Or Die Alone

© 2017 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: large breasts, long tongue, kissing, handjob, size difference, biting, scratching, consensual, blowjob, deepthroat, creampie, oral, tailjob, female ejaculation, vaginal.

Please note that this is an older story that has not yet been edited to bring it up to my current standards.

CHAPTER 1: DANGLE

He pushed through the crowd of traders, his scuffed boots kicking up dust from the arid ground as he passed by market stalls selling strange, alien fruits and scrap parts. The colorful tarps that shielded the merchants from the sun surrounded him on both sides of the street, prefab buildings had been erected to form a rudimentary town whose white, industrial structures stood out against the surrounding desert and scrubland. Panhandlers tried to accost him, foisting their strange wares into his gloved hands, but he shouldered past them and continued on his way. He wore a brown duster, his shoulders wrapped in a ragged cape with a hood that obscured his features, all the better to blend in with the colonists. They would not see the UNN issue XMH handgun that he carried on his hip, nor the environment suit that he wore beneath his disguise, its moisture recyclers keeping him cool in the searing heat of this system's star.

Hades was an outlying human colony, a recent effort by corporate conglomerates back on Earth to expand their operations into deep space, populated almost exclusively by miners and outlaws fleeing crimes on their home worlds. The corporations needed able bodies for their colonization efforts most of all, to man their equipment, to mine and extract the resources that funded their ventures. It was common to see law breakers sign up to escape punishment for their crimes, from debtors to murderers, the colony ships would take anyone who showed up and signed the waivers. It was a widely-known secret that these companies were perfectly aware of who they were hiring, but plausible deniability let them dodge fines and sanctions.

Hades was different however the fledgling colony was becoming a haven for hard criminals and organized gangs, mobsters and pirates had been gaining more of a foothold on this remote planet than the Admiralty cared for. The final straw had been a pirate attack against a UNN jump freighter carrying weapons for the planetary defense forces stationed on Hades. Conscripts and weekend warriors for the most part, but necessary in wartime, as it was logistically difficult to send ships out here. The vessel had been hit when it had exited superlight just outside the planet's orbit, the pirates taking advantage of the brief period of disorientation that followed long range jumps to board the freighter with a skiff and overwhelm its skeleton crew. They had had made off with a number of heavy weapons, no doubt to be sold off on the black market and shipped all over Coalition space.

They would have known that they couldn't steal the freighter, it would be impossible to hide or sell off a jump-capable vessel, as monumentally large and expensive to operate as they were. But the sheer audacity of the raid showed that there had been a shift in attitude on Hades, something had changed here, and Agent Boyd had been tasked with finding out what that was.

He had spent a week undercover after posing as a corporate hiree and boarding a colony ship, later making contact with an informant willing to sell information, his price being an official pardon for any crimes committed and a ticket back to Earth. Boyd was authorized to make such deals, and so he had agreed to the man's terms, and was now on his way to meet him at a local tavern.

His contact had claimed to be a gang member who had become disgruntled with life on Hades, refusing to communicate via unencrypted channels and demanding a face-to-face meeting, wishing to ensure that Boyd wasn't some mob honey trap. Boyd was equally wary, this could just as easily be a setup to draw out UNN spies, but he felt confident with the comforting weight of his handgun on his hip as he made his way through the throngs.

There were families here too, he could see women and a few children milling about, clad in long cloaks and robes that would shield them from the dust and heat. They were the real victims, people who had taken advantage of corporate incentives in order to make a go of it out here, to start a new life on the frontier. Rather than finding opportunity here, they had found themselves thrust into the middle of a criminal empire, likely given little choice but to keep their heads down and cooperate. The higher ups that funded these ventures didn't care as long as the resources kept flowing and the colonies turned a profit, and with no way to hold them accountable, the corporate entities and the local criminal organizations formed a kind of symbiotic relationship where it was in the interest of both to ignore the other. Everything ran smoothly, until somebody went too far, and then the UNN had to get involved.

He spied the tavern in the distance, an ugly prefab in shades of grey and white, a series of pillars on its outer walls that drilled into the ground when deployed and secured the building to the surface. There was a neon sign above its entrance that was almost completely encased in dust and filth, it was hard to tell if it was even turned on. He could see solar panel arrays on the flat roof that would presumably power the structure, along with a satellite receiver, its bowl full of sand. What a miserable planet. When humanity had first joined the Coalition, so much new territory had opened up for lease or claim, dozens of fresh worlds to colonize and exploit. But there was a finite number of hospitable planets in range of Earth, and as they ran out of options, their chosen worlds became less and less appealing.

To top it all off, Hades was skirting the border of Coalition space, beyond which the risk of attack by hostile alien races rose exponentially. These people must have been desperate to come here, and desperate people were the most dangerous of all.

He arrived at the entrance to the tavern, and the automatic door opened to allow him through, stepping into the dingy interior as it closed behind him with a crunch as sand became trapped in its mechanism. Boyd dropped his hood, exposing his face, still obscured by his goggles and a respirator. His dark hair was matted with sweat, and he wiped his forehead with the sleeve of his duster, finding that the gesture only served to glue more sand to his damp skin.

There weren't many people in the tavern, it was cramped and poorly lit, clouds of tobacco smoke floated in the air to further obscure its occupants. There were only a dozen tables scattered about, and the bartender watched him from behind a counter as the few patrons turned to stare at him. They were dressed much as he was, cloaks, hoods and masks. Anything to protect themselves from the blowing sand and the relentless sunlight that beat down on the planet.

Boyd took a few steps forward, his contact could be any one of these people, even the barman couldn't be ruled out. How would he know which one it was?

He made his way over to the bar and sat down on one of the stools, banging his gloved fist on the faux-wood counter top.

“Barkeep,” he rasped through his respirator, “got liqueur?”

“Got scrip?”

“Aye,” he replied, pulling a handful of plastic coins from his pocket and dropping them on the counter. They didn't use UNN currency out here, the employees were paid in vouchers, small plastic tokens that could be redeemed for goods and services. Wage slavery of a sort, yet another grey area of the law that was exploited out in these remote colonies where the long arm of the law did not reach.

The bartender picked up one of the coins in his fingers, holding the plastic disk to the light and letting it shine through the transparent center, its intricate and hard to reproduce markings intended to prevent forgery. Satisfied, though still wary, the barkeeper scooped the coins off the counter and turned to open a liqueur cabinet behind him.

“I have rum, tequila, vodka, gin...”

“Gin,” Boyd crackled, his respirator serving both as a protective rebreather, and to mask his voice with a hidden modulator. The man poured a glass of the colorless liquid, then slid it across the countertop, Boyd catching it in his hand and extending a built-in straw from his mask to take a draw. He felt vulnerable here, with his back to the room, but he had to keep up appearances until the informant revealed himself. There were always new workers being shipped in and so it would not be unusual to see unfamiliar faces, he should be safe for the time being, even in a hole in the wall such as this.

Damn it, didn't they have a jukebox? Some music would ease this tension, and mask the noise of the incessant coughing and the hissing of respirators. The bartender was not chatty, ignoring Boyd as he washed glasses with a filthy rag, leaving him to sip at his gin. His goggles were tinted to protect him from the harsh sunlight, and so he was able to turn his head and observe the patrons without being too obvious, scanning his eyes over the hunched figures as they drank or played card games at their tables. None seemed too interested in him, that was a good sign, the shifts in the mines were over and these people were likely exhausted after a hard day's work. He wondered briefly how many of them were criminals, who had outstanding debts and who was fleeing alimony payments, who might have murdered their spouse or fled from the scene of a hit and run. Every person you met in these colonies was under suspicion, the man working the stall beside yours could be a rapist who had posted bail and then boarded a colony ship under a false name, there was no way to know.

That wasn't his job however, his job was to find out who had stolen those weapons, and what had happened to make them think that they could get away with it.

A man sat heavily on the stool to his left, portly and wearing a stained tank top, his lack of protective gear indicating either that he had been here for a while or that he worked in the tavern. He was fidgeting, nervous, shifting his weight as he drummed his fingers on the bar. This was his man.

“Are you here to meet someone,” the man asked, trying to sound casual and failing. He must not be completely sure that it was Boyd who he had been waiting for.

“I believe we spoke on the phone,” Boyd replied. “As you requested, I have come to buy the...item in person.”

Relieved, the portly man exhaled, relaxing somewhat as he leaned on the counter.

“Yeah, I have it in the back, do you want to inspect it?”

“I'll follow you.”

Good idea, there would be less chance of them being overheard. Boyd finished his drink, and got up from his stool to follow the man towards a door at the back of the building. Not the restrooms, surely? No, the informant opened a door into a store room, closing it behind Boyd as he stepped inside. There were crates stacked against the walls, and shelves with bottles and produce, the man checking the room hurriedly as Boyd waited for him to calm down.

“Ok, I think we're alone, I'm pretty sure.” The informant wiped his brow with his hand and took a seat on a nearby crate, the container sagging a little under his weight. “You never know who could be listening, the syndicate controls this colony, they have eyes and ears everywhere. Not here though, not here, I made sure of it.”

“You said that you had information to sell,” Boyd said, getting straight to the point.

“Yes, yes, but first I need you to prove that you are who you say you are. I need to know that this isn't some kind of setup to draw out rats before I tell you anything.”

“Very well,” Boyd replied, unbuttoning his duster and reaching beneath it. The man flinched away, scared for a moment that Boyd was drawing on him, but he withdrew a leather wallet and held it up to the informant. The man leaned closer, squinting.

“There's nothing there, no badge, nothing.”

Boyd removed one of his gloves and pressed his finger against a hidden print scanner in the back of the wallet, and a holographic badge flared to life, the insignia of the United Nations Naval Intelligence clearly visible along with his name and rank. His contact stared at it, awestruck for a moment, then tried to collect himself.

“Ok, ok, fuck me. You're UNNI? I didn't realize things were that bad, you'll keep your word though, right? You'll protect me if I talk?”

“Yes, I am authorized to make deals, now it's your turn. Tell me what you know about the stolen weapons.”

“Ok, yeah, yeah.” He was pacing now, agitated, his eyes darting about the room. “Fifteen MANPADS, SAMs, surface to air missiles with EMP warheads designed to take down low-flying spacecraft. They were en route to the PDF, those fucking useless conscripts, but the syndicate hit the transport freighter. Never seen anything like it before, nobody has ever hit a UNN jump freighter, nobody has ever had the balls. The syndicate does though.”

“What is this 'syndicate' you keep talking about?”

“You'll protect me, right? You'll vouch for me? I want it on record that I had no choice. I'm not the bad guy here, they control everything, and if you don't fall in line they'll put one in the back of your head and dump your body in a septic tank.”

The man was rambling, obviously terrified, Boyd needed to calm him down and get him back on track.

“This is all being recorded, the UNN is bound by any agreements I make with you, just tell me what you know and everything will be fine. I can transfer UNN credits into your account and get you off planet within the week if you provide me with useful information, you have my word.”

“Alright, yeah,” he said, wiping his mouth with the back his hairy hand. “The syndicate, they're everyone. The pirates, the smugglers, the gangs. There are separatists and mobsters and criminals, they all united under the same banner out here, call themselves 'the syndicate'. It's easier that way, they're not competing against eachother, and the UNN is so far away that they won't draw any attention. At least that's what they thought...Naval Intelligence, Jesus Christ. They brought the Ninnies down on our heads.”

Boyd ignored the derogatory nickname, pushing the man for more information.

“Please focus. So this 'syndicate' stole the weapons? Why? Do they intend to fence them?”

“No, no that isn't the half of it. They want control over the colony, completely, they want to drive the pencil pushers out and claim Hades as sovereign territory. Billions of credits worth of resources get extracted from colonies like this one every year, and the syndicate wants control over that wealth, if they control the cash flow then they'll be more than criminals. They would have the resources to stake their claim, and then defend it, from corporate security and even from the UNN if need be.”

“Why would they try to take over the planet? It was my understanding that the criminal organizations had unspoken truces with the corporations funding the colonization efforts. Is that no longer the case?”

“Like I said, they want the resources, and this is the first time a colony has been remote enough and poorly defended enough for them to try it. Not everyone here is a criminal though, plenty of families here too, people coming to Hades for work. The syndicate is telling them that the UNN can't protect them here, and that they're the only ones who can. They proved it in a way, the UNN couldn't defend their own freighter and the syndicate was able to rob them blind, that was a statement that the people here can't trust the authorities. They're banking on you not responding, they're gambling that you guys won't divert ships from the war effort to handle an insurrection on some shitty colony nobody gives a fuck about.”

“We do care, that's why I'm here,” Boyd replied. “It's a full-blown insurrection then? This is worse than we thought, much worse, if that's all you can tell me then I need to get this information off-planet as quickly as possible.”

“Yeah, yeah, absolutely. You have a ship in orbit or anything like that? Anyone backing you up out here? I'm not a big player, I can't call in any favors to get a message out.”

“No, I came in on a colony ship...” Boyd found himself reaching reflexively towards his hip. “But why do you need to know that?”

The informant's demeanor changed abruptly. Gone was the anxious, pacing man, now his stare was stone cold. Boyd recognized that expression, he had seen it before, those were the eyes of a killer.

“Thank you, Agent Boyd, that was all we needed to know.”

Boyd made to draw his handgun, but too late he heard the sound of the door opening behind him, his world going dark as a rifle butt hit the back of his head.

***

Boyd awoke to darkness, his vision obscured and his face covered by rough fabric. He wasn't dead then, at least not yet, that was good. He tasted blood in his mouth, and he had a cracking headache, but if he could still feel then he could still fight. The burlap bag was unceremoniously torn from his head, exposing him to sudden brightness, and he squinted against the light as dark shapes moved around him. When his eyes adjusted he found himself in a spacious room with a high ceiling, some kind of warehouse maybe, shelves all around him stacked floor to ceiling with nondescript boxes and containers. There were five men surrounding him, three wore full-faced helmets and wielded XMR rifles, their uniform that of the local PDF. One man he didn't recognize, and one he did, his would-be informant. The man began to circle around his chair as the rest looked on, playing with a butterfly knife, Boyd turning his head to follow him as he walked.

“You know boss, I gotta be honest. When you said you wanted to bait a Ninny to Hades and take him alive, I thought you were going a bit queer in your old age, but here we are. We have one Ninny and fifteen SAMs, enough to take down an entire landing force of UNN dropships. They park a jump carrier in orbit, and they won't be able to get a single one of their shuttles down to the surface.”

“You kept me alive,” Boyd groaned. “Why? What do you need with a UNNI agent?”

“I don't want to steal your thunder, boss.”

The would-be informant gestured towards the stranger with his knife, an older man dressed in a fine grey suit, expensive loafers on his feet and a glint of gold on his cuff-links. This must be the boss he had referenced, his demeanor was certainly casual and his aire commanding enough to qualify. He stood with his hands in his pockets as he examined Boyd with cold, blue eyes, alert and sharp behind his wrinkled face. The man in the suit cleared his throat, then started to speak, his voice gruff and baritone.

“As my colleague has alluded to, Mister Boyd, I brought you here for a purpose. Be of use to me, and no further harm shall befall you. Everything that you have been told is true, I represent the syndicate, and we aim to take control of Hades.”

“You can't steal an entire planet,” Boyd spat back, “that's impossible. You'd have to be insane to think that you could pull that off.”

“Insane? No, ambitious.” He walked a little closer to the chair and stood before Boyd, taking his hand out of his pocket to reveal an e-cigar, lighting it with a button press and exhaling a cloud of smoke in his direction. “You don't get to where I am today by being risk-averse, Mister Boyd, but I would not have tried this if I wasn't sure that it could work.”

“If you really do this, if you try to capture Hades and cut if off from the rest of human space, you'll have a lot more than one carrier breathing down your neck.”

“I'm not sure that anyone will. How's the war effort going, things aren't too good on the front I hear? It's taking everything the UNN has to keep the Betelgeusians at bay, am I not correct?”

Boyd didn't answer, watching the 'boss' as he started to pace, taking occasional draws from his e-cigar as he spoke.

“I don't think you can spare a fleet, you want to know what I think? I think that if you pull even one jump carrier out of the contested systems to send it here in order to deal with our little insurrection, that will open up a hole in your lines that the enemy would immediately exploit. How many carriers are there exactly? A dozen? Not enough for all of them to be wherever they're most needed at all times, I presume. Ask yourself, what is a higher priority for the Admiralty? Keeping control over backwaters like Hades, with a population of under a million inhabitants, or fighting over those contested planets on the Coalition border in order to deny the bugs their foothold?”

He became stern suddenly, his features wrinkling into a frown.

“You know it as well as I do, Agent Boyd, the UNN would expend more manpower keeping their tenuous hold on uninhabited wastelands like Kruger III than they would defending this tactically insignificant colony. I am not a dishonest man, my reasons for wanting control over Hades are purely selfish and monetary in nature, but when I say that the UNN will not protect the people of this planet I tell no lie. I, on the other hand, defend my assets. The people of this planet are an asset to me and I would defend them against any and all threats. My price may be economic control over the colony, but that control is already exerted by ExoCorp and their subsidiaries, the change in management wouldn't impact their daily lives in the slightest.”

He crouched before Boyd, leaning down to eye level with him and taking another drag of his e-cigar.

“So what do the people of Hades have to lose by cooperating with the syndicate? The protection of a UNN fleet that would never arrive if they called for help? The employ of a corporation who cares even less about their welfare than I do? Nobody is being hustled or coerced here, I offered the people of Hades a choice, and most of them have made it.”

“So they're not all onboard with your plan?” Boyd grinned as the boss stood again, his confidence faltering a little.

“Not as of yet, but that is where you come in, little spook.”

“What can you possibly want from me?”

“I can't strong-arm these people, that would defeat the purpose of everything we have tried to accomplish on Hades, but what I 'can' do is convince them. Or rather 'you' can convince them. What we have in you is proof of the UNN's incompetence, their inability to manage the situation here. We baited a Ninny and trapped him like it was nothing, we made a joke of their most feared and covert operatives. If those who are still on the fence hear about the UNN's disregard for Hades, from the horse's mouth so to speak, then they would certainly tear down the final barriers that are preventing me from taking full control of the colony.”

“You're asking me to be...what? Your poster boy? A mouthpiece? You have to know that I won't do that.”

“Oh but you will, because if you don't, then I'll put a railgun round through your skull and drop your body down a mine shaft. Only the higher ups at UNNI will even know that you were ever here, and we'll just repeat the process with the next agent they send to investigate, when he hears about what happened to you I'm sure he'll come around.”

The boss laughed at his expression, wisps of vapor trailing from his mouth.

“Does it surprise you that we know UNNI operating procedures? Until recently we had a man in the Admiralty, one Admiral Rawling, I'm sure you're familiar with the name. While you did a good job of covering that scandal up, he did a good job of cleaning up his tracks, evidently you were never able to tie him back to any of us. We know that the next step is to send another agent to find out why you went missing, can you be sure that he'll be as stubborn as you are? Would you stake your life on it?”

Boyd had to admit, the syndicate had really tied this affair up in a neat little bow. If the organization had the support of the people and an inside knowledge of how the UNN and its intelligence branch operated, then every agent they sent here would be walking into the same trap. Only Boyd could stop this, and until the syndicate changed the minds of the people who were still resisting them, there would still be time. He had to get the information he had learned off-planet, by any means necessary.

The weight of his handgun was absent from his hip, they had searched him and confiscated it. His respirator was gone too, and they had stripped him down to his UNNI issue environment suit, a grey-blue skintight garment covered in wires and tubing. They had let him keep it, did they not know what it was? He doubted they sought to preserve his modesty, but maybe they thought that letting him keep the suit would lend credence to his claims of being a UNNI spy, a potentially deadly oversight. The suit was his survival kit, packed with hidden features and secret capabilities that even someone like the traitorous Admiral Rawling would not have been privy to. He shouldn't give away his hand just yet though, he had to wait for the perfect moment to strike.

“It's not too late to back out,” he said, “I'm authorized to make deals with you on behalf of the UNN. This situation hasn't escalated to the point that we can't come to a solution that works for both of us.”

Everyone laughed, the masked PDF goons included, their voices taking on a robotic timbre through their helmet speakers.

“What makes you think you're in a position to bargain, Ninny?” The portly informant chuckled, his butterfly knife dancing between his fingers. “You're screwed, the options are do as we say, or like the boss says we're gonna bury your corpse in a mine.”

“Then I guess we're done talking here,” Boyd replied, his tone resigned. “I won't help you, do whatever it is you need to do.”

The boss gave him a sideways look, scrutinizing him for any show of fear perhaps, and finding none.

“I respect your resilience, Mister Boyd, but it will do you no favors. In a moment I'm going to ask these fine PDF soldiers here to take you out to a truck, zip you up in a body bag, and then dump you down the nearest mine shaft. Maybe the fall will kill you, maybe they'll put some rounds in you for good measure, but you'll be dying for nothing. One of you is going to crack, one of you will have a weaker resolve than the last, and if I have to go through half a dozen agents to find him then that's what I'll do.”

“That's it then? You're not going to try to bribe me, not going to torture me?”

“I am a businessman first and foremost, I have no interest in inflicting undue suffering, and your type are too opinionated for bribes. Besides, I know that you won't break under torture, not an operative of your security clearance. I've heard enough, dispose of him.”

The boss turned his back and began to walk away, the man with the butterfly knife following behind him after one last sneering glance at Boyd. The three armed men moved in, two of them laying their hands on his shoulders as the third waited nearby, his rifle slung over his chest.

“I have only three words for you, 'boss',” Boyd called after them. The boss halted near the warehouse door and turned around, his voice echoing in the space.

“And what are those, Mister Boyd?”

“Parakeet, hyphenated, Monroe.”

There was a flash of brilliant light and sparks, the high-density battery packs that ran down the suit's spine releasing a two hundred milliamp electrical current into the lining. The two men who had their hands on his shoulders at the time tensed for a moment, their bodies twitching, before falling limply to the floor. Smoke rose from their face plates, their nervous systems fried by the electrical discharge, their hearts stopped dead in their chests. The ropes that bound him flared and burned away in a fraction of a second, the material turned to ash by the intense heat, and before the third PDF soldier could react Boyd had already risen from the chair and was tackling him to the ground.

The suit would need time to recharge, he had expended all of its energy, but he was free now. He knocked the guard to the floor, the soldier struggling to raise his weapon as Boyd pinned it against his chest with his weight, his finger coming dangerously close to the trigger. He succeeded in firing off a shot, the XMR configured as a railgun apparently, the magnetically accelerated projectile blowing through a crate to their right and showered the pair in an explosion of packing foam.

The PDF goon managed to get in a hit with the butt of his rifle, bloodying Boyd's mouth, but the agent reached down towards his ankle. If they had scanned him for weapons with a metal detector, then they would have missed it, he withdrew the hidden ceramic blade and plunged it into the soldier's unarmored throat. He gurgled for a moment, dark arterial blood spilling from the wound, then his arms went limp as it began to form a crimson pool around him on the ground.

Boyd stood over the body, still a little dazed from the hit to the face, and heard rapid footsteps coming his way. He looked up to see the portly man with the butterfly knife charging towards him across the warehouse, brandishing his weapon as he closed.

Boyd reacted quickly, dropping to his knees and wasting no time cutting away the rifle's sling with the ceramic blade, shouldering the XMR and firing off a round at the incoming gangster. It blew a fist-sized hole in his chest, an expression of surprise frozen on his features as he tumbled forward, killed almost instantly by the immense energy that the projectile released. As he fell Boyd saw the hole that the round had punched through the wall behind him, narrowly missing the doorway where the shocked syndicate boss was still standing, his e-cigar falling from his hand to clatter to the floor.

They stared eachother down for a moment, the railgun's magnetic coils glowing red as they dissipated heat, a strand of bloodied saliva hanging from Boyd's chin as he caught his breath.

He raised the rifle to fire it again, but the boss ducked behind the wall and out of sight, Boyd cursing under his breath as he took off in pursuit. He sprinted to the door, then rounded the wall that he had blown a hole in, skidding to a halt as he saw three black SUVs parked behind the warehouse. He shouldered his weapon to fire at the trucks, the XMR would make short work of them, but he had to leap back into cover as a hail of conventional weapons fire ricocheted off the prefab metal around him. There were maybe half a dozen cronies using the SUVs as cover, pinning him with what sounded like machine pistol fire as the boss bellowed over the noise.

“-dead! I want that fucking Ninny dead! Bring me-”

Boyd couldn't take them on alone, his suit wasn't bullet-proof, and after a quick glance at the rifle's magazine he knew he didn't have enough rounds to shoot his way out. The other dead PDF guys had their own magazines, but he figured that it was time to make a hasty exit. The information he had was more valuable than the head of that mob boss, he would get his comeuppance in due time.

He set off in the opposite direction, heading towards a doorway at the far end of the building, hopefully he could slip away before the gangsters wised up and headed him off.

He ran out into the open air, the sun beating down on his head and the hot wind blasting him with stinging dust. He saw no vehicles round the building to give chase, they must assume he was holed up in the warehouse preparing to stage his last stand. He tried to shield his eyes against the blowing sand, spotting the silhouettes of structures a few hundred meters away. There was cover between him and the town, sand dunes that had begun to form around industrial machinery and stacks of raw materials, creating a sort of maze formed from dust and metal. He disappeared between a half-buried bulldozer and a pallet of steel girders, shielded temporarily from the howling wind that muffled the shouts of the men behind him.

CHAPTER 2: PLAUSIBLE DENIABILITY

Boyd hid in an alley between two prefabs, the cloak and scarf he had bought for a few plastic tokens from a stall obscuring his suit and his features, PDF patrols in groups of three or four walking the streets as the syndicate's goons searched for him. He had to ditch the gun, it was too conspicuous, there was nowhere he could have concealed it. Stealth was his only weapon now, he had to get off this planet, and he had to get the information he had learned back to the UNNI. There were no transmitters on his planet that could send a signal that far out, this hellish colony was too remote, he needed a ship.

He made his way towards the spaceport, or what passed for one on this planet, more of a cluster of landing pads out in the desert with a rudimentary terminal nearby. He stayed hunched, mingling with the crowds and hoping that if he stumbled a little it might throw them off his track. The soldiers were looking for a man in the prime of his health, not a shuffling cripple.

He met no resistance on his way there, but when he arrived at the port, he saw that the door was guarded by two PDF soldiers with rifles slung across their chests. They were checking the few people who came in and out, asking for ID by the look of things. There wasn't much traffic, only half a dozen ships on the landing pads, nobody had any reason to come here after all. He doubted that he could steal one, they would just shoot him down with the EMP warheads they had bragged about stealing, he would have to either book passage or stow away on a clean ship. He needed something foreign to Hades, the syndicate would own all of the pilots and captains who operated out of the colony, maybe there was a cargo ship that would let him ride along for the right price. He was running out of scrip, and while he had enough UNN credits to buy a goddamned yacht, that might draw the kind of attention that he was trying to avoid if he flaunted it.

He had to get into the spaceport first, but he had a plan to get past the guards.

He slipped between two buildings, leaving the crowds of similarly robed people as he reached into a pocket of his suit for his wallet. It was still there, good. He would have needed it to prove his identity after all, if he had turned traitor and agreed to the syndicate's terms.

He pressed his finger against the fingerprint reader embedded in the leather, the microcomputer inside activating to display his UNNI identification.

“Computer,” he whispered, “randomize ID.” He held the device up to his face at arms length and waited. After a moment, the familiar holographic badge faded, replaced with a fake name and ID number along with a photograph of his sand-blasted face. Not many people out here would have holographic ID cards, but it wouldn't be so unusual as to turn heads, at least he hoped. It was his only chance to get into the spaceport in any case.

He pocketed the wallet and rejoined the throngs of people, making his way towards the building. He shuffled up to the door, and was stopped by one of the PDF guards, stepping in front of him with his hand hovering over his rifle.

“ID please.”

Staying hunched over, Boyd fumbled beneath his shawl, careful to keep his suit hidden under the ragged fabric as he withdrew the wallet. He pulled the scarf back enough that the man could see most of his face, slipping his finger over the reader so that the fake ID flared to life. He passed it to the guard, who held it up beside his face for a moment, then returned it and waved him on without another word.

It had worked, and Boyd hid his relief beneath his scarf as he shambled into the spaceport.

It was small, there was a counter staffed by a handful of employees who sat in front of computer terminals, and a few chairs and benches where the pitiable number of travelers might sit while they waited. This was obviously not for use by the general public, the colonists who came here did not have the means to travel, the port was merely here to accommodate the few private traders and shuttles that might arrive to ferry goods or VIPs to and from the surface.

He took a seat on the nearest bench, his eyes open for anyone who looked like they didn't belong, anyone who might not be on the syndicate's payroll. He saw more PDF patrolling the port, a couple of men in flight uniforms sitting at a table as they ate shrink-wrapped sandwiches from a vending machine, and a handful of guys who looked like corporate engineers. The ExoCorp employees had a decent chance of not being compromised, but that was a gamble that could cost him his life.

Then he saw it, his ticket out of here.

A giant alien walked across the room, heads turning to watch it as it marched along, snow-white fur patterned with dark rings and spots protruding from beneath its form-fitting jumpsuit. It wore no shoes, its digitigrade legs ending in cat-like paws, a long tail poking out from a hole in its suit. It was female, that much was obvious by her ample chest, her figure humanoid despite her odd features. It was a Borealan of the Polar variety, about eight feet tall, it stuck out like a sore thumb. What the hell was it doing here? The heat alone must be driving the poor thing insane.

The feline alien stopped to talk to one of the women manning the terminals, and she tapped on her touch monitor, relaying some information that Boyd couldn't hear clearly. The alien left and began to walk to one of the exits to the landing pads, and he rose from his seat to intercept her. There was no way this alien was native, the chances she was on the payroll were as low as he could possibly hope for, it was time to take this chances.

He hurried to catch up with her loping strides, foregoing his limping gait and hunched posture as he accosted her, stopping her in front of the exit. She looked down at him quizzically with blue, reflective eyes, Boyd loosening his scarf to expose his face.

“Are you a pilot? A ship captain?”

“Is there something I can do for you, stranger?” Her accent was odd, sounded Russian, but at least she spoke decent English.

“I need passage off-planet, and I'm willing to pay well for it.”

“So book a flight with a passenger ship, why is that my problem?”

The promise of cash did not appeal to her then, he would have to try another angle, if her ship was UNN he could pull rank and commandeer it.

“Is your ship UNN?”

“No, it's a Russian Federation survey vessel, now are you going to tell me why you're acting so shifty before I call the security guards over?”

Damn it, at least that explained the Russian accent and her presence here, the Polar Borealans had established a colony in Siberia and were members of the Federation. They had started showing up in government and military positions lately.

She wasn't going for it, he would have to try a new approach, maybe concoct some kind of sob story to gain her sympathy. He couldn't tell her the real story, that was far too risky. She might not have believed him anyway..

“I can't charter a flight through normal channels, please I need your help, the people who come here don't get to just leave of their own accord.”

That seemed to peak her interest, and the round ears that protruded from the top of her head swiveled to focus on him.

“And why is that?”

He lowered his tone to a hushed whisper.

“Criminals own this planet, organized crime, the corporation that founded the colony knows about it but they don't care what happens to the colonists as long as the mines stay open and the cash keeps flowing. I sold everything I own to a black market dealer to get some UNN credits, they only pay us in phony plastic tokens, I can't buy passage off-planet with those. They don't want us to leave, we're basically slaves here, either we fall in line and work the mines or they make us disappear. Now I have the credits to buy a seat on a ship going anywhere, I don't care as long as it gets me off Hades, but you're the only person I've met who isn't in their pocket. I can trust you because you're just passing through, the next guy I ask might just turn me over to the gangsters. Please, you have to help me.”

Just enough truth sprinkled into the lie to make it believable, and she seemed to be believing it, her pink nose twitching as she considered.

“Listen, I'm just a cartographer, I'm not the captain or anything. My job is mapping the planets we survey and then identifying exploitable resources. It's not my choice to make.”

His face fell, but she cut him off before he could speak.

“But...I can put in a word with the captain and see what he says. No promises.”

“I would be eternally in your debt, and if I get off-planet I can raise the alarm about the conditions here, maybe I can help everyone else too.”

“Well...wait here a while, I'll be back soon.”

She exited through an automatic door, Boyd taking a seat by the nearest window and watching her walk out across a ramp to a spaceship that was resting on the landing pad. The harsh winds blew at her fur, and she held up a long arm to shield her face. The vessel was larger than the shuttles that were docked adjacent to it, though still on the short side, it wouldn't carry more than half a dozen crew members. It had four large engines on stubby wings that looked as if they could pivot, a blocky and angular craft without any of the aerodynamic curves that UNN vessels usually exhibited. If it was jump capable then the drive must be small and short range, it may have been towed in by a larger vessel and dropped off nearby. There was Cyrillic lettering down one side of the craft that he couldn't read, his computer could probably translate, but better to avoid drawing attention right now.

He tried to look inconspicuous as the PDF patrolled nearby, keeping his head low, starting to think that maybe he had gone overboard with his disguise and that street urchins shouldn't be sitting in the spaceport.

Finally the Polar returned, entering through the automatic door and shaking her fur like a wet dog, sending a cloud of dust and sand falling to the floor. She muttered something in Russian that sounded like a complaint or a curse, then spied Boyd. She marched over to him, leaning down to his height to break what must be good news, judging by her expression.

“I brought it up with the captain, and he says you may ride with us, on the condition that you pay for the resources you consume. Food, oxygen, water and so on.”

Boyd made a show of his gratitude, which seemed to satisfy her, cutting the display a little short after drawing a look from a guard.

“I am in your debt,” he said, “can we leave soon?”

“We can go now, I was about to leave when you cut me off. You're lucky, if you had come a few minutes later you might have missed me.”

He followed her out of the spaceport and into the blowing winds, the noise of airborne particles hammering against his clothes almost drowning out the sound of spaceship engines. Her vessel looked larger close-up, and they mounted a landing ramp that descended from the starboard hull, taking refuge from the sandstorm as their footsteps echoed on the deck. There was a mechanical whir as the motors closed the ramp behind them, then a hiss as the bay was pressurized, his eyes taking a moment to adjust to the relative gloom. They were standing in a small landing bay, a few crates and loading machines scattered about, the interior of the ship was narrow and industrial with naked metal surfaces and hanging wires. It looked old, pre-Coalition maybe, a rust bucket by any modern standards.

“Welcome to the Zemchug,” the Polar said, her voice carrying through the corridors. She shook herself again, showering him in red sand and dust. “It means ' pearl', at least she was back in her day. She has lost her luster, but she flies as well as she ever did, follow me rebenok.”

He tailed after her as she walked through the corridors, the ceiling too low for her giant frame in many places, forcing her to duck. It was a miracle she could fit at all, not only was she tall and broad, but she was portly too. Boyd didn't know if it was her fluffy fur that gave that impression, or if she really was as heavy as she looked, but there was considerable weight on her chest, butt and hips. She had to turn sideways to pass through some of the more narrow doorways, the ship had clearly not been modified at all to accommodate her.

She led him through the spine of the vessel, one claustrophobic passageway that spanned the length of the ship, doors branching off to the left and right of them into various cabins and rooms. Even at a standard human height, Boyd found the hanging cables and protruding pipes to be a hazard, ducking and dodging out of the way of them as they walked. Everything smelled of engine oil and metal, musty and poorly maintained, like the ship belonged in a scrapyard rather than on a landing pad.

The corridor opened up into a more spacious cockpit, holographic readouts and banks of switches taking up much of the space, with a large transparent window occupying the forward wall. There were two men in pilot chairs who swiveled around to greet them, one wearing an archaic captain's hat, and the other consoles were manned by three other people in civilian dress. They exchanged greetings with the Polar in Russian, then turned to Boyd.

“Is this him? Welcome aboard, Mister...”

“Jones,” Boyd said, stepping forward to take the captain's hand. He was thinking on the fly, he would have to change his ID to reflect that later, in case they wanted to confirm his identity. “I appreciate this, captain, if you can get me to the nearest UNN controlled planet or outpost I will be happy to transfer any funds that you ask.”

“That is quite alright, Mister Jones, I ask only that you compensate me for the resources you use during your stay. I have to say, I do not usually pick up hitchhikers, but your furry benefactor made quite a case on your behalf.”

“Thank you both, I'll try to keep out of your way.”

“You can bunk in the boiler room,” one of the others said, a man wearing engineer yellow who was sat behind a console to his left. “We'll put a mattress in there for you, it isn't the Metropol, but it should do just fine. If you get hungry there are rations in the mess, just ask Sibirskiy and she'll get you what you need.”

The alien glanced down at him and smiled.

“I'm also the cook,” she whispered. “Well, as much as you can cook with ration packs, but there are ways to make them more appealing.”

“We lift off soon, take a seat on the bridge and strap in tight, the ride can get a little bumpy in atmosphere.”

Boyd followed the alien over to a row of crash couches against the wall and strapped in beside her. While the ship itself had not been modified to account for her impressive stature, there were a few larger couches here that seemed to be designed for her species, they looked newer than the human sized examples and were crudely welded to the hull of the ship.

“Is that your name, Sibirskiy?” Boyd asked her.

“No, that just means 'the Siberian', that's where I'm from. My name is Lorza.”

“Everyone get strapped in,” the pilot said,” we're taking off.”

There was a rumbling that shook the deck, Boyd feeling it travel up through his legs as the vessel's engines flared to life, struggling to lift them off the landing pad. It felt as if they would be shaken apart, and he gripped the armrests of his seat in mild alarm as odd and worrying metallic sounds carried up from the corridor. The Zemchug lifted off finally, sand hammering against the cockpit windows as the stubby nose of the craft angled upwards towards space.

Boyd's stomach lurched as they accelerated suddenly, the g-forces pressing him against his chair, Lorza seemingly unperturbed by the wreck of a ship that was threatening to fall apart around them.

“Is this normal?” Boyd tried to shout over the noise, the vibrations making his voice waver.

“Don't worry about it,” Lorza replied with a laugh, “she'll hold together.”

After a couple of tense minutes, the rumbling and shaking abated, the vessel clearing the atmosphere and entering open space. Boyd breathed a sigh of relief as the artificial gravity field kicked in, securing his feet to the deck after a brief moment of weightlessness. He waited for the go-ahead from Lorza, then unbuckled his harness and rose to his feet unsteadily, still recovering from the bumpy ride.

“She may not be smooth, but why replace something that works well enough?” Lorza commented.

A very Russian stance to take, the aliens were really absorbing the local culture of the Federation it seemed. The rest of the crew had risen also, and were stretching their legs and chatting in their native tongue. The velvet blackness of space was visible beyond the window now, dotted with twinkling stars, the nose of the ship slowly fading from orange back to grey as the metal shed heat.

“Let's see, who else do we have here,” Lorza mused, scratching her furry chin with one of her black claws. Her hands were massive, like some kind of bear, she had three fingers and a thumb almost as thick as his wrist that ended in wicked hooks. “That over there is Alexei, he is our geologist, he doesn't speak English so don't bother trying to introduce yourself. You met the captain, and Mikhail, the pilot. The woman is Roza, she is a Federation surveyor, and the last guy is our engineer Sokolov. We're out here looking for new resources and potential colonies, I'm responsible for mapping everything out and recording our findings.”

“Have you been out here long?”

“Oh, a few months now. It was nice to be planetside while we refueled, but Hades is a miserable place for my kind, yours too it appears.”

“You don't like heat and dust, I take it?”

“Nyet, I'm more a fan of snow.”

The captain chimed in, walking over to join the pair.

“Our course takes us close to a UNN asteroid base, should take us less than a week to reach it, we'll drop you off there and you can be on your way.”

“I'm not sure if Lorza has told you everything, captain, but you've saved my life. Hades is under the control of organized criminals and they're holding the workers there hostage, using them as slave labor more or less. Thanks to you I'm free, and if I can raise the alarm at that asteroid base then the UNN can restore order on the colony.”

“I am glad to be of help, but do me a favor and don't mention the name of my ship when you give your report, eh? We operate a long way from home, and I don't need a bounty on my head.”

“Of course, of course.”

“Lorza, maybe you take our guest to the mess and get him some food, I doubt he ate well on Hades and it might do him some good.”

She nodded her great head, her mane of long, white hair bouncing in the air.

“Da, Kapitan, follow me Jones. Let's get you fed.”

They made their way back down the main corridor, and just as they were turning into the kitchen, the ship shook. Lorza steadied herself against the walls, bracing herself as Boyd grabbed a nearby table to save from falling.

“Is 'that' normal?”

“No, that one was not normal.”

An intercom buzzed to life, the captain's voice echoing as it came through the speakers, he sounded as alarmed as Lorza looked.

“All hands, all hands, something has locked on to our ship. Attempting-”

Everything went dark suddenly, the intercom shut off along with all the lights on the ship, the pair plunged into absolute darkness as they began to float off the floor. The gravity was out too, the electronics, probably the engines. Was this one of the EMP warheads? Had the syndicate fired one from the surface in order to bring down the ship? How had they tracked him?

The lights flickered back to life, and Boyd found himself clinging to an exposed pipe as they hung in the air, Lorza's ears swiveling on top of her head like a pair of radar dishes.

“The backup generator kicked in, but I don't hear the engines, what hit us?” She looked down at him suddenly, her blue eyes piercing. “Do you have something to do with this?”

Before he could reply, there was a shout from up the hall, it sounded like the pilot. Lorza called out a reply, Russian again, he couldn't follow the conversation.

“Navigation is down, engines offline, we're drifting.”

“What happened?” Boyd asked.

“Maybe I should be asking you that question,” she replied. “Wait here.”

She clambered up towards the cockpit, pulling herself along in the zero gravity, and Boyd waited as instructed. He heard more conversation, increasingly alarmed to his ears. After a couple of minutes Lorza returned to him, her expression dire.

“Something locked on to us and knocked out our power, probably an EMP of some kind, there weren't any other ships in local space so it must have been fired from the surface. The backup generator has restored life support and low-priority systems, but the engines and navigation are still offline. Sokolov is going to try to restart the engines, but we're caught in the gravity well of Hades' moon, if he can't get them back online then we're going to crater.”

Boyd knew that he was caught, but he didn't have to reveal the whole truth, he could still hide his real identity.

“I had no idea that this would happen, I would never have imagined that they would go to such extremes to stop me from leaving. That is if you're sure this isn't a pirate attack?”

“No other ships in range, it must have been a missile that was fired from Hades.”

“Should we get to the escape pods then?”

“Escape pods?” Lorza laughed derisively. “What do you think this is, a pleasure liner? We have no escape pods, this ship is twice your age.”

“Well, what do we do if the engineer can't get the engines back online?”

“Then we buckle in and hope we land on something soft.”

There was no escape then, he could incapacitate the crew and then steal a space suit, it was doubtful that anyone would be able to identify any of the bodies after the crash and it would be assumed that he was dead. But there we no ships out here to find and rescue him, and if they were already caught in the moon's gravity then it would be pointless to try to spacewalk. His escape was a bust, and surviving the crash that was coming would be next to impossible. There was more Russian shouting, and Boyd looked to Lorza as he waited for a translation.

“That was Sokolov, thrusters are back online, engines have taken irreparable damage to their electronics. Looks like we're going down.”

“What do we do? Where on the ship is safest?”

“We're going to be hitting the ground at near terminal velocity, nowhere is safe.”

“The beds have harnesses for when the gravity fails, right?”

“I guess so, why does that matter?”

She was trying hard to hide it, but she was afraid, her long tail was flicking back and forth reflexively as she tried to keep her cool. He should try to reassure her, she might not survive but he owed her that much at least.

“Lie on a bed, with one mattress on top of you and one beneath, then secure the safety harness to keep it in place. It won't do much but it's better than nothing.”

“You sound like you've done this before,” she replied, her tone accusatory.

“Just trust me, it's safer than being in the cockpit, even if it only increases your chances by a few percent. One more thing, do you have any fire suppressant foam canisters or bombs for shipboard fires?”

“Probably.”

“Good, when we're about to hit, activate the suppressant, it will fill the room with expanding foam that might help dampen the impact.”

“Hold on, how are you so calm about this?” Lorza exclaimed, perhaps a little louder than she might have intended. “We're about to crash, we could die, and you're here like...like...some kind of robot!”

“There are procedures that we can follow to minimize danger, at least marginally, death is statistically likely but not certain. The thickness of the atmosphere will be a factor, whether we land on a solid or a liquid surface, the aerodynamics of the ship and how much air resistance it generates will come into play. The force of the thrusters will probably be the deciding factor in this case, if your engineer was able to get them working properly then they may slow our descent enough to raise our chances of survival by a large margin, that is if the g-forces don't cause the pilot to lose consciousness before we hit the ground. By my estimations our chances of survival are one in five, favorable by most standards.”

“You're not a miner, are you? If you get me killed, I'm going to haunt you, mudak.”

She covered her face with her furry hands and growled in exasperation, it could have been an expression of frustration or maybe fear, it was hard to tell with these aliens. Being shot down was almost expected for UNN personnel, there were drills and training that everyone from pilots down to marines went through in order to minimize risk, and most importantly so that they could remain calm and collected in a time of crisis. It didn't do to think about death too much, if you died you died, there was no way around that. The majority of crashes were not survivable and the death would be painless, cratering at orbital speeds or burning up in a fireball, but Boyd welcomed pain. Pain meant life, suffering was for the living and he would take it gladly over the final peace of death.

“Just do as I say, it's your best chance to live through this.”

She snarled in disgust and vanished, off to find suppressant no doubt. She returned a short while later with some small, round canisters the size of tennis balls, throwing one to him. He plucked it out of the air, it had warning markings down the side, an old model but a fire suppressant grenade. They were primed and then thrown, the idea being to fill a room with fire retardant foam that would choke out the flames as quickly as possible, but if the foam was packed tightly enough it would also absorb shocks. Probably not enough to save their lives, but it was worth a shot.

“We don't have long, do whatever you're gonna do,' Lorza said. She made her way off to the cockpit, perhaps intending to inform the rest of the crew of his method. The pilot and captain would need to stay on the bridge, if they had thruster control then they'd need to be manning the helm right up until the vessel impacted, they would almost certainly die. Maybe others could be saved, but that wasn't his concern, the information he carried was of the utmost importance.

He floated his way through the ship, looking for a cabin, and found one. There was no name on the door, but it didn't matter. He entered and with some difficulty in the zero gravity, pulled the mattress off the metal frame and out into the corridor. He took it into an adjacent cabin, releasing it to let it float in the air, and lay down on the bed beneath it. He reached up to grab the mattress, realizing that is was slowly falling, micro-gravity meant that they were far inside the moon's gravity well and that the ship was falling belly-down. He secured the safety harness over the mattress that was on top of him, sandwiching himself between the cushions, then took the suppressant grenade in his hand. The cabin was small, this grenade should be able to fill it with foam, this was as safe as he could possibly be.

He didn't expect to survive, and if he didn't, then his mission was over regardless.

He gritted his teeth as the ship's thrusters engaged, plumes of flame firing from the ship's belly in a futile effort to slow their descent, the g-forces crushing him against the bed frame even through the mattress. The vessel rocked and shook, the sound of straining metal and wind tearing at the hull deafening him, but the pilot kept it level. They plummeted through the moon's atmosphere, Boyd could feel that the ship was in a flat spin, and he felt himself beginning to black out as the inertia started to draw the blood from his brain.

He hit the activation switch on the grenade with his thumb and dropped it, taking a deep breath as it clattered to the floor and the foam hissed and expanded to quickly fill the cabin. He felt the cold solution through his suit, crossing his arms over his chest as he prepared for the hit.

CHAPTER 3: BLOWBACK

Boyd awoke to freezing cold, taking in a sharp breath of the frigid air and feeling a burning in his chest. His ears were ringing and he couldn't remember where he was, did he have a concussion? He tried to sit up, but the pain was too great, and he collapsed backwards into the snow.

Snow?

As his vision cleared he saw a dark sky, snowflakes floating through the air, his breath freezing into clouds of sparkling crystals. His breathing was coming in wheezing gasps, something was wrong, the pain in his chest was severe. He craned his neck to look down at his body, his stomach lurching as he saw the wreck of the Zemchug a couple of hundred meters away. It was totaled, it had landed on its belly and ruptured like a ripe fruit, digging a crater and vaporizing all of the snow around it to reveal bedrock. There were pieces of it everywhere, how had he survived that wreck? Had he been thrown all the way over here?

His clothes were covered in the sticky, fire retardant foam, the disguise he had been wearing was charred and mostly burned away but his suit beneath seemed intact. He could feel all of his limbs, he could move his feet, that was a good sign. He tasted blood in his mouth, but besides the undiagnosed chest pain he seemed to be in one piece, a downright miracle.

He tried to get up again and succeeding in rising to a sitting position, one hand clutching his ribs as he looked around him. The wrecked ship was the only landmark he could see, the dark pillar of smoke it spewed rising high into the air, nothing around him but flat ice fields and snowdrifts as far as he could see. It was an ice moon then, the air seemed thin, it would be a good idea to try and find a respirator in the wreckage.

He stumbled to his feet, and almost collapsed, something was seriously wrong with him.

He unzipped his suit, despite the chilling cold, and examined his chest. A massive, ugly bruise with patches of red extended across his ribcage, he was becoming lightheaded. It wasn't just the thin atmosphere, he must have taken a hit to the torso that had made one of his lungs collapse. He fumbled in his pocket for his first aid kit, a device about the size of a tablet computer, and threw it to the ground. He opened it up, searching for what he needed, and retrieved a small capsule shaped like the handle of a screwdriver from one of the many recesses that each contained a specialized medical implement. His suit doubled as a field kit, as compact and as advanced as the UNN's research division could build it. He had a next-generation aid kit with a built-in medical assistant program that would be able to analyze his status through sensors embedded in the suit, and then suggest the best course of action. There was an energy cost to everything he did though, the Achilles heel of the equipment. If he made use of too many functions in too short a period of time, then he would drain the power cells that ran down the suits spine and then he wouldn't have access to any of them.

He didn't need the assistant for this, he would conserve the battery power, he had enough medical training to know what course of action needed to be taken here.

He withdrew his ceramic knife from his boot, and held it over his chest for a moment with a shaking hand, then plunged it into his flesh. He suppressed his cry of pain, pulling out the knife that was now red with his blood, and inhaled as the air drained from his chest cavity and allowed his lung to inflate. He took a couple of breaths, then pressed the canister against the wound, hitting a button on the top and letting it fill the hole with expanding medical gel. It would do for now, he had to keep moving.

He zipped up his suit and pocketed his kit, stumbling towards the wreckage, there were pieces of the ship all over the place but the main body seemed to be mostly intact. If any equipment had survived then that was where it would be.

The snow was fairly deep, and his suit was too thin to protect him against the cold, he was beginning to shiver which wasn't a good sign. He raised his left wrist, activating a flexible touch-panel that was built into the sleeve, and it flickered to life. Good, the suit could draw energy from kinetic movement and convert it into electricity in order to charge the batteries, it seemed to have recharged enough to be usable. With shaking fingers he navigated the menus, finding the heating controls and activating them. He felt warmth across his body as the circuitry that spanned the suit overcharged, driving off the cold. The readout showed minus twenty degrees centigrade, without the suit he would have quickly died of exposure.

He clambered inside the wreckage, ignoring the sting that lingered in his chest, climbing over exposed structural beams that protruded from the ship like bones from a dead animal. He ducked under cables dangling from the ceiling and broken pipes spewing coolant. It was dingy, hard to see, his original respirator had a torch attachment but the syndicate had taken it. He needed another one if he was to survive, the atmosphere wasn't deadly or he would never have woken up, but it was unlikely to be benign.

There should be respirators on racks in the cargo bay, or anywhere near an airlock, that would be the logical place to store them. They could be in equipment lockers too, and barring that, he would have to find one of the bodies of a crew member.

He had not been familiar with the layout of the vessel when it had been intact, and now that it was beached and ruined he was even more lost. The corridor that ran down the spine of the ship was broken and twisted, the metal becoming as pliable as putty when such massive and catastrophic forces were invoked. He found what he though to be an equipment locker, its door was ajar, this section of the wall almost at a ninety degree angle to the floor.

He climbed up, careful not to cut his hands on the jagged metal, and rummaged inside. There were personal effects here, photos of family members taped to the inside of the door that had somehow survived the heat and impact, a pair of shoes and some holographic media chips. These had belonged to someone, someone who was now certainly dead, but he didn't have the time nor the desire to let himself start thinking in those terms. The mission above all.

He found what he was looking for, a rebreather than looked intact, and he reached behind his head to strap it over his mouth and nose. It had an internal battery but he plugged a cable from his suit into the charging port, it was worth the energy expenditure, he needed to breathe after all. He activated the device and breathed in a fresh lungful of oxygenated air, feeling his lightheadedness abate almost immediately, his thoughts becoming sharper and more focused. He should search the wreck for more supplies before he set out, he couldn't stay here and hope for rescue, as syndicate ships would certainly be the first to the scene. He would need to find a way to triangulate his position and find the nearest outpost or base, there must be one, this moon seemed ideal for oxygen mining.

He heard a noise behind him, like scratching, and ducked to draw his ceramic knife from his boot as he spun to face the direction of the sound. It was coming from a cabin door, jammed half open by the impact, hardened flame retardant foam crumbling as black claws dug through them. He holstered his weapon and watched as Lorza tunneled her way under the door, her immaculate white fur now matted with solidified foam, and stained with dark blood. He didn't offer her any help, she was too large and heavy for him to pull her free, and so he watched in silence as she succeeded in dragging her bulk out of the room and fell to her knees on the deck. One of her arms was hanging limp, the fur below the elbow discolored crimson. She seemed no worse for wear besides that injury, Borealans were incredibly tough. She rose unsteadily to her feet, leaning against the wall, and blinked her blue eyes drunkenly.

“What...we're alive? Where are we?”

“Looks like we both survived the impact but the ship is totaled. We need to secure what supplies we can and head out before someone comes looking.”

“Wait, wait,” she said, holding her head in her good hand, the other dangling unnaturally at her side. “We need to stay here, right? That's what they say you're supposed to do, wait for rescue.”

“The only ships that are going to come for us have much less charitable motivations, now find a pack and fill it up with as much useful gear as you can carry, find some rations too.”

“This is all your fault,” she snarled, flexing her claws and shooting him a hateful look. “What have you gotten us involved in? I have half a mind to break your damned legs and turn you over to whoever it is you pissed off back on Hades.”

“I would advise against that, they'll kill anyone they find alive, no witnesses. If we're lucky they won't be able to identify all of the bodies and they'll assume that I was killed, so they're not likely to send a team out to find us.”

She spat an insult in Russian that he didn't understand, then started to examine her broken arm.

“Damn it, at least the pain is keeping me alert, seems your crazy plan worked after all. We need to search the wreck for other survivors, I'm not going anywhere until everyone is accounted for.”

“Time is of the essence,” Boyd protested, “we need to-”

“You don't get to talk, shut up,” she snarled. Her sharp teeth were bared and her ears were flat against her head. “Find the bodies, there will be five of them. If you leave before it's done I'll tell whoever comes after you where you went. Try to kill me, I dare you even injured you can't take a Borealan.”

He wasn't so sure of that, he had a lot of tricks up his sleeve that she wouldn't be anticipating, but he thought it better to do as she requested. There should still be time before the syndicate were able locate their crash site and get a ship down here. She might yet be an asset to him, assuming she didn't die from her injuries.

They set off in different directions, poring through the wreckage for any signs of life. The cockpit had crumpled when they had hit, the pilot and the captain were now little more then a red smear between the layers of crushed metal. One of the personnel had been thrown from the craft as Boyd had, but had landed a lot harder, their blackened body limp and twisted unnaturally.

Boyd was digging through what was left of the mess hall when he heard a faint voice, human, weak and almost inaudible. It crossed his mind to ignore it, severe injuries could not be treated with the tools at hand, and the Polar might slow them down trying to care for or carry what was now surely dead weight. Lorza stormed into the room though, her ears swiveling erratically as she tried to track the sound.

“Do you hear that? Someone is alive! I think it's Alexei!” She called his name and they heard him reply, Lorza hurrying to the source of the voice. She tapped against the wall but couldn't find any compartments or breaks, deducing that he must be on the other side, and dashed into the next room over. Boyd followed, peering through the door to see Lorza pulling the man from a crash couch, the harness having miraculously kept him intact despite the room around him having essentially disintegrated. He looked bad, he was unresponsive, delirious. She dragged him into the hall and then out into the snow, lying him down and cradling his head in her giant hand. She seemed upset, and so Boyd kept his distance, she would certainly see him as responsible for this.

She whispered to him in Russian, the man slowly coming to, reaching up a hand to grip her white fur in his fist. He seemed conscious, though his behavior implied a severe concussion.

“He'll freeze,” she pleaded, “he needs a respirator and some warm clothes.”

Boyd held his tongue, the man likely had a bleed in his brain or a skull fracture and wouldn't survive much longer, but he was eager to avoid conflict with Lorza for the time being. He set off into the wreck again to search for the items she had requested, and returned shortly after with a winter coat and another intact respirator. She wrapped the coat around him, the gesture pointless so many degrees below zero, and strapped the rebreather over his face.

“You know the ship better than me,” Boyd said, “go find as much food as you can and anything you think might be useful. Food, sleeping bags, clothes, weapons, tools, anything you can fit in a couple of backpacks. I'll give Alexei a look over, I know first aid.”

She nodded, clearly panicked but happy to have something to occupy herself with, and left the downed geologist in the company of Boyd as she vanished into the ruined hull. He kneeled beside the man and looked him over, he was covered in abrasions and some rather deep wounds, but nothing that looked immediately life-threatening. The head injury was worrying however, there was a blanket of dried blood in his scalp that had made its way down one side of his face, the man's eyes were unfocused and he seemed disoriented.

“Alexei, can you hear me? Don't fall asleep, try to stay awake, can you speak?”

He coughed through the respirator, unresponsive, looking past Boyd as if he couldn't see him. Not a good sign, but Boyd couldn't use his first aid kit on the Russian, he needed to be wearing a suit with embedded sensors in order to run a diagnostic and work out what exactly was wrong with him. Boyd had nothing on hand that could treat a severe head injury, that would require surgery which he couldn't provide.

Might be worth giving the guy a lethal dose of painkillers to ease him along, but Lorza would certainly object. Then again an adrenaline shot might get the guy back on his feet, he would be a dead man walking, but at least they would be able to get clear of the wreck. He took out his kit and retrieved a syringe full of amber liquid, then jabbed it directly into the man's heart and hit the trigger. It flooded his system and his eyes suddenly focused, he sat up and panted as Boyd withdrew the injector and discarded it in the snow.

“Suka bliad!” He was alert now, his eyes darting about in alarm.

“Hey, try not to move too much, you have a head injury.”

Alexei looked at him, confused, and he remembered that Lorza had said that he didn't speak English. Boyd gestured to his head, and pressed him down into the snow, advising him to keep still. The man was shooting daggers at him, clearly he recognized Boyd and like the Polar, blamed him for their predicament.

Lorza came running back, throwing two backpacks on the ground beside them and crouching to talk to Alexei.

“I gave him an adrenaline shot, it's enough to get him walking, but I have to warn you that his outlook isn't good. I don't have the necessary skills or tools to treat a head injury.

“He'll die then?” Lorza asked, her voice cracking a little.

“Likely, but if we get clear of the wreck and find shelter I can make him more comfortable, see if I can do anything more to help him.”

“Yes, yes, I have brought everything I could find that might be of use. Can we move him?”

“We have no choice, can you help him up with your busted arm?”

“I'll be fine, just carry one of the packs.”

They picked up the hefty bags, Lorza had packed his a little too heavy to be worn comfortably by a human, but it wasn't of concern right now. She lifted Alexei under the arm and pulled him to his feet, the man leaning against her unsteadily as they started to walk.

“Where are we going?”

“I don't know yet,” Boyd snapped, “I have a GPS in my suit but I'll need to calibrate it. Hades has satellites, maybe I can pick up a signal from here, I don't know yet. Let's just get clear of the wreckage and then I'll see what I can do.”

They marched a few hundred feet away from the still smoldering vessel, in the direction of the nearest snowdrifts, the white powder taking on the shape of sand dunes as the wind shaped them. Alexei was having trouble keeping up, he seemed to be becoming dazed again, Lorza practically dragging him through the deep snow.

“Hang on,” Boyd warned, holding out a hand to stop her. She followed his gaze to the ground, seeing semi-transparent blue ice through a patch in the snow. They were standing on some kind of ocean or lake, dark water visible deep beneath the crust. Could this moon have a subsurface ocean like Europa or Enceladus?

“Looks thick, we should be fine. Just keep an ear out for cracks.”

“If we're on ice, why didn't the Zemchug just punch straight through?”

“The ship hit bedrock, I could see it under the melted snow, if we had come down a few hundred meters in this direction we'd be at the bottom of an alien ocean right now. We need to keep moving.”

***

They walked for a good half hour before Alexei started to get worse, falling to his knees, muttering unintelligibly as Lorza tried to comfort him. Boyd ran out of patience.

“For God's sake he's on the way out, he's probably bleeding into his brain, let me give him a fatal dose of morphine to send him off.” She looked up at Boyd with her feline teeth bared and her brow furrowed, and Boyd felt a twinge of primal fear. “Ok have it your way, but he's just going to die slower. What's he saying anyway?”

“He's rambling,” she said, her good hand resting on his back. “He says he's too cold, he wants to go home. Now he's talking about seeing colorful lights.”

“Just let me do it, Lorza, he's suffering.”

“Wait,” she said, distracted. “I...see them too.”

“Did you hit your head as well?”

“No, below the ice...”

Boyd walked over to where the pair were crouched, blue ice visible beneath the snow, and he squinted as his eyes tried to focus on the darkness beneath. There was something there, beautiful, mesmerizing. It looked like a pinwheel covered in Christmas decorations, colored lights in a rainbow of tones spinning in the darkness in intricate patterns that drew his gaze.

“What..is it?” Lorza asked, transfixed.

It accelerated towards them suddenly, rising up from the gloom like a torpedo, giving them just enough time to throw themselves clear as the great dark mass broke through the ice sheet. There was a loud cracking as it shattered the ice, sending thick, heavy chunks the size of boulders flying through the air to land heavily around them. They were showered in ice water and snow, the mass of black tentacles writhing on the frozen surface like a ball of maddened snakes.

It took form the more he stared at it in disbelief, a spherical body at the center of the mass, two dozen powerful appendages like thick, meaty ropes that flailed and whipped through the thin air. They were covered in pulsating, bioluminescent pustules, each the size of a human fist as they glowed with colorful light. The grotesque thing had a face, and it turned it towards them as it got its bearings, a hundred tiny eyes clustered about its round mouth. It opened the orifice, it's black, oily flesh parting to reveal a ring of serrated teeth.

Boyd was frozen, he didn't know what to do, watching the thing shoot out its tentacles like flexible arms to wrap them around Alexei's leg. It caught him, starting to drag him towards its jagged maw, its tentacles stretching as they strained against Lorza's grip. She held onto Alexei, the geologist wailing in fear and confusion as it tore at his leg, the giant Polar trying to grab him reflexively with her injured arm and hissing in pain as she hurt herself.

It tore the man from her hand as if her strength meant nothing to it, pulled him across the snow and into its waiting mouth. Boyd was up and running as he heard the man's screams silenced, teeth crushing bone as Lorza cried out in despair and anger.

“Run!” Boyd commanded at the top of his voice, and that seemed to jolt her out of her fugue. He looked over his shoulder to see her rising to her feet to follow him, the alien skittering across the ice like some kind of monstrous octopus from the depths of hell. It gave chase, a seething mass of squirming horror, its body undulating like it was made of jello. If only he had a gun, it looked as if it would pop like a balloon full of tar if he shot it, but all he had on hand was his ceramic knife.

The monster was unwieldy on the surface, struggling to keep pace with them, and after a brief chase it gave in and came to a stop. Boyd slowed and turned to watch it as it hooked the hole in the ice with its tentacles and slithered back beneath, disappearing into the water with a splash.

Lorza came to a stop beside him, panting, clutching at her broken arm. She let out a string of Russian curse words, peering back at the hole in the ice with a horrified expression. Even Boyd was disturbed, his heart racing and adrenaline pumping through his veins, no training could have prepared him for that. It had eaten Alexei like a damned candy bar and even the massive Polar had been powerless to stop it. For the first time in a while, Boyd felt palpable fear.

“Nothing we can do now, keep moving, it might surface again.”

“What the fuck was that, why did...oh fuck!”

She was beginning to panic, in shock perhaps, hyperventilating. Boyd reached up at gave her good arm a whack with the back of his hand, drawing her attention.

“Come on, we need to move.”

***

They marched for hours, motivated by their fear, the idea of the thing creeping along under the ice and tracking them present in both their minds. Finally they reached deeper snow, enough to obscure the ice beneath their feet, and they felt at least a little safer.

Boyd thought that it would be a good time to catch a breather and take inventory of what they had recovered from the wreck, as well as try to figure out where they were and where they were going. He raised his fist, a gesture to stop, and Lorza sat heavily on her ample butt to catch her breath.

“The two most important things right now are to figure out which direction we need to go in, and what supplies we have on hand. I'm going to use my ‘oh-bis’ to try to contact a nearby satellite, see if I can't get some data on this moon. I need you to empty those bags and make a list of what food and resources we have available. Water won't be a problem, there's plenty of snow, but we need to ration our food.”

“How do you know there's anywhere 'to' go?” Lorza asked, surly and exhausted as she sat in a snow drift. “And what’s an ‘oh-bis’?”

“Onboard information system,” he replied, tapping at the monitor on his wrist. “This moon is rich in oxygen. There might not be enough in the air to keep a human comfortable but there's plenty of it packed into the snow and ice. There must be a lot in the subsurface ocean too. There will be an oxygen mining outpost here, I'm certain of it, if not several. It would be insane to have an inhabited planet so close and then not take advantage of the resources here.”

“And they'll have a way off the moon?”

“Yes, certainly, I just need to piggyback on a satellite and figure out where we are in relation.”

He crouched and turned on his wrist-mounted computer, after all that walking his suit was fully charged and he could spare the energy. He tapped on the touch screen, praying that the moon was close enough to be in range of Hades. There was no way to send a message to the UNN with short range satellites, but if he could pull a map or a GPS signal then he could at least figure out which direction they should start walking in.

He found a signal, a fraction of a bar, only a few kilobytes per second but it was enough. His oh-bis broke the encryption on the satellite effortlessly, it was civilian, probably corporate. He waited for a few excruciating minutes as it pulled the relevant files in fragments, praying that he could get something usable before the satellite orbited out of range. After what felt like an eternity he was looking at a map on his wrist display. Well, not a map, the moon seemed to be completely unexplored. What he had was the location of the nearest oxygen farm, as he had predicted, and a clear direction that they needed to head in to reach it. He calibrated his compass, then turned around to look at Lorza. She had emptied the bags and was sorting what she had recovered into piles.

“What do you have?”

“Six MREs, my sleeping bag, two fire suppressant grenades, some bottled water, zip ties, duct tape, toothpaste, that's about it.”

“What!?” Boyd exclaimed. “Are you stupid? Why the hell did you pick up toothpaste and duct tape instead of more food? No tools? No weapons?”

“I grabbed whatever I could find,” Lorza protested, offended. “You didn't give me much time to search, and thanks to you half of the ship was burned to ash. I was lucky to find even this!”

“You didn't get me a sleeping bag?”

“This one is mine, I brought it onboard with me. Besides, you don't seem to be having any heating issues with that suit of yours, mister 'miner'.”

Boyd massaged his temples with his fingers, trying to keep his cool, this damned alien was getting on his last nerve. He was usually so calm and collected, but recent events had pushed him to the limits of his endurance.

“Ok, whatever, it is what it is. I retrieved the data I needed, and I have a direction, so let's get walking.”

“How far is it?”

“About four hundred miles.”

“Four hundred!?”

“We can make it, fifty or sixty miles a day is doable, besides you look like you could use the exercise.”

She scowled at him, her brow furrowing like some kind of angry lion.

“That's not the point, there are only six MREs here, we don't have enough supplies to make it that far!”

“We can ration them, we can make that distance in a little over a week if we keep up the haspace. Half an MRE per day each for six days, that's probably about fifteen hundred calories, sure we'd lose some weight but we aren't going to starve to death.”

Lorza gestured to her own paunchy body with her clawed hands, her mouth agape.

“Are you seeing this, human? I'm a Borealan, I need ten times that amount of food in a day.”

“By the look of you, you have enough fat reserves to last you a month, you're the fattest Borealan I've ever seen.”

“I'm a 'Polar',” she insisted, “we're supposed to be fat!”

“If you say so, now pack up that junk and let's get going. The sooner we arrive at the oxygen farm the sooner we can be off this rock.”

She grumbled to herself in Russian and loaded the supplies back into the packs, throwing one of them towards Boyd a little too hard, knocking him off his feet as he tried to catch it. He landed in the snow, and Lorza laughed at him as he rose to his feet and brushed the powdery snow off his suit.

“Come on then, 'Jones',” she said as sarcastically as she could muster. “Let's get moving.”

CHAPTER 4: SAFEHOUSE

The moon was rotating, the system's sun dropping below the horizon, and along with it the temperature. They had been walking all day, Boyd's feet were blistered and sore, and oddly the Polar seemed to be making better progress than he was. She was evolved for this kind of environment, covered in insulating fat and fur that allowed her to tolerate the freezing cold without an environment suit. His power was getting low however, the heating elements in his suit had to consume more and more electricity in order to keep up with the dropping temperature and he wasn't producing enough kinetic energy to replenish it as quickly as it was being expended. He was in danger, but he didn't want to let Lorza know that.

“We need to camp for the night,” he said, “find some shelter and get a few hours of sleep. We won't get far if we exhaust ourselves.”

“It's getting colder,” she said, “even I can feel it. We should find a cave or build a shelter out of snow to trap as much heat as we can.”

“Like an igloo?”

“I don't know what that is, 'igloo', but an ice cave would work. Judging by the terrain there should be caves and maybe even rock formations beneath the snow.”

“How can you tell?”

She gave him a sideways glance as he walked beside her, his feet sinking deeper into the snow than her wide paws despite their difference in weight, spreading her mass like a camel walking on sand.

“It's my job, remember? I'm a cartographer. I'm also a Polar, and we learn survival young. The skills are passed down from generation to generation so that each member of our society can be self-sufficient if need be. We can all hunt, build shelters, whatever we need to do to survive in the tundra. You've never met a Polar before?”

“I've met Borealans before, I know of Polars in passing.”

“You've met Equatorials, we Polars are very different.”

“Well, you can tell me your life story when we find shelter, let's split up and search the area. Don't get outside of shouting distance.”

She sneered and headed off into the snow drifts, he seemed to have offended her but Boyd had no interest in hearing about the particulars of her subculture or whatever it was, he didn't feel any desire to know her any better than he already did.

They searched for a while before Boyd finally found a cave, a narrow hole in the snow that was lined with blue ice, the tunnel extending down into gloom. He felt a pang of fear, imagining another octopus monster shooting out to ensnare him in its tentacles, but it didn't appear to reach underwater. He called Lorza over, and after a moment she appeared over a snow drift and strode down to crouch beside him.

“It's small,” she complained, “I'm not sure I can fit.”

“Well, try, because this is the best we're getting. I'm a little wary of native animals after...y'know...so let's be cautious.”

Boyd turned sideways and slipped into the mouth of the cave, more of a crack in the ice than a round opening, then slid down into a larger chamber. He couldn't see much, but the cave was shallow and there were no branching tunnels, so he called for Lorza to join him. He was cast into total darkness as she plugged the crack with her bulk, completely filling the hole, and Boy'd could hear her struggling as her claws raked against the ice.

“God damn,” he laughed, “you must need ten thousand calories a day just to maintain an ass that fat.” She snarled in response, but she was stuck fast and couldn't do anything about his taunting. Somehow making fun of her made him feel better, helped him let off steam, and so he continued. “I'm surprised you didn't eat all of the ration packs already, if we had some butter I could grease you up, but you'd probably just eat that too.”

She growled and heaved, finally freeing herself, light flooding in behind her as she slid down into the cave on her face. He laughed at her as she rose to her feet, crouching a little under the low ceiling, shaking herself to throw the ice and snow from her fur. She sprayed him with it, the slush getting his mouth and eyes and making him splutter. Now it was her turn to laugh as he doubled over to spit out the powder, pulling a solitary white hair from his mouth and wiping it on his suit in disgust.

“Can you not do that outside?”

She walked past him, planting her furry palm on his face and pushing him over as she went, dropping her backpack as Boyd sat on the ice and fumed. She withdrew a rolled up mass of black fabric, her sleeping bag, and laid it out on the floor. It was massive, as big as she was, and heavily padded with insulation. He watched as she slipped inside it and turned away from him to face the wall. After a few moments of silence he scooted over to her pack that was resting on the ground beside her, and unzipped it to rummage inside. He was hungry and he wanted his share of their MREs.

“Hey, where are the damned MREs? Did you put them in my pack or yours?”

“The MREs?” She asked, rolling over to face him, only her furry head visible inside the sleeping bag.

“Yeah the food,” he reiterated, his stomach growling. “You didn't really eat them, did you?”

“Yes, I told you that I needed more calories.”

“Six!? You ate six whole MREs that were supposed to last us both a week, in one day?” He stood and kicked her sleeping bag, leaping backwards as she swiped at his legs with her clawed hand, reaching out of her bag to grab at him. “You glutton, what the hell are we supposed to do now? What are we going to fucking eat? That was like eighteen thousand calories, nine thousand of those were mine!”

She seemed nonplussed, as if he should have known that she would eat them, and that his rage was unjustified. Boyd wouldn't die, he had UNNI issue tablets in his aid kit that would provide him with all of the nutrients necessary to keep his body functioning, at least for a time. Lorza hadn't known that when she had eaten the rations, and he had wanted to save the tablets for when they ran out of food. She could forget about sharing them now, he wasn't even going to tell her that he had them.

He shuffled over to the other side of the cave and leaned against the wall, closing his eyes and trying to get some sleep.

***

He awoke to an alarm, his oh-bis monitor flashing orange warning symbols that lit up the walls and ceiling of the ice cave, his suit had run out of power and he could feel the cold creeping in. He was already shivering, and he wrapped his arms around himself in a futile effort to trap heat, the clothing having little more insulation than a scuba suit without its charge. It was below freezing, if he didn't find a source of heat soon he would quickly go into hypothermia, and there was only one in range.

He crawled over to Lorza's sleeping bag on his hands and knees, and nudged her awake.

“Lorza, I need your sleeping bag, my suit ran out of power and I'm freezing.” His teeth were chattering as he spoke, he loathed to ask her for help but without it he wouldn't survive the night. “Come on, you're furry, let me have the bag.”

She rolled over to look at him, her blue eyes reflecting the light from his wrist, not asleep after all apparently. She was shivering too, even through her layers of insulation and the cocoon of the sleeping bag.

“You can't have it, it's too cold, even for me.”

“I'll die,” he snarled, “get out of that bag before I-”

Her hand shot out of the sleeping bag, taking his arm in an iron grip, he tried to pull away but he was too damned cold. He felt sluggish, his strength sapped, the cold draining his energy. She was strong, her fingers were digging into his arm, though she was careful to avoid cutting him with her hooked claws.

“We'll never survive the night on our own, our only chance is to combine our body heat.”

Boyd's eyes widened and he used the last of his strength in a desperate bid to break free of her, but it was futile.

“I am 'not' getting in that fucking sleeping bag with you...you...you fucking overgrown housecat! I'd rather freeze to death.” She began to drag him closer, many times stronger than Boyd, who was unable to resist as she unzipped the bag with her free hand and drew him inexorably closer. “No! You fat fuck! Let go of me!” She reached out and wrapped her furry hand around his respirator, muffling his protests and manhandling him into the sleeping bag. She pushed him in upside-down, holding his ankles so that he couldn't kick her in the face.

“Keep still mudak,” she growled, “this is the only option we have!” She was right of course, he was already warming, squirming ardently as her thighs pressed against his cheeks. She was wearing her overalls, but they had been torn during the crash and some of her white fur protruded to tickle his face. She smelled odd, musky like an animal, it might not have been unpleasant were he not so enraged. “Stop trying to kick me or I'll crush your head between my thighs like a melon,” she snarled.

That got his attention, and he slowed his struggling, knowing that she was right but not wanting to admit defeat.

“You smell terrible,” he complained, “when was the last time you bathed?”

“There...aren't any showers big enough for me on the ship, ok? Now keep quiet and go to sleep.”

“Yeah, being unconscious is probably the best option for me right now.” She pressed her massive thighs around his head, probably teasing, but he didn't want to test her resolve. He was warming now, her body was giving off an enormous amount of heat, and for the first time since they had crashed on the moon he felt that the cold was being driven away rather than simply being kept temporarily at bay.

“You can turn rightside up if you're going to behave,” Lorza grumbled. Boyd shifted inside the bag, spacious by human standards, and turned himself around so that his feet were towards the bottom. He stuck his head out of the opening at the top of the sleeping bag, his hair brushing against Lorza's furry cheek. The chill air pricked his face, and so he retreated a little, rolling away from his companion so that his back was to her.

“Stop wriggling,” she complained. “Get settled, you're keeping me awake.”

“It's not my fault that you're fat enough to fill the entire sleeping bag, it looked large enough for ten people until you got inside it.”

He could feel her ample chest pressing against his back, contained within her form-fitting suit but no less distracting, they were larger than his damned head. Whenever he shifted positions, he sank into the pliant fat, her heavy breathing making the enormous globes rise and fall softly.

“C-Can you turn over,” he stammered, “your chest is touching me.”

He felt her warm breath ruffle his hair as she laughed at him.

“Is that a problem?”

“Yes! Just get your boobs off me, at least keep your fat on your side of the sleeping bag.”

“This is 'my' sleeping bag, you're a guest in my bag, so show some respect mudak.”

“What does that mean, 'mudak'? You keep calling me that. Is it some Borealan insult?”

“No,” she said, her hot breath on his scalp making him squirm with discomfort. “It's Russian, it means 'child'.”

“I'm an adult,” he protested, and she laughed at him again.

“No you're not, you're a tiny little child, a little bald juvenile.”

“I'm also an appropriate weight for my height, how about that?”

She sighed and rolled over, almost forcing him out of the bag with her sheer mass, the two of them lying back to back. Her long, fluffy tail draped over his legs like a snake, and he kicked it away with his foot.

“Damn it, stay on your own side!”

She didn't reply, and after a while her breathing made it sound as if she had fallen asleep. It had been a good call, between the two of them the sleeping bag was filled with warmth, thawing both his frigid body and his cold mood. He could move his fingers again, and the heat was making him sleepy. He could feel her ass on his legs, it was like resting on a beanbag full of fat, but he ignored the distraction and tried to get some rest. Her tail flicked occasionally, like a dog that was dreaming, but before long he had drifted off into a deep sleep.

***

Boyd was awoken by movement, and he opened his eyes, recoiling as Lorza practically sat on his head in her attempt to escape the sleeping bag. She crouched over him, her great thighs on either side of his body, then crawled upwards and out. The bag was flooded with freezing air, and Boyd hastily reactivated the heating element in his suit, which had recharged a little overnight. She lifted the bag effortlessly, with Boyd still inside it, and shook it to disgorge him unceremoniously onto the cave floor.

“God damn it,” he complained, rising to his feet and brushing himself off. “How about a fucking wake up call next time, you animal?”

“Like I said, my sleeping bag,” she smirked. She rolled it up and knelt to return it to her backpack, then slung it over her shoulder. “You ready to set off?”

“As I'll ever be,” he grumbled, retrieving his own pack from the far wall.

“Is your fancy suit working now? You don't need me to hold you in my big strong arms to keep you warm like I did last night, mudak?”

“I remember you forcing me to join you against my will, but yes, it's working.”

“Those things can't be cheap, I'm surprised you were able to afford something like that on a miner's salary, mister Jones.”

“Let's just go.”

They walked up the incline to the mouth of the cave, Boyd slipping a little on the ice, Lorza used the claws on her feet for leverage and made it to the crack before he did.

“This should be good,” Boyd cackled as she hooked her fingers around the edges of the crack, preparing to pull herself through. She gave him a sour look over her shoulder, then heaved herself forward. The cave went dark again as she plugged the hole with her bulk, Boyd raising the brightness on his oh-bis display to watch her struggle. She was stuck fast again, and he laughed as her clawed feet scrabbled against the floor, her long tail waving in the air.

“Come on, you can do it! You somehow managed to get that ass in here, you can get it back out again!” She struggled for a couple more minutes, Boyd's laughter faltering as he realized that she really was stuck, and him with her. If she was blocking the cave entrance then he wouldn't be able to get out, he might even run out of air for his mask to filter in the enclosed space. He heard her muffled voice calling from the other side of the entrance.

“Push me! I'm stuck!”

He eyed her huge butt, straining against the fabric of her overalls, two massive globes of flesh that might each weigh as much as he did. He sighed, and put his shoulder forward, preparing to scale the incline and give her a good shove. The ground was slippery and his boots found no purchase on the ice, he wouldn't be able to push her exactly, but he could ram her until she broke free.

He sprinted up the icy incline that led to the mouth of the cave and slammed his shoulder into her ass. It was so springy, taut muscle beneath the layer of pliant fat that surprised him, and he had to grip her tail to save from rebounding with enough force to send him tumbling back down into the cave.

“Ouch! Don't pull my tail you asshole!”

“Don't talk to me about assholes right now,” he grumbled, releasing her tail and preparing for another shove. He sped up the incline again and gave her another hard push, and he heard the ice crack. “It's working, stay put.”

“Oh very funny, why are you always such a- ouch!”

He slammed his shoulder into her again, sinking into the meat of her ass, under different circumstances he might have marveled at its softness. Lorza was a whole lot of woman, too much in his opinion, but a woman nonetheless. He resisted the urge to cop a feel on the next push, and this time the ice around her hourglass waist cracked and shell forward into the snow. Boyd followed her, his momentum carrying him out of the cave and onto her butt, draped over her as her tail batted his face.

“Off, off!” Lorza used her tail to throw him off her rear and into a nearby snowdrift, shockingly strong, using her tail like a fifth limb. He sputtered, spitting out a mouthful of snow and rising to his feet, his suit melting the powder that clung to its circuits and details.

“How about, 'thank you for helping me Boyd',” he spat. He realized his mistake as she rose to her feet, smirking at him, her smile decidedly unfriendly.

“So is it Jones or Boyd? Having trouble keeping your story straight, miner?”

“Let's just get moving while we still have sunlight, I'm not looking forward to spending another night in a sleeping bag with you, you overgrown bathmat.”

“What's a bathmat?”

“Don't worry about it, you'd have to actually bathe to know that.”

They set off into the snow, Boyd holding his wrist display up to check his compass. They had made it about fifty miles the previous day, and they had another fifty ahead of them before they could rest again. Marching from dawn 'till dusk, it was like being in damned boot camp again, if he survived this he was going to put in a transfer request for a desk job.

“Lead on, mister Boyd,” Lorza said.

***

The sun was getting low again, cold and distant as it neared the flat horizon, Boyd almost exhausted enough to stagger as they made their way through the snow. They hadn't spoken all day, neither had anything to say to the other, and he could almost pretend that Lorza wasn't there if he focused on the ground beneath his feet.

She called for him to stop, and sat down on a snow bank, resting her hands on her knees and catching her breath.

“I need a break for a minute, let's have a rest.”

“We should keep moving,” Boyd panted, “we don't want to be caught out in the open when the sun goes down. We can rest when we've found shelter.” Her stomach growled audibly, and she closed a clawed hand over her paunchy belly. “What's wrong? Hungry? Well I guess you shouldn't have eaten all of our rations in one sitting, serves you right for being so gluttonous.” She shot him an angry look, she seemed tired, perhaps the lack of food really was getting to her but she only had herself to blame. If she had done as Boyd had said, they would have had enough food to keep them both going for a week.

“I told you, I'm a Borealan, I need far more food than a human. I can't subsist on melted snow.”

“Well you're not going to starve, that's for sure,” he said as he looked her up and down conspicuously.

“No, but I'm going to get colder and weaker as I burn through my fat reserves.”

“Well then you should have brought a jacket or something, it isn't my job to babysit you. How do you even get into those overalls? You're practically...spilling out of them.”

She looked up at him with a sly grin, her hunger temporarily forgotten.

“Does that bother you, Boyd?” She crossed her legs and leaned back on the snowdrift, pressing her copious chest together with her biceps. “You're always making comments about my body, it sure seems to be on your mind a lot for something that you claim to hate...”

He looked away from her, waving his hand dismissively.

“Don't delude yourself, you're basically an animal to me, now get your oversized ass off the snow and let's find a damned cave to sleep in.”

“Eager to share a sleeping bag with me again, are you?”

He scoffed, shaking his head and walking off into the snow. Lorza watched him with a smirk, then shrugged and rose to her feet to follow after him. She was bored, flirting with him for her own amusement, if he didn't give her a reaction she would eventually get tired of it and stop. That kind of behavior might work on someone less disciplined than Boyd, but he would be damned if she was going to get under his skin so easily.

***

They had searched for a good hour, but there were no caves to be found, and Boyd sat and fiddled with the settings on his monitor as a means of distraction. The charge was rapidly depleting as the temperature dropped, they couldn't sleep out in the open, they needed some kind of shelter. There was nothing in this tundra, it was an arctic desert, a wasteland. He looked up as Lorza appeared over a snowdrift and descended it to skid to a halt nearby.

“You find anything?”

“No, looks like we're going to have to make our own shelter tonight.”

“How are we going to do that?”

“Oh 'now' you're interested in hearing what I have to say?”

“Just cut the shit and tell me what I need to do.”

She crossed her furry arms and sighed.

“Fine, here's what we need to do; we find a suitable snowdrift and we dig a tunnel into it. The tunnel needs to be at an upward angle so that fresh snow doesn't fall inside and block it. Hot air rises, and we want to trap as much of it as we can. Once we get far enough inside that we're shielded from the weather, we need to carve out a chamber with a flat floor to sleep on. Doesn't need to be big, just large enough to fit the both of us. Pack the snow as tightly as you can.”

“Ok, that makes sense. I'll let you choose the location.”

“As if you'd know where to start,” she chuckled. She wandered off and started scouting the snow dunes, testing the consistency of the powder between her fluffy fingers. Eventually she came across one that she seemed to like the look of, and called him over, beginning to dig with her enormous hands. She dug out great handfuls of snow, huge scoops that Boyd could not approximate with his tiny human hands, and before long he decided it was best to just take a step back and let her do it. She seemed to be the expert after all.

She didn't complain, slowly vanishing up to her hips in the snowdrift as she tunneled deeper, leaving a huge pile of snow behind her. Eventually she disappeared completely, only her tail visible, and Boyd crouched to look up into the passage that she had dug. It was large by his standards, she was so much bigger than him and needed a lot more space. Finally she was finished, and called for him to enter. He dropped to his hands and knees and crawled up the incline, the roof and walls tightly packed with frozen snow, it looked sturdy enough.

As he climbed the tunnel opened up into a larger chamber with a domed ceiling, almost tall enough for him to stand in. Lorza was sat in the middle of the room in the process of unfolding her sleeping bag and lying it on the floor. It already felt warmer in here than outside, sheltered from the wind and their body heat already beginning to warm the space.

“It won't collapse on us or anything?” Boyd asked.

“No, it will be fine.” She flattened the sleeping bag, then slid down inside it, leaving the zipper open expectantly as Boyd watched from the corner. “Aren't you coming in?”

“It feels pretty warm in here,” he replied, “I think I'll chance it and see if I can stick it out for the night.”

Her brow furrowed.

“Do you really hate me so much that you'll put yourself at risk just to avoid sharing a bed with me? I don't know what I did to you to deserve such scorn.” She waited a moment for a reply, but he gave none. “The way I remember it, I was the one who helped you, when you were putting on your little show of being an oppressed miner back at the spaceport on Hades.”

“Just drop it, go to sleep.”

She zipped up the bag and rolled away from him, the space illuminated only by the dull glow of his oh-bis.

“We have a popular saying in Russia, 'a liar should have a good memory'. If you're going to lie, at least keep your story straight. Don't take advantage of me and my crew and then insult my intelligence by denying it.”

He ignored her, turning up the heat a little on his suit control and lying down to sleep.

***

Boyd woke up a short time later, shivering violently, his breath freezing into clouds of glittering ice crystals. His suit had run out of power again, and the warmth that was being trapped in the den was not enough to sustain him. He was getting dangerously cold, and yet again his only option was to go to Lorza for help. Damn her and her sleeping bag.

He crawled over to her bag and gave her a shove, the giant alien turning over to blink at him with her blue eyes. She was still awake, also shivering, unable to trap enough heat on her own to stay warm. She hadn’t forced him into the bag this time, was she being stubborn? Trying to teach him some kind of lesson?

“Oh, you came crawling back I see, literally...”

“Don't be a bitch, let me in.”

“Tell me your real name,” she stated, her tone adamant.

“Come on,” he muttered through chattering teeth, “let me in or I'll freeze to death. You’re freezing too, are you putting yourself in danger just to fuck with me?”

“Not until you tell me your real name, and don't lie this time or I'll know.”

“Fine,” he spat, “it's Boyd. Now let me in before I freeze.”

“There, was that so hard?” Lorza asked, unzipping the sleeping bag and opening it for him. “Come join me, mister Boyd.”

He reluctantly climbed inside, and she wrapped an arm around him to close the bag, sealing him in with her. She lingered for a moment, practically spooning with him, knowing that it would make him uncomfortable and relishing his reaction when he shoved her away with his elbow. She laughed, her warm breath blowing in his hair and sending a shiver rolling down his spine. She leaned in to whisper in his ear.

“You know, we're going to be stuck out here together for a long time, might as well learn to get along. You might find that you enjoy my company, if you'd only take the time to get to know me better.”

He ignored her, staring intently at the wall of packed snow as he warmed. He felt her breasts press against his back again, the soft globes deforming and molding around him, and he turned to glare at her. He was growing tired of her games, whether she found his negative reactions amusing or if she was genuinely trying to manipulate him, his patience was wearing thin.

***

“Just turn away and stay on your side of the bag, leave me be and we'll get along just fine.”

Her stomach grumbled loudly, which seemed to distract her from her game, her hand sliding down his back to rub her belly. She groaned, more gurgling sounds emanating from below.

“How are you 'that' hungry?” Boyd asked. “You ate your damned weight in ration packs just a day ago. Well, that would be an exaggeration, you ate 'my' weight in ration packs. 'Your' weight in ration packs would feed a damned battalion for a month.”

“I keep telling you that I have a higher calorie requirement than you, you fool. I'm burning fat, my body is running out of energy to keep me warm. You have your fancy suit, but I can only rely on my biology, when I run out of fat my fur isn't going to be enough to stave off the cold.”

“Then the sooner we get to our destination, the better.”

“You don't seem to be faring too badly,” she muttered.

“Yeah well I'm tough, I'm not going to let a little hunger get me down.”

“You'd better hope I don't get so hungry that you start to look tasty, Boyd.” She bit his ear playfully with her pointed teeth, and he batted her away, the chuckling alien rolling over to face away from him as he fumed.

Soon her breathing became regular and deep, she never seemed to have trouble getting to sleep, but just sharing a sleeping bag with her was enough to irritate Boyd and keep him awake. Whenever she stirred or shifted, her pudgy body pressed against him, he would have given his left arm for a dividing barrier that might separate the two. She was just so...distracting! Everything about her was oversized and exaggerated, from her appetite to her ridiculous breasts. He flinched away as he felt her furry tail curl around one of his legs, Lorza murmuring in her sleep.

He muttered curses under his breath and tried to ignore her, eventually joining his unwelcome companion in her slumber.

CHAPTER 5: THREAT CONDITION

Boyd was startled awake again, Lorza upending the sleeping bag and rolling him out of it onto the cold snow. He gasped, eyes wide, and scrambled to turn his heating system on. He rose to his feet, fists clenched, and glared at the alien as she rolled up the bag and returned it to her pack.

“Are you going to do that every day? Just wake me up 'before' you put the sleeping bag away!”

“But you looked so peaceful,” she whined sarcastically. “The only time you're not insulting me or throwing childish tantrums is when you're asleep.”

“Keep it up, you giant tub of lard, and I’ll show you a tantrum.”

“Great comeback, proved my point, now pick up your backpack and let's get moving again. I feel the best course of action is to walk you until you're too tired to start fights, like some kind of unruly puppy.”

She crawled down the tunnel on her hands and knees, and he slung his pack over his back, making his way down after her. What was the point of even lugging these packs around? He doubted that they would need toothpaste or duct tape any time soon.

He emerged from the hole in the snow into the sunlight, seeing Lorza stretching her arms above her head and yawning. She watched him approach, waiting until he was in range before shaking herself like a wet dog and showing him with cold slush. He wiped his face with his hand, scowling up at her.

“One of these days I'm just going to strangle you in your sleep.”

She put her hand to her mouth to stifle her laughter, an oddly dainty gesture coming from such a massive creature, and reached out to pat his head condescendingly.

“I'd like to see you try, I could hold you at arm's length, like in one of those old cartoons.”

“Whatever, come on let's get going, I can't wait to be rid of you.”

She followed behind him as he marched off into the snow, checking their bearing on his wrist display, Lorza still chuckling as she jogged a little to catch up.

“I'm sure you'll agree that we have to find ways to amuse ourselves, Boyd. Don't tell me you can't handle a little teasing? You certainly seem to lay it on thick when you joke about my weight.” She doubled over, gripping her stomach as it growled audibly. “Ugh, I can't believe there's nothing to eat on this entire moon, we've not seen a single plant or animal on the surface since we arrived.”

“You could make a hole in the ice and go fishing,” he smirked, and she scowled at him.

“Do you think that thing is still following us under the ice?”

“Maybe, frankly I'd rather not know if it was.”

Lorza gripped her stomach again as it gurgled.

“Are you not hungry?” She asked, giving Boyd a quizzical look.

“I am, but I'm dealing with it.”

He wasn't sure if she really believed him or not, but with any luck she'd know as little about human biology as he did about Borealan. He wasn't about to start sharing now, it was her own fault that she was going hungry, and he doubted that the pills would even make a dent in her hunger considering her vastly larger nutritional requirements. It should only be another four or five days until they reached the oxygen farm, she wouldn't die, so he should ignore her complaints and keep moving.

***

They trudged through the snow for a few hours, now knee-deep, flakes of fresh powder being blown on the wind to hammer the pair in a relentless blizzard. Most of them melted before they reached Boyd's suit, his circuits projecting a small aura of heat around his body, but Lorza had to shake herself periodically to shed the layer of snow that clung to her white fur. Her pelt was becoming increasingly matted as the strands froze together with melting snow and ice, she looked like a walking snow sculpture. She trailed a short distance behind him, struggling against the wind.

“We need to take shelter,” she shouted over the gale, barely audible to Boyd. “I can't keep going in this weather!” As if on cue, Boyd spotted the mouth of an ice cave in the distance, its entrance not yet buried in snow.

“We'll take a break in there,” he bellowed back to her, “wait out the blizzard!” The wind was increasing, and even he had to admit that it was getting hard to walk, it was a miracle he had even seen the cave through the swirling snow that clogged the air.

They made their way over to it, Boyd digging through the snow that was piling up at the entrance to let them through, and they scrambled inside. Droplets of water fell from Boyd's suit as the snow melted off it, freezing almost as soon as they hit the icy floor. Lorza shook herself, spraying him with slush, but she still looked bedraggled. They made their way deeper, this cave was larger and went further down than the previous one had, while the tunnel was narrow it was still big enough to allow Lorza to pass without too much difficulty as long as she turned to her side in places. Boyd lit their way with the glow from his oh-bis monitor, illuminating the curving walls, careful to avoid slipping on the floor as they walked.

After a couple of minutes they reached a chamber with a more level floor, and Boyd sat to rest, watching Lorza as she tried to scrape the ice from her matted fur with her claws where it had been exposed to the air. She still wore her overalls, though they were looking the worse for wear as the constant freezing and thawing took its toll on the fabric.

“Should have brought a comb instead of toothpaste,” he chided, and she shot him a scathing look. She started to unzip the front of her overalls, releasing a puff of white fur as the weight of her breasts pushed the garment open. Boyd turned away in surprise and embarrassment.

“What the hell do you think you're doing?”

“I have to bathe, I need to get all of this ice off my fur or it won't be able to trap my body heat properly.”

“Can you not go off down the tunnel and do that where I don't have to see it?”

“Oh I'm sorry Boyd, am I offending your delicate sensibilities? It's not like I have access to a changing room, if you don't like it maybe 'you' should go down the tunnel. Just close your eyes and stop being so childish. Humans are so prudish.”

“It's called having shame, maybe you should consider it.”

He turned his back to her, but he could still see her distorted reflection in the ice wall, like a funhouse mirror. He couldn't make out much detail, but she seemed to be licking herself like an oversized cat, surprisingly flexible as she bent double to clean her fur with her tongue.

“Are you...licking yourself? That's disgusting, no wonder you smell so bad.”

“You've not bathed at all since we crashed, human, and my nose is a hundred times more sensitive than yours. You're not exactly fresh yourself, you're secreting pheromones and hormones that you aren't even aware of. I can even smell traces of the deodorant that you put on a few days ago, citrus, bad choice. Should have gone with lavender, not that it would do you any good now.”

“At least I don't wash myself with my tongue,” he grumbled, crossing his arms over his knees and staring at the floor.

“Polars are usually very clean, back home I'd wash every day with all kinds of soaps and shampoos, my fur would be whiter than snow and it would smell great. Even you would want to run your fingers through it.” He scoffed, but she ignored him. “Conditions haven't exactly been ideal lately. It isn't my fault the Zemchug wasn't configured for people of my stature, then we crashed here...”

She sounded sore about it, self-conscious about her hygiene maybe? Whenever he commented on it she brought up her supposed cultural disposition towards cleanliness, maybe being stranded with matted fur and no shampoo was getting to her.

“Well I only have your word on that,” he said, “for all I know your whole race is as poorly groomed as you are.”

That seemed to annoy her, and she stopped licking to glare at him.

“What do you know? Your people don't even have fur, you're like little naked molerats, you look like a patch of skin that a doctor shaved to access a wound. It's gross, makes you look sickly and clinical.”

“So do you get fleas?”

“No, actually. Our blood pressure is too high and it kills them when they bite us. You're more likely to have parasites than I am, human.”

“You 'are' a parasite.”

She laughed at that, it was a bad comeback, and so he kept quiet for a while as she finished cleaning herself. Finally she pulled her overalls back on, taking a moment to adjust her massive chest as Boyd averted his eyes from the reflection. She wouldn't have cared, and he wasn't attracted to her of course, he just didn't want to give her more ammunition than she already had. She sighed and stretched, apparently pleased with the outcome.

“Ah, that's a little better, I think I got most of it. First thing I'm doing when we get back to civilization is sitting in a warm bath for a whole day. Siberia is cold, but this is ridiculous.”

“Why do you all live in Siberia, anyway?” Boyd asked.

“Oh, are you taking an interest in my personal life, Boyd?”

“Just making conversation. Gotta pass the time somehow while we wait out the blizzard.”

She sat on the ice and crossed her long legs, seeming to let her guard down a little at the prospect of a conversation that wasn't just an exchange of insults.

“Things on Borealis weren't great. There were tensions between the different territories, I guess you'd refer to them as countries, and while the environment wasn't as bad as is it here it made Siberia look tropical in comparison. The Federation let us colonize Siberia and found a republic, I guess the environment there was too harsh for humans, they seemed happy to have somebody exploiting the land and we got a new home.”

While they were a member of the UNN, the Russians tended to do things by themselves, taking on their own projects and ventures without consulting anyone else. The Federation had established several Russian-speaking colonies that flew in the face of the UNN's message of human unity, and while there were no laws specifically prohibiting that, it turned heads in the Admiralty. This might be an opportunity to collect some useful information on their relationship with the Polars, which many suspected was their thinly-veiled attempt to raise their own Borealan army outside of UNN supervision.

“So what did they ask in exchange? Surely they didn't give you the land with no strings attached?”

“Well, we're a member republic of the Federation, the Kremlin allows the establishment of independent nations with their own laws, language and customs as long as they adhere to some basic universal rules. There aren't really any restrictions imposed upon us that I'm aware of. They like to show us off in military parades and on TV, but that's just PR, we aren't born warriors like our hot-blooded Equatorial cousins. Everyone I know who works in the UNN or the RF is a medic or a scientist, I really don't know any Polar soldiers.”

Hmm, didn't sound like they were raising an army then, maybe it really was just a big PR stunt to make the Federation look charitable? Then again it may have been a genuine act of charity, but in Boyd's experience there was no such thing as a free meal.

“How about you?” Lorza asked. “Where do you call home?”

Boyd hesitated, should he tell her the truth, or concoct another convenient lie? In a way she was right, a liar should have a good memory and he felt as if his capacities were diminished in this blistering cold. Might as well tell her the truth, it couldn't hurt.

“Utah, hot and dry, quite the opposite of this Godforsaken moon.”

“Why'd you leave your home?”

That was a question he was increasingly asking himself. He realized that she was probing him for information, much in the same way that he was, she expected to take him off-guard with that question and trick him into revealing his occupation. 'I left Utah to become a spy' was not something he was going to let slip so easily, even in his current mental state.

“I left in search of adventure, looks like I found it.” A vague reply, though not necessarily untruthful, he decided to move the conversation along so as not to give her too much time to think about it. “How about you? Why did you leave Siberia?” She narrowed her eyes at him, his dodge hadn't gone unnoticed, but to acknowledge it would also be admitting to her intent, and so she let it slide. She was more socially adept than he had given her credit for, she had already gleaned his real name, he would have to tread more carefully.

“When we left Borealis on a colony ship, I had never been into orbit before, never seen my homeworld from space. You probably can't imagine what that's like, your species has been spacefaring for longer than you've been alive, but to us it was like the hand of God reached down from heaven to pluck us off the ground. Suddenly the whole galaxy opened up and my world became more than just...a wooden cabin in the snow. I wanted to see more of it.”

“I do know what that's like,” he insisted, “there was a first time for me too. I still remember the first time I saw Earth from orbit, my first superlight jump, the first time I set foot on another planet.”

“Makes everything seem so trivial and temporary, right?” He nodded his agreement. “My biggest concern the previous day had been finding enough firewood, and the next I was jumping through light years of space on a ship that had better living conditions than anything my civilization had produced.”

“Was it a liner?” Boyd asked. “One of those with a pool and catering and all that? I heard they commissioned every captain they could get their hands on to ship you to Earth.”

“Yeah,” she chuckled, “I had never seen anything like it before. More food than I could eat in one sitting, a heated pool a short walk from my cabin, and when we arrived...well. Let's just say 'Earth' is a lousy name for a planet, it's as blue as a giant eyeball floating in space. Might as well have called it 'dirt' or 'mud', we would have chosen a more fitting name.”

“And what does 'Borealis' mean?”

“That's the name your people gave my planet, you named it after our star. In our language the name roughly translates to 'the great mother' or 'the all-mother'. In our culture our mother planet is a strict parent who cruelly disciplines her children, but it makes them strong and hardy.”

“Also sociopathic,” he chided, and she frowned.

“Maybe to you, but human behavior is just as strange to us. You're socially crude and your interactions lack nuance, it's like you evolved half way towards a proper system and then stopped. You may have better technology than us, but our communities are far more complex and developed, and most importantly consistent.”

“I don't see how clawing up anyone weaker than you is a nuanced social system.”

She huffed and crossed her arms at him.

“Durâk! Those are Equatorials, I'm a Polar Borealan! Do you feign ignorance just to annoy me? We're completely different. We're cooperative, we solve our problems through communication, you can't just...beat eachother senseless in an environment where everyone depends on one another to survive. Those hairless fools have kittens by the dozen, they could lose half of them in the jungle and it wouldn't even dent their population. Besides if I were an Equatorial you'd already be dead, mudak.”

She seemed to look him up and down, was that hunger or arousal in her eyes? It made him shiver, what was she imagining right now?

“Though I'd love to lock you in a cabin with an Equatorial for a few hours, just to see what she would do to you. That's something I'd pay good money to watch. As much as I find their behavior distasteful, there's something to be said for their...ferocity.”

He didn't know what she was daydreaming about, but he snapped her out of it with a click of his fingers. She came back to reality and stared at him curiously. Then she looked to the roof, and he followed her gaze to see flashing colors dancing on the icy ceiling.

“Is your computer-wrist-thing making those lights?”

He glanced down at his monitor, but besides the dull glow it emitted there were no such patterns. He felt his stomach drop, his blood freezing as he turned his eyes to the floor. Beneath the blue, semi-transparent ice they sat upon was a spiral of rainbow colored lights, blinking and flashing in mesmerizing patterns as they spun and whirled.

“That's the ocean below us,” Lorza whispered, panic cracking her voice. They were both rigid, terrified to move lest they draw the monster's ire as it circled and danced beneath them, sweat dripping from Boyd's brow despite the cold. An unfamiliar fear overcame him, he was trained to endure the chaos of a firefight and even the dread of torture, but not this. Images of Alexei being crushed in its maw of jagged teeth flashed in his mind, that final scream replaying in his head like a broken record.

It shot upwards, slamming the ice below with enough force to knock them over, and they scrambled to their feet, racing up the tunnel towards the exit. It hit again, the ice was very thick, glacial, but Boyd could hear it cracking. The force of the blows shook the floor, the thing was incredibly powerful. He got ahead of Lorza this time, there was no way he was getting trapped behind her if she got stuck again, not with that unspeakable horror on their heels. They dodged through the uneven passage, gaining ground, Lorza slowed by her need to slip sideways through some of the narrower sections due to her bulk. He heard the beast leave the water, loosing an unearthly screech that echoed through the cave as it powered up the tunnel behind them.

Lorza panted, almost sobbing as she ran, Boyd hopping over imperfections in the icy floor as he raced ahead of her. The cave was deep and it would take them a minute to reach the surface, could it catch up with them, could it even fit down these tunnels? It had looked unwieldy when it had surfaced onto the ice during their last encounter.

He chanced a glance back over his shoulder, looking past Lorza who practically clogged the tunnel, and saw the dark mass of teeth and tentacles squeezing through the cracks behind them with its spongy body. It was like a damned octopus contorting itself into a glass bottle to reach a treat left there by its handlers.

There was another impact that nearly knocked him off his feet, and he had to grab a wall to stabilize himself. He looked behind him to see Lorza picking herself up, the monster stopped in its tracks by a crack that was too narrow to let it pass. It must have barely fit the portly Borealan, who was scrambling to her feet to continue her escape as the thing reared back and slammed its weight into the ice again. It sought to break its way through, they weren't out of danger yet.

“Keep going!” Boyd shouted. As they rose towards the mouth of the cave, its echoing screeches grew fainter, but just as Boyd started to let himself think that they might be in the clear he heard another tremendous crack as the monster broke through.

They emerged into the freezing wind, the sun low in the sky, but it had not set yet. Boyd briefly checked his oh-bis to get his bearings and then called for Lorza to follow him, jogging off into the snow. Out of breath, she trailed behind him, glancing over her shoulder to see if the beast had followed them into the open.

They were not pursued, and so they weathered the blizzard and continued on their journey.

***

Exhausted and freezing they finally arrived at a new cave, Lorza said that the snow in this region was not the right consistency for digging out shelters, and while they both feared the squid monster that no doubt still stalked them beneath the ice they had no other option. The sun had set and the moon's temperature was plummeting. It was freezing, no wonder nothing could live on the surface. Boyd imagined that there must be thermal vents on the ocean floor that warmed the water to the point that it could support marine life.

The whole planet seemed to be dotted with these ice caves, this one was shallower, Boyd couldn't see the water below the ice and so he felt confident enough that they could sleep here without fear of the creature emerging from beneath. They had been forced to stay out in the cold longer than was safe due to wanting to get as much distance as possible between them and the previous cave, and so they were even more surly than usual. Lorza was yet again covered in a layer of ice that clung to her matted fur, and she immediately set about cleaning herself with her tongue as soon as they reached a chamber with a flat enough floor to sleep on. Boyd gave her a disgusted look, and wandered down another tunnel to relieve himself, or at least that was the excuse he gave.

When he had turned a corner and was out of view of Lorza, he withdrew his medical kit from its pouch on his suit, and set it down on the floor. He opened it and sorted through the nutrient pills that remained, he still had eight left. That should be enough to sustain him until they arrived at the outpost, even if they didn't make good time, though he might be cutting it a little close for comfort if something seriously delayed them. He popped the pill into his mouth and swallowed it dry, then holstered the kit, and turned around to see Lorza peeking around the wall of the cave.

“What are you doing? Did you just eat something?”

He had a hard time hiding his surprise.

“L-Lorza, what the hell are you doing watching me piss? What's wrong with you?”

She walked out into the open and marched towards him, fury in her eyes, her brow furrowed like a lion. She loosed a string of curses in Russian, and stopped to loom over him.

“What the hell were you eating just now? Do you have food that you've been hiding from me?”

“Of course not, you're fucking paranoid.” She stepped closer to him, her hackles raised to expose her carnivore teeth. Boyd stood his ground.

“I'm starving, can't you see that I'm wasting away? And you're hiding food from me? You miserable fucking-” She took him by the collar of his suit, but he twisted her wrist and she let go, her blue eyes flashing with fury.

“Don't touch me, fleabag. Yeah, I can see that you're losing weight, you actually look healthy now instead of the lardass you were before.”

She wasn't exactly emaciated yet, but her fat belly had retreated and the meat on her thighs and ass had visibly diminished.

“This isn't normal for me!” Lorza spat, gesturing wildly with her clawed hands. “I'm starving! I'm burning through all of my fat reserves that are supposed to be insulating me from the cold! This whole time you were hiding food from me? Were you going to wait until I was on my deathbed before you shared it!?”

“You had your chance, you ate all of our food, why should I believe that you wouldn't just eat all of my nutrient pills too? The only reason I have to resort to using these in the first place is because you ate my share of the rations in one fucking sitting.” She was shaking with rage, her fists balled and her pupils expanded like those of a cat watching its prey, fixed on Boyd as he ranted. “You aren't going to die, you have enough fat to last you a fucking month, I'll starve to death without these pills.”

“Give me the food before I take it from you, don't make me hurt you.”

“Oh, I've been ready for this, I'd love to see you try.”

“I wish I had never encountered you at that spaceport, you hairless rat.”

“Yeah? Well I wish you had died in the crash.”

Lorza snapped and loosed a bestial snarl. She swung at him, her fists the size of his head, and he ducked under a powerful right jab that would likely have caved his face in if it had connected. He pulled his ceramic knife from its holster on his ankle and flicked it up to slice her arm, the blade was short and the cut was shallow, but it drew blood. She was furious, lost in a fugue, and she ignored the cut as she threw another punch at him. He dodged out of range, she was huge and powerful, but despite being many times stronger than a human she was also weak from the hunger and the cold. Boyd's suit kept him spry while it held a charge, and he was getting all of the nutrition that his body needed from the emergency pills.

She clawed at him, and he dodged, her hooked talons chipping the ice wall a short distance from where his head had been a moment ago. She might be slower than usual, but she was still deadly, those claws would turn him into coleslaw if they connected. They looked like black meat hooks extending from the tips of her fingers, and that might well be their evolutionary purpose.

He danced towards to her and ducked under another swipe, her long arms a disadvantage when he closed, and he slashed at her belly. Another shallow wound, the knife would not be enough to take her down unless he hit an artery. She kneed him in the chest, her powerful leg sending him across the tunnel to slam into the far wall, knocking the air out of his lungs. He rose to his feet, struggling to catch his breath and rolling out of her way as she delivered a brutal kick that fractured the ice where it connected.

Boyd circled around her as he swapped his ceramic knife from hand to hand, keeping her guessing as to where the next attack would come from, his eyes fixed on her. He wasn't afraid, this was what he had been trained for, techniques intended for humans might not work against a nine foot Borealan but he could always improvise. She charged and he crouched to deliver a kick to her ankle, but she was so heavy and had so much momentum that it didn't quite have the intended effect, tripping her but throwing him to the ground along with her.

She picked herself up and lunged at him, raking her curved claws towards his face as he raised his arms protect himself, but even emaciated she was still fast. Her claws glanced off his metal rebreather and sliced deep into the meat of his cheek.. He ignored the dull pain, scrambling away and rising to his feet to take up a defensive posture.

Blood had been shed on both sides, droplets of it stained the ice beneath their feet, and Boyd began to circle again as Lorza growled like a beast. She might be weak but she was furious, and motivated by desperate hunger.

She threw another punch, and this time Boyd caught her arm and used her body weight to throw her, the giant alien slamming her face into the wall. She stumbled, and he darted close to cut her thigh, but the fat was deep enough that he couldn't penetrate down to the femoral artery. This knife just wasn't doing the job, and he couldn't beat her into submission, she was too hardy even in her weakened state. On the other hand any one of her blows could be potentially fatal if they connected. He had to find a way to finish this fight quickly.

Her nose bloodied, she swung around to jab him with her elbow, Boyd's reflexive block insufficient to weather the impact and she sent him toppling off-balance. He landed on his back on the ground, then quickly rolled sideways as she sunk her claws into the ice where his chest had been, Boyd hopping to his feet. She glared at him and tried to withdraw her claws, but they were stuck, and as she tugged frantically he closed. He aimed for her throat with the blade, her crouched position bringing it into range of his reach.

Her long, dexterous tail snaked out to tangle his legs, knocking him down, he hadn't expected an attack from that angle. He skidded on the floor, giving her the time she needed to free herself, raising her claws in a shower of powdered ice to bring them down towards him. He placed a hand firmly behind the handle of the knife, driving it through her palm and stopping her claws a centimeter short of his chest. She yowled with pain, pulling the knife out of his hands as she withdrew, fingers shaking as she plucked the blade free like an oversized thorn and discarded it on the floor. Her white fur was stained red in places by both of their blood, the deep cuts in Boyd's face had not stopped bleeding, and she snarled at him as she clenched her wounded fist. She grinned, wiping blood from her nose with the back of her hand as she advanced, seeing that Boyd was now disarmed.

Driven by adrenaline, he lunged under another of her swipes, hammering her belly with a flurry of powerful punches. She barely felt it, going for another knee jab which he blocked with his arm, bracing himself this time and wincing as he felt his ulna fracture. He fought through the pain, battling her like a demon and harrying her with sharp jabs to her kidneys and groin, but she seemed impervious. He bellowed a cry of frustration and rage, kicking the side of her knee in an attempt to buckle it, but she ended his assault with a swift backhand that knocked him clear off his feet and dazed him.

“Two...options,” she panted, crouching over him to grip his ankle and raise him above her head. He dangled in the air, a good ten or eleven feet off the ground. “Give me...the food, or I'll eat...you instead...”

He was down to his last resort, and using it might well kill him, but he had no choice now.

“Parakeet, hyphenated, Monroe.”

His suit discharged its batteries into its circuitry, overloading it and sending a fatal electrical current coursing down Lorza's arm. Her fur stood on end, her teeth clenched and her eyes wild as she tensed, unable to let go of his ankle as the electricity contracted every muscle in her body. Boyd cried out in pain, her grip almost strong enough to break his leg, then finally she went limp. Her eyelids drooped and her legs buckled as she fell backwards, loosening her grip on Boyd and dropping him.

He fell ten feet directly onto his face, his cry of surprise cut short as he lost consciousness.

***

Lorza opened her eyes, her whole body was sore, she was shivering violently. What had happened? It came back to her in fragments, she had fought with Boyd, she had won. But then her whole body had tensed and that was the last thing she could remember. She blinked her eyes and looked around, her breath freezing into crystals in the frigid air, she was on the floor of the ice cave. She must have been lying here for at least half an hour, why wasn't she dead? She felt something beside her, a warm body, it was Boyd. His suit wasn't producing heat, but he was nestled beside her, asleep.

They had kept eachother warm enough to keep them both alive. Had he crawled into her arms while she was knocked out, saving her life in the process? She felt a wave of guilt, and tried to rouse him with a nudge, he was out cold.. Her body shaking, she struggled to her feet and lifted him in her arms. She staggered back up the tunnel towards the chamber where they had left their packs, lowering Boyd gently to the floor and rummaging for her sleeping bag.

She laid it out on the ground and hastily climbed inside, pulling Boyd in with her and lying practically on top of him in an attempt to warm him. Exhausted, she passed out.

***

Boyd awoke to warmth, for a moment he didn't know where he was, but he felt Lorza's fur on his cheek and looked up to see her massive chin resting on his head. They were in the sleeping bag, she must have carried him here after he had been knocked out.

A surge of guilt overcame him, what the hell had they been thinking, fighting like that? The death of one would condemn the other, only through sleeping together could they generate enough heat to survive the nights. Her arm was draped over his chest, and he tried to move it gently, but failed and roused her. Lorza shifted and muttered, opening her eyes and looking down at him.

“Are you..?”

“Ok? Yeah. You?” Boyd replied.

“No lasting damage.”

“Listen, I'm-”

“I'm sorry too, we both let the stress get to us.”

Boyd touched his fingers against the deep cut in his cheek, wincing at the pain, it was too wide to heal on its own without medical attention.

“F-Forgive me,” Lorza stammered, “I didn't mean to do that. I was just so...so angry, I was desperate, and when you fought back I thought that you were aiming to kill me. Is it...bad?”

“You really did a number on me, I think my arm is broken, but I have the tools to heal myself. Lorza, I wasn't trying to kill you, I just...” He trailed off, avoiding her concerned gaze. “I was so angry with you for eating the rations, I didn't share the nutrient pills because I wanted to punish you, I guess. When you attacked, my training kicked in, and I did what I had to do to incapacitate you.”

“I guess I deserved that, I shouldn't have eaten the rations. I admit that I did it to get back at you for lying to me and killing my crew, but that was before I knew that we needed to share our body heat to survive. I know, I know, that isn't an excuse. If anything it makes what I did sound worse.”

“We're no better than one another,” Boyd laughed bitterly, “we've both tried to maim or starve the other. There's no moral high ground for either of us here.”

“We deserve eachother,” Lorza muttered. “What did you hit me with...at the end? What was that?”

“Electric shock, my suit can discharge an electrical current into the lining.” He left out the fact that it would have killed a human, not wanting to add salt to the wound. He hadn't been thinking about that when he had deployed it, he had made a split-second decision in order to save his own life. It must have merely stunned the far larger alien.

“That fancy suit of yours again...”

He expected probing questions, but none came, he had let slip more clues to his identity but she didn't seem to be quizzing him this time. A sign of respect or guilt maybe? He shifted position in the bag, and gritted his teeth against the pain of his fractured ulna. He needed to deal with this now.

“I'll be fine,” he said, ignoring Lorza's concerned expression. “Just need to get out the bag and use my medkit.”

She lifted her arm and pulled down the bag's zipper to let him out, Boyd activating the heating element in his suit as the cold air bit at him. She watched from the shelter of the sleeping bag as he retrieved the kit from its pouch and placed it on the ground, opening it up to rummage through it. He pulled out a flexible wire, then plugged it into a socket on his oh-bis. Diagnostic symbols flashed, and then a few moments later a readout scrolled on the monitor.

A fractured ulna, lacerations to the face, bruises, a mild concussion probably from the fall, a broken nose. It had been quite the fight, short but brutal.

“What's it doing?” Lorza asked.

“Medical diagnostic, the kit scans my body through sensors embedded in the suit and advises treatments.”

She watched him as he withdrew a syringe from the kit and rolled up his sleeve, injecting the contents into his arm. He then took two brightly colored pills, swallowing them dry, and then withdrew what looked like a sheet of honeycomb mesh. The holes in the material were large and uneven, almost like old chicken wire, and he wrapped the flexible sheet around his forearm like a bandage. As she watched, he tapped something into his oh-bis, and suddenly the mesh tensed and became rigid, forming a protective cast around his broken limb. He noticed her awed expression and elaborated.

“This is a brace, it starts off flexible, but after you apply an electrical current it hardens and keeps its shape. It will stop the bones from moving, reinforce the arm, and protect it from impacts. It's a mesh so that air can pass through it, under more favorable circumstances the limb beneath could be washed, and it won't block the heating elements in the suit.”

“You humans think of everything. What were the pills, and the injection?”

“Metabolic stimulators and painkillers, they'll encourage my body to heal faster. I believe the stimulant is actually based on Borealan physiology, a new compound derived from studying your people's accelerated healing capabilities.”

He pulled out a small jar full of a white substance, like cream or gel, and scooped some of it up with his fingers. He smeared it on his face, wincing in pain as he sealed the gash on his cheek and the cut on the bridge of his nose.

“Antibiotic gel,” he explained, “seals the wound and kills any foreign bacteria that might have entered.” He sighed and unplugged the kit from his oh-bis, beginning to pack the components away. “That should do it, I'll be fine. I'd offer you some painkillers but I'd have to eyeball the dosage, and even then I'm not sure that it would make a dent, you're just too large.”

“Don't worry about me, you didn't do any damage, I've had more serious cuts from playing with kittens. Your little knife is still down in the tunnel by the way, better go fetch it before we head off again.”

Her stomach rumbled loudly, and she placed a hand over her belly, her expression miserable. Boyd watched her, concerned about it for the first time, she really had lost a lot of weight. Alarmingly quickly at that. He considered for a moment, then rolled his eyes and gestured to her.

“Come and sit over here.”

“Why?”

“Just do it.”

She hesitated for a moment, then crawled out of the sleeping bag and walked over beside him, planting herself on the ground next to him as he searched his kit. He pulled out a needle, and took her wrist.

“This might hurt a little.”

“What are you doing?” Lorza asked, resisting the urge to pull her arm away from him.

“Taking a blood sample.”

He stuck her, and she grimaced at the sting as he drew a vial of her dark blood. He released her and she rubbed her arm, pouting as he plugged his oh-bis into the medical device again and placed the sample in a recess. It processed for a moment, then displayed the results on his monitor.

“Low iron, you run the risk of anemia, low blood sugar and lipid content even by human standards. Your body is cannibalizing itself trying to find energy to burn.” She really was starving, no wonder she had been so angry. He had dismissed her complaints as the whining of a glutton, he hadn't taken her seriously and had mocked her as her body had begun to eat itself. “Take these,” he said, handing her four of his eight remaining nutrient pills. She took them in her furry palm, staring at them, then at him.

“Don't you need them?”

“I can make do, I'm not going to die. You need these more than I do right now.” She lifted them to her mouth and swallowed them. “They probably won't put a dent in your hunger, but they're full of minerals, vitamins and nutrients that your body needs. If necessary they can sustain a person on their own for a time. These are made for humans, tailored to our specific requirements, I'm not sure they'll even do you much good but it's all we have right now.”

“Thank you, Boyd.”

He rose to his feet, setting off down to tunnel to retrieve his knife.

“Better pack away your sleeping bag, it's time to get moving again.

CHAPTER 6: TERMINATED

They marched through the snow, following Boyd's compass as their only guide. The landscape was devoid of any landmarks, the horizon flat in every direction. In the day, if he looked up, Boyd could make out Hades through the atmospheric haze. It looked like a summer moon on Earth, tinted blue by the azure sky and barely visible against the sunlight. It was amazing to think that two places so wildly different in temperature and habitability were such close solar neighbors. He felt as if he could reach out and brush the planet with his fingertips, salvation was no near by stellar terms, but out of reach to a lowly human who had been stripped of his God-like ability to traverse time and space.

Lorza seemed to be doing a little better, he doubted that the high dosage of nutrient pills had given her what her body needed, but at least they had worked through some of their stress and resentment. As dangerous and stupid as their fight had been, it was a strange kind of therapy.

As they mounted another one of the endless snowdrifts, he felt Lorza's heavy hand on his shoulder, and she whispered for him to be quiet. Her ears swiveled on top of her head like radar dishes, tracking some sound that must be beyond Boyd's range of hearing.

“What is it?”

“Shush...”

Then he heard it, cracking ice, like something was tunneling through. He lowered his voice to a hushed whisper, his heart starting to race.

“Where the fuck is it?”

“Below us somewhere, I can't tell.”

A hundred meters in front of them the ice broke, a black, gelatinous tentacle covered in glowing pustules breaking through as the monster dragged itself slowly up onto the surface. It seemed to be laying a trap, it looked as if it was actually trying to be stealthy this time. How smart was this creature? If it was anything like Earth's cephalopods it might be quite intelligent indeed, it was switching up its hunting tactics in an effort to trap its more agile prey. Boyd and Lorza immediately ducked out of view behind the snowdrift.

“What the fuck, what the fuck, how is that monster 'still' following us?” Lorza whispered. Her eyes were wide, her massive heart pounding in her chest. “Can it hear us under the ice or something? Sense us somehow?”

Boyd banished the terror that was welling inside him and threatening to cloud his judgment, it was just a fucking animal, he had to pull himself together. He had fought and killed aliens before, this thing wasn't any different from a bug, no smarter and no more dangerous. It was an unknown, and fear of the unknown was instinctual, but fear was an emotion that will could overcome. He concentrated on his breathing, calming himself, then looked to Lorza with a stern expression.

“I’m done with letting this thing haunting us. Let's take the fucker down, what do you say?”

“Fight that thing? How? Didn't you see how it...” She trailed off, averting her eyes and staring at the snow. “It ate Alexei like he was a damned Pelmeni.” She saw Boyd's confused expression. “It's a little dumpling filled with meat and...it doesn't matter. The point is that thing is dangerous, how do you hope to kill it?”

“It's incredibly strong, but it isn't too fast, and it looks relatively fragile if we can actually get some hits in. The thing looks like it's made of jelly.”

“Why don't we just go around it?” Lorza complained. “We've avoided up until now!”

“Barely, each time we've encountered it we escaped by the skin of our teeth. We can't keep running, it's changing up its tactics, eventually it's going to take us by surprise and deny us the time we need to react.”

“So you have a plan, right?”

“It doesn't know any more about us than we do about it, do you think it will go after our packs if we throw them? Its body is covered in eyes, it must have good visual acuity, perhaps it hunts by sight. That means it must be attracted to movement and light.”

“Yes, but it has to have other senses too,” Lorza mused, scratching her chin with one of her black claws. “Otherwise how would it track us from under the ice?”

“We may just have to chance it, we don't have a lot of tools to work with.”

“Hey, what about your electric suit? Can you do that again?”

“No,” he replied, “it discharges my batteries, so the heating element would shut off. I'd die of hypothermia before we reached shelter.”

“Maybe toothpaste is toxic to it,” Lorza joked nervously, calming down a little as they talked. Boyd thought for a moment, going over what they knew about the alien and what tools they had on hand.

“Lorza, do you think you can go toe to toe with that thing? At least for a minute or two?”

She grimaced, shuddering, no doubt recalling the time it had eaten her crewmate.

“It's strong, really strong. We Borealans are hard to bring down, but if it pulls me into its mouth and shears off my arm I'll die just the same as a human would.”

“We have duct tape, right? How strong is it? Do you think you could tape its tentacles together?”

“God, I dunno, maybe? We don't even know if the adhesive will stick to the tentacles, what if it's covered in slime, or it's too wet? I don't know about this Boyd, it seems way too risky.”

Boyd popped his head over the snowdrift briefly to check what the alien was doing, his blood running like ice through his veins as he realized that it was gone.

“It's fucking moved,” he hissed, Lorza's eyes widening with panic. “I can't see the damned thing.”

Lorza scanned the terrain, head darting from left to right as she searched for any sign of the bast, her ears swiveling. The creature had slipped away while they were distracted.

In a flash the pair were thrown into the air, the ice below them exploding upwards and fracturing, sending them crash down a few feet away along with a torrent of frigid saltwater. The monster had come up underneath them, and now it lay on the snow beside a jagged hole, its many tentacles flailing in patterns of brilliant light as it spun and screeched. It looked to Boyd with its innumerable, beady eyes, then back to Lorza who was picking herself up. She was drenched in cold water, her fur sodden and she was obviously shocked, she was reacting too slowly.

“Watch out Lorza!”

She turned to run, but the thing was too quick, its long arms stretched out to entangle her legs and she fell on her face. She yowled like an angry cat as it began to drag her towards its maw, the ring of serrated teeth opening up in its gelatinous, formless torso like a wound. Boyd watched as she struggled against her captor, the creature strong enough to pull her even as she dug her claws into the ice like picks and her biceps bulged with the strain of it.

He could run and let it have her, but if Lorza died then he died too, their fates were one and the same if they liked it or not. Oh well, all for one and one for all.

Boyd bellowed a challenge and drew his knife, charging into the fray to slash at the creature's exposed back. He was rewarded with a powerful blow to the chest that lifted him off his feet, the beast swiping at him with one of its tentacles and sending him crashing into a snowdrift. It knocked the breath out of him, and he rose unsteadily to his feet before closing in for another try. As he had suspected the monster's flesh was rubbery and surprisingly fragile, it was basically a bag of goo. His cut hadn't gone deep but it had split the inky-black hide of the thing and yellow ooze that looked like pus was leaking free.

Lorza was battling it with what strength her starving body still retained, slicing at the tentacles that bound her with her wicked claws, hacking at it like a butcher trying to split a stubborn cut of meat with a cleaver. The monster seemed conflicted now, it had not expected its prey to mount such resistance, and now it had to divide its attention between the two of them rather than dragging its catch into its mouth.

Its arms flailed like loose firehoses, the glowing bioluminescent pustules that were spaced at intervals drawing colorful trails in the air, Boyd slowing as he reached the barrier of limbs. He ducked and weaved, slicing at the tentacles where he could, but his knife was too small and the thing was strong. First thing he was doing if they survived this hellhole was putting in a request for R&D to figure out a way to fit a Bowie knife into the damned survival suits.

It screeched, flinching as Lorza succeeded in hacking off one of the tentacles that had closed around her leg, the severed appendage losing its grip and falling to the snow to flop and twitch like the tail of a lizard. The monster spun on the ice and whipped at them with its arms, more yellow ichor leaking from its wound. Boyd took advantage of its confusion to dart in and stick it in the side of its bulbous torso, scurrying backwards as it reached out to grab him.

Lorza was snarling like a tiger and clawing at the appendages that still bound her, the creature losing its hold on her with every tentacle she severed, yet it never seemed to run out of replacements. Frustrated, it shuffled closer to her and shot more of its tentacles out in an attempt to further tangle her and bind her limbs, the Borealan writhing as its arms crept around her body like so many slippery ropes.

Her fur was matted with its viscous slime, its tentacles ensnaring her arms and legs as she bucked and fought, more of them tightening around her midriff and neck. It began to choke her, dragging her closer as she fought, the flesh on her thighs and chest bulging around the thing's tentacles as it squeezed her.

Diverting so much of its attention towards Lorza left it open to attack from Boyd, who dashed closer and sunk his blade into its back up to the hilt, dragging it sideways to open up a long and severe wound in its dark flesh. That hurt enough to really get its attention, and it loosed an unearthly wail, loosening its grip on the gasping Polar to bat him away. As he landed on his back, he saw that Lorza was slicing at her bonds again, the creature having freed one of her arms in its attempt to ward him off.

They couldn't win this battle through death by a thousand cuts, they were wearing it down but not quickly enough. It would overcome them unless they thought of something, and fast. Lorza neared its mouth, the beast gnashing its rows of sharp teeth, snapping at her legs as she struggled to pull away.

“Help me Boyd!”

He darted close again and harried it with slashes and jabs from his knife, painting the snow with its oozing, yellow fluids. Its insides were as dark as its rubbery hide, as if it had been coated inside and out in black paint. It bellowed in pain suddenly and recoiled, dropping Lorza who had caught some of its eyes with the claws on her paw-like feet, gouging them and popping them like blisters.

Enraged, it slapped its tentacles against the snow and screamed, an ear-splitting noise that sounded unnervingly human. It went for Lorza again who had gained some distance on it, tripping her and starting the whole process over. Despite its wounds it seemed intent on eating her, it was unrelenting, exhibiting a ravenous hunger that made Lorza look modest in comparison.

Boyd flung his pack from his shoulders, planting it on the ground and rummaging frantically as the alien regained its hold on his companion. She seemed exhausted, she had spent what little energy her body could muster and her fighting had become less ardent. She bit at the rubbery appendages with her sharp teeth, ripping at them with her claws, but it was no use.

He charged around the thing, dodging between the tentacles, trying to put himself between Lorza and its snapping teeth. It caught him in its arms and tried to drag him closer, hastening his approach as it split its maw wide open, preparing to swallow him.

“What are you doing?!” Lorza wailed. “Boyd, no!”

He plunged his right arm into its mouth, and its jaws snapped closed like a bear trap, Lorza screaming as his forearm vanished into its maw. Something was wrong though, and the monster bit down again, confused as its teeth met resistance. Boyd's mesh cast had weathered the blow, the protective casing as hard as concrete, and he dropped the grenade he had been holding into its gullet. The creature paused, then began to shake violently, releasing Lorza from its tentacles and flinging Boyd away as it began to writhe. They watched as it rolled on the ground, like some kind of beached deep-sea horror, its many tentacles flailing without purpose as its screeching was muffled.

Flame retardant foam poured from its mouth, solidifying as it dripped to the snow, the thing's bulbous body convulsing and bloating as its insides filled with hardening froth. Its many limbs tensed, the creature loosing one last, sputtering gurgle before it collapsed to lie motionless on the ground.

Lorza picked herself up off the snow, shivering, perhaps from fear or cold, or maybe both.

“You ok? You injured?” Boyd asked.

“No...no I'm ok.” She took a moment to catch her breath, rubbing her neck with her hand where the alien had choked her. “You used the fire suppressant grenade, clever.” Boyd walked over to the creature, its massive body now limp and sagging, giving it a good kick in the side to be sure that it was out of commission.

“Yep, this thing is fucking dead,” he called back to Lorza. He spat on it, giving it another hard kick to its spongy body. His blood was still coursing with adrenaline, the euphoria that followed a fight overcoming him, he was more proud of the kill than would be professional to admit. This wretched thing had haunted them for days, and now it was dead, bested. “I'm not afraid of you,” he muttered to himself, crouching to examine it. It had a dozen tentacles, a handful damaged or severed by Lorza, the eyes down one side of its 'face' gouged by her clawed feet. Its mouth was packed with foam, the grenade must have released the expanding suppressant all the way through its digestive system, rupturing all of its organs. He checked his arm brace, the rigid material was scratched where its teeth had found their mark, but it wasn't damaged. It had been strong enough to resist whatever bite pressure this alien could muster.

Boyd leapt out the way as Lorza descended on their kill, not wasting a second as she tore into one of the tentacles with her claws and began to strip off a hunk of meat. He tried to pull her away by the shoulder without much luck.

“Hey, hey! Wait a minute! You don't know if it's edible or not, at least let me scan it first!”

Her forearms already sodden with its yellow blood, she turned her head to look at him.

“You can do that?”

“Yes! I have a food scanner, hang on, it will literally take a few seconds.”

Lorza relented, watching curiously as he retrieved his medkit from its pocket in his suit and set it on the ground. He cut off a tissue sample from one of the tentacles with his knife, placing the sliver of rubbery meat carefully into a glass vial and then inserting it into the same recess that had analyzed Lorza's blood. He plugged the cable from the kit into his oh-bis, and after a moment they got the results, Boyd reading them off to Lorza as she waited impatiently.

“Mercury content is a little higher than I'd like, but overall it's edible, we should be able to-”

He watched with a mixture of awe and disgust as Lorza carefully cut away a foot-long, three inch thick strip of meat from the tentacle using her hooked claws, opening her jaws as wide as they would go and dropping it into her mouth. She wolfed it down, barely chewing, like some giant strand of black spaghetti.

“What the hell Lorza!? At least cook it first!”

He watched her choke it down, the thick strip of meat bulging her throat before vanishing into her stomach. She immediately started on a second, stripping more rubbery flesh from the tentacle, using the claw on her index finger like a scalpel. Boyd set about cutting some smaller strips for himself, genuinely worried that she might not leave any for him, despite the size of the beast.

“Well I'm going to cook mine, how are we going to store it?”

She swallowed her second strip before answering, already having eaten enough meat to last a human for two or three days.

“Why do you need to store it? Just eat it now, then you won't have to carry it.”

He gave her a shocked look.

“What do you mean, 'eat it now'? Oh lord, is that what you're doing? You're going to eat as much as you can in one sitting?”

“Yeah, why are you looking at me that way? I know humans don't eat as much as we do, but you can't stock up on food in an emergency?”

“No! Why would you ever assume that? Humans can't do that! We need to eat every day, we can't just eat two hundred pounds of food in one meal. Surely that can't be healthy?”

“Just drag it then, the snow is pure and clean, nothing lives on the surface. At home, we store meat out on raised platforms in the winter so the scavengers can't get at it, the weather is too cold for it to spoil.”

As he watched she started to strip away a third piece, how much could she possibly eat in one sitting? He retrieved his pack and rummaged through it, finding the zip ties, maybe he could fashion something using those. Yeah, if he cut the straps on the rucksack and tied them together, he could drag the meat along the ground behind him and secure it with the zip ties. That way it wouldn't be near the small aura of heat that his suit gave off and so it wouldn't thaw and go bad. He could transfer the contents of his pack into Lorza's, they didn't need two of them to carry toothpaste and tape.

“Hey Lorza, when you ate the MREs you kept the flammable gel packets, right? And the little metal cooking stands?”

She turned her head to him and nodded, a massive strip of meat lodged half-way down her throat. She swallowed with some difficulty, her muscles really working hard to drag the flesh down into her belly, and gestured to her rucksack.

“In my pack, the big pocket.”

“Good, I'll need them later. We can bring some food for you too, you know. You don't have to eat this much in one...” She ignored his suggestion, setting upon a fresh tentacle. “Never mind then.”

***

Over the next half hour, Boyd cut away enough meat to last him for the next few days, as much as he could reasonably carry. He cut off the shoulder straps on his pack and tied them together, using a zip tie to attach them to the back of his belt, leaving a makeshift rope a few feet long that he could use to pull his haul behind him like a sled. He packed the meat up into a rough block using the zip ties, securing it at the end of the line, and was ready to set off.

Lorza had eaten so much meat that her belly was actually distended, it looked as if she had swallowed a couple of beach balls, she was relaxing on the snow beside the dead monster with a hand on her stomach She looked about ready to pass out.

“You good to go?” Boyd asked, and she opened her eyes sluggishly.

“Yeah, let's find shelter soon, I need to sleep this meal off.”

“That wasn't a meal, you gorged yourself, I'd be surprised if we can even find a cave that you'll fit in now.”

“It's efficient, this food will last me for days.”

“It's disgusting, and it wasn't necessary. You're not having any of mine by the way, you can bring your own if you want to eat with me.”

She just grinned, exposing her carnivore teeth, and rose to her feet with some difficulty.

“Mush, Balto.”

He scowled at her, knowing that she would try to pressure him into sharing his meat when she got hungry again, but if she passed up the opportunity to store some of the food for later then she could go hungry for all he cared.

She followed after him as he checked his compass, then set off over a snow drift, dragging his haul behind him. She looked almost pregnant, it was obscene, and she smirked at him as she caught his disapproving look.

“What's the matter? Worried you'll end up in here too if we can't get off this moon?”

“Y-You wouldn't do it!”

She just grinned at him, she was probably joking, but he couldn't be sure. He decided to turn his attention forward instead, pulling his makeshift meat sled off into the snow.

***

As the sun began to set they came across another one of the caves that dotted the planet, the mouth of this one just large enough to allow the grossly distended Polar to squeeze through. This one had a short tunnel that led to an expansive ice cave, large enough for Lorza to stand erect without her furry ears brushing the ceiling. She set about unfolding her sleeping bag and laying it out on the floor as Boyd dragged his meat over into a corner and set it on the ice. Their body heat would never warm this space enough to thaw it, it would be fine here. He selected a steak-sized portion and cut away the zip-tie with his knife, bringing it back over to the sleeping bag where Lorza was already getting comfortable.

“It's going to get cold soon,” she said, her head poking out of the top of the bag. “You should join me.”

“I need to eat first,” he replied as he zipped open the large pocket on her rucksack to rummage for the cooking tools. He withdrew one of the gel packets and a box of matches, along with a flat piece of metal cut into odd shapes. Lorza watched with mild interest as he bent the metal disk to form three legs and a support for cooking, a miniature stove. He tore open the gel packet and squeezed the flammable substance onto the ice beneath it, then struck one of the matches and set it alight. A blue flame spread across the gel, immediately beginning to heat the stove. He took the black, gelatinous meat in his hands and placed it gingerly atop the apparatus to sag over the sides, the MRE components would each have had their own container in which they could be reheated but he would have to wing it with the meat. It should work out ok.

“What does this stuff even taste like?” Boyd asked, Lorza shrugging beneath the sleeping bag.

“Slimy, salty, it's fine I suppose. I was too hungry to care much about the taste.”

They waited in silence for a while as the meat cooked, Boyd occasionally flipping it over with his knife, until finally it seemed ready to eat. He sliced off a piece with his ceramic blade and popped it into his mouth, blowing and huffing as he tried to dispel the heat, before starting to chew it. It was rubbery and had a displeasing texture, like shellfish or oysters, despite being lean and made up entirely of muscle. It tasted strange, like unpleasantly salty bass or trout. He was so famished that it mattered little to him, and before long he had downed the rest of the alien steak.

“That's all you're going to eat?” Lorza marveled. “You've not eaten for days and all you're going to have is that one tiny portion?”

“That's enough to fill me for now, in a few hours I'll have some more.”

Lorza shook her head in disbelief and chuckled.

“How did a species ever evolve that way? I knew that humans didn't eat much, I've lived around them long enough, but I assumed that you'd be capable of eating larger quantities in a survival situation. What if you couldn't store the meat? Would you just eat one meal and then let the rest go to waste, even if you'd die later as a result?”

“I'd have no choice, my stomach can't expand like yours seems to be able to.”

“Some of you live in cold environments and yet you have no fur, you were apex predators on your home planet but you can't eat more than a few morsels in one sitting, how did creatures like you ever survive prehistory?”

“What do you mean, 'were' apex predators?” Boyd asked suspiciously.

“Well, we're there now,” she grinned.

“You aren't apex predators, you're squatters.”

“If we're bigger than you, and can eat you, then that makes us apex predators by definition.”

“Well you're not taking into account the fact that we could glass your entire planet in an afternoon.”

He felt her shiver, and she unzipped the sleeping bag.

“Get in already, I'm getting cold, don't make me grab you again.”

“Fine, fine.”

He turned and tried to climb inside, there was usually enough room to spare but now her belly was so inflated that he could barely get a leg in.

“Move over a little, I can't get past your gut.”

She shifted, trying to give him more room, but it was just too awkward and he couldn't worm his way into the sleeping bag. She unzipped the whole bag, opening it up like a clam and gestured for him to get closer. He reluctantly lay beside her, and she put an arm around him to squash him against her body. He found his face full of white fluff, and struggled as her powerful arm held him.

“What are you doing?” he complained, spitting a stray hair out of his mouth.

“Keep still, I'm closing the bag around us, or would you rather we both died of exposure?”

With some difficulty she zipped the bag back up around them both, Boyd finding himself crudely sandwiched between the insulated lining and her fat body, his face buried in the nape of her neck.

“This is very uncomfortable,” he complained, his voice somewhat muffled by her fur. There was that musky smell again, familiar to him now, calming. He must have started to associate it with sleep and warmth. His torso was pressed up against her expanded belly, oddly firm beneath the layer of soft fat that she still retained, her mammoth breasts were squashed up against his chest and his face was practically buried in the furry cleavage that spilled out of her overalls. Her arm was still wrapped around him, and he shifted and wriggled in an attempt to get it out from under him.

“Move your damned arm!”

“I can't, there's no room.”

It felt as if the zipper might just pop under the pressure and disgorge him onto the cold ice, they were positively pressurized, there wasn't even enough room to turn away from her as he usually did when they were forced to share the sleeping bag. Now her boobs were in his face and he couldn't roll away to safety. Her warm breath ruffled his hair from above, her chin practically resting on his head, and he squirmed with discomfort. The sound of her heavy breathing annoyed him, as did the way the rise and fall of her ample chest pushed his face further into her fat breasts, the beating of her massive heart was like a drum to his ears in the eerie silence of the ice cave.

“Stop breathing on me,” he grumbled, frustrated. Lorza laughed, the motion wobbling the meat of her bust and tickling his nose with her delicate fur.

“You're such a child, just keep still and relax, go to sleep.”

“I can't sleep with your fat in my face!”

“No? I would have thought having something so soft to lay your head on would be a bonus. You know, usually when someone has me in such a compromising position, the last thing on their mind is complaining about it.”

“Good for you, I'm not in the habit of getting intimate with Persian rugs.”

“I'm from Siberia, I told you that already.”

“I'm insulting you, I'm calling you an overgrown, walking carpet with tits.”

She sighed, blowing his hair, then muttered something in Russian that ended in 'mudak'.

He realized that they were already warm, really warm, it would have been downright lovely if he hadn't had to share it with his unruly companion. It was coming from her body, her metabolism must be working in overdrive to digest all of the food that she had eaten, cranking out almost enough waste heat to make him break a sweat. The temperature was starting to make him sluggish and compliant, his outrage becoming more difficult to maintain as the warmth permeated his muscles like the soothing fingers of a masseuse. Lorza didn't smell half bad now that he was used to her alien scent, and her fur really was fluffy and soft. He was still uncomfortable pressed up against the Polar, but the day's exhaustion and the warmth were overcoming him.

“You seem more relaxed than usual,” she murmured, her breath tickling his ear.

“Don't pay attention to how relaxed I am, go to sleep,” he grumbled in response. She chuckled, her ample bust shaking distractingly.

“You're usually facing away from me, what changed? Are you starting to warm up to me?”

She laughed at her own pun as Boyd scowled up at her.

“No, you're just so fat that I can't turn around, so I'm stuck like this.”

She shifted her weight around a little, her belly pressing against him like an exercise ball, the fur of her giant hand soft against his back. He could feel it through his suit, as thin as the fabric was, warm and silky. They really were being baked inside the sleeping bag, under other circumstances it might have been too warm to be comfortable, but considering the freezing cold they had endured for the better part of a week it was a welcome change.

“So warm...” Lorza whispered, her blue eyes turning down to examine Boyd. “Your face is red, little human.”

“Because I'm hot,” he complained.

“If you say so...”

She was always trying to get under his skin, every chance she got to test his resolve or probe for a chink in his armor, she took it. Did she think that she could manipulate him into doing what she wanted? Wrap him around her clawed finger by batting her eyelashes at him? It wasn't going to work, Boyd was made of sterner stuff than that. She seemed to notice that he had tensed, leaning her head down to hover with her full lips an inch from his ear.

“Why don't you just relax? You're so uptight, always on edge, is it that you're afraid of me?” She ended that last accusation in a sly laugh, and he scoffed at her.

“Afraid of you? I've already beaten you in a fight, if you remember. I'm not afraid of you, I just don't like you.”

“I remember things a little differently,” she murmured, and raised the hand he wasn't lying on to caress his face. Her palm was fluffy and soft, with pink, fleshy pads that protruded through the silky fur for grip. She cupped his cheek in her hand and ran the pad of her thumb over the healing scar on his face, a relic of their most serious falling out. Boyd squirmed away, glaring at her.

“Why can't you just keep your hands to yourself?”

“Oh come on, we're trapped in such close proximity, I don't have any choice but to touch you.”

“Yeah but you don't have to do it like...that.”

Lorza cocked her head at him, returning her hand beneath the plush sleeping bag.

“You know, I can usually read people pretty well, influence them. But not you. You're opaque to me, I can never tell what you're thinking or what you're planning. You don't respond to anything that I try to test you with.”

“Well it's good to know that you've been probing me for weaknesses like I'm some kind of lab rat.”

“No,” she protested, shaking her massive head. “That's not what I mean, in my society we resolve all of our conflicts through social maneuvering, we talk to each other and work it out. We get a read on what someone wants, and try to sate that desire, or we find a way to get a person to behave in a manner that benefits us.”

“That sounds like manipulation to me, it sounds despicable.”

“Better than clawing each other to ribbons or 'glassing' people who don't see things your way.”

“I would disagree with that, violence is honest.”

“It's destructive, a waste of resources.”

“You're quite the pacifist for someone who tried to murder me a few hours ago.”

That cut her deep, and her brow furrowed.

“Only because you refused every diplomatic solution that I offered, don't blame me when you pushed me to the last resort in order to survive.”

“You think you're so sophisticated, but under that fur you're just like your hot-blooded cousins, if I shaved you nobody would be able to tell you apart.”

“That's a lie and you know it.” She had tried to mess with his head, and he turned it right back around, the ball was in her court now and she had been taken off-guard by his swift return. “I don't know why you're such an ass all the time, Boyd. You're just making this harder than it needs to be, harder for both of us.”

“Yeah well my line of work doesn't afford me many friends, I'm used to operating on my own and I prefer things that way.”

“Ah yes, the solitary life of a miner, you're one to talk about honesty. It's not my fault we're stuck here together, in fact it's entirely your own. I wish you would understand that I don't want to be here any more than you do, I'm just trying to make the best of a bad situation.”

“By manipulating me into 'behaving in a manner that benefits you'?”

She laughed at that, and he looked up at her, confused by the reaction.

“You don't know what you're missing, mudak.”

He shifted, trying to get his face away from her cleavage, it seemed almost as if she was going out of her way to bury his head in the supple flesh. He didn't have enough room in the cramped bag to turn away from her, if he wriggled further down then they'd envelop him completely, any further up and they'd be face to face. He didn't like the way she scrutinized him with those icy, blue eyes. He settled for resting his head in the nape of her neck, if he closed his eyes he could almost imagine that he was in some fluffy bed somewhere, were it not for the musky smell of the female Borealan bringing him out of it. It made him sleepy, downright Pavlovian.

“Stop fidgeting,” she complained.

“I'm trying to find a comfortable position where I don't have to stare down your cleavage.”

“Oh, enough,” she grunted. She pulled him closer to her with the arm that he was lying on, bringing her second around to trap him in a tight hug, one hand behind his head to press it into her breasts and the other in the small of his back. He struggled and fought, but he couldn't get his legs up to kick her, they were trapped by her rotund belly and he could barely move them. She pinned his arms to his sides, his whole body enveloped in her cushy fat and her velvet coat, her musk filling his lungs as he breathed in her scent.

“Let me go you fucking...” He loosed a frustrated snarl that made her chuckle wryly. He wriggled and bucked with all the strength that he could muster but she merely held him, squeezing him up against her until he eventually exhausted himself and lay still. He was livid, fuming, but he had no way to break free. She was just too damned large and strong.

“Enough of this,” she repeated, “get used to me and do it fast. We have to live in close proximity so stop complaining and get it all out. You have to touch me, you have to smell me, that's your lot now so deal with it.”

He lay in her arms, simmering, not wanting to admit how pleasant the sensation of her soft hand on the back of his head felt. The way that having her cradle him like this relaxed him, the warmth of her body like a beacon to him in the freezing air. She smelled good, he realized that he liked her scent, and the texture of her delicate fur was soothing on his cheek. He hated that she was right, but there was no point wasting energy on this subject any longer, no amount of his complaining would change the fact that they relied on each other to survive the cold nights.

She felt him relax a little, and loosened her hold on him slightly, Boyd exhaling a frustrated sigh.

“Usually people bond in a crisis,” she said, “I wish you'd just let your armor down for a while and stop acting like making friends is the worst thing that we could do. You'll never see me again once we get off this rock, so what does it matter if I know your secrets? Would it really be so bad? Would it kill you to lighten your mood for just a few days so that we might treat each other like people and make this situation slightly less terrible?”

He was silent for a moment before replying, his eyes closed as he gave in and let her hold him.

“You're always pushing my buttons, trying to get inside my head, like you're some kind of enemy agent trying to extract information without me knowing it. I can never tell if you say these things because that's how you really feel, or if it's just one step on the road to tricking me into letting my guard down. I've...had some experience in that field, suggestion and interrogation, manipulating people into doing things that aren't in their best interest. From day one you've been trying to play me, and failing. How could our relationship by anything other than adversarial? You've never treated me like anything other than a mark.”

“That's just my culture. I have no excuse, but you've taken your frustrations and your stress out on me since we crashed here. You never wasted one opportunity to throw an insult my way.”

“Maybe we really do deserve each other.”

They lay together in silence for a while, their breathing growing rhythmic and regular, before Boyd finally spoke up about something that had been bothering him.

“You wouldn't really eat me, would you?”

“Only if you end up being more useful inside me than out.”

He didn't reply, suspecting that perhaps she really had been messing with his head all long, and eventually he fell into an unsound sleep.

***

When Boyd woke up the next morning, he found himself trapped under Lorza's bulk, she must have rolled over on top of him during the night. She was so goddamned heavy, it was a miracle she hadn't crushed him. He might have suffocated if it wasn't for his rebreather.

He pushed his hands against her fat, sinking deep into her soft breasts in an attempt to gain enough leverage to move her off him. It was hopeless, she probably weighed as much as a small car. He noticed that her belly had shrunk back down to approximate the size it had been when they had set out, still chubby by human standards but based on what he had learned about her kind it looked healthy. She had filled out all over, her thighs were thick and meaty again, and her breasts looked somehow even fuller. She had regained her layer of insulating fat after a single, monstrous meal, her body had somehow converted those hundred pounds of meat into fat overnight.

Boyd did his best to wriggled his way out from underneath her, but between her weight and the confinement of the sleeping bag, he found himself unable to escape. Whatever, at least he was warm, might as well have a lie-in until she woke up.

***

Lorza rubbed her eyes, finding herself resting on top of a struggling human, his head lost in her cleavage. She planted her hands on either side of his head and lifted herself off him, looking down at the angry little creature. She straddled him, laughing at his impotent rage.

“I'm sorry Boyd, could you not get out?”

“Would you just get off me?”

“Fine, fine,” she chuckled, unzipping the bag to release him.

He crawled out from under her and set about brushing himself off with his hands.

“Better get your sleeping bag packed away, we have another long day ahead of us.”

He walked over to where his stash of meat was resting against the wall of the cave, crouching to retrieve the rope he had fashioned from his rucksack and tying it to his belt. Lorza stretched her long arms above her head and yawned loudly, Boyd catching her giving his stock of food a sideways glace.

“Oh no, don't you even look at this meat, I told you yesterday to bring your own and you didn't so you'll not get so much as a morsel from me.”

In turn she saw him looking her up and down, and she realized that the pressure in her stomach was gone and that she had filled out again, returning to her usual weight. If not slightly more, the monster's meat was a good source of fat it seemed, perhaps it needed it to brave the cold just as she did.

“Looks like I won't need any more food for a while, you can stop worrying Boyd.”

He didn't buy it, scowling at her and dragging his makeshift sled towards the entrance of the cave. She rolled up her sleeping bag and returned it to her pack, jogging to catch up with him as he emerged from the mouth of the ice cave and into the daylight.

“No storm,” he mused, “wind is low. Looks like it might be a nice day for once, and that cursed creature isn't hounding us.”

“As good a day as we can expect from this moon,” Lorza replied, nodding as she adjusted her pack. “How long do we still have to go?”

Boyd tapped at his computer for a moment.

“About a hundred miles by my calculations, two more days of walking should see us to the oxygen farm.” That seemed to lift her spirits, Boyd caught a genuine smile on her face that wasn't sarcastic or wry. He had to admit that things felt less bleak now, he had food, the alien monster was no longer stalking them beneath the ice and they were closer to getting off this rock than ever. “We're gonna make it Lorza, we're not far off now. We'll beat this.”

She nodded, fresh determination on her face, and they set off into the snowdrifts.

CHAPTER 7: FRATERNIZATION

The weather was good enough that the wind didn't carry away their voices, and they didn't have to fight against the elements just to walk. Were it not for the freezing temperatures it might have been almost pleasant. Lorza tried to make small talk, and for once he didn't spurn her, their proximity to salvation and the clear sky putting him in an unusually good mood.

“So are you ever going to tell me what you really do? You're obviously not a miner. I'm asking honestly, not trying to get under your skin or anything like that. After all we've been through I figure maybe I deserve to know.”

He considered for a moment, she knew enough about him to see that his story was a cover. She was perceptive and sharp, it probably wouldn't do any harm to tell her a partial truth. He couldn't tell her his true vocation, nor his mission, not only would that put him in danger but she would become a target too.

“Well, since we're being honest,” he began. “I'm UNN, a kind of cop if you like. My job is to investigate criminal organizations like those who rule Hades. When I told you that I needed your help to escape I was being truthful, even if I had to use a cover story to protect my identity. I didn't know who was friend and who was foe, if I had told the wrong pilot that I was trying to flee the Syndicate then they might have just turned me over to them.”

He waited for a scathing remark, but none came, and he looked around to see her blue eyes wide with wonder.

“So you're like a detective or something?”

“No, no, more of an undercover policeman.” It was a lie, but he had to keep his clearance level secret. The UNNI were an elite organization, and she wasn't need-to-know.

“So who are the Syndicate? They're the criminals you were escaping?”

“That's right, they're an alliance of mobsters, pirates and petty criminals who are in control of the colony. I don't want to tell you much more, it might put you in danger.”

“You already put me in danger,” she joked.

“Yeah, I guess so. I regret that. I genuinely didn't know that things would turn out this way. I saw you in the spaceport and knew that you were my best chance to get off Hades, you stuck out like a sore thumb, someone who didn't belong and wouldn't be on the Syndicate's payroll. I'm sorry about your crew, but know that they died to potentially save millions. That is if we can get off this rock and back to UNN controlled space, so I can deliver the information that I uncovered.”

“So I'm like your deputy?”

He laughed at that, why hadn't they just relaxed and had a conversation sooner? She was pretty fun when she wasn't trying to kill him.

“I suppose so, but I don't have a badge for you.”

“So what do you have to do to become an undercover cop?” Lorza asked, slowing her long strides to match pace with him so that she could walk beside him in the snow.

“Well you need to be good in a fight for a start, most of us are ex-military, usually UNN Marines. You need to have a natural talent for subterfuge and manipulation, it requires steady nerves and an unwavering commitment to your role. If you so much as give someone the wrong look it could put your life and the success of the mission in jeopardy. You could be operating in hostile environments with no hope of backup or extraction, so a familiarity with survival techniques and outdoorsmanship is a must, along with physical fitness of course.”

He realized then that he was basically describing Lorza, she was all of those things and more, along with being a wildcard due to her lack of association with the UNN. She might even make a good spook. God knows she had been grilling him for information like a seasoned interrogator from the moment they had found themselves stranded here.

“Why are you looking at me like that, Boyd?”

“Just daydreaming, doesn't matter.”

“That must be why I can't read you, then,” Lorza continued.

“What do you mean?” Boyd asked, looking up at her as she loped along beside him.

“I couldn't get a bead on you, like I said last night, you're opaque to me. I've never met a human who can out-maneuver me like that before, it's...refreshing. I can't work out what you're thinking, and I can't persuade you, it's like losing one of my senses.”

“And that's a good thing?”

“I didn't think that way initially, I was just frustrated that I couldn't get you to behave the way I wanted you to. But there's something to be said for it, everything that comes out of your mouth is a surprise to me, and I'm not accustomed to that.”

“That's how humans normally interact, welcome to the club.”

They walked in silence for a while, some of the tension that had been building up over the last few days dissolving. It felt good to just talk to someone, even Lorza. As much as they had fought and argued they had gotten to know eachother more intimately than good friends. They had been through a lot of shit, roughed it together, survived together. Maybe he should give her more credit, lay off some of the jibes and teasing.

“What about you?” Boyd asked her. “What's your job like?”

“Oh, nothing so exciting, I'm just a cartographer. I make maps, usually of unexplored planets like this one, I help the surveyors find minerals and useful resources for exploitation.”

“I don't think that's uninteresting, you told me that you had wanted to get out into the galaxy and see other worlds when you had left Borealis, right? That sounds like a good way to do it, you must have seen more planets than I have.”

She seemed taken aback, giving him an appreciative look.

“You really were listening? I thought...never mind,” she said, shaking her head. “Yeah, I've been all over, mostly unexplored planets. Ninety percent of worlds are just gas giants or barren terrestrial planets, but sometimes we find one like this that can support life and has exploitable resources. Though I've not really encountered any fauna quite so...hostile, not since I left Borealis anyway.”

“What was life like for you back on your homeworld? My work has taken me to a lot of places, but never there.”

“Not so different from this,” she said, gesturing to the landscape with her clawed hand. “Cold, inhospitable, sparse sources of food. There were a lot more trees and wildlife, and it was somewhat warmer, but what you're looking at right now isn't far off the view from the door of our longhouse.”

“Why did you all move to Siberia? I heard about it on the news when it happened but they didn't give us much information. It kind of fell by the wayside as time passed, it just became normal to have a population of aliens living on Earth. Sovereign territory no less, such a thing would have been unthinkable before we joined the Coalition. I have to say, it turned a few heads in the agency, some of us have been operating since before the UNN ratified the treaties.”

“Things were bad in the Polar territory, we were geographically isolated from the more warlike territories and that's probably the only reason we still exist as a distinct race. We could not have fought off the numerically superior Equatorial nations if they had ever tried to invade. We had nothing that they wanted, and so they didn't. They couldn't survive in the Polar region and crossing the mountain ranges that shielded us made the venture pointless for them. Problem is, the territory was dying. Every winter got harder, it was more difficult to hunt, what few crops that we could grow there started to fail.”

“Was there nobody you could ask for help?”

“No, we're not all one happy family like the humans, there's still a lot of tension between the different territories. Worse, the UNN had begun to supply Elysia with advanced weapons and vessels that rendered our land barriers useless. The balance of power was destabilized and their leadership started treating the other territories like vassals where once there had been mutual respect.”

“Elysia are the big players then?”

“Yes, that's where most Borealans you will meet hail from, naked and militaristic. As their influence grew they used their newfound strength to bully and intimidate, in the way that all Equatorials do.”

“I'm starting to think you don't like them very much,” Boyd chuckled.

“They're savages. Anyway, with both the dwindling food supplies and the Elysians lording their fleet over our heads, our Queen brokered a deal with the Federation to relocate us to Siberia. They took us in and we've called the Republic our home ever since.”

“You know, humans haven't always been a 'big happy family', we still aren't. It took us a thousand years of war to reach the point where something like the UNN is possible, and even then we have our misfits and our outliers. Your Russian benefactors have been causing a stir lately by founding colonies of their own accord, it's not illegal but it runs counter to the UNN's unifying vision and it's causing a stir in the Admiralty.”

“They're like us, they value self-sufficiency, maybe that's why we get along with the Russians so well.”

“Maybe,” Boyd replied skeptically, “but war is always only a few bad decisions away.”

As they marched through the powdery snow, Lorza changed the subject back to Boyd's profession, seeming genuinely interested.

“So...got any stories about your assignments? We have a lot of time to kill, might be fun to hear about some of your big busts. Every get into a gunfight with crooks?”

“Most of the interesting stories are classified, if I told you, I'd have to kill you.” It was a joke but it seemed that she hadn't heard the expression before, her eyes widening. “No, no,” he said as he gestured for the alarmed Polar to calm down. “It's a joke, it's from an old movie or something. I wouldn't really kill you.”

“Oh, fair enough. You humans like your movies, sometimes you have conversations that are nothing but references to them. Impossible to follow.”

“You must have seen some movies though,” Boyd replied as he struggled to drag his block of meat over an especially steep snowdrift. “You called me 'Balto' earlier, that's from an old movie, right?”

She seemed embarrassed, and he stifled a smirk.

“Well...a few. I had a friend in Russia who would watch them endlessly. We shared a room while I was studying cartography as she was getting her doctorate. She pored over those things and I had the misfortune of overhearing much of it. She went on to become a doctor in the UNN I believe.”

“And you never wanted to join the UNN yourself? That's usually the go-to route for people who have their head in the clouds. They put 'see the galaxy' on their damned recruitment posters.”

“No, I wanted to explore planets, not fight on them.”

“It's not all fighting you know, there are plenty of humanitarian career paths in the UNN that don't involve shooting an XMR or flying a Penguin on bombing runs.”

“It isn't for me.”

***

They chatted for the rest of their walk, their mutual animosity fading as they got to know each other better, sharing stories of some of the places they had been and the exotic planets that had explored. Eventually the sun began to set on the flat horizon, and they located a cave to spend the night in, climbing down into a shimmering blue cavern. This one was spacious. It looked as if it had been sculpted from a glacier, the semi-transparent wall refracting the light of Boyd's wrist monitor in an eerie, blue glow. Lorza's eyes reflected it, shining in the dark like those of a cat.

She set about laying down her massive sleeping bag, and Boyd began to set up his cooking implements. He bent another of the metal stoves into shape and ignited a pack of gel to heat it, then placed a choice slab of monster meat on top of it to grill. Lorza sat on her sleeping bag with her arms crossed over her knees as he turned the meat over, watching the cooking flesh with longing glances.

Boyd knew from experience that when you were starving, everything tasted good, hunger was nature's own seasoning. Even this rubbery, fatty meat gave off a smell that made his mouth water in anticipation. Now that his alien companion had finished digesting the monstrous meal she had eaten the day before, it was getting to her too, her nose a hundred times more sensitive than Boyd's. She sat in silence however, making no demands for him to share as she had with the nutrient pills.

Boyd flipped the meat with his ceramic knife, watching one side brown, the hot metal of the stove imprinting on it like a brand. It sizzled, leaking juices, this piece was ready to eat. He took it off the stove and suspended it in the air for a minute or two, skewered on his knife while it cooled off.

“Hey Lorza, catch.” Startled, she snatched the cut out of meat out of the air as he tossed it to her, her claws digging into the tender flesh and hooking it. She looked to him for confirmation, surprised by his sudden act of generosity. “Go on, it's yours. I brought way too much meat to eat on my own, we'll be out of here in a day or two. Might as well share it or it'll just go to waste.”

“You really are full of surprises, Boyd.”

She dug in, a smile brightening her face as she chewed the succulent meat, taking her time now rather than wolfing down pounds of it without chewing. Boyd rose to retrieve another cut, slapping it down on the stove and beginning to cook it.

“How is it?” Boyd asked as he turned the meat, “does it meet your MRE cooking standards?”

“Not bad, not bad,” she replied through a mouthful. She swallowed and licked the juice from her lips, gesturing to him with her dripping claws. “If we had some seasonings this could really be something, would make a good stew with some vegetables to counter the salt.”

She finished off her portion as Boyd cooked his, removing his rebreather to hang around his neck and blowing on it to cool it down before taking a bite. It was salty, chewy, but there was something to be said for eating the meat of something that you brought down yourself, cooked over a naked flame out in the field. It was primal, satisfying.

“You can get some more if you like, there's plenty to go around. Just don't go nuts and eat more than your share.”

She hesitated for a moment, then rose to her feet to lumber over to the meat sled, crouching to select another sizable chunk. She cut the ziptie that bound it to the rest with her claw, bring it back to Boyd.

“This ok?”

He nodded and so she placed it on the ice next to the stove and sat back down on her bag behind him, waiting patiently for him to cook it.

“It's kind of nice not having to worry about bacteria and food spoiling. You can eat off the floor here if you need to, there’s nothing above the ice to contaminate it.” She was silent for a moment as Boyd chewed on his steak and began to cook her next portion, her tail flicking back and forth indecisively.

“And your wounds...they're healing ok? They didn't get infected or anything like that?”

She sounded remorseful, and Boyd turned his head to look at her, her round ears drooping as she avoided his gaze.

“I'm fine Lorza, really. You gave me a good scar to remember you by, but I can get that fixed. They can clear that up in an afternoon at a UNN hospital. My arm will be fine, the cast is doing its job. How about you? I got in some good shots with that knife.”

“We heal fast, I've already forgotten about it.”

He finished cooking her meat and handed it to her, skewered on his knife.

“Consider it a peace offering. We're square Lorza, we both got in some good hits and we both made complete asses of ourselves. I've had nights of drinking that resulted in more fights and ended in more serious injuries.”

She plucked the food from the end of his knife gingerly, taking a large bite.

“You're not angry with me, then?”

“No more than I'm angry at myself for letting things escalate so far.”

Her brow furrowed and she took an especially savage bite of her food, sinking her carnivore teeth into the flesh and tearing a hunk away.

“I'm glad this thing is dead,” she grumbled through her mouthful. “It killed Alexei, and we killed it right back.”

“Yeah, that's a story to tell over a drink when I get back home.”

“How did you know that the grenade would work? How did you know that your cast would protect you from it's bite?”

“I didn't,” he shrugged. “I just had to think on my feet and hope that the risk paid off, and it did.”

“Is this kind of thing...normal in your line of work?”

“I wouldn't say that, but we have to keep our cool in deadly situations and come up with creative solutions to problems. We have to improvise a lot, there's never anyone on the line to give us orders or help us out when we get into trouble. We're on our own, we can’t rely on backup.”

“Sounds lonely,” she said, polishing off her steak and licking the juice from her furry fingers with her oddly long tongue. “Never forming real relationships, not being able to trust anyone, how do you deal with that?”

Boyd chewed his meal as he considered his reply. He was usually so bent on completing his objective that he didn't think about it, he had no time for a social life and anyone he opened up to could potentially be an enemy ready to kill him on the spot. His entire life was classified, he couldn't even talk about his job without putting other people in danger.

“I guess you just get used to it after a while, you have to.”

“Well I think we make a pretty good team, all things considered.”

“Yeah, sure,” he laughed. “It's been a long time since I've had a partner, but I could get used to this too.”

They finished off the food, then started to feel a chill in the air, the sun had set and what little heat still lingered was being lost to space due to the moon's thin atmosphere. Boyd shivered, his suit flashing a battery charge warning.

“Guess we'd better get into the sleeping bag,” Lorza said. “There's more room now, you won't have to lie with your face in my chest.”

He left the gel packet to burn out, it couldn't melt the ice and it provided a little light, casting dancing shadows on the curved walls of the ice cave as the flame wavered. Lorza wormed her way into the bag and held it open for him, Boyd crawling inside to lie beside her as she closed the zipper. They were squeezed together, her paunchy body affording him little breathing room, but somehow he found it less unpleasant now. Her warmth and the contact of her soft fur on his skin was relaxing rather than bothersome, the heat that radiated from her body and the flickering fire from the gel packet mingling in his exhausted brain to give the illusion that they were sleeping beside a campfire. He would see trees again once they got out of here, green grass and chirping birds, a warm star beating down on his skin.

Lorza shifted a little to get comfortable, Boyd sinking into her fat stomach and chest, and she looked down at him apologetically.

“Sorry, just trying to get comfy.”

“It's fine,” he muttered. They had slept together every night since they had crashed, why did this now feel somehow...embarrassing? Being squashed together like this, her fluffy bust in his face, the scent of her body...it made him feel oddly self-conscious. Maybe because he thought of her as a person now, and not something truly alien.

Lorza seemed to notice his lack of complaints.

“Something wrong, Boyd?”

“No, no. I guess I'm just tired. We made good time to today, shouldn't be more than a day or two before we get to our destination. Keep your eye on the horizon and you might see the oxygen farm soon, the terrain is pretty flat and the atmosphere is thin.”

He felt her arm move beneath him as she pulled him a little closer for warmth, the fur of her neck brushing against his cheek.

“You feel tense,” she whispered, “try to relax. You'll need to get a good night's sleep, we still have a ways to go, mudak.”

She said it more like a nickname than an insult this time, and he laughed.

“Yeah yeah, I'm a naked kitten, and you're a Persian rug.”

“I will have to buy one of these ‘rugs’ when I return to Siberia, I want to see what all the fuss is about.”

She rested her furry chin on his head, pushing his face into her neck, her hair tickling his nose. They were always living in close proximity, but somehow this felt more intimate, he felt closer to her now.

Could he actually be enjoying her company? The thought shocked him, they had spent so much time arguing and fighting since they had landed, but they had been through so much together and they had bonded in their own strange way. He had gotten used to her, become accustomed to her company and her presence, and now that they had spent the day chatting he was actually starting to like her. She was much like him, a stranger among her human crew, never able to engage with any of them on equal footing.

For the first time since they had crashed on this moon, he didn't feel isolated. He had someone here who understood him and his experiences in ways that few others outside of the UNNI would. She was insightful, funny in a kind of dry way when she wanted to be, and...

Boyd's face reddened as he caught himself glancing down her overalls, the soft meat of her enormous breasts pressing together inside her clothing, illuminated by the dancing flame of the gel packet. She was breathing softly, asleep now, her warm breath rustling his hair as she lay on her side with her chin resting on his head. One arm was under him, the other draped over his hip, her soft belly pressing against his groin. They were practically spooning, closer than he had been to a woman in months, his job afforded him little opportunity for courting.

He swallowed heavily, trying to ignore the musky, feminine scent that he now so closely associated with warmth and comfort as he shifted to lie on his back. He stared at the blue, icy ceiling, going over the events of their journey in his head. Just a few days ago they had fought each other almost to death, and now he didn't know what to think. They had made peace, they were friends now and that was enough.

Boyd closed his eyes and tried to blank his mind, banishing intrusive and inappropriate thoughts that his subconscious spewed forth, ignoring the swelling in his pants as he fell into a troubled sleep.

***

Lorza draped her arm over Boyd's shoulders as she walked beside him in the snow, it was another fine day with clear skies, the wind was a little fast but it only blew a few stray flecks of snow on the air. Just the weight of her arm was heavy, it was packed with iron muscle beneath her layer of fat, and her bones were like concrete. He sagged, and she chuckled at him.

“What's up mudak? You've been quieter today. Not growing tired of me I hope.”

He shook his head, she seemed to have warmed to him after their conversations the previous day, now she was behaving far more friendly and she wouldn't keep her hands to herself. He didn't resent it, but he didn't really know how to respond, the alien's concepts of personal space and appropriate social interaction must differ from those of human society.

“You know, I could carry that for you,” Lorza said as she gestured behind him to the sled he was dragging. “Would be much easier for me than it looks for you.”

“I'm good, don't worry about it, just keep your eyes on the horizon and tell me if you see the oxygen farm.” He checked his oh-bis monitor, the compass keeping them on track as they traversed the featureless tundra. “It should be visible soon, it's a clear day.”

“Tonight could be our last night on this rock,” Lorza said, patting his back with her dinner plate sized hand and almost knocking him off balance. “I bet you'll be happy to sleep in a real bed without my fur in your face, and you'll be able to eat something that hasn't tried to kill us.”

“If I can get used to sleeping in a foxhole then I can get used to sleeping in your fur, it's not so bad.”

“You'll just have to sleep with one of those Persian rugs to remember me by.”

“I'd have to roll it up and stuff it with beach balls or it won't feel the same.”

She patted his head, pushing him a little deeper into the snow like a tent peg.

“Cool it with the fat jokes, mudak, or you'll have to enjoy the remainder of our journey from the inside of my rucksack.” She noticed that he had sunk up to his knees in the white powder, and she gripped him by the collar as if she was scruffing a kitten, lifting him and placing him beside the hole. “I don't know how you'll survive without me,” she said, shooting him a sly smile.

“Come on, let's keep up the pace, I don't want to rest until I see that man-made structure come into view. I don't care if I never see snow again, I just want to feel metal under my feet.”

“Yeah, I think I might wait a while before returning to Siberia, maybe I'll take a vacation to somewhere temperate like Toronto.”

“Canada is temperate to you?”

“Yeah, you see the fur? I'm not going anywhere tropical. It's a mystery to me why you humans seem to enjoy subjecting yourselves to solar radiation, burning your epidermis is a fashion statement to you.”

They trekked for a while longer, Boyd's boots crunching in the crisp snow, the going made harder by the ups and downs of the dunes and the occasional patch of uncovered ice. Lorza had no such problems, she was built for this, her wide paws stopped her from sinking into the snowdrifts and her claws gripped the ice to prevent her from slipping. Where before she had let the smaller human struggle and fend for himself, now she helped him along, steadying him when he lost his balance and helping him mount the steeper slopes.

She seemed to hold no grudges, remarkably forgiving of the way he had treated her, but then again Boyd felt the same way. They had worked through their differences and now they were square, there was no reason to dwell on the past, as fresh as some of their scars might be.

Lorza stopped at the peak of one of the dunes, holding her hand to her brow to shield her eyes from the sun, then he heard her cry out.

“I see it! Boyd, I can see it!”

He scrambled up the incline to join her, practically dropping to all-fours for grip as he climbed, coming to rest beside her as he panted. He could see it, hazy in the distance like a mirage, what looked like a refinery rising up from the flat horizon.

“That's it! That's the oxygen farm! We can't be more than a day's walk away by now!”

Boyd pumped his fist in the air, then Lorza took him in her arms to lift him off the dune, hugging him against her chest and spinning him around. They became tangled in the makeshift rope that he had used to drag his sled, tying Lorza's legs together and sending the pair toppling to the snow in a puff of powder. Boyd found himself lying atop the alien, his face sinking into her cleavage, and she laughed heartily as she attempted to untangle the rope. After a moment she gave up and lay back on the snow, her arms splayed to her sides as she caught her breath, looking down at a now red-faced Boyd who was struggling to pull himself free of the bonds.

“You're not half bad at navigating, mudak, you'd make a fine cartographer.”

She ran her fingers through his hair, her claws tickling his scalp as she pet him. He struggled to climb free of her breasts, his hands sinking into the plush fat, unable to find purchase. She smirked at him, reaching behind his back to unclip the rope from his belt, then took him by the wrist and rolled him down the dune. He came to a stop at the bottom and rose unsteadily to his feet, dizzy as he brushed the snow of him, the heat from his suit melting what got caught in the recesses and circuits that lined it. He glared up at her and she laughed again. It was infectious, he didn't have the heart to scold her, nor to suppress his own grin as he mounted the incline to return to her side. He welcomed the levity after their ordeal.

She took his hand as he reached the top, pulling him up and tying the rope back on his belt.

“Lead on mister Boyd.”

CHAPTER 8: HONEYPOT

The sun was getting low, framing their destination in its pale and far-off glow, the oxygen farm growing larger by the hour as shafts of light penetrated its many pipes and platforms. They could make out details now, innumerable cylinders of enormous scale extending out of view beneath the ice, no doubt siphoning water from the sub-surface ocean and carrying it up to the refinery to be prepared for shipping. Oxygen was a valuable commodity, humans breathed it, drank it, and used it as fuel for conventional thrusters. Wherever there was a colony or an outpost, there would be an oxygen farm on a nearby stellar body. Asteroids, comets, gas giants and frozen moons all contained oxygen in abundance, though it was admittedly a rare occurrence to find it in liquid form. This one must have been placed here by ExoCorp to supply Hades with fuel and drinking water. With any luck it would be manned by civilians or completely automated, the possibility of Syndicate stooges taking control of it was not impossible but it wasn't as if they had any other options. Better to keep his concerns to himself so as not to dampen Lorza's good mood.

“We should find shelter soon,” he said, “though I'm loathe to stop walking when our objective is so close. I feel like I could reach out and touch it.”

“Yeah, plenty of caves around here, we have enough food to last us days and there are no monsters on our tail, so there's no reason to rush and exhaust ourselves. We can take a break and you can cook us up some supper.”

“All you think about is food,” Boyd chided, and she patted her paunchy belly with her hand.

“I have to keep the engine running.”

“You might be starving, but I feel like you're the only person who has ever appreciated my cooking.”

“Does your wife cook for you?” Lorza asked, looking back over her shoulder at him as she hopped over a patch of ice. “I find that when one human can't cook, they have a wife or a mother that does it for them, so they never had to learn.”

“No,” he replied, “I don't have a wife. I couldn't, not in my line of work.”

“Poor Boyd, no mate to cook for him, he must eat his own food. Lorza will have to teach him.”

“You're going to teach me to cook?” Boyd laughed, assuming that she was joking.

“Yes, when we get off this moon I will teach you to cook, you'll be making borscht like a true babushka in no time. Then you can woo a mate. There is a human adage that my people like very much, 'the way to a heart is through the stomach', this is true for us also.”

“Yeah, I couldn't help but notice.”

“Food is central to our culture. Hunting together reinforces our bonds, cooking and preparing the kill brings us closer together, when the whole pack feasts at the table and shares the fruits of their labors we grow as a family.”

“How about you?” Boyd asked, crossing the patch of blue ice gingerly as he extended his arms for balance. “Is there a Mister Persian rug waiting for you back home?”

“Borealans don't really...well, we pair off sometimes when we mate, but for the most part we're pretty liberal when it comes to romance. Humans value monogamy and pair for life, or at least they claim to, but I've rarely seen that behavior from your kind. It's paradoxical.”

“So...you've never met anyone that you really liked?”

“Oh, sure, and I've had a few of them. I've not found a mate though, not in the way a human would understand the concept.”

“And...have you ever been with a human?” Boyd hesitated, trying to phrase the question in a way that sounded less suggestive. “I hear stories about Borealans from the Marines, word is they get up to a lot when they're off-duty.”

“Why? Are you interested in being the first?”

She laughed at him as he shook his head vehemently.

“No I'm just curious, it's not every day I get to have a heart to heart with an alien.”

“No, I've never been with a human. There was one guy though, a boy I met when I was studying in Saint Petersberg. He was cute, we hit it off, we went to all the same classes and I could sense that he wasn't good with girls. He liked me though, maybe an eight foot tall alien was less threatening to him than talking to females of his own species.” She chuckled as she reminisced. “One night he followed me back to my dorm, I told him that I needed his help with a thesis I was writing. It was a lie of course, I just wanted him, but he must not have liked the way that I propositioned him. I guess I shouldn't have expected all humans to be accepting of aliens in that way.”

“His loss,” Boyd said, shrugging. Lorza gave him a sideways look, cocking her head.

“Why do you say that?”

“He passed up an opportunity to try something unique, he probably won't get that chance again. You should always seize the moment and try new things, even if you end up hating them, at least you can say that you didn't let the opportunity pass you by.”

She reached over and gently punched his shoulder, playful, but still with enough force to knock him off balance. She grinned at him as he stumbled.

“I didn't expect such wisdom from you, mudak. What about you? Ever been subjected to a night with an Equatorial?”

“Can't say that I have, you can probably imagine, but there aren't many positions for Equatorials in my profession. They're not exactly the most subtle or tactful operatives. Besides, why do you phrase it like that? I remember back when we were arguing you told me that you'd like to lock me in a room with one just to see what would happen, too. Are they really that bad?”

“They're worse, though I can't say that I don't see the appeal. They fuck like they fight, there's a winner and a loser, and they give no quarter.”

“And what about Polars?”

“We put a little more thought into it than that,” Lorza replied, grinning. She looked past him, gesturing with her clawed finger. “Look, a cave opening. We should stop here and get some rest.”

Boyd nodded his agreement, and they changed course towards the cave mouth. This one was a little smaller than the last, but shallow, and before long they were seated on the soft sleeping bag beside a stove. Boyd flipped a cut of meat over the flickering, blue flame of a gel packet as they sat together, huddled for warmth. If he could forget about the mobsters who were intent on killing him, it was almost fun. Maybe he should do some more camping when he got back to civilization and took a well earned vacation.

Lorza watched the meat brown, licking her chops as Boyd turned it on his knife.

“If only we had something warm to drink,” she muttered, “we have water bottles but the plastic would melt if we tried to heat the contents.”

“This one is nearly done, it'll warm you up.”

After a few more moments he passed the meat to her, steam rising from it in the cold air, and Lorza took a wet bite out of it. He placed a second steak on the stove as she licked the juice from her chin with her long tongue.

“You don't give yourself enough credit Boyd, this is like heaven. Maybe it's the mild malnutrition talking but I could eat this all night.” She draped her arm over his shoulders and hugged him against her furry body, sawing off another hunk of meat with her sharp teeth. “We're probably the only people who have ever seen one of these animals, let alone eat it. We should name it!”

“Name it?” Boyd chuckled, his eyes on his cooking.

“Yeah, we discovered it, so let's name it.” She scratched her chin with one of her black claws as she though about it. “How about...a snowdevil.”

“Not bad, not bad,” he replied as he flipped the meat. “Needs to sound more aquatic though. What about an Octo-stalker?”

“Oh, I've got it! You ever seen a Rainbow Spider?”

“Can't say that I have,” Boyd replied, “what's that?”

“It's a huge predator that lives in the equatorial jungles of Borealis, it's covered in beautiful fur that refracts light, hence the name. The Elysians especially like to wear its pelt as capes or robes as a status symbol. This creature was colorful too, so how about we name it a Rainbow Squid?”

“Fair enough,” Boyd said as he brought the now cooked meat to his mouth and took a bite. “Rainbow Squid it is, and this here is Boyd's home cooked Rainbow steak, patent pending.”

She laughed and brought her head down level with his, rubbing her fur against his cheek in a display of affection that surprised him. Polars really were a tactile people, they communicated so much through touch. It had been alarming at first, but he was quickly growing accustomed to it now. She was warm, and her coat was like velvet, he brought up a hand to scratch her head and she crooned appreciatively.

“Your suit really is warm,” she mused, then she smirked and wrapped her large hands around his torso. She plucked him off the sleeping bag with little effort, planting him in her lap and crossing her arms around him. Her thighs were pudgy and soft beneath him, her breasts cushioning his head as she blew warm breath in his hair. “If only this kept its charge overnight, it would be so~ nice.”

He finished off his steak, blushing in earnest, feeling the rise and fall of her ample chest. She rested her chin on his head as she watched the fire dance, Boyd now enveloped in her fat and fur as they relaxed, the cold all but driven off by their combined heat.

It felt nice, it was comfortable to be held like this, and Boyd didn't know how that made him feel. His heart had quickened and there was more than warmth heating his cheeks.

“You went quiet suddenly,” Lorza mumbled, “something wrong?”

“No, I just...I'm relaxed.”

“I know that humans can be weird about being touched, but we're friends right?”

“I don't mind.”

“I think that you'd be a credit to any pack that would have you,” she muttered. It was an oddly off-hand comment, and he peered up at her as she looked down at him with her blue eyes.

“Yeah? Why do you say that?”

“I think that you're a Polar at heart, you're a survivor, you take care of your own.” She ruffled his hair with her hand. “At least after you've learned who your allies are.”

“I guess the way to your heart really is through your stomach,” he said, and she laughed at him.

They sat in silence for a while, Boyd feeling an odd tension growing in his chest as he sat in Lorza's lap. He had become painfully aware of the way his fingers sunk into the supple meat of her thighs, and the way her breasts swayed as she breathed, pressing against the back of his head. He couldn't stand it any longer, and rose to his feet suddenly, Lorza blinking her eyes at him.

“What's the matter?”

“I just...bathroom break.” He hurried off down a side tunnel as Lorza watched him with a quizzical expression. When he was out of view he leaned against a nearby wall, tapping at the touch pad on his wrist to lower his suit temperature, hoping that the chill air would have the same effect as a cold shower. His chest felt tight, what the hell was wrong with him? He had endured her teasing and her attempts to get under his skin for days, but now it was her genuine affection that was piercing him like a hot knife. He was accustomed to resisting interrogation, but he didn't know how to deal with this.

Did he like her? How would he deal with it if he did? He felt like someone was inflating his heart with a bicycle pump and that it was about to explode. He tried to compose himself, would he even survive another night in the sleeping bag with her?

The bite of the cold helped distract him a little, calming him enough that he might put on a stoic front, but he doubted that it would last long. He had to do something about this, could he not endure her company for just one more night, and then be rid of her? Maybe it was her proximity that made him feel this way, and having her gone would ease the tension.

Just stick it out, he told himself, in a few more hours it won't matter and she'll never have to know about it. Lying was his job, playing a role was his profession, and this was no different.

He made his way back up the tunnel, walking returning to where Lorza was sitting and planting himself a good foot away from her. She cocked her head at him, scrutinizing him with her piercing stare and tracking him with her fluffy ears. He selected another piece of meat from the pile, they had dragged it closer to the sleeping bag tonight, and began to cook as a means to occupy himself. He felt her eyes on him as he flipped the meat with his ceramic knife, the flame from the gel packet casting long, moody shadows that twitched and flickered on the ice walls.

“Boyd, you've been acting weird all day now, if you can't talk to me then who can you talk to? There's nobody here besides us. I can never read you, you're an enigma.”

“I'm fine, just some digestive issues, I'm probably having a hard time with the alien meat.”

She kept her eyes on him, her expression skeptical.

“I may not be able to read you like I can with most humans, but I know you well enough by now to realize when you're acting out of character. Did I do something to upset you?”

“No, nothing like that. Listen Lorza, we only have one night left before we're off this wretched moon, so what do you say we have a little more to eat and then get to sleep? I'm tired from all the walking we've been doing, and the sooner we pass out the sooner we can be up and moving again.”

“Yeah...ok.” She didn't seem convinced. He had to admit that he wasn't doing a very good job of concealing his feelings, hiding the way you felt about someone was somehow so much harder than going undercover. He felt as if he couldn't look her the eye or she'd know, but she could sense that something was wrong.

He was startled as he felt her sinuous tail wind around his waist like a tentacle, surprisingly powerful as she dragged him towards her and into her waiting arms. She planted him in her lap again, enclosing him in a cocoon of flesh and fur, his head spinning as her familiar scent washed over him.

“At least share your heat if you're going to get all quiet on me, mudak. The sun must have set because it's getting colder. Will you stop wriggling?”

Boyd struggled to escape her grasp, a new desperation gripping him as that pressure in his chest returned, his face burning as he made excuses.

“My meat will burn, come on, lemme go.”

She was so much stronger than him, and he couldn't escape her, eventually relaxing to simmer as he realized that she wasn't going to let up.

“I can feel your suit getting cooler, you're running out of power, we should get into the sleeping bag.”

He had dreaded it, but he nodded his head, Lorza releasing him to tend to the stove as she unzipped the bag. He retrieved the meat and began to eat it, not really hungry anymore but forced to keep up appearances, it would look strange if he didn't eat the food that he had prepared.

He turned around to see her lying snug inside the bag, holding it open her with one hand in invitation, her large breasts pressing together under their own weight.

“Come on, I'm getting cold again.”

He steeled himself and complied, shuffling closer and rolling into the sleeping bag. She closed it around them and zipped it up, Boyd now trapped inside with Lorza, her voluptuous body pressing down on him from all sides and her feminine scent hotboxing him in the enclosed space. Her whole body was soft, yielding, no matter what position he tried to sleep in he was always in contact with something round and squashy. Worse, she was being extra affectionate now, draping her arm over his chest and pushing her face into the nape of his neck to nuzzle like a cat.

“My people sleep in piles,” she muttered, her hot breath tickling his skin. “It's nice that I can be more relaxed around you, I'll sleep better if I can feel someone close to me.”

His heart was pounding like a hammer in his chest, the feeling of her warm fur on his skin making his head spin, Lorza noticing and placing her palm on his forehead.

“Are you sick? Your face is red.”

He felt as if steam might pour from his ears, unable to contain himself any longer as her plush body enveloped him.

“No, I'm fine, just the stress getting to me I guess.”

She hooked her clawed hand around the back of his head, sinking her fingers into his hair, and pulled him closer to bury his face in her furry neck. He breathed in her scent, warmth flooding his body and his heart quickening as she scratched his scalp, pleasant shivers rolling down his spine. Were all of her kind this affectionate with one another? Was this normal behavior to them? Even when he had been with women he had never felt anything like this before, as if her compassion was leaking from her very pores. He felt more wanted in that moment than he ever had in the heat of sex, the sensation was confusing and exciting, he felt drunk.

“That's it, just relax, you're so tense. We'll be home free tomorrow, get some rest.”

Her voice was soft and low, husky yet feminine, her breath tickling his skin as she murmured in his ear. Did she know what she was doing to him? No, she couldn't influence him like she could other humans, she had said so herself. Unbeknownst to her, years of training in resisting everything from persuasion to outright torture had steeled him against her wiles, this was something different.

He felt as if he might explode if he didn't say something, anything. This would be their last night together, his last chance to act on these feelings. What was it he had said to her? That you should seize the moment, let no opportunity pass you by and never fear new experiences.

“Lorza...”

“What is it,” she mumbled, “finally going to tell me why you've been acting so shifty?”

“I...I think I might be falling in love with you.”

She released him from her embrace, looking down at him with a confused expression. She was usually so snarky but now she was speechless. His face burned and he stammered through the rest of his confession, each sentence making him feel more like he had made a grave mistake. “These past few days since we...well, since we stopped fighting...I've never felt so close to someone. Maybe it's because of the things we've been through, maybe it's because we've had to spend every moment together, but I feel like you're the only person who can know me the way you do. I'm a spy for the UNNI, a spook, I was sent to Hades on a covert mission. From the moment I saw you I was lying to you, and every day it became harder and harder. Now I feel like I can't even look at you without spilling my guts, what kind of spy does that make me?”

Her shocked expression softened, becoming warm and somehow hungry, he felt as if she wanted him to go on.

“I made fun of your fur and your body, but I love it.” He was rambling now, his embarrassment welling as she scrutinized him with her piercing, blue gaze. “I just...I guess it was a defense mechanism, I didn't want you to know how much I looked forward to sleeping with you, didn't want to admit it to myself-”

She cupped his red cheek in her large hand, the downy fur of her palm soft against his skin, and leaned her head down to press her lips against his. He went silent, the hair on his arms standing on end and his spine arching off the ground as she slipped her long, tapered tongue into his mouth. Her lips were large and full, mismatched to his, but they locked together as she subjected him to a slow and gentle embrace. She smacked softly, the sound amplified in the silence of the cave, and his eyelids fluttered as her deft tongue probed and explored his head. The muscle twisted and squirmed, its length and girth such that it bulged his cheeks, the taste of copper teasing his tongue as he tried in vain to wrestle the invader. It just kept coming, more and more of it, falling into his mouth like a slippery snake as he desperately sank his fingers into her inviting coat.

He ran his hands through her fur, roving and stroking, squeezing her ample flesh wherever he found it and hearing her rumble an appreciative purr in response. He felt like someone had poured ice water into his brain, his mind was fogging, all he could concentrate on was the sensation of her massive organ as it painted the inside of his mouth and probed his throat. She was so powerful, her kiss so deep and lurid, yet she was so emphatically gentle and considerate of his human limitations. The slow rhythm of her embrace put him in a kind of trance, the warmth of her body permeating his very bones as she pressed closer to him and her hot tongue roiled in his head.

He felt as if it might just go on forever until she finally withdrew, breaking away with a wet pop and sliding the length of her heavy tongue back between her lips, a thick strand of her saliva linking her to Boyd as he panted beneath her. She loomed over him, gazing at him with covetous eyes that reflected the dancing light from the stove.

“Mudak...you think I've not been trying to seduce you since day one? I admit, at first I just wanted to make you pliant and cooperative, but you resisted me. I'm not used to that, I'm not accustomed to being refused, so I thought maybe you were another human that just...didn't like aliens.” She ran her fingers through his hair, her black claws scratching his scalp, the sensation like fireworks going off in his brain. He had been sure that she would reject him, mock and tease him for his lapse, but this was a better reaction than he could ever have imagined. “As time passed, and we talked more, I started to realize that you weren't like other humans. I couldn't break your resolve, anyone else would have cracked the moment I invited them into my sleeping bag, but you...something about you makes you different. Maybe it's because you're a spook, but I think it's that quality that makes you a good spy, and not the other way around.”

She leaned closer, catching his ear between her pointed teeth and chewing it softly as she whispered to him.

“I wanted to do things to you, things that would have cooked us in this sleeping bag, you'd hunger for my body more than for food.”

She moved down, nuzzling as she went, and he flinched as he felt her teeth press against his neck. She bit him gently, pressing her sharp teeth into his skin and planting her thick thigh into his groin as he bucked. His growing erection pressed against the soft fat, a sharp gasp escaping his pursed lips as her warm tongue grazed his throat.

“But you resisted me, and I gave up. That's when we really started to get to know one another, and I started to fall for you, I wanted to have you and I couldn't.”

She bit him a little harder, grinding her thigh against his stiff member, Boyd gripping her fur as she teased him. She kissed his neck, planting her puffy lips against his skin as if to soothe the red indents her teeth had left there.

“But now you come to me willingly, eager, let me have you Boyd...”

He squirmed as she mouthed and licked, her sinuous tongue slipping beneath the collar of his suit, almost unable to formulate a coherent reply as his breath came in gasps.

“Don't stop,” he whispered, a sudden violent desire rising up inside of him. “We've been an inch from death so many times, I want to feel alive.”

She hesitated for a moment, breathing heavily as she looked down at him, then rolled off him and lay by his side.

“Clothes. Now.”

He scrambled to get out of his suit, made harder in the confined space as Lorza tried to wriggle free of her overalls beside him. Before long they had both kicked off their clothing, discarding it on the ice outside of the sleeping bag as Boyd plunged into her soft body. She took him in her arms, pulling him against her, his erection sinking into her paunchy belly and his head disappearing between her weighty breasts. Every inch of his skin was encompassed by her fur, like velvet as the pair were squashed together in the bag. She ran her claws up and down his spine, drawing red trails in his skin as he groaned into her bosom, his hands delving into the copious fat of her chest. His fingers sank into the meat, her breasts larger than his head and almost impossible to lift now that they were free of her supporting overalls. He had been distracted by them so many times, been forced to stare down her enticing cleavage whenever they had shared the sleeping bag, now he was making up for lost time.

He probed the supple meat of her breasts, feeling the firm tissue below the layer of fat, Lorza arching her spine and pushing against him as he kneaded and twisted. He felt her claws in his hair, and she guided him towards her nipple, sucking the hard nub into his mouth and rolling his tongue over it. She growled like a beast, shivering as he trapped it between his tongue and his teeth, tugging and sucking as her hand slid down to grip his member.

He jumped, groaning as he felt her silken fingers wrap his cock, the fleshy pad on the end of her thumb rubbing the tip in slow circles. She gripped it firmly, stroking the shaft and driving a sharp gasp from his lips, tugging at his hair when her nipple escaped his mouth.

“Don't stop,” she growled, pulling back his foreskin and teasing his sensitive glans with her fur. “I need this.”

Waves of warm pleasure spread up through his body as she stroked and squeezed, Boyd struggling to stay still as his hips bucked reflexively into her soft hand, her hot breath blowing in his hair as she panted above him. She placed her hand on the back of his head and pressed him deeper between her breasts, her cleavage encompassing his head as she let the weight of them smother him. The delicate fat was so pliant and yielding, spilling around his fingers, yet firm enough to maintain its shape as he played with it. She used her upper arms to press them together, her silken fur sliding against his flushed cheeks, her massive body shifting slowly as she rubbed her thighs together in anticipation of what was to come.

Boyd took handfuls of her ample chest, growing more aggressive in his explorations as the pumping of her fist hastened, Lorza chuckling as he tried to fuck her hand. She stopped suddenly, squeezing the base of his member and making him gasp in surprise.

“I might have to rub one out of you just so that you'll last,” she murmured as he loosed a groan that was muffled by her cleavage. “You wanted me all this time and you had no privacy, you couldn't take care of yourself. Humans have such strange hangups,” she mused, releasing him from her bust and leaning down to bring her lips to his ear. “You should have come to me, even as a friend I would have helped.” She started to stroke again, her pace torturously slow, cradling him in her free arm as she whispered under her breath. “We could have taken our frustrations out on each other, isn't fucking better than fighting?”

She shuffled down into the sleeping bag, crawling down his bare chest with her mouth, planting lingering kisses on his skin and tracing the contours of his muscles with her dexterous tongue. She dragged her hand down his belly, half stroking and half scratching, the claws and fur confusing his senses. He squirmed, his fingers delving into the fur on her head as she roved towards his member, still cradled in her warm hand. She bit his hip softly, then poised over his throbbing erection, his eyes snapping shut in alarm as he felt her breathe warm air on the tender head of his cock.

She was underneath the sleeping bag now, and he was unable to see her, the only evidence of her presence being the lump that she made in the fabric as she leaned over his groin. She lowered her head and pressed her puffy lips against his member, kissing and mouthing as she wrapped them around his sensitive glans. She planted her hands on his hips to pin him to the ground and stop him from thrusting into her mouth, chuckling to herself as she felt his futile writhing. She trapped the tip of his pulsing member between her lips, and Boyd saw stars dance before his eyes as her long tongue uncoiled to wind around it, lubricated by her thick saliva. She trapped him in a prison of warm, slippery flesh as her organ wrapped his shaft, the dull feline barbs of her tongue almost painfully stimulating as they grazed his skin.

It squeezed him like a fist, his spine arching as the coils of wet muscle reached the base, the tapered tip of her long tongue glancing his balls. She held him there for a while, allowing him to enjoy the sensation of her flesh as it twitched and flexed around him, strands of viscous saliva dripping from her open mouth to fall to his belly and thighs. He gripped fistfuls of her hair in his trembling hands, overcome by the sensation, his member jumping and throbbing in her grasp.

She withdrew her tongue, pulling his member deeper inside her mouth along with it, reeling it in like a fish hooked on a line. The heat of her mouth encompassed him, smooth and slimy, her rough tongue teasing the underside of his glans to send sparks of pleasure flickering through his brain. He felt as if he was no longer in control of his body, her every breath and gentle movement eliciting a reaction from him, as if she were playing him like some kind of impassioned marionette. She sucked him in, the pressure around his cock making his toes curl, and he felt the tip of it hit the back of her throat. He felt as if his legs were melting like irons in a forge, the muscles weakening and going numb as she assaulted his member from all sides with her agile tongue.

She painted it with her saliva, coating his cock in a layer of warm slime, her organ worming its way around him as if trying to taste every inch of his skin. She noticed his reaction when her soft barbs found the underside of his glans, and focused her attention there, using the tip of her tongue to tease and stroke.

“Fuck Lorza...what are you doing to me?”

She laughed, the vibrations serving to further stimulate him, and he groaned as she lapped at the excitement that leaked from his tip. She pushed her head down suddenly, her nose hitting his belly as she took him deep into her throat. Her tight muscles massaged him as she tried to swallow, struggling around his member and rolling across his glans in rippling contractions. The slimy flesh squeezed and kneaded him, milking in a cruel rhythm as her gullet rejected him and she choked a little, pulling back to let the fresh flood of drool roll down his shaft in thick globs to dampen her furry hand. She played with the mess, dragging her finger up his cock and forming a rope, watching it break with a smirk as it fell to his belly. She pulled back his foreskin and circled his glans with her tongue, the sensation raw and harsh, driving pleasure up through his body in wracking pulses. He gritted his teeth against the sensation, pulling her hair, one of her hands still trapping him against the floor so that he couldn't obey his instinctual desire to fuck her mouth.

“You're fun,” she mumbled, “sensitive...”

“Am not,” he grumbled, his breath coming in gasps.

She dragged the length of her textured tongue up his shaft as if to prove him wrong, Boyd twitching like he was being electrocuted as she paused at the glans to trap it between her lips, flicking her organ ruthlessly over the tender head. He sunk his fingers into the silky fur of her head beneath the sleeping bag, failing to suppress an unbecoming whine. She laughed, letting his member fall from her mouth and stroking his shaft with her hand to keep him on edge as she mocked him.

“What was that noise?”

“You...I'll get you back,” he growled.

“Oh, I'm counting on it, mudak.”

She forced him into her throat again in one smooth motion, his member throbbing against her slippery, flush muscles, her lips closing around the base as she sucked and licked. He loosed a primal grunt and bent double, his torso rising from the bed and his thighs closing around her fluffy cheeks. Her head was so large, almost such that he couldn't wrap his arms around it, and he buried his face in her hair as she sucked. Her throat gripped him like a damp fist clad in silk, pumping and squeezing as if trying to draw out his emission like toothpaste from a tube. Sensing that he was close, she released him, sliding him slowly out of her mouth along with a mass of stringy saliva. She placed a massive hand on his chest, pushing him back down to lie prone, rising for a moment to bite his neck gently.

“Stay down, let me have my fun, and later you can have yours.”

Dazed and wanting, he complied, watching her with unfocused eyes as she slipped back beneath the sleeping bag with a sly smirk. He arched his spine as he felt her lick the sweat from his abs with her rough tongue, leaving a trail of warm slaver before continuing down towards his aching erection. She teased him with her soft fur, tickling his balls with her palm and blowing warm air on his glans.

“I'm dripping,” she murmured, his cock beating like a second heart in her hand as she closed her fingers around it. “I want a turn now, so be a good little human and come for me.”

She began pumping his member in her fist, her grip tight and ruthless, kissing and licking the tip as she went. A dull, familiar pleasure began to well up inside him, an urgency that threatened to drive him over the edge. Her fur was so soft, it was like masturbating into a mink coat, her rough tongue circling his member and glazing it with viscous drool that made her hand slippery and hot. She released his hips, her claws leaving red indents in his skin, and she let him thrust desperately into her hand as he bucked against her in search of more stimulation.

Tingling pleasure spread through his body, as if arcs of electricity were flowing through his nervous system like a lightning rod, his resolve melting as she lowered her lips to mouthe and kiss his thighs and belly. It was maddening, he couldn't see her beneath the bag, never knowing where she would strike. The deft strokes of her sinuous tongue and the soft pinching of her lips and teeth set of a fireworks show in his skull, her cruel touch like white noise that blanked out all of his other senses.

Her pace increased, cradling his balls in her velvet palm and bringing him closer and closer with her hand, eventually slowing when she felt him start to tense and letting his excitement wane again. She heard him groan in exasperation, and she laughed, pressing her finger against the tip of his cock and making slow circles.

“Ok, I'll stop teasing, but it's really your own fault for giving me such an amusing reaction.” He had no quip, no retort, and she crooned softly as she felt his member throb in her hand. “No comeback? What's the matter Boyd, have you lost your bite?”

She slammed her face down on his cock, taking him to the base, her tongue coiling around his shaft like a noose as her throat trembled and rippled around him. The pressure forced more of her saliva from her lips, his belly and thighs sodden with it, everything below his waist a mess of juices and drool. She began to bob her head on his erection, careful to keep her sharp teeth clear, her rough tongue grating the sensitive underside of his member as it lolled out of her mouth. It was almost frictionless, so slimy was her throat as it clung to his glans like a glove, the satin texture of her gullet dizzying him as she plunged his cock deeper and faster. She wrapped her hands around his hips, lifting his lower body off the ground, her pointed claws pricking his butt and pulling him towards her mouth for leverage as she ravished him.

All he could do was cover his burning face with his hands and try to endure, euphoria spreading through his body like a fever, held aloft like a doll as she pushed him closer and closer to his inevitable climax.

He clenched his thighs around her head as she brought him to orgasm, locking him deep in her warm gullet and holding him there as his member began to jump and flex, Boyd's spine contorting into an arch as he bit his lip to stave off a pained cry. Her claws dug into the meat of his ass a little painfully, but he couldn't care less as the waves of wracking pleasure rolled over him, Lorza's throat undulating as it clung to his cock and she drank down the thick wads of his emission as they came. He splashed warm ejaculate against the back of her throat, some of it spilling from her mouth to hang from her lips in strands, and as she swallowed her maddening contractions drew more of it from him.

She held him there for what felt like an eternity, every fresh spurt of his come sending a new wave of pleasure rolling down his beleaguered body, every light twitch of her tongue and flex of her throat muscles amplified a hundredfold. Again and again he released into her waiting mouth, Lorza swallowing dutifully as he tensed and bucked. Finally he went limp, and she lowered him gently back down, dragging her soft lips up his cock and scraping away the obscene mess with her tongue, swallowing conspicuously and then falling down beside him. She draped her arm across his chest and pulled him into her embrace, burying his face in her breasts as he floated in a haze of afterglow.

“I take it that felt good? You look like someone hit you on the head.”

He pressed his face deeper into her warm cleavage, enjoying the sensation of her warm flesh against his cheeks, and he laughed.

“Yeah...I should have come to you earlier.”

“Looks like I've found the only way to get you to shut your mouth for a while,” she chuckled, scratching his scalp with her claws and feeling him shiver appreciatively. “Not such a wiseguy now, are you?”

He relaxed into her arms, utterly satisfied and content, he felt as if he could just fall asleep here and not wake up for a week. Her scent was wonderful, her soft, warm body was so inviting. His diminishing erection pressed against the soft paunch of her belly, and her warm breath blew his hair as she stroked his head. He felt a sudden annoyance overcome him however, she was smug and self-satisfied, staring down at him with an expression that indicated that she thought she had gotten the better of him. She noticed the look he gave her, his head still nestled in her fluffy cleavage, and she couldn't contain her grin.

“Why are you looking at me like that? Are you embarrassed?” She leaned closer to pinch his ear with her teeth, he could smell himself on her breath as she whispered. “You're so cute when you come, mudak.”

She was making fun of him, and he knew what she wanted, deciding to play along anyway as he started to slide downwards. He eased her onto her back, she was too large for him to throw her around in the way he wanted to, but she understood what he was doing and rolled over to lie prone. Her heavy breasts fought against gravity, and she looked down between them as her chest started to rise and fall more rapidly, her eyelids drooping as Boyd crawled down between her thick thighs.

“We'll see who's cute,” he muttered, parting her legs with his hands as she started to giggle. Her thighs were enormous, as thick as tree trunks, they would have to be in order to carry such a huge creature. As he pushed against her inner thighs his fingers sank into the supple flesh, as soft a cookie dough, beneath which his fingers encountered the resistance of her iron muscles. She looked fat on the outside, but that was deceptive, he realized. Beneath the layer of insulating paunch was a musculature that would make a body builder blush. The mere act of moving around with what must be half a thousand pounds weighing her down, if not more, was itself a form of resistance training. Even moreso in her native Borealan gravity of 1.3G. She was overtly humanoid, but she almost had more in common with something like a lion or a bear than a human.

“Do your worst,” she chuckled as he disappeared from view beneath the sleeping bag. “Humans probably can't even-” She gritted her teeth abruptly, her back rising from the floor and her hands shooting down to bury her fingers in his hair as he raked his tongue across her vulva. She shivered, her massive body trembling as she clamped her thighs around his head and threatened to crush it like a melon.She swore in Russian, as confused as she was aroused, before finally regaining some of her composure.

“S-Smooth tongues?” She half-laughed, half-groaned with anticipation as she felt his warm breath on her loins, her claws pricking his scalp as her thighs rubbed against his cheeks. “They have smooth tongues...”

From inside the sleeping bag Boyd splayed her pink, swollen labia with his fingers, the rosy flesh inside glistening as her viscous excitement leaked from her twitching opening in thick ropes. Her scent permeated the enclosed space, musky and feminine, he was already growing hard again as he felt her massive body shudder and squirm at his touch. It seemed that his tongue had surprised her, and now that he thought about it her own had been rather rough, covered in those dull barbs. It hadn't been enough to make her oral sex unpleasant, but it might be so intense as to be painful for females. Oral that wasn't uncomfortable might be a whole new universe to her, and now it was his turn to make her buck and moan.

He dragged his tongue up and down her vulva, her thick juices hanging from his chin in strands as he explored the delicate folds and contours of her sex, feeling her quiver and tense in response as he teased her. Her claws pricked his scalp, her fingers tugging at his hair for purchase as he roved, her massive thighs rubbing against his cheeks as she squirmed. He pushed his tongue into her opening, her sour excitement leaking around it, and she grunted as her powerful muscles caught it and threatened to pluck it from his head with their grip. They tried to draw him deeper, his tongue glancing the smooth walls of her tunnel, and he pushed a finger inside experimentally.

He was greeted by her grasping muscles, sucking on his finger like a mouth, pulling him inside as Lorza rolled her great hips. He tried to wrap his free arm around one of her thighs for leverage, but their circumference was such that he couldn't reach all the way around, settling instead for taking a fistful of fur from her sensitive inner thigh. She seemed to enjoy the sensation, her long tail coiling around his arm reflexively like a fluffy snake.

Her vagina rippled and undulated around his digit, massaging and milking, almost desperate in its intensity. It felt like might crush it, it was almost painfully tight despite her immense size. He slipped in a second finger, meeting a moment of resistance before he managed to part her walls, feeling as if it was only possible due to the copious lubrication that she exuded. Her grip on his scalp tightened and she arched her back, feeling his fingers probing her insides for weak points.

“Now I know why the Equatorials are all over the recruits,” she mumbled, bucking against his fingers as if trying to fuck them. “No claws, smooth tongue, it's like you were made for this.”

He silenced her with a come-hither motion that scraped his fingertips along the roof of her tunnel, the slimy muscle yielding as she shivered. She was really crushing his fingers together, no less muscular down here than anywhere else on her body. She was squeezing him between her thighs, large enough to encompass his entire torso as she attempted to rub them together, doughy fat to his left and right enveloping him.

He drew closer to press his tongue against her damp flesh again, pausing to let her feel his breath on her loins before resuming his rhythmic licking. She jumped and wriggled with every glance, his saliva mingling with her emissions to sodden her fur, Boyd beginning to move his fingers in and out of her narrow passage. She gripped his head in her hands, large enough to completely encompass it, and pulled him closer to grind against his face.

She was dripping, the mess clinging to his skin and linking his lips to her rosy labia with thick ropes that broke when he pulled back, probably necessary to allow a Borealan-sized member to fit. She felt tight enough that even a human might have problems, sex between two of these titans must be an outright battle, assuming the aliens were appropriately endowed for their size.

She pulled his hair, tugging him closer in an unspoken plea for more, Boyd letting go of his inhibitions and mouthing ardently. He played his lips and tongue over her splayed loins, letting her obscene juices flow, it wasn't as if things could get any messier at this point. Her tunnel contracted rhythmically around his fingers, clamping them together as rippling spasms rolled through her, her toned pelvic floor muscles squeezing them like a vice. It was almost impossible to move his fingers now, despite the viscous slime clinging to them, like some kind of Chinese finger trap made of damp satin.

He played his tongue over her labia and her spine rose from the bed, her thighs clamping around his head. It was somewhat alarming, she could have used a landing craft suspension spring as a thighmaster. He had to rely on her restraint and hope that her attention didn't lapse, resulting in his head being popped like a ripe grape.

He sunk his hand into the soft paunch of her belly, gripping a subtle tire of fat and hanging onto the writhing alien as he sucked and licked, wrestling the tight muscles of her vagina with his fingers. He roamed higher with his tongue, grazing her vulva, the smoothness of his organ apparently a delightful novelty to her. Her hips bucked reflexively, her body reacting of its own accord as she cradled his head in her fluffy hands, her breath coming in sharp gasps that made the meat of her belly and thighs wobble.

He found something hard as he explored, and she loosed a low growl like an angry tiger, her claws digging into his skin and her tail tightening around his arm. A clitoris, her kind must have them too, and a sly grin spread across his face as he paused over it. He breathed warm air on it, feeling Lorza freeze up like a giant statue, her insides trembling around his fingers as she anticipated his touch.

He planted his mouth around the hard protrusion, sucking it out from under its protective hood and trapping it between his lips, circling its shiny surface with his tongue. She bent double, rising to a sitting position, struggling against the sleeping bag that restrained her as she shuddered and whined.

“Damn it...Boyd go slow...I can't...”

He ignored her protests and continued, painting the firm flesh with his saliva, dragging the surface of his tongue across it and applying more pressure to draw it further into his mouth. She loosed a sharp gasp and pulled his hair with her furry fingers, his head sinking into the meat and fluff of her thighs as they tightened around his head in desperation. She leaned further forward, and Boyd felt the weight of her breasts on his shoulders, Lorza beside herself as he lapped at her clitoris.

Soft cries escaped her pursed lips as he licked, each stroke of his tongue on her tender protrusion making her muscles contract, as if he was hitting a button that made her body twitch and tremble despite her. Her juices were flowing even more fervently, a torrent that dampened her inner thighs and matted the fur around her groin. He began to thrust his fingers in and out of her more quickly, hastening his licking and feeling her giant body convulse in response, the previously sarcastic and cocky alien now reduced to a veritable mess at his hands.

She fell back, her massive body impacting the ground with enough force to shake the ice beneath the sleeping bag, Lorza lost to her fugue as she arched her back and gyrated her hips. One of her hands left his hair to seek out a heavy breast, kneading it ardently as he continued his assault, her breathy gasps turning to rumbling moans as he brought her closer.

She shivered like she had been hooked up to a battery, losing control of herself and raising the sleeping back with her hand to look down at him with longing eyes.

“C-Close, don't stop,” she stammered. Her eyelids were drooping, her gaze unfocused as she bit her lower lip, rolling her loins against his face instinctively. He glanced up over the mound of her belly, then let her clitoris pop out of his mouth, withdrawing his fingers with some difficulty along with a flood of sticky fluids. Her brow furrowed, her labored breathing making her ample breasts bounce, and she gave his hair a hard tug.

“H-Hey! I was close! You little...”

He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, a futile gesture, his face was coated in her emissions. Thick globs of it hung from his chin, dropping to roll down his chest. He smirked at her, rubbing her swollen clitoris softly with his thumb and making her writhe. Her angry expression turned dazed for a moment, before he slowed, and she glared down at him again as he kneeled between her legs.

“Just getting you back for earlier,” he said, laughing as she lay back on the sleeping bag with her hands over her face and groaned. After a moment she rose to a sitting position again, a lascivious glint in her eye.

“Don't start fights you can't win, human.”

In a flash she plunged her hands beneath the sleeping bag, taking him under the arms, then flipped him over onto his back. She rolled over onto her knees, and Boyd found himself trapped under her, her still dripping loins drizzling her excitement onto his cheek from above. She straddled his face, lowering herself so that her hot flesh pressed against his nose, letting the sleeping bag slough off her back as she rose upright. Her silky thighs were locked around his head, Lorza looking down at him from what felt like a great distance, her hand creeping between her legs to find purchase in his hair again.

The weight of her butt rested on his chest, the two massive globes of soft fat and hard muscle pressing down on him, not enough to actually crush him but enough to let him know who was in charge. She stroked his hair, her claws tickling his scalp, crooning in mock concern as she rubbed against his face.

“Be a good boy and finish me off, make it good, and I'll declare a truce.”

He pushed his tongue into her twitching tunnel and her thighs shook around his cheeks, her eyes closing as she gasped and sunk her teeth into her puffy lip again. She weighed one of her copious breasts in her hand, rolling the flesh over her fingers as she started to grind. She swayed back and forth, riding his face, Boyd doing his best to match her pace. His cock jumped in the air as he felt her dexterous tail wind around it, the velvet fur impossibly soft against his skin. She gripped it, tightening the appendage around his shaft, the started to stroke in rhythm with her gentle thrusting.

“Maybe you need some encouragement, put that sharp tongue of yours to work, mudak.”

His cock twitched at her words, and she smirked at him knowingly, watching his face burn as her loins coated him in her nectar. She was feverishly hot, almost enough to scald his tongue, and Boyd ran his fingers through her silky fur as she moved. He couldn't see anything besides her pink flesh, her chubby thighs cushioning his cheeks, the scent of her overwhelming his senses. He arched his own spin as she stroked his cock with her deft tail, coiling around the tip to tickle his glans with her snowy coat, feeling him move underneath her and tightening her hold on him.

“I like it like this,” she groaned, her voice husky and breathy. “Maybe we should stick around for a few more days, you won't run out of things to eat.” She chuckle at her own euphemism, her gyrations becoming more erratic, and she leaned forward to plant her hands on the ground for balance as she thrust on top of him. Her breasts hung from her chest, swaying with her movements, her muscle quivering with barely contained excitement as his tongue dragged between her lips.

“What's the matter? Cat got your tongue? Do you like being down there that much?”

He caught her clitoris between his lips again, sinking his hands into the flesh of her ass as she tensed, his fingers finding springy muscle beneath the supple fat. She grumbled something in what might have been Russian, or maybe her native Borealan language, he couldn't tell. She shivered and her grinding became erratic as he ran his tongue around her tender button.

“Keep it up,” she whined, half threat and half plea as she gritted her teeth against the pleasure. Her thighs clenched around his face and her grip in his hair tightened, her breasts swaying as her breath came in staggered gasps, eyelids fluttering as she looked down at Boyd.

She threw her head back, her spine becoming as straight as a rod as his licking pushed her over the edge, her body convulsing as a powerful climax rippled through her. She smothered him in the meat of her round thighs as a flood of her viscous emission drenched his face, her muscles shaking beneath her paunchy fat as wave after wave of crippling orgasm washed over her like a tide. He dug his fingers into her ass in order to hang on, hearing her yelp as he gripped her, continuing his rhythmic licking in order to draw out every last pulse of pleasure.

She fell forward, planting her face into the cushy pillow that was sewn into the lining of the sleeping bag, loosing a long, low moan into it as Boyd eased a stray aftershock out of her. Her quivering slowed and eventually abated, her breath becoming regular and deep, Lorza finally rolling off his face to lie on her side. She rubbed her thick thighs together, grumbling quietly as Boyd crawled up her body to pop his head out of the sleeping bag at chest level. She hooked her hands roughly behind his head, angling it up and peering at him drunkenly, scraping some of her stringy come from his cheek with her thumb.

“That's a good look for you,” she murmured, “I think I'm going to have to keep you.”

Dazed and basking in her warm afterglow, she brought him up to kiss her, unconcerned by the obscene mess that still clung to his face as she pressed her lips against his and eased her long tongue inside his mouth. They stayed locked in an embrace for a minute or two, Lorza's kiss slow and placating, tangling her rough organ with his own as she filled his head with her slippery flesh. He brought up a hand and sank it into the short fur that covered her face, the taste of her loins and her copper saliva mingling in an unspeakable concoction that set his erection throbbing. She felt it pressing into her belly and reached down a hand to circle the leaking tip with her finger, teasing as she ravaged him with her tongue. Something about her kisses set his hair standing on end, at once loving and dripping with sexual desire, forceful and greedy yet gentle and considerate. He felt as if he might come into her palm from this alone, he wanted to, and she felt him thrust into her hand as his excitement mounted. She broke away, her tongue sliding out of his mouth.

“Ready to go again?” Lorza whispered into his ear. “I need more, let's consummate our newfound friendship.”

Boyd's heart hastened with anticipation, remember how her silken insides had wrapped around his fingers, massaging them with their steely muscles. How would those slimy, hot walls feel coiling around his cock?

“Er...how do we do this? Should I go on top?”

Lorza scratched her chin with her claw as she lay beside him in the sleeping bag, hesitating.

“Um, I hadn't thought that far ahead,” she admitted as she lifted the bag to examine his body. “Yeah, let's try it with you on the top. Think you can handle me?” She smirked at him, and he scowled in mock outrage.

“Any time, don't take us humans lightly.”

“Oh my, are we going to need a safe-word?”

She rolled over onto her back, and Boyd shuffled around to climb on top of her, his head at chest height due to her exaggerated stature and hidden beneath the sleeping bag. She parted her fluffy thighs, and he felt them clench around him like a trap as he maneuvered between them. It was like trying to clamber atop a giant, furry beanbag, his hands sank into the subtle tire of her belly and her breasts smothered him. She placed her silky hands on his back, her claws pricking his skin, and finally he found her opening.

He pressed his member against her vulva, the two of them shuddering in tandem as wet, delicate flesh met firm, hot tissue. She could feel his heartbeat through his erection as it pulsed and bounced, throbbing against her leaking loins, and he rubbed it up and down to coat it in her syrupy emissions. She grunted, pricking him with her claws as encouragement.

“Stop teasing me, fuck me already!”

It was a request that he couldn't deny, plunging the length of his cock inside her and burying it to the hilt in her tunnel. She rose off the ground, almost lifting him with her as she trembled and cried out, her muscles contracting around his shaft and squeezing it in maddening waves. He buried his face in her bust, breathing in her feminine scent and wrapping his arms around her wide waist as best he could, mauling her doughy paunch with his fingers.

“N-Not too shabby f-for a human,” she stammered, her hips falling back to the bed as she hugged him against her, her thighs closed around him as if she were trying to force him deeper. They lay together for a moment, their senses trying to adjust to the sensation, united both physically and in the shared pleasure that coursed between them like a live current.

He started to move slowly, her satin flesh clinging to him despite the copious juices that leaked around his member, the sensation of her spasms like having a dozen writhing tongues painting his cock from the tip to its base. He was enraptured by her, doing his best to hide the embarrassing intensity of their coupling as he buried his head between her soft breasts, the sound of her giant heartbeat pounding beneath her chest as he nuzzled.

She ran her hands up and down his spine, crooning as he squirmed and bucked, her claws leaving red welts in his skin and making him gasp into her fur. She stroked his head, feeling his member jump inside her, and they shivered in unison.

“You're too much fun to play with,” she panted, trying to put on an aloof tone to mask her excitement and failing. Her husky voice was cracking, her body betraying her to him, her hips rolling gently as she tried to grind his hardness against her tunnel. He wanted to be honest with her, to stare into her eyes and let his passion flow uninhibited as they brought eachother to new heights, but he didn't want to lose the little game they were playing.

He started to thrust more ardently, forcing his member deeper and harder, fighting the suction and resistance of her slippery loins as they tightened around him and she pushed down to match his pace. She swayed and twisted her hips, angling him against her sensitive walls, scraping his stiff member against them as if trying to scratch some distracting itch. The lewd sounds of their coupling rose to his ears, wet and messy, her furry thighs sodden with her nectar as they squeezed him. She let out a low, breathy moan whenever he slammed into her depths, her vagina holding him like a vice.

His hands roamed over her body, squeezing her ample breasts and belly, feeling the yielding fat spill between his fingers as he sank them into her meaty ass and thighs. She giggled, ticklish, running her sharp claws through his hair.

“You talked so much shit Boyd, but you liked me all along, didn't you? You wanted to touch me, run your fingers through my coat and weigh my boobs in your hands, you put on such a good show that even I couldn't see through it. I thought you hated me, but you wanted to fuck me like this, right? Do I drive you crazy?”

He took a handful of one of her heavy breasts, the size of a damned basketball, and kneaded it cruelly. He pinched the engorged nipple, hearing her groan, the pace of his pounding hastening as she taunted him.

“I want to hear you say it again,” she gasped, “say that you want me.”

“I want you,” he growled, thrusting furiously. She chuckled happily and ran her fingers through his hair, then wrapped her tail around his waist to drag him out of her. He clung to her fur, frustrated, and she peeked under the sleeping bag to smirk at him as her fluids dripped from his aching member.

“You're going too fast,” she said, “you have to take the time to savor the moment. Let me show you how Polars do it.”

She flipped him onto his back and straddled him, her breasts hanging to brush his face as she ensured that the sleeping bag was zipped up tightly. He realized how warm they were, the inside of the bag was a sex-scented oven as the heat that their bodies exuded cooked them. She used her tail to guide his erection towards her loins, and pressed down on him, now Boyd's turn to groan as she let her immense weight force him deeper inside her. She wasn't crushing him, but he felt the pressure of her on his hips as she buried him between her fat thighs and started to move slowly. She rocked back and forth, driving him against her fleshy, dripping tunnel as he reached up to sink his hands into her love handles. He wanted to touch every inch of her doughy body, she was so soft and inviting, mouthwatering as she moved on top of him.

He had expected her to sit upright, but she lowered herself to her elbows, letting the weight of her bust engulf his face, her chubby belly resting on his torso. It was a little alarming, so much of her bulk was hanging off her body to envelop him, but she was conscious of their difference in stature and never let it become too much for him. He was completely buried in her warm flesh, her velvet fur sliding against his naked skin, the sensation like having his entire body caressed by some luxuriant fur coat. It was downright opulent, he had never felt anything like it, the pleasure chased by a harsher and more primal lust as her loins milked his burning erection.

She was feverishly hot, her damp insides wringing his member with a cruelty that made him gasp into her bust, rising on his shaft and then letting her ample weight fall on him to slam him into her deepest reaches. She went slow and heavy, as if savoring every minute contraction of her muscles and throb of his member, driving him into the ground with the force of her lovemaking. He couldn't help but push off the floor to meet her, his body responding of its own accord despite the fact that she pinned him down with her weight, her pace steady but unrelenting.

She was so heavy, every downward thrust nearly knocked the air out of his lungs, his hips straining under the force of it. Yet this was only a fraction of her weight, she was cautious and considerate, holding the majority of it on her knees and elbows as she let just enough of her bulk drop down on him for him to really feel it. She bounced on top of him, somehow every slam of her hips driving him deeper inside her, his member scouring her depths as her warm breath ruffled his hair.

Wherever he put his hands, he encountered soft fur and fat, squirming beneath her as she rolled her hips and her tight walls grazed his shaft. The sleeping bag enclosed them like a cocoon, the warmth of their bodies heating the space, Boyd actually breaking a sweat as her delicate fur teased his skin. Over and over she thrust down on him, tireless and regular, the exquisite pleasure of her satin flesh caressing his glans forcing his eyes closed as her breasts smothered him and his hands delved into her doughy belly. He didn't think he could go on, yet her slow, methodical fucking kept him on the edge while never providing enough stimulation to finish him. She was so tight, her muscles so powerful, every tiny twitch and ripple stroking his cock like questing fingers. He saw stars dance before his eyes, his spine lighting up like an optical cable as her massive heart beat in his ears, pumping hot blood through her veins as she gyrated.

She started to increase the pace of her thrusts, falling down on him with enough force to bruise, the tip of his member meeting resistance in her reaches that seemed to further excite her. Her physiology must be a little different to what he was used to, hitting so deep inside a human woman would have hurt her, but Lorza seemed to crave it. She writhed and gasped, her slow, measured movements becoming more erratic and frenzied. Her copious juices leaked around his shaft, forced from her twitching hole by their brutal copulation, her excitement dripping down his thighs and pooling on his belly. It was profane, their sweat, emissions and saliva mixing into a salacious concoction that stank of sex and permeated the increasingly warm bag. It tickled his animal brain, his cock throbbing all the harder inside her welcoming passage as she buried her feline nose in his hair. Was she breathing in his scent?

Her contractions hastened, her vaginal muscles squeezing and wringing his cock like a cruel fist as her excitement mounted, and Boyd sank his hand into her fat chest to help her along. She snarled, her hips shaking as he delved into the meat of her bust and kneaded her sensitive breast tissue, pinching her engorged nipples gently between his fingers. Her fur was damp with sweat and her syrupy excitement, her loins impossibly wet, his pulsing shaft glazed with it and made so slippery that their coupling might have been frictionless were it not for the intensity of her hold on him.

She shuddered and purred when his cock jumped inside her, flexing against the smooth walls that struggled to contain it, his heartbeat making it throb.

“So warm,” she whined, shivering as he squeezed a handful of her supple fat and clawed at her breasts. “Harder...deeper.”

Again she increased her pace, crushing him with her wide hips as she rammed down on him, his cock pushing against her sweet spot and making her massive body tremble with barely contained desire. She rose on her elbows a little so give him room to breath, and so that he could guide one of her swollen nipples into his mouth. Lorza growled like a lion as he trapped the stiff nub of flesh between his lips and his teeth, circling it with his tongue and sucking on it to draw it deeper. She gripped his hair with one hand, looking down at him, her blue eyes aflame with lust. Just one of her oversized breasts was enough work for both hands, Boyd kneading and twisting the inviting flesh as he teased her, her long spine arching to press her plush body down on him.

Every inch of his skin was lighting up, her wet fur stroking and massaging him like some kind of luxurious, velutinous bath towel. His nerves were on fire, too much sensation to process, too much pleasure to tolerate. Shivers crawled up and down his spine as if her very claws were tracing its contours, her steely thighs squeezing him as if she was afraid that her prey might escape, her tail coiling around one of his legs and wrapping it like a furry rope. His lower body was numb, his legs weak as her merciless dance dragged on.

Keeping her nipple between his lips, Boyd eased his hand past her paunchy stomach and strained to seek out her clitoris with his fingertips. She bucked when he found it, her eyes glazing over as he wet his fingers with her thick emission and started to rub its firm surface.

“Oh! You little,” she trailed off into a bestial grunt as he pinched her nipple, her grip on his hair growing tighter as he teased her. She might be on top, but that didn't mean he couldn't keep up the fight. Lorza was beside herself, her muscles convulsing and her narrow passage wringing his cock as he tormented her, delighting in the effect his gentle fingers were having on the Polar.

She rose to a sitting position suddenly, tearing open the zipper of the sleeping bag with the motion and planting her hands on his shoulders. She tore her nipple from his lips, her heavy breasts swaying as they hung from her chest, gazing down at him with an urgent expression that could equally have conveyed longing or agony. He kept up his rubbing, stroking her clitoris as her fluids leaked into his palm in fat strands. She loosed a breathy, low cry, rising up on his shaft as her slippery flesh clung to his member like a latex glove. She poised there for a moment, her chest heaving, then let her weight fall on him to impale herself on his shaft. The head of his cock hit her depths, jamming against her reaches, and he felt a powerful tremor flow through her body as she started to come.

Her muscles tensed and rippled, her hair hanging over her face as she lowered her head, the fat on her belly, breasts and thighs shaking like jello as she shivered. She blurted a string of hurried curses in a language that he didn't speak, and he sank his hand into the meat of her hip for leverage as he continued his furious rubbing. She released a flood of viscous fluid, oozing from her loins like honey as she rocked, spilling to coat her thighs in the stringy mess. She yelped as the waves of pleasure tore through her, each one more dizzying and urgent than the last, her claws digging into his shoulders almost enough to break the skin as she rocked and grinded against him.

Boyd joined her in her ecstasy, the remorseless milking motion of her slick, hot insides pulling him over the edge along with her. She let slip a fresh cry as his warm ejaculate flooded her quivering tunnel, splashing against her silken flesh and filling her with warm come. As if trying to draw it out of him, her walls squeezed and kneaded, the intensity of the sensation almost painful as harsh bolts of raw pleasure were driven into his brain.

They fed into one another, every throb or contraction from one drawing a new surge of pleasure from their counterpart, working each other higher and higher in a spiral of mounting excitement that threatened to erode their sanity. Over and over their bodies endured the wracking currents of their orgasm, Boyd couldn't have imagined that he had it in him, again and again he pumped her full of his ropy emission, their juices mingling and spilling forth to sully the sleeping bag.

Finally her muscles had wrung the last of his essence from him, and her violent shaking became more subdued, the two of them panting and trying to get their bearings as they lay locked together. Boyd could feel the slimy mixture of their passion leaking in warm globs, withdrawing his hand from between her thighs along with long strings of it, a stray aftershock making Lorza gasp and wriggle. She gently raised herself off him, his erection bouncing free to fall to his belly along with more of the milky fluid. She fell heavily beside him, her chest heaving, her eyes still unfocused as her beleaguered body recovered from their wonderful ordeal.

Boyd was awash in afterglow, seething with a euphoria that made him almost giddy, satisfied and exhausted. He felt Lorza pull him up to her height, his head leaving the heat of the sleeping bag and entering the cold air of the ice cave. She met him with a clumsy, wanton kiss, trapping him in her arms and pushing her tongue into his mouth with an almost desperate impatience. He leaned into her, his muscles relaxing as he enjoyed the sensation, delving into her fur with his fingers and taking every opportunity to enjoy her pliant breasts as she ran her hooked claws through his hair.

She pulled back and buried her fluffy face in the nape of his neck, nuzzling and pinching his skin with her teeth, hugging him as close to her as she could manage.

“I think you've single-handedly improved my opinion of humans,” she mumbled.

“So...what do you think?” Boyd asked, his eyelids fluttering as he felt her claws prick his scalp. “I don't know how this is going to work, but we're good together, right?”

“We are good together,” she confirmed, pulling his face into her fluffy cleavage. She leaned closer to whisper in his ear. “I want you again, and again, and again. If we can overcome all of this then we can find a way to make it work.”

She took him roughly by the hair and kissed him again, hard and fast, leaving him dazed as she doted on him.

“You know,” she murmured, a smirk spreading across her lips. “If we can find a shuttle, it's going to be a long journey back to UNN space. Small, cramped conditions, nothing else to do but enjoy eachother's company...”

She bit his ear, her tongue worming inside and tickling him.

“Well, the night is still young,” Boyd said as he wriggled free of her tongue and she crawled her lips down his neck. “Give me a few more minutes to recover and I'll show you what humans can 'really' do.”

She bit her lip as his head disappeared beneath the sleeping bag again, her anticipation turning to smoldering desire as she felt his tongue find her loins again, the gel packet that had illuminated the cave finally petering out and casting them into darkness.

CHAPTER 9: EXFILTRATION

Boyd opened his eyes to darkness, realizing that he was trapped under Lorza again, she had rolled over in the night and planted his face in her bust. He shuffled and wriggled, trying to break free and get some air, finally succeeding in pushing his head up between her fluffy boobs. She was still asleep, breathing warm air on him, her round ears twitching as she dreamed. He felt a surge of love that surprised him, his heart melting as he watched her sleep. He noticed that he was sticky, really sticky, whatever mess they had created the night before during their passionate romp had dried and clung to them. Her fur was matted and had stuck to his legs, and it pulled as she tried to free himself from it.

Lorza opened her eyes wearily and blinked at him.

“Oh...it's you. Good morning.”

“Good morning,” he repeated, looking up at her as his face started to burn. They had been so wanton in their explorations of each other the previous night, so uninhibited, and now that they had both sobered up he felt kind of embarrassed. She grinned at him, and he his worries were assuaged, her clawed fingers rising up to scratch his head.

“What's with that expression? Are you remembering,” she leaned down to whisper in his ear, “how I fucked you into a whimpering mess?”

“I remember things a little differently,” he shot back, pouting at her. She laughed and pulled him deeper into her bust.

“Ok, I admit it, you might have gotten a few reactions out of me. You up for a tie-breaker before we set out again?”

He hesitated, breathing in the scent of her fluffy chest as she pressed his face into the doughy fat.

“As appealing as that might be, no, we need to get out of here.”

She sighed, and hugged him tighter for a brief moment, then released him and started to unzip the sleeping bag. He wriggled free and into the freezing air, remembering very quickly that he was still nude, and that his suit had been discarded on the ice beside their sleeping area. Her massive blue overalls were there too, they looked like a tent compared to his human-sized attire.

He scrambled to pull his suit on, his breath forming ice crystals as he hurriedly tapped at his oh-bis to turn on the heating element. It had passively recharged enough to activate the circuitry, and he breathed a sigh of relief as he started to warm. Lorza was pawing at her thighs and belly, her delicate fur clumped with the residue of their nocturnal romp.

“I need to clean up,” she grumbled, “and this isn't something I'm going to clean with my tongue.” She searched her rucksack for some water bottles that they had been filling with melted snow, and turned away from him to pour some of it down her front. “Ah! Fuck! That's cold!” She rubbed herself down as best she could, then struggled into her overalls, the fabric barely containing her ample bust and butt. Boyd watched her with open amusement, resisting the urge to walk over to her and clap his hand on her massive ass. She zipped herself up, dancing on the spot as she struggled to get it to pass her chest, then she was finally ready to go. She turned to look at him, seeing his smirk and frowning at him. “Oh 'now' you want to go for round two? Well too late, I'm not covering myself in ice water again any time soon.”

They gathered their gear and pulled on their packs, Boyd eyeing what remained of the meat.

“Should we take it with us?”

Lorza thought for a moment, cocking her head at the makeshift sled.

“We're going to reach the oxygen farm today, guaranteed, right?”

“Yeah, probably around midday, we don't have very far to go now.”

“Then we don't need it, let's leave it behind.”

“Turning down food?” Boyd said, turning to her with an expression of mock alarm. She leaned over and gently punched his shoulder, knocking him off-balance.

“You're one to talk about 'eating', you were much more enthusiastic last night.”

“Don't be vulgar,” he replied, gesturing towards the mouth of the cave. “Now let's get off this godforsaken rock!”

***

As they marched the oxygen farm grew larger in the distance, it looked very much like an oil rig perched on the ice, massive pipes trailing beneath the surface to collect the precious water for refining. Lorza trotted beside Boyd, she had been all over him since the previous night, taking every opportunity to lay her hands on him or sneak in an cuddle whenever they stopped for water or rest.

She seemed to be in good spirits, and Boyd had to admit that despite his reservations about what they might encounter at their destination, he was feeling better than he had in days. No, years, it had been too long since he had courted and it felt good to get back on the horse. His lifestyle prohibited romance, not through any official decree, but simply because he had to spend so much time undercover and if his identity should ever be revealed it would put his loved ones in danger.

As they got near enough to the refinery that its long shadow was cast on them, Boyd gestured for Lorza to stop, and she pointed her round ears at him curiously.

“What's the matter Boyd?”

“We're getting close now, and I can't know for sure if the workers manning this base are loyal to ExoCorp or to the Syndicate. We need to tread carefully. I think that you should stay hidden when we arrive, don't want them thinking some alien beast has wandered in from the tundra.”

She crossed her arms and scowled at him.

“Hey, you have to admit that to a human you look pretty scary at a distance, they might not ever have seen a Borealan before. Last thing we need is you getting shot by a twitchy engineer with cabin fever.”

“Point taken, but what are you going to do?”

“I'll pose as an ExoCorp surveyor who got stranded, try to gauge if they're on the lookout for survivors. If things get hairy, come save me, I doubt they'll have any large caliber weapons and I'm told that Borealans are nigh bulletproof when it comes to sidearms.”

“That's not a theory I'm too keen to test,” she said, “but sure. I'll find a snowdrift to hide behind, while you try to figure out if they're bad guys. Just don't leave me behind, ok?”

He reached up and gripped the fur of her chin, pulling her down and standing on his toes to plant a kiss on her oversized lips. He released her, the giant alien preening happily.

“I wouldn't dream of it, now let's get moving. Don't reveal yourself unless I call for help, ok?”

She nodded, and set off in another direction.

***

The Chainhand leaned over the rig's railing, looking out past the refinery into the blinding snow, the tinted visor of his snowsuit barely serving to lessen the perpetual glow. It was like staring at the damned sun, didn't matter how cold it was, the system's star beat down on the powder to create a glare that would quickly make you snow-blind without protective gear. Granted, it was a damn sight better than working the mines on Hades, but there was no bar and no women. What little free time they got between rotations was boring and pointless.

They had put him on sentry duty today, so rather than maintaining the pumps and machinery he had been tasked with keeping watch for approaching figures. Word had come in that a spook had tried to infiltrate the Syndicate and had been exposed, but he had tried to flee the planet and his spaceship had been brought down over the moon. He wasn't likely to survive, but if he did, the boss didn't want him slipping past them. This oxygen farm was the only way off-planet and if anyone was coming, they would be coming this way.

He wiped some of the flecks of snow from his visor, his furry collar blowing in the wind, and then froze. He could see something, a solitary figure walking towards the refinery through the snowdrifts, it couldn't be...

He fumbled with his helmet, struggling to activate the suit radio with his thick gloves, and the Derrickman's voice came through with a hiss of static.

“What is it? I'm fucking busy down here, one of the joints has sprung a leak and the Ginzels are giving me the runaround.”

“Sorry Mister Cohen, it's Darrel, the Chainhand. I don't mean to disturb you but...I see something! There's a person out there, comin' our way!”

“What? There's no way, you wearing a tinted visor? If I come all the way up to the deck and find out you're hallucinating, I'm dropping you down the fucking moon pool.”

“Nah Mister Cohen I swear! He's about two hundred meters out to the South!”

“Right, hang tight, I'm getting the rifle and bringing some of the boys up with me. They wanted him alive, but I ain't takin' any chances with a spook, if he makes one wrong move I'm painting the snow with his brains.”

“I hear you Mister Cohen, you do what you need to do, Darrel out.”

He rested his hands on the metal railing, the freezing steel cold enough to penetrate his gloves, and watched the man as he stumbled over the dunes and made his way closer. How the hell had this guy survived a crash from orbit, never mind the trek to the refinery? Spooks must be downright supermen, they had seen the fireworks show from all the way over here, it had looked like a shooting star and the vessel had hit the ground with all the grace of a falling brick. Yet here he was, making his way towards them.

He heard footsteps on the metal deck behind him and turned to see Mister Cohen and some of the Ginzels hurrying behind him, green as fuck miners who had been deployed to the rig and had to be taught the basics of running the equipment.

Cohen move up beside him and raised a hand to further shield his dark goggles, his rebreather exhaling clouds of mist. Darrel pointed towards the figure in the distance, dark against the snow.

“You see? I told you Mister Cohen, it's the spook!”

“Well I'll be fucked...” He hefted a long rifle with a wooden stock and turned to the increasingly nervous Ginzels. “Alright boys, this is your chance to prove to the Syndicate that you got what it takes, you show your loyalty today and I'll make damned sure that the bosses back on Hades hear about it. This is the big one, they contacted me personally about this UNN lapdog, and if he slips through our fingers it'll be all of our asses on the line. Capiche?”

There was some nervous and somewhat non-committal nodding, and then the group set off down to the lower deck to intercept the man, Darrel trailing behind after taking one last look at the advancing figure. It was almost supernatural, he didn't believe in ghosts but this whole situation was giving him the willies. It wasn't the first time he had wondered if serving his tax fraud sentence would have been easier than skipping bail and coming out here.

***

Boyd stumbled through the snow, trying to appear a lot weaker and worn down than he really was, if push came to shove the less they knew about his capabilities the better. He had noticed that he had a welcome party waiting to receive him, a group of half a dozen men standing on the deck of the refinery where it met the snow. One was armed, that wasn't a good sign. After a few minutes he got within shouting range, and he heard a voice echo over the wind.

“Stop! Who goes there?”

Boyd pulled his rebreather from his face to let it fall around his neck, raising his hands above his head to show that he was unarmed and shouting a reply back.

“Thank God! I thought I was going to die out there! My name is Henderson, I was part of an ExoCorp survey team searching for places to drop new refineries. I got separated from my team in a blizzard, please help me!”

He thought it sounded convincing enough, but the rig crew didn't seem to be buying it, the one with the rifle kept it aimed in his direction.

“Come closer!” The man shouted, gesturing with the barrel of his gun. It was old, not an XMR, some kind of conventional chemical projectile weapon. These guys were Syndicate, why else would they be so suspicious of him? Word must have gotten out that their ship had crashed here, and the bosses hadn't just assumed that he was dead as he had hoped. Damn it, of all the luck...

He decided to keep up his facade, and approached cautiously, keeping his hands raised in surrender.

“Please! Do you have food? I've been lost out here for days!” The leader of the men, the man with the gun, stepped forward to meet him as he arrived at the deck.

“Yeah yeah, cut the shit, spook. We know exactly who you are, you can drop the act.”

Boyd's brow furrowed and he lowered his arms, the demeanor of a scared and lost civilian evaporating. The men surrounding him looked a lot less sure of themselves, they shifted their weight from foot to foot as if they were extremely uncomfortable with what was happening. New arrivals maybe? Perhaps he could use that to his advantage. The man waving the rifle around continued.

“Now here's what's gonna happen, you're gonna put your hands behind your back and let one of my guys tie you up, and then we're gonna take you to the shuttle and bring you back to Hades so the boss can pick up where he left off. We can do this the easy way, or we can do it the hard way, this is going to be a lot faster and a lot less painful for the both of us if you just do as I say without trying anything funny. Understand?”

Boyd slowly moved his hands behind his back and sank to his knees, the man gesturing for one of his goons to walk out into the snow and tie him with a chain that he was holding.

“Don't touch his suit,” the man added, “and take the knife from his boot.”

“Sounds like you're wise to all my tricks,” Boyd said, his tone sarcastic.

“That's right spook, you may have gotten the better of those PDF jarheads, but nothing gets past me.”

“So you have everything under control?”

“That's right, I do. Now are you gonna cooperate and keep your mouth shut, or am I going to have to knock you out with my rifle butt?”

Boyd turned his attention to the trembling man who was fumbling with the chain behind him, raising his voice loud enough to ensure that everyone could hear him.

“You know, I'm authorized to make binding deals with the UNN. You can still stop this, you can still walk away, we can even give you amnesty for any crimes committed on Earth in exchange for aid and information. You could go back home.”

“Hey!” The man shouldered his rifle and pointed it at Boyd's head. “Shut the fuck up!”

“You can't think you'll get away with this,” Boyd continued, “sooner or later the UNN is going to find out what you're doing here. They'll send a Jump Carrier full of Marines and no amount of stolen PDF weaponry is going to help you if that happens.”

“I said shut the fuck up,” the man blurted, taking a few steps towards him as the rest of the crew looked on with uncertainty.

“The Syndicate is banking on the UNN not responding, they don't think we care what happens on these outlying colonies. Well we do, ask yourselves, would I be here if the UNN didn't care about your welfare? Would they have sent me if they had no intention of defending Hades from enemies, alien and domestic?”

“One more word out of that mouth and I'm going to put a bullet through it,” the ringleader hissed. “What's the holdup Bauer? Tie his fucking hands already!”

The man called Bauer was hesitating, was Boyd's ploy working? Bauer stepped out from behind him, wielding the chain as a weapon.

“He's right Cohen, we don't stand a chance against the UNN. I never wanted to get involved in this, I just came here looking for work, we're not criminals and we don't want to be!”

There were a few affirmations from some of the other workers who were standing behind Cohen, and he looked back at them nervously as he fingered the trigger on his rifle.

“You...you traitors! He's full of shit! The UNN never cared about Hades, nor did the corporate stooges! The Syndicate are the ones who sign your paychecks and protect the planet, not these jumped up fascists, they don't give a shit about us. We have weapons now, we shot down this spook's ship, and if they send a Carrier we'll shoot that down too!”

Cohen was losing the crowd, and he knew it, now unsure of where he should be pointing his gun.

“Last chance,” Boyd said, “I promise amnesty for any crimes committed on Earth or Hades to anyone who helps me get off this moon. You can check my badge, I have the rank to enforce that promise.”

“Tie him up Bauer!” Cohen screamed, becoming hysterical as he directed his weapon towards the disillusioned miner. “Tie him up or by God I'll kill you as well.”

That seemed to push the rest of the crew over the edge, and a good number of them ran at Cohen from behind, tackling him to the ground as he screeched and tried to fire his weapon. One of the workers wrenched it from his hands and ejected the magazine, giving the mobster a good kick to the face for good measure as Bauer approached with the chains.

Before long a bloodied and furious Cohen was chained up and lying on the snow, ranting as his crew helped Boyd up onto the refinery.

“Darrel! Darrel you asshole, do something!”

The man he was referring to turned and shrugged his shoulders.

“I want to go home, man. Fuck this colony.”

Cohen screamed impotently, flailing as some of the workers hoisted him up onto the deck.

“Where shall we take him,” one of the men asked, “should we lock him in the storeroom maybe?”

“Moon pool,” another replied, grinning. Cohen struggled as he was dragged below deck, shouting curses until he was out of earshot. The one called Darrel walked up to Boyd.

“What do you need? We have a shuttle on the rig, we have enough food to spare, I can get it all loaded up and ready to go in a half hour. It doesn't have a jump drive but it'll get you to the edge of the system where you can try to hail a freighter, someone will be able to get you to the next system over.”

“It's Darrel, right?”

“Yeah, you'll take our names down, right? Make a record so they know we're pardoned when the carrier gets here?”

“I'll do that right now,” Boyd said, typing on his oh-bis. “Get me a crew manifest for the oxygen farm and I'll include it in my report, I'm assuming everyone here will cooperate besides Cohen?”

“Yeah, yeah, none of us want to be here. Everyone will side with the UNN, and you won't have to worry about Cohen, he won't be around when your guys arrive. Lot of people here have scores to settle with him, he was a fuckin' slave driver.”

“Don't worry, I'm a spy, not a peacekeeper. Rescuing a mobster from the people he wronged isn't in my job description. By the way, I have a friend coming along for the ride, she's an alien so don't be alarmed. She's quite tame.”

Boyd called to Lorza, Darrel watching curiously, and after a moment she appeared in the distance from behind a snowdrift. It took a couple of minutes for her to draw close, Darrel becoming increasingly more alarmed as she kept growing bigger, until finally she came to a stop beside them. She ruffled Boyd's hair with her giant hand, Darrel looking about ready to bolt as he stared up at the eight foot Borealan.

“Thought you might be losing it there for a second, mudak. Nice work.”

“I'll uh...get the...I'll load up the ship,” Darrel stammered as he backed away and then vanished into the maze of pipes and machinery. Lorza laughed, resting a hand on Boyd's shoulder.

“Skittish, that one. We have a ship then?”

“Yeah, a shuttle. It's not jump-capable but we can coast out to the edge of the system and try to hail a passing ship, maybe a freighter on the way in or out of the system. They're gonna give us food and supplies enough to last us a while, so we shouldn't have any trouble waiting around.”

“You're taking me on a honeymoon already, Boyd? How thoughtful of you.”

“Best to avoid that kind of talk until we're in the shuttle,” he replied, reddening and lowering his voice. “We don't know how these people will react if they find out that I...”

“That you ate me out?”

“Just keep it down,” he muttered. He knew she was teasing him, but they didn't need any complications now that things were going so smoothly.

“Oh fine, I'll wait and have my fun with you later.” She crossed her arms over her ample chest and leaned against a railing, the metal sagging a little as she put her weight on it, her tail swaying impatiently. They waited around for a while until Darrel returned, hurrying out of the forest of pipes, carrying a crumpled printout in his hand.

“Ok Sir, I got you the list of employee names, these guys are all good people. You'll make sure they don't forget about us, right? When the UNN arrives they'll know that we're down here and that we've been pardoned?”

“Don't worry about it,” Boyd said as he took the list of names and began to enter them into his computer's memory. There were only a dozen, the refinery must have been grossly understaffed, no wonder Darrel had referred to Cohen as a 'slave driver'. The more qualified ExoCorp personnel had most likely jumped ship as soon as they could, and the Syndicate had been forced to use inexperienced miners as replacement workers. “I'll make sure someone comes to pick you up, I'm taking your only shuttle after all. You got it all loaded up?”

“Yes Sir, there's enough food in there to last you at least a week, I shouldn't think it would take more than a couple of days before a passing ship picks you up. The Syndicate have some freight pilots on their payroll but they don't have anything patrolling the system, they won't have a way to intercept you.”

“I appreciate the help Darrel, we would have been stranded here if it wasn't for you and your men, and I'll make sure the brass knows it.”

He gave a grinning Lorza another nervous glance, then thanked Boyd and gestured for them to follow him to the landing pad. They ducked through the pipes and industrial machinery, Lorza having trouble squeezing her bulk through passageways that were barely large enough for a human, until they finally made it to the other side of the rig where the shuttle was waiting for them. It was another older UNN model, a retired Marine dropship auctioned off to civilians after it had exceeded its operational lifespan. They were supposed to be recycled for parts, but it was a widely known secret that the 'scrap traders' instead refurbished them and sold them on to private buyers. They were usually safe, or at least spaceworthy, Boyd doubted they would have any problems with it.

“One of you two can fly this thing, right?” Darrel asked.

“Yeah I can handle it,” Boyd replied as he mounted the landing ramp. The vessel was on the smaller side, but there was still enough room for half a dozen people, and Lorza wouldn't have to crouch too low to fit. The more recent models were tall enough to seat Borealan auxiliaries along with human troops, but she should be able to sit comfortably without hitting her head. He gestured for her to climb the ramp behind him and she ducked inside the shuttle, Boyd bidding farewell to Darrel as a few of the workers watched from an upper level, leaning over a guard rail to get a look at the alien as she disappeared into the troop bay.

“Keep your comms open, Darrel, when I raise the alarm they're going to send a task force within a couple of days. Expect help to arrive within a week.”

He moved up through the shuttle and sat down in the cockpit, running a diagnostic on the fuel lines and engines, who knew how long this shuttle had been sitting out in the cold. Space was colder, but on the surface it would have been hammered by blizzards and ice storms. The diagnostic results came back clean, a blinking green light on the instrument panel flashing an all-clear, and so he opened the atmospheric jet intakes and prepped the thrusters. He leaned back in his seat to check on Lorza.

“You ok back there? Could get bumpy until we leave the atmosphere, you may want to hang on to something.”

“Can't be any worse than the Zemchug,” she laughed.

Boyd gunned the thrusters and the shuttle rose off the landing pad, its gear stowing in the belly of the vessel with a mechanical clunk that reverberated through the deck. It had been a while since he had flown one of these things, but he had been to flight school as part of his UNNI training and he could fly anything that could be crewed by one person.

He took it to a safe altitude and then activated the main engine, the G-forces pinning him to his seat as he angled the nose up towards space. Winds buffeted the craft as it climbed, storm clouds passing by the cockpit like billows of smoke, the vessel shaking violently and making disconcerting noises that sounded suspiciously like bolts rattling loose. Lorza was gripping the seats on either side of the troop bay, steadying herself as flames licked at the shuttle's nose, and just as he felt as if it was about to break apart under the stress they punched through into open space.

The ride smoothed out, the shuttle coasting as it broke orbit, accelerating away from the moon and out towards the edge of the system. Boyd left his seat and made his way into the troop bay where Lorza was getting her bearings, peering out of a porthole at the icy planetoid as it shrank in the distance. They were still close enough to make out the continent-sized cracks in the ice, like innumerable scars criss-crossing its pale face.

“Good riddance,” Lorza muttered, suddenly bitter. She might be remembering her lost crew, perhaps the incident with Alexei.

“We made it,” he said, trying to sound positive. Lorza's expression softened.

“Yeah, not a bad job, mudak.”

“How about we celebrate? I have something I think you'll enjoy.” He gestured behind him to a crate full of canned food and ration packs, secured against the wall on a cargo pallet. “Don't eat it all at once, we don't know how many days we're going to be stuck out here until someone responds to our beacon.”

Lorza set upon the crate, wasting no time picking up canned goods to check their labels and sorting through the rations. Boyd suddenly felt famished, it had been a week since he had eaten real food, the meat from the rainbow squid had sustained him but the prospect of having a meal that didn't taste like grilled rubber set his mouth watering.

“I expect you to demonstrate those MRE cooking skills you bragged about,” he said, watching her as she piled plastic ration packets on the deck.

“Just wait, after that squid meat this is going to blow you away. Let's see what we have here,” she muttered as she raised a can to her face to read the packaging. “Red beans, lentils, tomato puree, dehydrated beef from the ration packs, there's some canned ravioli...”

“Hell, just throw me a ration pack, I'm about ready to start eating the stuffing in the crash couches.”

She waved him away, her attention focused on a tin of sardines.

“Hang on, hang on! Let's do this right, you won't regret it. We don't have to subsist anymore, I can cook up something worth waiting for.”

“Ok, well I'm going to sit up front and make some course corrections, set up a distress call to broadcast on all frequencies.”

“You're sure the Syndicate won't find us out here? They can't intercept the transmission and send a ship out to get us?”

“Yes, they control Hades but they don't have the capabilities to police the system, at least not yet. We're clear Lorza, we're going to be fine.”

She nodded, smiling, and delved back into the crate in search of more ingredients.

CHAPTER 10: UNDERCOVER

The shuttle drifted on the outskirts of the solar system, its engines offline to lower its telltale heat signature. While Boyd had been assured that nobody would have the means to reach them if they were detected, there was no harm in going quiet, it would save energy too in the case that they were unable to find a ride and had to return to Hades.

He relaxed in one of the crash couches, Lorza sitting cross-legged on the deck opposite him, at head height due to their difference in stature. She had thrown together some kind of vegetable and beef stew from the ingredients that had been provided to them, and Boyd wasn't sure if it was just starvation talking, but it was one of the most delicious things he had ever had the privilege of tasting. After their ordeal on the ice moon, this rusty old shuttle might as well have been a gourmet restaurant in a Parisian cul-de-sac, and this amalgamation of MREs and canned food could have been the finest cuisine that money could buy. She watched him wolf it down, holding up the metal cooking pot that she had salvaged from one of the ration packs to serve as a bowl, drinking the residue and wiping his mouth on the back of his hand.

“Ok, I admit it, you're the queen of ration cooking. How the hell did you learn to cook like this in the first place? I feel like if I gave you two rocks and a bird's nest as ingredients, you could come back to me with a lasagna.”

She grinned and hooked a piece of beef that was floating in her broth with a pointed claw, popping it into her mouth and chewing contentedly. She was taking her time now, savoring each bite, nothing like when she had wolfed down a couple of hundred pounds of squid meat in a matter of minutes.

“Well, you have to learn to make do with what you have. Back in Siberia or on Borealis, cooking was a huge part of our culture and our social system, feasts were a communal event where we all interacted and bonded. Hunters were honored for their skill in bringing down the prey, everyone helped prepare the meal, and then everyone ate together. We would share everything, we had to in that kind of environment, where resources and food were scarce and highly valued. Impress with a particularly large kill, or wow with your cooking skills, and you'd get your pick of the pack as bedmates that night.”

“Some human cultures used to be the same way,” Boyd added, “eating communally and sharing resources. Some countries still have religious or cultural events and festivals where families are expected to eat together at one table, strengthening family bonds and all that. Hell there are still some private colonies where religious crazies and cult members live in communes. Ever hear of New Pennsylvania? It's a colony planet inhabited entirely by people of the Amish religion, they refuse to use any modern amenity and live as humans did a thousand years ago.”

That seemed to surprise her and she looked up from her meal.

“Really? Why do they do that?”

Boyd shrugged his shoulders.

“It's their religion, and the UN mandates that all religions be afforded equal respect. It's not as if you'd be able to stop them from practicing anyway, they'd just keep moving further and further outside of UNN controlled space and settling new planets. Better to have them inside our borders where they can be protected along with everyone else.”

“But how did they get to the planet in the first place if they refuse to use modern technology?”

“I'm sure they hired ships to take them there, but once they arrived they turned the entire planet into a damned farm. It caused some controversy early on during the expansion period, when humans were leaving Earth en masse to found new colonies, because they snapped up one of the most fertile and desirable planets before the shortages began and we had to start searching further afield to find habitable worlds. There were multiple attempts by corporations like ExoCorp to buy them out, but they refused, they're still tilling fields and riding animals as transportation to this day.”

“We lived simple lives through necessity,” Lorza said, spooning another portion of the stew into Boyd's pot as if afraid he wasn't eating enough. “There is nobility in it, it is a simple and satisfying life, but we have not rejected the advancements living on Earth has brought. The Elysians withheld technology from us when the UNN came to Borealis, but you humans share it freely. I can still enjoy a longhouse that I helped to build from timber that I cut with my own hands, if it has fire pits or central heating does not detract from the effort that went into it. Torches for light, or electric bulbs, doesn't make a difference to us.”

“From what you've told me, it sounds like your people are just happy to be warm and fed,” Boyd said as he started on his next helping of stew.

“You could say that. When I ended up on a long range spacecraft, light years away from the people I would usually eat and sleep with, it got lonely. I was homesick, I missed the physical contact that humans seem so averse to, I missed the social aspect of eating with my family. I decided to apply what I knew about cooking to the rations they gave us, and practically overnight I went from being ignored by the rest of the crew, to being praised and valued. We're not so different in the end, every living creature likes to eat, and if you do favors for people they will usually reciprocate.”

“Do you...miss your crew?” Boyd asked a little hesitantly. They hadn't talked about it much, and although his mission was of paramount importance and could impact the lives of millions of colonists on Hades, he was still in a way responsible for their deaths.

“I had grown accustomed to them, and they to me,” she said as she stirred her meal with a ladle. “I wasn't as close to them as I had been to my family in Siberia, but that word has different connotations in my language. To a Polar, anyone you eat with is your family, anyone you hunt with is your pack. I've mourned them already, there's no point dwelling on it any longer.”

“I could be your family,” Boyd added as he stared at his stew. Lorza smirked, and set her pot down on the deck, crawling closer to him on her hands and knees and pushing her face into the nape of his neck. He felt her teeth prick him, her lips planting a sucking kiss on his skin, his face starting to redden as she pressed up against him and pinned him between the plush fabric of the seat and her equally plush body.

“You're more than family, you're my mate.” She plucked the pot from his hands and set it down on the floor, cradling his red face in her furry palms and leaning closer for a kiss. She pressed her full, warm lips up against his and slipped her tongue into his mouth, stroking his cheeks with her silky fingers as she subjected him to a lurid embrace. She tasted of the stew, and Boyd allowed himself to melt into her fur, her warmth overcoming him as he sank into her doughy body.

They had eaten well for the first time in a week, both of them were full and lethargic, Boyd had even turned up the heat in the shuttle to a balmy temperature as if trying to spite the frozen hellscape they had just escaped from. Lorza soothed him with slow, placating strokes of her long tongue, running her velvet coat over his exposed skin and making his heart flutter. She pulled away, a strand of saliva linking their lips, and gave him a sultry look that he knew all too well. There were no beds on the shuttle, but she still had her sleeping bag, and she retrieved it from her rucksack and lay it out between the rows of seats. It stretched almost from the cockpit to the landing ramp, such was its size.

Boyd watched her with drooping eyelids as she stripped her overalls off, putting on a show for him and making sure that he could see the way her plump rear spilled out of the clothes as she dragged them down around her ankles, bending over to discard them and presenting her heart-shaped ass to him. She pulled her top over her head, letting her exaggerated breasts hang in the fabric for a moment before allowing them to fall heavily, bouncing enticingly as they settled. She wormed her way into the sleeping bag and held it open in invitation, Boyd's erection already straining conspicuously at his suit.

“I've eaten well, I'm warm and I'm happy,” she declared. “Now I want to come at least twice before I go to sleep, I trust you won't disappoint me?”

Boyd rose from his seat and stripped off in kind, Lorza's covetous gaze roaming over his svelte figure, her blue eyes lingering on the various healed scars and puncture wounds that decorated his musculature. She put a hand to her mouth and feigned shock as his erection bounced free, her eyes tracking it as it twitched and jumped in time with his heartbeat.

Her long, furry tail snaked out of the bag and wrapped around his member, his knees weakening and almost causing him to stumble as it tightened, tugging him towards the sleeping bag as Lorza watched with a smug expression. When he came into range of her arms she wrapped them around him and pulled him into the bag with her, squeezing him against her paunchy body with one hand and zipping up the bag with the other. It still smelled vaguely of sex, and that excited him on a primal level, his cock pressing into her soft belly as she pricked his spine with her claws.

Lying with her was so comfortable, the food coupled with her plump, inviting body was making him sleepy and lightheaded. The desires to fuck and sleep battled in his mind, Boyd breathing in the scent of her copious cleavage as she pressed his face into her breasts, gently dragging her pointed claws from between his shoulder blades down to the small of his back. She made the decision for him, pushing her furry thigh against his groin, his erection sinking deep into the delicate fat. He groaned, and she chuckled, bring her head down to chew softly at his neck with her pointed teeth.

“Don't fall asleep on me, there will be time for that later.” She kissed him again, this one more sexual and rough, forcing her slippery tongue down his throat and hugging him against her as he squirmed. She broke off, the taste of her still on his lips, and planted her hand on the top of his head. She began to push him down into the sleeping bag, rolling over onto her back as he slid down over the doughy mound of her stomach, her abundant thighs parting to let him pass.

He crawled down her doughy belly and pressed his lips against her warm loins, feverishly hot and already dripping with excitement as she awaited his touch. He parted her swollen lips with his fingers, feeling her massive body shiver, a rumbling purr that rattled his bones escaping from her throat. He felt her massive thighs press around him, each as thick and near as heavy as a tree trunk, iron muscles beneath her thick layer of yielding fat enclosing him and her downy fury tickling his reddening cheeks. He pressed his tongue up against her burning, glistening flesh, her spine arching off the deck as he traced the folds of her rosy vulva. She tasted familiar, sour but not unpleasantly so, her feminine musk filling his nose as he lapped at her. He felt her claws on his scalp, her fingers delving into his hair and pressing him deeper, pushing his face into her crotch with an almost desperate desire.

She groaned as he dragged the surface of his tongue across her tender skin, his hands sinking into the tufts of snowy fur and the plush fat on her thighs and mound as he roved. He felt her legs tremble around him as he circled her opening with the tip of his fingers, her oozing nectar making it slippery and wet, and her muscles seized it as he pushed it inside her. He knew what she liked by now, knew her weak points and sensitive zones, making a 'come-hither' motion with his finger and curling it against the upper wall of her passage. Her damp muscles rippled around his digit, more of her copious fluids dripping from her parted lips in fat blobs to dampen her fur.

Boyd groaned into her loins as her long, fuzzy tail snuck up from behind as if it had a mind of its own, as dexterous as a hand as it began to gently stroke and tease his inner thighs and pulsing erection. It was intolerable, and it only made his servicing more frantic and impassioned, Lorza wriggling contentedly as he delved deeper and more greedily.

“What's the matter, didn't get enough to eat?” He glanced her engorged clitoris with his tongue, and that shut her up, Lorza rumbling happily as she pulled his hair. She growled like a lion as he pressed his lips around the bud of firm flesh and began to slowly, torturously paint it with his saliva. Lorza purred contentedly, her thighs trembling and her tail tightening around his shaft. “You little...don't you dare stop.”

Her tail was distracting him, it was like having a feather duster lightly dragged across his most sensitive zones, tickling his thighs and balls with her fluff as it coiled around his member and stroked relentlessly.

Her sordid juices dripped from his chin as he mouthed and kissed with abandon, all moderation and restraint forgotten as her teasing goaded him on. She was so large and so strong, and yet every tiny glance of his tongue sent rolling shivers through her massive body, as if he could bring this eight foot tall behemoth to her knees with only a couple of inches of wet muscle. He took a short break as she squeezed his member especially hard, her tail wrapping his glans like a noose and subjecting it to her delicate fur, Boyd resting his head on her mound as he took sharp breaths. He felt her pull his hair again, tugging hard, his heart skipping as she forced him back down to continue his work.

“Don't slack off, or do I have to sit on your face again? Maybe that's what you want?”

He scowled and gave her clitoris another cruel lick, cutting off her chuckle and transforming it into a long, drawn out moan that sounded like a cross between an aroused woman and an angry bear. He circled it slowly, too slowly to give her any real gratification, but enough to keep on edge as he slipped another finger into her quivering tunnel and felt her velvet walls enclose it in greeting. There was so much pressure in there, clenching around his digits and massaging them with spasms that were almost powerful enough to be painful.

He felt a sudden desperate, urgent need for her, welling up inside him as if he might explode if his desire wasn't indulged. He wanted to feel those slimy, hot walls enclose his aching member in their at once firm and delicate embrace. He needed those squirming muscles to massage his shaft like a thousand tiny tongues, and set every nerve on fire as if she had hooked her claws into his very brain and was flipping switches in his pleasure center.

Lorza seemed to notice the sudden surge in his erection, the pace of his lustful attentions increasing, her teeth sinking into her puffy lip and her grip on his hair tightening as his relentless licking continued.

“Not yet,” she crooned, “you got to go first last time.” He felt her wide palm on his head, pressing him down as her sinuous tail tickled him, letting the silky fur slide across the underside of his member. He moaned into her loins, feeling her writhe with delight, her leaking passage crushing his fingers. She rolled her wide hips, grinding her sopping loins against his face, Boyd pulling away after a few moments to catch his breath as a thick strand of her honey linked his lips to hers.

“Sorry,” she chuckled, “I forgot that humans have such a small lung capacity.” She scratched his scalp with her claws as he leaned back down, her furry thighs brushing against his cheeks. “I'll make it up to you,” she whispered. “We Borealans can hold our breaths for a really, really long time...”

He wiped some of the slime from his face with the back of his hand, before another tug on his hair brought him back down again, buying his face between her meaty thighs. The stroking of her velvet tail was growing intolerable, sending sharp pulses of pleasure up through his body as it alternated between gentle, tender stroking and cruel squeezing that made stars dance before his eyes. Lorza was thoroughly enjoying herself, delighting in the scene she was causing, her racing heart apparent in the gentle pulsing of her hot flesh against his lips.

Boyd resolved to fight back, pressing his lips around her swollen clitoris and sucking it into his mouth, grazing its smooth surface with cruel strokes of his tongue as he raked his fingers along her undulating insides. She wriggled and squirmed, pressing her thighs around his face, loosing what sounded like both an amused chuckle and a lush moan.

“Keep it up, you're so...feisty.”

He increased his pace, drawing circles on her firm bud with his tongue, fucking her with his fingers as he sucked and kissed. The sleeping bag was roasting them, sweat dripping from his skin as they wrestled together, their body heat combined with the shuttle's raised temperature turning the troop bay into an oven. It was wonderful, he could feel the warmth permeate his body down to his very bones, the heat inducing a kind of feverish urgency in their coupling. His skin was slick with all manner of fluids, her fur sticking to him, his heart racing as he drove her closer and closer to an inevitable climax.

She arched her back suddenly, her steely muscles tensing, rock hard even through the insulting blubber that gave her such a fertile figure. Her tunnel contracted around his fingers as powerful tremors rolled over her body, squeezing them together almost painfully as she writhed and bucked, Boyd doing his best to keep up his rhythmic licking. He took handfuls of her velutinous belly, maintaining his grip with some difficulty as she writhed in the sleeping bag, her silken passage dragging his fingers deeper inside her as her contractions attempted to milk a member that was not yet present.

The heavy cheeks of her ass rose off the deck, her wide hips finally shaking Boyd free as she reflexively fucked the air, her thick come dripping from his face to roll down his bare chest in fat globs. She shuddered a few more times, before falling back to the floor, rubbing her sodden thighs together as Boyd released his grip on the subtle tire of her stomach. Her tail uncoiled from his member, falling limp and listless, and he was afforded a moment to catch his breath and recover.

Her two hands plunged beneath the sleeping bag, catching him under the arms and pulling him out of the semi-darkness, planting him firmly between her copious breasts as she peered down at him. The seething arousal and satisfaction that was painted on her features transformed into a sly, wanton smirk as she saw what a mess she had made of him. She flipped him over onto his back, perching above him and pinning his arms against the sleeping bag, bringing down her massive head to his neck as her weighty breasts rested on his chest.

She bit him, a little harder than she had previously, his spine arching as her sharp teeth pressed into his neck to leave red marks. She pushed her feline nose against his skin, then let her long tongue flop out of her mouth, adding her viscous saliva to the profane mix of sweat and sexual juices. She was almost shivering with glee as she tasted the salt on his warm skin, her eyelids drooping as she composed herself enough to draw back, wetting her full lips in anticipation as she gazed down at him like a lion preparing to eat a gazelle.

“Humans really don't have any sense of smell to speak of, do they?”

“What do you mean?” Boyd gasped, feeling her furry palm slide down his chest towards his erection.

“The air is full of it, you're sweating hormones, I can taste it on your skin. You'd better take a long shower before we go anywhere we might encounter other Borealans, they'll be able to smell me on you from a mile away, it would be like walking around with a neon sign hanging from your neck that read 'I let Lorza come all over my face'.”

“That's...” He winced as she traced his abs with her hooked claws, crawling her fingers inexorably downwards.

“Arousing?” Lorza suggested as she reached his member and wrapped her silky fingers around it. Boyd pushed into her palm, the delicate hairs tickling his tender glans, damp with sweat and his welling precum.

“I was going to say obscene.”

She leaned closer and sucked his ear into her mouth, catching it in her teeth and chewing softly, gripping him more firmly in her hand as he squirmed.

“It turns me on,” she whispered, “like I'm writing my name on your forehead in marker.” She pinched his ear a little harder, feeling him wriggle and giving his aching member a gentle stroke, the contrasting sensations boiling his brain in his skull. “You like it too, or you wouldn't be this hard.”

He fumed, red-faced as she let the weight of her mammoth breasts rest on his chest, the pliant fat deforming and spreading as she murmured her obscenities in his ear. “You know, the more honest you are, the better I can make you feel. Now try to keep still, I want you to blow your load in my throat.”

His eyes lost focus and rolled back into his head as she started to slowly pump her fist, watching his expression intently as her fingers caressed his throbbing shaft. She grinned, and ducked beneath the cover of the sleeping bag, out of view as Boyd anticipated the touch of her lips around his cock. She kept him waiting for a few more seconds, keeping him on edge as she stroked and breathed warm air on him, finally relenting and pressing her soft lips against the tip of his erection. He gasped, somehow not being able to see her under there made it all the worse, as if the sensitivity of his skin had been amplified. She crawled her lips down his shaft, the smooth warmth of her inner cheeks caressing him as she went, and her long tongue lapping at his sensitive underside as it coiled its way towards the base.

Her lips kissed his belly, her slippery tongue reaching down to stroke his balls as her lubricating saliva leaked from her hot mouth in strands, dampening his pubic hair as her rough organ grazed its sensitive tip. He felt her throat muscles grip him, smooth and slimy, drawing him deeper into her gullet as she swallowed and her flesh massaged him in waves.

He gripped the fur on her head as she began to bob on his shaft, pushing down to wrap her lips around the base of his member to take him as deep as he could go, then withdrawing to trap the tip in her mouth and paint it with her tongue. The warmth and pressure were intolerable, filling him with a seething heat that made his skin prickle, as if static electricity was arcing between his hairs. Her sinuous tongue coiled like a snake, wrapping his member with its slimy surface, the rough muscle massaging him like fingers as she moved. He bucked reflexively, this time she allowed it, holding still and letting him fuck her mouth as his glans scraped the back of her throat.

She cupped his balls in her furry palm, squeezing softly as he went, her other hand resting on his taut belly and letting her sharp claws prick him. Her fingers were matted with her thick, bubbling saliva, lubricating his shaft and making it slippery. They were going to have to burn this damned sleeping bag once they got back to civilization, there was no salvaging it after everything they had subjected it to.

He winced as her throat tightened its grip on him, as if she were attempting to swallow his member, firm muscles squeezing and pulling beneath her slick flesh. She was deft and careful, never catching him with her rows of carnivore teeth, as sharp as knives but kept safely clear of his throbbing erection as she maneuvered it around in her mouth using her tongue to guide it.

He thrust into her, Lorza keeping still as he rolled his hips instinctively, her drool flowing freely around his cock as he plunged her throat. On an upward thrust she grabbed his hips suddenly, wrapping her hands almost completely around his lower body, claws pricking his ass as she held him there. As if to demonstrate her previous statement about Borealan lung capacity, she took him deep into her twitching gullet and kept him there, her grip on his hips preventing him from driving himself deeper or wriggling free of her hold on him.

It was as tight as her loins, her throat muscles rippling and milking him as they tried to reject his intrusion, Lorza already surpassing the limit that would have caused a human to gag and come up for air. A minute became two, her slick flesh enclosing him like a fist gloved in wet silk, trembling around his member as the intense suction threatened to draw his emission from his very body. He gritted his teeth, his fingers tugging at her fur, in danger of losing control before she even ran out of air. It turned into a competition, who would fold first? Would Boyd succumb and release into her waiting mouth, or would she reach her limit and free him in order to take a breath?

Her hold on him grew tighter, her curved, black claws pressing into the meat of his butt as she held him suspended off the deck. Finally she relented, lowering him to the floor and sliding her lips off his cock, taking a deep breath and allowing the mass of thick saliva to slough out of her mouth to coat his thighs and belly. He felt her hand grip his shaft, eager to keep him on edge as she recovered, running the fleshy pads on her the tips of her fingers through the gooey mess and letting it mat her fur as she stroked him.

“You're full of surprises Mister Boyd,” she chuckled, “I didn't think you'd survive that.”

“You underestimate humans,” he gasped, failing to mask his excitement as she circled the tender head of his glans with her finger.

“I guess I will have to test your limits then, in order that my estimations be more accurate.”

He felt her warm lips press around his head again, taking him into her mouth and battering him with strong, smooth strokes of her impossibly long tongue. It coiled and weaved, wrapping his shaft and caressing, squeezing rhythmically while its tapered tip sought out weak points to tease. Boyd felt as if his legs were melting into jelly, bursts of prickling pleasure flowing up through his spine and spreading to the tips of his fingers and toes as if he were the conduit for some kind of raw, sexual energy.

She combined her roving tongue with the intense suction of her throat, driving him deep into her mouth and coating him in her viscous saliva, her pace becoming ruthless and eager as she sought to bring him to the limits of his endurance as quickly as possible. Almost immediately he felt the urgency of an impending climax rising in him, his heart fluttering in his chest as he gripped handfuls of her fur as if it might somehow lessen his torment, her smooth lips raking up and down his aching shaft.

He pushed up off the deck and into her throat, his willpower failing him as he gave in to the animal desire, feeling a wracking pulse of raw pleasure tear through his nerves like an electric shock. His cock twitched and jumped, Lorza trapping it securely between her lips as he started to come, his ejaculate flowing from his member in great spasms that seized his muscles and blinded him with dancing points of light. She swallowed greedily as it came, the muscles of her throat drawing more out as they rippled across his sensitive skin, wringing his shaft with her tongue to prolong his orgasm.

She wrapped her furry hands around him again, holding him like a doll as she drank, his emission hitting the back of her throat and filling her mouth as each pulse of his member ejected a fresh wad of his essence into her waiting maw. She eased out the last few drops with her fist, pursing her lips at the tip as she drew back, releasing him to lie breathless in the sleeping bag.

“Not quite so resilient now,” she said, licking her lips with her pink tongue. She crawled back up, her head slipping out from inside the sleeping bag as she fell heavily to lie beside him. She watched him intently with her ice-blue eyes, a smirk on her face as he recovered, enjoying her handiwork as he covered his face with his hands. She pried his fingers away gently, careful to avoid cutting him with her hooked claws, seeing his red face and grinning. “You look mad, going to get me back for that?”

“Just you wait,” he grumbled.

“Oh, I'm looking forward to it,” she replied as she tickled his exposed chest with her claws. She drew shapes in his skin, leaving red trails and seeming to find the phenomena amusing. “You have such smooth skin, I thought it looked strange at first, but it feels kind of nice to touch.” She rubbed his sweat between the pads on her forefinger and thumb, as if testing its viscosity. “It gets hot and damp when you exert yourself, it glows red when you're aroused, like a beacon that broadcasts your desire.” She shuffled closer to him and dragged her rough tongue across his throat, watching with amusement as he squirmed, his erection still stiff and prominent despite his recent climax.

Lorza draped her arm across his chest and waited impatiently for his refractory period to end, prodding at him as if he were some specimen on a dissection table, chuckling as he attempted to bat her giant hand away.

“You're insatiable, wait just a few more minutes, jeez.”

She relented and leaned her face into the nape of his neck, her breath warming his skin as she nuzzled contentedly.

“I like this, I've missed being intimate with my pack. Humans are usually so distant, they live and work together but they behave as if there's an invisible barrier enclosing them at all times. They never touch each other, never get too close, unless they're mating of course. And you don't do that nearly as often as you should.”

“That's kind of a broad generalization, but I don't expect many people to be immediately comfortable with having a giant alien invading their personal space, no.”

“You like me though, right?” Lorza asked as she drew a circle on his chest with one of her curved claws. “You like being close to me, like me touching you?”

“Is that a rhetorical question?”

“I like to hear you say it.” She watched him expectantly with her blue eyes, her chin resting on her hand as she stroked him with the other, her round ears tracking him. He felt embarrassed suddenly, his face reddening despite himself, and she beamed at his reaction.

“How about I just show you instead?”

He tugged at her fur, trying to roll her over onto her belly with some difficulty, and Lorza watched with amusement as she let him struggle for a few moments. Eventually she rolled onto her front, her face resting on the soft pillow that was sewn into the sleeping bag, and peered over her shoulder as Boyd crawled around to position himself behind the mound of her butt. Her tail waved in the air as he sank his hands a good inch into the two ample globes, the doughy fat spilling around his fingers as he kneaded, Lorza tensing the taut muscles beneath as she felt him probe.

“What are you doing back there?”

He tapped her inner thigh with one hand, and she parted them obediently, making room for him so that he could press closer to her. He leaned on her rear, it was like two beanbags squashed together, there was probably more mass in one ass cheek than in his entire torso. Her lower body was so powerful. It wasn't just the fat that she stored in her wide hips that gave her that signature, pear-shaped figure, but the muscles that were required to hold up and propel such a massive animal. It gave her butt a springy sensation when he tapped it with his hand, like there was rubber beneath the insulation. She looked over her shoulder again, narrowing her blue eyes.

“If you're going to do something that will blow me away, then you'd better-”

He cut her off, taking the base of her long tail in his fist and tugging it sharply. Lorza groaned, biting her lip and raising her hips off the deck, reacting strongly to his firm grip. He couldn't reach her hair in order to pull it, and so he had grabbed whatever was in range, but apparently having her tail pulled really got her attention.

“Did that hurt?”

“Fuck no,” she growled lasciviously, “do it again.”

He gave her another hard tug, and he felt her thighs tremble, her ass rising into the air again as if in invitation. She must have a nerve cluster at the base of her tail or something, or maybe it really was equivalent to pulling human hair? In any case she liked it, and he was enjoying her reaction.

He slipped a hand between her thighs, probing into the soft fat and fur to seek out her loins, feeling warmth and dampness on his fingertips as they grazed her labia. He slipped a finger inside, this new position making her somehow even tighter than usual, he could barely get one finger inside without her quivering passage crushing it. She wriggled, her wide hips shaking and her ample butt wobbling as she repositioned herself, Boyd shuffling closer on his knees now that he had gotten his bearings in this mass of meat and fluff.

He pressed his aching member against her flushed lips, rubbing the head up and down her vulva, feeling the shivers rush through her body as he held onto her tail for purchase. He let her flowing juices glaze it, then poised with it pressed up against her twitching entrance, feeling her fever hot loins tremble with anticipation. Just as she turned her head to complain, he pulled himself forward, yanking her tail and driving his member up to the hilt.

Lorza arched her long spine, yowling like an angry cat, her tense body slowly relaxing to lie limp in the sleeping bag as her powerful pelvic floor muscles undulated around his shaft. She buried her face in the pillow, sinking her teeth into the plush material, her claws puncturing it as she grumbled to herself incoherently. Boyd drew back again, feeling her walls cling to him with clammy heat, sucking like an eager mouth as her nethers tried to draw him back inside. Again he used his hold on the base of her furry tail as leverage, giving it another harsh tug and slamming his member into her reaches, to be welcomed by her satin flesh as it caressed his length. Her body was luxurious, soft and firm in all the right places, at once doughy and muscular. Her fur was lush and silken, endlessly inviting to his human fingers, sharing a bed with her was as luxuriant as sleeping in a pile of mink coats alongside a woman whose assets would have made even the most developed human envious.

He found a slow, heavy pace, giving it his all as he buried his throbbing member in her sopping tunnel. She shivered contentedly with every thrust, pushing back to meet him, driving him harder and deeper than he could muster on his own. Pulling her tail like this made her oddly compliant, not quite submissive, but her change in attitude was noticeable. Gone were the smirks and jokes, now she was face-down in a pillow, matching his rhythm with a lust and eagerness that went beyond her usual enthusiasm.

He took the opportunity to grope her copious ass with his free hand, mauling it with cruel indifference as they moved together, her insulating fat as soft and as yielding as wet clay. He played with her tail, feeling her insides tighten around him whenever he gave it a tug, slick walls pressing together to enclose his member in a prison of hot flesh. Her juices leaked from her glistening loins, dangling in thick strands and matting the silky fur on her thighs and mound, the obscene sounds of their messy union rising to his ears.

She began to roll her hips, grinding against his shaft and driving him against her walls at new and exciting angles, his rigid member scouring her smooth insides and driving a grunt from his lips. Every inch of his skin was being stroked and squeezed by her velutinous tunnel, her emissions glazing it in a syrupy concoction, a blur of sensations and mingling pleasures that filled his brain with a kind of happy haze. He shook his head, trying to banish the fog of lust that threatened to cloud his mind, he had her on the ropes and he wasn't about to let this opportunity pass him by. This time he wanted to see Lorza panting beneath him, covered in their juices, hiding her face with her furry hands as she recovered from an embarrassingly powerful climax.

He yanked her tail again, hearing her curse in Russian, turning her head to glare at him over her shoulder. Rather than the scorn he was expecting, he saw that her blue eyes were unfocused, lids drooping as she peered over her shoulder at him with an expression of longing and furious carnality. Her look invigorated him, a fresh fire rising in his chest as he redoubled his efforts, hitting her from behind with all of the force that he could muster. Evidently it was not enough for her, and he felt her tail coiling around his waist, tightening like a noose and pulling him to drive him deeper into her most intimate reaches.

A rumbling purr rose in her throat, like a happy lioness, the shuddering in her massive body teasing his cock as her narrow passage wrung him with enough force to make him gasp. Between the two of them they slammed together with enough of an impact to bruise his hips, her rotund ass clapping against his belly and jiggling as her supple fat absorbed the shock of their fervent coupling.

He kept his hold on the base of her furry tail, wrenching it as he used it for purchase, each pull sending a rolling shiver down her spine that culminated in a wanton growl or a fresh bite into the now shredded pillow.

“Fuck Boyd, I didn't know you had it in you,” she mumbled. Her voice trailed off as he hit her again, giving her another harsh yank and slamming his member into her burning tunnel, her hips leaving the floor to drive against him and take him deeper. She was so tight now, her loins were holding on to him like a vice. Even the torrent of thick, gooey liquid that escaped from her hole to coat her thighs and fall to the sleeping bag in globs was not enough to lessen the friction.

“D-Don't slow down,” she pleaded, her tone surprising him. “I need this...”

Every word out of her mouth just made him harder, every twitch and shiver that passed through her voluptuous body goaded him on, kindling the fires of his lust. He increased his pace, hammering her as she yelped with glee, her voice muffled by the pillow that she was currently biting. Downy feathers flew from the stuffing as she tore into it, her teeth and long, hooked claws penetrating deep inside it. Boyd had to wonder if that might be how she would treat a partner were she less restrained. When the recruits talked about the scars they got from their encounters with Equatorials, was this what they were subjected to? Something about it set his heart racing, though he would choose the more careful and considerate Polars over the Mad Cats any day.

He felt Lorza seize as an especially heavy tremor rolled through her, the thrusting of her heavy hips becoming erratic and her tail's hold on him slackening. Feathers floated in the air as he pushed her higher, the pitch of her bestial moans seeming to rise along with her orgasm, and he felt her slimy passage grip him like an angry fist.

She rolled over onto her back, pulling him along with her, keeping him inside her as she closed her arms around him and buried his face between her meaty breasts. Her thighs enclosed him, pressing him deep inside her, her steely muscles locking him in position as she pressed her nose into his sodden hair and wailed.

She came hard, the contractions of her insides dragging him over the edge along with her, the flood of warm ejaculate that filled her passage adding a new height of pleasure to her wracking orgasm. She crushed him against her pudgy body, Boyd breathing in her feminine musk as one of her large hands gripping his hair and the other drew red trails down his spine. Her thighs squeezing him with enough strength that it might have hurt had he not joined her in her euphoria, groaning into her bust as his body pumped her full of his thick emission. Again and again the pleasure washed over him like an electric shock, his abdominal muscles tensing as they forced more of his essence out of him, hitting her walls with enough force that it made her buck and whine as a kind of pained delight overcame her.

His erection throbbed and jumped inside her, Lorza's slick, smooth passage massaging it and milking it with her powerful contractions and squeezing more out of him. He felt as if he was pumping his very life force into her eager tunnel, her ceaseless wriggling and her rippling muscles sapping his strength and energy like a vampire, her hot breath blowing his hair as she gripped him in her fugue. He sank into her bust and let her hold him in her embrace, her female instincts desperate for an insemination that would not come, her conscious mind ebbing as her primal lust took the reigns and her thighs pulled him deeper to push his milky emission towards her alien womb.

They stayed locked together for what felt like an age, but could not have been more than a minute or two, until finally their ecstasy began to fade and it gave way to a satisfied afterglow. A few stray feathers floated towards the deck like confetti, disturbed by their raunchy activities, and Boyd watched one fall and stick to his damp skin as Lorza released him from her cleavage. The sleeping bag was impregnated with their mess, even more of it sloughing out of Lorza as Boyd pulled away, thick strands of the unspeakable mixture linking his fading erection to her splayed lips. The pillow was destroyed, its stuffing now decorating the troop bay like snow.

“I think we're just going to have to space this sleeping bag,” he muttered, “there's no saving it at this point.”

Lorza laughed and fell down to lie on her side, bringing him with her and holding him in her furry arms.

“I've decided that I'm definitely not going to eat you.”

“Well that's good to hear...”

She reached down and kissed him, slow and tender, the deft strokes of her long tongue setting his heart racing again as she caressed his cheek with her soft palm. She broke away with a wet pop, draping her arm over him and pushing her feline nose into his hair again. He must smell good to her, she seemed to do that a lot.

“I'm going to smell myself on you for a good week, I'm kind of glad other humans can't pick it up. It would be incredibly bad mannered in Polar society, but as long as there are no other Borealans around I can drench you in pheromones and nobody will know it besides me and you.” She chuckled to herself at the prospect, leering down at him and wetting her pink lips with her tongue. “Kind of makes me want to go another round, think you've got one more in you?”

He nodded, and she bit her lower lip with her sharp teeth, pulling the sodden sleeping bag over their heads and plunging Boyd into darkness.

CHAPTER 11: DEAD DROP

A beeping noise woke Boyd, and he struggled to free himself from Lorza's furry arms, climbing out of the sleeping bag and rushing to the instrument panel in the cockpit. The incoming hail notification was blinking, so he hastily put on the flight headphones and angled the microphone towards his mouth, hitting accept as a hiss of static came through.

“...repeat, this is the civilian cargo freighter 'Nelleblad' responding to distress beacon, come in please, over.”

Boyd couldn't believe their luck, a freighter had picked up their beacon so soon?

“Come in Nelleblad, we hear you, thank you for responding, over.”

“What's your situation,” the voice on the comms asked, distorted by distance and interference.

“We’re a short range shuttle in need of rescue, two crew members, we’re looking to hitch a ride out of the system. Can you pick us up?”

The pilot of the Nelleblad hesitated for a moment before giving his reply.

“Negative on that, shuttle. I'm going to need some kind of proof of identity, there have been reports of recent pirate attacks in this system, over.”

Shit, the attack on the UNN jump freighter, the shipping companies that operated out here must have alerted their assets of the threat and warned them to keep an eye out for exactly this kind of situation. A lone shuttle drifting at the edge of the system could be a honey trap for passing ships, as UN law required any vessel that detected a distress beacon to investigate it. Boyd would have been suspicious too had their situations been reversed. He had a UNNI badge that would serve as ample identification, but how could he transmit the data?

Of course! The scanner on his oh-bis. He pulled his holographic badge from his pocket and tapped at his monitor, placing the leather wallet on the dashboard and slowly moving his wrist over it. The camera took photos of it, the tool originally designed for covertly copying sensitive documents, and he withdrew the data cable from his computer and plugged it into the shuttle's instrument panel. He copied the file, then prepared to send it to the Nelleblad.

“Roger that Nelleblad, I'm sending you an image file, over.”

He activated the shuttle's communications equipment and the display showed that the Nelleblad was streaming the file to its onboard computer, it might end up a little fragmented at this distance but it should be enough to prove his identity. After a few seconds he got his reply.

“UNNI? What on Earth...what are you doing out here? Over.”

“It's a long story, I would prefer to tell it to you in person. Do we have permission to board? Over.”

“Your ID could be faked...but I don't see why you would do that, there are far more plausible cover stories than this. Very well, I'm transmitting my coordinates to your flight computer, holding tight until I pick you up on my sensors, over.”

“Copy that Nelleblad, we're in your debt, over and out.”

Lorza poked her massive head into the cockpit, opening her cavernous mouth to yawn, her claws sinking into the padded headrest of the pilot's chair.

“Did someone pick us up already?”

“Yeah, a civilian freighter, looks like we might be out of here sooner than I thought.”

“Oh well, I guess it can't be helped.” She leaned in close behind him and pressed her teeth into his neck, making him jump in his seat. “I wanted you all to myself a little while longer.”

***

The freighter loomed in the distance, illuminated against the velvet black backdrop of deep space by its running lights. Its long, skeletal frame was filled out here and there by massive cargo containers, the comparatively small cockpit and living quarters of the ship affixed to the bow of the vessel. The conventional and superlight engines were mounted on the stern like a counterweight, and Boyd angled the nose of the shuttle towards the open hangar bay, just behind the hab module the front of the vessel. They closed quickly, spurts of blue flame shooting from the nose of the shuttle in order to decelerate it and slow their approach.

Boyd maneuvered it inside the bay, only large enough to handle two shuttles, and there was a clunk as the landing gear lowered and the little craft was caught by the freighter's artificial gravity field. He lowered the landing ramp, gesturing for Lorza to wait inside, and stepped out gingerly onto the deck of the Nelleblad. The pilot was waiting for them, a portly man wearing a stained orange jumpsuit, and wielding an XMR configured for wide-spread. He aimed the shotgun at Boyd, who froze, not wanting to make any sudden moves that might alarm their host.

“I'd like to see your badge again please,” the pilot said, and Boyd slowly lowered his hand to his pocket in order to retrieve it. He held it up and activated the finger print scanner, the holographic UNNI badge displaying on the front. “A little closer please,” the pilot said, gesturing with the barrel of the gun. Boyd inched a few steps forward, the pilot squinting at his wallet. Finally he lowered the weapon and seemed to relax a little. “Sorry about that, necessary precaution you understand, corporate sent out a pirate alert for Hades.”

“Yeah, no worries,” Boyd replied. He was a little shaken, for a moment there he thought the pilot might have been on the Syndicate's payroll. “I have a friend with me, a Borealan. Please don't be alarmed, she's completely harmless.”

He gestured for Lorza to descend the ramp, and though the pilot's eyes widened in surprise when he saw her, his gun remained safely at his side.

“So...where are you guys headed?”

“The nearest UNN outpost, I realize I'm turning you straight back the way you came, but I can promise you compensation for fuel and time lost time. I can probably arrange some kind of reward for you too, if the brass will allow it. I'm on an urgent mission of the utmost importance, and I need to get the information that I've recovered into official channels as soon as possible.”

“Hell, are you guys spies or something? You been investigating the pirate attacks?”

“You could say that, yeah.”

“Well if you're gonna compensate me then I'll be glad to take you, lord knows I'll be happy to avoid Hades for a few extra days. If you guys can write me up a document explaining the delay that I can show to my employer then everything should be squared away.”

“Oh, I wouldn't come back to Hades for a while if I were you, things there are going to get...turbulent over the next couple of weeks.”

“Well I'm glad I ran into you two then,” the pilot replied, gesturing for them to follow him into the living quarters. “Is it all top secret or can you tell me what's going to happen?”

“Need to know basis, it's highly classified,” Lorza replied sternly, mimicking Boyd’s accent.

“Oh, in that case I'd better not pry!”

Boyd turned to glare at Lorza and she suppressed a smirk, ducking under the human-sized door and into a short hallway lined with cabins. They followed the pilot down to the cockpit, far larger and more spacious than the one in their shuttle or that of the Zemchug, not quite as expansive as a capital ship's bridge but this civilian freighter was jump-capable and it was a big vessel. The pilot sank into a rotating chair at the main console and punched in coordinates, a computer monitor displaying trajectory, fuel consumption and other miscellaneous data as he programmed their flight path.

“We can get to a UNN fueling station one system over in about two days, you guys have food with you?” Boyd nodded. “Good, pick a cabin, there are harnesses on the beds for superlight travel and there should be some plastic bits in one of the drawers. I'm not sure about your...friend here, have her bite down on a shoe or something.”

“I've done plenty of jumps,” Lorza said, “won't be a problem.”

“Well we're keyed in, so I'll give you fifteen minutes to bring your gear in from your shuttle and get secured before I initiate the jump sequence.”

Boyd and Lorza left to fetch the crate of food, Boyd whispering once they were out of earshot of the pilot.

“You're not a spy, what are you doing?”

“Just having some fun! He totally bought it too.”

Boyd shook his head, mounting the ramp and dragging down the crate, Lorza elbowed past him and plucked it from his hands as she grinned down at him. He could barely lift it but to her it was practically weightless. They returned to the living quarters and set the crate by a bed in one of the cabins, Boyd opened a drawer in the bedside table and rummaged for a bit, wiping it on his sleeve and placing it in his mouth. It would prevent him from biting off his own tongue during the jump. When the ship's superlight engine fractured reality and plunged them into a parallel dimension, where space and time flowed differently, his nervous system would go haywire and he would suffer everything from uncontrollable muscle spasms to temporary insanity. It got easier the more times you jumped, but it was always a good idea to take precautions.

He lay down on the bed, securing a harness across his chest, and then his ankles and wrists. Lorza stood beside the bed, looking down at him with a sultry expression, and he suddenly felt oddly vulnerable.

“What's with that look? Get to a bed, you need to strap in, we'll be jumping in a few minutes.”

“I was just thinking, we're going to be here for a couple of days and I can come up with some...interesting uses for these harnesses.”

Boyd blushed and she grinned at him, encouraged by his involuntary reaction.

“Just get to a bed, go on, shoo.”

She wandered over to the door, sneaking another lingering look at him over her shoulder with a smirk before ducking out of the room. Another couple of minutes passed, Boyd staring at the ceiling as he waited for the jump, a warning siren startling him as it rang out through speakers embedded in the walls. Jumps didn't worry him, he had done hundreds, but somehow the siren was never any less alarming. He felt the familiar sensation as the superlight engine began to charge, like static electricity coursing across his skin as the engine concentrated all of its stored energy towards the bow of the vessel, preparing to create a small black hole that would allow it to pass through and out of conventional space. The ship's superstructure shook violently, the forces at play wrenching and twisting the metal, until everything went black.

***

Boyd took in a sharp breath, his muscles quivering as he strained against his bonds. Where was he? Had he been captured? Was he being tortured? He fought ardently, exhausting himself as he realized he was trapped. He couldn't see anything, did they have a bag over his head, was he blindfolded? Bit by bit his memories returned to him, and he remembered what was going on, his delirium fading away as his senses sharpened and he thumbed the release catch on the cuffs that secured him to the bed.

He removed the harnesses and sat upright, rubbing his shoulders to drive off the cramps, his heart rate normalizing as he stood and walked unsteadily to the door. The jump was complete and the ship would have traveled a dozen or so light years, now it would have to coast in normal space while the superlight engine recharged.

He met Lorza in the hall, rubbing her head and leaning against a door frame, grumbling to herself as she nursed a headache.

“Just another day in the corps,” Boyd joked, but she didn't laugh. He made his way towards the cockpit where the pilot was recovering in his chair, and the man turned his head to greet him.

“Successful jump,” he said as he rubbed his eyes. “It'll take a couple of days for the drive to charge up again, and then it should only take us one more jump. Make yourselves comfortable, I need to get in contact with my depot and explain why I'm not currently docking at Hades.”

***

Two uneventful days passed, there wasn't much to do on the freighter besides wait around and eat, and so they ended up doing a lot of the latter. Lorza worked more of her magic on the rations and supplies that they had been given, even wowing the pilot, and she became somewhat of an unofficial cook for their small crew. Though the fires of their passion still raged, the presence of their host frustrated them. There were no opportunities to spend time together away from prying eyes due to the cramped nature of the hab module. They would have to bide their time and make up for lost opportunities later.

After two days, and six meals that would have shamed even a cruise liner chef, they completed their second jump and materialized a few hundred thousand kilometers out from the UNN fueling station. It was remote, there were only a handful of defensive interceptors and two frigates that were being loaded up on their way to the inner systems. The pilot asked for emergency docking permission, and was approved, two Penguin interceptors flying out to escort them in, so named for their stubby wings and bulbous hulls.

The freighter was almost as large as the station itself, and Boyd again reassured the pilot that he would be compensated for the help that he had provided, joining Lorza in the hangar bay and taking their shuttle over to the UNN fueling station. They were met on the hangar deck by the station's overseer, a younger officer who immediately gave Boyd the impression that he took his position here far too seriously. He was greeted with a salute, returning it as the prim officer led both he and Lorza into an adjacent office. They wouldn't get much help here, the station couldn't have more than a dozen crew members, but with any luck they would be equipped with a quantum communications array that could get word to the fleet. It was the only way to send a message over interstellar distances in any timely fashion, as even light-speed laser communications might take decades to cross the voids between stars. Every quantum array had an entangled counterpart somewhere else in human space that would be able to receive broadcasts almost instantly. Boyd sat at the officer's desk as Lorza stood nearby, there being no chairs sturdy enough to take her weight.

“Your credentials check out, Agent Boyd, I have to say that I'm somewhat surprised to see a UNNI operative on my humble station. I assume that if you had to reach us through such unconventional channels, you must be in dire need of assistance. How can we be of service to you?”

“I have information concerning a coup on Hades that I need to relay to the Admiralty as soon as possible, it's of the utmost importance. The longer we delay the more time the enemy will have to fortify their defenses, and believe me that's what they'll be doing. By this point they'll no doubt be aware of the fact that I've escaped the system.”

“Am I to take it that you were operating on Hades, and you were discovered? Are you able to tell me who this 'enemy' is and what their capabilities are, or is that classified? Is there a threat to my installation?”

Boyd leaned back in his chair, considering.

“I suppose it doesn't matter now, the situation is no longer contained, this is all going to be public knowledge in a few days regardless. There is an alliance of criminal organizations on Hades that is conspiring to take control of the colony from its corporate investors, they recently raided a UNN jump freighter and stole a shipment of surface to air missiles in order to defend their claim by force should either the UNN or corporate security come snooping. As I understand it they have most of the colonists on their side and they've either turned or bribed the planetary defense forces who were supposed to be preventing this kind of situation from developing. I need a full strike force, a Jump Carrier with a contingent of Marines and support craft to take back the planet. There will be resistance, we need to end this quickly, before they have the opportunity to become so entrenched that this turns into a full-scale war.”

The officer's expression darkened as he mulled over what he had been told.

“Then the situation is indeed urgent, I will give you full access to our facilities, Agent. You may use our communications equipment to send a message to FleetCom. In the meantime, what do you want us to do about the civilian freighter?”

“The pilot is to be fully compensated, fill up his tank and reimburse him for any delays or contract violations he incurs as a result of going off-course. Just put my badge number on any of the documents you have to fill out and it will be taken care of by the agency.”

“Understood, and your...friend here?” He gestured to Lorza who had stood silently during the conversation, unused to being in this kind of environment perhaps. “Was she deployed along with you, or did you pick her up on the way?”

“She's a civilian, she stays with me for the time being.”

“Very well,” the officer said, standing and gesturing for Boyd to follow him. “If you'll come this way, I'll accompany you to the communications room and ensure that our operator gives you immediate access to the quantum relay. If the situation is as dire as you believe it to be, we have no time to waste on protocol and clearance.”

“I appreciate it, I'll make sure to mention your name when I give my report, Officer...”

“Richards,” the officer replied, obviously thrilled at the prospect of being involved in the proceedings and doing a poor job of concealing his enthusiasm. “Please, this way Agent.”

“Better wait here Lorza,” Boyd said as they walked over to the door, “you're not UNN so stay here for the time being, I'll be back to fetch you shortly.”

She nodded, crossing her furry arms and leaning against the wall as the two humans left through the automatic door, closing it behind them. Boyd felt a little bad leaving her alone in the office, but UNN policy strictly prohibited having civilians running around their naval installations.

***

“Chief, we have an urgent message coming through on the quantum relay from the fueling station at Mu Arae, they're requesting a direct line to the Admiralty. It's an encrypted package.”

Chief of Security Moralez pulled up a star chart on his computer display, scrutinizing the data as he scratched his stubbly chin with his prosthetic hand. He was the head of security on the Pinwheel space station, the largest drydock and naval base in human space outside of Sol system itself. He was sat in his office, surrounded by computer terminals and monitors scrolling with data readouts, the station's massive torus from which the station got its nickname rotating beyond his windows. Officially it was known as Fort Hamilton, and anything that happened on the station was under Moralez's supervision. He tapped the intercom button on his desk with his polymer finger, he had lost two arms and a leg in the line of duty, his limbs replaced with advanced robotics. What remained of the grizzled veteran's original organic body was mostly scar tissue and the unwavering determination of an old Marine.

“Mu Arae? There's nothing out there, it's a glorified gas station, what could they possibly want?”

“I don't know, Sir,” the woman on the other end of the line said, “I just received the request and thought that it was odd, so I thought I should relay it to you. I wouldn't trouble you with it at all, if it wasn't for the fact that it appears to contain a UNNI badge number.”

“You did the right thing. I'll get to the bottom of this, resume your usual work and let me worry about it now.”

“Yes Chief, thank you Sir.”

An urgent communication requesting a direct line to the Admirals who were stationed on the Pinwheel, with no further elaboration, and coming from a backwater that he had needed to reference a star chart to even find? Encrypted at that, someone only wanted this to be read by the Admirals. Something was amiss, this was either some kind of massive error, or there was something very serious going on. He stood up, the electric motors that drove his robotic limbs whirring, and walked over to a videophone mounted on the wall of his office. He typed in a number on the keypad, then waited for a moment as his call was forwarded, a man wearing a yellow engineer's uniform appeared on the display.

“Chief Moralez, to what do I owe the pleasure? Is there something I can do for you?”

“Hey Henry, yeah, something weird came up and I wanted to know if you could help me out.”

“Sure thing Chief, what do you need?”

“Just had one of the girls down in the comms room forward a weird communication request to me. It came in from Mu Arae, all we have out there is a fueling station and it's about as close to the borders of UNN space as you can get before you drop off the map. Thing is, they used their quantum relay to make the request, and they want a direct line to the Admirals.”

“Sounds serious, what's the problem?”

“Well it's just so unusual, why would a gas station need to contact the Admiralty, and why have they refused to give us more information? The data package they sent was encrypted far beyond what that station should have the clearance for. They've not used any of the proper channels and they seem to have tried to bypass as much red tape as they could get away with. I checked the authorization they used and it was a UNNI badge number. There's no agency branch on the Pinwheel, and there's nothing for spooks to spy on in that system, I can't imagine what an agent would be doing all the way out there.”

“So what do you need from me?”

“Well you're the head of engineering, I wanted to make sure that there's no way such a signal could be faked or redirected.”

The man on the other end of the phone considered for a moment.

“No, it wouldn't be possible. If the message was sent via quantum relay then there would be no way to intercept or fake the message, those devices are twinned and they can only communicate with their counterpart, wherever in the galaxy it might be. Someone could maybe get their hands on a UNNI badge number, but that would surely draw more attention than someone trying to fake a legitimate communication would want.”

“That's what I thought, I just wanted to be sure before I bothered the Admirals with it, thanks Henry.”

“No problem Chief,” the man said, and Moralez shut off the phone. In that case, the communication might well be legitimate, a stranded UNNI spook trying to phone home perhaps? He was out of reasonable doubts, better put the message through to the Admirals and see what they had to say about it. He returned to his seat and typed in his authorization, connecting to the control computer in the central hub of the station and transferring the data to the Admiralty. There were always two or three Admirals stationed on the Pinwheel at any time, while they cycled in and out fairly frequently, the base was important enough that they were never far away.

He returned to his usual business, but before long his videophone began to blink with an incoming call. He walked over to the phone and hit the 'accept' button, the face of one of the Admirals appearing on the monitor.

“Admiral! What can I do for you?”

“I've just received a very...worrying communication from your office, Chief Moralez. I wanted to verify its authenticity.”

“Yes Sir, I've been assured that it's genuine. We received it via quantum relay from Mu Arae. I have to admit that I was a little hesitant to send it your way, but I had no valid reason not to.”

“It contains a report from one of our undercover agents, he has recovered information pertaining to an ongoing coup on a colony planet. How many Jump Carriers are currently docked with the station?”

“Two Sir, the UNN Ironclad is undergoing a refit and won't be spaceworthy for a few more weeks, and the UNN Thermopylae just returned from the front. She's unloading wounded and resupplying.”

“The Thermopylae...Captain Stavros' vessel if I'm correct.”

“I believe so Sir.”

“Get in touch with Captain Stavros and tell him that he has twenty four hours to make his ship and her crew ready for a potential planetary invasion. This is priority one, give him access to the armory and any auxiliaries that he needs. We can replace wounded crew with our own Marines, send out an alert to all active combat personnel on the station to be ready for redeployment.”

“Yes Admiral, I'll see that it gets done.”

“Send a Courser to pick up our stranded agent too, we'll bring him back here for debriefing.”

“Very good Admiral.”

***

Boyd stared out of the window of the fueling station, Lorza leaning on her elbow from the bed as she watched him, the two of them cooped up in the cramped quarters they had been assigned temporarily while they awaited pickup.

“You can't do anything about it right now,” she complained, “come back to bed.”

“It's been days,” Boyd replied, his eyes still fixed on the starry backdrop. “Still no word about the situation on Hades besides the response from the Admiralty.”

“They said they would handle it, didn't they? What are you going to do, flap your arms and fly back to Hades?”

“I'm just used to having all of this information at my fingertips, being in the loop, I usually have up to date reports on everything that's happening on a mission.”

“Well you're not on a mission anymore, you've completed your assignment, you found out what was going on and you got that information into the right hands. That's your job, not taking the planet back single-handedly.” She snaked her furry tail around his waist and began to drag him away from the porthole, catching him in her arms and pulling him into the bed. “Come on, we're safe for the first time in days, just enjoy the downtime while you can.”

He lay back into her plush body and let her reach her head down to mouthe at his neck, maybe she was right, it was a welcome distraction and there wasn't anything he could do as long as they were stranded on this station.

Just as he was starting to relax, there was a burst of rainbow colors beyond the window, as if someone had thrown a balloon full of paint at a black canvass. A ship had just left superlight, and Lorza huffed in disapproval, releasing him from her grasp as he climbed off the bed and walked back towards the window.

“It's a Courser!”

“What's that?”

“Fastest class of ship in the fleet, it has to be here for us!”

He watched the vessel as it turned towards the station, engines flaring as the pencil-shaped ship closed at alarming speed, decelerating as it came into range. There was a hiss of static as the intercom turned on, Officer Richards' voice coming through.

“Agent Boyd, please report to the hangar bay, a Courser is hailing us. They want to take you to Fort Hamilton. Repeat, Agent Boyd to the hangar bay please.”

“That means you too,” Boyd said to Lorza, and she flopped out of the bed and stretched, her head brushing the ceiling.

“You know what I'd like? To stay in one place for more than a couple of days.”

“Don't worry about it,” he said, throwing her overalls to her. “They probably want to debrief me and get a full mission report, that'll take a while. Besides, I think I've earned the right to request a couple of weeks of paid leave. I take it you've never been to Fort Hamilton?” She shook her head as she stepped into her clothes. “Well, most people know it as the Pinwheel, it's a huge space station and naval base. They have everything there. Hotels for civilians, a shopping district, the whole place is made up to look and feel like a terrestrial planet.”

“They aren't going to sweep you away and send me back home to Siberia?”

“I wouldn't let them,” Boyd replied, trying to sound reassuring. “You're my key witness.” That seemed to assuage some of her concerns, and she smiled at him. “If you're worried that we'll be separated, don't be, you don't have to feel like we're on a timer. I'm not going anywhere without you.”

Once dressed, they made their way to the hangar bay, open to the darkness of space save for a nanometer-thin force field that would contain the atmosphere but allow solid objects to pass unhindered. A modern UNN shuttle was waiting on the deck for them, the pilot standing to attention as they neared. He looked up at Lorza, his expression confused.

“Agent Boyd? I've been sent to collect you, I am to take you to Fort Hamilton for debriefing.”

“Very good pilot, I have a plus one, she's a key witness.”

“All due respect Sir, but I was only ordered to-”

“She goes where I go, pilot, that's all you need to know right now.” He could pull rank if the pilot gave him any trouble, but he seemed to be considering it, Boyd could almost see the gears turning in his head beneath his transparent visor.

“Yes Sir, please, this way.”

They mounted the landing ramp and buckled in, although the UNN had not known that Lorza would be joining him, this shuttle was a more recent model and was outfitted to carry Borealans and Krell as well as human passengers. Lorza was pleased to find a seat that she fit in, strapping the harness across her chest as they prepared to launch, obviously designed for Equatorials as the straps sank into the meat of her oversized bust. The pilot gunned the thrusters, the landing gear stowing in the belly of the craft with a clunk as it slipped out of the bay and left the station's AG field.

The Courser grew in the cockpit window as they drew closer, not dissimilar from a civilian jump freighter in appearance, a bulbous mass of engines and power plants at the rear and a bridge with a habitation module towards the front. A skeletal frame linked them, but unlike a freighter there were no cargo containers anchored to it, these ships were built to be as low-mass as possible while still being able to house and power the most efficient superlight drives that the UNN could produce. A Courser could cross immense distances far faster than a freighter or a carrier, but due to their small size and low mass they could only carry a few passengers. They were mostly used to deliver important messages where quantum communications relays were not available, or to ship VIPs across human space at breakneck speed. If they had sent a Courser, then they wanted Boyd in a debriefing room urgently, that implied that an invasion of Hades was either on the drawing board or had already been set in motion.

The craft ferried them quickly towards the Courser, landing in its tiny hangar bay as the vessel's AG field gripped it and secured it to the deck. The pilot was skilled, the hangar was almost too small to fit the shuttle, it looked as if there had been only inches of wing clearance to spare. They descended the landing ramp and made their way towards the crew quarters, even more spartan and cramped than those on the freighter had been.

“I'm sorry I can't offer you a more comfortable cabin Sir,” the pilot said as he hurried to the cockpit at the far end of the hall. “I have orders to get you back as soon as possible, we'll be jumping shortly so please take the necessary precautions and get fastened in.”

Boyd looked up at Lorza as she waited beside him, ducking slightly in the minimalist habitation module. She grumbled to him under her breath as she walked off to choose a cabin.

“When I said that I wanted to see the galaxy, this wasn't really what I had in mind.”

CHAPTER 12: COUNTER OPERATIONS

The Thermopylae left superlight, emerging in a cloud of technicolor gas in high orbit around Hades, the bridge crew coming to as the autopilot activated the ship's point defense systems in order to protect the human occupants during the brief minutes that they were incapacitated.

Captain Stavros stood with his hands clasped firmly behind his back, the only indication of discomfort or disorientation a twitching in his right eye, he had completed so many jumps that the wracking energies barely phased him anymore. He stared intently at the red planet before them, waiting for his crew to recover. He wore a white captain's hat and dress uniform that contrasted with his olive skin and dark beard, his chest emblazoned with badges and medals that denoted a slew of successful battles and campaigns.

An officer sitting at the pilot's console cradled his head, examining his instrument panel.

“Successful superlight jump captain, we've emerged in high orbit above Hades. No sign of planetary defenses or interceptors on long range scans.” Around the man the other bridge crew members were stirring to life, shaking off their cramped muscles and splitting headaches, tending to their duties as a ship-wide alert blared. Stavros put a gloved hand to his ear, activating his microphone.

“Crew of the Thermopylae, this is your captain speaking. All hands prepare for combat. Repeat, this a ship-wide combat alert, man your stations and be ready for battle.” He turned his attention to the man sitting at the pilot's console towards the front of the bridge, the wide window before them illuminating the expansive room in an orange glow from the desert planet. “Helmsman, bring us about. I want the railguns on our belly ready to strike ground targets, we've had reports that the enemy may have established SAM sites in order to bring down our landing craft.”

“Aye aye, Captain, bringing her about.”

“Hail from the ground, Captain,” a woman manning the communications console said. “Shall I put it through?”

“Put it on the intercom,” Stavros said, the comms officer hitting a button and a voice coming through on speakers embedded in the walls. It was a man's voice, a little distorted by the planet's atmosphere but clear enough to be understood.

“You are invading sovereign territory. Hades and the outlying system are under the authority of the Syndicate now, in accordance with the will of its people.”

Stavros' eyes narrowed, he suspected that whoever was sending this transmission was also broadcasting to his men, this was an attempt to legitimize their seizure of the planet as some kind of revolution rather than the economic coup that it was.

“Attention criminal organizations currently in control of Hades, this is the captain of the UNN Thermopylae. I have a fully crewed Jump Carrier with a contingent of Marines in orbit around your planet. You have broken interstellar law and have taken control of a colony that does not belong to you. Under the UN's declaration of frontier law I have full authority to restore order by force if necessary. I am fully prepared to do so, unless you surrender immediately and turn yourselves in. You will be treated fairly, but you cannot be allowed to go free. This situation has escalated too far.”

The man on the other end of the transmission hesitated for a moment, perhaps not the reply he had expected?

“Thermopylae, the UNN has no authority here, nor do the corporate investors who have exploited the people of Hades for their own profit. This is now a sovereign colony, beholden to no one, least of all to those who intrude on our territory and levy threats of violence against us for exercising our God-given right to self-determination.”

Stavros had to admit, it was well rehearsed, they had been given ample time to prepare and get their story straight due to the delay that traversing such distances incurred. It was all a lie though, the intelligence that had been gathered had made it clear that those who had wrested control of the colony from ExoCorp had done so out of greed, not revolutionary spirit. The crime bosses wanted control over the planet's minerals and nothing was going to change for the miners living there besides who signed their paychecks. Assuming they were given any pay at all and not simply used as disposable slave labor, pirates and mobsters weren't exactly renowned for their compassion.

“To those of you no doubt listening to this broadcast, citizens of Hades and UNN personnel alike, heed my words. Intelligence that was recently gathered by an undercover UNNI operative posing as a miner on Hades has provided evidence that the takeover of the planet was not for the purpose of liberating the population, but to take control of ExoCorp's mineral rights and redirect that lucrative revenue stream into the bank accounts of criminals. These people are not your saviors. They intend to bleed this colony for every penny it's worth. By siding with them you are only ensuring that they will line their pockets at your expense. We will give you one last opportunity to surrender, if you do so you have my word that nobody will be harmed. If you continue to revolt we will subdue any resistance with extreme prejudice.”

“Your threats of violence are hollow, Captain.” The Syndicate spokesman sneered. “The Syndicate possesses a number of surface to air planetary defense weapons that will bring down any dropships you attempt to land, if you try to take the colony by force you'll be throwing away the lives of your men. Here is our ultimatum to you; leave this system and never return. Strike it from your star charts and leave us in peace.”

“I will not abandon the rule of law,” Stavros replied adamantly. “It's the only thing that holds our colonies together, without it we are all defenseless and alone. You can plainly see that the UNN has not abandoned Hades as has been claimed. That we are here at all is ample proof of the organization's commitment to order and security across human space, in this system as much as in any other.”

The mouthpiece on the other end of the line had no answer to that, and cut the feed. Stavros sighed and took a moment to compose himself, the bridge crew looking to him for instructions.

“Helmsman, bring us into low orbit over the main population center, set point defense to track and destroy any incoming projectiles. Program the firing computer to destroy launch sites with the railguns. Use the twenty millimeter tungsten rounds, no explosive warheads. I wouldn't be surprised if they had set up those SAMs in the colony itself, so let's try to minimize collateral damage as much as possible here.”

“Yes Captain.”

“Comms officer, track down the source of that transmission and send the coordinates to the ground teams, I want a Marine squad with auxiliaries on the surface ASAP. Our mission is to force the surrender of the PDF and any civilians who have allied with the Syndicate, but we don't need the crime bosses alive. Have them storm the facility and cut the head off the snake. These PDF are weekend warriors, without centralized coordination they'll be completely lost.”

“Roger that, forwarding your instructions now, Sir.”

“Oh, and make sure that the broadside batteries are tracking and ready to fire, load EMP missiles and establish a no-fly zone. Disable anything that tries to leave the atmosphere, we can pull them in with tug drones when this is all over. The colonists won’t have access to spacecraft on a backwater like this, and so it’s safe to assume that anything attempting to flee is under Syndicate control. These mobsters may try to escape the planet when they realize that their plan has failed. We can't let that happen.”

Stavros walked over to the massive bridge window that took up for the forward wall, looking down at the arid planet, feeling a rumbling pass through the superstructure of the ship as the various weapons and turrets came to life and turned towards their targets.

“Send down the shuttles.”

***

Along recesses in the hull of the Jump Carrier, the landing craft powered up, the dropships leaving their mothership like the scales of a pine cone as they carried their occupants towards the planet. The swarm of a dozen vessels quickly hit the upper atmosphere, noses glowing orange as they breached Hades' airspace, their stubby wings letting them glide towards the surface. On the ground the Syndicate-aligned PDF tracked the incoming vessels with the on-board computers of their stolen SAMs, hidden amongst the prefab structures of the colony's only city, and spread out into the deserts and surrounding hills to conceal their locations. The weapons locked onto the incoming craft, fifteen missiles launched from fifteen hidden locations, plumes of white smoke trailing away from the shoulder-mounted launchers as the electromagnetic warheads zeroed in on their targets.

They intercepted the dropships in the upper atmosphere, too fast to be detected by any kind of point defense that the vessels might carry, and one by one the pillars of smoke trailing up from the planet's surface exploded into a crackling blue aura. It looked like electrified mist, the warheads spraying clouds of electrically charged particles that fried every electronic system on the dropships as they passed through them, the shuttles immediately losing engine power and navigation. They listed and tumbled, losing computer flight control, their systems going haywire as they plummeted towards the ground.

The ships impacted with tremendous force, unable to slow themselves without navigation control, slamming into the dirt like meteors and exploding into balls of orange flame. They landed outside the city, cratering in the desert, digging deep channels in the sand and dust as their burning wreckages skidded to a dead stop.

The PDF and allied colonists cheered, waving their rifles in the air and baying their defiance.

***

The comms operator opened the channel as a new transmission came in, Stavros staring down at the planet with a stern expression on his grizzled features as the Syndicate's mouthpiece gloated.

“As we promised, your landing force has been decimated, your entire payload of landing craft has been destroyed and all hands are lost. Turn back the way you came, you have failed.”

Stavros could hear cheering and revelry in the background, they were having a damned party down there.

“A well coordinated attack,” he admitted, the man on the radio going silent as he listened. “You shot down every one of our landing craft, from positions that were well hidden, exactly the way your PDF soldiers were trained to sabotage a potential enemy invasion force. Unfortunately you've just expended your entire arsenal of missiles on empty shuttles.”

“What? What are you-”

“The vessels anchored to our hull were remotely piloted, unmanned. The real landing force is currently idling in the hangar bay, be ready to receive them.”

The revelry in the background went quiet, no doubt trying to discern if he was bluffing or not, and Stavros turned to his bridge crew and nodded. They knew what to do.

The Thermopylae shook as the massive railgun turrets mounted along her belly fired in unison, the rows of magnetic rings that made up their long barrels accelerating twenty millimeter tungsten slugs at over ten thousand feet per second towards the SAM sites. It took a few seconds for them to reach their destinations, Stavros pulling up a display on the bridge window which doubled as a monitor, watching the splashes on the long-range telescopes as the relatively tiny projectiles hit the ground at tremendous speed and vaporized everything within a small radius. Surgical, that should take care of the launchers should they have any more missiles that the UNNI didn't know about. They had exposed every hidden SAM site in their mass attack, the planet was defenseless now, all they had left were small arms that couldn't scratch an armored landing craft. The Thermopylae only had six landers in her hangar bay, under normal circumstances the landing force would be housed in a far greater number of craft anchored to the hull, but it had been necessary to launch them all as part of his ploy. In believing that he had committed all of his craft to the attack, the Syndicate had similarly expended all of their defensive capabilities.

Six landers wasn't many, but they were carrying mixed units, crack UNN Marines along with Borealan shock troops and Krell linebreakers. What resistance the PDF and the Syndicate mobsters could muster would be easily broken.

Stavros watched the landers as they appeared to the left of the bridge window, their main engines flaring orange as they powered towards Hades and quickly diminished, breaking off into two delta formations as one group headed towards the PDF barracks and the other towards the source of the Syndicate transmission. This rebellion would be quelled within hours, and then they could turn about and head back to the Pinwheel, this was an unwelcome diversion from their operations on the Betelgeusian front.

***

The atmosphere of the planet buffeted the dropship, Korza straining against his safety harness as he checked his XMR, configured as a submachine gun for close quarters gunfights with a savage bayonet attached to the short barrel. He wore black UNN body armor with a full-faced visor, his orange, furry ears protruding from the top of the helmet as they pressed flat against its surface in an attempt to block out the sound of the howling wind as it rushed past the ship.

Korza was blue all the way through, as the humans liked to say. He had risen rapidly through the ranks of the UNN's integration program, learning human customs and language as he went, and now he was the acting Alpha of Gamma pack. He had six Borealans under his command, a shock trooper team trained for boarding actions and CQC. His pack were similarly dressed and armed, six of them occupying oversized seats in the troop bay of the vessel alongside a dozen smaller human Marines, and two massive Krell who gripped handholds in the roof with their many-fingered hands.

The gigantic reptiles looked like bipedal crocodiles, hunched over and covered in armored scales that ran from their long snouts all the way down to the tips of their thick tails, they were wearing armored ponchos in the same shade of black as their alien allies that hung about their broad shoulders. They carried heavy weapons and riot shields, designed to take the brunt of enemy fire as they shielded the more fragile, mammalian members of their team. They were known as linebreakers, juggernauts of natural armor and ballistic weave that could weather gunfire and assault defended positions that no other species could get near. It was their job to get the other occupants of the dropship to their objective safely, and while notoriously good-natured and friendly, the aliens were ruthless and implacable when tasked with defending their friends.

It was sometimes hard for his kin to accept that a Krell could break a Borealan in half if provoked, but while many of his fellows saw them as little more than walking tanks, they had done more to earn Korza's trust and respect than many of the Alphas he had served under in his time. Today Patriarch Stavros had tasked them with taking out the rebellious human leadership on this colony, while Korza was usually stationed on the Pinwheel he had heard of the human's exploits on the front, and desired his respect.

Back on Borealis the less experienced warriors often mocked the humans for their technological superiority, claiming that their love for orbital bombardments and long range gunfights was a sign of cowardice or weakness, but Korza knew better. As much as their spaceships protected them from harm, they were also used to carry warriors directly to the fight, and today Korza and his pack would be dropped into the thick of it. His long claws protruded from his gloves, tapping the gunmetal of his modular rifle as he waited impatiently for the drop.

His helmet radio hissed to life, the pilot advising that they prepare for a 'hot drop', a combat landing under enemy fire. His heart raced as his pack armed their weapons, the humans around them loading magazines and checking their armor. Their orders were to take the Syndicate leaders alive or dead, and to dispatch anyone who raised a weapon at them, but if the humans should discard their weapons or turn to flee then they should be spared. The concept was foreign to his people, but he would obey, such were his orders.

He was jolted back to reality by gunfire hitting the armored belly of the craft, the humans laughing amongst themselves as the conventional ammo was harmlessly deflected. The aliens were small, but they fought ferociously when the bloodlust took them, and they were oddly flippant when it came to war. Somehow that endeared them to him.

“Ten seconds,” the pilot called over the radio, “dropping the ramp! Go go go!”

Korza felt the impact as the shuttle's landing gear hit the ground, the harnesses that held them in their seats disconnecting with a pop to release them. The Krell span around to face the landing ramp, raising their impossibly heavy shields on their right arms, holding XMRs configured for high magazine capacity and suppressing fire in their left. They lumbered down the ramp, the sound of bullets hitting their thick shields ringing out as they advanced, the Borealans and Marines taking up position behind them as they marched forward. The giant reptiles unloaded their weapons at their attackers, no doubt sending them scurrying for cover, though Korza could not see the enemy from this position as they crouched behind the Krell in single-file. Bullets hit the sand around their feet, but none got past the Krell, the conventional ammunition ricocheting against their heavy armor and riot shields.

The chatter of weapons fire was deafening, growing louder as they neared the target, a large compound with highs walls tipped with razor wire. This was where the enemy leaders had entrenched themselves, thinking themselves safe from orbital bombardment so close to the colony's population center. They may have been right, but now rather than facing instant death by nuclear warheads, they would have to do battle with Borealan shock troopers. It was cowardly to use civilians as shields, and Korza intended to make them regret their choice.

The Krell parted as they reached the door of the compound, two large metal barriers that looked as if they had originally belonged to a warehouse, the humans and Borealan taking cover against the concrete walls out of view of the defenders. Korza could pick out voices on the inside, his sensitive ears hearing shouts of alarm, hurried requests for instructions.

“The defenders pile on the other side of these doors,” he announced over the radio. “Let the Krell break the barriers, Gamma will lead the assault. Cover us Marines.”

The leader of the humans confirmed the order, barking orders and getting his men into position beside the doors as they stacked up on either side, the Krell backing away with their shields raised above their heads as a few defenders who remained on the wall tried to fire down at them when they came into view. The giant reptiles charged forwards, using their shields as battering rams, the usually slow and methodical aliens capable of massive bursts of anabolic activity when necessary. They rammed into the doors, the metal vibrating and shaking them in their hinges, the reinforced concrete around them cracking under the force of the blows. They backed up again, one of the human Marines skipping backwards a few paces and loosing a well-placed shot at a defender, causing the human to grip his chest and fall forward to land in the dust. He wore a PDF uniform, now with a fist-sized exit wound in his back.

The Krell raced forwards again, the metal barrier ringing like a gong as they struck it, the concrete that held the hinges on the right side breaking loose. The door on the right fell, pulling the second with it, squashing one of the PDF soldiers who had been waiting on the other side with a sickening crunch. The Krell advanced into the compound, firing their heavy weapons as the defenders scattered, the more cautious human Marines peeking around the busted doorframe to take pot shots.

Korza loosed a battle cry, urging his pack forward as they darted through the breach. Borealans had faster reflexes than humans or Krell, they were more agile, and Korza charged towards a frightened human who raised a rifle in his direction. Before his finger had time to squeeze the trigger, Korza had cleared the ground between them, dropping his XMR to let it hang on its strap and taking off the human's head with a heavy swipe of his claws. His pack spread out, weaving and darting to make themselves harder to hit, the inexperienced PDF completely overwhelmed as the Borealans pounced on them. Cries of surprise and terror were cut short by bursts of XMR fire and rending claws. They tore through the opposition, leaving dismembered and wounded humans in their wake, the Marines taking advantage of the chaos and confusion to file through the doorway and take out more of them with pinpoint rifle fire. They checked the corners and cleared the outlying structures that were spaced near the compound's walls, storage sheds and other miscellaneous buildings, the Krell walking implacably towards the central structure.

It looked like a stack of prefab modules, lavish by colonial standards, as much of a mansion as one could build with access to such limited resources. There was a large communications dish on the roof, this was where they were broadcasting from, the center of operations for their ragtag rebel army.

The voice of the human commander came in over his helmet radio.

“Perimeter is clean. Gamma, clear the building, take the bosses alive if possible. Krell, block the entrance to the compound and make sure that reinforcements can't get to us.”

The giant reptiles turned about, lumbering back towards the ruined doors, their leathery tails drawing channels in the sand as they dragged behind them. Korza gestured for his men to stack at the entrance to the tower of welded prefabs, preparing to break down the human-sized door with a kick of his powerful leg. He knocked it off its hinges, sending it careening to the other side of the interior room, slamming into the far wall and destroying a wooden desk in the process. Gamma flooded inside, their round ears scanning to track any potential threats as they ducked through the small doorframe.

These prefab modules were small by Borealan standards, they couldn't stand straight once inside, and they weren't exactly lavish by human standards either. They were made from dull metal and plastic, nothing like the artfully crafted stone and wood of his birthplace, this dwelling was sterile and it stank of bleach and steel. These structures were dropped intact from cargo shuttles, or carted in on the backs of ground transports, in this case the mobsters had stacked them one on top of another and joined the modular segments together to create a larger building.

It seemed undefended so far, had all of the PDF been in the courtyard when the attack had begun? With a wave of his hand he sent his pack forward, crouched low with their weapons raised as they spread out to investigate the building. The layout was odd, off-putting, to access the higher levels they had cut holes in the floors and ceilings of the modules and inserted crude ladders. They looked rickety and fragile, but a Borealan could jump six feet straight up in any gravity that humans would find comfortable, no problem. Korza leapt up one such ladder, emerging into an identical module, this one had maps of the colony on the walls, along with desks and tables covered in what looked like shipping manifests and discarded tablet computers. This was their base of operations, no doubt the nerve center of their hostile takeover of Hades.

He heard the chatter of gunfire from a lower level, quickly silenced, one of his pack members must have come across a remaining defender. Korza moved into the next room, finding a female dressed in civilian clothing cowering behind an overturned desk. She whimpered and lowered her head when he entered the room. He marched over to her, hooking the wood of the desk with his curved claws and pulling it away from the wall, the human screaming as he exposed her. He looked her over, she wasn't armed, she must be a colonist. He leaned down closer, watching her tremble in fear.

“Stay here, do not resist and you will not be harmed. Others will come for you.”

She watched him with wide eyes as he moved past her and vanished into the next room.

As he turned the corner into the next module, he felt a dull pain in his chest, as if someone had just hit him with a hammer. He staggered a little, seeing a human in a PDF uniform on the far side of the room, brandishing a pistol with a trembling hand as he backed away slowly. Korza looked himself over, the bullet had not penetrated his kevlar, it must use chemically propelled ammunition. Such weapons posed little threat to him, even without his UNN body armor, and he lunged towards the frightened human as the PDF soldier popped off more shots in a blind panic. Korza closed rapidly and took the man's hand in his massive paw, crushing the fragile pistol, along with the wailing human's fingers. He released his hold, watching the man fall to the floor clutching his wrist, the bent weapon clattering to the deck.

“Stay down,” he hissed, the human writhing in pain. He would live. Korza stepped over him and continued on his way. He leapt up another level, now at the highest floor of the structure from what he could tell. This module was full of radio equipment and instrument panels, the broadcasting center that had been sending out orders and transmissions to the traitor army. It seemed to be unmanned now, there was no sign of any operators or PDF soldiers, no bosses. This module was more expansive than the other prefab structures had been, optical lines and power cables extended up towards the ceiling to power the dish and whatever other instruments they had mounted up here, there were a dozen monitors showing readouts of signal strength and the status of satellite relays mounted on the walls.

Korza's first instinct was to destroy the machinery, but he hadn’t been ordered to, perhaps the humans could still glean useful information from it. He stalked around the room, checking under scattered tables and behind computer banks, but couldn't find anyone. He lifted his visor briefly, taking in the room's scent. Humans had been here recently, but he couldn't smell the telltale odor of fear, nor could he hear the rapid beating of a tiny human heart. They must have turned tail shortly before the dropship had landed, leaving their PDF cronies behind as a distraction.

His radio hissed to life, the voice of the human commander coming through.

“Gamma leader, what's your status?”

“The building is clear Sir, our quarry was here recently, but they have fled. We have civilians and injured combatants on the second level, advise you send someone to retrieve them.”

“Roger that Gamma, have your pack regroup in the courtyard.”

***

“The PDF barracks has been secured, they surrendered after a short gun battle,” the comms officer relayed to Captain Stavros as he stood by the bridge window. “The broadcast center has been cleared and is under our control, the PDF there put up more of a fight but casualties were minimal and the ground team was able to take prisoners. The Syndicate bosses weren't there, Captain.”

He paced on the deck, his gloved hands clasped behind his back as he considered their next move. The Syndicate were out of options, would they attempt to hide amongst the civilian population perhaps, try to pose as colonists and conceal their identities? Would they try to flee the planet on a spacecraft and take their chances with the Thermopylae? Where were those rats hiding?

“Captain,” one of the bridge offers sitting at an instrument panel to his right drew his attention, tapping frantically at his console as Stavros turned to look at him. “Picking up a heat spike on Hades, it's coming from the spaceport.”

“A ship powering up? Weapons officer, target that vessel and make sure that-”

“No Captain, it's something else. It's...a superlight engine charging up!”

“The spaceport is too close to the colony,” Stavros exclaimed, his attention turning back to the bridge window and the red planet beyond. “Bring it up on the monitor.”

As he requested, the officer swiped upwards on his touch screen, his display blowing up and showing on the massive window. It showed a view from one of the carrier's telescopes, infrared cameras tracking a massive spike in one of the vessels that was docked on a landing pad at the port. Did they mean to initiate a jump from the surface of the planet, practically in the middle of the damned population center? Far from being just reckless, the methods used to achieve superlight travel meant that anything in a small radius around the ship would be dragged along for the ride. In open space, where 'close range' meant being thousands of miles apart, accidentally towing other ships or foreign objects into superlight wasn't much of a concern. It was even done intentionally by larger craft in order to assist smaller vessels that lacked drives of their own, it was one of the intended functions of their own carrier, towing cruisers and frigates in its superlight wake.

But to initiate a jump on the ground, in range of a damned city, that would cut a chunk out of the planet a mile deep and a mile wide. It would throw hundreds of innocent colonists, along with their homes and the very ground they stood on, hurtling through the inter-dimensional void to be ejected into open space wherever the ship emerged.

“Those bastards,” the weapons officer exclaimed as he tapped at his controls. “I've got the vessel locked Captain, give me the word and I'll put a railgun round straight through her drive core.”

“No!” Stavros commanded, waving his hand dismissively. “Those drives draw power from a nuclear reactor, if you breach the containment then the whole colony will be showered in fallout.”

“Should I fire an EMP to disable the vessel?”

“No time, a missile would take too long to reach the surface, we have less than a minute before they jump.”

Stavros weighed their options, his mind racing as he tried to come up with a solution, his bridge crew awaiting his orders with bated breath. The clock was ticking, they might only have seconds left to act.

“Helmsman, if we were to jump directly into the enemy vessel, what would be the effect on the colony below us?”

The officer thought for a moment, the gears in his head turning.

“The air displacement would create a shockwave analogous to that of a large bomb going off, but the ship is rising off the ground Captain, they must be worried about debris. Not enough to wait until they're clear of the colony, but they're high enough that we could...”

He had understood the plan, and he looked to Stavros for confirmation, who nodded sternly. The helmsman wiped his brow, programming in the coordinates.

“It's going to be close Captain, if we're off by even five hundred meters we're going to materialize inside the planet. Where do you want the enemy vessel, assuming I can make a jump that accurate?”

“Comms officer,” Stavros commanded, “clear the midship. We don't need the hangar bay anymore, the dropships can dock in the recesses when they come home if they have to. That's where I want her Helmsman, trap those bastards in our belly. Send a broadcast on all bands and tell the colonists to take cover, this is going to be loud.”

***

The Syndicate vessel rose off the landing pad, its gear stowing in the belly of the craft as it angled its nose towards space. The yacht was small so that it could make landfall, but it was no less a ship of its class, luxuriously furnished and sporting a small jump drive with a nuclear reactor. It was sleek and polished like chrome, top of the line and as compact as it was possible to make such a vessel while still allowing it to house all the machinery necessary for superlight.

The bosses were strapped to harnesses in the crew compartment, the five masterminds of this ill-fated revolution. Pirates, mobsters and crime lords who had risked all in this venture. A few valued lieutenants shared seats beside them, crystal champagne glasses and ashtrays made from jade falling from the ornate coffee tables as the vessel shook, its engine charging for a jump. Now it was over, they couldn't bring down a UNN jump carrier, they had lost their grip on Hades and it was time to cut their losses and run. The pilot's voice came through on the intercom.

“Thirty seconds Don, please make sure you're all securely fastened, we're going to come through on the other side with a cloud of debris and I can't guarantee that some of it won't hit the Ventura.”

The man he was referring to wore a fine, white suit, his fat fingers adorned with gold rings as he placed a plastic bit in his mouth. He rolled his jaw, shifting it into position, then hit the intercom button on the velour-lined armrest of his crash couch.

“Get us out of here Stefano, that jump carrier might already have a warhead on its way down.”

A man sitting to his right slammed his fist down on his chair in frustration, he was gnarled and scarred with ugly piercings and tattoos on his grizzled face, his hair buzzed short with patterns shaved into it. He wore an armored space suit, a variation of an older UNN model with the organization's regalia removed and replaced with the insignia of his pirate organization.

“You said this was a sure thing,” he snarled, “I fuckin' told you hitting the freighter was oversteppin'. That's what brought the fuckin' boys in blue down on our heads. We had a good thing goin' here until you got too fuckin' greedy Don.”

The man wearing the white suit turned to scowl at him.

“We will talk about this later, for now put your fucking bit in and shut up, or the void will cut your tongue off before I get the chance to do it myself.”

“I don't need a bit, old man. I've completed more jumps than you've had hot dinners.”

“That's probably why you've got no brain cells left,” one of the bodyguards chimed in, getting a laugh from the other bosses.

“Listen to me Carter,” a man wearing a lavish jacket with a furred collar said from his seat across the cabin. “The UNN won't risk firing on a vessel that's initiating a jump so close to a population center. We're getting out of here, and when we do, the first thing I'm doing is dedicating all of my resources to finding that fucking Spook. He's the cause of all this, and if I can't have my colony, I'll at least have peace of mind knowing that his death was long and uncommonly painful.”

The pirate laughed at that, exposing a few gold teeth.

“Aye, just don't forget to send me a recording.”

***

The Ventura's hull crackled with energy, her drive charging for the superlight jump, the air around her lustrous hull buzzing with arcs of electricity. The colonists in the sprawling settlement below had no idea what was about to happen, some hiding in their prefab homes due to the ongoing UNN invasion, and others going about their business as usual amongst the markets and stalls that lined the main street.

The sky was suddenly painted with a splash of rainbow colors, a kaleidoscope of shimming, colorful particles that spread in a cloud and glittered in the harsh sunlight. The colonists looked up, mesmerized by the display, like a Van Gogh painting made manifest as a giant spaceship materialized a few hundred feet above the spaceport. There was a sound like a sonic boom, a deafening crack that rang out across the colony like a gong, shaking the onlookers down to their bones. There was a flash of blue light, brighter than the sun for a moment, and then a shockwave of displaced air hit the colony. Stalls were uprooted, their wares strewn about as the blast rolled through the streets, knocking people to the ground and upturning vehicles. A great wall of dust and sand blasted the houses as it was blown away, thrusters along the belly of the enormous vessel glowing blue as it strained to maintain altitude, casting a shadow across the ground as if the foot of some God was about to crash down on them.

The mammoth ship turned its nose towards the sky, great plumes of flames and smoke rolling out from behind it as its main drives flared to life, propelling it slowly upwards as a fresh roar caused the recovering colonists to cover their ears in alarm. The carrier accelerated towards space, vanishing in a layer of grey storm clouds as the plume of black smoke that it rose on faded away.

***

Stavros gripped the armrests on his captain's chair as the g-forces pressed him into it, his bridge crew strapped into their seats as the atmosphere battered the Thermopylae. The vessel creaked and shook, it wasn't designed for atmospheric flight, it was about as aerodynamic as a fridge. They had very nearly lost altitude during the moments after the jump, when the helmsman had been too disorientated to operate the controls and the autopilot hadn't known what to do. It wasn't programmed for this kind of maneuver, and Stavros wasn't even sure that such a thing had ever been attempted before today.

Finally their enormous engines succeeded in breaking free of Hades' atmosphere, the carrier emerging into space none the worse for wear, besides a new addition to its mass. Stavros felt the ship's AG field secure him to the deck, temporarily thrown off by the planet's gravity, and stood to his feet a little unsteadily.

“Status report!”

“She's holding together Captain,” the helmsman said. The weapons officer angled his telescopes towards the planet's surface and blew up the display on the bridge window. There was no mile-wide crater, the colony had been spared. There was chaos in the streets, some damage to property, but it didn't look like any serious harm had been done.

“Few broken bones maybe, Captain,” the weapons officer confirmed as he examined the display. “The shockwave wasn't strong enough to shake the prefabs loose of their foundations, so I'm going to call that minimal collateral damage.”

“The Syndicate vessel didn't complete their jump,” Stavros said, “where are they?”

The comms officer put her finger to her ear for a moment before replying.

“Hangar bay Captain, as you requested, but...”

“What is it, Officer?”

“You'll probably want to go down there and see this for yourself, Captain.”

***

Captain Stavros stepped into the Thermopylae's hangar bay, open to space behind the shimmering force field that contained the hangar's atmosphere, the deck was clear save for a crowd of engineers and flight deck staff who were grouped around something on the floor.

He marched towards them, the crowd parting to let him pass when they noticed him, and Stavros came to stand before the spectacle. Embedded in the floor was the nose of a silver spacecraft, extending maybe a couple of feet from the deck, its silver hull was merged with the Thermopylae as if someone had mashed two clay sculptures together. The metal was bent and twisted, odd spiral patterns decorating what looked almost like a spot weld where the two ships met. The carrier had absorbed the Syndicate vessel when they had emerged from superlight, fusing it with the ship as the two realities had phased together. It looked as if they had come out a few feet higher than he had planned, but that had been enough to completely submerge the enemy vessel below the deck. The engineers back at the drydock were going to have to remove and replace this entire section of the vessel, there was a damned spaceship embedded in their hull.

It had stopped the nuclear reaction and the superlight engine dead, which had been the intended outcome, but this was a grisly sight to behold. Stavros had known the risks, but he had hoped that the crew compartment of the vessel might have survived intact, not that the mobsters had given them much of a choice. They were buried in there, their bones and organs melded with the metal of the Thermopylae, there was no hope of survival.

“Fuck me sideways,” one of the engineers whistled. Stavros shot him a disapproving glance, and the man straightened. “Sorry Cap'n.”

“That's the end of the Syndicate then,” Stavros mused, giving the nose of their vessel a tap with his boot. “There's not much to be done about this until we get back to the Pinwheel, I suggest just putting up some warning lights around it so the shuttles don't hit it on the way in. There's room enough for them to land.” He put his finger to his ear and opened a channel to the comms officer.

“Send word to Mu Arae, they're the nearest station with a quantum relay. Report is as follows: UNN control over Hades established, resistance pacified, criminal bosses KIA. Request drydock and refit at Fort Hamilton, have sustained...damage.”

“Very good, Captain.”

Stavros looked out past the force field at the curvature of the red planet, his gloved hands clasped behind his back as the engineers dispersed to go about their business, and he reached up a hand to straighten his cap. They might have to disassemble the entire midsection to remove the thing, that could take weeks, but for the first time in a long while he wasn't dreading shore leave.

EPILOGUE

Lorza sat on a bench outside a restaurant, a painted sky above her head, greenery and flowers in planters adding to the illusion that she was sitting in some terrestrial street and not on a space station that was spinning through space like a giant wheel. She chewed a sandwich happily, a long sub made from a French loaf that was filled with tuna and mayonnaise, licking the condiment from her furry fingers as she went. All manner of UNN personnel passed her by as she watched them. There were humans in blue uniforms, Equatorials and the odd Polar, along with a few lumbering Krell who towered above the throngs of people that packed the walkways. An artificial breeze blew her white fur, and then she noticed Boyd making his way towards her through the crowd.

Her tail flicked excitedly and her furry ears swiveled to track him as he approached, taking a seat on the bench beside her as she grinned down at him.

“Don't burn through your compensation money too quickly,” he chided, “that sandwich must have cost you a fortune. It's the size of my leg.”

“I need a full belly,” she replied, taking another messy bite of the giant sub. “My bank account is quite full too, they really wanted me to keep quiet about the whole escapade, didn't they?”

“Well, UNNI actions resulted in the loss of your ship and crew, not to mention the emotional damage caused. You're entitled to compensation.”

“Of all the things you humans have invented, I think I understand lawyers the least. Not that I'm complaining. What's the situation on Hades? How did your debriefing go?”

“Good news, the jump carrier that was sent to restore order has accomplished its mission, and the mob bosses were killed in an...unfortunate accident.”

“Good, it's as much as they deserve.”

“Overall the Admirals seemed happy with my performance, considering the extreme circumstances. They accepted my request for a couple of weeks of paid leave too, so we have some downtime to look forward to.”

Lorza beamed as she finished off her sandwich, her long tongue emerging to clean her fingers.

“Finally I'll have you all to myself, we have a lot of lost time to make up for.”

“They seemed quite interested in you as well, asked me a lot of questions about how we survived together, I left out some of the more...gory details of course. I have a sneaking suspicion that they might ask you to join the UNNI. You survived everything that I did after all, and I'm a highly trained agent.”

She considered it, scratching her chin with her black claw.

“Maybe, but all in good time, for now I want to relax and enjoy myself for a while. I've got UNN credits burning a hole in my pocket and a giant space station to explore.” She wrapped a furry arm around him and tugged him closer, pressing him up against her pudgy body. “I also have a hotel room with a bed that's a damn sight better than that musty old sleeping bag, there's a shower in there big enough for me to stand in.”

“Well I'm officially off-duty,” Boyd replied, “I'm all yours for the next two weeks.”

She rose to her feet and took his hand in her giant, furry paw, tugging him off the bench to stand beside her.

“Come then Mudak, let's not waste any time,” she declared as she led him away into the crowd.

-THE END-