriarch and my people. I finally have a job to do, and I don't want to let them down.”

Alright then,” he said, surprised by her pragmatism. “I guess we can start with the Coalition charter and move into interstellar law from there. I'll go get the tablet, you can use it to take notes, then we can take a recess and go over what you learned.”

She certainly seemed more invested and more excited than any of the students who attended the lectures back at law school. There was nothing quite like teaching someone who was eager to learn.

CHAPTER 12: MAGIC FINGERS

And so that brings us to article sixty-eight, which covers procedures. Read that off for me, Zuki,” Jules said as he stood before the monitor and pointed to the section in question. She leaned forward on the couch to see better, the tablet clutched in her padded fingers.

The eco...economic and social council shall create commissions in economic and social fields...and for the promotion of sap...sap...”

Sapient,” Jules corrected, underlining the word with the mouse pointer. “Sapient refers to conscious, thinking creatures like you and I. Back in the old days, before we encountered aliens, these documents only referred to humans. That had to be changed when we encountered other intelligent species. You could say that I am sapient, or that I possess sapience. Continue.”

The promotion of sapient rights, and such other commissions as may be required for the performance of its functions,” she concluded. Zuki tapped at her touch screen furiously, taking notes. She was becoming a remarkably proficient typist, she rarely needed to use the speech recognition functions now.

So what do you think section sixty-eight means?” Jules asked, beginning to pace before the holographic fireplace. “What is its purpose?”

She scrolled through her notes for a moment before replying.

A commission is a group of people who have been appointed to perform a function, such as an investigation, or have been authorized to oversee something. So, article sixty-eight must give the social and economic council the right to assign commissions to investigate abuses and promote sapient rights.”

Good, Zuki,” he exclaimed. She sat up straight, a smile spreading across her face. “You're picking this up far faster than many of the law students back when I was doing my studies. I assumed you’d be bored to tears when we got into the more technical stuff.”

I like it. We have laws in Araxie, but nothing like this. So much effort has been put into them, the people who wrote them thought of everything.”

Well, they're not perfect,” Jules said, crossing his arms. “There are some loopholes and things that they missed, and a law is only ever as good as the people enforcing it, but it's the best legal framework that we were able to produce when it comes to interstellar relations. Remember, however, that these conventions only govern the Coalition and the interactions between member states. Araxie will maintain its sovereignty and continue to operate under its own legal system, but if any local laws conflict with interstellar ones, then there may be problems. For example, you can't just ignore the conventions on sapient rights, you would have to update your local laws to comply with them if they were at odds for some reason.”

I see,” she muttered, typing on her tablet again. Jules turned to check the clock on the monitor, seeing that it was nearing midnight.

Looks like we've been at this for a few hours,” he said, “how about we take a break and get some food?”

Potatoes?” she asked.

Sure, we can get potatoes. Why don't you go over your notes a little more while I cook?”

She nodded, turning her eyes back to her screen. He wasn't sure if it was her desire to be of use to her people, or the fact that he was her superior in this two-man pack that they had created, but she certainly was cooperative.

***

Zuki sat at the dining table, holding her knife and fork as she had been taught, watching eagerly as he delivered a steaming plate to her.

Boiled potatoes with plenty of butter and salt, fresh smoked salmon which costs an arm and a leg out here mind you, and a topping of sour cream and chives. You're supposed to eat the salmon with a blob of cream. Try to go slow and savor it, and watch that you don't burn your mouth. It's still hot.”

She used her fork to scoop up a dollop of sour cream, the little green pieces of diced chive standing out against the white paste, and then she speared a piece of pink salmon along with it. Jules watched, smirking as she brought it to her mouth and began to chew. Cats liked cream, and they loved fish, so surely this recipe would be a hit with Zuki?

Her eyes lit up, her tail beginning to wag back and forth, batting against the metal supports of her chair with a metallic clang.

Good?” he laughed, and she nodded.

I love this fish, it melts on my tongue,” she mumbled over a second mouthful. “What was it called again?”

Salmon, it's a species of fish native to Earth.”

She started on the potatoes, which had been boiled and then mashed into a salad along with more sour cream, then generously dusted with sea salt. Judging by the expression on her face, she was enjoying those too.

Jules returned to the counter to collect his portion, the human-sized plate dwarfed by the veritable hubcap that Zuki was eating off. They chatted about Zuki's studies while they ate. Not only was she developing a good grasp of the Coalition convention itself, but she had some rather insightful questions to ask about it that he was all too happy to answer. Her enthusiasm was rekindling his own interest in interstellar politics, the passion that had driven him through law school, and up into the ranks of the UN. At the rate that she was progressing, he felt certain that he could send her back home with enough knowledge to advise her Patriarch. She would be no expert, it took years of study to truly grasp the legal system, but she would know enough that the Araxie couldn't be easily taken advantage of. Perhaps she would be able to continue her studies on her own from there.

Almost as soon as Zuki had cleaned her plate, licking up what was left of the sour cream with her prehensile tongue, she was ready to resume her studies. Perhaps he could convince her to take at least another afternoon or two off to see more of the station, he had some ideas for activities that she might enjoy.

***

The dull glow of the sunlamps was starting to bleed through the shutters, it was an artificial dawn, time to sleep for the nocturnal Araxie. Jules set down his remote on the table and stretched, his legs stiff from standing for so long. Zuki had studied practically all night, with only the occasional break for food, and her thirst for knowledge seemed to be unquenched.

We really should stop,” he said as she peered across the coffee table at him from her perch on the couch. She was curled up with her feet tucked beneath her, the long sleeves of her ill-fitting sweater creeping down her arms and threatening to cover her hands. “We can pick up where we left off tomorrow. You want to get something else to eat before you go to bed? I have a hard time keeping track of how much you eat and when you're supposed to be hungry. Do Araxie even eat three meals a day, or is that just something we humans take for granted?”

We eat whenever we're hungry,” she replied, shrugging through her sweater. “There is always food cooking in the great hall, anyone is free to come and go as they please. The only exception is before the winter when we all eat a large communal meal before hibernation. It has to be enough to feed us during the time of lethargy, when nobody will be awake enough to cook.”

Oh, like a bear hibernating. That makes sense. Well, just let me know when you're hungry, I can always cook you something up. There are snacks in the cupboards, too. I bought some party-sized bags of potato chips that you'll probably appreciate. They're salted.”

Maybe I'm a little hungry...”

Alright,” he chuckled, “I'm guessing you want potato chips? I picked up some flavors that I thought you might like. No eating in bed though, I don't want you getting crumbs everywhere.”

She hopped off the couch, her padded feet landing silently on the carpet despite her immense weight, the cushions beneath her gradually returning to their original shape. Jules made his way to the kitchen and reached into one of the cupboards, barely able to reach the lowest shelf when he stood on his toes. He pulled out a packet of sour cream flavored chips, Zuki's green eyes fixing on the colorful exterior as she recognized the white cream.

He tossed it to her, and she fumbled it, crouching to pick it up off the floor and turning the packet over in her hands as she inspected it. It was a pack intended to feed a whole family, yet it scarcely looked larger than a single in her massive paws. He showed her how to open it, and before long, she was fishing for chips, pausing to lick the flavorful dust from her fur between handfuls.

In the meantime, Jules headed to the bathroom, washing up and brushing his teeth. He paused, chewing on the bristles on his toothbrush for a moment as he stared at himself in the mirror above the tall sink. Would Zuki be wanting to share the bed again? This time he couldn't blame it on being drunk, and he couldn't write it off as a misunderstanding. What should he do?

The human in him told him that sharing a bed with a woman that you weren't in a relationship with was a bad idea, it would be courteous to offer her the bed and then sleep on the couch. The damned thing was as large as a human bed anyway, it was no inconvenience.

But what he had learned about the Araxie told him a different story. It was expected for packmates to sleep together, it was a form of bonding, expected social behavior. It might be insulting to refuse. Worse, he might upset Zuki. The thought of her getting the wrong impression, thinking that he didn't really like her or that he didn't want to be around her overrode his fear of being put in a compromising situation.

He rinsed his mouth and then stepped out of the bathroom, finding Zuki waiting for him, her tail flicking eagerly.

Are we going to bed now?” she asked, her ears picking up as she anticipated his reply.

Yeah, it's pretty late.”

Her smile was contagious. Suddenly, the thought of sharing a bed with her didn't worry him so much. She followed him into the bedroom, the dim glow from a solitary lamp in the ceiling their only source of light, Jules making the bed as Zuki watched curiously. The aliens seemed to prefer the rat's nest style of bedding to folded sheets.

Why was his heart beating so fast? He had slept with her the night before, and nothing untoward had happened. Maybe he was making a big fuss over nothing? He half expected to turn around to see her disrobing, but she was still wearing her camouflaged sweatpants and her turtleneck sweater, at least there was that. He noticed that her tail was flicking back and forth again, she must be anticipating something.

Will you do my back again, like you said?” she asked as she bobbed on the spot excitedly.

Oh, you wanted me to do your lower back, right? Yeah, lie down on the bed, and I'll take a look.”

She smiled again, walking around him and climbing up onto the mattress, the springs creaking under her weight as she flopped down onto her belly and planted her face in the cushions. Jules hopped up onto the bed, kneeling beside her long body, level with where her wagging tail connected to her lower back. Hopefully, that wouldn't get in the way too much, he should be able to feel his way around the unfamiliar muscle groups.

Jules lifted her sweater to expose more of her back between her pants and the bandages. Her tail slotted through a little hole in the elastic waistband of her pants, making them ride fairly high on her hips.

I'm going to have to move your pants down just a little,” he began, “can you slide your tail out of that hole?”

It was remarkably flexible, the furry appendage moving more like a tentacle than anything that he was used to. He found himself wondering if she could manipulate objects with it, and then his question was answered as she used it to scoot her pants down until the beginnings of her velvety cheeks came into view.

T-that's enough,” he stammered. She wasn't wearing her leather shorts beneath her sweatpants, or anything else for that matter. He cleared his throat and then began to narrate what he was doing in an attempt to alleviate some of the tension. Both of her ears had swiveled back to face him, her face resting in one of the pillows. She seemed so far away due to her eight-foot stature.

So...just like with your upper back, there are thick muscles down here that support the spine and are prone to strain and knotting. If your shoulders were sore, then I'm willing to bet that your lumbar area is in a sorry state too. They usually go hand in hand...”

He reached down, sinking his fingers into her silky fur, digging into the subtle layer of delicate fat that coated her lithe body. After probing around the dimples just above her butt for a few moments, he located a knot, Zuki twitching as he rolled his finger over it.

Yeah, your muscles are all stiff and knotted. I'm going to apply a lot of pressure, this is deep tissue we're talking about here. It might make it ache worse at first, but it will feel better after a little while. Is that alright?”

She mumbled a yes into the pillows, and Jules cracked his knuckles. There were so many things that he was unsure about, but this at least he knew how to do. Time to put his supposedly magic hands to work.

He began to knead her taut muscles, pushing his fingers deep into her flesh, like he was shaping fresh dough. She shifted uncomfortably, grumbling a little as he probed for the sweet spot. If she had lower back pain, then it was probably feeling worse right now, not better. He just needed to find what he was looking for, and...”

Zuki growled suddenly, a deep and resonating rumble that made his hair stand on end, and he pulled his hands away in alarm.

Sorry! Did I hurt you?” Maybe this was a bad idea, maybe he really didn't know enough about her alien anatomy to apply so much pressure so confidently.

No,” Zuki whined, her voice trailing off into a whisper. “Don't stop...”

Apparently, a growl could be a positive reaction. Alright then. He returned his hands to the spot just above the perfect dimples near her rump, skirting the base of her tail as he dug deeper. Just like between her shoulders, the muscle here was practically petrified, it was as hard as rock and completely inflexible. There were knots, too, thick and hard. It must be so uncomfortable for her.

Zuki arched her spine, her tail curling, the toes on her paw-like feet flexing like a cat kneading its favorite blanket.

There!” she yelped, her clawed fingers sinking into the pillows and tearing through the fabric. More additions to his growing bill...

Having located a problem area, he switched to the heel of his hand, leaning all of his weight on her back. Her reaction was immediate and powerful, he could feel her muscles tensing, shivers sliding up her spine as he alleviated her discomfort. He made slow circles, pushing as deep as he could get. It was a very tough part of the body, he was in no danger of injuring her, doubly so due to her Borealan resilience.

How does that feel?” he asked, watching her clawed toes flex rhythmically.

Like you're reaching inside me and scratching an itch,” she mumbled, her voice muffled by the cushions. “It hurts a little...but it's good...”

There was that sweet ache that was so often associated with this kind of massage, a permeating, dull pain that tapered into a deeply satisfying soreness that few other sensations could approximate. She must be feeling intense relief right now, who knew how long she had been living with a background noise of pain, never knowing that applying a little pressure in the right places could alleviate it. What's more, he was only getting started.

I'm going to move closer towards the center of your spine,” he explained, switching back to his fingers and relieving some of the pressure. “You're pretty different from a human here, I'm not really sure what your muscle groups look like, so I'm going to feel around a little. Tell me to stop if it hurts, alright?”

Mhmm,” she sighed.

There were two parts to the lower back, the inward arch of the spine, which was referred to as the lumbar curve, and then the outward hump of the butt, which was referred to as the sacral curve. That was where the last few vertebrae of the spine were located, along with the coccyx, otherwise known as the tailbone. The tail was not vestigial in Borealans, obviously, Zuki's spine extended into a long and flexible appendage. As he probed around the area, feeling her twitch as he tickled her, he discovered that there was a large web of muscle connecting it to her body. It had a lot more leverage than he had expected, she could probably lift some considerable weight with it.

As he neared the base of the tail, Zuki growled again, and this time he knew better than to pull away. Instead, he dug his fingers deeper, scratching the zone where her tail joined to the rest of her body. The Araxie squirmed, her claws sinking deeper into the pillows and sending a puff of feathers floating to the carpet below. It must be rich in nerve endings.

Does that feel good?” he chuckled, feeling her tremble like a leaf. In response, she coiled her tail around his wrist like a furry manacle, preventing him from pulling his hand away. He kept up his stroking, Zuki arching her back and writhing on the bed. She moved so beautifully, her muscles shifting beneath her fur, her shiny coat reflecting the light to give the impression that she was clad in vinyl.

He noticed that she was rubbing her thick thighs together now, and his face reddened. Perhaps he should lay off a little. He could feel an uncomfortable pressure growing beneath his trousers, too.

Zuki sank back into the mattress and loosened her tight hold on his arm as he roamed higher, resuming his initial mission of relieving her tension and loosening up her back. He slid his fingers into the groove of her spine, her damp fur making his touch slippery, almost as if it was made to facilitate a good massage. The two columns of muscle to either side of it were full of knots caused by stress and tension, and he began to work them out as he slowly moved upwards towards her bandages.

Oh, Jules...” Zuki moaned as he sank the heel of his hand into the sensitive tissue, her sultry voice catching him off-guard and sending an undeniable throb of arousal coursing through him like an electric shock. “That feels so good...”

I-I'm glad,” he replied awkwardly. Images of Yuta riding Velez into the ground flashed before his mind's eye, the intrusive thoughts betraying him. Fortunately, Zuki still had her face buried in the pillows near the headboard, so she couldn't see the tent that was rising in his pants. Professionalism...objectivity...the concepts were being drowned by a feverish desire that was smoldering inside him, the heat rising up through his body as his eyes lingered on her rump, the beginnings of her pert cheeks just peeking out above her loose waistband. She was so warm, her fur so silky and touchable, slick with moisture. He just wanted to-

Don't slow down,” she grumbled, snapping him out of his stupor.

He returned to the more problematic area around her hips and the base of her tail, seeking out more trigger points and knots as he tried to calm his racing heart. The alien seemed to be in heaven, locked in a slow, gyrating dance as if her body was moving of its own accord. She might be so relaxed that she was slipping in and out of consciousness, trapped in a dreamlike state somewhere between waking and sleep.

There!” she suddenly gasped, his thumb pressing into her muscle just below one of the dimples in her back and a hair above her cheeks. “Oh please...there...”

She seemed to melt as he kneaded the area with his palm, twitching and sucking in sharp breaths as he skirted the plump, springy flesh of her butt. Taking the initiative, he brought both hands to bear, placing one on top of the other like he was about to perform CPR.

Zuki moaned into the pillows, clutching them with her furry hands as he leveraged all of the strength that he could muster to drive the heel of his hand deep into the trigger point, making slow circles as he worked out the stress. Her chiseled body danced with every subtle motion of his wrists, Jules marveling at the fact that he could have such an effect on so large a creature.

She raised her hips off the bed, pushing her rump into the air, her breath coming in short gasps as he intensified his massage. The pleasure that bordered on pain, that wonderful ache must be permeating her lower body now, she might be feeling it from the small of her back all the way down to her...nether regions. Maybe he should stop here?

He looked up to see if she had emerged from the pillows, but she seemed to be hiding her face, lost in her fugue as he pushed her closer and closer to what felt like some manner of climax. It was somewhat of a challenge to keep his hands in the right place, but he did his best as she twisted and shivered, Zuki finally loosing a drawn-out moan before collapsing into the sheets in a shuddering heap. She twitched and trembled as if an electrical current was passing through her body, her thighs locked together, her heavy breathing stifled by the cushions.

Jules watched her with a blend of arousal and apprehension, wondering if he had crossed a line. He had expected a strong reaction, but not one quite that strong.

How do you feel?” he finally asked, breaking a silence that had only been punctuated by her labored breathing and the pulsing of his own blood in his ears. She slowly rolled onto her side, her shifting weight on the mattress threatening to throw him off balance, her green eyes glittering as her face emerged from the cushions.

Like I'm floating,” she giggled, her husky voice low and comely. She opened her arms to him in invitation, and he found himself crawling across the sheets towards her. Zuki wrapped them around him and brought him closer, her clawed fingers delving into his hair, he could feel their sharp points brush against his scalp. She pressed his face into the woolen turtleneck of her sweater, her furry chin resting on his head, and he breathed in a lungful of her wonderful scent. Her sweater had begun to take on her distinctive blackberry aroma, and there was a hint of the soap that they had used in the shower earlier, unable to overpower her naturally feminine smell. Somehow, it calmed his racing heart, melting all of the tension out of his muscles as effectively as any deep tissue massage ever could.

She reached down and gripped the heavy bed sheet with her other arm, throwing it over them and swaddling them both tightly in its cocoon, burying Jules entirely. She stroked his head in a way that sent tingling pulses of sensation crawling down his spine like electrical fingers, the fleshy pads on her digits massaging him gently as she pushed his face into the nape of her neck, repaying the favor. He couldn't see anything beneath the cover, his sense of touch heightened as though he had been blindfolded, sparks flying in his brain with her every gentle caress.

She was so incredibly warm, her body heat permeating the little pocket that had been created beneath the sheets, her breath blowing his hair. He had been this close to her once before, when she had hidden from the Rask on the torus, but this was the first time that he could relax and appreciate her.

The fabric of her sweater was not as coarse as it had looked, and he could feel her chest rising and falling rhythmically beneath it, the softness of her bandaged torso cushioning him. He was afraid to put his hands on her, but she gave him little choice, and so he rested an arm about her waist by necessity. Somehow, lying here in Zuki's embrace beneath the blanket was more intimate than sharing a bed with any of his previous partners, despite the fact that they were both fully clothed and that they hadn't crossed any romantic boundaries.

Previous partners? No, Zuki was not a partner. They were friends, packmates. Were they platonic? How would the Araxie have put it? What was-

His racing thoughts were quietened as Zuki shifted her weight, a rumbling sigh that almost resembled a purr escaping her throat from beneath the turtleneck, his ear pressed up against it. Her fingers felt amazing as they stroked his hair. She was letting her claws touch him, but not enough to cut him, just enough that it felt a little like the teeth of a comb. She had such immense physical strength, she was so much larger than him, and yet she treated him with such care and consideration.

It doesn't hurt,” she murmured, her deep contralto resonating through him. “I can't remember a time when my back didn't ache. The absence of pain feels like...pleasure in comparison.”

It's no trouble,” Jules replied, his voice muffled by her sweater. “It takes all of ten minutes to give a massage.”

I wish that I could do the same for you,” she mumbled, her warm breath blowing the strands of his hair. “But my claws would cut you.”

She pulled him tighter again, his cheek rubbing against her sweater, her massive hand resting in the small of his back. They were practically spooning now, was this normal for Araxie packs?

What would you do if I were an Araxie?” he asked, and he could swear that he heard the beating of her massive heart quicken at the question. “What exactly is it that Araxie do together when they socialize?”

We eat together, we bathe one another,” she began. “But we've done that already.”

They certainly had. Memories of her toned muscles flexing beneath her velvet fur flashed in his mind, the feeling of her coat wet with suds of slippery soap still fresh and stark. “We sleep together, as we're doing now...”

Exactly like this?” he whispered into her sweater.

M-more or less,” she stammered, “there are usually more than just two people.”

At least this way, you have my undivided attention.”

She chuckled, pushing her wet nose into his hair and nuzzling.

Are you comfortable? Can you sleep like this?” she asked.

Yeah...”

He had expected to be far too distracted, but as much as being so close to her sent his brain into a tailspin, the warmth of her body beneath the covers and the hypnotic quality of her breathing was already lulling him into a kind of trance. After a few minutes, he found himself wondering how he could ever have gotten to sleep in any other way.

I...I like this,” she continued, Jules feeling her grip on him tighten possessively. “So many winters have passed since I was last accepted into a pack, since I was able to share a bed with someone and feel their warmth.”

Sorry I can't be a big pile of furry cats for you,” he said, and she giggled into his hair.

Don't worry, I like this better.”

Oh? Why is that?” Jules asked, somewhat surprised by her response.

As you said, I have your undivided attention. Back in my home territory, even when I was assigned to a pack by the Patriarch himself in an attempt to find me a job, I was always the outlier. The lowest-ranked. I'm the lowest-ranked in our pack, too, but there's only the two of us. I don't have to fight to be noticed.”

Oh yeah, I'm supposed to be the Alpha. How am I doing so far?”

Pretty great,” she chuckled, pushing her face into his hair again.

***

Jules awoke during the night a couple of times when Zuki shifted or gripped him tighter in her sleep. It should have annoyed him, but it was strangely nice, waking up to feel her warmth and being reminded of her presence. He was so relaxed, he felt as if his limbs wouldn't have responded to the command to move if he had wanted them to, his head rising and falling gently along with her padded chest.

He was too drowsy, too tired to focus on anything besides Zuki. Her scent, the heat of her body pressed up against his, the feeling of her furry face pressing into his hair. She seemed to enjoy his scent as he did hers, his own clothes now starting to smell like her beneath the covers, and he wondered idly what she made of him.

Was this the second time that he had woken, or the third? It was all blurred together, and as his heavy eyelids closed once again, he hoped that it would not be the last.

***

Hey,” Zuki murmured, Jules blinking groggily as he looked up at her from beneath the heavy blanket. She was gazing down at him with her green, reflective eyes, her dark fur making the rest of her face almost invisible in the gloom save for the shine of her black lips.

Hey,” he muttered, beginning to wake up. “What time is it?”

Nighttime,” she replied.

How long have you been up?”

A little while,” she admitted, “I didn't want to move and risk waking you. You looked so peaceful.”

They were still buried beneath a mountain of sheets, trapping all of their body heat. It was like cuddling up beside a warm hearth in the dead of winter, he couldn't believe how much warmth she could put out. Every instinct in his body fought against him as he slid out from under the blanket, Zuki releasing her hold on him. It wasn't as if the air out here was cold, it was all climate-controlled to be as comfortable as possible, but he had become so accustomed to the temperature of the bed that it sure as hell felt like it.

You want some breakfast?” he asked, yawning and stretching. “I could cook you up some fried potatoes and bacon, I think you'd like that.”

Mhmm,” she replied, and he turned to see her peering at him with those emerald eyes. She was lying on her side like she was posing for a painting, the wide curve of her hip tapering into her comparatively narrow waist beneath the covers in the shape of an hourglass. Her green irises were mesmerizing in the darkness, he could scarcely look away. Realizing that his face was beginning to warm, he made a hasty retreat towards the door, stepping through and turning on the lights in the open-plan area of the apartment.

The light seemed to drive away the shadows that were lurking in his mind, intrusive thoughts that stalked him like an Araxie in the jungle, waiting for the perfect time to pounce. He could still feel Zuki's eyes on his back, even though there was a dividing wall between them.

He moved over to the kitchen area and opened up a packet of bacon from the fridge, then oiled up a pan ready for the potatoes. Everything was super-sized, and the iron skillet was almost too heavy for him to lift, large enough that it could handle Borealan-scale portions. He began to cook, happy to have something to occupy himself with, tossing the potatoes as they started to crisp in the bubbling vegetable oil.

Jules lurched suddenly, dropping his spatula as Zuki snuck up behind him, as silent as a whisper. She closed her arms around him, pulling him tight against her sweater. Once again, he felt her warmth seep into him through the boundary of their clothing as she rested her furry chin in his hair, watching him cook. She was certainly feeling more permissive today, stalking him like a predator. She might be clumsy by Araxie standards, but Jules certainly couldn't hear her coming.

You nearly scared the life out of me,” he laughed, “why are you sneaking around all of a sudden?”

I'm hunting my breakfast,” she replied with a toothy grin. “It smells so good,” she added, watching as the oil in the pan popped and spat. “What are those strips of meat from?”

A pig,” he replied, turning one of them over as they cooked in their own fat. “It's another Earth animal. Pork is a little easier to come by than beef all the way out here.”

Will you teach me more today?” Zuki asked, Jules suddenly all too conscious of the way that her soft chest was pressing against his shoulders from behind.

We'll pick up where we left off, yeah. I want to do something this afternoon, though, if it's alright with you. Something fun that we can both enjoy. It doesn't have to distract you from your studies for too long.”

Something fun?”

That's the idea, yeah,” he said as he moved the potatoes around in their pan. After a few minutes, the meal was ready, Zuki's eyes following the plate from the counter to the table as she waited impatiently. It was stacked high with fried potatoes and a veritable mountain of bacon strips. The entire apartment was awash in the scent of cooking meat, even Jules was starting to salivate as he took a seat opposite her.

Zuki tried to spear one of the strips with her fork, finding that it was a little too crispy, becoming frustrated as she jabbed at it.

You can use your hands,” Jules chuckled, “just be sure to clean the grease off them before you touch anything expensive.”

She reached down and used the curved claws on her thumb and forefinger like a pair of tweezers, bringing it to her mouth, Jules hearing the telltale crunch as she began to chew. He grinned as her eyes rolled back into her head. Apparently, she liked the taste. It was basically just meat, salt, and grease, after all, everything that her kind seemed to enjoy. Her careful approach was quickly abandoned, and she used her hands unreservedly to shovel more bacon into her mouth, licking away the grease that matted her fur with her barbed tongue.

You must sell the Araxie some of your pigs,” she mumbled over a generous mouthful of bacon, “this is...the best meat I've ever tasted...”

He laughed as he started on his fried potatoes, they were brown and crispy, cooked just right. He was certainly getting a good sense of what Zuki liked to eat now, there were plenty more salty, greasy foods available on the station. In fact, they were probably too readily available to be even remotely healthy for its inhabitants.

Zuki wolfed down her meal at the same rate that Jules ate his, despite her portion being about five times the size of his own. Even so, he hoped that she was getting enough nutrition and that she wasn't lacking anything that she could only obtain from her native diet. She seemed healthy and happy enough, her coat was shiny, and her eyes were bright.

When they were done, Jules brought the empty plates over to the dishwasher, Zuki's already clean due to her having licked away every spot of grease and oil. He had her wash her hands before letting her handle the tablet, then they moved into the living area to resume her diplomatic training.

CHAPTER 13: CHEEK TO CHEEK

Being a diplomat is not just about knowing the laws as they are written,” Jules said as he paced before the holographic fireplace, Zuki watching him intently as she took notes. “Nor is it limited to interpreting and understanding how those laws are applied. It's also about forging connections between people and governments, knowing who talk to and how to do it, navigating the bureaucracy in order to get the information that you need.”

What kind of information?” she asked. He considered for a moment, imagining a scenario that might illustrate what he was talking about.

Let's imagine that there was an incident between UNN and Araxie forces, just for the sake of this example. Perhaps a UNN dropship experienced a mechanical failure, and it crashed, injuring some Araxie and damaging their property. The Patriarch is understandably angry about this and demands an apology, but the Commander of the UNN forces refuses on the grounds that it was accidental. Tensions begin to rise, with neither side willing to budge on the issue. Relations start to break down, and it's looking like the Patriarch might expel the UNN personnel from the territory in retaliation. As the diplomat, how do you resolve that situation?”

Zuki chewed on her claw for a moment, thinking hard as she stared into space.

Think of it in social terms,” Jules added, “and imagine that you have all of the authority that you need. That both the Patriarch and the UNN Commander value your input.”

I would...try to calm the Patriarch,” she replied, “and perhaps convince the Commander to apologize.”

Yes, exactly,” Jules said with a clap of his hands. “And how do you reach that stage, where both the Patriarch and the Commander will listen to you?”

I must earn their respect, become their friends?” she asked.

Yes, now you're starting to understand. As a diplomat, it is your responsibility to build relationships with the important players. They need to trust you, they need to see you as someone reliable who can help them resolve their problems. When the Patriarch wants to talk to the Commander, his first instinct should be to go through you, because you're the one who knows the man and who understands how he thinks.”

But how do I do that?” she asked, cocking her head.

You've been doing it!” Jules replied, “that's what so impressed me back in Araxie. I was the visiting dignitary, and when Bozka assigned you to be my liaison, you naturally began to befriend me and assist me. You earned my trust, you showed me that you were capable and reliable, and that you could help me navigate the local culture. You knew everyone in the village, you were able to introduce me to people and act as an intermediary. When I had a question, or I needed to understand something, I didn't go straight to the Patriarch. I came to you. That is what being a diplomat is all about, you already possess the fundamental skills and personality traits that you need, it's just about learning how to apply them.”

That's why you said that I should be a diplomat?” she asked, “I was already doing it?”

Precisely. If I can teach you how to navigate the bureaucracy and give you a good enough understanding of human and Coalition culture, then you'll have all of the tools that you'll need to succeed. You already have a pretty good understanding of the laws and conventions, so now we're going to cover the structure of the Coalition, and how the different branches interact with one another.”

Zuki nodded enthusiastically, a look of determination on her face.

***

We should take a break here,” Jules said, switching off the display behind him with the remote. As it went dark, its pale light was replaced with the orange glow from the crackling flames in the hearth, casting dancing shadows throughout the room. He had turned off the heating element earlier in the day so that it didn't barbecue the back of his legs while he was giving his lecture, but the holographic fireplace remained.

I think I'm starting to understand the way that the Coalition is organized,” Zuki said as she set her tablet down on the glass coffee table. “I thought it would be impossible for me to grasp, I imagined it to be as complex and as alien as your technology is to me, but it's not so different from an Araxie pack in principle. There are subordinates, and those subordinates answer to the more qualified and higher ranked people, and those people in turn are subservient to those of higher status who have authority over the different departments. It's like a...giant, interstellar pack structure.”

I can see the similarities,” Jules admitted. “Now, are you ready for our activity?”

Are we doing that right now?” she asked, her round ears twitching.

Yeah, we only have a couple of days left before we'll be making our case before the Security Council, there's time yet to have a little fun.”

What are we going to do?” Zuki asked, watching him as he made his way into the center of the carpeted living area and began to appraise the furniture.

First thing's first, we need to make some room. Do me a favor and help me move this stuff to the walls, will you? The furniture is all too heavy for a human to lift on his own.”

She seemed confused, but she did as he asked, helping him to push the couch and the coffee table out of the way. Before long, they had cleared a large space on the carpet.

Now what?” she asked. Jules picked up the remote and hit a few buttons, then orchestral music began to play through the speakers, piano accompanied by the twang of string instruments and the boom of brass. The tempo was slow and relaxing, and when accompanied by the dim lights and the roaring holographic fire, it made for quite the cozy atmosphere.

Zuki's ears pricked up, turning this way and that as she tried to locate the source of the sounds that were coming in through the various speakers spaced out around the apartment.

This is human music,” Jules explained. “A Waltz in a classical style, specifically. The Araxie must have music, right?”

Nothing like this,” she marveled, turning on the spot as if the surround sound was confusing her. She was transfixed, like a deer in the headlights, her eyes losing their focus as she concentrated on the swelling music. “There are so many instruments, how many people are playing?”

It's an orchestral rendition, so perhaps a hundred people all playing together.”

Is this what you wanted to show me?” she asked, turning back to face him. The firelight was reflected in her emerald eyes, making them sparkle in the gloom.

In part. I was thinking about what kind of activities you might enjoy, what might appeal to the Araxie mindset. What do I know about your people? They're graceful, agile. They live in pack structures, and so they appreciate the concept of leading and following. So I decided to teach you to dance!”

To dance?” she replied, cocking her head again in confusion. “But the Araxie already know how to dance.”

I figured that you probably had your own dancing styles, but this one is special,” Jules said as he walked towards the center of the carpet and extended a hand to her. “It requires two partners, one leading and the other following, working together as they go through the steps.”

Working together?” she asked, “like a pack?”

That's right, like a pack. Just take my hand, and I'll demonstrate.”

Her eyes darted to the floor reluctantly, but then she reached out and placed her oversized hand in his. Jules encouraged her to come closer, tugging at her until she was standing a few inches away from him, his face just about level with her chest. She was dramatically larger than he was, but there was no reason that this shouldn't work. He extended his right arm, her own limb bent at the elbow due to their difference in length, and he rested his left hand on her wide hip as he was unable to reach the small of her back.

Put your right hand on my shoulder,” he added, “and stay in this position as we move.”

L-like this?” she stammered, her palm weighing down on him.

That's good, yeah.” He looked up to see her peering down at him, an unspoken question in her eyes. “This is called a box step,” Jules explained, “the goal is to move around together in a square. Imagine that there's a box drawn on the carpet whose boundaries we're trying to stay inside. I'll lead, you follow, so watch what I do with my feet and try to copy my movements. First, I put my left foot forward. As I do that, you mirror me by putting your right foot back, like you're moving out of the way.”

Zuki watched his feet intently, moving her paw backwards on the carpet as he moved his boot forwards.

Good, and now we move the other feet into position so that we're standing level again. That's right, good job. Now, I take a step right, and you do the same. Keep your hands in position and try to stay close to me.”

She got the hang of it rather quickly, following his lead as he moved them through the steps, the pair completing their box step and returning to their starting position.

How is this dancing?” Zuki asked incredulously, “it is rather...formless.”

Now that you know the steps, we can move to the rhythm of the music. We'll go a little faster this time, alright? Follow my lead.”

Jules guided her through another step, this time letting the tempo of the orchestra dictate his pace, Zuki having a little trouble keeping up. She wobbled, her tail held out for balance as he took a step back and brought her with him, one of her massive paws stepping on his toes.

Oh! I-I'm sorry,” she exclaimed as she pulled her hand away from his shoulder, “did I hurt you? I knew this was a bad idea...”

Nope,” Jules replied, smiling up at her. “Why do you think I'm wearing these boots? The Marines gave them to me when I visited Araxie, they have steel guards over the toes, you can't hurt me if you miss a step.” He reached up and took her right hand, returning it to his shoulder as she breathed a sigh of relief. “Let's keep going.”

They completed another box step, Zuki standing on his toes a couple more times, but she wasn't in any danger of hurting him with the boots on. She seemed to be warming to the music as time went on. Her ears were angled towards the speakers in the walls, indicating that she was listening intently, her movements syncing up with the rhythm as she got more into it. She never seemed to do anything half-heartedly, she gave every activity and every task her best efforts. Her confidence was growing, her clumsiness giving way to the same grace that Jules had observed in the Araxie warriors, their bodies flowing through their environment like water. Despite her immense size and weight, she was incredibly light on her feet, the pads on her paws making her silent on the carpet.

She had soon memorized the steps, the two of them moving in perfect harmony, the music setting their pace.

I'm going to switch it up a bit,” Jules said, “we're going to start turning into each step.”

I don't know if-”

Just follow my lead, you've got this.”

Now it was like they were really dancing on a ballroom floor, Zuki paying close attention as they turned with each step, twirling slowly together. She stumbled a little at first, but she quickly got the hang of it, looking down to watch his feet and letting his steps inform her own.

Do all humans know how to do this?” she asked.

No,” he chuckled, “it's just something that I picked up on the job. The high society types like their parties and their functions. It pays to own a tuxedo, and to know a few steps, helps you mingle.”

Will this help me be a better diplomat?”

I don't know about that, but a Borealan in a ballgown would be something to see...”

She seemed to be having a good time. Dancing with someone was fun in its own right, but there was also that added Borealan element. She enjoyed taking instruction, being part of a group, and he heard her begin to laugh as they spun together.

I feel so silly,” she giggled, “why must we hold hands like this?”

That's just how it's done,” Jules replied with a shrug. The tempo of the music began to rise, and Jules was starting to work up a sweat, especially where Zuki was touching him. The hand that she was holding was wet, slippery against her fur, and his shoulder was warming beneath her massive palm.

Hang on, I need to take off my jacket,” he said breathlessly. She released her hold on him, watching as he unbuttoned his jacket and stripped down to his dress shirt, loosening the collar.

Human dancing is fun,” Zuki said as she planted her hands on her wide hips, “but I think Araxie dancing is better.”

This is just one kind of human dance,” he replied, draping his jacket over his shoulder. “How do the Araxie dance?”

Well...the whole pack dances together, moving as one. Not unlike your dancing in that respect, I suppose, but the movements are different.”

Show me,” he said, Zuki's ears twitching in surprise.

Me?” she asked, pointing to herself with a clawed finger.

Do you see anybody else here?” he laughed. Jules made his way over to the couch that had been pushed up against the wall, taking a seat pointedly as he waited for her to begin.

I haven't danced very much,” she mumbled, fidgeting nervously. “It's a pack activity.”

Can you not do it alone?” he asked.

Well...yes...but...”

He gestured with his hand as if to say go on then. Zuki hesitated for a moment, she looked a little embarrassed to be put on the spot. She finally found her confidence, beginning to pull her sweater over her head. She struggled with it for a moment, getting her arm caught in one of the sleeves, and then she tossed it to the carpet.

I can't do it with the sweater on,” she explained, rolling her shoulders like she was preparing for a workout. “You won't be able to see me.”

See you?” he mused. He could already see her, or maybe she meant something else? Beneath her turtleneck, she was wearing only her white bandages, but she didn't seem as self-conscious as she had once been. There was a time when she hadn't wanted him to even catch a glimpse of her bandaged torso, but through either building her confidence or earning her trust, she now felt comfortable enough around him that it wasn't an issue.

Still, she looked a little sheepish as she shifted her weight from foot to foot. She kept the sweatpants on, that wasn't an issue apparently, the waistband riding tantalizingly low on her hips.

I need different music,” she said. “Something with drums, maybe? A beat to dance to?”

You want a drum beat?” Jules clarified, fishing in his pocket for the remote. He switched the monitor above the fireplace back on briefly, stopping the Waltz and cycling through the list of tracks as Zuki blinked her sensitive eyes at the harsh light. “Let's see what we have here...I don't think you'll like anything electronic...maybe something from the cultural archives? Let's see...maybe this?”

He pressed a button on the remote and began to play a new track, the swell of tribal percussion filling the room, accompanied by the distinctive plink of a xylophone and the metallic beat of steelpan drums. It was very different from the gentle harmonies of the piano and strings that had characterized the Waltz, more visceral, primal. The music conjured images in his mind of people dancing around a bonfire on a tropical beach, the sun setting behind them, painting the sky in reds and oranges. Jules tapped his foot to the beat as Zuki listened intently, unable to help himself.

Now this, I like,” she announced, nodding her head in approval. It must be much closer to the kind of music that her people played back home. Jules was amused to see that just as he was tapping his toes to the rhythm, her long tail was waving in time with the music.

He switched off the monitor, casting the room into the glow of the firelight again, and she slowly began to move. She started off with a subtle swaying of her hips, her head hanging low as she closed her eyes, as though she was getting a feel for the music before beginning. She worked through her initial nervousness, the movements gradually becoming more pronounced. Just like he had observed in the shower, she was inhumanly flexible and lithe, her upper body moving independently of her hips. On her home planet, she might have been considered clumsy, but she still had more grace and poise than any human that Jules had ever met.

Her movements grew more deliberate as she began to dance in earnest, thrusting her hips from side to side like a belly dancer, rolling them in a figure of eight as she kept her upper body almost immobile. Her swaying was hypnotic, the muscles of her exposed midriff moving beneath her silky coat in ways that made her shining fur catch the firelight, the finer details of her body even more striking in its wavering glow. The taut abs that bulged from beneath her skin reflected the orange light, the deep channels that they carved in her flat stomach cast into dark shadow, along with her navel and the hip bones that vanished into her sagging sweatpants.

She began to turn slowly, focusing intently on controlling the mesmerizing movements of her legs and hips, that same flickering firelight bringing out the details of the dimples in her lower back and the channel that her muscles traced down her spine. Her pants were baggy, obscuring, but he could still make out the subtle wobble of her butt and her thighs beneath the camouflaged fabric.

Her fluid motions were punctuated by sudden staccato thrusts, the softer elements of her figure shaking with each impact. Droplets of her sweat escaped from her glistening body as the music rose in tempo, catching the light and sparkling in a way that was oddly beautiful. She was in such perfect sync with the guttural beat of the music, he could feel it reverberating in his bones, ensnaring his heart as if trying to force it to pump at the same pace as the pounding of the drums.

She began to move her upper body now, too, her shoulders lifting and twisting independently of her hips. There was such depth to the way her chest shimmied and shivered to the tune of the xylophone, her hips beginning to bounce and quake, the stamping of her feet making the meat of her bountiful thighs shake.

Unlike with a traditional belly dance, she kept her arms immobile at her sides, drawing all of the attention to the way that her toned core was moving, her hips rocking from side to side. The flowing, sinuous way in which she undulated her abdomen to make it move in slow waves captured his attention in more ways than one, Jules crossing his legs in an attempt to conceal his growing enthusiasm.

She was moving towards a crescendo along with the beat, and Jules realized with a start that he had been staring at her, transfixed for almost the entire duration of the four-minute track. As it neared its conclusion, her dancing rose to a fever pitch along with it, the hammering of the drums practically shaking the ground. Music was a universal language, Zuki could sense the coming climax just as he could. As she pivoted on the spot, Jules leaning forward in his seat to get a better view of her glistening form...she tripped over her own feet and stumbled across the carpet.

She managed to right herself before she fell over, pouting and grumbling to herself in her native tongue as the music ceased with a clatter of cymbals.

I almost had it that time,” she complained, “I never manage to get the ending right. It's the last part that always...”

She trailed off as she turned to see him gazing across the living room at her, her glittering eyes meeting his own. She saw the admiration in his expression, the way that his cheeks had flushed red, and she batted her long lashes as a sudden shyness overcame her.

That was...amazing,” he said, his voice almost low enough to be a whisper. “How did you learn to dance like that?”

Y-you liked it?” she stammered. Her eyes widened in surprise, and her tail began to wag slowly. “I'm not even very good, you should see the other Araxie dance. They make me look so...so clumsy and slow.”

I've never seen anything like that,” he insisted. “Zuki, that was spectacular!”

She beamed at him, clearly flattered, but also not accustomed to such high praise. She looked as if she didn't really know what to do with herself. Her tail wagging back and forth a little faster, her eyes lingering on him for a moment, and then she stooped to retrieve her sweater.

I like to dance,” she said as she pulled it over her head, her round ears springing out of the collar. “I don't get to do it very often, I'm not in very high demand...”

I can't imagine why,” he laughed, “I've never seen anyone move like that before. You're so flexible.”

Do humans...dance for each other?” she asked, her tail whipping from side to side behind her as she made her way towards the couch. Jules leaned back in the cushions, watching as the burning embers of the fireplace illuminated her shiny, wet fur. Her eyes were fixed on him, and he was momentarily reminded of how the Araxie hunters had watched him from the trees, two reflective points staring out at him from the darkness.

Sometimes,” he mumbled, not really sure what she was asking.

I just want to make sure that we see...eye to eye,” she said as she crouched before him to put herself at eye level, planting her large hands to either side of him. His heart began to beat faster again, but this time, there were no drums to accompany it. He couldn't tear his gaze away from her, he was inexorably drawn to her green irises, captivated by the way that they seemed to glow in the dimly lit room.

H-how do you mean?” he asked, his voice faltering.

You said that we were a pack,” she continued as she leaned closer to him. “We slept together, ate together, bathed together. You danced with me, had me dance for you...you admired me. You admire me all the time, even if you think I don't notice. In my culture, those things...they mean something...but I don't want to overstep. If humans are different, if those things are meaningless to you, then tell me now so that this unbearable waiting can come to an end.”

She cast him in her shadow as she leaned ever closer, the tension that she was feeling radiating from her as she awaited his response, her ears pricked up attentively. Jules couldn't think straight. Heat was spreading through him like a fever, his cheeks were burning, and his brain was boiling in his skull. If he tried to hide his attraction to her now, it would be fruitless, trying to deny it while she was staring into his soul was even more futile. He had tried to bury these feelings for the sake of professionalism, he had tried to remain detached so that his burgeoning feelings for Zuki didn't interfere with his work. God, that dancing. She was so sensuous, lithe, and now her blackberry scent was invading his nose and weakening his resolve even further.

I wondered if aliens could even...if humans and Araxie could love one another,” she added. This time she turned her emerald eyes away from him, her lashes fluttering with embarrassment. “But the Elysian that you brought with you, her scent was all over that other human. I could smell her sweat on him.”

Jules' mind flashed back to the view from the helmet cam, Yuta's exposed body glistening with her sudor, writhing atop her human partner. Zuki had come so far, she had gained enough confidence to confront him about this, how could he shoot her down now? How could he break her heart, how could he lie to her face?

Even your confessions are clumsy,” he chuckled. He reached out towards her silken cheek, delving his fingers into her moist, velvety coat and leaning forwards to join his lips to hers. Did Araxie kiss? It didn't matter, he wanted so badly to kiss her, so that was what he was going to do. Etiquette and consequences no longer factored into it.

Her green eyes widened as her dark lips pressed against his, slowly closing as he embraced her. She opened her lips in invitation to him, and there was a spark of flavor and sensation as the tip of her tapered tongue brushed against his. Their initially gentle pace suddenly became more hungry, desperate. Jules felt Zuki's fuzzy palm cup his cheek in turn as she leaned into him, her winding tongue beginning to probe his mouth. Her metallic, sweet taste filled his head as her flexible organ brushed his inner cheeks, tickling his palate as she explored him clumsily. The upper side of her tongue was covered in the little barbs that she used to clean her fur, but the underside was as soft and as slippery as his own. It was wet with her saliva, almost frictionless, Zuki murmuring wantonly as she locked him in a slow and sensual dance. He tried to meet her embrace, but his tongue paled in comparison to hers, he could do little more than bat at it as its thick coils piled into his mouth.

It was so long, it just kept coming, wonderful shivers crawling down his spine with her every gentle stroke and glance. He felt as though he was melting into her, the heat that she radiated drawing him in like a moth to a flame. His thoughts had turned to meaningless static, all that he could do was feel, the sensation of her naked flesh gliding against his own sending pulses of white light flashing through his brain like a strobe.

Zuki pressed him into the backrest, the couch emitting a worrying creak as she slid a knee up onto the cushions, and then a second. She knelt over him, Jules having to turn his head up to maintain their deep, passionate kiss. Something about that made him weak at the knees, having to look up at her in the way that he did, his spine arching as she closed a second hand around his face and buried him in her fragrant fur.

It felt like she was drawing shapes inside his mouth, caressing him from the inside with all the finesse and care of a painter's brush on a canvass, his nerves sparking as her roving tongue bulged his cheeks. It seemed to have a life of its own, squirming and sinuous, the flexible muscle glancing the back of his throat. Her embrace was so much more intimate than anything that he was used to, needy, as if she wanted to make every second count. He could feel her hunger, the desires that she must have repressed for such a long time bubbling to the surface all at once, manifested the way that she moaned and purred softly as their tongues entwined.

She released him with a wet smack, giving him a chance to breathe, her length of winding muscle sliding past his lips as it returned to her mouth. They were both panting, her warm breath washing over him, his erection pressing into the groin of her sweatpants. He ran his fingers through the fur on her cheek, and she pushed her face into his hand, sighing as he stroked her in the way that he knew she liked.

She moved in to kiss him again, but he stopped her, the Araxie blinking her eyes at him in confusion.

Wait,” he mumbled, summoning what little self-control remained to him. “This feels...I'm supposed to be your teacher, I'm responsible for you. We shouldn't be doing this.”

You're my pack leader,” she replied breathlessly, “you're supposed to be responsible for me. You're supposed to instruct me, care for me, love me if it pleases you. Does it please you?”

I...of course it pleases me,” he mumbled, Zuki leaning in to deliver another quick kiss as she cradled his face in her oversized hands. Her fur was warm and fine, as though she was wearing a pair of giant, satin gloves. His eyelids fluttered as her tongue slipped into his mouth once more, teasing him with gentle flurries, her smooth lips so soft and full. She broke off again, gazing down at him, switching her focus between his eyes as she tried to gauge his response.

I want this,” she whispered, practically pleading.

This time, it was Jules who leaned forward to kiss her, delving his fingers into her velvet cheeks again as she loosed a rumbling, contented purr. He abandoned all moderation, taking his fill of her, their embrace growing more sordid as he set the pace. She shivered happily as he slipped a hand beneath the fabric of her sweater, feeling the muscles of her flat belly tense beneath his palm, Zuki twisting her hips and grinding against his erection as he slid down towards her waistband.

How do...humans...make love?” Zuki asked between their hurried embraces, Jules affording her little chance to get a word out.

How do the Araxie make love? We've been making it up as we go along, why stop here?”

He guided her onto her side, the two of them harrying one another with kisses as he sat her down on the couch in his place, kneeling between her parted thighs. When he pulled away, she blinked her eyes at him in a daze, wetting her black lips in anticipation as he began to raise the hem of her sweater.

Jules exposed her dark, damp fur, her muscular core flexing at his touch as he slid a hand from her ribs to her belly. She shifted and arched her back, pushing into him, a staggered gasp escaping her throat as he examined her unreservedly for the first time. The twin rows of her abdominal muscles, the indent of her navel, and the subtle contours of her lithe figure were all on display in the dancing firelight. Zuki scarcely looked real, like she had sprung from the imagination of a sculptor or an artist rather than from nature, the harsh environment of her home planet giving her the appearance of an Olympic gymnast or a competitive swimmer.

She was damp with sweat, the gleaming sheen of moisture accentuating her every feature. The delicate covering of velutinous fur was so thin as to be almost imperceptible, yet so silky and soft to the touch that he could scarcely keep his hands off her.

He brought both hands to bear as she squirmed in his grasp, tracing the hourglass curve of her waist, his fingers roaming wherever they pleased across her onyx-black coat. He stroked her ribs, slid a hand behind her back to follow the dimple of her spine with his digits, his lust becoming harder and harder to rein in. As ever, his clawless fingers drove her wild, the pretense of massage now a distant memory as he kneaded her sensitive flesh.

He brought his head down closer to her torso, taking in her familiar scent, and pressed his lips against her sodden coat. Mouthing and peppering her twitching body with lingering kisses, he proceeded lower, admiring her six-pack as he brushed it with his nose. He outlined her muscles with his tongue as he went, tasting the salt of her sweat, and watching them flex as he tickled her. When he slipped it into her navel as he passed it by, she lurched, and he heard her coo appreciatively.

Jules hooked his fingers around the waistband of her camouflaged sweatpants, glancing up at her for a moment, giving her time to ask him to stop. She gazed down at him covetously, her eyes glittering in the firelight, chewing on one of her claws nervously as she waited for him to continue. He began to drag her pants down, taking his time as he pulled them over her muscular thighs. He knelt as they passed her knees, and knowing what he intended, Zuki scooted forwards a little on the cushions to give him easier access.

The sweatpants now discarded, Jules placed his hands on her furry thighs, parting them gently. As her legs opened to expose her womanhood, she slid her head down into the turtleneck of her sweater like the animal that was its namesake, her shyness getting the better of her. She peered at him over the collar, her face obscured up to the nose, her eyelids heavy as Jules admired her.

Between her silky thighs was a sliver of glistening pink, her flushed, exposed flesh dripping strands of clear fluid in anticipation. The delicate fur that encircled it was matted with her excitement, her puffy lips swollen and ready for him. She was not so alien as to be unrecognizable, and immediately, a fresh surge of heat and arousal rose up inside him as the sight of her rosy vulva ignited his most base instincts. It stood out so beautifully against her dark fur, drawing him in. Before he knew it, he felt the fine fur of her inner thighs brushing against his cheeks.

He no longer cared about getting permission, her consent was leaking out of her in fat ropes, sticking to her thighs and wetting the cushions beneath. He kissed her belly, then her hip, teasing her as he moved ever closer to her nethers. He could feel the heat that she radiated on his lips as he poised over her sodden mound, Zuki shivering as she felt his breath on her sensitive anatomy.

Jules reached out and used his fingers to part her lips, Zuki mewling into her turtleneck as he opened her up, his eyes following a droplet of her juices as it escaped to slide down her gleaming coat towards the cushions beneath her. His mouth already beginning to water, he leaned in and pressed his lips against hers, Zuki's labored gasp reaching his ears as he dragged his tongue between her labia. Her flesh was like damp satin, exquisitely soft, flushed with warm blood. She was so slippery, her feminine musk filling his lungs and her copper flavor pricking his tastebuds.

Zuki arched her back, and then slowly sank into the plush cushions, her thighs trembling around his face as he began to lap and kiss. Her honey dripped down his chin and wet his lips as he painted the delicate folds of her loins, his kissing no less passionate and probing than before, her shivering and her sordid vocalizations driving him on. He drew shapes on her tender vulva with the tip of his tongue, unsure of where she was most receptive, diligently exploring every crease and wrinkle in order to find out.

Perhaps it was the fog of lust that clouded his mind doing the talking, but she was beautiful down here. Her fur reminded him of the most luxuriant fabrics as it pressed against his face and brushed his nose, the sublime smoothness of her burning flesh like damp silk on his tongue.

He glanced up over her mound, seeing that she was still hiding in her sweater, peeking over the turtleneck at him as if she was too embarrassed to show herself. Jules cast aside all of his inhibitions, redoubling his efforts, Zuki slowly rocking her hips as she ground her loins against his tongue. He slipped his hands beneath her thighs as he pressed closer, resting them on his shoulders as if he was hoisting two kegs of beer, too thick for him to get his arms all the way around. He ran his fingers through her inviting fur, pressing them into her yielding flesh, feeling the hard muscle tense beneath it like bunches of steel cables.

Zuki's breath was growing ragged, every exhalation accompanied by a comely sigh or a lustful murmur, her husky voice muffled by the fabric of her sweater. She was moving more and more, her chiseled body shifting and squirming as the pleasure became too much for her to bear, giving Jules a spectacular view of her rolling abs from below as he clung to her thighs for purchase. Just like Yuta, Zuki seemed unusually susceptible to the attentions of his human tongue. Everyone enjoyed their partner going down on them, there were few better ways to express affection, but Zuki was just as enraptured as when he had first given her a massage. Just as his fingers lacked claws, perhaps the absence of barbs on his tongue was the source of her agitation?

He found a twitching opening with the tip of his organ, pushing inside and feeling her muscles clench around him, the rolling waves of her warm innards drawing him deeper as if trying to pluck his tongue from his head. She was alarmingly strong, far tighter than he would have imagined, almost as though a powerful fist was gripping him through her slimy walls and squeezing him in a harsh rhythm. His heart missed a beat, his aching member flexing as he imagined sliding it into her, feeling her undulating passage suck on him like an eager mouth.

Unable to get very deep with the paltry couple of inches that he had at his disposal, he pulled out of her again, moving upwards as her wriggling made the frame of the couch creak.

A-are you stopping?” she whined, momentarily overcome by the fear that he might not bring her to completion. Her question was quickly answered as he located a nub of firm flesh that was protected by a hood of skin, her words catching in her throat and tapering into a rumbling growl. He felt the weight of her palm come to rest on his head, her fingers delving into his hair, her sharp claws raking his scalp. He pressed his lips around her clitoris and drew on it softly, caressing it with his tongue as carefully as he could manage. He was treating her like she was made of glass, yet still she mewled and trembled.

The fact that she was larger than a human woman also meant that he had more surface area to work with, drawing shapes on her engorged bead as he sucked it out from beneath its hood. Even the tiniest stroke sent a shockwave coursing through her body, her hips swaying in a desperate figure of eight as he circled it with wet muscle. His tongue was beginning to ache, he couldn't remember the last time that he had plunged his face between his partner's thighs with such enthusiasm, with such a burning desire to please. It was strange to feel so in control. Despite the traditionally submissive position that he found himself in, Zuki was clearly on the defensive.

Her thighs pressed around his face, her grip on his hair growing tighter, her tail coiling around his torso like a fuzzy anaconda as he pushed her ever higher. She had him trapped, perhaps subconsciously, burying him in the warmth and wetness of her body. Her meaty thighs blocked out the light, Zuki's syrupy emissions all that he could taste, and her increasingly unrestrained moaning all that he could hear. Zuki was saturating all of his senses, and he would have it no other way.

D-do that thing again,” she begged, stroking his hair with a trembling hand. “That thing with your l-lips...”

He thought he knew what she meant, drawing her clitoris into his mouth and sealing his lips around it, battering it with doting strokes of his tongue. She growled again, the sound shaking his bones, throwing her head back and pushing her dripping sex against his mouth. She was thrusting now, smearing her juices on his face, her sodden fur sticking to his cheeks. He sank his fingers deep into the flesh of her haunches, taking cruel handfuls, the fat that settled there to give her such a curvy figure spilling between his fingers like putty.

That's it,” she whispered, her voice cracking beneath her turtleneck. “Yes...yes...faster...oh please, go faster!”

Jules struggled to keep a hold on her as she began to raise her butt off the cushions, gripping her thighs and her ample rear as best he could. He maintained his licking and sucking as the tensing of her firm muscles increased, fresh sweat rained from her quivering body. She was sliding on the couch now, a result of both her sudor and the little pool of clear fluid that had escaped between her legs to soak into the faux-leather.

Her face finally emerged from the confines of her sweater. Her sharp teeth were bared in a silent wail, her entire body seizing up as her spine curved into a perfect arch, and her paw-like feet dug into the carpet. Jules pulled away, a sagging rope of her juices linking his lips to hers, releasing her as she thrust a furry hand between her thighs and began to rub furiously. She fucked the air as he watched her, wiping her come from his mouth with the back of his hand, in awe of her glistening figure as her flexible body danced in the glow of the fireplace.

Her thrusting gradually slowed along with the frenzied movement of her padded fingers. The tremors that wracked her decreased in their frequency, and she withdrew her hand along with a drooping web of her fluids. She lowered herself back into the cushions, panting as though she had run a marathon, droplets of her exertion sliding down her stomach and thighs as she retreated back to the safety of her sweater. She hid her face again, gazing down at him, dazed and unfocused. Although her expression was hidden, he could see the adoration in her eyes, the unmistakable glint of desire.

She shivered as a rogue aftershock teased her, no doubt drowning in afterglow, closing her legs as if ashamed to be exposed. It was a little late for that. Jules slid a hand up her thigh, delighting in the way that his touch provoked another shiver of pleasure.

He wasn't sure what to say, but the throbbing between his legs was impossible to deny, the flush in his cheeks betraying his arousal to her. Keeping her face concealed beneath her turtleneck, she used her dexterous tail to brush his groin, testing the hardness that was tenting the fabric of his pants. He shivered, feeling her flexible appendage coil around it through the material, a tacit request for their encounter to continue.

We should...go to bed,” he suggested, struggling to get the words out as she caressed him with her tail. Zuki nodded, rising to her feet to follow him and leaving her sweatpants where they lay.

***

Jules hopped up onto the mattress, his member straining against his pants conspicuously, Zuki darkening the doorway behind him. He found it hard to keep his eyes off her lower body, naked as it was, her wide hips swaying as she made her way to the edge of the bed. Her fur was so dark that even without clothes on, it gave her an air of mystery. The remnants of her climax were still matting the silky fur of her inner thighs, but she didn't seem to care.

She finally emerged from the safety of her turtleneck, crouching to put herself level with him, his feet dangling a foot or so off the floor due to the exaggerated scale of the furniture. Now it was her turn to plant a heavy hand on his thigh, her claws scratching against the fabric of his pants as she eyed his erection. Her green eyes shone in the gloom as she glanced up at him, making his heart pound faster, her tail flicking back and forth in anticipation as it lay on the carpet behind her.

I want to make you feel good,” she said, sliding her hand towards his groin. Jules shuddered, feeling the warmth of her palm permeating the material. “Tell me what I can do for you...”

He had no idea what an Araxie penis was like, but if she hadn't looked too different from a human woman, then perhaps their males weren't equipped with anything too alien either. He reached down and fumbled with his zipper, his hands trembling as he opened his fly and released his erection, still concealed beneath the cotton of his shorts. Why was he so nervous? Was it because he had never been with an alien before, or was it simply because it was Zuki?

She hooked her claws around the elastic waistband of his underwear and pulled them down, his member springing up, pulsing gently in time with the rapid beating of his heart. Zuki's eyes widened as she examined it, but she didn't express any surprise or distaste, she must know what it was for. Ever so gently, she brushed his shaft with the back of her fingers, watching him twitch as her delicate coat tickled his skin.

Encouraged, she began to slowly close her hand around it, glancing up at his face to gauge his reaction as she buried his member in her black coat. Jules leaned back, supporting himself with his hands, loosing a sigh as her velvety fingers encompassed him. He had thought that her fur had been soft before, but now that it was wrapped around the most sensitive part of his body, it could only be described as sublime. It was like pushing his member into a fur coat that cost as much as his car, but more than that, her sweat made it damp and slippery. He could feel every wet strand as it stroked him, Zuki starting to squeeze rhythmically, only the pink tip of his glans visible.

Like this?” she asked, feeling him jump and throb in her palm.

Yeah...yeah, that's good,” he mumbled. He was overcome by a sudden affection for her. She was being so gentle, so careful. He reached down to plunge his fingers into her hair, rubbing her round ears, Zuki closing her eyes and smiling contentedly.

You can go a little faster,” he added, “you won't hurt me.”

How's this?” she asked, tightening her grip a little and beginning to pump her hand up and down. Her pace was still sluggish, but it was more than enough to send bursts of tingling pleasure crawling their way up his spine. The dampness of her fur made her hand glide against his skin, the velvet hairs stimulating him in odd and unexpected ways.

That's...great,” he replied, his eyes losing their focus. “God, your hands are so soft...”

She gripped his hip, holding him steady as he struggled to keep from swaying. If she kept this up for too long, he wouldn't last. She didn't even know what she was doing, and yet she already had him on the ropes.

He pulled his hand away from her hair, digging his fingers into the sheets as he felt her fur brush his glans, Zuki noting that he was most sensitive there. She used the fleshy pad on her thumb to stroke it, making slow circles, careful to keep her claw clear. Jules shivered as a jolt of pleasure wracked him.

Relax,” she whispered, placing a hand on his chest and easing him back down onto the bed. “Let me take care of you, like you did for me.” She nuzzled his hand, encouraging him to rub her cheek, and he wasn't sure whether it was a display of affection or if she was scenting him like a cat.

Oh,” she moaned, momentarily overcome by her desire for him. “I've waited so long for this, I wanted to please you so badly. Every time we bathed together, your massages, I just wanted to...present myself to you. I didn't know how humans courted, I was so unsure, afraid of making a mistake and offending you. But now I get to have you...”

Jules lay down, staring at the ceiling, the dim lamp leaving afterimages in his eyes. He felt Zuki begin to tug his pants down further, and then he arched his spine as her hand slid beneath his dress shirt. She was examining him, stroking his stomach, her claws tickling him as they lightly brushed his skin.

You're so smooth,” she mused, keeping up her stroking all the while. She planted a lingering kiss on his belly with her oversized lips, tantalizingly close to the base of his shaft, Jules reaching down to pet her again. He found her head hovering over his navel, Zuki mouthing affectionately as she purred softly, her rough tongue flicking out to sample him. “I want to taste you...”

Her words jolted him out of his euphoria, and for a moment, he considered protesting. But Zuki had been so incredibly gentle with him thus far, he trusted her not to hurt him.

He felt those thick, warm lips press against the tip of his member, and she moved her hand to the base of his shaft to give herself access to more of his length. She slid his glans into her mouth, its heat and wetness engulfing him, her lips crawling down his shaft as he took him deeper. He had been apprehensive about her barbed tongue, but instead of her feline barbs, he felt smooth muscle coiling around him like a slippery snake. She must be using the underside. It was so damned long and flexible, Zuki coating every inch of his skin in slimy flesh as she licked and stroked. She applied more pressure, the inner lining of her cheeks cocooning him, his toes curling as he emitting a sharp gasp.

She mumbled something with his erection still buried in her mouth, probably asking if it felt good or if she was hurting him, the vibrations of her voice stimulating him even more. After a moment, she pulled back, her slippery muscle uncoiling to leave him dripping with her bubbling saliva. Jules propped himself up on his elbows, looking down at her as he tried to collect himself.

Does that feel good?” she asked, a surge of arousal washing through Jules as he saw that her black lips were connected to his member with a glistening string of her drool.

He nodded, struggling to find the words to express exactly how good it felt, and she smiled as she returned to his cock. This time, he watched as her pink, sinuous tongue slid out of her like a tentacle. It curled around his shaft, guiding it towards her mouth. Her black, shiny lips pursed around the head, the silken underside of her organ grazing his tender anatomy. She swirled it around, sneaking it beneath his foreskin, exploring him as much as she was pleasuring him. He gritted his teeth, the electrical bursts of pleasure searing his nerves, his heart thudding in his chest as she glanced up at him with her reflective eyes. He lurched as she cupped his balls in her furry palm, cradling them as she sucked and licked.

Did I hurt you?” she asked, pausing for a moment.

No, no. Don't stop,” he grumbled. “Stroke me, yeah like that...that feels amazing...”

He tried to communicate as best he could, encouraging her, instructing her. But it was hard to focus on anything besides the stark sensations of her adoring attentions. Globs of her viscous saliva were dribbling down his shaft as she painted him with her slick organ, beginning to bob her head slowly in his lap. She was so focused on making him happy that she had forgotten her prior shyness, slurping and smacking wantonly, the lurid sounds making his face burn.

He sought out her furry ears again, massaging them between his thumb and forefinger, his alien partner cooing happily as he pet her. She wrapped a long arm around his lower body, hugging him against her as he sat upright, her head pressing against his torso as she plunged her face between his legs. He combed her hair with his fingers, doting on her as she continued her maddening blowjob, trying to show his appreciation in any way that he could.

I love it when you rub my ears,” she mumbled into his crotch, pausing for a moment to catch her breath. She shivered and moaned as he scratched behind one of them, her tail thumping against the floor as it twitched and waved erratically. Zuki took him deep into her mouth again as this new pleasure invigorated her, kissing the base of his shaft.

She sped up, intent on finishing him off, but Jules slowed her with a hand on her head. She was a model lover from the perspective of a commanding Alpha, so eager to please. It was a glimpse into how the Araxie packs behaved when it came to making love. Perhaps that was how they did things back in her territory, but he wanted to take his time, he wanted them to enjoy one another.

Is there something wrong?” she asked, peering up at him.

Let's take things a little slower,” he said, “it's not a race to the finish line.”

She didn't seem to understand what he meant, cocking her head at him.

But...don't you want to finish?”

There's no hurry,” he replied, scratching her ear again and watching her shiver contentedly. “We've waited so long, so let's enjoy this.” He lifted her chin, guiding her up towards him and kissing her again, Zuki leaning into him as his embrace melted away her earlier impatience. They tasted of one another, but they were long past the point of caring about such things. When she pulled back, she seemed convinced, pressing her furry forehead against his and gazing into his eyes.

Then...what do we do?”

He took her by the hand, shuffling back on the mattress and guiding her onto the bed, Zuki kneeling beside him as he stripped off his clothing. She did the same, pulling off her sweater and discarding it, lying down beside Jules as he dragged the heavy blanket over them. Now that they were both nude save for Zuki's bandages, they pressed together, their hands roaming across unfamiliar flesh as they caressed one another beneath the sheets.

Zuki seemed to like the texture of his skin, stroking it with her padded fingers, her digits tracing the musculature of his chest and belly. The life of a bureaucrat wasn't very physically demanding, but he kept himself in reasonably good shape, and she seemed to appreciate it. Jules ran his fingers through her fur, kissing her whenever the urge arose, their tongues intertwining.

He buried his face in the nape of her neck, her velvet fur brushing against his cheeks as she slipped a hand between his legs, beginning to stroke his erection again. She was taking her time now, letting him savor every squeeze, playing her fingers up and down his shaft as she toyed with him. This was what he had wanted, this closeness, this intimacy. His nude body was pressed up against hers, her wet coat gliding against his skin, the sounds of her low moans enticing him as he breathed in her scent.

As he slid his hand up her toned abdomen, he reached the bandages, and she seemed to notice the way that he hesitated as his fingers brushed the fabric.

What's wrong?” she asked as she pushed her nose into his hair and nuzzled.

Can I ask you what's underneath these?” he said hesitantly. “Is it an injury, or something else? The last time we talked about it, you changed the subject.”

You won't like it,” she whispered into his hair, her breath blowing the strands.

You can tell me. Are you going to keep hiding it forever?” She seemed reluctant, but surely he must have earned enough of her trust by this point for her to reveal her secret to him? They were friends, packmates, even lovers now. “I won't keep pushing you if you really don't want to talk about it, but maybe I can do something to help?”

I have...a disfigurement,” she admitted, “I don't think you can help.”

You're an alien to me,” he replied, reaching up to stroke her cheek with his hand. “I don't have that great an idea of what Araxie are supposed to look like, you know. I'm not going to be put off just because you have some scars or burns or anything like that. Here, look at this,” he added as he pointed to his scalp. “See that? My hair is thinning, but you never even noticed, because nobody has ever told you that humans aren't supposed to have a bald spot.”

She considered for a few moments, averting her eyes, and then she came to a decision.

I suppose you will have to see it eventually...”

She sat up, kneeling beside him as the sheets slid off her, Jules watching with bated breath as she began to slowly unravel her bandages. They were so tight that he wondered how she could even breathe in them. She removed layer upon layer in a spiral pattern, the flattened mounds of her breasts expanding as some of the pressure was taken off them. Round and round the length of fabric went, and Jules could see no signs of blood, no stains on the material that might indicate a chronic wound or an infection. As the pile of bandages grew on the bed beside her, he noticed that something was amiss. Her breasts were larger than he had expected, their weight straining against the bandages more and more as their support was slowly removed.

Yuta's breasts had been at least as large as a human head, and the ones on that Polar in the sandwich store had been even more impressive The other female Araxie that Jules had encountered had been more modestly endowed, however. Their figures were slim and lithe, their breasts still large by human standards, but proportionally fairly small. As Zuki's chest strained against its bonds, he could see that the same was not true for her.

As more of the bandages were removed, Jules began to see black fur poking between them, her flesh spilling out of the gaps. Zuki removed the last few rolls of bandage, her unsupported boobs wobbling with her movements. They were larger than Yuta's had been, and they might even rival the sandwich vendor's, closer in size to the rucksacks that the Marines had been lugging around on Borealis than anything sported by human women. Each one was large enough to fill the bucket seat of an average car, their heft making them sag attractively, their coating of velvety fur catching the light. They somehow kept that luscious teardrop shape despite their sheer size, perhaps adapted for higher gravity, making them look firmer and fuller than something of that size and consistency should have. They were heavy enough that Zuki was noticeably weighed down by them, slouching to compensate.

There were no disfigurements that he could see, beneath the bandages was the same silky, black fur that covered the rest of her body. Unless the breasts were her disfigurement? Could this be what she had been hiding all of this time, what she had been so ashamed of?

Zuki bundled up her breasts in her arms as best she could manage, the mountains of soft fat spilling over them and escaping her grasp, doing a poor job of hiding them from view. If anything, it just made them even more appealing. Her forearms sank deep into the malleable meat of her bosom like a rolling pin into dough, pressing them together to create enough cleavage to hide a sizable child.

I told you,” she mumbled, averting her eyes as if he should be seeing something shameful.

This...these are what you've been hiding?” Jules asked in amazement.