Or Die Alone

Please note: this story is in progress and will be updated regularly.

CHAPTER 1: DANGLE

A cloaked figure pushed through the bustling crowd of colonists and traders, each step of his scuffed boots kicking up a small cloud of dust from the arid ground. He was surrounded by market stalls selling scrap metal and shrink-wrapped rations, the colorful tarps that had been strung up as makeshift awnings protecting their owners from the harsh glare of the system’s sun. The street – if it could be described as such – was sandwiched between two rows of prefab buildings that had been erected to form a rudimentary settlement. Their formerly pristine, white facades had been stained by airborne sand and weathering, but they remained bright enough to reflect the sunlight in a way that he found decidedly unpleasant. They were industrial in their appearance, all function and little form, deployed on extensible stilts that resembled the outriggers of a crane. Comms antennae and exposed air conditioning units jutted from their facades, patched with electrical tape and clumsy repairs in places, the insulated cables that linked the structures to the colony’s power grid snaking their way along the ground between them. There was nothing but desert and scrubland beyond, the planet’s hardy flora clinging to life wherever it could in the inhospitable environment.

The locals were clad in obscuring shawls and protective visors, their bodies wrapped in flowing garments that shielded them from the ever-present dust. It made for a very impersonal crowd – all the better to disappear in. The figure wore a duster made from brown leather that was scored by faded scratches, his shoulders wrapped in a ragged cape with a cowl that cast his features into shadow. The passers-by would be none the wiser of the Navy-issued handgun that he carried on his hip, nor of the environment suit that he wore beneath his disguise, its moisture recyclers helping to stave off the oppressive heat.

Hades was a UN colony on the outskirts of human space, a recent effort by corporate conglomerates back on Earth to expand their operations. It was populated almost exclusively by miners seeking a paycheck and outlaws fleeing the authorities on their homeworlds. The corporations needed able bodies for their colonization efforts – people to man their equipment and extract the resources that funded their ventures. It was common to see lawbreakers sign up to escape punishment. From debtors to murderers, the colony ships would take anyone who showed up and signed the waivers. It was a widely-known secret that the companies were fully aware of who they were hiring, but plausible deniability let them dodge fines and sanctions, and background checks were kept to a legally required minimum. Hit a pedestrian while drunk driving? Not to worry – just sign your life away to a mining concern, and you’ll disappear forever. Nobody who had better options would ever agree to relocate to a place like this…

Even among the outlying worlds, Hades was an exception. The fledgling colony had quickly become a haven for hardened criminals and organized gangs, its mobsters and pirates eventually gaining enough of a foothold to draw the attention of the authorities. The straw that had broken the camel’s back had been a pirate raid against a UNN Jump Freighter carrying weapons for the planetary defense forces stationed on the colony. The PDF were weekend warriors, for the most part, poorly trained and usually even more poorly equipped. Still, with the planet so far from UNN supply lines, they were the first and last line of defense in the event of an attack. It was their job to hold out until a fully-fledged fleet could arrive to do the heavy lifting, which could potentially take months. The vessel had been hit shortly after exiting superlight at the edge of the system, the pirates taking advantage of the brief period of disorientation that followed a jump to board the freighter with a skiff, quickly overwhelming its skeleton crew. They had made off with its cargo of heavy weapons, no doubt to be sold off on the black market and shipped all over Coalition space.

The criminals would have known that they couldn’t steal the freighter itself – it would be practically impossible to hide or sell off a jump-capable vessel, as monumentally large and expensive to operate as they were. The sheer audacity of the raid demonstrated that there had been a shift in attitude on Hades, however. The situation here had changed, and the Admiralty had tasked Agent Boyd with finding out why. It was an operation months in the making. After spending weeks undercover posing as a corporate hiree, he had boarded a colony ship on Ganymede, the lax recruitment standards making it a trivial affair to blend in with the usual rabble of desperate job-seekers and flighty criminals. Once on Hades, he had laid low, eventually making contact with an informant who was willing to sell him information on the local criminal enterprises. His price wasn’t credits, but a pardon for any crimes committed and a ticket back to Earth. Boyd was authorized to make such deals, and so had agreed to the man’s terms.

His contact had claimed to be a gang member who had become disgruntled with life on Hades. He refused to communicate via unencrypted channels and had demanded a face-to-face meeting at a local tavern, the public setting going some way to ensure that this wasn’t some elaborate mob honey pot. Boyd was no less wary – this could just as easily be a trap intended to draw out UNN spies – but he felt confident with the comforting weight of his XMH on his hip.

As he weaved through the throngs, he spotted a few children milling about, sticking close to their parents or playing beside the market stalls. They were the real victims – families who had taken advantage of corporate incentives to make a go at a new life on the frontier. As bad as Hades was, the overpopulated domes of Martian cities and the subterranean tunnels of Jovian colonies were hardly brimming with opportunity, and the promise of open skies with a breathable atmosphere was often all that it took to convince the uninformed to relocate. Rather than finding opportunity here, they had found themselves at the mercy of a criminal empire, and had likely been given little choice but to keep their heads down and cooperate.

The higher-ups that funded these ventures didn’t give a damn as long as the ore kept flowing and the colony turned a profit. With nobody to hold them accountable so far from populated space, the corporate entities formed a kind of symbiotic relationship with the local criminal organizations, and it was in the interest of both parties to ignore the other. Everything might have continued to run smoothly, flying under the UNN’s radar, if someone hadn’t taken things a step too far. Now, the eyes of the Navy were firmly fixed on Hades.

Boyd spied the tavern in the distance – another ugly, boxy prefab standing on a set of outriggers that lifted it off the ground. The structure had been expanded by joining several of the modular buildings together. There was a neon sign hanging above its entrance, so caked in dust and grime that it was hard to tell if it was even turned on. He could see an array of solar panels on the roof that would presumably supply the structure with supplemental power, along with a satellite receiver, its bowl now full of sand.

As he climbed the short flight of creaking, metal steps that led to the entrance, the automatic door opened to let him pass. He noted that it didn’t quite slide flush with its frame, suggesting that there were probably grains of sand jamming the mechanism. He stepped into the dingy interior as the door struggled to close behind him, and he reached up to lower his hood, his features still obscured behind a pair of protective goggles and a respirator that covered his mouth and nose. His dark hair was matted with sweat, and he wiped his brow with the sleeve of his duster, finding that the gesture served only to glue more sand to his damp skin.

The tavern was relatively empty. It was cramped and poorly lit, clouds of tobacco smoke swirling around the solitary ceiling fan that turned lazily overhead. There were only a dozen tables scattered about the main prefab, and only a handful of them were occupied, the establishment’s patrons glancing up at him suspiciously as he made his way towards the bar that lined the far wall. They were dressed much the same as the people he had encountered out on the street, clad in thick coats and shawls, their faces hidden behind masks and hoods – anything to protect themselves from the windblown sand and the relentless sunlight that beat down on the planet. Any one of these people could be his contact – even the bartender couldn’t be ruled out. How would they make themselves known to him?

The man standing behind the bar glanced up at Boyd as he approached, the agent sinking into one of the padded stools, leaning his gloved hands on the faux-wood counter. None of the furnishings were made from real wood – it was all polymer and metal, as genuine timber was a luxury on planets where it couldn’t be sourced locally.

“Barkeep,” he rasped through his respirator. “Got liqueur?”

“Got scrip?” the man replied, crossing his tattooed arms impatiently.

“Aye,” he said, reaching into one of the pockets of his duster. He dropped a handful of plastic coins on the counter with a clatter. Credits were worthless out here. The employees were paid in vouchers – small, plastic tokens that could only be redeemed at company-owned stores. It was wage slavery of a sort. You work in the mines, then you get paid in a currency that can only be paid back to your employer. The excuse given to justify the practice was that commercial entities weren’t often willing to ship their goods so far out to service such a small population, and that the company was only doing what was necessary to secure essential supplies for its employees. That didn’t really hold up to scrutiny, especially when one took into account that much of the equipment used by the colonists was leased from the same company, ensuring that they remained in debt. Such practices only seemed to grow more brazen the further the colonies were from commercial shipping lanes. The joker who ordered the hit on that freighter was about to cost a whole lot of people a whole lot of scratch.

The bartender lifted one of the tokens suspiciously, producing a handheld scanner and running the little disk beneath its sensor, checking for the laser-etched code that was used to prevent forgery. There was a beep of confirmation, and though he seemed satisfied, he was no less suspicious of the newcomer.

“I have rum, tequila, vodka, gin...”

“Gin,” Boyd crackled, his respirator masking his voice with a hidden modulator. The bartender selected a bottle from one of the shelves, then poured him a glass of colorless liquid, setting it down on the countertop in front of him. Boyd extended a built-in straw from his mask with the press of a button, then took a draw, the drink burning on its way down. It wasn’t exactly top-shelf stuff…

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, so it wouldn’t be unusual to see unfamiliar faces, even in a hole in the wall like this.

Damn it, didn't they have a jukebox? Some music would help ease the tension, and it would mask the noise of the incessant coughing and the hissing of respirators. The bartender wasn’t very chatty, ignoring Boyd as he washed glasses with a filthy rag, leaving him to sip at his gin in silence. Boyd’s goggles were tinted to protect him from the harsh sunlight, allowing him 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. Nobody seemed all that interested in him, which 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 among them was fleeing alimony payments, and who might have murdered their spouse or skipped their probation hearing. Every person one met in these colonies was under suspicion. The man working the stall beside yours could be a murderer who had posted bail and then boarded a colony ship under a false name – there was no way to know.

He was interrupted as a stranger sat down heavily on the stool to his left, making the old leather creak. It was a portly man, wearing only a pair of faded work jeans and a stained tank top, his lack of protective gear suggesting that he had been in the tavern for a while. Maybe he was an employee? Boyd watched as the man fidgeted nervously, shifting his weight in the seat, drumming his fingers on the bar. The guy looked like he was about to crawl out of his skin. This must be his contact…

“Are you here to meet someone?” the man asked, making a poor attempt to sound casual.

“I believe we spoke on the phone,” Boyd replied, his distorted voice hissing through his mask. “As you requested, I have come to buy the item in person.”

The portly stranger exhaled a quiet sigh of relief, relaxing somewhat as he leaned some of his weight on the bar. Boyd took the opportunity to get a better look at him. His hairy arms were covered in tattoos, some of which probably denoted gang affiliations, and his thick fingers were covered in callouses that hinted at a life of hard labor. This man had been on Hades for a long time.

“Yeah, I have what you’re looking for in the back,” he continued with a gesture over his shoulder. “You want to come inspect it?”

“Lead the way,” Boyd replied.

Not a bad idea – there would be less chance of them being overheard in a back room. Boyd spared a glance at the bartender, concerned that he might be listening in, but he was conspicuously disinterested. Even shady backroom deals and conspiratorial whispering might not arouse a lot of suspicion in a place like this. Contraband and stolen goods likely changed hands on a regular basis, and it was nothing out of the ordinary. The people of Hades would have learned to keep to themselves and mind their own business pretty quickly.

The agent finished his drink, then rose out of his stool, following his contact to a door on the left side of the room. Another sliding panel opened to grant them access, and they stepped into one of the prefabs that had been joined to the main building, the door sealing shut behind them with a hiss. It was being used as a storeroom – the walls were piled high with crates, and shelves filled with bottles reached from floor to ceiling. The informant checked the room hurriedly, then squeezed past Boyd to lock the door, entering a numerical code into a touch panel that was embedded in its frame.

“Okay, I think we’re alone,” the man said as he wiped his brow with the back of his hand. He took a seat on a nearby crate, the container sagging a little under his weight. “You never know who might be listening in,” he continued, his wild eyes darting to the agent’s inscrutable goggles. “The Syndicate controls this colony – they have eyes and ears everywhere. Not here, though. I made sure of it.”

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

“Yes, yes,” the man grumbled with an impatient wave of his hand. “First, I need you to prove that you are who you say you are. I need to know that this isn’t some kinda rat trap before I give you anything.”

“Very well,” Boyd replied. He began to unbutton his leather duster, the man flinching away as he reached beneath it, expecting him to draw a weapon. Instead, he produced a leather wallet, holding it up to the informant.

“What’s this supposed to be?” he demanded, squinting incredulously as he leaned closer to inspect it. “There’s no badge there – nothing.”

Boyd slipped off one of his gloves and pressed his fingertip against a hidden scanner in the back of the wallet. A holographic badge flared to life, the insignia of the United Nations Naval Intelligence branch clearly visible, along with his name and rank. It lit up his contact’s surprised face in the dingy room, then fizzled out, the man taking a moment to collect himself.

“Okay, okay,” he stammered as he began to wring his hands. “Fuck me, you’re UNNI? I didn’t realize things had gotten bad enough to get you guys involved. You’ll keep your word, right?” he added. “You’ll protect me if I squeal?”

“I’m authorized to make deals on behalf of the agency,” Boyd replied, stowing his wallet back inside his duster. “But, you have to give me actionable intel first. Tell me everything you know about the hit on the freighter. I want names, and I want to know where those weapons ended up.”

“Okay, yeah,” the man said as he hopped off the crate. He was pacing now, visibly agitated. “They have people in flight control – it’s not hard for them to get their hands on jump schedules and shipping manifests. They had weeks to plan the hit.”

“What about the local authorities?” Boyd asked.

“Shithole like this barely has enough Wardens to police low orbit,” the man scoffed. “It wasn’t hard to make sure no patrol ships would be sniffing around the exit point. They hit the freighter before her drive was even cold. Came away with fifteen MANPADS – surface-to-air missile launchers packing EMP warheads, perfect for taking out low-flying spacecraft. Other shit, too, I heard. Crates of surplus XMRs, forty-mill launchers, enough slugs to choke a Krell. They were en route to the PDF, those fucking useless militiamen, but the Syndicate got there first. Never seen anything like it before,” he added with a shake of his head. “Nobody has ever hit a UNN jump freighter – nobody’s ever had the balls. The Syndicate does.”

“What is this Syndicate?” Boyd asked. “Who’s running the show?”

“You’ll protect me, right?” the informant asked hurriedly. “You’ll vouch for me? I want it on record that I had no choice but to cooperate,” he continued as he spread his arms in exasperation. “I’m not a bad guy, but nothing happens on Hades without their say. They control everything. The nail that sticks out gets hammered down, as the saying goes. If you don’t fall into line, they’ll put one in the back of your head and dump your body down a mine shaft.”

The man was rambling, obviously terrified by the prospect of reprisals. Boyd had to calm him down and get him back on track before he had a goddamned coronary.

“This is all being recorded,” Boyd said, trying to reassure him. “The UNN is bound by any deals that I make. Just tell me everything that you know, and I’ll see to it that you disappear. We’ll put you in the witness protection program – give you a whole new identity – and you’ll be on the first boat back to Earth. You’ll be out of reach and impossible to find, you have my word.”

The man wiped his mouth on his fuzzy forearm, taking a moment to compose himself before continuing.

“The Syndicate is everyone. There are pirates, smugglers, mobsters, separatists – all united under the same banner. It’s easier that way. They’re not competing against each other, and they outnumber whatever two-bit local cops aren’t already on the payroll. The corp doesn’t give a fuck as long as operations keep running smoothly. The Navy wasn’t supposed to care about what happens out here either. Naval Intelligence...Jesus Christ,” he muttered as he lay his head in his hands. “They brought the Ninnies down on our heads.”

Boyd ignored the derogatory nickname, pressing the man for more details.

“Try to focus. So, this Syndicate snatched the weapon shipment? I need to get that hardware back. They can’t have had time to move the goods off-world yet, not when they’re so hot, so how are they planning to fence them? Do you know if they have any buyers lined up?”

“No, you’re missing the big picture,’ the informant replied with a bitter chuckle. “Thought you Ninnies were supposed to be smart? The Syndicate wants 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 this dust bowl every year, and the Syndicate wants control over that wealth. If they can direct the cash flow, then they’ll become more than just petty criminals. They’d have the resources to stake their claim, and to defend it, from both corporate security and the UNN if need be. All of the infrastructure they need is already here.”

“Why would they try to take over the planet?” Boyd asked, his brow furrowing behind his goggles. “Why piss off the corp? Why rock the boat? All the intel we have suggests that the criminal organizations on Hades have an unspoken truce with the corp – one that benefits them both. What changed?”

“They want the whole pie, not just whatever slice the suits are willing to give up to keep the peace. This colony is remote enough and poorly defended enough to give them a shot. Not everyone living here is a criminal, of course. There are plenty of families here, people who came to Hades for work, for a shot at a new life. The Syndicate is telling them that the UNN can’t protect them, and that they’re the only ones who can. In a way, they’ve already proven it. The Navy can’t even keep their own freighters safe out here. They’re banking on you not responding, banking that you won’t divert fleets from the war effort to put down an insurrection on some shitty backwater nobody gives a fuck about.”

“If nobody gave a fuck, I wouldn’t be here sweating my balls off,” Boyd grumbled. “It’s a full-blown insurrection, then? The situation is worse than I thought – much worse. If that’s all you have to tell me, then I need to get this intel off-world as quickly as possible. The UNN needs to be warned.”

“Yeah, absolutely,” the man replied with a nod. “You know everything I know. You got a ship in orbit, anything like that? Anyone to back you up? I’m not a big player, I can’t get a message out without some gangster or suit picking up on it.”

“No, I went undercover on one of the colony ships,” Boyd replied. His hand slowly wandered inside his duster, reaching for the sidearm on his hip. “But why would you need to know that?”

The informant's demeanor changed abruptly. Gone was the anxious, pacing man, his darting eyes now fixed confidently on Boyd.

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

Boyd pulled his handgun from its holster with practiced speed, but too late, he heard the sound of the door panel sliding open behind him. Something hit him in the back of the head, and his world went dark.

***

Boyd awoke to darkness. His mask and goggles had been removed, and he could feel coarse fabric brushing against his face as he struggled to turn his head. There was a throbbing pain in his temples, like someone was driving an ice pick into his skull, and he could taste blood on his tongue. When he tried to move his hands, he found that they were bound behind his back, a metal chair creaking beneath him. He wasn’t dead, then. At least, not yet…

The burlap sack was unceremoniously torn from his head, the light blinding him, Boyd blinking to clear his vision as the dark shapes that surrounded him slowly came into focus. He found himself in a spacious building with a high ceiling – some kind of warehouse maybe – filled with rows ofshelves that were packed with nondescript crates and containers. He was tied to a folding chair in the middle of a concrete floor, surrounded by five men. Three of them were wearing full-faced helmets with opaque visors – the same kind worn by Marines. Military surplus, maybe? Their uniforms identified them as members of the colony’s PDF, and they were all holding XMRs, likely the same rifles stolen from the freighter. The magnetic coils on their barrels made them easy to identify.

One of the remaining men was immediately recognizable as his would-be informant, producing a butterfly knife from his pocket, playing with it as he began to circle the chair. Boyd turned his head to follow him, the rest of the group looking on in silence. The last stranger was standing a few feet further away, his hands buried in his pockets. He was an older man, and he was smartly dressed, sporting a tailored suit in a shade of slate grey that matched the streaks in his thinning hair. He wore a pair of expensive loafers, and there was a glint of gold on his cufflinks. This was a mob boss if Boyd had ever seen one – his rap sheet might as well have been tattooed on his forehead. He scrutinized Boyd with a pair of cold, blue eyes, as sharp as razors despite the crow’s feet at their corners. His calm, commanding demeanor made him far more threatening than the fool swinging the knife around.

“I gotta be honest, boss,” the informant began as he circled back into view. “When you said you wanted to bait a Ninny to Hades and take him alive, I thought you’d lost the plot, but here we are.” He stopped in front of Boyd, then brought the tip of the blade close to his face, seeming annoyed when he didn’t flinch away. “We have our Ninny, along with enough hardware to take out an entire landing force of UNN dropships. If they park a carrier in orbit, they won’t be able to get a single boot on the ground.”

“You kept me alive,” Boyd groaned, his headache still lingering. “Why? What do you want with a UNNI agent?”

The informant stepped aside, giving him a view of the man in the suit. He had produced a fat cigar from his pocket and was shielding a lighter as he lit it, taking a few quick puffs to get it going. He exhaled a cloud of smoke, then cleared his throat, his voice a gruff baritone as he began to speak.

“As my colleague has already alluded to, Mister Boyd, I brought you here for a purpose. Cooperate, and no further harm will befall you. Everything that you have been told so far is true. I represent the Syndicate, and we aim to take control of Hades.”

“You can’t steal an entire planet,” Boyd replied incredulously. “It’s impossible. You’d have to be very poorly informed to think that you could pull it off.”

“I think you’ll soon come to realize that you are the one who is poorly informed, Agent,” the man replied as he took another leisurely puff from his cigar. “Ironic, considering that HUMINT is your organization’s specialty. I’d have something to say about the UN wasting tax credits, but issues like taxation aren’t going to be a concern of ours for much longer.”

“If you really try this – if you try to take control of Hades and cut the colony off from the rest of human space – you’re going to have a lot more than one carrier breathing down your neck,” Boyd spat.

The man took a few steps closer to the chair, exhaling a cloud of acrid smoke in his direction, Boyd fighting the urge to cough.

“You don’t get where I am today by being risk-averse, Mister Boyd,” he continued as he tapped his cigar to dislodge a small shower of ash. “How’s that little war of yours going, Agent? Things aren’t looking too good, I hear. The fleet is spread thin all across the frontier, without enough ships or men to protect every colony, and a Bug fleet could drop out of superlight almost anywhere. That’s why the weapon shipment was coming in to begin with – because in the event of an invasion, you’d have to rely on our good friends in the PDF to hold the line until the boys in blue could arrive to save the day,” he said with a gesture to his armed goons. “It doesn’t instill a great deal of confidence.”

“Do you realize how many people you’d be putting in danger by diverting resources from the war effort for this nonsense?” Boyd demanded.

“I don’t think you can spare a fleet,” the boss continued, ignoring his question. “Ask yourself – what’s a higher priority for the Admiralty? Helping some corrupt corp maintain control over a backwater like Hades with less than a million inhabitants, or denying the Bugs a foothold in human space? The Navy can’t be everywhere at once, and the choice is an obvious one.”

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

“You know as well as I do, Ninny, that the UNN would expend more resources maintaining their tenuous hold over uninhabited wastelands like Kruger III or Chara II than they would defending this strategically insignificant colony. I am not a dishonest man,” he continued, bringing the cigar to his lips again. “The reasons my colleagues and I want control over this planet are purely selfish and monetary in nature, but when I say that the Navy won’t protect the people of Hades, I tell no lie. The Syndicate, on the other hand, defends its assets. The colonists are an asset to us, and we will defend them against any and all threats. The Bugs, the corp, the Navy – it doesn’t matter. Our price might be economic domination over the planet, sure, but that control is already exerted by ExoCorp and its subsidiaries. The locals won’t even notice the change in management.”

The man leaned down to eye level with Boyd, taking another long drag from his cigar.

“What do the people of Hades have to lose by cooperating with us? The protection of a UNN fleet that wouldn’t arrive for weeks if they called for help? The employ of a corporation that cares even less about their welfare than smugglers and pirates? Nobody is being hustled or coerced here,” he added, spreading his arms. “We merely offered the people of Hades a choice, and most of them have already made it.”

“So, not everyone is onboard with your scheme?” Boyd asked with a smirk. The boss stood again, brushing a spec of ash off his lapel, his confidence faltering a little.

“Not as of yet, but that’s where you come in.”

“What can you possibly expect me to do?” Boyd scoffed.

“We can’t strong-arm the holdouts,” the man replied, watching a wisp of smoke rise lazily towards the ceiling. “Coercion would defeat the purpose of everything we’ve tried to accomplish on Hades, but what we can do is convince them. Or rather, you can convince them,” he added with a gesture to Boyd. “What I have sitting before me is living proof of the UNN’s incompetence – of their inability to maintain control of Hades. We baited a Ninny and trapped him like it was nothing, we made a mockery of the Admiralty’s most feared 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, it would help tear down the final barrier that’s preventing us from taking full control of the colony.”

“You’re asking me to be...what, exactly?” Boyd asked as he shifted his weight uncomfortably on the metal seat. “Your poster boy? A mouthpiece for mobsters? You have to know that I won’t cooperate.”

“Oh, but you will,” the man replied with a sinister smile. “Because if you don’t, I’ll just put a railgun slug through your skull and dump your body in the desert. The only people who even know you’re here are your handlers in UNNI. We’ll just repeat the process with the next fool they send to investigate until we find someone who’s more amenable. I’m sure your replacement would come around if he heard about what happened to his predecessor,” he added with a chuckle. “A little video of your grisly execution could prove to be very persuasive.”

“You’re going to get the same answer from the next guy, and the next,” Boyd protested.

“Does it surprise you that we know UNNI operating procedures? Until recently, we had a man in the Admiralty, someone by the name of Rawling. I’m sure this isn’t news to you. While you did a good job of covering up the scandal, Rawling did an equally good job of covering his tracks. Evidently, you were never able to tie him back to us. We know that standard procedure requires the deployment of another agent to investigate the disappearance of the first. Can you be sure that they’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 population and an inside knowledge of how the UNN and its intelligence branch operated, then every agent that was 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 was still time. He had to get the information he had learned off-planet by any means necessary. If his captors were monologuing like this, then they were confident that he was screwed, but he wasn’t out of the fight just yet.

The weight of his handgun was absent from his hip, and his duster was gone, his captors having stripped him down to his UNNI-issue environment suit. The grey-blue garment was skin-tight, snaking wires and tubes that resembled veins crisscrossing its surface, connecting small electronic devices and life support systems that were embedded beneath its surface. He had been stripped of his weapons and equipment, but they must not be aware of the suit’s capabilities. It was highly classified tech – nobody outside of the organization would know how it worked, and it would just look like a fancy pressure suit to the uninitiated. Even the traitorous Admiral Rawling wouldn’t have been privy to its secrets. It was too early to play his hand, however. He had to wait for the perfect moment to strike.

“It’s not too late to back out,” Boyd began. “I’m authorized to make deals on behalf of the UNN. This situation hasn’t yet escalated to the point that we can’t come to a solution that works for everyone.”

His captors began to laugh, the PDF goons included, their voices taking on a robotic timbre through their helmet speakers.

“What makes you think you’re in a position to make deals, Ninny?” the portly informant chuckled, the butterfly knife dancing between his deft fingers. “You’re drifting with a dead drive. The options are to do as we say, or like the boss said, we’re gonna bury you in a shallow hole in the scrublands.”

“Then, I guess we’re done talking here,” Boyd replied with a sigh of resignation. “I won’t help you. Do whatever you need to do.”

“I respect your resilience, Mister Boyd,” the man in the suit said. He took one last puff from his cigar, then tossed it to the concrete, putting it out beneath his loafer. “Your loyalty is admirable, but those you serve would never extend the same courtesy to you. You’re a deniable asset, one that they’ll claim never even existed once you’re gone. Such is the fate of UNNI’s fallen heroes.”

“Comes with the territory,” Boyd replied.

The boss scrutinized him, searching for some show of fear or apprehension, but found none.

“In a few moments, I’m going to ask these fine PDF militiamen to take you out to a truck, zip you up in a body bag, and then dump you down an abandoned mine shaft out in the desert. Maybe the fall will kill you, or maybe they’ll be merciful enough to put a few slugs in you first, but your sacrifice will serve no purpose. You’ll be dying for nothing. One of you is going to crack,” he added, one corner of his mouth lifting in a sneer. “One of you will have weaker resolve than the last, and if I have to go through half a dozen agents to find him, that’s what I’ll do.”

“That’s it?” Boyd asked, tilting his head. “You’re not going to offer me a bribe – a seat on your pirate council? Not going to torture me for good measure?”

“I am a businessman first and foremost,” the man replied with a dismissive wave of his hand, the gold rings that adorned his fingers glinting. “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 someone with your level of security clearance. I’ve heard enough,” he added, turning to make his way back towards an open door at the far end of the warehouse. “Dispose of him.”

The man wielding the butterfly knife stepped forward, his lips peeling back in an ugly grin. At the informant’s direction, two of the PDF troopers approached and lay their hands on Boyd’s shoulders, the third waiting nearby with his rifle at the ready.

“In a way, I’m glad you refused the boss’s offer,” the informant said, flicking his knife closed with a click before stowing it in his pocket. “I’m gonna enjoy this. Take him to the truck!” he barked, turning his attention back to the troopers. They hooked their hands beneath Boyd’s arms, hauling him out of his seat, his hands still tied behind his back.

“I have just three words for you,” Boyd grunted.

“Oh yeah?” the informant asked, cocking an eyebrow. “What’s that? Don’t kill me?”

“Parakeet, hyphenated, Monroe.”

There was a brilliant flash of light accompanied by a shower of bright sparks, the high-density battery packs that ran down the suit’s spine releasing a two-hundred-milliamp electrical current into its lining. The two troopers who had been holding him up tensed for a moment, going as stiff as statues, then toppled to lie motionless on the concrete floor. Wisps of smoke rose from beneath their helmets, their nervous systems fried by the electrical discharge, their hearts stopped dead in their chests. The ropes that bound his hands burned away, turned to ash by the intense heat, Boyd ducking low as he charged towards the remaining soldier. The suit would need time to recharge before it could deliver another shock like that – he’d have to fight his way out of here the old-fashioned way.

The militiaman was already raising his XMR, preparing to fire from the hip, but his complacency had cost him valuable seconds. Boyd crashed into him like a linebacker, knocking him to the ground, his helmet bouncing off the concrete. The man struggled to point the barrel of the weapon at Boyd, but the agent pinned it against his chest with his weight, the two grappling on the floor. The trooper managed to get his finger around the trigger, Boyd angling the rifle away as it let off a burst of gunfire, the deafening crack ringing his ears. The magnetically-accelerated projectiles blew through a crate off to their right, showering the pair in an explosion of packing peanuts.

The goon managed to get a hit in, Boyd feeling his lip split open as the butt of the rifle connected with his face, but the man didn’t have enough leverage to stun him. The agent planted a boot beside the trooper, then reached for his ankle. If the mobsters had used a metal detector to scan him for weapons or had simply frisked him, they would have missed the concealed ceramic blade. He drew the push-knife, plunging it beneath the man’s helmet and into his throat. His adversary gurgled for a moment, dark arterial blood forming a spreading pool on the concrete beneath him, then went limp. Boyd tore the rifle from the man’s lifeless hands, slicing through its sling with his blade, blood from his split lip dripping down his chin.

As the ringing in his ears began to abate, he heard the sound of echoing footsteps, looking up to see the informant fleeing towards the exit. For all his bluster, the man was smart enough to know not to bring a knife to a gunfight. Boyd reached behind his head for the hood that was connected to his environment suit, pulling it over his face, the garment creating an airtight seal around his neck. The flexible visor slid over his eyes, the built-in hearing protection activating to filter out the ambient noise in the warehouse. He dropped to a knee, taking aim, the recoil kicking the rifle into his shoulder as he fired. The hypervelocity slug caught his target between the shoulder blades, throwing him off his feet, gore spraying as it blew a fist-sized exit wound in his chest.

As the man’s body dropped to the floor, Boyd saw the crime boss standing in the doorway ahead, his eyes wide. The round had passed through its target, impacting the far wall, leaving a smoking crater an arm’s breadth from his head.

The pair stared each other down for a moment, the air above the rifle’s magnetic coils shimmering as they cooled, the sound of Boyd’s labored breathing filling his hood. He swung the rifle up towards the man, but he was already leaping behind the wall, out of view. Boyd cursed under his breath, rising to his feet, still a little unsteady from the blow to his face. He checked the counter on the little LCD display mounted above the rifle’s receiver, seeing that he had twenty-six slugs left. The body of the PDF trooper lying beside him had a chest rig packed with spare magazines, like he was expecting to fight off a goddamned invasion. The weapon was nothing more than an expensive toy to people like him – a chance to look cool and feel powerful.

He stooped to recover one of the magazines, then tapped at the touch panel that was built into the forearm of his suit, activating a series of electromagnets embedded in the chest area. They snatched the mag from his hand when he brought it close, letting the suit act as a rig in a pinch. With a second magazine hanging off his torso, he felt more confident, turning back to the door just in time to see a procession of PDF troopers come rushing through.

“I want that fucking Ninny dead!” he heard the boss yell from somewhere behind them, his calm demeanor forgotten. “Bring me his fucking head!”

Eight of the men spread out into the warehouse, their weapons already leveled, Boyd darting for the nearest row of shelves as they began to fire. The chatter of automatic weapons filled the room, the rounds punching through the containers above him as he ducked low, showering him with concrete mix and fertilizer. Those weren’t XMRs – they sounded like machine pistols firing caseless rounds – older tech that the PDF garrisons would have in spades. They were still lethal, the large volume of inaccurate fire forcing Boyd to the ground. He rolled onto his side, glancing beneath the rows of shelves that stood between him and his assailants, seeing several pairs of boots.

He took careful aim, then pulled the trigger, one of the men dropping into view with a gaping hole in his chest. The railgun could fire through the obstacles like they weren’t even there, another burst sending the troopers scattering. Even with only the most basic training, the troopers knew to leverage their numerical advantage, a couple of them laying down suppressive fire while the rest moved deeper into the warehouse. He had to stay mobile, or they’d get a bead on him. His suit could do many things, but stopping a bullet wasn’t one of them.

Boyd scrambled to his feet, ducking as the shooters peppered the shelves around him with bullets.They seemed to have no real idea where he was, so they were just shooting randomly, hoping to keep him pinned.

He took a moment to examine his surroundings, his eyes darting around through the flexible visor on his hood. The warehouse was a large one, the ceiling rising high above his head, the skylights letting in harsh sunlight that was tinted orange by the sand that caked them. Itwas likely being used to store building materials and tools for the colony based on the cement mix that dusted the shoulders of his suit and the pallets stacked high with crates ready to be loaded onto trucks. Most of the floor space was taken up by the shelves, which reached almost to the ceiling, the space between them just large enough that a forklift could fit through. He had to use the environment to his advantage, or they were just going to flush him out.

He heard footsteps nearing, his suit’s software increasing the gain, helping him pick out the subtle sounds. Slowly, he crept closer to the shelf that he was using as cover, peering between two of the crates. One of the PDF troopers was a couple of aisles away, sweeping the area with his machine pistol as he searched, crunching the spilled packing peanuts underfoot.

Boyd leveled his XMR, taking careful aim, staying as silent as a hunter sighting a deer. He pulled the trigger, the butt of the rifle rocking into his shoulder, the slug cutting through the boxes between him and his target like they weren’t even there. The hypervelocity round impacted the crate beside his target, hitting something harder than foam – maybe some piece of industrial machinery or a shipment of tools. It turned whatever was inside the box into a spray of molten shrapnel, lifting his target off his feet like he had been hit by a grenade, tossing him against the adjacent shelves.

As the man’s lifeless body was buried in an avalanche of crates, his comrades came running towards the source of the noise, shouting threats and egging each other on. Another hail of inaccurate fire shredded some of the boxes to Boyd’s left, sending tattered paper and fragments of polymer spraying, but they didn’t know where he was. Again, he took aim, loosing a three-round burst that caught the lead man in the chest. The rounds blew fist-sized holes in his torso, imparting enough kinetic energy to throw him to the concrete like he’d been hit by a truck. The tungsten slugs overpenetrated, one of them tearing into the arm of the man who was standing directly behind him, almost severing the limb. Blood sprayed the nearby containers, the man’s scream muffled by his helmet as he dropped his weapon, reaching for the arm as it hung by a thread of torn flesh.

The four remaining troopers pressed on, one of them laying down covering fire while the rest rushed towards Boyd’s hiding place. He was forced to relocate, ducking low again as the rounds whizzed over his head, puffs of shimmering dust from a shipment of sintering powder filling the air. He made for the far end of his aisle, but as he neared, one of the goons beat him to the punch. He stepped around the corner, right into Boyd’s path, swinging his machine pistol towards the approaching agent in alarm. Boyd didn’t even flinch, barreling into him, sending the burst of gunfire wide. The two men grappled for a moment, Boyd grabbing the man’s gun, keeping it aimed away from him. The PDF trooper tried to do the same, letting out a yell of surprise and pain as he wrapped his hand around the XMR’s exposed coils, the hot metal burning straight through his glove.

Boyd took advantage of the distraction to wrest the machine pistol from his other hand, sending it clattering to the concrete, wrapping his arm around the man’s neck as he got behind him. The trooper struggled, grasping at Boyd’s forearm, but he had him in a solid headlock. Two of his comrades came rushing into view at the other end of the aisle, Boyd leaning the barrel of his XMR on his hostage’s shoulder.

The pair hesitated just long enough for him to fire, Boyd filling the aisle with tungsten, the slugs tearing through the two troopers. As they slumped to the floor, he kicked his hostage in the back of the leg, forcing him to his knees before dumping two rounds into the back of his helmet.

Before he could get his bearings, he heard the sound of metal on concrete, glancing down to see a ball-shaped object rolling towards him. It began to disgorge an obscuring cloud of white gas, the substance jetting into the air, quickly filling the aisle’s narrow space. It was CS gas – used by the PDF to control riots. His hood would protect him from the debilitating effects of the aerosol, but he couldn’t see three feet in front of him.

He began to move, and just in time, the chatter of automatic fire ringing out. His assailants hosed the aisle, the bullets sparking off the concrete and spilling more packing peanuts, Boyd throwing himself to the ground. He pulled the limp body of the PDF trooper up by the straps on its chest rig, putting it between him and the shooter, feeling the corpse shudder as the rounds slammed into its back.

Through the swirling smoke, two figures walked into view. One of them was holding a riot shield, while the other was advancing behind him with another machine pistol, a hand on his shoulder. As they approached his hiding place, Boyd lifted his rifle over the body, dumping the rest of his magazine into the pair. As the man with the machine pistol fell, Boyd swung the barrel towards the second, but heard an empty click. He ejected the spent magazine, rolling onto his back as he reached frantically for a spare, tugging it free of the electromagnets that secured it to his chest.

The remaining PDF trooper let out a yell, raising the riot shield above his head and bringing it down towards Boyd. The agent was forced to roll out of the way, its edge slamming down on the floor where he’d been lying a moment prior. As he climbed to his feet, his opponent knocked the XMR out of his hand with a swipe of his shield, sending him stumbling back a few paces.

The two began to square off, the CS gas starting to clear now. The trooper produced an extensible baton, shaking it to full length with a click, starting to advance with his shield raised defensively. Boyd backed up, frantically looking around for something that he could use. The man was between him and all of the discarded weapons now. He settled on a sack of concrete mix that was sitting on a pallet on a nearby shelf, dragging it down, gripping one end as he prepared to swing it. The trooper weathered the blow as Boyd slammed it into his shield, the weight enough to force him back a few steps, the bag erupting into a spray of grey powder.

Boyd took advantage to step in, dropping low, sweeping the man’s feet out from under him with a kick. The trooper fell on his back, the heavy shield that was strapped to his arm weighing him down enough that getting back up was a struggle. Boyd leapt over him, warding off a few strikes from the baton, diving for the nearest machine pistol that was lying on the ground. He rolled over, aiming it at his opponent just as he managed to climb to his feet, squeezing the trigger. Muzzle flash illuminated the shelves as he unloaded, the man ducking behind his shield, the rounds slamming into the translucent material to leave spiderweb-like cracks. It was bulletproof – the trooper rushing down the aisle towards him.

From his prone position, Boyd took careful aim, then put a solitary round through the man’s boot. He fell, yelling into his helmet, dropping his baton as he reached for his injured foot. Boyd put the next two rounds into his chest, and the trooper lay still, Boyd gripping a nearby shelf for support as he pulled himself upright. After tossing the empty pistol, he searched for the XMR, retrieving it and loading a fresh magazine. A sudden yell echoed from somewhere on the other side of the warehouse. They were sending more goons in after him. If he stuck around much longer, he’d have to fight the entire PDF garrison. With his rifle in hand, he retreated in the opposite direction, leaving the carnage behind. At the far end of the building was another exit – he could see sunlight bleeding in through the open doors.

He ran out into the open air, his visor dimming automatically to protect his eyes from the harsh sunlight. There were no troopers out here waiting for him, no vehicles. They must have assumed that he was still in the warehouse preparing to stage his last stand. He could make out the silhouettes of structures in the distance, just visible through the blowing sand. Wherever they had brought him, it was on the outskirts of a settlement. There was ample cover ahead – sand dunes that had begun to form around industrial machinery and stacks of raw materials forming a kind of maze. 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 slipped into an alley between two prefabs, leaning against the nearest wall as he caught his breath. He was wrapped in a long cloak that he had bought for a few plastic tokens from one of the market stalls, the garment obscuring the telltale blues and greys of his environment suit, its frayed hem whipping in the wind. Slowly, he crept out of the shadows, scanning the dusty street beyond for threats. PDF patrols in teams of three or four were moving between the groups of civilians, stopping people every now and then to check their identities. They were clearly searching for him, likely following the orders of the Syndicate. Was the entire organization in their pocket?

After escaping the warehouse, he had found himself in a port town – the largest settlement on the planet. There were a hundred little pockets of civilization spread out all over Hades, usually situated close to specific mining operations and mineral processing sites, but all of the planet’s cargo came through here. It was where supplies were shipped in and where the refined ore was shipped out, so it made sense for the warehouses to be close by. Unfortunately, it was also the most secure settlement on the planet and likely where the largest PDF garrison was located.

Boyd felt naked without his rifle, but he’d had to ditch it. The weapon was far too large and conspicuous to conceal. His only defense now was stealth. He had to find a way off-planet so that he could get a message to UNNI. Hades had an FTL comms satellite like all colonies did, but it was owned and operated by ExoCorp, meaning that he had no way to transmit data without blowing his cover. If he tried to contact the corp for help, there was no guarantee that they wouldn’t just make him disappear and try to deal with the Syndicate themselves, rather than risk having their dirty laundry aired for the whole world to see. If he tried to slip an encrypted message into the satellite’s comms buffer, there was no way to estimate when it would actually be transmitted, as corporate communiques would have the highest priority with the limited bandwidth available. No, his only option was to physically leave the colony, and he was starting to formulate a plan.

Towering above the dusty landscape, gradually vanishing into the blue haze, was the orbital tether. The structure was designed for carrying large payloads of cargo to and from the planet’s surface, as it was cheaper in the long run than having haulers burning fuel with every trip. It was a big investment on the part of the company, to be sure, but it had probably already paid for itself. It resembled a large strand of black cable that was several meters in diameter, anchored to the ground by a skeletal, ring-shaped structure that dwarfed the surrounding clusters of prefabs and industrial buildings. Massive jump freighters like the one that the Syndicate had raided would dock at the space station that served as its counterbalance, loading and unloading cargo that would then be ferried up and down the elevator. As he watched, a massive container began to rise up the length of the cable, slowly picking up speed as it went.

The tether wasn’t his objective, however. Boyd was more interested in the civilian ships that would be sitting on the landing pads that surrounded the anchor. If he could barter for safe passage with an independent trader or just stow away in someone’s cargo hold, he’d be out of the Syndicate’s reach.

He waited for the nearest pack of PDF troopers to move on, then shrouded himself in his cloak, heading out into the crowd. With the tattered garment covering him, he was indistinguishable from the locals, and he would be safe as long as he was wary of the patrols. Sticking to back alleys and large throngs of colonists as best he could manage, he gradually made his way towards the port, guided by the oppressive tether that loomed over the settlement.

When he eventually arrived, he found that the compound was separated from the surrounding settlement by a large concrete wall made from interlocking segments. There was an entrance for pedestrians that was guarded by a pair of men with caseless rifles slung over their chests. They weren’t PDF – they looked like corporate security, dressed in the same shades of black and yellow as the logos that adorned all of the cargo containers. Corporate enforcers were nothing to trifle with – especially ones that were posted on backwaters like Hades. They were better armed than the PDF and far more competent, dressed to intimidate with their faceless helmets and bulletproof armor.

They were stopping people at the gate, asking for ID by the look of things, managing the slow trickle of colonists that came in and out. Boyd reached for his pocket reflexively, but found it empty. If he’d still had his wallet on hand, he could have used its onboard computer to generate a fake ID that would likely have gotten him through the checkpoint, but the goons had taken it. There was no way he was slipping past those guys – he had to find another way in.

The sound of an engine drew his attention, and he watched as a large truck trundled into view some distance to his left, emerging from a dusty road that led deeper into the settlement. It was a bulky, rugged design intended for use on colonies that lacked proper roads, built more like a piece of heavy industrial equipment than anything that belonged on a highway. The cab was raised high off the ground to give the driver better visibility, and its eight wheels were each as tall as a man, sporting honeycomb tires to prevent flats. On its bed was a cargo container that was likely filled with refined ore ready to be sent up the tether. As he watched, it drove up to the wall some two hundred meters away, a far larger gate opening automatically to let it pass.

That was his way inside…

Boyd made his way through the dusty streets, eventually arriving at the dirt road where the trucks were coming through. He waited, biding his time in an alley until another shipment came along, checking the display on his wrist to see that approximately fifteen minutes had elapsed. This truck was much like the first – the same heavy, industrial design. He examined it as it trundled past, feeling it shake the ground, its chunky wheels kicking up clouds of dust. The container on its flatbed was completely sealed, likely prepped to load directly onto the cars that ran up and down the tether. There was no way to smuggle himself inside, so a more creative solution would be required.

Once it had passed through the automatic gate, he turned to the nearest prefab, examining it for a moment. His plan formulated, he hauled himself up onto the roof, using a shaky air conditioning unit that jutted from the wall as a foothold. He kept low so as to avoid attention, creeping over to a satellite dish that rose three or four feet into the air, a common feature in the settlements. It was bolted to the roof, but the device wasn’t exactly sturdy, a few hard yanks breaking its support. Boyd checked his display to ensure that he had enough time to get ready, then tossed the broken satellite dish into the road below. It made for a small obstacle, but one that would hopefully give the next driver pause. It was windy enough that a fallen satellite dish likely wouldn’t raise suspicion.

Slowly, he crept back down to ground level, lurking in the shadow of an alley as he waited. After a few more minutes, he was greeted with the sound of another engine, the next shipment driving into view. It passed his hiding spot, then ground to a halt, its brakes squealing. The door on the raised cab swung open, and a man wearing yellow overalls hopped out, climbing down a small ladder. As he appraised the fallen dish, Boyd made his move, sneaking out of cover. He ducked low, making for the rear of the truck, dipping beneath its bulky chassis. Its large wheels raised it a good couple of feet off the ground, giving him enough space to move around at a crouch. He glanced up, seeing the vehicle’s drive train above him. Much of it was covered by a tough casing that shielded the machinery from the harsh environment, but there were handholds enough to serve his purpose. Spurred on by the sound of the driver dragging the debris out of the road, he climbed up, securing himself beneath the truck. It was already uncomfortable, but he only had to hang on for a few minutes at most.

He heard the door of the cab slam shut, then the vehicle lurched into motion, the vibrations threatening to shake him loose. The sandy ground rolled past beneath him, then they stopped again, probably waiting for the gate to open. When the truck resumed its journey, he knew that he was inside the compound. Unable to see anything but the road from his hiding place, the only indication that he had entered the processing center was the sunlight dimming and the dusty ground giving way to polished concrete. There must be somewhere that the trucks unloaded their cargo, and with any luck, it would all be automated. These corps weren’t usually eager to pay more salaries than they had to. There was the distinct possibility that he might be clocked by security the moment he left cover, but he’d cross that bridge when he came to it.

The quality of the ambient sound soon changed, too. Over the roar of the engine and the whirring of the drive train, he could hear what sounded like machinery echoing through an indoor space. When the truck stopped, he lowered himself down, edging towards the wheels so that he could get a look out at his environment. As he had hoped, he was in some kind of cargo processing center for the tether. There were several berths that could accommodate the transports, where large, mechanical arms would lift the cargo pods from their beds and place them on a conveyor that ran deeper inside the facility. There were no security guards in sight, and he spotted an access door on the far side of the room. There were probably cameras – for liability reasons if nothing else – but whether anyone was watching the feeds was up in the air.

He crawled on his belly towards the front of the truck, then slipped beneath the raised gantry that provided access to the cranes, hiding in the shadows among the supports. After a couple of minutes, the truck set off again, its flatbed empty. That should give him around fifteen minutes until the next shipment arrived.

Doing his best to keep out of sight of any cameras, he followed the gantry to the right side of the cavernous room, quickly arriving at the door. It was locked with a numeric keypad, but no spy worth their salt would be stopped by a locked door. He turned to his wrist display once more, keying in a voltage setting for the magnet that was embedded in his right glove. It was designed to help him hang onto surfaces in zero-G, but with the right power setting, it could actuate the relays in an electronic lock like this one. With a wave of his hand, the lock opened like magic, and the door swung open with a gentle push. Beyond it was a sterile, corporate hallway. There must be a way through into the civilian area of the port.

Ever cautious, he crept deeper, passing empty maintenance rooms and offices. Footsteps alerted him that someone was approaching, and he threw himself into a branching corridor, putting his back to the wall. His heart raced as the source of the sound drew closer, but it was just a man in a dress shirt holding a tablet computer, his eyes fixed on its display as he walked past Boyd’s hiding place. Nobody here would be on alert for infiltrators – it was a normal workday for them.

Heading in the direction the man had come from, he soon found an exit to what looked like a spaceport terminal, the telltale cloaks and shawls of civilians moving around beyond its narrow window. He glanced behind him to check that the coast was still clear, then opened the door with another wave of his magnet, quickly closing it behind him before blending into the crowd.

Only now did Boyd allow himself a sigh of relief. Unless someone stopped him to check his ID – unlikely now that he was inside the perimeter – he’d be indistinguishable from the other commuters. He took a moment to look around, finding himself in a much more recognizable environment. The civilian area of the port seemed to form a crescent on the right side of the tether’s anchor, the terminal split into a dozen gates that led to the landing pads outside, visible through the curving windows. There were displays showing flight schedules, and desks where people could talk to the facility's staff. He could even see a cafe where a few corporate employees were having coffee. It wasn’t as large as a commercial spaceport, but it was pretty high-end for Hades. They must want to make a good impression for any independent traders or contractors who happened to pass through here. It wasn’t like the colonists could afford to travel.

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 corporate security 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.

A giant alien strode across the room, heads turning to watch it as it marched along, snow-white fur protruding from beneath its form-fitting jumpsuit. Its coat was thick and fluffy, patterned with dark rings that resembled coffee stains where it was visible. It wore no shoes, its digitigrade legs ending in cat-like paws with dark talons, a tail that was as bushy as a feather duster poking out from a hole in its coveralls. It was a female – that much was obvious by her ample figure, relatively humanoid in appearance despite her exaggerated size. It was a Borealan of the Polar variety, about eight feet tall. She stuck out like a sore thumb, standing head and shoulders above the surrounding humans, wading through the chest-high crowd. What the hell was she doing here? The heat alone must be driving the poor creature insane – they were adapted for frozen environments, not arid deserts.

The feline stopped at one of the desks, leaning down to speak to a woman who was standing behind a computer monitor, the alien’s unwieldy chest spilling over the counter through her suit. She was packed into that thing like a sausage about to blow its casing. Polars had a layer of insulating blubber that protected them from the frigid cold of their home territory, endowing the already imposing creatures with especially full figures, their average weight easily surpassing six hundred pounds. She tapped at a touch monitor, relaying some information that Boyd couldn't hear clearly, the clerk nodding along. After talking for a couple of minutes, the alien left in the direction of one of the gates, Boyd rising from his seat to intercept her. There was no way this alien was a colonist, and the chance that she was on the payroll was as low as he could possibly hope for. He wouldn’t get another opportunity like this.

He hurried to catch up with her loping strides, trying not to draw attention to himself by running, heading her off just as she arrived at her gate. She looked down at him quizzically with a pair of ice-blue eyes, her vertical pupils reminding him of a cat. He was aware of Polars, but he had never seen one up close before – few people had. She had a flat brow that tapered into a pink, feline nose, a pair of fuzzy ears tipped with black marks turning to track him like little radar dishes. Her face was covered in a thin coat of fur, patterned with more spots, framed by shoulder-length hair that was slate-grey in color. While she had little muzzle to speak of, her skull was large enough to rival that of a Siberian tiger, her powerful jaw muscles hinting at her carnivorous heritage. She didn’t have to say anything for him to see the question in her expression.

“Are you a pilot?” Boyd asked, pulling back the hood of his cloak to expose his face. “A ship’s captain?”

“Is there something I can do for you, stranger?” she asked. Her accent was odd, reminiscent of Russian, the alien rolling her Rs like a purr. At least she spoke good English – Polar wasn’t one of the languages that Boyd had learned during his training.

“I need passage off-planet, and I’m willing to pay well for it,” he replied hurriedly.

“So book a flight with a passenger ship,” she replied with a shrug. The gesture made her chest wobble, Boyd finding himself taking a step back to avoid being clocked in the head. “Why is that my problem?”

The promise of credits didn’t appeal to her, then. He would have to try a different angle. If her ship was a Navy vessel, he could pull rank – commandeer it. Borealans were a rare sight, and they mostly appeared working as auxiliaries on Coalition ships.

“Is your ship UNN?” he asked.

“No, it’s a private survey vessel,” she replied. “Now, are you going to tell me why you’re acting so shifty, or should I call security and have them find out?”

Clever. She’d put him in a position where he was now forced to explain himself. She wasn’t taking the bait, so he’d have to try a new approach. Perhaps he could concoct a sob story to gain her sympathy? Telling her the truth was far too risky, and she might not have believed his tales about secret agents and hidden criminal empires anyway.

“I can’t charter a flight through normal channels,” he began, glancing around nervously as he lowered his tone to a whisper. “Please. You’re the only one who can help me. People who come to Hades aren’t allowed to just leave of their own accord...”

That seemed to pique her interest, her round ears pricking up.

“Why is that?”

“ExoCorp doesn’t run this planet,” he replied. “That’s how it looks from the outside, but in reality, Hades is owned by organized criminal gangs. The corporation knows about it, but as long as the mines stay open and the creds keep flowing, they don’t give a damn about what happens to the people who live here. The corp pays its colonial workers in worthless plastic tokens that can only be redeemed at company-owned stores – we can’t buy passage off-world 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. I sold everything I owned to a black market dealer to get my hands on some UN credits, hoping that I could find someone who would sell me a seat on a ship. I don’t care where it’s going as long as it takes me away from here,” he added, wringing his hands in a silent plea. “You’re the only person I’ve met so far who’s just passing through – who isn’t on the payroll of the corp or the gangs. Please, you have to help me.”

There was just enough truth sprinkled on top of the lie to make it believable, and she seemed less suspicious now, her pink nose twitching as she considered.

“Listen, I’m just a cartographer,” she explained with a sigh. “My job is mapping the planets that we survey and identifying exploitable resources. I’m not the captain or anything like that, so I can’t make decisions about who gets to come aboard.”

Boyd’s face fell, but she cut him off with a wave of her furry hand before he could speak.

“But...I can put in a word for you with the captain, and we’ll see what he says. No promises.”

“I would be eternally in your debt,” he added excitedly. “If I can get off-world, I can raise the alarm about the conditions here. Maybe I can help everyone else, too.”

“Wait here,” she continued, heading for her gate. “I’ll be back soon.”

She exited through an automatic door that led to an enclosed catwalk, Boyd watching through the nearest window as she strode out onto a large landing pad, the harsh winds tugging at her fluffy fur. She held up a long arm to shield her face from the blowing sand, approaching the shadow of a vessel. It was an orbital shuttle – an older model that looked to be of Russian Federation design based on the configuration of its engines and the shape of its canopy. There was Cyrillic lettering on one of its tail fins, probably a serial number. That might help explain the Polar’s accent. Polar refugees had established a colony in Siberia not long ago.

The shuttle might be thirty or forty years out of date, but judging by the burn marks that scorched the heat tiles on its underbelly, it was still perfectly functional. The hull was all exposed metal in varying shades of grey, discolored patches revealing where it had been hastily repaired in places, its engine cones conspicuously exposed. Its cockpit was raised high on the stubby nose, forming a kind of bubble canopy, and it had a set of short wings designed for atmospheric flight. This wasn’t the survey vessel – that ship would be up in orbit or maybe docked to the tether station.

Boyd tried to look inconspicuous as a pair of corporate security guards walked past him, scrutinizing him with their faceless helmets. He flipped his hood back up once they had moved on, then took a seat on the nearest bench, hunching over. Perhaps he had gone a little overboard with his disguise. Street urchins and dust-caked miners shouldn’t be hanging around the executive lounge at the spaceport.

Finally, the Polar returned, shaking the sand off her fur like a wet dog as she stepped through the automatic door. She muttered something in Russian that sounded like a complaint or a curse, then looked around for Boyd, making her way over to him. She leaned over to put herself closer to eye level with him, her ample chest swinging within the confines of her suit, her toothy grin suggesting that she was about to break some good news.

“I brought it up with the captain, and he says you may ride with us, but 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 please her, cutting the display a little short after drawing a suspicious look from a guard.

“I owe you big time,” he said breathlessly. “When can we leave? Soon?”

“We can go now,” she replied, rising to her full height again. “I was actually just leaving when you cut me off at the gate. You’re a very lucky little human. If you had come a few minutes later, you might have missed me entirely.”

“Fate must be on my side,” he added as he hopped out of his seat.

He followed his towering benefactor out of the port and into the blowing winds, the sound of airborne sand hammering his cloak almost loud enough to drown out the noise of idling engines. There must be a storm blowing in – anyone who wanted to leave would have to dust off pretty quickly to avoid being grounded. As the pair made their way across the elevated landing pad, a cargo ramp at the rear of the shuttle began to open, dropping down on a pair of hydraulic pistons. Boyd gave the wretched settlement one last glance, then mounted the ramp, joining the Polar inside. It closed behind them with a mechanical whir, shutting out the wailing wind, Boyd hearing a hiss as the bay pressurized. When his eyes adjusted to the relative gloom, he found himself standing in a cramped cargo bay, a few containers strapped to the deck with netting to prevent them from moving around. The Polar must have been doing a supply run when he had caught her.

She had to duck to avoid the loose wires that hung from the ceiling as she made her way towards the cockpit at the front of the vessel, a man who was sitting in one of the two pilot’s seats turning to greet her. He wasn’t wearing a flight helmet or a pressure suit – just work coveralls. It seemed like the emergency procedure for a hull breach would be to hold their breath.

The two exchanged words in Russian, then the man turned his attention to Boyd, addressing him in English.

“So, this is our hitchhiker?” he asked as he looked the newcomer up and down. He had a thick Russian accent matching that of his feline companion. “There are some fold-down seats in the bay. Strap yourself in, and don’t mind the turbulence. The girl’s old, but she won’t shake apart any time soon.”

Boyd located one of the seats, snapping it open and settling in, securing the flimsy harness across his chest. If this old rust bucket so much as flinched, he’d probably end up pasted all over the inside of the hull. The Polar followed suit, sitting opposite him on a seat that seemed to have been welded to the deck specifically for her use, its frame reinforced to accommodate her size.

“It’s a short journey up to our ship,” she explained, raising her voice over the sound of the spooling engines. “The ride can get a little bumpy in atmosphere, but she’ll hold together.”

Considering that this was his second warning about the structural integrity of the ship in so many minutes, their reassurances were starting to have the opposite effect…

The deck began to vibrate beneath his feet, then the vessel lurched, Boyd feeling the clunk of the landing gear retracting into the hull as it lifted off the pad. There were no windows in the bay, but through the spacious cockpit canopy, he could see that they were rising away from the port. There was a tug as they accelerated, slowly nosing up, the azure sky darkening until it became a rich velvet black. He waited for the AG field to kick in, feeling weightlessness turn his stomach, but it never came.

“No AG?” he grumbled, glancing across the bay at the Polar. Her long hair was floating around her head, making her look like she was underwater.

“Not on the 80’s model,” she replied apologetically. “The Federation tends to value practicality over comfort.”

That went some way towards explaining why everything in the cargo hold was bolted down or secured with netting, at least. Without artificial gravity, its contents would just float around.

As the rickety shuttle burned into a new orbit, the tether station came into view ahead of them. At the apex of the black cable was a metallic disk, hanging high above the arid planet. Even though it was small by most metrics – there were stations orbiting Earth and Mars that were many times larger – it was still an impressive sight. It almost looked like a floating hubcap, ringed by berths that could accommodate freighters, the rib-like structures extending from it almost like the spokes of a wheel. It was hard to get a gauge of its true size, but using one of the docked vessels for reference, it was probably a kilometer across. Its shape was that of a flattened dome, the panels that made up its hull dotted with antennae and comms equipment, a ring of windows encircling it.

That wasn’t their ultimate destination, however. Floating away from the station, having likely only recently undocked, was the survey vessel. It was easily identifiable, maybe two hundred feet long, shaped vaguely like a giant flashlight. It had a bulbous, rounded nose equipped with a protruding sensor dome that gave it the profile of a dolphin, a series of blister-like bridge windows situated just below it. The grey hull was made up of interlocking panels that shone in the harsh light of the system’s star, giving it an almost makeshift look, as though it had been welded together from sheets of scrap metal. There were no fins or wings, as it wasn’t capable of atmospheric flight, the flared aft section playing host to a cluster of engine cones. Its length was bristling with little dishes and jutting antennae, the odd porthole here and there glinting in the sunlight. It was certainly behind the curve, but it had a superlight drive, and that was all Boyd needed.

The vessel ballooned along with the station as they approached, the forward-facing thrusters on the shuttle flaring, helping it decelerate. The pilot was communicating with the survey ship in Russian, reaching up to flip a few rocker switches on a panel above his seat as they neared. There was no docking bay that Boyd could see. Modern vessels had a bay that was open to space, pressurized with the help of a molecular force field that would allow solid objects to pass through, but would keep the atmosphere inside.

Instead, they maneuvered beneath the survey ship, Boyd watching through the canopy as a pair of hangar doors on its belly swung apart to expose an open cavity. With a few careful blasts from the thrusters, the pilot slid the shuttle into the shadowy recess, a shudder reverberating through the deck as it came into contact with something. Some kind of docking arm had grabbed them and was now lifting the shuttle further inside the bay as the doors beneath it sealed shut. He suddenly felt the weight of his body settle into his seat, and across the cargo hold, the Polar’s long hair fell about her shoulders. They had entered the survey ship’s AG field. There was another clunk as the shuttle came to a jarring halt, Evan hearing mechanical sounds bleeding in from outside the hull, suggesting that the docking bay had been pressurized.

“Welcome to the Zemchug,” the Polar announced, spreading her long arms enthusiastically. “It means pearl, which was a more fitting title when she was fresh out of the shipyard. She has lost some of her luster over the years, but she flies just as well as she ever did. Follow me, rebenok. I will introduce you to the captain.”

The pilot hit a switch, the cargo ramp beginning to open, the scent of recycled air assaulting Boyd as it flooded into the shuttle. It had a metallic tinge to it, almost as though he could taste the oxygen filters on his tongue. He followed the Polar down the ramp and onto the deck, pausing to examine his surroundings. The docking bay must have been designed specifically to work with this shuttle, or maybe similar models, because there seemed to be barely a couple of feet of clearance between its wingtips and the edges of the bay doors. There was indeed a mechanical arm gripping the hull of the vessel, holding it in place with four large electromagnets that sat flush against its hull, powered by insulated cables that trailed along the armature haphazardly. Its landing gear was sitting on top of the doors themselves. There was a small cargo area for loading and unloading, then a pair of large doors that presumably led to a dedicated hold.

The Polar led him around towards the front of the shuttle, ducking beneath one of its wings, the pilot remaining behind to hook his ship up to a trailing fuel line. Boyd followed the alien to a smaller door on the opposite side of the chamber, which was barely large enough for a taller than average human to fit through. Not only did she have to duck, but she had to turn sideways, the breadth of her hips actually wider than the opening. He watched curiously as her protruding chest caught on the frame, then she squeezed through, resuming her journey as if this was all routine to her. This vessel was cramped, even by his standards, and it hadn’t been modified to accommodate her in any way that he could see. It must be like living in a dollhouse for someone of her stature.

A single claustrophobic passageway spanned the length of the ship, the doors that branched off it to the left and right leading to various rooms and cabins. There was an oppressive, industrial quality to the ship’s insides that matched its patchy exterior, dominated by exposed metal and hanging cables. Even the grates that made up the floor beneath his feet creaked worryingly under the Polar’s weight. There were jutting pipes in places that forced her to hunch over to avoid hitting her head, her girth practically plugging the corridor. What could have motivated her to live and work somewhere like this?

The corridor opened up into a more spacious bridge area, banks of computer terminals and holographic readouts occupying most of the space, a series of bubble-like windows looking out into the void beyond. A lot of old Russian ships sported this style, almost like the compound eye of a fly. He could see the twinkling stars, as well as the horizon of Hades curving off into the distance, its desert hues encircled by the azure glow of its atmosphere. There were three people sitting behind the consoles, swiveling in their chairs to greet the newcomers, Boyd noting that the old leather padding was cracked and faded. They were dressed in civilian clothes, but one of them wore a traditional captain’s hat, the archaic headgear making him easy to identify. He rose from his chair, exchanging a greeting with the Polar in Russian, then turning to Boyd. He was a little older than his crew, sporting a short beard that looked more like the product of apathy than cultivation, streaked with grey in places. This wasn’t a Navy vessel, so there were no strict dress codes.

“Is this him?” he asked, looking the agent up and down. “Welcome aboard, mister...”

“Jones,” Boyd replied, stepping forward to offer the man his hand. The captain had a firm grip, shaking it vigorously, his weathered face breaking into a smile.

“My name is Morozov – I am responsible for the Zemchug and her crew.”

“I really appreciate your help, Captain. If you can drop me off at the nearest UN colony or Navy outpost, I’ll be happy to transfer any funds that you require.”

“That’s quite alright, Mister Jones,” he replied. “I only ask that you compensate us for the resources that you use during your stay. This ship is not exactly designed with a surplus in mind. I have to say, I do not make a habit of picking up hitchhikers, but your furry friend made quite a case on your behalf.”

“Thank you both,” Boyd added, glancing up at the Polar appreciatively. “I’ll try to keep out of your way while I’m here.”

“You can bunk in the boiler room,” one of the crew members added. Judging by the joysticks on his control console, he might be the pilot. “We can move a spare mattress in there for you. It isn’t the Metropol, but it should do fine. If you get hungry, there is food in the mess. Just ask Sibirskiy, and she’ll get you whatever you need.”

“I am also the ship’s cook,” the Polar whispered, glancing down at him with a smile. “Working with canned and freeze-dried supplies can be a challenge, but there are ways to make them more appetizing.”

“We will be burning out to a safe distance from the station before we jump,” the captain added, returning to his seat at one of the bulky consoles. “Sibirskiy, why not show our guest around while we get into position?”

“Alright,” she replied, giving Boyd a pat on the back with a giant hand. She led him back into the corridor, leaving the bridge behind them.

“Is that your name, Sibirskiy?” Boyd asked as they headed for one of the doors.

“No, that just means the Siberian,” she explained as she ducked under its low frame. “It’s what the Russians have taken to calling the Polars who settled there. My name is Lorza, priyatna paznakomista,” she added with a chuckle.

“What does that mean?”

“Pleased to meet you,” she replied.

Boyd followed her into the room, peering around her bulk to see that they were standing in the ship’s mess hall. It was small and cramped, just like the rest of the vessel, but it was large enough that half a dozen people could sit comfortably at the round table that was bolted to the middle of the floor. There were narrow counters built into the walls, along with a metal sink and a few appliances for cooking, all of them recessed into the hull to save space. It must be like living in a sardine can, but at least the crew had some basic amenities. One of the portholes that he had seen from the shuttle was situated on the far wall, the blackness of space visible beyond the glass, frost crystals clinging to its edges. There were three more people sitting around the table, seemingly halfway through a game of cards, one of them acknowledging the pair with a lazy wave.

“Let me see, who else do we have here?” Lorza mused as she scratched her furry chin with one of her black claws. Her hands were massive, closer in size to those of a bear than a human. She had three fingers and a thumb almost as thick as his wrist that ended in wicked hooks, her digits sporting fleshy pads like a cat. “That is Alexei, he is our geologist. He does not speak English, so do not 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 are out here looking for new resources and potential colonies. I am the cartographer, so my job is making the maps and charting the surface of planets.”

“Have you been out here long?” Boyd asked.

“Oh, a few months now,” she replied. “It was nice to be planetside while we picked up some supplies, but Hades is a miserable place for my kind. Yours too, it appears,” she added with a sideways glance.

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

Nyet, I'm more a fan of snow and ice.”

Boyd felt a rumbling beneath the deck, and he reached for the door frame to support himself, glancing around in alarm as cups and cutlery vibrated on the kitchen counters. One of the crew members reached for his mug of coffee, steadying it as it began to dance its way across the table.

“Is this...normal?” Boyd asked, the shaking making his voice waver.

“There is no cause for alarm,” Lorza replied with a laugh. “She may not be the smoothest ride, but the Zemchug gets the job done.”

It was a very Russian take. At least the aliens seemed to be absorbing the local culture…

The rumbling abated after a couple of minutes, the ship likely finishing its initial burn, starting to coast through space. Boyd and Lorza took seats at the table, joining the rest of the crew. Unlike her reinforced seat in the cargo shuttle, the Polar seemed to have no chair, choosing to sit on the deck with her legs crossed instead. It put her at an appropriate height, so maybe she would be too tall otherwise. The captain soon appeared at the door, pausing to address his new passenger.

“Our present course will bring us close to a UNN outpost,” he began, leaning against the frame. “It should take us less than a week to reach it. We will drop you off there, and you can be on your way.”

“I’m not sure how much Lorza has told you, but you guys are literally saving my life,” he added as he glanced around the table. “Hades is under the control of mobsters. They’re holding the workers hostage, using them as slave labor, preventing them from leaving. If you can get me to that outpost, I can raise the alarm, and maybe the UNN can restore some order to the colony.”

“I am glad to be of help, but do me a favor and do not mention the name of my ship when you give your report,” the captain replied. “We operate a long way from home, and I do not need a target on my back.”

“Of course,” he replied.

“When was the last time you ate?” the captain asked.

“Maybe...two or three days,” Boyd conceded. Ever since his kidnapping and escape, he had been running on fumes.

Sibirskiy, see to it that our guest has a full belly,” the man added before tipping the brim of his hat. “I have duties to attend to, but let me know if you need anything.”

Boyd thanked him again, then watched him head back in the direction of the bridge.

“For people who don’t make a habit of picking up hitchhikers, you sure know how to make a guy feel welcome,” he said.

“This is something that Polar and Russian traditions share,” Lorza added, puffing out her ample chest proudly. “If a stranger appears at your door, it is only right to feed them and offer them a bed for the night. Siberia is large and sparsely populated, as was my home territory on Borealis. Conditions there were harsh, and the offer of food and shelter could mean the difference between life and death. We Polars learned to give freely, and that generosity was its own reward.”

“Sounds like you’ve integrated well,” he added with a chuckle.

“Believe it or not, even the most remote territories of Siberia are a paradise to my kind,” she continued. “The climate that we fled was far harsher, its resources more scarce.”

“Well, I’m glad you decided to send a little of that generosity my way,” Boyd said as he watched one of the other crew members deal a hand of cards with practiced skill. “If I hadn’t come across you in the spaceport...”

“Think nothing of it,” she replied, giving him a pat on the back that was almost powerful enough to empty his lungs. “Now – you need food, and that happens to be my specialty. Let me cook for you.”

She announced her plans to the rest of the crew in Russian, and the prospect seemed to perk them up, a couple of them turning in their chairs to watch as she squeezed her way around the table. Maybe she was as good a chef as she purported to be. She made for one of the counters, having to hunch over the already small surface due to her size, reaching up to open a sliding cupboard door that was recessed into the wall. Boyd’s stomach began to growl as he heard the sound of plastic packaging being torn open, accompanied by the metallic clink of a can opener. UNNI agents were trained to endure a lot of hardship, as their missions could see them stranded without supplies for extended periods of time. Still, the moment the scent of cooking reached his nose, his resolve crumbled.

“So, where you come from?” one of the crew members asked. He was wearing a faded shirt and a beanie that covered his head. This was the engineer that Lorza had introduced him to earlier – Sokolov, if he recalled.”

“Originally?” Boyd asked.

Da,” the man replied, pausing to take a drink from his mug of coffee. He was holding his playing cards in the other hand, fanned out like he was halfway through a Poker game.

“Ganymede,” Boyd replied, the lies flowing easily.

“Ah, say no more,” he said as he took another sip from his cup. “Very bad place, Ganymede. People there live like kpot, uh...” He paused for a moment, trying to remember the English translation. “Moles. Underground tunnels, no sky, surface radiation too high to see stars.”

“That’s about the long and short of it,” Boyd replied.

“No wonder you came here. Even Hades has breathable air, open sky.”

They were distracted by the sound of a toaster popping, Boyd glancing over to see that Lorza was finishing up their meal. Stacking the plates like a seasoned waitress, she returned to their table, setting a dish down in front of each of its occupants. She handed him a knife and fork, Boyd taking the cutlery as he glanced down at his dish. He wasn’t quite sure what he was looking at. It was some kind of canned meat dumped on top of a couple of pieces of toast, whatever sauces it had been marinating in seeping into the bread. He glanced up to gauge the reactions of the crew, but they were already digging in eagerly.

The deck shook as Lorza sat down beside him, depositing a whole tray of food on the table with a clatter. It looked like she was using a baking dish in lieu of a plate. Rather than use human cutlery, which would have been comically undersized in her massive paws, she produced a serrated knife and a two-pronged fork. They looked custom-made, their handles embossed with ivory or some kind of polished bone, the metal twisted into a spiral pattern.

“I never go anywhere without them,” she explained, noticing that he was admiring the implements. “They were a parting gift from my pack.”

“So, what’s this?” he asked as he prodded his meal with a fork suspiciously.

“Mackerel on toast,” she replied proudly.

“Mackerel on toast?” Boyd repeated, raising a skeptical eyebrow.

“It is canned mackerel in a tomato and garlic sauce,” she explained, shifting her weight on the deck. “It lasts about four years if we store it properly, so we have a lot of it onboard. I butter some toast, then I pour the contents of the can onto it so that the sauce soaks into the bread. It’s quick, easy, and filling.”

Boyd’s hunger was greater than his suspicion, so he gave it a try, cutting off a square of soggy toast along with a chunk of canned fish. His skepticism soon vanished as he began to chew, Lorza chuckling to herself as she noted the change in his expression. It was good – great, even. Hunger was a spice that could make any food palatable, but if this was their regular diet, then the people working about the Zemchug didn’t have it half as bad as he’d initially assumed.

He ate the rest of his meal, watching his hosts play Poker, the satisfaction of a full stomach blending with the fatigue that was finally catching up with him to make him drowsy. Lorza’s tray was filled with eight slices of toast and enough mackerel chunks to match, Boyd looking on in amazement as she put away almost as much as the rest of the crew combined.

“We Polars need a lot of food to maintain our body weight,” she explained, downing another mouthful of soggy toast. “Our blubber protects us from the cold and acts as an emergency energy reserve when resources are scarce.”

“Yeah, I can imagine,” he muttered. He didn’t say it out loud, but she looked like she could probably go for weeks without eating.

“You must be tired after your ordeal,” she continued, pausing to chew on a mouthful of fish. “When you’re done eating, we shall find that spare mattress and move it to the boiler room. Nowhere on the Zemchug is truly quiet, but you will get used to all of her little sounds over time.”

The ship lurched, Boyd having to grab the edge of the table to steady himself, the lights flickering off to plunge the room into total darkness. The gravity was out too – Boyd feeling himself start to rise from his seat, his stomach churning as his senses concluded that he was falling. His first instinct was to activate his magnetic boots to secure himself to the deck, but he resisted the urge, as doing so might blow his cover. He heard gasps of alarm and Russian curses from around the table, one of Lorza’s large hands reaching out to grab his arm in a bid to stop him from floating away.

The AG generator was out, the electronics – likely the engines, too. What the hell had happened? Was the old rust bucket of a ship finally giving out, or was something more sinister afoot? His mind flashed back to the shipping manifest of the freighter that the Syndicate had raided. EMP warheads. Had they been fired on? How could the Syndicate have tracked him to orbit?

The lights returned along with the AG field, Boyd falling back into his seat, feeling the deck shake as Lorza’s considerable weight returned to the floor. A couple of the crew members had fallen out of their chairs, climbing back to their feet, nursing bumps and bruises as they glanced around the room in confusion.

“Was that normal?” Boyd demanded as he glanced up at his furry neighbor.

“No, that was not normal,” she replied as she stood up. Her bushy tail was flicking back and forth restlessly, her ears flattened against her head in what might be an expression of worry. She addressed the crew in Russian, probably checking that they were alright, then stooped to retrieve a few fallen items from the deck. The Poker game had been ruined – the playing cards were strewn all over the room. “The backup generator kicked in, but I don't hear the engines. What hit us?” She looked down at Boyd suddenly, her ice-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 in Russian, Boyd unable to follow the conversation.

“Navigation is down, engines offline,” she explained. “We're drifting.”

“What happened?” Boyd asked, feigning ignorance.

“Maybe I should be asking you that question,” she replied, narrowing her eyes at him. “Wait here.”

She squeezed through the kitchen door and into the corridor beyond, heading for the bridge, Boyd waiting as instructed. Sokolov – the engineer – followed behind her, the rest of the crew exchanging words in their native language. While he couldn’t understand them, their alarmed tone was easy to pick up on. After a couple of minutes, Lorza returned, her expression dire.

“Something locked onto us and knocked out our power,” she began. “Probably an EMP of some kind. There were no other ships in the vicinity, 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 them, but we are caught in the gravity well of Hades' moon. If he cannot get them back online, then we are going to crater.”

Boyd’s cover wasn’t quite blown just yet. There was still a chance that he could hide his true identity, maybe even make Lorza and her crew believe that the Syndicate would play their hand just to stop one rogue miner.

“I had no idea that this would happen,” he insisted, wringing his hands in a display of nervousness. “I would never have imagined that they would go to such extremes to stop me from leaving. I would never have put you and your crew in danger if I had known. Please believe me.”

The Polar was shrewd, and for a moment, he worried that she might have seen through his act.

“Either you know more than you are telling us, or these criminal gangs you mentioned think you are enough of a threat to down a civilian ship over.”

“We need to get to the escape pods,” Boyd said, ignoring her comment.

“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 go EVA in his 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. A spacewalk would be pointless if they were already caught in the moon’s gravity, however. If there were no ships in range that could reach them in time, then his limited supply of oxygen wouldn’t last long enough for pickup either. 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,” she explained. “He managed to get our thrusters back online, but the engines have taken irreparable damage to their electronics. We are going down.”

“What’s the safest location on the ship?” Boyd demanded.

“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,” she scoffed. “Why does that matter?”

She was trying so hard to hide her fear, but her tail was betraying her, the fluffy appendage whipping back and forth restlessly. He should try to reassure her. She might not survive, but he owed her at least that much.

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

“Why does it sound like you’ve done this before?” she asked, her tone accusatory.

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

“Probably,” she replied with a shrug. “This ship is not exactly compliant with UN regulations...”

“Good, go find as many as you can. When we're about to hit the atmosphere, activate the suppressant. It will fill the room with expanding foam that might help dampen the impact.”

“How are you so calm about this?” Lorza exclaimed, perhaps a little louder than she might have intended. “We are about to crash – we could die, and you act like this is just routine!”

“There are procedures that we can follow to minimize the danger, at least marginally,” he explained. “Death is statistically likely but not certain. The density of the atmosphere and the gravity 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 significant 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 are no miner,” she grumbled, glaring down at him. “If you get me killed, I am going to haunt you, mudak.”

“My identity is the least of your worries right now.”

She covered her face with her furry hands and growled into them. It could have been an expression of frustration or maybe fear – it was hard to tell with these aliens. Being shot down was a distinct possibility for UNN personnel. Everyone from pilots to janitors went through drills and training that instructed them on what to do during a crisis, and more importantly, how to remain calm in high-stress situations. It didn't do to dwell on death too much. If you died, you died. There was no way around that. The majority of crash landings were not survivable, and it would be a painless death – the ship’s occupants vaporized during reentry or obliterated upon contact with the ground. Boyd welcomed pain, however. Pain meant life. Suffering was the exclusive domain of the living, and he would take it gladly over the final peace of oblivion.

“Just do as I say,” he insisted, Lorza peeking at him between her fingers. “It's your best chance to live through this.”

The Polar snarled in what might be disgust, then wheeled around, storming out of the room. The dramatic effect was somewhat lessened when she had to duck below the door frame, grumbling to herself as she squeezed through the narrow opening. Before long, he heard more rapid-fire conversation in Russian, the Polar likely explaining his plan to her crew.

She returned a short while later with handfuls of small, round canisters the size of softballs, tossing one to him. He plucked it out of the air, examining it. The device’s metallic casing was covered in warning markings that identified it as an old model of fire suppressant grenade. Shipboard fires posed a serious threat in the enclosed environment of a spaceship, where they would rapidly consume the limited supply of oxygen along with causing the usual damage through combustion. These grenades 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. If the foam was packed tightly enough, it would also absorb shocks and hold whatever was caught inside in place. It probably wasn’t enough to save their lives, but it was worth a shot.

“The captain says we will be entering the moon’s atmosphere in a few minutes,” Lorza announced. “Whatever you want to do, better do it soon. There is not much time.”

The pilot and the captain would need to stay on the bridge to maintain thruster control until impact, and they would almost certainly die as a result. Maybe the others could be saved, but that wasn't Boyd’s chief concern. The information that he carried was of the utmost importance.

He headed off into the bowels of the cramped ship, leaving Lorza behind, searching for a room that would suit his needs. His training didn’t allow him to think about the fates of the crew, or even his own mortality – only the mission mattered. One of the doors opened into someone’s private quarters, Boyd glancing around as he stepped inside. There were posters on the exposed bulkheads covered in Cyrillic text, pictures of someone’s relatives, a nudie calendar. The cramped cabin was in disarray now, all of the owner’s belongings strewn around the room thanks to the brief loss of gravity. He located the bed, then began to remove the mattress, hauling it off its metal frame and out into the corridor. Bringing it to an adjacent cabin that was in a similar state, he lay down on the bunk, pulling the mattress up on top of himself.

The beds were bolted to the deck, and they were equipped with a harness that would keep the occupant from floating away in zero-G or from thrashing around during the rigors of a superlight jump. It was usually secured around the chest, but after lengthening the straps, Boyd was able to get it around the mattress. Now securely sandwiched between the cushions, he took the fire suppressant grenade in his hand. The cabin was small enough that the device should be able to fill it with foam, helping to hold him in place so he wasn’t simply dashed against the walls.

It didn’t matter who saw his UNNI pressure suit now, Boyd securing the hood over his head, pulling back the tattered sleeve of his disguise so that he could access the touch panel on his forearm. He pressurized the suit, feeling it inflate around his body, circulating cool air. His readout showed that he had fifteen minutes of oxygen reserves, maybe a little more with his rebreather.

Those were all the precautions that he could take, given the circumstances.

The low rumbling that had been slowly building over the last few minutes grew louder, the ship’s old chassis creaking and groaning, the cup that was still sitting atop the nearby bedside table starting to dance across its surface. Boyd gritted his teeth as the ship's thrusters engaged in a futile effort to slow their descent, the G-forces crushing him against the bed frame, even through the mattress. They had hit the atmosphere, the turbulence making the vessel rock and shake around him, the sound of straining metal and wind tearing at the hull deafening him. To his credit, the pilot kept them level, still manning the helm despite the ground that was rushing up towards him. They plummeted towards the surface, the vessel drifting into a flat spin, Boyd feeling 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, then dropped it, hearing it clatter to the deck. It erupted into a spreading mass of off-white foam, quickly filling the cramped space, smothering everything. He felt the cold solution pour around him through his suit, crossing his arms over his chest as he braced for impact.

CHAPTER 3: BLOWBACK

Boyd awoke to freezing cold, taking in a sharp breath of frigid air that burned his lungs. His ears were ringing, and he couldn't remember where he was or what had happened. Did he have a concussion? He tried to sit up, but the pain was too great, and he quickly collapsed back into a bed of snow.

Snow?

As his vision cleared, he saw a dark sky overhead, tiny snowflakes catching the light as they drifted through the air. His breath was freezing into puffs of sparkling ice crystals through his rebreather, a little warning icon in the corner of his visor blinking to warn him that the oxygen reserves had been depleted. Something was wrong, however. With each breath that he took, a searing pain stabbed at his chest, like someone was twisting a knife in his lung. 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. The ship had landed on its belly and ruptured like a ripe fruit, digging a crater and vaporizing all of the snow around it to reveal the naked bedrock beneath. A plume of smoke rose high into the sky above it, the surrounding area lit by crackling flames, casting dancing shadows as they painted the snowdrifts in eerie hues of orange. There were pieces of wreckage everywhere he looked – huge chunks of hull and unidentifiable machinery strewn all around him. How had he survived the crash? Had he been thrown all the way over here?

He was covered in the sticky, fire retardant foam, clumps of it clinging to his clothes. The disguise that he had been wearing was charred and mostly burned away, but the suit beneath it seemed intact, still reading positive pressure. He could feel all of his limbs, he could move his fingers and toes – that was a good sign. He tasted blood on his tongue, but besides the undiagnosed chest pain, he seemed to be in one piece.

He tried to get up again, succeeding in rising to a sitting position, one hand clutching his ribs as he took in his surroundings. The wrecked ship was the only landmark that he could see. There was nothing around him but flat ice fields and snowdrifts extending all the way to the horizon. He remembered now – they had crashed on the moon of Hades. It must be an ice moon, then. The air seemed thin, but as long as his suit was functional, he should be alright. If the atmosphere here wasn’t breathable, he would never have woken up in the first place.

He stumbled to his feet, then dropped to a knee, catching himself just before he fell. Something was seriously wrong with him.

Despite the chilling cold, he reached down to unzip his suit, already beginning to shiver as he examined his exposed chest. A massive, ugly bruise extended across his ribcage on the left side, pocked with patches of red. His lightheadedness wasn’t just a result of the thin atmosphere – he must have taken a nasty hit to the torso during the crash, maybe enough to collapse a lung.

There was a first-aid kit in one of his pockets, and he fumbled for it, retrieving a little pouch about the size of a tablet computer. If he didn’t hurry, hypoxia would make him unable to tie his own shoelaces, let alone treat a traumatic injury in the field. He tore open the pouch, pulling out an emergency stint about the size and shape of a hockey puck. His suit had as much tech as the UNN’s research division could cram into it, including an advanced onboard medical diagnostic system that could diagnose injuries through sensors embedded in his suit, then suggest a treatment. There was an energy cost to everything that he did, however. It was the Achilles heel of the technology. If he made use of too many functions in too short a period of time, he would drain the power cells that ran down the suit’s spine, and that would eat into his life support. Until he came up with a game plan, he might need every minute of heating and oxygen filtering that he could get. He didn’t need the medical assistant for this – he had enough training to handle it on his own.

With a shaking hand – he wasn’t sure if it was nerves or the cold – he removed the protective cap on the underside of the little disk. A transparent, circular film sprang from it, forming an adhesive patch. He brought it to his chest, aiming for an appropriate gap between his ribs, wincing as he pressed the device firmly against his bruised skin. With the press of a button, he activated it, feeling it form an air-tight seal. Boyd stifled a cry of pain through gritted teeth as it extended a tiny needle, piercing his flesh, boring into his chest cavity. Around the edge of the little puck, a series of small hatches flipped open, revealing vents. The tiny needle was rendered rigid through the application of an electrical current, then became flexible once it had penetrated the chest cavity, diminishing the likelihood of it causing further damage. The vents would allow air to exit the chest, preventing the lungs inside from collapsing.

Boyd took a few burning breaths, the device showing a simple readout on its little LCD panel. Already, his thoughts were becoming sharper and more focused, the oxygen level in his blood returning to baseline. It was a stopgap measure – not something that would hold for long, but he had to keep moving. Standing still with his suit open like this, he’d probably succumb to hypothermia before his injury got the better of him. What he needed right now was shelter and to assess what supplies were available to him.

He zipped up his suit and pocketed his first-aid kit, stumbling in the direction of the wreckage. While there were pieces of the ship strewn all over the area, the main hull seemed to be mostly intact. If any equipment or supplies had survived the crash, that’s where they’d be.

Boyd trudged through the snow drifts, some of them deep enough to reach his knees, the heating elements in his suit barely keeping the cold at bay. He raised his left wrist, activating the flexible touch panel that was built into the sleeve, and it flickered to life. Not knowing how long he’d been out or how long the suit’s life support systems had been keeping him from dying of exposure, he checked his battery, seeing that its charge was dwindling. It was expending as little power as possible to keep his vitals in check, but he couldn’t dig through the wreckage with stiff fingers. With a few taps, he raised the suit’s temperature, the circuitry that ran throughout its lining overcharging to flood it with invigorating warmth.

The Zemchug’s warped hull loomed above him as he entered its shadow, wreathed in choking smoke, lit from beneath by the flames that still burned in its spilled innards. Its structural beams had been exposed in places, the outer hull sloughing off them like skin from a carcass, giving it an eerily skeletal appearance. Ignoring the stinging in his chest, he made his way deeper, ducking under dangling cables and broken pipes that were still spewing coolant onto the snow. It was dingy – hard to see more than a few feet in any direction, but he dared not expend the power to use his flashlight attachment.

He had not been very familiar with the layout of the vessel when it had been intact, and now that it was beached like a dead whale, 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 subjected to such massive and catastrophic forces. He found what he thought to be an equipment locker, its door ajar, this section of the wall raised 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.

Moving on, he tried to remember what the ship had looked like before the crash. The bridge would have been behind him – if it was still intact – and this was where the crew quarters and mess hall had been. Further ahead, he should find the shuttle bay and the cargo hold, which was likely where most of the useful supplies should be. That was, if they hadn’t been scattered across hundreds of kilometers like the contents of a giant pinata.

Lingering around the wreck for too long was a bad idea, as Syndicate ships would certainly beat any rescuers to the scene. There had to be outposts out here – maybe bases or drilling platforms. This moon would be perfect for ice mining, even moreso if there was a liquid ocean under all the snow. Water could be drunk, turned into oxygen for life support, and even hydrogen fuel for engines. He made his way carefully along the twisted corridor, feeling his way with each step, the metal groaning under his weight.

As he made his way towards what he thought was the shuttle bay, he heard a scratching noise. He ducked to retrieve his ceramic knife, spinning around to face the source of the sound, weapon at the ready. It was coming from a cabin door – now warped and jammed halfway open by the impact. Blobs of flame-retardant foam had seeped out through the gap, the hardened substance starting to crumble away as black claws dug their way through it. A furry arm emerged, its immaculate coat now matted with foam, stained red with splotches of blood. It was Lorza – Boyd holstering his blade. Once there was enough of an opening, she called out in Russian, then switched to English when there was no reply.

“Is someone out there?” she panted, her voice teetering on the edge of panic. “Please!”

For a moment, Boyd considered simply leaving her. She was a huge, clumsy creature who would surely slow him down, but something made him hesitate. He was by no means an honorable man – in fact, his profession often precluded honor. Still, she had taken a chance on him, and she had suffered for it. It was the least that he could do to help.

“Are you stuck?” he replied after a moment of hesitation. “You’re almost out – keep digging.”

There wasn’t much that he could do for her. She was too large and heavy for him to help pull her free, and she was far stronger than he was. She got herself most of the way out of the cabin, fragments of hardened foam scattering across the deck, but the door blocked her path. It was stuck fast, and she was too big to fit through the gap.

“You have to push it open,” Boyd advised.

Lorza loosed a grunt of effort, her frustration palpable, bracing her shoulder against the frame. She gave it a shove, then growled again, a second push making it creak. On the third attempt, it finally gave way, and she pushed through the last of the foam to fall to her knees in the corridor outside. One of her arms was hanging limp, the sleeve of her jumpsuit stained red beneath the elbow. She must have been injured during the crash. Besides that, she seemed none the worse for wear. Borealans were notoriously tough creatures. She rose to her feet unsteadily, leaning against the nearby bulkhead, blinking her blue eyes groggily.

“W-we are alive?” she stammered, almost as though she feared he might correct her. “Where are we?” “Looks like we both survived the crash, but the ship is totaled,” Boyd replied. She watched him in disbelief as he turned around, resuming his march to the cargo hold. “We need to secure what supplies we can, then get as far away from the wreck as possible before someone comes looking.”

“Wait, wait,” she muttered as she cradled her head in her good hand. The other was still hanging at her side, dangling unnaturally. “We should stay here, da? That is what they say you are supposed to do – stay put and wait for rescue.”

“The only people who are going to come looking for us have much less charitable intentions, believe me,” he replied. “Now, find a pack, and fill it with as much useful gear as you can carry. Rations, tools, whatever will keep us alive.”

“This is all your fault,” she snarled, flexing her claws as she shot 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.”

It wasn’t an idle threat coming from a Borealan. Boyd might be skilled at self-defense, but there wasn’t much that he could do against seven hundred pounds of pissed-off fat and muscle. It would be like trying to fight a grizzly bear.

“I would advise against that,” he said cautiously, keeping his tone level. “They won’t leave any witnesses alive. If we’re lucky, some of the bodies will be too damaged to identify, and they’ll assume that I was killed. I don’t think it’s likely that they’ll send out a team to look for us.”

She spat an insult in Russian that he didn’t understand, turning her attention to her broken arm.

Damn it. At least the pain is keeping me awake. It seems that your crazy plan worked after all,” she added, turning to glance at the foam-filled cabin. “We need to search the Zemchug for other survivors. I will not go anywhere until everyone is accounted for, dead or alive.”

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

“Keep your mouth shut!” she snarled. Her sharp teeth were bared, and her round ears had pressed flat against her head. “Find the bodies – there will be five of them. If you leave before we are done, I will tell whoever comes looking where you went. Try to kill me, I dare you. Even injured, you cannot fight a Polar.”

He raised his hands defensively and took a step back. She was right – he didn’t fancy his chances trying to take her down armed with only a tiny knife. Better to choose diplomacy over conflict in this instance. It would take the Syndicate a little time to locate their crash site and dispatch a ship, so he could humor her request. She might yet be an asset to him, assuming she didn’t die from her injuries. Borealans were prized as shock troopers for a reason.

They set off in different directions, poring through the wreckage for any signs of life. The cockpit had crumpled when they had hit the ground, the pilot and the captain now little more than 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. It was human – weak enough to be almost inaudible. It crossed his mind to simply ignore it. There was no way that they could treat any severe injuries with the resources they had at hand, and the Polar might slow them down trying to care for or carry what was now surely dead weight.

Lorza quickly appeared at the door, however. Her furry ears were swiveling erratically, honing in on the source of the sound. She had far better hearing than he did.

“Do you hear that?” she gasped. “Someone is alive! I think it's Alexei!”

She called his name, and they heard him reply, Lorza following the voice over to a nearby bulkhead. She tapped against the warped metal with her knuckles, but couldn't find any compartments or breaks, deducing that he must be on the other side. Boyd watched as she squeezed into one of the cabins, 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. Things weren’t looking good for Alexei – he was delirious, as limp as a ragdoll. Lorza dragged him into the corridor, then out into the snow, cradling his head in her giant hand as she lay him gently on the ground. She was clearly distressed, so Boyd kept his distance, surmising that she would likely hold him responsible for whatever happened to her crewmate.

She whispered to him in Russian, the man slowly coming to, reaching up to grip her sleeve with his fist. He was slipping in and out of consciousness, his behavior implying a severe concussion.

“He'll freeze,” she pleaded, turning to look back at Boyd with tears in her eyes. “He needs a respirator and some warm clothes.”

Boyd held his tongue. The man almost certainly had a skull fracture or a bleed on the brain, and the prognosis wasn’t good. There was little to be gained by wasting time and resources on a man who wouldn’t survive the next few hours, but he was eager to avoid conflict with Lorza, so he set off into the wreck to search for the requested items. He returned a few minutes later with an emergency respirator and a winter coat, handing them off to Lorza, who draped the garment over her friend. It was a futile gesture – Boyd’s suit was reading twenty below zero. She held the mask to his face, encouraging him to breathe, the simple emergency respirator doing its best to filter oxygen from the environment.

“You know the ship better than I do,” Boyd began. “Go find as much food as you can, and anything you think might be useful. Sleeping bags, clothes, weapons, tools, anything you can fit in a backpack. I’ll take care of Alexei – I’m trained in first aid.”

Lorza nodded as she rose to her feet, panicked but clearly relieved to have something to occupy herself with. She headed back into the wreck, leaving the injured geologist in Boyd’s care. He kneeled in the snow beside the man, lifting the coat to give him a quick once-over. His body was covered in abrasions and some rather deep flesh wounds, but there was nothing that looked immediately life-threatening. The head injury was the more pressing issue. There was a crust of dried blood on his scalp that had made its way down one side of his face, his eyes were unfocused, and he was peering around in a daze.

“Alexei, can you hear me?” Boyd asked. “Try to stay awake. Can you speak?”

He coughed through the respirator, unresponsive, looking past Boyd as though he couldn’t even see him. That wasn’t a good sign. Boyd had his first-aid kit on hand, but there was no way to judge the extent of the damage without a medical scanner, and he couldn’t exactly perform brain surgery in the snow. It might be kinder to give him a lethal dose of painkillers to ease him on his way, but Lorza would certainly object. An adrenaline shot might get the Russian back on his feet. He’d still be a dead man walking, but at least they could move away from the wreck, and that was Boyd’s chief concern right now.

Boyd fished the aid kit out of his pocket, opening the little case and retrieving the injector. It was a device about the size and shape of a screwdriver handle, and it had a small compartment where payloads in capsule form could be inserted. He searched the kit for one of the adrenaline capsules, then loaded it into the injector, extending the hypodermic needle. After opening the man’s overalls to expose his chest, Boyd slammed the needle directly into his heart, injecting the payload into his system. Alexei’s eyes suddenly widened, and he sat up straight, breathing hard through his respirator as Boyd stowed the injector back in its case.

Cyka blyat!” he exclaimed, his eyes darting about in alarm.

“Hey, try not to move around too much,” Boyd advised as he put a hand on the man’s chest in an attempt to ease him back down. “You have a head injury.”

Alexei peered back at him, confusion etched onto his face, and Boyd remembered that he didn’t speak English. The agent gestured to his head, then guided him back down into the snow, Alexei seeming to get the picture. He was shooting daggers at Boyd, likely starting to remember what had happened and placing the blame squarely on his shoulders. He perked up when he saw Lorza reappear, the Polar tossing a pair of loaded rucksacks into the snow beside them as she crouched down to talk to her crewmate.

“I gave him a shot of adrenaline,” Boyd explained as the pair exchanged words in Russian. “It should be enough to get him walking, but I have to warn you – his outlook isn’t good. I don’t have the tools or the skills necessary to treat a brain injury like this.”

“Will he die?” Lorza asked, her voice cracking.

“Likely, but if we can get clear of the wreck and find some shelter, I can make him more comfortable. Once we’re secure and we have time to stop and take a breather, I’ll see if there’s anything more I can do for him.”

Da, yes,” Lorza replied with a terse nod. “I have brought everything I could find that might be of use. Can we move him?”

“Don’t have much of a choice,” Boyd grumbled. “Can you help him along with your busted arm?”

“I will be fine, just carry one of the packs,” she replied as she began to help Alexei up.

Boyd lifted one of the rucksacks, finding that she had packed it a little heavy to be worn comfortably by a human, but that wasn’t their concern right now. The Polar gripped Alexei under one arm, the man leaning against her unsteadily as they began to walk.

“Where are we even going?” Lorza asked, glancing out at the empty horizon. “I see nothing but snow in all directions.”

“I don’t know yet,” Boyd admitted, reaching down to tap at his touch display. “My suit has GPS, but this moon might not have any satellites to connect to. Once we get clear of the wreckage, I’ll see if I can pick up a signal, but I wouldn’t bet on it. We might be stuck doing things the old-fashioned way.”

They marched a few hundred feet from the still smoldering wreck of the Zemchug, heading in the direction of the nearest snow drifts, the howling winds shaping them like sand dunes. Alexei was struggling to keep up, even with Lorza’s help, the Polar practically dragging him through the knee-deep powder. At this point, it was a race to see whether the bleed or the exposure would kill him first.

“Hold it,” Boyd warned, extending an arm to stop her. She followed his gaze to the ground, where there was a translucent patch of blue ice visible through the snow. They were standing on some kind of subsurface ocean or lake, not unlike those of Europa or Enceladus, though the ice sheet seemed meters thick instead of miles.

“Is it strong enough to walk on?” she asked warily. “For me, I mean.”

“It looks safe – just keep an ear open for cracks,” Boyd replied as he set off again with a more cautious gait.

“If we are on ice, why did the Zemchug not punch straight through?” Lorza wondered as she glanced back at the ship.

“We hit bedrock – I could see it under the melted snow,” Boyd explained. “If we had come down a few hundred meters in this direction, we’d be at the bottom of an alien ocean right now. Come on,” he added, waving her along. “We need to pick up the pace.”

***

They walked for a good half-hour before Alexei started to get worse, falling to his knees and muttering unintelligibly as Lorza tried to comfort him.

“For God’s sake!” Boyd snapped, his patience running low. “He’s on his way out, there’s probably more blood than brain fluid in his skull by now. Let me give him a fatal dose of morphine to send him off.”

Lorza looked up at Boyd with her feline teeth bared, her brow furrowed, and he felt a pang of primal fear.

“Fine, have it your way,” he shot back. “He’s just going to die slower. What’s he saying, anyway?”

“He is rambling,” she replied, supporting him with a hand on his back. “He says he is too cold, he wants to go home. Now, he talks of seeing colorful lights in the ice.”

“Just let me give him the coup de grace, Lorza,” Boyd sighed. “Can’t you see that he’s suffering?”

“Wait,” she mumbled, momentarily distracted. “I...I see them too.”

“The concussion has turned his brain to mush,” Boyd scoffed. “I know you didn’t hit your head that hard, or you wouldn’t be talking to me.”

“No,” she insisted, narrowing her eyes as she stared at the ice beneath her. “There is something below us...”

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

“What…is it?” Lorza asked, transfixed by the sight.

The colorful wheel accelerated towards them suddenly, rising up through the murky water like a torpedo, giving them barely enough time to throw themselves clear. The dark shape plowed through the ice sheet, a cracking sound like a calving iceberg shaking Boyd’s bones as it shattered the obstacle, sending heavy chunks the size of boulders cratering into the snow all around them. They were showered in a spray of frigid saltwater, the mass of glistening tentacles writhing in the snow like a ball of snakes.

Boyd lay half-buried in a drift, staring at the thing in disbelief as it seemed to take form, his eyes picking out the details. There was a spherical body at the center of its considerable mass, two dozen powerful appendages like thick, meaty cables flailing and whipping through the air as it struggled to find purchase. Its limbs were covered in pulsating, bioluminescent pustules that glowed with an eerily beautiful kaleidoscope of colors, each of them the size of his fist. Its oily skin was as black as pitch, almost seeming to absorb the light that touched it, only the glistening of what might be seawater or some kind of mucous letting him pick out any details. As the grotesque creature turned in his direction, Boyd realized that the thing had a face – a hundred tiny, black eyes clustered around a mouth. It opened the circular orifice, its dark flesh parting to reveal rings of serrated teeth, like a biological buzzsaw.

For the first time that he could remember, Boyd was frozen in fear, too terrified to move. The nightmare creature turned its attention to Alexei, who was closest to it, Boyd watching in silent horror as one of its muscular appendages shot out to wrap around the man’s leg like a lasso. It began to drag him towards its open maw, but Lorza dug her claws into his coat, straining against its primal strength. The geologist wailed in fear and confusion as it tore at his limb, and he began to slip out of her grasp. Lorza tried to grab him with her injured arm reflexively, hissing in pain. Her black claws tore through the coat’s insulated lining as the thing yanked its prey free, even the Polar powerless to stop it, dragging the flailing Russian through the snow. Boyd was on his feet and running by the time the man’s screams were silenced, Lorza’s voice ringing out in a wordless wail of anger and despair.

“Run!” Boyd commanded at the top of his voice. It seemed to jolt her out of her stupor, and he looked over his shoulder to see her rising to follow him, her wide paws far more suited to the snow than his boots.

Apparently not sated by its grisly meal, the thing gave chase, skittering across the ice like some kind of nightmarish octopus. Its gelatinous body undulated as it moved, its seething mass of tentacles pulling it along, throwing up clouds of white powder. It had no bones, no support, like something dredged up from the depths of the ocean. The monster was unwieldy on the surface, and they quickly outpaced it, the thing coming to a wobbling halt as it abandoned the short-lived pursuit. Boyd slowed to a jog, turning to watch as it slithered back to the hole in the ice, hooking the jagged edge with its tentacles before pulling itself back into the black water with a splash.

Lorza came to a stop beside him, breathing hard, clutching at her broken arm. She let out a string of Russian curse words, peering back at the hole with a horrified expression. Even Boyd was disturbed, his heart racing, adrenaline pumping through his veins. That thing had eaten Alexei like a damned ration bar, and even the massive Polar had been powerless to stop it. Boyd hadn’t felt so much as a twinge of fear when he had been captured by the Syndicate – not even when he had been preparing for the crash – but no training could have steeled him for this.

“Nothing we can do for Alexei now,” he panted. “Keep moving! It might surface again!” “What was that thing!?” Lorza exclaimed, her eyes wide with panic. She was starting to hyperventilate, perhaps going into shock. “It just...it ate Alexei! I had him, he was in my hands. I tried to...I could not even-”

Boyd reached up and gave her a nudge, snapping her back to the present, those wild eyes turning on him.

“We need to move,” he insisted. “Focus, Lorza!”

She swallowed the lump in her throat, then nodded, following behind him as he made his way off into the snow.

***

They marched for hours, spurred on by their fear, the idea of the creature creeping along under the ice as it tracked them lingering in their minds. Eventually, they reached deeper snow that obscured the ice sheet beneath their feet, and there was some illusion of safety.

Now was as good a time as any to stop and catch their breath. Boyd had to take inventory of what they had recovered from the wreck, then figure out where they were and where they were ultimately going. He raised a fist in a gesture for Lorza to stop, the Polar seeming relieved as she sat down heavily, still nursing her broken arm. They had barely spoken during their trek, but Boyd had nothing to say to her that might lessen the shock and loss. Alexei had been the last remnant of her former life aboard the Zemchug, and he was gone now – literally torn from her hands.

“We have two priorities right now,” Boyd began, shrugging off his heavy pack. “We need to figure out what direction we’re going in and what supplies we have on hand. I’m going to see if I can get any kind of signal,” he added, bringing up the flexible touch panel on his forearm. “I need you to empty these bags and make a list of what food and tools we have available. Water won’t be a problem – we’re surrounded by snow – but we’re going to need to ration our food. There’s no telling how long we’ll be stuck out here...”

“What makes you think it matters where we go?” Lorza scoffed, shooting him a surly glance as she sat on a snow drift. “Look around you,” she added, spreading her arms in exasperation. “There is nothing here but ice and snow! We have been walking for hours, and we have seen no signs of civilization.”

“This moon is rich in natural resources,” Boyd replied tersely. “It has an oxygen atmosphere, ice, and a subsurface ocean full of liquid water. That means life support, potable water, hydrogen fuel. There will be ice mining outposts here, oxygen harvesters, cracking facilities – I’m sure of it. It would be insane to have an inhabited planet in spitting distance and not take advantage of the resources here.”

“And, you think these outposts will have ways off the moon?” the Polar asked.

“Certainly,” he said, turning his attention back to his display. “They’d need transportation, supplies – nobody could live here long-term. We haven’t seen so much as a goddamned weed so far. I just need to find a GPS signal from a satellite, or pick up some kind of radio transmission, and figure out where we are in relation to it. They have to be communicating somehow – no way a bunch of pump jockeys are using tightbeam.”

He tapped at his touch panel and was relieved to see that their hike had recharged a little of his battery capacity. The suit had photovoltaic cells built into its lining, albeit rather limited ones, but it could also convert the kinetic energy of his movements into electricity. Praying that he could get some kind of signal, he set a scan going across all frequencies. Even if he connected to a satellite or a transmitter that would allow him to transmit data, he still couldn’t call for help. They would all be owned by the corp or compromised by the Syndicate, and it would only bring his enemies down on his head. His situation hadn’t changed in that regard. All he needed was some coordinates – maybe he could pull a map if he was lucky – something to tell him which direction to walk in.

There! A signal! It was a fraction of a bar, just a few kilobytes per second, but it was enough. Apparently, there was at least one corp satellite in range, likely acting as a relay for whatever facilities they were operating on the moon. Breaking its civilian-grade encryption was trivial with his UNNI-issue software, and he waited for a few excruciating minutes as his system pulled whatever data it could grab, hoping that he could assemble something usable from the fragments 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 uncharted. What he had were the coordinates of the nearest fuel refinery, as he had predicted, and a clear direction that they needed to travel to reach it. He tried to calibrate his compass, quickly realizing that the moon had no magnetic poles to speak of. Frustrated, he considered for a few moments, then glanced up at the sky to see a rust-colored ball floating above the horizon. Almost all moons were tidally locked to their parent, and if that was true for this one, then Hades should remain in a fixed position in the sky. As long as he kept the planet to his left, he would be heading in the right direction – due West. Fortunately, the Zemchug had approached the moon from the direction of Hades. If they had ended up on its proverbial dark side, they would be drifting with a dead drive, as his contact would have said.

Pleased with himself, he turned around to see if Lorza had made any progress with her task. She had emptied the bags onto the snow and was sorting what she had recovered into piles.

“How’s it coming?” he asked, walking over to get a closer look. “What do we have?”

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

“What!?” Boyd exclaimed, his sudden outburst making her ears flatten against her head protectively. “Are you stupid? Why the hell did you bring toothpaste and zip ties instead of more food? Didn’t you grab any tools – any weapons?”

“I grabbed whatever I could find,” she protested, pouting at him. “You did not give me much time to search, and thanks to you, half of the ship was burned to ash or crushed like a soda can. I was lucky to find even this!”

“You didn’t get me a sleeping bag?” Boyd asked, the roll of padded fabric already alluring to him.

“This one is mine,” she replied, snatching it up and holding it against her chest as though he might steal it from under her pink nose. “I brought it from Siberia. Besides,” she added, looking him up and down with an expression of disdain on her furry face. “You do not seem to be having any trouble keeping warm, mister miner.”

Boyd massaged his temples through his hood, trying to keep his cool as he exhaled a sigh through gritted teeth. 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.

“Okay, whatever,” he grumbled. “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?” Lorza asked, starting to return her haul to the bags.

“About four hundred miles.”

“Four hundred!?” she exclaimed, pausing with an MRE in her hand to shoot him a disbelieving look.

“We can make it,” Boyd insisted. “Fifty or sixty miles a day is doable in this terrain. Besides, you look like you could use the exercise,” he muttered with a nod to her considerable bulk.

She scowled at him, her brow furrowing like an angry lion.

“That's not the point,” she replied with a low growl. “There are only six MREs here,” she added, waving the little package at him. “We don't have enough supplies to make it that far!”

“It will be plenty if we ration them,” Boyd continued. “If we keep up the pace, we can cover that distance in a little over a week. Those MREs are about three thousand calories apiece, right? If each of us eats half of that per day, we should be fine. We’d lose a little weight, but we’re not going to starve to death, not even close.”

“Are you seeing this, human?” Lorza demanded as she gestured to her girthy figure with a clawed hand. “If you had not noticed, I am a Polar. I need five times that number of calories. What we have here is barely enough to last me two days!”

“By the look of you, you have enough fat reserves to last you a month,” he muttered as he looked her up and down. He could see the paunch of her belly through her suit, the considerable weight of her bust straining against the fabric of her coveralls. They must be using some industrial-grade zippers to keep the thing from popping open and spilling its generous contents all over the place.

“We are supposed to look like this!” she snapped, crossing her arms in a way that made them sink into her bosom like quicksand. “Our blubber insulates our bodies from the cold. It is the reason I have no need of a fancy suit.”

“If you say so,” Boyd continued, making no effort to mask his sarcasm. “Now, finish packing up that junk. We need to get going. The sooner we arrive at the refinery, the sooner we can get out of this fucking tundra – and each other’s hair.”

“Finally some good news,” she grumbled, loading the last of their supplies into one of the packs. She tossed it towards Boyd a little too hard, knocking him off his feet as he tried to catch it, sending him toppling into the snow. Lorza found the situation a lot more amusing than he did, chuckling to herself as he struggled free and began to brush off his suit. “Come on, Jones,” she said with as much disdain as she could muster. “Time to get moving.”

CHAPTER 4: SAFEHOUSE

Hades was always stationary in the sky, acting as their guide, but the same could not be said of the sun. The system’s star was starting to drop below the horizon as the moon progressed through its orbit, and the temperature along with it. It had been cold enough in direct sunlight, but Boyd’s suit was showing that it was dropping a couple of degrees every hour. Worse – without the sun to supplement the supply of kinetic energy that was keeping his batteries charged, his photovoltaic cells were dead weight. His battery was gradually starting to drain, the heating elements in his suit’s lining ramping up to counteract the plummeting temperature, expending energy faster than he could replenish it. He was in serious trouble, but he wasn’t about to tell Lorza that.

Paradoxically, the Polar seemed to be doing better than he was. She was evolved for conditions like these – her layer of seal-like blubber and her thick coat of fur trapping enough heat that she could tolerate this freezing cold without so much as a jacket. While her weight made her look out of shape, she was proving surprisingly athletic. Perhaps it was the muscle that was required to haul all of that weight around or her larger lung capacity. While Boyd had to struggle through the deep snow, her wide paws spread her mass across its surface, almost like a camel walking on sand.

“We need to make camp for the night,” he said, making his way up the slope of another drift. “Find some shelter – get a few hours of sleep. We won’t make it far if we exhaust ourselves.” “It feels as though it is getting colder,” Lorza replied, the chill wind whipping at her hair. “We should find a cave or build a shelter from snow. We need to trap as much of our body heat as we can.”

“What, like an igloo?” Boyd asked.

“I do not know this word, igloo, but an ice cave would suffice. Judging by the terrain, there should be ice caves here – either meltwater cutting through glaciers or wind carving hollows in the snow.”

“How the hell do you know that?” he scoffed, turning to look back at her.

She gave him a sideways glance as she scaled the slope beside him, far more agile in the snow than he was, despite their difference in weight.

“I am a cartographer, remember?” she replied as she came to a stop beside him. She certainly wasn’t doing it out of kindness, but her bulk acted as a windbreak, giving him a few moments of reprieve from the frigid gale. “It is my job to know these things. I am also a Polar, and my people learn survival skills at a young age. They are passed down from generation to generation, enabling us to be self-sufficient when the need arises. We can all hunt, build shelters, and whatever else we need to survive the tundra. On our homeworld, not knowing how to fish on an ice flow or how to find shelter in a cave could be a death sentence.”

“You can tell me your life story once we find somewhere to hole up,” Boyd grumbled, impatience giving his tone a little more bite than he might have intended. At this point, every second they wasted brought him another step closer to running out of battery power and dying of exposure. “Let’s split up and search the area. Don’t wander outside of shouting distance, you hear?”

“Better than you do,” she sneered, heading off into the snow. He had offended her, but Boyd had no interest in learning about the finer points of Polar culture, nor did he feel any desire to know her any better than he already did. They were allies of circumstance, and once they were out of this predicament, he’d have no further use for her.

They searched for a little while before Lorza finally found a cave. As relieved as he was to have a place to take shelter, the Polar’s smirk almost made him want to brave the cold. Calling it a cave might have been overly generous. It was little more than a narrow hole in the snow that had exposed a tunnel of blue ice, extending down into the gloom. Boyd made his way closer, but Lorza hesitated, sizing up the opening.

“It is small,” she complained. “I am not sure I can fit.”

“Well, make an effort,” he replied as he peered into the tunnel’s mouth. The way that the light bounced off its icy walls almost made it look like they were glowing. “I’m a little wary of native animals after...y’know...so let’s exercise some caution. Last thing I want to do is disturb some kind of hibernating space bear or something.”

Boyd turned sideways, slipping into the narrow gap, more of a crack in the ice than a hole. His boots began to slide on the icy slope, and he reached out to grab the walls in a futile attempt to slow himself, picking up speed. Images of cold, dark water flashed before his mind’s eye, but he quickly emerged into a comparatively spacious chamber. He activated the flashlight that was built into his suit’s wrist, sweeping it around the dome, the beam making the walls of jagged ice glitter. It was a shallow cave with no branching tunnels – only one way in and out.

“It’s safe!” he yelled, his voice echoing back up the passage. “You can come down!”

Boyd waited a few moments, then heard something akin to scrabbling claws, turning the beam of his flashlight back towards the opening. Lorza had plugged the crack with her bulk like a cork in a wine bottle, blotting out the light from outside, her black talons raking against the ice as she struggled to free herself.

“Maybe a little rationing is going to do you good,” he chuckled, watching her brace her hands against the edges of the gap as she tried to push herself the rest of the way through. She snarled in response, but she was stuck fast and couldn’t do anything about his taunting. It looked like the width of her hips was what had landed her in trouble – they were wider than his shoulders – her chest swinging within the confines of her coveralls as she wriggled. It was like watching someone try to force a marshmallow through a coin slot.

Lorza growled with the effort as she gave one last heave, finally freeing herself, the waning sunlight spilling in behind her as she slid down the short slope on her face. Boyd couldn’t stifle his laughter as she rose to her feet, crouching a little under the seven-foot ceiling, brushing some of the white powder off her clothes. His chuckling was cut short as she shook herself like a wet dog, dislodging the ice and snow from her fur, spraying him with slush in the process. Now, it was her turn to laugh as he wiped his visor with the back of his glove, plucking a white hair from the half-melted slurry.

“Could you not have done that outside?” he grumbled.

She ignored his comment as she walked past him, planting a furry hand on his mask to push him out of her way, dropping her heavy backpack on the floor. She knelt to fish inside it as Boyd silently fumed, withdrawing a massive roll of black fabric, finding a relatively level area of the floor where she could lay it out. The sleeping bag was large enough that it spanned almost the entire length of their little cave, and wide enough to accommodate her, lined with soft padding that looked like it would provide a great deal of insulation. Boyd was immediately jealous – she hadn’t even tried to find him a sleeping bag in the wreck, so he’d be spending the night on the ice. Lorza slipped inside the bag and quickly zipped herself up, turning away from him to face the wall.

Boyd lay down on the hard, freezing floor, rolling around as he attempted to find a comfortable position. He tried using his backpack as a pillow, but it was lumpy and inconvenient, so he settled on sitting upright with his back against one of the walls. After making sure that Lorza wasn’t watching him, he turned on his display, his heart skipping a beat when he saw how little battery he had left. Against his every instinct, he turned the heating element down just enough to keep himself above the brink of hypothermia, immediately starting to shiver. He wrapped his arms around himself in a bid to ward off the cold, but it was a futile gesture.

His bruised chest still throbbed, and the sting of his emergency stint was ever-present. It wasn’t intended to last a week, only a few hours at most, just enough time to keep him alive until he could get to a surgeon who could repair the damage. His breathing was still regular, so it seemed to be doing its job, but it was a ticking time bomb along with his dwindling battery. As hungry as he was, his exhaustion was a more pressing concern, and he allowed it to carry him off into a troubled sleep.

***

Boyd was roused by the sound of an alarm beeping in his ears. He opened his eyes groggily, glancing down at the display on his wrist, an orange warning symbol lighting up the icy walls as it blinked at him aggressively. It was the low battery warning – his suit was nearly out of juice. The cold was already creeping in, making his limbs so stiff that he could barely move, and he started to shiver violently. There was no choice but to shut off the heating element. It was drawing too much power, and who knew how long he’d last without the rebreather? The suit provided next to no insulation without it, and the sub-zero temperatures quickly began to sap away his warmth, stabbing at him like a thousand tiny knives. If he didn’t find a source of heat quickly, he’d go into hypothermia, and there was only one option that he could think of.

He crawled across the frigid cave floor, each movement like trying to drag himself through molasses, his extremities so cold now that he could barely feel them. Once he had reached the sleeping bag, he woke up Lorza with a nudge, the Polar rolling over to look at him as she grumbled to herself.

“L-Lorza,” he began, his teeth chattering as he spoke. “I need your sleeping bag. My suit ran out of power – I’m freezing.” As much as he loathed to ask her for help, he wouldn’t survive the night without it. “Come on, you’re furry – let me have the bag!”

Only now did he notice that she, too, was shivering. Even within her padded cocoon, and with all that fat and fur, she was faring little better than he was. Her blue eyes were open, reflecting the light from his display – she was wide awake.

“You cannot have it,” she replied, wrapping the sleeping bag more tightly around herself. “It is too cold, even for me.”

“I won’t last the night!” Boyd snarled, reaching towards the ceramic blade that was concealed in his boot. “Get out of that bag before I-”

Before he could even finish his threat, one of her massive, furry hands shot out from within the confines of the insulated fabric. Her powerful fingers closed around his forearm, her grip like iron, Boyd trying to pull away reflexively. Even without the cold sapping his strength, he wouldn’t have been able to break loose.

“We will not survive on our own,” she said, those icy eyes locking onto his. “Our only chance to see the sunrise is to combine our body heat.”

“I am not getting in that fucking sleeping bag with you, you...overgrown housecat!” Boyd exclaimed, trying to yank his arm back as she began to drag him closer. It was futile – she was too strong – the Polar zipping open the bag with her other hand like a beast opening its maw to swallow him whole. “Let me go, you fat fuck!”

Lorza ignored him, wrapping a hand around his rebreather to muffle his protests, manhandling him into the sleeping bag. Boyd wasn’t used to being overpowered like this – made helpless – his fury and indignation counting for nothing as he was buried in the plush material. The Polar placed him upside-down relative to her, grabbing his ankles in a single fist to stop him from kicking her in the face.

“Stop struggling, mudak,” she snarled. “Unless you would prefer to freeze to death, this is the only option!”

As little as he wanted to admit it, she was right. The warm confines of the sleeping bag were already starting to calm his shivering, the heat that her massive body put out radiating through him, the numbness in his fingers and toes receding. In this position, his face was pressing against her thighs, her cushiony flesh spilling around his head through her coveralls.

“Keep trying to kick me, and I shall crush your skull like a melon,” she growled. That got his attention, and he slowed his struggling, finally giving in. There was an odd scent seeping in through his rebreather with each breath – a distinctly non-human odor, partially masked by soaps and perfumes. It might not have been entirely unpleasant had he not been in such a foul mood.

“You smell terrible,” he grumbled, his voice muffled by her enormous thighs. “When was the last time you took a bath?”

“Consider that my nose is many times more sensitive than yours,” she replied. “We have both been trekking through the snow all day, and you hardly smell like you just stepped out of a banya yourself. Now, keep quiet and go to sleep.”

“Yeah, being unconscious is probably the best option for me right now,” he complained. She pressed her thighs a little more tightly around his head, Boyd stiffening as he felt steely muscle rise up from beneath the thick layer of blubber. She was probably just teasing him, but he wasn’t about to test her resolve. Besides, her plan was working. For the first time since he had woken up on this accursed moon, he felt that the cold was being driven away, rather than being kept temporarily at bay. Lorza was like a giant space heater, and when combined with his own body heat, the sleeping bag was actually reaching a comfortable temperature. “You can turn upright if you promise to behave,” the Polar said. This close together, he could feel her powerful voice resonating in his very bones. He felt her release his ankles, so he began to shift around inside the sleeping bag, turning right-side up. While it was spacious by human standards, there wasn’t a lot of room to spare while sharing it with Lorza, the two jerking away from one another reflexively as his struggling caused him to make unwanted contact. He accidentally elbowed her in the stomach, feeling it sink a good three or four inches into her paunch, her protruding bust knocking against his head as he surfaced. The pair grumbled as they shifted their weight around, but it was impossible to stay separated – there just wasn’t room. Begrudgingly, Boyd settled in, trying to ignore the tufts of white fur that were spilling out of her collar to brush against his mask.

Her chest was unavoidable if he wanted to get his head above the fabric, and he found his eyes level with her throat, the considerable weight of her bust spilling over and around his upper torso like it was making a deliberate attempt to consume him. Every subtle movement set her flesh wobbling like a plate of jello – he could feel them rise and fall gently with each breath that she took. Her breasts looked large enough on her massive frame, but from a human perspective, they were big enough to fill the seat of an average car.

“Will you make some goddamned room,” he grumbled, attempting to push her away. His hand merely sank deep into the cushiony fat, her soft blubber engulfing it up to the wrist. He quickly drew away in embarrassment, rolling over to put his back to her, glad that his rebreather was concealing his reddening cheeks. He felt a wave of relief as she rolled over as well, turning to face away from him, the more intimate areas of her anatomy finally out of his reach.

“Stop wriggling like a fussy kitten,” she complained, breaking a silence that was quickly becoming uncomfortable. “You are keeping me awake.”

“It’s not my fault that you’re fat enough to fill this thing like a sausage casing,” he muttered in reply. “It looked large enough for ten people before you squeezed into it.”

“It is my sleeping bag,” she replied, Boyd kicking away her fuzzy tail with his boot as it brushed against him. “Once again, I suffer for my hospitality.”

Her comment stung, but as much as he wanted to make an equally cutting remark, she might actually put him out in the cold if he pressed the issue any further. After a few minutes, her breathing became deep and regular, letting him know that she had fallen asleep. It had been a good call. Between the two of them, the sleeping bag was almost cozy, and he was no longer in danger of imminent death. He could still feel Lorza’s ass resting against the backs of his legs, like he was sitting atop a beanbag made of fat, but he ignored the distraction and tried to get some rest. Her tail would flick back and forth occasionally, like a dog that was having a dream, but he was too tired to pay it much mind.

***

Boyd was awoken by movement, Lorza jostling him as she struggled her way out of the sleeping bag. He felt a flood of frigid air as she opened the zipper, and when he turned to complain, all he got was a faceful of her fluffy tail. He hastily reactivated the heating element in his suit, confident that his remaining battery charge would last until they got up and moving again. A little sunlight and some walking would have his power reserves back at a more stable level, but whether he could charge up enough to last a night without sharing a bed with Lorza again was another question.

Before he could climb out, the Polar lifted the sleeping bag effortlessly with him still inside it, shaking it to dislodge him. He landed on the cold, hard floor, cursing as she began to roll up the bedding.

“God damn it,” he snapped, climbing to his feet. “How about a fucking wake-up call next time, you animal?”

“As I said – my sleeping bag,” she replied as she returned it to her pack. “You should be thanking me for saving your life again.”

“Starting to wish you’d left me at the spaceport,” he muttered, rubbing his bruised elbow through his suit. She could damage his stint throwing him around like that, but he kept his secret all the same.

“We need to eat before we set off again,” she continued, ignoring his comment as she opened one of the pouches on her pack. “We must keep up our strength.”

“Hold on,” Boyd warned, gesturing for her to put down the MRE that she was preparing to open. “Remember what we talked about back at the crash site? We have six MREs – that’s half of one each per day until we reach the refinery. Fifteen hundred k-cal. Half of that is mine, so gimme my share before you start pigging out.”

“Let me explain something to you, since you ignored me last time,” she said as she waved the plastic packet at him. “You are a human, I am a Polar. Follow me so far?”

“Get to the point,” he sighed, crossing his arms. “Every second you waste complaining is a second of battery life I don’t have.”

“Humans need two thousand calories per day, but Polars need ten thousand,” she continued. “Fifteen hundred is easy for you, but half of this MRE is only a sixth of the food I would need to maintain my weight.”

“You act like that’s a bad thing,” he muttered.

“I am supposed to look like this!” she snarled. “I want a larger share. I did the math last night. If I eat twenty-five hundred calories per day, and you eat five hundred, we are both eating one-quarter of our daily requirement. It is fairer than a fifty-fifty split and suits our different needs better.”

“Oh, I see how it is,” Boyd chuckled as he began to pace back and forth across the cave floor. “So you get to eat seventy-five percent of the food, and I get the leftovers? Fuck you, that’s what I think. In what universe is fifty-fifty not fair?”

“Jones, or whatever your real name is,” she began with a more dour tone. “I will begin shedding weight, and when that happens, I will become colder and weaker by the day. I have no fancy suit,” she added with a gesture of her clawed hand. “If you starve me in this way, I may never make it to the refinery.”

“In case you missed my subtle remarks up to this point, you are fat,” Boyd replied. “Are you seriously telling me you’ll die after a week of eating fifteen k-cal a day?”

“In these conditions? Maybe,” she replied solemnly.

“We already agreed on fifty-fifty,” Boyd protested.

You agreed. You ignored me when I tried to argue!”

Balling his fists, Boyd marched over to his pack, fishing out the MREs that Lorza had stowed in it. He did the same with her pack, then laid out the six rations on the icy floor. He split them down the middle, sliding three of them over to her, and moving the other three over to his side of the cave.

“There,” he declared, pointing to each pile in turn. “Three for me, three for you. Do whatever the hell you want with your share – eat them all in one sitting if you want to, I don’t fucking care.”

“You hear my words, but you do not listen,” she growled. “Perhaps I will make a meal of you when I run out of food instead.”

“We have enough problems to deal with right now without threatening to murder each other over scraps of food,” Boyd shot back. Lorza held her tongue, collecting up her share of the rations and stowing them in her bag, save for one MRE that she began to open with her claw. He could tell that this wasn’t the end of the discussion, but neither one of them had slept especially well or eaten for more than a day, and they very literally lacked the energy for prolonged arguments.

Boyd squirreled his MREs away, then began to open one too, tearing into the plastic wrapper. These weren’t the UNN rations that he was used to – they were some kind of civilian variant with Russian markings, which raised some questions about their quality. It would be a bad idea to try to reseal anything that he opened, but in this environment, the leftovers would practically be refrigerated anyway. He pulled his hood back for the first time in over a day and felt the cold air sting his cheeks, his skin already starting to flush red in response. Better not take too long – he was in as much danger of losing his nose to frostbite as he was running out of oxygen.

Inside were several smaller nondescript packets and cans, likely separated into courses and snacks. His first instinct was to ask Lorza what was written on their labels, but after the interaction they’d just had, he didn’t want to admit that he needed her help. She watched him, pausing what she was doing, her furry ears turning in his direction as he chose one of the cans at random. He picked up a fiddly can opener that was included in the ration pack, starting to cut into the circular container. After popping it open, he was met with some kind of off-white substance that gave off a milky smell when he gave it a sniff. Using a plastic spoon, he stirred it experimentally, his brow furrowing.

“You realize that is condensed milk?” Lorza asked skeptically.

“I know that,” he replied, hesitating as he brought the spoon to his mouth.

“You are just going to eat that out of the can?”

“Yes!” he snapped, swallowing the substance pointedly. It was sickly sweet, and he failed to suppress a grimace, the Polar giving him a knowing smirk. Another spoonful of the syrupy substance was the last thing he wanted, but he’d already opened it, and he wasn’t about to waste the precious calories.

Lorza seemed very amused by his plight, chuckling to herself as she unfolded a portable stove that had been collapsed into a flat sheet of metal. She broke what looked like a hexamine tablet from its blister, then set it beneath the little stove, lighting it with one of the stormproof matches that were included in the kit. Even sitting on the ice, it ignited into a flickering flame, its light dancing off the cave walls. She selected a long, flat can next, and pulled open the tab with a hooked claw to reveal some kind of processed meat. Everything was miniature to her, and he marveled at the care she took to manipulate the tools with her giant fingers, like she was playing with toys intended for children. A scent akin to cooking pork soon began to waft over to him, Boyd’s stomach growling as he struggled to keep down his cloyingly sweet snack. He just kept telling himself that it represented sugar, fats, and carbohydrates.

One thing that he could read on the can was that it represented about ninety calories, so following Lorza’s example, he set up his own stove and began to cook one of the meat dishes. Mouth watering, he dug into the block of meat and vegetables with his spoon, the freezing environment causing wisps of steam to rise from its warm surface. It was bad – tasted like dog food – but in that moment, it might as well have been the best meal he had ever eaten. He could practically feel his lethargy leaving him with each bite.

Stopping just short of licking the empty can, he tossed it aside, then stowed what remained of the MRE back in his pack with the rest. As much as he wanted to sit there and eat the entire thing, he had to be conservative if his share was going to last. Fifteen hundred calories a day, separated into two meals – that was all he could afford.

Unbeknownst to Lorza, he had another trick up his sleeve, however. His first aid kit contained a supply of nutrient pills – dietary supplements that would help keep an agent active and alert in scenarios where they had no access to food. They were only intended to be used in emergencies, and they had a tendency to destroy one’s liver if taken too frequently or for too long, but they would help keep him moving. He had no idea if the Polar could even process them, or if a supplement designed for humans would be of any use to her at all, but he wasn’t about to give up what might be his last lifeline in a crisis. The mission above all.

When they were done with their breakfast – insubstantial though it was – they packed up their gear and prepared to set off. Boyd pulled his hood back down over his face and positioned the rebreather over his mouth, a breath of warm, oxygenated air filling his lungs. It had only been off for maybe half an hour, and he was already starting to feel a little lightheaded.

“Is your fancy suit working again?” Lorza asked, adjusting the straps of her heavy pack. “You do not need me to hold you in my big strong arms and keep you warm again as I did last night?” “I remember you forcing me to join you against my will,” Boyd muttered, checking his display. “But, yes, it’s working. After a little sunshine and exercise, I should be back up to a respectable battery level.”

“Those things cannot be cheap,” she mused, her eyes following the outline of one of the trailing cables that ran down his torso. “I am surprised that you were able to afford something like that on a miner’s salary, mister Jones.”

“Let’s just go,” he sighed, gesturing to the cave entrance. Light from the rising sun was spilling through the narrow gap now, making the slope of ice that led up to it shine like a mirror.

Lorza took the lead, using her sharp claws for purchase on the slippery surface, Boyd’s boots sliding as he made his way up behind her. He suddenly felt her fuzzy tail bat him in the face, and he brushed it away, glancing up at her angrily to see her sizing up the narrow gap in the ice.

“Oh, this should be good,” he chuckled.

Lorza gave him a sour look over her shoulder, then hooked her clawed fingers around the edges of the crack, preparing to pull herself through. The cave was plunged into darkness as she plugged the gap with her bulk, Boyd flicking on his flashlight to watch her struggle, laughing at her plight. Just like the day before, she was stuck fast, her hips too wide to make it through.

“Come on, you can do it!” he shouted as her claws scrabbled against the ice. “You somehow managed to get that ass in here, so you can get it back out!”

She struggled for a couple more minutes, Boyd’s laughter faltering as he realized that she really was stuck – and so was he. If she was blocking the cave entrance, he had no way to get out. He might even run out of air for his mask to filter in the enclosed space. Lorza stopped her wriggling to catch her breath, and after a moment, he heard a muffled voice from the other side of the entrance.

“I am stuck!” she panted. “You will have to push me!”

Boyd took a step back to appraise the obstacle, shining the beam of his flashlight across her rear. Her butt was wide enough to completely clog a hole that he had simply walked through with a few inches of clearance between his shoulders and the ice, and it was probably about as heavy as he was, the outlines of her round cheeks clearly visible as they strained against the blue coveralls. Each time she kicked or wriggled, a ripple spread through her fat like a wave, making him wonder how they maintained such a distinct shape. He remembered having her thighs around his head the night before, and feeling muscle like coils of steel cable rising up from beneath the soft layer of flesh and fur. Maybe there was more brawn packed into those cheeks than it might appear. He was amused to see the little hole that had been cut into her coveralls at the base of the spine, letting her long, fuzzy tail poke through.

He wouldn’t be able to push her on this slippery ice, but he might be able to give her a good shove. Boyd took a few steps back – he would have rolled up his sleeves if he’d still been wearing his disguise – then began to run up the incline. He slammed his shoulder into one of her cheeks like he was breaching a door, sinking deep into her fat, the impact making her butt wobble. It was springier than he had been anticipating, sending him rocking back like he had just tried to tackle an exercise ball, and he reached for a handhold to save from falling down the slope. The only one in range was Lorza’s tail, his fist closing around the fluffy appendage. It felt like a garden hose made of bone and muscle, far thinner than her explosion of fur made it look.

The Polar yowled like an angry cat, yanking her tail out of his grasp, Boyd backing up warily for fear that she might kick him like a horse.

“Stop pulling my tail, mudak!” she snapped.

“Just stay put,” he replied as he geared up for a second attempt. “I think it’s working.”

“Oh, very funny,” he heard her reply. “Why are you such a- ouch!”

Boyd slammed his shoulder into her butt again, better prepared this time, sinking into it like he was pushing into a wall of fresh dough. He shoved as hard as he could, bracing a hand against the tough fabric of her coveralls, feeling her flesh swallow it up to the wrist. 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 heard a cracking sound – the ice that had caught around her waist was starting to give. With one last heave, the ice shattered, sending the Polar falling into the snow just outside the cave. His momentum carried him after her, Lorza’s rear breaking his fall like a waterbed, Boyd feeling it wobble beneath him as her feather duster-like tail batted his face.

“Off, off!” she snapped as the appendage coiled around his waist like a fat anaconda. She lifted him – her tail extraordinary strong – and tossed him into a nearby drift. He struggled out of the freezing powder, the snow starting to melt as the circuits in his suit’s lining warmed it.

“How about thank you for helping me, Boyd?” he grumbled as she gave him a decidedly unfriendly smile.

“So, is it Jones or Boyd?” she asked as she clambered to her feet. She shook herself again, sending a spray of snow into the air, whipping her tail back and forth to dislodge a few stubborn chunks of ice as she brushed off her clothes. “Having trouble keeping your story straight, mister miner?”

“Let’s just get moving while we can still take advantage of the sunlight,” he replied, searching the sky for Hades. He quickly found it, the rust-colored ball hanging above them, immovable. “Maybe I can generate enough power to avoid having to spend another night sharing a sleeping bag with you, you overgrown bathmat.”

“What is bath mat?” she repeated, cocking her head at him like a curious dog.

“Don’t worry about it,” he muttered as he set off into the snow, his visor darkening to protect his eyes from the white glare. “You’d have to bathe to know what that is.”

He brought up his display as Lorza began to lope along behind him. They had traveled about fifty miles the day before, and they had another fifty ahead of them before they could rest again. Marching from dusk ‘till dawn made him feel like he was in goddamned boot camp again. If he survived this, he was going to put in a transfer request for a desk job.

“Lead on, Boyd,” Lorza chimed.

***

The sun was starting to get low again, growing cold and distant as it dipped towards the featureless horizon. They had been walking all day, and Boyd was almost exhausted enough to stagger, his boots sinking deep into the snow to make each step an effort. Lorza seemed to lack his stamina, but she was made for this kind of environment, her wide paws making the going far easier for her. The pair hadn’t spoken since they had left the cave that morning. Neither had anything constructive to say to the other, and Boyd could almost pretend that his furry companion wasn’t there if he focused on the ground beneath his feet. As they crested another of the dune-like snow drifts, Lorza called for him to stop.

“I need a break for a few minutes,” she said, sitting down on the slope to catch her breath. “Let me rest.”

“We need to keep moving,” Boyd panted, pausing to look back at her. “We don’t want to be caught out in the open when the sun goes down – the temperature is going to plummet like a fucking rock. We can take a break when we’ve found shelter.”

Lorza’s stomach growled loud enough that he could hear it, and she closed a clawed hand over her paunchy belly, wincing as a hunger pang rocked her.

“I told you that the lack of food would make me weak,” she grumbled, shooting him a resentful glance as she nursed her stomach. “If you had just let me-”

“We’re not having this food argument again,” he said, cutting her off. Truth be told, she did seem to be suffering from the hunger, but it was impossible to tell how genuine her complaints were. An overweight human who was put on a low-calorie diet would react exactly the same way, even if they were in no real danger, and there was no way for him to know how much of that could be chalked up to her biology. For now, he would err on the side of caution. If they burned through their supplies too fast, they would be in serious trouble.

“We will have to have it eventually,” she replied, her eyes narrowing. “Sooner rather than later. I cannot subsist on melted snow.”

“You’re not gonna starve, that’s for sure,” he added as he looked her up and down conspicuously. “Maybe those coveralls will actually fit you properly by the time we reach the refinery. You’re spilling out of them...”

“Does it bother you that much?” she asked, a sly smile curling her lips. Her hunger temporarily forgotten, she lay back in the snow, stretching out like a model posing for a painting. She was remarkably limber for someone so large, her spine arching off the white powder, Boyd’s eyes drawn to the flowing curve of her hourglass hips. Her breasts shifted and wobbled within the confines of her coveralls, their weight straining against the fabric, almost like she had been poured into her clothes and they were the only thing keeping her contained. “Maybe you should focus on getting us out of here rather than commenting about my figure all the time. It seems to be on your mind a lot for someone who claims to hate it...”

“Don’t delude yourself,” he grumbled, waving his hand dismissively as he turned his eyes to the horizon. “You’re basically an animal to me. Get your oversized ass off the snow, and let’s find a damned cave to sleep in. We’re losing sunlight, and I don’t want to be stranded out here.”

“Eager to share a sleeping bag with me again, are you?” He scoffed, shaking his head as he set off into the snow, glad that his mask concealed the pink flush of embarrassment in his cheeks. Lorza watched him for a few moments with a grin on her face, then rose to follow him. She was bored, clearly – trying to get under his skin – but she would eventually get tired of it and stop as long as he didn’t give her a reaction. That kind of behavior might work on someone less disciplined than Boyd, but he would be damned if he was going to let her get to him that easily.

***

They searched for a good hour, but there were no more ice caves to be found. Maybe it was the geography of the area, or maybe they were just unlucky, but time was rapidly running out. The sun was setting, staining the endless landscape of snow orange, Hades forming a red crescent in the darkening sky. Boyd checked his display, seeing that his battery had been depleted to a worrying degree. Just like the night before, as his suit ramped up its heating element in response to the dropping temperature, the system began to run at a deficit. Sleeping out in the open wasn’t an option – they needed shelter.

Boyd glanced up, surveying the terrain that surrounded him. There was nothing but tundra as far as the eye could see. It was an arctic desert, a wasteland. Lorza suddenly appeared over a snowdrift ahead, skidding a little as she descended the near side on her wide paws.

“You find anything?” he asked.

“Nothing,” she replied. “We will have to make our own shelter tonight.”

“How are we supposed to do that?” Boyd asked, crossing his arms skeptically. “I haven’t seen so much as a boulder or a tree since we set out from the crash site.”

“Oh, so now you are interested in what I have to say?” she replied with a scowl. “You are happy to listen when it benefits you.”

“Just cut the shit and tell me what you need me to do,” Boyd sighed.

“Fine,” she conceded, her tail flicking back and forth in what he had come to associate with annoyance. “Follow me, and do exactly as I tell you.”

“Yes, Ma’am,” he muttered with a sarcastic salute as he began to trail after her bushy tail.

Lorza led him to a few of the drifts, selecting one that was a suitable size, then testing the snow for consistency with her fingers.

“One benefit of this wretched place is that the low temperature creates firm snow,” she began, sticking a digit into the powder. “Good for tunneling.” She stood up, brushing off her furry hands as she appraised her chosen spot. “We will dig deep into the snow to create a chamber with a flat floor and a ceiling high enough that we can sit comfortably. It will need to be larger enough for me to lie flat, obviously. Once that is done, we will seal it, then tunnel up into it from below. The upward angle of the tunnel will prevent fresh snow from sealing it shut, and since hot air rises, it will prevent it from escaping.”

“That’s it?” Boyd asked. “We just dig a hole? I was expecting it to be more...complicated.”

She began to dig, using her massive, wide hands like shovels. Boyd had to dodge a large handful of snow, stepping out of its path as she sent it sailing his way. Her claws seemed to benefit her – she really was adapted to the cold – the black talons giving her more purchase, almost like organic ice picks. After a minute, she stopped, her breath forming clouds of condensation as she peered back at him.

“What are you waiting for, mudak? Come help me.”

“Do you see a snow shovel?” he replied, turning up his palms.

“Use your hands,” she snapped, her ears flattening. “You insinuate that I am fat and lazy, yet you shy away from hard work.”

Groaning into his rebreather, Boyd walked over to join her, rolling his shoulders as he prepared to start digging. He took up position to her left, feeling like a kid building a snow fort as he began his work. The going was slow, and immediately, he gained an appreciation for why UNN Marines all carried foldable shovels as part of their kit. Digging a trench or a latrine without specialized tools was a good way to end up with a back injury.

Lorza quickly outpaced him, slowly vanishing up to her waist as she tunneled deeper, leaving great piles of snow behind her. This far below the surface, the snow became more densely packed, forming almost solid chunks that she tore away using her claws for purchase. Now, Boyd was starting to understand why the whole thing wasn’t just going to collapse on top of their heads when they were done. At these temperatures, the snow was closer in consistency to ice than a powder. The chunks were easier for him to move, at least, and he began to carry them out of the trench.

Once the Polar was deep enough, she began to hollow out an area above her, her upper body occasionally vanishing into the chamber that she was constructing. It was going much faster than Boyd had anticipated – they’d only been at it for maybe twenty minutes. Still, the temperature was dropping fast, Boyd’s battery draining just as quickly.

“Bring me some of those blocks,” she said, ducking back into view at the end of her trench to gesture to the chunks of snow.

Boyd hauled several of them over to her one by one – some of them were large enough that he needed both arms to carry them – and she began to plug up parts of the structure. She packed the spaces between the uneven chunks with snow, creating an airtight seal, eventually leaving only a small entrance that curved up into the chamber. She dropped to her hands and knees, squeezing her way inside, Boyd watching as her tail rose out of view. She called to him, and he followed, making his way down the trench. When he reached the entrance, he had to crouch, making his way into a tunnel that was just large enough for Lorza to get through. It curved up at a gentle angle, emerging into a dome that was about high enough for him to stand in, the ceiling shaped like the inside of an igloo. The floor had been patted flat, creating just enough space for the Polar to lay out her sleeping bag. She was already unrolling it, her pack pushed up against the nearest wall.

“Cozy,” Boyd muttered, hauling himself inside. “Surrounding ourselves with ice and snow to get warmer is a little unintuitive, but it already seems to be working.”

“This is how my people survived the journeys between settlements on my homeworld,” she replied, reaching for her pack. She fished inside one of the pockets, producing an MRE, starting to peel it open with a hooked claw. “It could take many days to travel between villages and trading posts, and it was the only way to find shelter on the open tundra.”

“What, no mag-levs?” Boyd asked as he slung his pack off his shoulders. “No roadside motels with free ice and snow cones?”

“Mock me all you want, but this would have been your final night in this world had it not been for my primitive techniques,” she replied as she unfolded her portable stove. “You humans think yourselves superior to less advanced species like the Borealans and the Krell, but when stripped of your technology, you are as helpless as a kitten. You cannot hunt, you cannot forage, you cannot even dig a hole in the snow to save your life.”

“Just because I don’t know how to do those things doesn’t mean there are no humans who do,” he replied, retrieving the ration pack that he had opened that morning.

“Yet it is you who mocks,” she added, lighting a match to set a pellet burning.

The little chamber soon filled with the scents of cooking food, the pair heating up more nondescript canned meat, even the scant warmth that the hexamine tablets produced helping to raise the temperature in the little dome. Before long, Boyd felt safe enough to turn off the heating element in his suit entirely. He emptied his pack, stacking its contents against the wall behind him, then sat on it to help insulate him from the cold floor.

“This thing isn’t going to melt and collapse on us, is it?” Boyd asked as he glanced up at the ceiling warily.

“It will be fine,” she replied as she dug into her can with a plastic spoon, holding it between her padded thumb and forefinger like it was a sewing needle. “At these temperatures, it might stay intact for days.”

Boyd finished off the second course from his ration, then started on the desserts. There were some snacks and other sundries like cereal bars, and he figured he might save those to eat during the day when he needed a pick-me-up or an energy boost. He dug a handful of snow out of the floor, then dropped it into a collapsible cup to melt over the stove, adding a fruit concentrate when it was liquid enough. The resulting raspberry-flavored drink was warm, but pleasant in these conditions. Next, he started on a bar of milk chocolate, watching as Lorza polished off a can of what might be some kind of paté. She had eaten pretty much an entire MRE in one sitting and was now surrounded by empty containers and crumpled wrappers, upending a little packet of sugar into her open mouth.

“You should slow down,” he added, gesturing to her MRE with his fork. “That was supposed to last you two days – you just ate it in one sitting.”

“This is a third of my daily requirement,” she replied, glancing up from her dish. “Unless you think you can carry me the rest of the way, I must eat more.”

“They’re your rations,” he replied with a shrug. “Just don’t say I didn’t warn you.”

“I could say the same to you,” she added, giving him a pointed look from across the chamber. “I will ask you once more to share the rations more fairly.”

“Give you my food, you mean?” he scoffed. “Not a chance. Is that an implied threat?” he continued, meeting her gaze. “What, you gonna make a meal out of me when you run out of crackers?”

Her lack of a reply was somehow more ominous than any threat that she could levy. She set her empty MRE aside, then unzipped her sleeping bag, shuffling inside its padded confines. She left it open expectantly, waiting for him to join her.

“It got pretty warm in here,” he said, leaning back against the wall as he settled in for the night. “I think I’ll chance it.”

“Do you really hate me so much that you would put yourself at risk just to avoid being close to me?” she sighed. She waited a few moments for a reply, frowning in frustration when he gave none. “I do not know what I did to earn such scorn,” she muttered, zipping up the bag. “The way I remember it, it was I who helped you escape when you were putting on your little show of being an oppressed miner back at the spaceport. My culture values those qualities, you know,” she added. “Cleverness, shrewdness, the ability to manipulate others into giving you what you want while avoiding conflict and bloodshed. You make a better Polar than you realize.”

“Just drop it and go to sleep,” he grumbled.

“They have a popular saying in Russia,” she said, rolling over to face away from him. “A liar should have a good memory. If you are going to lie, at least keep your story straight. Do not take advantage of me and my crew, then insult my intelligence by denying it.”

Boyd ignored her comment, crossing his arms over his chest as he drifted off to sleep.

***

Boyd was roused by a beeping sound, finding himself shivering violently, the breath that left his rebreather freezing into clouds of glittering ice crystals. He lifted a shaking arm to see a warning flashing on his display. His suit was dangerously low on battery again, and his core temperature had fallen to dangerous levels. Without the alarm, he might not have woken up at all. Although the ambient temperature in the chamber was warmer than it was outside, it was still too low to sustain him, the nights on this cursed moon plunging double digits below zero.

Once again, his only option was to go to Lorza for help.

He shuffled over to her sleeping bag on stiff limbs, giving her a shove to wake her up. She rolled over to face him, blinking back at him groggily with her blue eyes. She seemed to be faring just fine with her insulated sleeping bag and her space heater of a body. Despite the cold, it was still warmer than the ice cave had been, and was apparently tolerable by her standards.

“You came crawling back, I see,” she began. “Literally...” “Don’t be a bitch,” he mumbled, reaching for her zipper. “Let me in.” “Tell me your real name,” she replied, her tone adamant.

“Come on!” he protested through chattering teeth. “Let me in, or I’m gonna freeze to death out here! You think you can make it to the refinery on your own and get off-world without me?”

“Tell me your real name,” she repeated, batting his hand away from the bag. “And do not lie this time – I will know.”

“Fine,” he grumbled. “It’s Boyd. Now, let me in before I start losing extremities.”

“There, was that so hard?” she cooed as she unzipped the bag and swung it open in invitation. “Come join me, Boyd.”

The threat of death eventually overpowering his reluctance, he climbed inside, finding himself once again in uncomfortably close proximity to Lorza’s oversized body. Her jutting breasts were immediately rocking against his face, his hands finding plump, yielding flesh no matter where he tried to rest them. She zipped up the bag behind him, sealing them inside to create a little pocket of warmth. To his surprise, he felt the Polar wrap a long arm around him, tugging him closer, seemingly indifferent to the fact that his masked face was sinking into her pillowy bosom. He fought to pull away, but she was stronger than he was even on his best days, never mind when he was on the brink of hypothermia. Whether she was doing this out of genuine concern or just to mess with him, he couldn’t say, but he gravitated to her warmth like a moth to a flame all the same.

He couldn’t see anything other than her collar, where her white fur spilled out of her coveralls, the zipper that ran down her torso threatening to split open and disgorge its contents like a failing dam. There was that scent again – creeping in through his rebreather – alien and floral. He could even feel her warm breath through his hood, her pink nose hovering just above his head.

“You know,” she began, her whispering sending a confusing shiver down his spine. “We are going to be stranded here for a long time. We might as well make an effort to get along. You may find that you come to enjoy my company if you take the time to get to know me better.”

“Uh-huh,” he muttered into her chest. “And this sudden change of attitude is coming right after you just explained how Polars like to manipulate people to avoid conflict and get what they want?”

“You really are shrewd,” she chuckled, the motion making her chest rock against his face.

As hot as his pride burned, it wasn’t enough to keep him warm – only the Polar could do that, so he swallowed it. Truth be told, her warmth and softness were inviting. Her body was like a heated mattress, driving away the cold that surrounded him, the Polar giving him little choice but to use her copious bust as a pillow. It was difficult to maintain his anger and discomfort when his cold, tired body was betraying him.

Just as his eyes were starting to close, he heard a gurgling sound, Lorza’s breasts bumping against his face as she brought a hand down between the pair to cradle her belly. She groaned in discomfort, her stomach growling like a hungry beast.

“How are you that hungry?” Boyd asked, lifting his head to glance up at her. “You just ate an entire ration pack that was supposed to last you two days.”

“I keep telling you that I have a higher calorie requirement than you do, fool,” she grumbled in reply. “I am burning fat, and 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 reserves, my fur will not be enough to stave off the cold, and we will both be in trouble. Is it not obvious now that you cannot survive the nights without me?”

“And I’m the only one who knows where we’re going,” he replied. “I’d like to see you reach the refinery without my map. Four more days – that’s all. You’ll survive. I’m hungry too, but complaining isn’t going to help.”

While her lips remained quiet after that, the same could not be said of her stomach, its rumbling keeping him awake for some time until he finally fell asleep.

CHAPTER 5: THREAT CONDITION

Boyd awoke to find the sleeping bag empty. Lorza could be quiet when she wanted to be – she must have woken up before he had and crawled out without rousing him. Perhaps she was finally coming around after their conversation the night prior. The scent of food already filled the little chamber, and he could see the flickering of a hexamine tablet reflecting off the walls. She must be cooking breakfast.

“I hope it’s not a whole MRE this time,” he said, yawning as he struggled out from beneath the heavy fabric. He climbed to his feet, then stretched, checking his display briefly. There was a little battery left – enough to keep him going while he charged it. “We should-”

Boyd paused as he glanced over at Lorza, finding her hunched on the far side of the room, leaning over her stove. His heart skipped a beat when he noticed the piles of wrappers and empty cans that surrounded her. His eyes darted over to where he had left his supplies after emptying his pack the night before, seeing that his two remaining MREs were conspicuously absent.

“What...what did you do?” he asked, taking a wary step closer. “Lorza?”

“I told you that I needed more food,” she replied, the sound of a plastic spoon scraping the bottom of a can carrying over to him. “You put both our lives at risk by refusing to share it fairly – you left me no choice.”

“Oh, no,” he hissed as he shook his head in disbelief. “You didn’t...” “I explained the situation – that I need five times the calories that you do – but you refused to listen. If my choice is to steal or to collapse in the snow, then I shall steal.”

“You fucking idiot!” Boyd snapped, reaching down to pick up an empty can of beef stew. He hurled it at her, the container bouncing off the back of her head. “We still have four days left! Four days of trekking through rough terrain! There was enough food there to keep us both fed, and you just ate it all in one sitting!”

“Nine thousand calories,” she replied, climbing to her feet. “Almost a day’s ration for me.”

Boyd was seeing red, adrenaline flooding his veins, the sight of the fat glutton just standing there among the torn packets and discarded cans filling him with rage. He lunged across the little dugout, driving a fist into her belly. It sank like he was punching a training dummy, leaving Lorza unfazed, the towering feline rocking forward to slam her substantial weight into him. It was like being hit by a sumo wrestler, and he was sent flying away from her, skidding on his back for a good couple of feet.

“Try that again, and you will get the claws,” she snarled.

“Take my head off, and you’ll never make it to the refinery,” he replied as he staggered to his feet. “You’ll freeze to death out here or starve without me.”

“And you will not last a night without me,” she replied, planting her hands on her wide hips. “My actions ensure your survival as much as mine.”

“Bullshit,” he snapped, pointing an accusing finger at her. “You can’t even go two days without gorging yourself. That’s what this is about. You’ve fucked us – that’s what you’ve done. I have half a mind to leave you here to die.”

“I would not even be here if not for you!” she bellowed, the power of her voice giving him pause. It was like being roared at by an angry lion. “All of my friends are dead because of you! You brought down my ship, you killed my crew, and now you starve me. The only question I ask is whether ignorance or malice motivates you! Here!” she added, tossing a handful of protein bars onto the icy floor. “I saved you what little I could spare, though the courtesy is more than you deserve.”

He glared at her for a moment, then stooped to gather the morsels of food, stowing them in the pockets of his suit.

“If you expect me to thank you-”

“It is done,” she said, interrupting him. “We have no choice but to move forward. You need me, and I need you. All I have done is buy us more time. We will see if it was enough.” As much as he wanted to throw another punch, she was right. What she had done could not be undone, and it didn’t change how dependent they were on each other. Without the coordinates that he carried, she would die, and the same was true of him if she wasn’t there to keep him warm.

“This matter isn’t settled,” he said, glaring at her through his visor. “The only reason I’m not ringing you over the fucking coals right now is because we have to move. Get your shit,” he added, storming over to his flattened pack. “I’m leaving in five, whether you’re ready or not.”

***

They packed up their gear and made a swift exit through the narrow tunnel that led back out onto the tundra. Boyd found himself stuck behind Lorza’s enormous rear as she crawled along ahead of him, her cheeks swaying back and forth, her long tail trailing after her. He cursed as his pack got caught on a jutting piece of ice, pausing to adjust the straps. What was the point of even lugging the thing around now that there were no MREs left? When were they going to need toothpaste or foam grenades?

The Polar climbed out of the trench, the morning sunlight flooding in behind her. He hauled himself out after her, seeing her standing there on the snow, stretching her long arms above her head as she exposed her sharp teeth in a yawn.

Boyd searched the sky for Hades, then brought up his display, turning in the direction of the refinery.

“This way,” he said, setting off into the snow. “I trust you can keep up despite the belly full of my food?”

“I prefer you when you are asleep,” she replied, trudging along behind him. “It is the only time you are not insulting me or throwing childish tantrums.”

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

“Thank you for proving my point,” she replied as he crested a snowdrift. “I feel the best course of action is to walk you until you are too exhausted to misbehave, like an unruly kitten.”

“One of these days, I’m going to strangle you in your sleep,” he muttered under his breath. It wasn’t enough to escape her finely-tuned hearing, it seemed, the alien raising a hand to her mouth as she stifled a chuckle.

“I would love to see you try.”

“Let’s just keep moving,” he continued, stumbling as he navigated the slope. “The faster we walk, the sooner I can be rid of you. I’m counting down the seconds.”

“I'm sure you'll agree that we have to find ways to amuse ourselves,” she said as she descended behind him, still chuckling to herself. “Can you not handle a little teasing? You certainly seem to lay it on thick when you joke about my weight.” “Who says I’m joking?” he replied, turning to scowl at her over his shoulder. “May I remind you that you just wiped out the last of our rations? It’s going to be a hungrier, more difficult march now, all because you couldn’t stick to the plan. In a day, you’ll be just as hungry as you were this morning, and there will be nothing for you to eat.”

“My actions were not gluttony but careful calculation,” she replied. “You will see that soon enough.”

His statement wasn’t entirely true. There would be something left to eat – him. Could he take her if he really needed to? She didn’t know all of his suit’s capabilities, but he wasn’t sure that he could generate enough charge to shock someone of her size. There was the ceramic knife in his boot, but unless he went for the jugular, it wouldn’t even penetrate her fat. For now, they needed one another, but would that be enough to keep her hunger at bay?

***

They trudged through the snow for the better part of a day, Boyd eating one of the protein bars that Lorza had so graciously spared him as his only meal. At this rate, he would have to start using the emergency pills in his medkit. They were packed with nutrients, minerals, and enough stimulants to get a dead man up and marching. Still, the prospect wasn’t an attractive one. They could damage his kidneys, and if Lorza saw them, she would be furious with him for hiding them.

As they crossed another patch of exposed ice, the wind began to howl, flakes of fresh snow starting to fill the air. It quickly became difficult to see, the airborne powder hammering the pair, piling up so quickly that it was reaching Boyd’s knees in mere minutes.

“Blizzard!” Lorza shouted, even her powerful voice almost drowned out by the roar of the storm. She was trailing behind him, struggling against the wind as though it was a physical barrier that was holding her back. “We need to take shelter, or we shall both be frozen solid before long!”

“I saw some weird geography ahead of us,” Boyd replied, raising an arm in a futile attempt to shield himself from the wind. He was already dripping – the heating element in his suit melting the snowflakes that settled on it. “Maybe we can find somewhere to hole up until it passes!”

The glacial terrain slowly came into view through the swirling snow ahead of them, great chunks of ice that had been shifted around and smashed together by natural forces jutting up into the sky like small mountains. They had been dusted with a thick layer of snow, glazed like a cake, but the blue glow of exposed ice led them towards an opening. It was a crevasse – a crack created by ice sheets pulling apart – leading deep below the surface. Boyd had no idea how deep it went or what lay at the bottom, but it might be the only chance they had.

He began to descend, Lorza following behind him, the howling wind fading as they ventured inside. The rough walls gave them plenty of handholds, and the gentle slope was easy enough to navigate, the great walls of ice rising up to either side of them like the cliffs of a canyon. He feared that they might reach a bottleneck or a squeeze that Lorza couldn’t pass through, but it never came. After a short while, the walls met over their heads, forming a kind of tunnel more than a crack. They eventually emerged into a chamber, the ceiling rising high above their heads, the walls so smooth and strange that they almost seemed to be sculpted. There was blue light filtering through – just enough to see by.

“A gallery,” Lorza mused, glancing around as she stepped inside after him. Her eyes reflected the glow, as blue as the ice itself. “Flowing water carved these channels. I wonder how close we are to the ocean?”

Boyd looked down at the ice beneath his feet warily, seeing nothing but darkness.

“You reckon that thing is still following us?” he asked. “Haven’t seen head nor tail of it for a couple of days.”

“Who can say?” she replied, tossing her pack on the floor. “I know nothing of this moon or its ecology. It may not need to eat again for a year, or it may have developed a taste for mammals.”

Her shoulder-length, grey hair was matted with ice from the storm, as was all of the exposed fur where it wasn’t covered by her clothes. Her face, hands, feet, and her bushy tail were all soaked through. She looked downright miserable. Boyd shielded himself reflexively as she tried to shake some of it off with little effect, then she began to use her claws, scraping at the frozen slush.

“Ouch!” she hissed, one of her talons catching on a clump of matted fur.

“Should have brought a comb instead of toothpaste,” Boyd muttered, the Polar giving him a scowl.

“My people usually groom ourselves impeccably,” she replied, wincing as her claws got caught in her hair again. “A tangled, wet coat is as much a danger to our lives as to our social status. Ugh, my clothes are soaked,” she grumbled as she tugged at her coveralls. “This will not do.”

She began to slide down the zipper on the front of the garment, an explosion of white fur bursting forth as the weight of her breasts spread it open. Boyd averted his eyes in embarrassment, staring intently at the far wall as she began to shuffle out of her coveralls. How did she even cram that much fur into the thing? She was like a walking shag rug.

“What the hell are you doing?” he muttered.

“I need to bathe,” she explained, Boyd hearing the sound of her damp clothes hitting the floor. “If I cannot get clean and dry, I will not be able to insulate myself from the cold.”

“Can you not do that further down the tunnel where I don’t have to see it?” he complained.

“Do I offend your delicate sensibilities, Boyd?” she replied with a chuckle. “My apologies, but I must have missed the changing room on the way down here. If it upsets you, perhaps you should go back down the tunnel. Humans are so prudish.” “It’s called having shame,” he shot back. “Maybe you should look into it sometime.”

Even with his back to her, he could still see her reflection in the ice, distorted like a funhouse mirror. He couldn’t make out much detail, but she seemed to be curled over like a cat – remarkably flexible for someone of her size.

“Are you...licking yourself?” he asked. “That’s disgusting!”

“I’m sorry, is there a banya to go with your imaginary dressing room?” she snapped. “Do you see any water that is not infested with monsters? I must bathe, whether you find it palatable or not. If it bothers you so, go fetch me enough melted snow for a bath.”

“There isn’t enough snow on the whole moon,” he muttered.

“Maybe enough for yourself, then,” she added. “When was the last time you bathed? Not since the crash, and even some time before, I would wager. Your nose is far duller than mine. I can pick up hormones and pheromones that you are not even aware you secrete. I can even pick up traces of the deodorant that you put on a few days ago. Citrus – a poor choice,” she mused. “Lavender would suit you far better.”

“At least I don’t wash myself with my tongue,” he grumbled, keeping his back to her as he took a seat on the cold ice.

“Back home, I would have all kinds of soaps and perfumes,” she sighed as she paused her licking to reminisce. “My fur would be as white as snow, as fragrant as a flower, and so soft that even you might be tempted to run your fingers through it.” “That’ll be the day,” he scoffed.

“The facilities aboard the Zemchug were not exactly designed for my kind, but I made do. Until you brought her down, of course.” She almost sounded as sore about her fur as she was about her ship. Whenever he commented on her hygiene, she was quick to bring up her people’s cultural disposition towards cleanliness as a retort. Maybe being stranded with matted fur and no shampoo was starting to get to her.

“I’ll take your word for it,” he said.

“What do you know?” she demanded, interrupting her licking to glare at him. “Your kind do not even have fur – you look like the patch of naked skin left over when a healer shaves a wound.”

“Do you get fleas?” he chuckled, enjoying having her on the back foot for once.

“No, actually,” she replied as she turned up her nose at him. “Earth parasites cannot drink from Borealans. Our blood pressure is too high – it kills them. You are more likely to be infested with parasites than any Polar.”

“You are a parasite,” he replied.

She laughed at that – it was a bad comeback – so he stayed silent for a while as she finished cleaning herself. Before long, she called to him, Boyd resisting the urge to turn his head.

“Come, I need your hands.”

“What are you talking about?” he asked.

“The fur on my back is matted, and I cannot reach it with my tongue. I need your help to clean it.” He began to complain, but she cut him off. “Just listen for a moment, Boyd. Matted fur tangles into knots. They grow tighter and tighter, more and more painful, until they eventually tear the hair from one’s very skin. Do not subject me to that discomfort on top of everything else that I must endure.”

“Fine,” he sighed, making a show of his reluctance as he rose to his feet.

“I will protect my modesty if it disturbs you so,” she added.

By the time he had turned around, she had lifted her coveralls and was holding them over her chest like a towel. She was facing away from him, and for the first time, he got a look at her without her clothes. The full figure that he had only glimpsed until now was laid bare, her dense fur doing little to conceal her curves. Her torso was wider than any human’s, as befitted her stature, but it tapered gently into a perfect hourglass. It wasn’t thin, by any means, but the way that it was accentuated by her flared hips made it seem that way. He was taken aback for a moment – expecting to find formless fat, not this…

Rather than rolls of flesh, he found subtle creases around her waist, each one hinting at her softness. So much of her weight seemed to cling to her round cheeks, just firm enough to maintain their shape, spreading subtly where they met the ice like a melting peach. He had felt her rump through her clothes when she had been stuck in the cave, but seeing it now, it was probably large enough to fill an average-sized couch. Her long tail trailed across the floor, free of ice and slurry now, as fluffy as he had ever seen it.

As he approached, her ears swiveled back to face him, moving independently even as she kept her gaze on the wall ahead. She was tall enough that her head was level with his chest, even sitting.

“So...what do you want me to do?” he asked as he examined her furry back. Her white coat covered her from head to toe, only broken up by the slate-colored hair that fell down the back of her neck and the coffee stain rings that patterned it. It looked like camouflage, something akin to a snow leopard. The tips of her round ears were black, as was the end of her bushy tail. He had to stand over the appendage with a foot to either side of it to get close enough to reach her.

“You see where the fur is tangled?” she asked.

“I see where you somehow licked your own shoulders,” he muttered. “I don’t want to know how you accomplished that.”

“Prehensile tongue,” she explained.

“You gonna start coughing up furballs now?”

“Stop fretting,” she chided, making him flinch as she whipped him with her tail. “Between my shoulders, and down the middle of my back. Use your fingers to comb the fur straight. You have no claws, but those dull digits should suffice.”

He shrugged, doing as she asked, running his fingers through her coat as he would someone’s hair. It was denser than it had looked, softer, and he better understood how it helped to insulate her body heat now.

“You have warm hands,” she sighed, leaning into him.

“It’s the suit,” he replied. “The circuits that run throughout its lining can be overcharged to produce heat.”

She grunted in displeasure when he found a knot, Boyd relenting.

“What do I do?” he asked.

“Work it out,” she replied.

“What does that mean? I’ve been many things, but a dog groomer wasn’t one of them.”

“Just comb until it comes loose,” she explained, one of her ears flicking in irritation. “If that doesn’t work, cut it out. Yes, I have seen the knife that you hide in your boot,” she added as she glanced back at him over her shoulder.

He drew the knife and began to cut away one of the more stubborn mats. Her comment carried an implicit threat – that hiding things from her was harder than he had assumed. He would have to be extra careful not to be seen taking his pills. Slowly, he made his way down her back, doing his best to work out all of the tangles, combing her silky fur straight. If he was going to do it, he might as well do it properly.

“Thank you, Boyd,” she sighed as he neared the small of her back. “I mean it. The first thing I will do when I get back to civilization is sit in a warm banya for a whole day. Siberia is cold, to be sure, but this is something else.”

“So, what’s the story with the Polars and Siberia?” he asked.

“Are you taking an interest in my personal life, Boyd?” she cooed.

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

She seemed to relax a little, as though the prospect of a conversation that wasn’t just an exchange of insults was appealing to her.

“Conditions in my home territory were worsening for a variety of reasons,” she began. “The land was not as harsh as this cursed moon, but it made Siberia look like a paradise in comparison. Our civilization was formed from disparate settlements and the trading posts that connected them. It was very primitive by your standards, and even by the standards of some of the other territories like Elysia. Our population numbered little more than fifty or sixty thousand at its peak. The climate on Borealis is harsh, volatile,” she continued as he moved down towards the base of her tail. “The other territories have large lakes surrounded by jungle bands – like giant oases – that shield them from the elements by creating a microclimate within their borders. All else is desert, be it scorched or frozen.” “You’d been surviving there for millions of years, presumably,” Boyd said. “What changed?”

“There was no single catalyst,” she replied. “The planet goes through cycles that last tens of thousands of years, according to your researchers. Once, jungles covered most of the surface, and the climate was far wetter and cooler than it is today. As the planet grew warmer and dryer, the jungles receded, until only small islands of greenery remained. The same process impacted our territory. With less rain, the poles can become as dry as deserts. The taiga receded, and with it, the animals that we relied on for food.”

“It got so cold that even you couldn’t live there,” Boyd mused.

“There was also the threat of the Equatorials. For generations, they lacked the ability to cross the frozen mountains and enter our territory. Their kind do not fare well in the cold – it makes them lethargic. In this new era, they have access to environment suits and ships that can cross the mountain ranges in minutes. Had they any imperial ambitions, we would not be able to stop them.”

“I guess that’s kind of our fault,” Boyd added. “We upset the balance of power by arming the territories that agreed to join the Coalition.”

“You merely accelerated a process that was already happening,” Lorza replied with a shrug. “Had you not come when you did, there likely would have been no Polars left to conquer by the time the Elysians developed the technology to bridge the mountains.”

“Sounds like you’re enjoying Siberia, though.”

“It is bountiful in comparison. Warm, overflowing with abundance, and with far friendlier neighbors. The Federation allowed us to found our own republic there. The environment was too harsh for humans, and they seem happy to have someone exploiting the land. We have our own laws, our own language, and our own customs – though we are still subjects of the Federation.”

Boyd wasn’t so sure that their motives were entirely charitable. While Russia was a member of the UN, they had a tendency to act on their own, taking on projects and ventures independently. The Federation had established several Russian-speaking colonies in the early phases of humanity’s expansion that flew in the face of the UN’s message of unity, and while there were no laws prohibiting it, they remained a somewhat archaic throwback to a time when the species was bogged down by internal conflicts. Some in UNNI suspected that the Polar colony was Russia’s attempt to create a home-grown Borealan army that could be fielded independently of the UNN’s auxiliaries. Perhaps this was his chance to learn a little more.

“So, what’s the catch?” he asked as he used his knife to dislodge another knot. “Surely they didn’t give you all that land with no strings attached?”

“They seemed eager to make us into soldiers,” she replied, confirming his suspicions. “We are not great warriors like our hot-blooded cousins. When conditions are ideal, we tend to occupy ourselves with social matters and leisure – warfare was never a part of our history. Many Polars serve the UNN and the Federation, but most are doctors and scientists. I fear that we may have disappointed our hosts,” she added with a chuckle. “How about you?” she asked. “Where do you call home?”

Boyd hesitated, unsure if he should tell her the truth or concoct another convenient lie. The saying that she had relayed to him earlier came to mind. A liar should have a good memory, and he felt as if his capacities were diminished in this blistering cold. There wasn’t really any harm in telling her the truth now.

“Utah,” he replied. “It’s hot and dry, the polar opposite of this godforsaken moon – if you’ll forgive the expression.”

“Why did you leave?” she asked, her ears tracking him attentively.

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 probing her, perhaps expecting him to let slip something important due to their newfound familiarity. I left Utah to become a spy was not something he was going to tell her, however.

“I left in search of adventure,” he replied. “Looks like I found it.” It was 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 her intent, so she let it slide. She was more socially adept than he had given her credit for. He would have to tread carefully.

“Before the colony ship took us away, I had never been into space before, and I had never seen my homeworld from orbit. You probably cannot imagine what it was like – your people have been spacefaring for centuries – but to us, it was like a giant hand had reached down from the sky to pluck us from the ground. Everything that I had ever known dwindled until I could cover it with a single pad,” she said, raising a thumb as if to demonstrate. “The whole Galaxy was suddenly open to us, and our world became so much grander than just a longhouse in the snow. I wanted to see more of it.”

“Maybe I do know what that feels like,” Boyd insisted. “There’s a first time for everyone – even me. I still remember the first time I saw Earth from orbit, my first superlight jump, the first time I set foot on another world. Those things stick with you – especially the jumps,” he added with a dry chuckle.

“It made all of my prior concerns feel...trivial, temporary,” Lorza continued as Boyd nodded his head in agreement. “My biggest concern the day before had been finding enough firewood, and the next, I was jumping across lightyears of space on a vessel that had better living conditions than my own village.”

“What did you fly out on?” Boyd asked, tackling another knot near the base of her tail. “Was it one of the old colonial vessels from the expansion period? A liner with a pool and catering, and all that?”

“A liner,” she replied. “For someone who had spent their life living in buildings made from wood and heated by fire pits, it was inconceivable. There was more food than any one of us could eat in a single sitting, a heated pool a short walk from my cabin, and the temperature could be controlled with a button press. Imagine spending your whole life struggling to find enough to eat and fighting to stay warm, then finding yourself in such an environment. We might as well have died and gone to paradise.”

“Sounds like you discovered the buffet table,” Boyd mused.

“When we arrived at our destination, well...let us say that Earth is a poor name for such a planet. This conjures images of soil and dirt, but it is as blue as the sky. My people would have chosen a more fitting title.”

“What does Borealis mean, then?” he asked.

“That is the name that your people gave my planet,” she replied. “You named it after our star system, which you also named. In our language, the name roughly translates to the great mother or the all-mother. In our culture, the planet takes on the qualities of a strict parent. She brings us into the world through her love, but she also teaches her children hard lessons, and her discipline helps them grow strong and hardy.”

“I guess you’d have to be to survive in a place like that,” Boyd said as he finished his work. He took a step back, then stowed his knife in his boot. “Better?”

“Much,” she replied, trying to look over her shoulder. “I think my clothes should be dry enough to put back on, if you would like to avert your eyes.”

“Don’t need to tell me twice,” he said, turning his back to her.

“About the food,” she began, but he cut her off.

“It’s like you said – it’s done. No point griping about it now.”

“I would not have done it if I thought I had any other choice, I just want you to know that.”

“Whatever,” he muttered, turning around to see that she was clothed again. She was just fastening her zipper, reaching up to adjust her breasts as she struggled to close it over them, the tufts of fur around her collar slowly vanishing beneath the fabric. When she was done, she reached down to adjust the fit around her waist, then glanced up at the ceiling. Boyd followed her gaze, seeing dots of colorful light dancing across the ice above them.

“Is...your suit’s display making those?” she asked, her ears flattening against her head.

He felt his stomach drop, his blood freezing in his veins as he turned his eyes to the floor beneath their feet. Through the sheet of shimmering, blue ice was a kaleidoscopic spiral of blinking lights, creating mesmerizing patterns as they whirled and danced in the murky water.

“It is in the ocean below us,” Lorza whispered, her growing panic making her voice waver.

They were both rooted to the spot, frozen in place, too terrified to move lest they draw the monster’s attention. Boyd felt a bead of sweat drip down his forehead in spite of the cold, an unfamiliar dread overcoming him. He was trained to thrive in the chaos of a firefight, and even to resist the agony of torture, but the prospect of being hunted and devoured ignited an ancient and primal terror that was locked away deep in his bones. Memories of poor Alexei being dragged towards its maw of jagged teeth flashed through his mind, that terrible, final scream replaying in his head like a broken record.

The creature shot up towards them, slamming into the ice sheet with enough force to knock the pair off-balance, its surface fracturing with a sound like a gunshot. It must have been a meter thick at least – maybe two – but the beast struck it with the force of a hammer. It jolted the pair out of their stupor, and they scrambled for the exit, stooping to pick up their packs without breaking stride.

Boyd raced ahead of Lorza – there was no way he was getting trapped behind her if she got stuck again, not with that unspeakable horror on their heels. They reached the opening to the gallery, as the Polar had called it, fleeing back up the sloping crevasse towards the surface. The blizzard still raged, but being frozen to death was marginally better than being eaten alive by something that looked like it had been dredged out of a deep-sea trench. Another loud cracking sound echoed after them, followed by splashing. The creature had made it through.

They dodged through the uneven passage, Boyd’s boots sliding on the slippery ground, Lorza having to duck and weave to avoid hitting her head on jutting pieces of ice. He turned to look back at her as he passed through a narrow squeeze, the panting Polar having to turn sideways to make it through, almost sobbing with a blend of fear and panic. The crevasse was a couple of hundred meters deep, at least, and it would take them a few minutes to reach the surface. Did the thing have time to catch up to them? Could it even fit down these cramped tunnels? It had looked so unwieldy and awkward when it had chased them across the ice during their first encounter.

The ceiling above their heads gave way to the towering walls of the crevasse, the blizzard blotting out the sky, the wind howling through the gaps in the ice. Boyd paused to look back again, seeing Lorza hurrying after him. Behind her, a dark mass of teeth and tentacles was squeezing its way through the cracks, contorting its spongy body to fit through openings that seemed far too small for something of its size. It reminded Boyd of an octopus squeezing into a glass bottle in search of a morsel of fish left there by its handlers. It was coming fast – faster than they could outrun it – the way that its jet-black flesh glistened as it moved making it look like an ink stain brought to life.

It was gaining on Lorza, reaching out its tentacle towards her, the bioluminescent pustules that ran down their length pulsing with colorful light. She threw herself through another narrow gap between the walls, too small for the creature to get through, its momentum shaking the crevasse around them as it slammed into the obstacle with enough force to crack the ice. The thing was in a frenzy, rearing its gelatinous body back to hammer into the obstruction, some of its grasping tentacles slithering through. Lorza stumbled to her feet, narrowly avoiding one of the appendages as it swiped at her tail, Boyd waving her on frantically.

“Come on!” he yelled, the ice beneath his feet shaking as the monster made another attempt to smash its way through the gap. “That might not hold it!”

They made their way towards the fading sunlight, the wind buffeting them as they emerged onto the open tundra, the snow reducing their visibility to only a few feet. Boyd briefly checked his display to get his bearings, having to wipe the droplets of melting snow from its screen.

“What do we do now?” Lorza asked, raising an arm to shield herself from the storm. She was only standing a few paces away, and he could barely hear her voice. “We cannot stay exposed like this!”

“There have to be more caves or crevasses around here,” Boyd replied. “The whole area was all torn up from what I could see on our approach. We don’t have much time – my battery is almost spent, and that thing could still be after us.”

“Over there!” Lorza said, pointing into the blizzard.

“What?” Boyd asked. “I can’t see shit.”

“My eyes are better than yours,” she replied, setting off into the snow. “Hold onto my tail!”

“What? Why?”

“It is how we prevent kittens from getting lost in snowstorms. They hold their mother’s tail and form a chain behind her.”

He wanted to argue, but every second that he spent complaining was another second closer to freezing. Instead, he reached out to grip her fluffy tail, following her through the knee-deep snow. He looked over his shoulder, watching the opening to the crevasse like a hawk as it slowly vanished into the white haze, but they were not pursued.

***

Freezing and on the brink of exhaustion, they finally found shelter, taking refuge inside another crevasse a half hour’s walk from where the squid creature had ambushed them. Though they feared it might somehow still be tracking them beneath the ice, they had no other option but to chance it. Boyd was almost out of battery, and even Lorza was suffering from the extreme cold. At least this cave was shallower, and he couldn’t see the water beneath the ice, making him more confident that the squid wouldn’t pummel its way up through the floor again while they were asleep.

They had been forced to stay out in the cold longer than was safe, wanting to get as much distance as possible between them and the previous cave, 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 sit on.

“What’s the deal with that fucking thing?” Boyd demanded of nobody in particular, shaking some of the melted slurry off his sleeve. “Doesn’t it have anything else to eat?”

“I am more concerned with why it hunts near the surface,” Lorza replied, pausing to lick the ice from the back of her hand. He could see her tongue now – it was tapered at the end, covered in a forest of little barbs that she was using to comb her fur. “We have seen no signs of life on the surface, no plants or animals of any kind. The sea life must have evolved around geothermal vents, perhaps created by the gravitational forces exerted on the moon by Hades. Why has it evolved this behavior?”

“How do you figure all that?” Boyd asked.

“I work on a survey ship, it is my job,” she replied. “Well, I worked on a survey ship...”

“It reminds me of an orca – a killer whale,” Boyd mused, shrugging off his pack. “They’ll sometimes beach themselves on the ice to chase penguins.”

“We have something akin to your seals in my home territory,” Lorza added with a nod. “They would leave the frozen lakes to bask on the snow, where they were safe from predators. That was when they were most vulnerable to our hunting parties. We valued their pelts for warmth, their meat for food, and even their blubber for fuel. Perhaps there is a creature on this moon that has developed a similar strategy for evading predators, and the beast that stalks us has evolved a means to reach it.”

“I could use some space seal meat right about now,” Boyd sighed, sitting down to lean against the cave wall. His stomach was growling almost as loud as Lorza’s had the night before. His nutrient pills included an appetite suppressant, but he’d have to find an excuse to get away from Lorza before he started popping those. Instead, he fished in one of his pockets for a precious cereal bar, Lorza’s ears pricking up as she heard him open the plastic wrapper. To his surprise, she didn’t ask him to share.

“You alright?” he asked, taking a bite.

“Why the sudden concern?” she replied, brushing some of the ice off her coveralls. “Pizdyet, I just got this dry...”

“I won’t get very far without my space heater.”

“Very funny,” she muttered. She paused suddenly, reaching for her paunchy belly as she let out a groan. “My stomach,” she sighed, her ears drooping. “I wish that we could go faster. I wish that I had the strength to run for three days and nights, but I am too weak.”

“Wouldn’t survive out there anyway,” Boyd added, gesturing back down the tunnel with his half-eaten snack. “We have to take it slow and steady. We try to overextend ourselves, and this moon is gonna eat us alive.”

“You do not seem worried,” Lorza mused, scrutinizing him from across the little chamber. “Earlier, you acted as though my actions had doomed us both. Now, the prospect of going days without food does not perturb you?”

“Me griping and arguing won’t bring back the food you ate,” he replied, crossing his arms. It was a half-truth. While what she had done could not be undone, the real reason that he wasn’t panicking was because he still had his reserve of emergency pills. He could probably starve for another week without really feeling the effects, as long as he had a freshly-printed liver waiting for him at the next UNN starbase.

She began to lay out her sleeping bag, fluffing the padded material like a cat preparing to sleep on its favorite blanket, her fur still dripping with melted snow. The Polar looked about as miserable as he had ever seen her. She was hungry, exhausted, and soaked to the bone to top it all off. This time, she wasn’t even bothering to dry her clothes, she just seemed to want to sleep.

“Hey,” he muttered, getting her attention. She paused what she was doing, glancing over at him suspiciously. “I’ll leave my suit on for a little bit. Might help you dry off faster.”

Her expression softened somewhat, and she nodded. Boyd felt his stomach gurgle, and he had to stop himself from doubling over, his reluctant companion’s ears rising as though she could hear it from across the cave. If he didn’t get an appetite suppressant soon, his guts were going to collapse in on themselves like a singularity.

“Gotta drain the worm,” he muttered, struggling to his feet.

“Is this a worm that we can eat?” she asked.

“I mean I’m going to relieve myself,” he clarified, heading deeper into the tunnel. “Don’t worry, I know you have a sensitive nose,” he added as she narrowed her eyes at him. “I’ll go a ways.”

Boyd made his way through the icy passageway, finding that it had the same oddly sculpted look as the crevasse that they had been chased out of. Lorza had mentioned something about meltwater carving out these channels in the glacier, perhaps in a way that mirrored the formation of canyons back home. It was an odd comparison to draw – the arid climate of Utah was about as far removed from this frozen hellscape as it was possible to get – but the same natural phenomena were at play.

Wary of going too deep lest he encounter another hungry squid, he stopped, glancing over his shoulder to ensure that he had broken Lorza’s line of sight. Confident that he was alone, he zipped open his suit, gritting his teeth against the cold as he examined his injury. The ugly bruise on his ribs hadn’t diminished, and it was still pocked with worrying patches of red, the valve on the emergency stint creating its own little puffs of condensation as it evacuated his chest cavity. That last mad dash for safety had left him more out of breath than he was used to. He needed to get to a hospital, and fast, or starvation would be the least of his worries.

After sealing his suit again, the warmth returned, and he turned his attention to his medical kit. He folded it open, glancing over the tools and medicines that remained, then reached for the little velcro strip that held the resealable packet of pills in place. He cursed under his breath as the unmistakable sound echoed up the tunnel, then popped one of the large tablets into his mouth, swallowing it dry. The stimulant might make sleeping difficult, but no more than the hunger would have.

“What are you doing?”

He spun around, seeing Lorza standing in the tunnel behind him, her ears flat. For how large and heavy she was, she could be remarkably quiet on those fleshy paw pads when she wanted to be.

“Come to watch me piss?” he chided, but her eyes were locked onto his medkit.

“What do you have there?”

“It’s just medicine,” he replied, presenting it to her as nonchalantly as he could muster under the circumstances. “These are antibiotics. Who knows what kinds of bacteria are floating around out here?” He tried to close the pouch before she had a chance to get a better look, but she was fast, lunging forward to snatch it from his hand. “Hey! I need that!”

“If it was just medicine, you would not be trying so hard to hide it from me,” she growled as her eyes began to scan the tools inside. Boyd felt his heart begin to beat faster, a blend of apprehension and the stimulant that he had just taken making the hairs on the back of his neck stand on end. She was blocking the tunnel – there was no way past her, and he had no idea what lay deeper down the passage.

“Lorza-”

“Emergency...nutritional...supplement,” she said, reading off the unfamiliar English words. “These pills...they are a substitute for food. You have had these in your possession this entire time, and you let me starve?” she demanded as she lifted her furious eyes to him. There was hurt in her tone, accompanied by an undercurrent of anger that gave her every syllable a sting. “You could have shared the rations fairly – you could have given them all to me and not suffered for a moment because of it. I could have eaten three thousand calories a day, but you...”

“Listen to me,” he began, starting to back away from her. “You don’t understand. Those supplements-”

“Oh, I understand,” she snarled as she matched his movements. She tossed the medkit to the ground, flexing her fingers as though preparing to make use of her claws. They were as sharp as knives, curved like meat hooks, long enough to fillet him like a fish. “When I was begging for a fair share of the food, when I was starving, you forced me to steal to survive. You lay there and listened to my stomach churn when you had an entire stash of these pills in your pocket!”

She bellowed that last word, her voice bouncing off the walls of ice, reverberating through his very bones.

“Those aren’t aspirins,” he insisted, raising his hands defensively. As well as buying him a few precious seconds, it allowed him to see the readout on his display. She might know about his knife, but she had no idea that his suit could discharge its battery to deliver a shock. With such a low charge, would it even have an effect on someone of her mass? It could stop a human’s heart, so he wasn’t eager to find out, but Lorza might not give him a better option. “They can do me serious damage, and they’re formulated for humans. I don’t even know if Polars can eat them!”

“No more dangerous than starving!” she snapped, her brow furrowing like an angry wolf. “You little rat! Were you going to wait until I was on my deathbed before you shared!?”

“You had your chance,” he shot back, jabbing a finger at her indignantly. “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. You couldn’t stomach a fifty-fifty split, so you just took what you wanted!”

Lorza was shaking with rage, her claws splayed, her black lips pulling back to expose her sharp teeth as Boyd ranted. The floodgates were open now, and he was letting all of his bottled-up resentment spill forth.

“You aren't going to die,” he scoffed, gesturing to her. “You have enough fat to last you a fucking month, but I'll starve to death without those pills.”

“Look at me, mudak!” she snapped as she gave her stomach an aggressive pat. She wasn’t exactly emaciated, but he could see that her belly and thighs had somewhat diminished, not straining against her coveralls in quite the same way that they had when the pair had set out. “This is not normal for me! I am burning through all of the fat reserves that are supposed to be insulating me from the cold! Maybe I should make a meal out of you,” she growled, taking another step towards him.

“Oh, I've been ready for this,” Boyd replied as he stooped to draw his blade from his boot. “I'd love to see you try, you mangy furball.”

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

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

Lorza snapped, loosing a bestial roar as she swung a hand the size of a dinner plate towards his face. He ducked under it, a blow that could have taken his head clean off his shoulders missing him by a hair, displacing the air. The strike hit the tunnel wall beside him, her hooked talons chipping the ice, showering him with frozen fragments. As he rose, he drew the little ceramic knife from his boot, slicing it across the Polar’s forearm. The blade cut through the tough fabric of her coveralls, biting into the flesh beneath, a patch of dark red staining the blue. The shallow cut might have drawn blood, but it wouldn’t be enough to deter her.

Her eyes wide with rage, their pupils dilated into dark circles like a cat stalking its prey, she lunged towards him with a follow-up swipe. Boyd dodged away from her, narrowly avoiding her, those black claws whistling as they cut through the air. Under normal circumstances, she should have been stronger and faster than any human could have hoped to be, but a combination of hunger and cold was making her sluggish. Boyd, on the other hand, had just taken a stimulant formulated to keep a starving man marching for a day. He was as awake as he had ever been, the pangs of hunger already a fading memory, what remained of his battery charge keeping the cold at bay.

Lorza charged at him, shouldering her way through a pillar of ice that was blocking her path, Boyd dancing out of her reach like a boxer. It must have been half a meter thick, but it crumbled before her six-hundred-pound frame, disintegrating into fragments as she plowed into it. The broken pieces scattered across the slippery floor as she pursued Boyd, the agent avoiding another clumsy strike. She was already exhausted after their mad dash from the squid and their desperate trek through the blizzard. If she was willing to take things this far, it might be the best chance he’d get to neutralize the threat.

She let out another bellow as she swung a fist that could break bone, but Boyd used the opportunity to dart in, swiping the blade across her belly. While he drew blood, the cut was barely a scratch by her standards. If he wanted to do damage, he’d have to hit an artery. He cut her again, the rampaging Polar’s long arms disadvantaging her in close quarters, but she responded with a knee to his belly that lifted him off the floor. The wind was knocked out of his lungs as he hit the ice, a sharp, alarming pain coming from the vicinity of his stint. He couldn’t take many hits like that.

As he struggled to his feet, the Polar charged him, leaving him little time to get out of her path. She was like a freight train made of fat and muscle, unstoppable by human standards. He had only a moment to roll out of the way as she brought her foot down on the floor where he had been lying, conveying enough force to crack the ice.

Boyd began to circle her, swapping his bloodied knife from hand to hand, keeping her guessing as to where the next attack would come from. He was no more afraid of Lorza than he had been of the mobsters in the warehouse, this was what he had trained for, but techniques intended for humans wouldn’t work against an eight-foot Borealan. He would have to improvise.

“Come on!” he yelled, trying to goad her into charging him again. She took the bait, baring her teeth as she crossed the narrow tunnel at a run. As she lunged, he dropped to deliver a kick, trying to sweep her feet out from under her. His boot connected with her ankle, but she had so much mass that it was like trying to topple a marble statue. All he succeeded in doing was making her stumble, her momentum carrying him to the ground along with her, the pair tumbling across the ice.

Lorza was the first to right herself, catching Boyd as he was getting his bearings. With a snarl, her claws flashed again, this time finding their mark. He pulled back, but too late, the tips of her razor-sharp talons tearing through his hood. They glanced off the rebreather that covered his mouth and nose, one of them slicing into his cheek, cutting deep into his flesh. He ignored the dull throb of pain, scrambling out of her reach, taking up a defensive posture. Blood had now been shed on both sides, droplets of crimson freezing where they spattered the floor beneath his feet. The two began to circle one another again, Lorza growling like a beast. As much as her hunger had weakened her, it was also driving her.

She attacked again, and this time, Boyd caught her arm. Attempting to use her immense weight against her, he tried to throw her, the alien slamming her face into the wall as the momentum carried her past him. She stumbled, dazed by the blow, Boyd taking advantage to strike at her thigh. It was the only vital point that he could reach, but again, the blade failed to penetrate her thick layers of fat. It was like trying to slay a bear with a letter opener.

Her long, dexterous tail snaked out to tangle his legs, pulling his feet out from under him. For all his training, he hadn't expected an attack from that angle. He crumpled to the floor, the Polar wheeling around to face him, blood dripping from her feline nose. She loomed over him, drawing back an arm as she prepared another swipe. He placed a hand firmly behind the handle of his knife, driving it through her palm as she struck. Lorza yowled like a cat with its tail caught in a door, wrenching the knife out of his hands as she withdrew, retreating a few paces. Her fingers shaking, she plucked the ceramic blade free like an oversized thorn, discarding it on the floor with a clatter. Her white fur was stained red in places by both of their blood, Lorza snarling as she clenched her wounded hand into a fist. She reached up to wipe her bloody nose with the back of her hand as she advanced once more, seeing that Boyd was now disarmed.

The agent leapt to his feet, driven by his surging adrenaline and the stimulants that were coursing through his system, letting out a war cry as he rushed towards her. He ducked under another of her swipes, harrying her belly with a flurry of swift punches, aiming for the kidneys and groin. His opponent scarcely seemed to feel it, Boyd barely avoiding another strike from her knee. With a bellow of frustration, he delivered a vicious kick to the side of the joint in an attempt to buckle it, but she ended his assault with a backhanded strike that sent him reeling. She was so strong – it was like being hit in the face with a hammer, Boyd feeling his rebreather cut into the bridge of his nose.

The Polar reached down to grab his arm, Boyd stifling a cry of pain as her iron grip tightened, his boots leaving the ice. She suspended him above her head, leaving him dangling there helplessly, like a doll in her grasp. At arm’s length, he couldn’t even kick her – she was too far away.

“Enough!” she panted, fatigue starting to get the better of her. “You have...two...options. Give me...the pills...and whatever else...you are hiding. Or...I will eat you...instead.”

Boyd was down to his last card, but playing it might well doom him along with her.

“What...do you have to say...for yourself!?” she demanded.

“Parakeet, hyphenated, Monroe.”

His suit discharged what power remained in its batteries into the circuitry, overloading it and sending a powerful electrical current coursing down Lorza’s arm. Her fur puffed up like a frightened cat, her teeth clenching involuntarily, her eyes snapping wide open. Her fist closed around his forearm as the shock caused every muscle in her body to contract involuntarily, Boyd letting out a wail of pain, his bones fracturing under the stress. After a moment, she went limp, her eyes losing their focus as her legs gave out. As she fell, she loosened her grip, dropping Boyd a good nine or ten feet. His head made contact with the ice, and his cry of alarm was cut short, darkness enveloping him.

***

Boyd awoke to warmth. For a few moments, he didn’t know where he was, but his splitting headache soon reminded him of what had happened. He felt as though some time had passed, but he wasn’t sure how much. How long had he been out? As he glanced up, he saw Lorza’s fluffy fur peeking out over her blue collar, her massive chin practically resting on his head. He was pressed up tightly against her inside the sleeping bag, its insulated fabric enveloping them both, creating a pocket of heat. Lorza’s long arms were wrapped around him – cradling him – and her chest was squashing against his torso. Had she carried him here after they had both been knocked out?

A wave of guilt washed over him. What the hell had they been thinking, fighting like that? What if one of them had been injured to the point that they couldn’t continue the journey? What if one of them had been killed, dooming the other? They needed each other – there was no getting around that. Lorza couldn’t navigate without him, and he couldn’t survive the freezing nights without her.

She shifted in her sleep, and Boyd let out a yelp, her movement bumping against his arm to send a stab of pain shooting up the limb. It really was broken. The Polar opened her eyes to peer down at him, her ears drooping.

“Are you...”

“Nothing a little medical attention can’t patch,” he replied. “What about you?”

“No lasting damage, I think.”

“Listen,” Boyd began, stumbling over his words. “I’m-”

“I’m sorry too,” she said, preempting him. “I was just so angry when I found out that you were hiding food from me. The hunger, the stress...well, that is no excuse for the way I behaved. When you fought back, I felt as though you meant to kill me.”

“I haven’t been plotting to kill you, Lorza,” he mumbled into her collar. “I just...” He trailed off, struggling to collect his jumbled thoughts. “I was so angry after you ate the rations. The pills were all I had left, and while it’s true that I don’t know what kind of effect they’d have on a Polar, I guess I was also trying to get back at you. When you attacked me, my training just kicked in, and I did what I felt I had to do to incapacitate you. It’s like flipping a switch for me.”

“I suppose I deserved that,” she sighed. “I really did need to eat those rations, but I will not claim that I did not glean some satisfaction in punishing you for denying me food and for killing my crew.”

“We’re as bad as each other,” he added with a humorless chuckle. “I guess we’re even now. You stole my food, I hid the pills. You broke my arm, I shocked you unconscious. Neither one of us can claim to have the moral highground.”

Broke your arm?” she repeated, her eyes widening. “Boyd, f-forgive me! I-”

“It’s my own damned fault,” he replied, wincing as he tried to move the limb. “You crushed it when I shocked you.”

“What did you hit me with, at the end?” Lorza asked. “What was that?”

“An electric shock,” he explained. “My suit can discharge its batteries into the lining.”

He left out the fact that it could kill a human, not wanting to add salt to the wound. He had deployed the weapon as a last resort, not knowing what effect it would have on her. Thank the stars that it had done no lasting damage, likely thanks to its low charge and Lorza’s sheer mass.

“That fancy suit of yours again,” she muttered.

Boyd expected probing questions, but none came. She had to be piecing together the clues about his identity – she was as shrewd as they came – but perhaps guilt or a newfound respect kept her silent. He shifted his weight, and was once again rocked by a dizzying throb of pain from his broken arm. It couldn’t wait – he had to deal with it now.

“I brought your medkit,” Lorza added, picking up on his discomfort. “I did not eat the pills.”

“Would you fetch it for me?” he asked, the Polar nodding her head in reply. “I need to clean up the mess I made.” Lorza peeled open the sleeping bag, doing her utmost not to jostle him, but their proximity made the task impossible. He struggled out into the cold, checking his battery, seeing that there was precious little left. He decided to activate the heating element anyway – he couldn’t do first aid with shaking hands. Even the effort of tapping at the touch panel on his good arm hurt, each press sending a jolt of pain shooting up his limb. The system didn’t have enough power to run a diagnostic, but he didn’t need the suit’s suite of sensors to know that his arm was fucked and his nose was broken.

Slowly, he unzipped his suit, peeling the sleeve off his injured arm. He could already see an ugly, purple bruise spreading along its length, and it was starting to swell. Lorza handed him the open medkit, hovering over his shoulder restlessly, not sure what to do or say.

“I am sorry,” she began, but he shook his head at her.

“Like I said – it’s my own damn fault. The worst you gave me was this scratch on my cheek,” he said, gesturing to the cut. It had already started to scab over, but it probably needed to be sealed. “Don’t worry,” he added, noticing her concerned expression. “It’s nothing a plastic surgeon can’t laser off. I’ll be as good as new once we get back to civilization. How about you?”

“That tiny knife?” she scoffed, a little of her usual sarcasm returning. That was reassuring. “It did no lasting damage.”

“Still, I’ll dress the cuts,” he said as he fished for a tool inside the pouch. “It’s the least I can do.”

He withdrew a tubular device – a hypodermic injector – and loaded a small capsule into a slot on its handle. He pressed it against the skin of his arm, then activated it, a tiny needle shooting out to deliver its payload.

“Metabolic stimulant,” he explained as the curious alien watched. “It’ll help the bones heal faster. This next one is a painkiller,” he added, loading a second capsule before returning the device to his arm. It was fast-acting, and he allowed himself to relax for a moment, the steady thrum of pain gradually diminishing.

Next, he withdrew a little roll of fabric mesh. It was pocked with honeycomb-shaped holes, almost like chicken wire, forming a tube. Boyd carefully slid it over his forearm, where it hung loosely from the limb. He drew a small electrode about the size of a pin from the kit, then pressed it into the material, the mesh suddenly tightening around the limb as it became as hard as a plaster cast.

“This is a brace,” he explained, moving the arm tentatively. “It starts off flexible, but when you apply an electric current, it becomes firm and keeps its shape. It’ll stop the bones from moving around while they heal, reinforce the limb, and protect it from impacts. Since it’s a mesh, air can pass through it, and it doesn’t get in the way when you need to wash. Not that we have that luxury...”

“You humans think of everything,” she mused.

“I’d offer you a painkiller, but I’d have to eyeball the dosage,” he added as he glanced up at her. “It’s probably more trouble than it’s worth.”

“Do not worry on my account,” she replied with a smirk. “I think you fared a little worse than I did.”

“Alright, alright,” he grumbled. “Let’s agree to call it a draw.”

“If you say so.”

Boyd slid his arm back into its sleeve, then pulled back his hood, feeling the cold sting his skin as the seal around his neck broke. He applied some adhesive patches to the deep cut on his cheek that were about the size and shape of bandaids, the two halves joined together by something akin to a zip-tie, helping to seal the wound when pulled taut. The cut on the bridge of his nose wasn’t so severe, but its position would cause endless irritation by rubbing against his rebreather. He placed an adhesive bandage over it to protect it, then sealed his hood again, his lungs filling with warm air. As much as he wanted to check his emergency stint, he wasn’t sure if he wanted to reveal it to Lorza. There was no real benefit in her knowing, as there was nothing that either of them could do about it.

“Your tiny knife is still down the tunnel, by the way,” Lorza added with a gesture to the nearby opening. “Better fetch it before we leave.”

“Come sit with me first,” he said, patting the floor beside him.

“What for?” she replied, tilting her head skeptically. “Give me some of those bandages, and I can dress my own wounds.”

“Just sit,” he insisted.

With a shrug, she lowered herself down beside him, so large that his head was level with her shoulders. He produced the injector again, changing its mode with a couple of button presses, then brought it to her arm.

“Roll up your sleeve. This might sting a little.”

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

“Taking a blood sample.”

She resigned herself, pulling up her sleeve to expose her furry coat, grimacing as Boyd stuck her with the needle. It filled an empty vial with dark blood, Lorza rubbing her arm as he linked the device to his suit over ad-hoc, using its onboard computer to analyze the sample.

“Low iron content. You run the risk of anemia. I don’t know anything about Polar physiology, but your blood sugar and lipid content is low, 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 desperate. He had dismissed her complaints as the whining of a glutton, and he had mocked her even as her body was eating itself to stay alive. “Take this,” he added, handing her four of his eight remaining nutrient pills. She took them in her furry palm, staring first at them, then at him.

“Do you not need them?”

“I can make do, I’m not going to die,” he replied as he reached out to close her fingers around them. “You need these a lot more than I do right now. Listen, they’re formulated for humans, and they’ll do a real number on your kidneys if you take too many too quickly. The appetite suppressant and the stimulant probably won’t do much for someone of your size, but they’re packed with essential minerals and vitamins. It’s something, at least.”

“Thank you, Boyd,” she replied.

“I’m sorry that I didn’t take you seriously,” he added, watching as she swallowed one of the pills. “And, I didn’t mean what I said about the crash.”

“I know.”

He rose to his feet, then set off down the tunnel to look for his knife.

“Better pack up your sleeping bag. It’s time to get moving again.”

CHAPTER 6: TERMINATED

They marched through the snow, following Hades as their only guide. The landscape was devoid of any identifiable landmarks, completely flat in every direction, but the arid planet shone night and day. It almost looked like a harvest moon back on Earth, sharing the rusty hues, but shrouded in the blue haze of its atmosphere. He felt as if he could reach out and brush the planet with his fingertips. Salvation was so near by stellar terms, but so out of reach by human metrics.

His arm was secure beneath its cast, and the cocktail of drugs that were coursing through his system had taken the edge off the pain and his hunger. Lorza seemed to be doing a little better, too. He doubted whether the nutrient pills had had much of an effect on her, but at least the pair had worked through some of their stress and resentment. As dangerous and as stupid as their fight in the cave had been, it was a strange kind of therapy.

As they mounted another 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?” he asked.

“Hush...”

They crept up to the top of the drift, keeping low to the snow, Boyd peeking over its lip to see an expanse of exposed ice stretching out before them. Sitting out in the open, basking in the sunlight, was something alive. It was hard to make out what it was at first, but as Boyd watched it through his tinted visor, he started to get an idea of its shape.

It was some kind of scaleless fish, its body covered in a layer of slick, shining skin that was a deep brown in color that bordered on black. In many ways, it looked like the hide of the squid creature, oily and glistening. Its body plan was very different, however. It was elongated, with a large head that tapered into a streamlined body, ending in a tail with a very understated fin. It had four flippers that were splayed out on the ice, which it almost seemed to be using as legs to push itself along on its belly, like some kind of transitional form. It had no eyes that he could see, but the red, fleshy gills that ran down its flanks were bubbling as they exchanged gasses with the environment. It was resting close to a hole in the ice – presumably where it had breached.

“Looks like a giant mudskipper,” Boyd whispered.

“I knew it!” Lorza hissed, ducking a little to keep out of sight. “This is why that creature hunts us! This...land-fish must be its usual prey, and because we walk above the ice, its simple mind mistakes us for a meal.”

“Just like a shark attacking a surfboard,” Boyd replied with a nod. “That thing looks to be about the size of a seal. Are you thinking what I’m thinking?” he added, grinning behind his mask as he glanced over at her.

“I have always been partial to fish,” she replied, returning a toothy smile. “The question is – how do we catch it? We have no weapons, nothing to throw, not even a branch at hand to carve into a spear. Have you anything that we can use?”

“Sorry, I must have forgotten to pack my harpoon,” he replied sarcastically.

“Then, we will have to hunt in the old way,” Lorza continued as she turned her gaze back to their prey. “With tooth and claw.”

“You’re gonna run out there and grab it?” Boyd asked, chuckling for a moment before realizing that she was being serious. “Not to pick at old wounds, but you’re not exactly spry. Are you fast enough to catch that thing?”

“I have not seen it move,” she replied with a shrug. “It could be fast, it could be slow. In my experience, any watergoing creature that beaches itself willingly is not spry, as you would put it.” “I don’t see any eyes,” Boyd added. “Maybe you can sneak up close and get the jump on it before it notices you – put those hooked claws to use.”

“The Elysians love their bare-handed fishing,” she replied, flexing her talons. “Stay here. I can move more quietly than you can.”

“So I’ve noticed,” he muttered, watching as she slowly scaled the drift.

She began to climb down the other side, keeping as low as someone of her size was able, leaving wide paw prints in the snow. Her quarry was entirely alien – they had no way to know if it sensed its environment through smell, sound, or vibration. It could be totally blind while on the ice, or it could bolt at the slightest disturbance like a frightened deer. He felt his heart quicken as she narrowed the distance between her and the fish, the tension rising. They hadn’t seen anything but snow and ice since they had landed on the moon, which meant that chances like this could be few and far between. That was a whole lot of meat to let slip away.

As Lorza came within a hundred meters of the thing, it stirred, flopping onto its belly as though preparing to flee. It lay there, its strange, bulbous head turning left and right as though trying to sense something. The Polar froze like a statue, one foot still raised off the snow, Boyd’s breath catching in his throat as he watched. Had it noticed her?

Something caught his eye, and he glanced to the ice beyond the drift, where the white powder gave way to its blue sheen. It was thin enough that he could see beneath it, a mass that was even darker than the murky water surrounding it floating along in eerie silence, as still as a piece of driftwood. Behind it, he could make out the vague outline of trailing tentacles, the colorful points of light that they emitted bleeding up through the ice.

Just like Lorza, he found himself paralyzed, but for very different reasons. He wasn’t sure what to do. Should he cry out? Wave his arms? Run down to help her? If only she’d had a damned radio. Remembering how sensitive her ears were, he decided on the former, raising his voice as loud as he dared.

“Lorza!” he hissed. When she didn’t react, he raised his voice a little higher, and one of her fuzzy ears swiveled in his direction. “Lorza! Don’t move! It’s coming!”

He didn’t need to elaborate further, her head turning to face the ice as she searched for the creature. She couldn’t run away now – it was too close, and they had both seen how fast it could move. The fish, on the other hand, was flopping clumsily across the ice as it made for the safety of its hole. Whether it was fleeing from Lorza or it had somehow sensed the approach of the creature, it was impossible to say, but it was moving as fast as its four flippers would allow. Boyd watched – powerless – as the black shape drifted beneath the Polar. In the blink of an eye, it could breach the ice and swallow her whole, just as it had Alexei.

To his relief, it passed beneath her, more interested in the flopping fish that was struggling along ahead of her. It covered the distance rapidly, and when it was beneath its prey, those trailing arms fanned out into a spiral. Mesmerizing lights swirled and danced, the fish stopping in its tracks, tilting its head to watch. It must have eyes after all, or perhaps some analogous light-sensing organ. With a sudden flurry of motion, the squid launched itself upward, exploding through the thin sheet like a torpedo. It sent a shower of shattered ice and dark water spraying in all directions, throwing the fish into the air like an Orca tossing a seal. The poor creature flopped down nearby, stunned by the blow, the squid’s many tentacles snaking out to engulf it. It was dragged, thrashing, into the yawning maw of the monster. That ring of serrated teeth turned it to chum like a saw, and then, the beast was gone. It slipped back beneath the ice, then sank from view, its colorful bioluminescence fading into the darkness below.

Only now did Lorza bolt, wheeling around to race back towards the snowdrift, moving remarkably quickly on her long legs. Boyd waved her on as if the snow presented any kind of safety, but where else could they go? She hauled herself up the drift and back onto his side, skidding to a stop in the powder, breathing hard.

“Fuck!” Boyd exclaimed, glancing over the lip again to make sure she wasn’t being followed. “Are you alright?”

“Physically, yes,” she replied as she looked back at him with wide eyes. “Emotionally, you will be selling that fancy suit to pay for my therapy when we get back home.”

“Damn it!” he growled, burying his fist in the snow. “That fish thing couldn’t have outrun you. It would have been trivial to catch, and we could have eaten our fill of flame-roasted meat. We could have gone to sleep with full bellies if it wasn’t that loathsome fucking squid!”

“How is still pursuing us?” Lorza demanded, throwing up her arms in frustration. “Does it sense us through the ice? Can it track our footfalls?”

“It wasn’t interested in you,” Boyd mused, peering out at the jagged hole that it had left in the ice sheet. “When you stood still, it passed right by you and went for the fish. Maybe it’s attracted to sound, movement, vibrations? It doesn’t go for us when we’re on the snow, only when we step onto the ice.”

“We cannot cross this,” Lorza added, gesturing to the expanse that lay before them. “Unless you propose that we go around? I see nothing but ice in all directions save for behind us. We are short on time as it is.”

“I’m not proposing that we go around it,” Boyd replied, his stern expression giving her pause. “I’m proposing that we kill the fucking thing. I’m done with letting this thing haunt us, and stealing a meal right from our plates is the last straw. What do you say? Let’s take it down.”

“Were it so easy!” she scoffed. “In case you had forgotten, we have no weapons, and it is both stronger and faster than we are. Did you not see how it...” She trailed off, averting her eyes. “It ate Alexei like he was a damned pelmeni. It is a little dumpling filled with meat,” she added, seeing Boyd’s confused expression. “It does not matter. My point is, the beast is dangerous. How do you hope to best it?”

“It might be strong and fast, but it doesn’t look very resilient,” Boyd replied. “Its body looks soft, gelatinous, like Earth’s cephalopods. Poke it with something sharp, and it’ll probably pop like a balloon full of offal.”

“We cannot stake our lives on probably,” Lorza grumbled. “I take it you have a plan to propose?”

“It seems to go after anything on the surface – anything that moves,” he began. “We know that it has far too many eyes, and that it isn’t picky about what it makes a meal of. Maybe we can...toss one of our packs to distract it? Take it from behind?”

“And then what?” Lorza asked, tilting her head sarcastically. “Should I wrestle it into submission? My claws might best a fish, but not that creature. If only we had a stick,” she sighed, sinking down into the snow to lie on her side. “I would trade all of my belongings back home to have a simple branch right now...” “Well, let’s think,” he continued. “What tools do we have at hand?”

“Tape, foam grenades, medical implements,” she said as she counted them off on her four-fingered hand. “Maybe toothpaste is toxic to it,” she joked, eliciting a chuckle from Boyd. “What of your suit? Can you do that...electric thing again?”

“No,” he replied with a shake of his head. “I’d have to discharge the batteries, which would shut off the heating element. I’d die of hypothermia before we could reach shelter. That’s assuming I even have enough juice to hurt the thing.”

“Yes, it did not fare so well against me,” Lorza added with a smirk.

“Could you go toe to toe with it?” Boyd asked, her smile fading. “Even for a minute or two? Perhaps we could do something with the tape. Tie up its tentacles, maybe?”

“It tore Alexei from my very hands,” she replied, her grimace suggesting that she was reliving the terrible memory. “It was far stronger than I am, I could not hold it at bay. Besides, who knows if the adhesive would even stick to its skin? What if it is too wet or covered in slime?” “It was a dumb suggestion anyway,” Boyd sighed, looking out over the ice again. “Who knows where the thing has gone now? Its last...meal didn’t keep it satisfied for long, so I don’t know how long the fish will tide it over until it’s hungry again.”

“What of the grenades?” Lorza asked, her ears pricking up.

“Those are foam grenades,” Boyd replied. “Unless the squid sets one of us on fire, I don’t see how that helps us.”

“When we crashed, the foam grenade that you told me to set off saved my life,” she explained. “It also hardened enough that even I struggled to dig my way out.”

“I see what you’re getting at,” Boyd said, a little of his optimism returning. “We lure it onto the surface, then we toss a foam grenade at it. With any luck, it might set fast enough to trap the thing.”

“Perhaps it can breathe on land, but for how long?” Lorza replied with an affirmative nod. “It seems to retreat back beneath the ice quickly.”

“I think it’s the best shot we have,” Boyd said, shrugging off his pack. He reached inside, finding the two grenades, handing one off to Lorza. “We only have two, so make it count. You ever thrown a grenade before?”

“Do I look like I have ever so much as seen a grenade?” she asked, narrowing her eyes at him.

“Prime it and throw it, same as you did when we crashed,” he replied as he gestured to the red button on the metallic casing. “Just make sure it lands near the thing. You know what – let me go first.” “What do we do?” she continued. “Just walk out there and see what happens?”

“There’s nothing else we can do,” he said, retrieving his pack. “We can’t wait for it – don’t have the time. We walk straight across, and when you see that shadow beneath the ice, you stay still and you throw your pack. With any luck, it’ll go for that instead of us.”

“You are bad at making plans,” she grumbled, but she made no further protests. She knew that it was the best they could come up with. They made their way carefully down the drift and stepped onto the ice, their eyes firmly fixed on their feet as they began to walk.

***

“I see the other side!” Lorza said, Boyd lifting his gaze to see the ice give way to more snow a few hundred meters ahead of them. They had almost crossed the ice sheet, and there had been no sign of the creature so far.

“Maybe our number one fan really did eat its fill,” Boyd said, glancing at the ground warily.

As they approached the relative safety of the snow, Lorza extended an arm to stop him, her head turning as she tracked something behind them. Boyd soon saw it too – a dark shape drifting towards them beneath the ice. It was slow, motionless, save for the way that its trailing tentacles floated in the water behind it.

“It’ll fan out its tentacles before it strikes,” Boyd warned, trying to keep as still as he could while shrugging off his pack. “Here – you can throw further than I can.”

He passed off the pack to Lorza, and she swung it by the straps, sending it sailing through the air. It landed a good twenty meters away, slamming down onto the ice. Boyd watched, only his eyes moving as he tracked the creature, its course changing. With a lazy push from its tentacles, it began to drift towards the pack, no longer heading straight for them. He swallowed the lump in his throat, trying to stave off the primal fear that was commanding him to flee.

“Again, Lorza!” he whispered.

With the same caution, she slowly slipped off her pack, then uttered a grunt as she swung it. The bag landed maybe five meters further away than the first, the impact seeming to draw the squid, its tentacles starting to glow with little points of pulsing light.

“Do not move a muscle,” Lorza hissed. “It seems more interested in the packs.”

Perhaps seeing the shadow of the rucksacks from beneath the ice, it stopped beneath them, starting to fan out its octopus-like arms into a mesmerizing spiral of pulsing colors. It was the prelude to an attack, and just as Boyd had anticipated, the creature propelled itself up through the water with a powerful thrust from its tentacles. The sound of cracking ice echoed across the flat terrain as the beast smashed through, an explosion of murky seawater and frozen fragments showering the surrounding area, close enough that Boyd and Lorza raised their arms reflexively to shield themselves. The nightmarish creature flailed its mass of black tentacles, flopping onto the surface, its gelatinous body undulating as it reached for the nearest pack. It dragged the rucksack towards its maw, tearing into the fabric with its rows of razor teeth, reducing it to fluttering shreds in seconds.

The two onlookers were already moving, trying to put some distance between themselves and the furious creature, running in the opposite direction. It couldn’t have been more than twenty meters away from them. It quickly abandoned the tattered remnants of the pack, turning its ring of expressionless, black eyes and its gaping maw in their direction. Like an octopus dragging itself across the sand, it gave chase, its ink-black hide glistening in the pale light of the moon’s star.

“What are you waiting for!?” Lorza yelled.

Boyd spun around to face it, seeing a mass of teeth and tentacles the size of a small car bearing down on him. He reached into one of the pockets of his suit, pulling out the grenade, his thumb pressing down on the primer. Like he was lawn bowling, he rolled it across the ice, the round device sliding directly beneath the charging alien. There was no explosion, no flash of light or loud bang, merely a sound like escaping gas as the grenade began to disgorge its contents. It was designed to quickly fill rooms and choke out fires, expanding in every direction, the off-white foam taking on the qualities of a cloud as it engulfed the monster. The creature halted in its tracks, disappearing into the mass of foam, its squirming tentacles vanishing from view. As the substance lost the consistency of shaving foam and began to harden, it started to droop, draping itself over the squid. Tentacles writhed, spraying flecks of the foam that glued themselves to the ice, the creature seeming disoriented as it twisted and struggled. The foam was forming a mound now, like a pile of melted plastic, encasing it.

“It’s working!” Boyd exclaimed, allowing himself a moment of relief. “I think-”

The beast burst free, sending fragments of semi-hardened foam scattering across the ice with a violent flail of its powerful arms, its jet-black hide coated with gluey clumps. Far from being trapped, their ploy only seemed to have made it angrier, the thing lurching towards them as it spied its quarry.

“Run!” Lorza shouted, Boyd wheeling around to follow her.

The beast went for the larger target, gaining quickly, remarkably fast in spite of its clumsy gait. One of its tentacles whipped out to entangle the Polar’s legs, and she fell on her face, the grenade that she had been holding bouncing out of her hand. She yowled like an angry cat as it wound its tentacle around her limb, more of the snaking appendages reaching for her, her violent kicking doing nothing to dissuade them. It gripped her legs firmly, starting to drag her towards the gelatinous mass of its body, its mouth splitting open like a wound full of serrated teeth. Lorza dug her claws into the ice like picks in a bit to slow herself, her biceps bulging, but even her strength was no match for the beast. She let out a wail of fear that stopped Boyd dead in his tracks.

He could run and let it take her, but if Lorza died, then he would die soon after. Their fates were intertwined. More than that, he couldn’t watch it tear her apart like it had Alexei, even if it meant putting her life before the mission. All for one, and one for all…

Boyd drew his push blade, bellowing a challenge as he charged into the fray. The creature seemed to hesitate, its attention split between two targets now, leaving Lorza helplessly tangled in its tentacles as it turned its ring of glistening eyes on the newcomer. One of those ropy appendages shot out towards him, dripping with strands of slime, the blister-like orbs of bioluminescent light that ran down its length throbbing angrily. He ducked under the first swipe, hearing its whistle over his head, then slashed at the thing’s oil-slick colored hide with his blade. The sharp edge cut through its skin easily – just as he had imagined – its flesh soft and rubbery. Yellow fluids seeped from the cut, but the creature was undeterred.

Its arms flailed like loose firehoses, the glowing, bioluminescent spots that ran along their length drawing colorful trails in the air. Boyd ducked and weaved, slicing at them wherever he could, his suit showered in flecks of its yellow blood. His blade wasn’t large enough to give it much more than paper cuts. 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. His distraction was helping give Lorza more time to free herself, if nothing else.

The Polar was battling with all of the strength that her starving body had left, slicing at the tentacles that bound her with her wicked claws, hacking them apart like a butcher trying to portion up a stubborn cut of meat. They were far more effective than his knife, her white fur and her blue coveralls soaked with yellow stains and viscous slime, each new cut exposing dark flesh and muscle. The monster seemed conflicted now, perhaps having never encountered prey that put up so much of a fight.

It lurched suddenly, flinching away as Lorza succeeded in severing one of the tentacles that was wrapped around her waist, holding it still with her claws as she ripped it apart with her sharp teeth. Strands of wet meat tore as she savaged it, the dismembered limb falling to the ice, where it flopped and twitched like a tail dropped from a frightened lizard. It wasn’t enough to dissuade the creature, its grip around her midriff and thighs tightening like a noose, her soft fat bulging around its tentacles as she gritted her teeth against the pain.

The distraction created enough of an opening for him to get closer, dodging through its tentacles to reach its bulbous body. He hilted his knife in its wet flesh, dragging the blade across its flank, splattering the ice beneath with its oozing fluids as he opened a gaping wound. It was just as dark on the inside as the outside, as though its very cells had been saturated with black paint. That hurt enough to warrant a response, the thing wheeling around to face him, whipping a heavy tentacle into his torso. He was lifted off his feet, landing flat on his back a few meters away, the impact driving the air from his lungs. A stab of pain emanated from his chest, where the stint was located, dazing him for a few moments.

When he regained his composure, he saw that Lorza was being dragged towards its mouth, so close now that she could touch the creature. With another frenzied wail, she braced her hands against what passed for its face, straining to hold it back as its jaws snapped at her. It had been large enough to swallow Alexei whole, and Lorza wouldn’t make much more than two or three mouthfuls. In a last act of desperation, she began to claw at its eyes, popping them like blisters with her sharp claws. It recoiled, throwing her to the ground, but it didn’t relinquish its tight hold on her. She bought herself a few more seconds, but it was soon dragging her closer again, wrapping more of its limbs around its struggling quarry to immobilize her.

“Boyd!” she cried, the terror in her voice freezing his heart in his chest. He struggled to his feet, then spotted a metallic glint nearby. It was the last foam grenade – the one that Lorza had dropped. Ignoring the stabbing pain in his chest, he began to run, ducking low to snatch the softball-sized device off the ice. He sprinted straight towards the squid, ducking under another furious tentacle swipe, putting himself between Lorza and its flashing teeth.

“What are you doing!?” Lorza wailed as he drew back his arm, the grenade in hand. “Boyd, no!”

He plunged his right arm into its mouth, and its jaws snapped shut like a bear trap, Lorza letting out another cry of dismay as she watched his limb vanish into its maw. Something was wrong, however. The creature bit down again in confusion, its teeth meeting resistance. Boyd’s mesh cast had weathered the blow – the protective casing as hard as concrete – and he dropped the grenade that he had been holding into its gullet. The thing paused, then began to tremble violently, pushing itself across the ice in an attempt to get away from him. It tossed Lorza aside, flinging Boyd away with another swipe, rolling onto its side as its many limbs writhed on the ice like beached eels.

Flame retardant foam spewed from its mouth, solidifying as it dripped to the ground, the thing’s bulbous body convulsing and bloating as its guts filled with hardening froth. It slapped its tentacles against the ice, regurgitating another torrent of liquid foam, then its entire body seemed to stiffen. With one last, wracking shudder, it collapsed. Like a deflating balloon, its gelatinous body seemed to sag, its limbs going limp.

Lorza picked herself up, rising to her feet on the ice. She was shivering – whether from the cold or the fear, Boyd couldn’t tell.

“You okay?” Boyd asked, gripping his bruised ribs as he suppressed a cough. “You injured?”

“No, no,” she muttered as she glanced down at her own blood-soaked hands. She took a moment to compose herself, rubbing her neck where one of the alien’s tentacles had choked her. “I’m okay. Is it...”

Boyd walked over to the creature’s body, giving one of its tentacles a kick. The appendage was loose, unresponsive, lying still. He dared to approach a little closer, giving its rubbery corpse another tentative poke with the toe of his boot. His blood was still coursing with adrenaline, the euphoria that followed a fight washing over him. If the thing had a head, he might have been tempted to cut it off and mount it on his wall as a trophy. This wretched creature had haunted them for days, and they had finally bested it.

“Yep, this fucker is dead,” he called back to Lorza. “I’m not afraid of you,” he muttered to himself, crouching to examine the creature more closely. It had a dozen tentacles, a handful damaged or severed by Lorza’s sharp claws and teeth, its pus-like fluids still leaking from the wounds in its rubbery flesh. The eyes down one side of its face had been gouged by her talons, and 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 took off his glove and briefly rolled up his sleeve to check his arm brace, seeing that 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. There were some holes in his suit where the thing’s fangs had pierced it, so he made his way over to one of the packs, searching for the roll of tape. He began to wrap it around the breach, then tore off a section with his teeth. That should hold – it wasn’t like it needed to be pressurized.

As he turned to look back at Lorza, he saw that she had descended on their kill like a vulture, not wasting a second. She began to tear into one of its fleshy tentacles with her claws, stripping off a hunk of wet meat, bringing it to her mouth.

“Hey, wait a minute!” Boyd protested as he began to jog back over to her. “You don’t know if that’s edible or not! At least let me scan it first!”

She paused with the wobbling piece of flesh an inch from her mouth, her hands already soaked in yellow fluids, turning her head to look at him.

“You can do that?”

“I have a food analyzer,” he replied, coming to a stop beside her. “It’ll take literally fifteen seconds.”

Lorza relented, watching curiously as he cut off a tissue sample from the tentacle with his knife, placing the sliver of rubbery meat on the ice. He brought up his display, tapping at the touch panel, activating the molecular scanner that was built into the sleeve. It was the same principle as the handheld devices often used by the UNN, but integrated into his suit’s systems. He held his forearm over the morsel for a moment, then read off the results, Lorza waiting impatiently.

“The mercury content is a little higher than I’d like, but overall, it’s edible. We should be able to-”

He paused the thought, watching with a blend of awe and disgust as Lorza carefully lifted the chunk of dripping meat to her mouth, biting into it like it was a giant slice of watermelon. She wolfed it down, barely pausing to chew, its yellow blood dripping from her chin like some kind of grisly condiment.

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

Boyd grimaced as she carefully cut away a long strip of gelatinous meat from the tentacle, using the claw on her index finger like a scalpel. She pulled away a piece that must have been a foot long and a couple of inches thick, gripping the slippery skin with her talons, choking it down like a grisly strand of spaghetti. Whether it tasted good or not wasn’t a factor – meat was meat. He set about cutting off some smaller strips for himself, worried that she might not leave any for him, despite the size of their catch.

“Well, I’m going to cook mine,” he said as he used his push-knife to slice off a chunk the size of a salmon steak. Its black color and greasy consistency made it less than appetizing, but it would probably be kinder on his kidneys than the emergency pills. “How are we going to store all this?”

She swallowed another monstrous portion before answering, chewing through its sinew, having already eaten enough meat to feed three people.

“Why do you need to store it?” she asked, already starting to hack away at the next serving. “Just eat it now, and you will not have to carry anything.”

“What do you mean, just eat it now?” Boyd asked as he narrowed his eyes at her. “Oh lord, is that what you’re doing? You’re going to gorge yourself in one sitting?”

“Naturally,” she replied, giving him a quizzical look as she bit off another hunk of rubbery meat. “Why are you looking at me that way? Our ancestors could have gone days without a successful hunt, so it was important for them to be able to fill their bellies with enough food to sustain themselves when the opportunity arose. In dire situations, we can eat very large quantities, up to thirty percent of our body weight. Is that not true for humans?”

“Fuck no!” he replied, watching what must be another ten pounds of alien flesh disappear into her mouth. “Why would you assume that humans can do that? We need to eat every day – we can’t just put away fifty pounds of pork rinds in one sitting.”

“Cut away what you want and drag it,” she replied with a shrug, wiping some of the viscous blood from her mouth with the back of her furry hand. “The snow is pure and clean – nothing lives on the surface. At home, we store our meat on raised wooden platforms so the scavengers cannot reach it, and the weather is too cold for it to spoil. We prepare fish in the same way – exposed to the frost on drying racks. It will keep.”

He retrieved both of their packs and rummaged through them, finding the zip ties. Maybe he could fashion something using those. Yeah, if he cut the straps on his rucksack and tied them together, he could fill his pack with meat and drag it along behind him. It would be like a kind of sled made of fabric. That way, it wouldn't be near the small aura of heat that his suit gave off, so it wouldn't thaw and spoil. 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,” he began, glancing over his shoulder at her. “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 halfway down her throat. She swallowed with some difficulty, her muscles really working hard to drag the flesh down into her belly, then gestured to her rucksack.

“In my pack – the big pocket.”

“Good, I'll need them later,” he said as he opened up the zipper. “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 as much meat as he could carry – enough to last him for the next few days of their journey. He cut off the shoulder straps from his pack and tied them together, using one of the zip-ties to secure it to a belt loop behind his suit, leaving a makeshift tether a few feet long that he could use to pull his haul behind him like a sled. He stacked the meat on the ice, waiting for it to freeze, which shouldn’t take long in this environment. Once it had frozen into solid blocks, he could just toss them in the pack, and they shouldn’t thaw as long as he left it outside the cave or dugout while they slept. He could even pack the rucksack with fresh snow.

Lorza had eaten so much meat that her belly was visibly distended. It looked like she had swallowed a beach ball. She was relaxing on the ice beside the dead monster, one hand cradling her stomach, surrounded by the remnants of her meal. It was hard to gauge exactly how much she had consumed – probably close to two hundred pounds. Watching her go to town on the squid had been like watching a starving lioness eat a zebra.

“You good to go?” Boyd asked, the Polar opening her eyes sluggishly.

“Yes,” she mumbled. “We should seek shelter soon. I must sleep off this meal.”

“I dunno if I’d call that a meal,” Boyd replied, glancing at her distended stomach pointedly. “You weren’t joking about eating me, were you? Looks like you put away about my body weight in calamari.”

“This an efficient way to eat,” she insisted. “This meal will keep me fed and warm for days. Even if I see no food until we reach the refinery, I will be in no further danger.”

“Maybe I’ll share some of mine if you ask nicely,” he replied, gesturing to his haul. “Come on,” he added, climbing to his feet. “I don’t care if you have the itis, we need to get to a cave. My battery is ticking down by the minute.”

“What is itis?” she asked, lifting her head curiously.

“You never heard that term before?” he asked, starting to fill his pack with the now solidified squid steaks. “I suppose I don’t see why you would, coming from Russia. The itis is what you get after eating a big meal – it makes you feel tired. Granted, that’s usually referring to Thanksgiving turkey or a nice backyard cookout, not a couple of hundred pounds of sushi.”

“Ah, my people have a word for this feeling,” she said as she struggled up off the ice. She said something that sounded halfway between a growl and a purr, Boyd raising an eyebrow at her through his visor.

“I’ll take your word for it. There’s no way I’m going to try pronouncing that.”

“Odd,” she replied, giving him a smirk. “I was always told that humans had agile tongues.”

Boyd didn’t get the joke, so he ignored her toothy grin, turning his attention to his display. Once he had his coordinates locked in, he set off, dragging his pack on the ice behind him. Lorza followed after him, one hand steadying her swollen belly like a pregnant woman. He gave her another look of disapproval, but she merely answered it with a smile, the pair heading for the snowdrifts on the far side of the ice sheet.

***

As the sun began to set, they came upon another of the caves that dotted the landscape, its mouth just wide enough for the distended Polar to squeeze through. Boyd paused outside to unhitch his rucksack, then fished out one of the steak-sized portions of meat that he had harvested from the slain squid. After packing the rucksack with fresh snow for good measure, he left it outside, then continued into the opening. A short tunnel led them to an expansive ice chamber – or a gallery, as Lorza referred to it – that was large enough for her to stand erect without her furry ears brushing the ceiling. She set about unrolling her sleeping bag, laying it out on the floor.

“The temperature will drop soon,” she said, unzipping her bag. “You should join me.”

“I need to eat something first,” he replied, pulling the cooking utensils from one of his pockets. “That is, if there’s even room for me in there anymore after your buffet.”

He set a blister of hexamine tablets and a box of storm matches on the ice, then began to unfold one of the portable stoves left over from the MREs. Lorza watched from her sleeping bag with mild interest as he bent the three legs into shape, then lay one of the tablets beneath it, its flickering flame illuminating the cave in a dull glow when he lit it. The first thing he did was melt some snow in a collapsible cup and try to wash the meat to the best of his abilities, but there was a greasy layer on its hide that just didn’t seem to come off no matter how hard he tried.

Taking the ink-black, gelatinous cut of meat in his hands, he placed it gingerly atop the apparatus. The MRE courses would each have had their own can or packet in which they could be reheated, but he would have to wing it with the meat. It was sagging over the sides, and he’d probably have to keep turning it over to cook it evenly, but it should work out.

“What does this stuff even taste like?” Boyd wondered aloud, watching it start to sizzle.

“It is slimy, salty,” Lorza replied as she shrugged beneath her sleeping bag. “I was too hungry to care much about the taste.”

They waited in silence for a little while as the meat cooked, Boyd occasionally using a plastic fork to flip it over and reposition it, the oily flesh starting to char. The scent that it was emitting wasn’t exactly the most appetizing thing he had ever smelled – it was more like burnt rubber than barbecue – but the prospect of going to bed with a full stomach kept him optimistic. When it was finally ready to eat, he sliced off a bite-sized piece with his ceramic blade and popped it into his mouth, blowing and huffing as he juggled it on his tongue to save from burning himself. When he began to chew, he found that it had a rubbery, displeasing texture that reminded him of shellfish or maybe oysters. It had a strange flavor, something akin to bass or trout that had been seasoned with far too much salt, but there was plenty of water to quench his thirst. He was famished enough to push through, and before long, he had wolfed down the entire steak.

“Is that all you intend to eat?” Lorza asked, tilting her head quizzically. “You have been starved for days, and that tiny portion is enough to satisfy your hunger?”

“That’s enough to fill me for the time being,” he replied, the room darkening as he poured a little water on the tablet to put it out. They weren’t single-use, and could be reused if they hadn’t burned down to nothing. They were left with only the light that made it through the ice to see by, casting everything in a dim, blue twilight. “When I wake up, I’ll have some more for breakfast.” “How did a species ever evolve that way?” Lorza chuckled, shaking her head in disbelief. “I knew that humans had small appetites – I was charged with feeding the crew of the Zemchug – but I had always assumed you were capable of eating larger quantities in a survival situation. What if you had no way to store or transport the meat? Would you eat a single meal, then let the rest go to waste, even if you might die later as a result?”

“I’d have no choice,” he replied. “My stomach can’t expand like yours seems able to.”

“Some of you live in environments almost as cold as ours, yet you have no fur,” Lorza continued. “You were the apex predators of your homeworld, yet you cannot eat more than a few morsels in one sitting. How did creatures like you ever survive your prehistory?”

“What do you mean were the apex predators?” Boyd asked, narrowing his eyes suspiciously.

“Well, we are there now,” Lorza replied with a grin.

“You aren’t apex predators – you’re glorified squatters,” he scoffed.

“We are larger and stronger than you are,” she explained, Boyd rolling his eyes. “If we can eat you, that makes us the apex predators.”

“There are plenty of animals that can eat humans,” Boyd added. “That’s what we invented pointy sticks for.”

He felt a shiver, and glanced down at his display to see that the battery warning was flashing, Lorza unzipping her sleeping bag in invitation.

“Come, it is getting cold,” she said as she beckoned to him with a clawed finger. “Do not make me grab you again.”

“Fine, I’m coming,” he grumbled as he shuffled over to her. There was usually enough room for the both of them, but her stomach was so enlarged that it was now a struggle. “Move over a little,” he grumbled. “I can’t get past your gut.”

She shifted her considerable weight, trying to make more room for him, but he couldn’t worm his way deeper. Instead, she unzipped the entire bag and opened it like a clam, gesturing for him to lie down beside her. With some reluctance, he did as she asked, lowering himself down onto the padded fabric. She wrapped a long arm around him, pulling him close, Boyd feeling his chest sink into the soft meat of her bosom.

“What are you doing?” he complained, the Polar keeping him from wriggling free.

“Closing the sleeping bag around us,” she replied. “Keep still, or would you rather we both freeze?”

With some difficulty, she began to zip up the bag, Boyd finding himself crudely sandwiched between her cushiony fat and the insulated lining. His face was buried in the nape of her neck, just above the large shelf formed by her bust, the silky fur that spilled out of her collar brushing against his rebreather.

“This is very uncomfortable,” he complained, his voice somewhat muffled by her fur. There was that strange, floral smell again, seeping in through his mask. It was familiar to him now, almost calming in a way, as though he had begun to subconsciously associate it with sleep and warmth. His lower body was pressed tightly against her swollen belly, oddly firm beneath the pillowy layer of blubber that surrounded it. Her mammoth breasts were squashed up against his chest like a pair of giant marshmallows that had been stuffed into her coveralls, so soft that they almost seemed to spill over his shoulder like a liquid, wobbling subtly every time one of the bag’s occupants moved. One of her arms was trapped beneath him, and he shifted and wriggled, trying to get it out from under him.

“Move your damned arm,” he muttered.

“There is no room,” she replied, making no effort to accommodate him.

It felt as if the sleeping bag’s zipper might just split open under the pressure and disgorge him onto the cold ice. There wasn’t even enough room for him to turn away from her as he usually did when they were forced to sleep together. He could feel her warm breath through his hood, her chin practically resting on his head, and he tried to squirm away in discomfort. The sound of her heavy breathing distracted him, as did the way the rise and fall of her ample chest pushed his face further into her bosom, the beating of her massive heart like a drum to his ears in the eerie silence of the ice cave.

“Stop breathing on me,” he grumbled, wriggling in frustration. Lorza laughed, the motion making her chest rock against his face in gentle waves.

“You are like a fussy kitten. Just keep still, relax. Go to sleep.”

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

“No?” she cooed, glancing down at him with a smirk. “One would think you might appreciate having something so soft and warm to rest your head on. You know, you must be the first person to share a bed with me who found cause to complain about it. The men back in my village would be lining up for the opportunity.”

“Good for you,” he grumbled, trying and failing to avoid sinking into her bust as he struggled to get comfortable. “Personally, I’m not in the habit of getting intimate with Persian rugs.” “I told you – I am from Siberia.”

“I’m calling you an overgrown carpet,” he clarified.

She sighed, exhaling warm air on his hood, then muttered something in Russian that ended with mudak.

“What does that mean?” he asked, lifting his chin out of her bust to look up at her. “Mudak? You keep using that word.”

“The closest translation in English is asshole,” she replied. “It is not a term of endearment, especially not in Russian, but it suits you well.”

“Lovely...”

He realized that the sleeping bag was already warm – very warm. It would have been downright pleasant if he wasn’t being forced to share it with his unruly companion. The Polar’s metabolism must be working in overdrive to digest all of the food that she had eaten, cranking out almost enough waste body 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 he would be lying if he said that her chest didn’t make an admirable pillow. Her proximity still made him uncomfortable, but the day's exhaustion and the satisfaction of a full stomach were overcoming him.

“You seem more relaxed than usual,” she murmured, her lips an inch from his ear.

“Don't pay attention to how relaxed I am, just go to sleep,” he grumbled in response. She chuckled, those heavy breasts rocking against him.

“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 as she tried to find a more comfortable position, her belly pressing against his lower body. So much of her plump figure was in contact with him, almost as though she was trying to swallow him up, their combined warmth baking them inside the sleeping bag like a pair of jacket potatoes. It might have been too warm to be comfortable under different circumstances, but considering the freezing cold that 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 trying to get under his skin again, testing his resolve, trying to probe for a chink in his armor. Any opportunity that she saw, she took. Did she think that she could manipulate him into doing what she wanted? Was she going to wrap him around her clawed finger with nothing more than a few sweet words and a bat of her lashes? Boyd was made of sterner stuff than that – he had been trained to resist interrogation techniques up to and including torture. She seemed to notice that he had become tense – defensive – leaning her head down to whisper to him.

“Why not relax?” she purred. “You are so uptight, always on edge, even when we are safe and warm. Are you afraid of me?” she added with a sly chuckle.

“Afraid of you?” he scoffed. “I’ve already beaten you in a fight, if you’d forgotten. I’m not afraid, I’m just...maybe this is normal for you, but it’s not normal for humans. We need space, privacy.”

“I remember things a little differently,” she murmured, moving her hand from the small of his back. He shivered as her fingers slid up his spine, his form-fitting suit letting him feel the soft flesh of her pads, along with the prick of her claws. She brought it to his face, cradling his head in her furry palm, tracing the scar that she had left on his cheek with her thumb to further her point. Even though he was wearing his hood, he could feel her warmth, her fluffy coat brushing the material.

“Why can’t you keep your hands to yourself?” he grumbled, trying and failing to squirm away from her in the tight confines of the sleeping bag.

“Oh, come on,” Lorza replied with a sigh. “We are trapped in such close proximity – I have little choice but to touch you.”

“Yeah, but you don’t have to do it like...that,” he muttered.

Lorza cocked her head at him, sliding her hand back beneath the sleeping bag.

“You know, I can usually read people – influence them,” she continued as she scrutinized him with her ice-blue eyes. “But not you. You are opaque to me. I can never tell what you might be thinking, what you might be planning, what words are lies or truth. When I press you, you evade me. Like trying to hold onto melting snow, you slip through my fingers the harder I squeeze.”

“Well, it’s encouraging to know that you’ve been probing me for weaknesses like some kind of lab rat,” he replied.

“No,” she continued, shaking her massive head. “That is not my intent. In my culture, we resolve our disagreements through social maneuvering rather than through conflict. Our hot-blooded cousins claw each other to pieces at the slightest provocation, but we Polars talk to each other, we find compromises. We try to learn a person’s wants – their desires – then we sate them. Why fight when there are ways to influence a person into behaving in just the way that suits you?”

“That sounds like manipulation to me,” Boyd shot back, scowling at her through his visor. “It sounds despicable.”

“Better than clawing each other to ribbons or bombing people with orbital railguns when they don’t see things your way,” she insisted, her ears flicking with irritation. “You cannot even conceive of an approach to conflict that is not in some way violent. Even words are violence to you – to be wielded like weapons.”

“Violence is the only power we truly have,” Boyd replied. “How is a lie or a manipulation any different from a feint or a misdirection in war? A well-concocted lie can topple an army just as effectively as defeating it in battle.”

“It is destructive – a waste of resources.”

“You’ve become quite the pacifist for someone who tried to murder me over a handful of pills yesterday.”

That hit home, and the flat bridge of her nose furrowed, her ears lying flat.

“Only because you refused every diplomatic solution that I offered,” she growled, Boyd feeling her voice reverberate through his body. “You are the one who pushed me over that line. I only did what I thought had to be done to survive.”

“You talk like you’re so sophisticated,” Boyd began, pressing the attack. “But, under all that fur, you’re not so different from your hot-blooded cousins. I bet if I shaved you, nobody would be able to tell you apart.”

“That is one of your vaunted lies, and you know it,” she grumbled. She had tried to mess with his head, and he had turned it around on her. The ball was in her court now, and she had been taken off-guard by his swift return. “I cannot fathom why you choose to behave the way you do,” she added, turning her nose up at him as though he was emitting some foul odor. “You succeed only in making things harder than they need 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 it that way.”

“Ah, yes,” Lorza said as her bosom wobbled in time with a derisive chuckle. “The solitary life of a miner. It is through no fault of mine that we came to be here, Boyd. In fact, you are solely to blame. The culmination of all your clever lies and tricks resulted only in you being stranded here with me. I am only trying to make the best of a bad situation.”

“By manipulating me into behaving in just the way that suits you?” She laughed at that, and he glanced up at her, confused by her reaction.

“If only you knew what you were missing, mudak. You might find that cooperating suits you far better than fighting me at every turn.”

Boyd shifted, trying to get his face away from her chest, but there was no room to turn away from her in the confines of their sleeping bag. It seemed almost as though she was going out of her way to smother him. If he tried to wriggle any lower, she’d envelop his head completely. Any higher, and he’d be face to face with the surly Polar. He settled on resting his head in the nape of her neck. If he closed his eyes, he could almost imagine that he was sleeping in some fluffy waterbed somewhere, but that floral, alien scent that she exuded kept bringing him out of it. It made him feel...confused.

“Stop fidgeting,” she complained. “You are keeping me awake.”

“I’m trying to find a comfortable position where I don’t get smothered in my sleep,” he complained. He tried to push away from her, but succeeded only in sinking his hand deeper into her paunch.

“Oh, enough!” Lorza grunted.

She closed her arms around him, trapping him in a tight hug, pulling him into her. She pressed one hand into the small of his back to keep him from wriggling away, the other cradling his head, pushing his face into her bust. His arms were pinned at his sides, his whole body enveloped by hers, her inescapable scent filling his lungs as it seeped in through his mask.

“Let me go, you oversized-” He let out a frustrated snarl that only made her chuckle wryly.

Despite all the wriggling and bucking that he could muster, she merely held him there, her strength far exceeding his own. Like a toddler having a tantrum, she let him burn himself out, Boyd eventually tiring and lying still in her arms. It was like trying to fight off a polar bear.

“Enough of this,” she repeated, giving his face another forceful push into her breasts. Even through the taut fabric of her coveralls, they yielded, as soft as feather pillows. “You will get used to me, and you will do it quickly. We will have to share a bed for days to come, and we will have no company but one another, so get it all out. You have no choice but to touch me, to smell me, so deal with it. And stop hiding from me inside that suit,” she added, reaching for the seam where his hood joined to his collar. She must have seen him take it on and off when they stopped to eat, peeling the protective material back to expose his face to the cold air, surprisingly deft with her large fingers.

“Hey!” he protested, trying to free an arm so that he could pull it back down. “The air here isn’t breathable for me!”

“It is breathable enough for you to stuff your face for a good hour without your mask,” she replied. He felt her hand return to his head, her fingers delving into his hair, the tips of her sharp claws pricking his scalp. He felt surprisingly vulnerable, as though a barrier that had been protecting him from her had been breached. She forced his face into her collar, and that silky, snow-white fur rose up to brush against his warm cheeks. He had never felt anything quite as soft, and without his rebreather, her unfiltered scent set his head spinning. What was this supposed to be – some kind of exposure therapy?

He hated that she was right, but there was no point wasting energy on bickering about their sleeping situation any longer. This would be their reality until they escaped the moon, and no amount of complaining would change the fact that they needed each other to survive the cold nights.

Lorza felt him relax a little, so she loosened her hold, Boyd exhaling a frustrated sigh.

“People usually bond in a crisis,” she said, her warm breath blowing his hair in the absence of his hood. “I wish that you would let your guard down for a while and stop acting as though making friends is the worst thing that we could do. You will never see me again once we make it off this blighted rock, so what does it matter if I learn some of your secrets? Would it kill you to lighten the mood for just a few days so that we might make this situation slightly more bearable?”

Boyd went silent for a moment before replying, letting his eyes close as her warmth radiated through him.

“You’ve been trying to push my buttons ever since we crashed,” he replied. “You’ve been trying to get inside my head and extract information without me knowing about it – who I really am, what I was really doing on Hades. 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 dropping my defenses. I've had some experience in that field,” he admitted, glancing up at her furry face. “Suggestion, interrogation, manipulating people into doing things that aren't in their best interest. You’ve never treated me as anything but a mark.”

“That is the Polar way,” she replied with a shrug. “I make no excuses. What you see as pushing buttons, I see as olive branches. What terrible fate do you imagine might befall you if I have my way? You, on the other hand, have taken all of your frustration and your stress out on me since the moment we arrived. You have never wasted an opportunity to throw insults my way.”

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,” she replied with a laugh that came off more sultry than threatening. “I will give you this, Boyd – you keep me guessing.”

He still wasn’t sure if she was being serious, but he decided not to press the issue. She allowed him to put his hood back on, and he eventually settled into a sound sleep, finding her proximity a little less offensive.

***

When Boyd awoke the next morning, he found himself trapped under Lorza’s bulk. She must have rolled over during the night. The Polar wasn’t quite on top of him, but he was securely pinned beneath one of her long arms, and he could feel the hefty weight of her bosom resting on his chest. It was a miracle that she hadn’t crushed him.

He tried to push her away, but his hands merely sank into her pillowy flesh, swallowed up to the wrists. Lorza barely stirred, one of her round ears flicking, still soundly asleep. It was hopeless – it was like being smothered beneath a weighted blanket that was as heavy as a small car.

As he tried to wriggle out from beneath her, he noticed that her swollen stomach had already shrunk back down to its usual – albeit still considerable – size. Come to think of it, she had filled out all over, regaining the insulating fat that she had lost during their trek. It had barely been a day since she had eaten her monstrous meal, and already, her metabolism was hard at work turning it into blubber. Her thighs were fuller, her breasts straining against her coveralls, the paunch of her stomach pressing into his lower body. As he felt himself sinking into her, he realized that she was even larger than she had been, her body packing on the fat in its survival mode.

As he tried once more to move her off him, she muttered something in her sleep, then curled an arm around him to drag him back into her embrace. She was treating him like a damned teddy bear, Boyd exhaling a resigned sigh as he found himself once again enveloped. Between her weight and the tight confines of the sleeping bag, escape was impossible. Whatever – at least he was warm. Might as well try to go back to sleep until she finally deigned to wake up.

***

Boyd was roused by Lorza shifting around, opening his eyes to see the Polar’s sharp teeth as she yawned. She seemed surprised to find herself resting atop a struggling human, pulling back to free his face from her cleavage once she had recovered her faculties, blinking down at him. Her confused expression quickly morphed into a smirk, and she rose above him, straddling him as she planted her clawed hands to either side of his head.

“I am sorry, Boyd. Could you not get out with me lying on top of you?”

Her legs were so long that her knees reached his armpits, Boyd finding himself sandwiched between thighs that were thicker than his torso, like a human hotdog in a Polar bun. She wasn’t resting all of her weight on him – just enough that he could feel it, her breasts swaying an inch above his face as she chuckled at his flustered expression.

“Would you get off?” he grumbled, feeling her thighs grip him more tightly as he began to struggle.

“I’m going,” she cooed with an exaggerated air of innocence, starting to crawl up over his head. Those swinging breasts rose from his field of view, replaced with her paunchy belly, then her thighs as her knees passed his head.

Finally free, he crawled out of the bag, brushing a few stray white hairs off his suit as he rose to his feet.

“I hope you got enough sleep,” he said, making his way over to the mouth of the cave. “We have a long day ahead of us.”

He braved the cold as he fished another squid steak out of his snow-packed rucksack, making a swift retreat to find Lorza sitting on her sleeping bag as she waited for him. He hesitated, then elected to sit beside her, the thick padding insulating him from the cold floor. Her ears pricked up in surprise, but she made no comment as he began to set up his stove.

“I’m not going anywhere before I’ve had my breakfast,” he declared, lighting one of the hexamine tablets. “It’s the most important meal of the day.”

He set the slab of meat to thaw, prodding at it intermittently with a fork, the silence starting to drag.

“Boyd,” Lorza began, but he cut her off.

“Oh, no,” he chided as he wagged his fork at her. “I don’t want you even sniffing this meat. I told you to bring your own yesterday, and you didn’t, so you’ll not get as much as a morsel from me.”

“You need not worry about the food,” she replied with a sigh. “I have eaten enough. I wanted to talk about yesterday...”

Boyd paused to flip the steak, then turned his head, giving her his full attention.

“Go on...”

“When that creature took me, I thought I was going to die just as Alexei did,” she said as she turned her gaze to the floor. “I was afraid during the crash – I feared for my life and for the lives of my crew, but being ensnared by that beast made me feel something far more terrible.”

“I know what you mean,” Boyd said, Lorza’s ears swiveling in his direction curiously. “I’m never afraid, but that thing...it disturbed me.”

“I did not thank you at the time because we were arguing – we are always arguing,” she grumbled with an annoyed flick of her furry tail. “So, I will do it now. Thank you for saving my life. If you had not acted as quickly as you had, I would have suffered a painful death. I saw you hesitate – I feared you might abandon me – but you came back.”

“I need you,” he replied, his eyes fixed firmly on the sizzling meat. “If you die, I die.”

“Perhaps,” she replied, but she sounded no more convinced that he was. “Would that all Hadean miners were so reliable under pressure.”

“I’m sorry,” he said, Lorza’s ears pricking up in surprise as she waited for him to continue. “What happened to your crew wasn’t part of the plan. They were just in the wrong place at the wrong time. If I’d had my way, you’d have dropped me off at the nearest UNN starbase, and that would have been the last you’d see of me. I won’t patronize you by claiming that they died for some great cause, but a lot more people are going to suffer the same fate if I don’t get back to civilization. I didn’t lie to you about that.”

“You did what you could for Alexei,” Lorza conceded. “You did all that you could for me yesterday. Forgiveness, I cannot give, but you have my gratitude for all the good it will do you here.”

“It’s better than a punch in the face,” he said, spearing the steaming cut of meat. He pulled back his hood, then bit into it, finding its rubbery texture no more appetizing than he had the night before.

“How far do we still have to go?” Lorza asked.

“About a hundred miles, by my calculations,” he replied after pausing to check his display. “Two more days of walking should see us to the refinery.”

That seemed to lift her spirits somewhat, Boyd catching a genuine smile flash across her face -one that wasn’t laden with sarcasm or smugness. He had to admit that things were feeling a little less bleak now. They had ample food, they were no longer being stalked by the creature, and they were closer to freedom than ever.

“We’re going to make it, Lorza,” he added with a nod of encouragement. “It’s not far now. We’ll beat this.”

She returned his nod, his words filling her with fresh determination.

When he had finished eating, she rolled up her sleeping bag, Boyd returning his cooking utensils to his pockets. They made their way back out onto the surface, emerging from the mouth of the cave into the bright sunlight, Boyd’s visor darkening once more to protect his eyes from the glare.

“No storm, calm winds,” Lorza mused as she watched him hitch his makeshift sled to his belt loop. “It is as nice a day as we could ask for in this place.”

“And we don’t have to worry about ending up as a meal,” he replied, dragging his pack out of the snow. “Unless another one shows up.”

“Do not even joke about that,” Lorza grumbled, following behind him as they set off into the snowdrifts.

CHAPTER 7: FRATERNIZATION

The weather was fair enough that the wind didn’t carry away their voices, and they didn’t have to fight against the elements with each step. Even the freezing temperature was easy for Boyd to ignore with enough battery charge to keep his suit humming. Lorza tried to make small talk to pass the time, and for once, he didn’t spurn her. Maybe it was the weather that had him in a good mood, or perhaps their conversation that morning had helped ease some of the tension between them, but he felt inclined to indulge her.

“So, are you ever going to tell me who you really are?” she asked as she mounted a snowdrift beside him. “I know that you are no miner. I am asking honestly,” she added, sliding a little on the powder as they descended the other side. “This is no attempt to push your buttons, as you put it. After all that we have suffered through, have I not earned the right to know?”

“I wish it were up to me,” he said, his cryptic reply only intriguing her more.

“So,” she continued, scrutinizing him for any tells with those icy eyes. “Your identity is either a cover or a lie intended to gain my sympathy. You flee from powerful men who are willing to kill to stop you. Only criminals would bring down a civilian vessel, so perhaps that part of your story was truth. You answer to someone else – someone who can forbid you from speaking, someone who values secrecy. My guess is that you work for the Navy – an undercover policeman or a detective.”

Boyd considered for a moment. Lorza was sharp, and she had been quick to figure out that his cover story wasn’t the truth. She had even managed to get his real name out of him. He couldn’t reveal his true vocation – that was classified – nor could he tell her the true nature of his mission on Hades. That said, she was already neck-deep in the shit right alongside him. From the moment that they had crashed here, their fates had been intertwined, and her life as she had known it had ended. If the Syndicate saw them together – if they somehow found out that they had survived the crash – it wouldn’t matter what secrets he kept from her. They would kill her all the same, or torture her for information that she didn’t possess. She was his responsibility now, she was in his custody, and she wouldn’t be safe until she reached a UNN base. It was time to come clean – he owed her that much.

“What I’m about to tell you is classified,” he began, Lorza’s ears tracking him intently. “I’m only permitted to share it on a strictly need-to-know basis, and at this point, I think you need to know. You won’t be safe now, not until I can get you to a secure location. You need to promise me that you won’t breathe a word of this to anyone that we might encounter between then and now, or I might lose a lot more than my job.”

“I promise,” she replied, her eyes wide.

“I work for the Navy’s intelligence branch. What I told you about the criminal organizations on Hades was true – I came to gather intelligence on their activities. Before I could get off-world to send my report, my cover was blown, and I had to make a quick getaway. 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,” he added, glancing up at her. “If I had told the wrong pilot that I was trying to escape, they might have just turned me in. Same goes for the corp – they wouldn’t want the UNN knowing about the situation any more than the mobsters.”

He waited for some scathing remark, but none came.

“Then, you did not lie about the reason the Zemchug was brought down,” she mused. “You carry information that these criminals do not want leaving the system – information that they did not hesitate to kill for.”

“That’s about the long and short of it,” he replied, pulling his sled up the next incline. “We’re in the same boat now, if you’ll pardon the expression. If they see you with me, well,” he muttered with a shrug of his shoulders. “They already shot down a civilian ship – I don’t expect they’ll want to leave any loose ends.”

“Wonderful,” she sighed. “So, these criminals – who are they?”

“They call themselves the Syndicate,” he replied, Lorza cocking an eyebrow. “Yeah, not the most creative name, I know. They’re a loose alliance of mobsters, pirates, and petty criminals who are hell-bent on wresting control of the colony from the mining corp.”

“Does this mean that we will not be parting ways once we leave this moon?” she asked.

“You won’t be safe until the Syndicate is dealt with,” he replied. “Until that happens, you’re in my custody.”

“So, I am like your deputy?” Lorza asked with a grin. “Do I get a badge?”

He laughed at that. Why hadn’t they just relaxed and had normal conversations sooner? Lorza could be pretty fun when she wasn’t stealing his food or threatening to eat him.

“I’d call it witness protection more than being a deputy,” he replied with a chuckle. “You don’t sound too bothered by the idea of me squirreling you away to some UNNI black site.” “My crew is dead, and the ship that was both my home and my workplace is gone,” she sighed. “The only place I can go now is Siberia, and that is many light-years away. You are probably my best ticket home.”

“Considering that it’s my fault you’re in this mess, I can probably swing that,” he said.

They continued to walk in silence for a few minutes, then Lorza slowed her long strides to match pace with him, walking beside him in the snow.

“So, what do you have to do to become a secret agent?” she asked.

“Well, there are lots of things that go into making a good agent,” he began. “You need to know how to handle yourself in a fight, for a start. A lot 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.”

He realized that he was basically describing Lorza. She was all of those things and more, along with being a wildcard due to her lack of a military background. She might have made a good Ninnie herself if the stars had aligned for her. Lord knows she had been grilling him for information like a seasoned interrogator from the moment they had been stranded on the moon.

“Why are you looking at me like that?” she asked, cocking her head at him.

“Just daydreaming,” he replied. “Don’t worry about it.”

“That must be why I cannot read you, then,” Lorza continued.

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

“Do not take this the wrong way, but humans are easy to read and easily manipulated,” she said as they descended another drift. “We Polars are tempered by our pack system – it teaches us to always be on guard, to always be aware that others seek to sway us. Every social interaction is a game of feints and misdirection, one that we partake in willingly, as these things do not have negative connotations in our culture. It ensures that those who rise through the ranks are the most adept and intelligent members of the community.”

“Still sounds like a civilization of used car salesmen to me,” he muttered, giving his sled a tug to get it over a rough patch.

“You are not like other humans,” she continued, glancing down at him with an expression that might be appreciation. “You are opaque to me – very hard to read. I have never met a human who can out-maneuver me like that before, and I find it...refreshing. I cannot always tell what you are thinking, and you are very difficult to persuade, along with being a very convincing liar. In many ways, it is like losing a sense that I have always relied on.”

“And, that's a good thing?”

“At first, I was just frustrated that I could not get you to behave the way I wanted you to,” she conceded with an annoyed flick of her tail. “Polars are not usually so...belligerent. But, there is something to be said for it. Everything that comes out of your mouth is a surprise to me, and I am not accustomed to that. Nor am I accustomed to having to fight so hard to get what I want.”

“Well, humans usually interpret lying and manipulation as hostility,” he replied. “That said...I think I’m starting to get where you’re coming from. If you had been successful, it would have avoided our fight, and I wouldn’t be walking around with a busted arm right now.”

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 each other intimately. They had been through a lot of shit, roughed it together, survived together. Maybe he should give her more credit and tone down the jibes and teasing. It wasn’t helping him blow off steam anymore – it just made him feel bad.

“What about you?” Boyd asked, making small talk. “What's the life of a surveyor like?”

“Oh, nothing so exciting,” she chuckled. “I am just a cartographer. I make maps, usually of unexplored stellar bodies like this one. I help the surveyors find minerals and useful resources for exploitation. The corporation that controls Hades would have contracted a survey ship like the Zemchug to determine its viability as a colony.”

“I don't think that's uninteresting,” he insisted. “You told me that leaving Borealis is what made you want to get out on your own and see the Galaxy, right? That sounds like a good way to do it. You’ve probably seen more planets than I have – more than most humans alive.”

She seemed taken aback, stooping down to his level to give him another appreciative look.

“You really were listening? I thought...never mind,” she said with a shake of her head. “Yes, I have been all over the local bubble, though few of the planets that I visited were habitable. Ninety percent of worlds are just gas giants or barren terrestrial planets, but sometimes, we find one that can support life and has exploitable resources. There is joy in discovery – there is beauty even in the lava flows and craters of lifeless worlds – but to discover new life is something profound. Even though I never set foot on the surface, observing from space is still wonderful.”

“How many planets have you discovered that have life?” Boyd asked, genuinely intrigued now.

“One,” she replied, raising a clawed finger.

“Out of how many?”

“Perhaps forty,” she said. “They are rare, which is what makes them so valuable. All stellar bodies have resources – the question is merely whether they are profitable to exploit. Habitable words, however, are like seeds from which civilization can sprout. The bonuses for locating one are considerable.”

“That’s cool,” Boyd mused. “One day, there might be cities on a planet that you discovered.”

“Not likely,” she chuckled. “It was a tidally locked planet ravaged by hellish storms, but it had microbial blooms that could be seen from space. Beautiful in its own way.”

“Hang on,” Boyd added. “You’re telling me that just a few years ago, you were living a hunter-gatherer’s lifestyle, but now you’re qualified for planetary surveying? How did that happen?”

“We were given grants to attend universities in the nearest cities – near being a relative term,” she explained. “Lessons on language and culture were common, but we were also permitted to pursue higher education if we so chose. I wanted so badly to explore the Galaxy, and becoming a cartographer was my best chance.”

“I’m impressed that you were able to adapt so quickly. Going from living in wooden shacks to working on a spaceship can’t have been a smooth transition.”

“We had a writing system before you humans arrived,” she replied, turning her nose up at the suggestion. “We had a culture that valued learning, and a rich social system. I was drawing maps and studying the land long before I ever set foot on a spaceship. Those skills were easier to translate to work on a survey vessel than you might imagine.”

They emerged onto ice again, the snow giving way to a vast, blue expanse. Boyd glanced at the floor beneath his feet apprehensively, but they were safe now, and he suppressed the instinctive fear that rose up within him. The only place he was going to see those spinning lights again was in his dreams.

“So,” Lorza continued, her sharp claws giving her good purchase on the ice. “Do you have any good stories about your assignments? We have a lot of time to pass, and it would be fun to hear about the exciting life of a spy.”

“Most of the interesting stories are classified,” he replied. “If I told you, I'd have to kill you.”

He had intended it as a joke, but it must have been an expression that she hadn’t heard before, her eyes widening.

“I didn’t mean it,” he chuckled 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,” she replied with a relieved smile. “You humans like your movies. Sometimes, you have conversations that are nothing but references to them – it is impossible for me to follow.”

“You must have seen some movies, though,” Boyd insisted. “I don’t know how anyone could study human language and culture, but never come across one, even in passing. I expect they made you watch them in your classes, right?”

“Well...a few,” she admitted, shrugging her shoulders. “I had a friend in Russia who would watch them endlessly – another Polar. We shared a room while I was studying cartography and 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 Navy yourself?” Boyd asked. His boots slipped on the ice, and he almost fell, but Lorza reached out to steady him with surprising speed. “Thanks,” he muttered, regaining his footing. “That's usually the go-to route for people who have their head in the clouds, anyway. They put see the Galaxy on their recruitment posters for a reason – there’s no better way for some muddy nineteen-year-old to go on a space adventure.”

“No,” she replied with an adamant shake of her head. “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 is not for me.”

***

They chatted on and off for the rest of their walk, their mutual animosity fading as they shared stories of the places they had been and the exotic planets they had explored. The sun eventually began to dip below the flat horizon, and they were forced to locate another cave where they could spend the night, climbing down into a shimmering cavern of blue ice. This one was spacious, carved out by water that had melted its way through a glacier, the translucent walls refracting the beam from Boyd’s flashlight to create a blue glow. Lorza’s eyes reflected it, too, making them shine in the dark like those of a cat.

She wasted no time laying out her massive sleeping bag while Boyd began to set up his cooking implements. Once more, he retrieved a suitable cut of meat, then unfolded his portable stove. He ignited another hexamine tablet with one of the precious storm matches, then set the frozen meat on top, waiting for it to thaw. It soon began to cook, Boyd prodding it and turning it over with a fork, the cave starting to fill with its scent.

Lorza was sitting on her sleeping bag beside him, her arms crossed over her knees, 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 with its unappetizing appearance gave off a smell that made his mouth water in anticipation. Now that his alien companion had finished digesting the monstrous meal that she had eaten the day before, the hunger was starting to get to her again, and her sensitive nose must make the smell all the more tormenting. To her credit, she had made no requests of him, and she had made no more attempts to steal food in spite of the temptation that she was no doubt enduring.

Boyd flipped the meat over, exposing the browned skin on the other side, the hot metal imprinting on it like a grill. It sizzled, leaking juices, just about ready to eat. He took the piece off the stove and skewered it on his knife, suspending it for a minute or two to let it cool in the cold air.

“Hey, Lorza,” he said. “Catch.”

Startled, she snatched the cut of meat out of the air as he tossed it to her, her claws hooking into its tender flesh. She looked to him for confirmation, surprised by his sudden act of generosity, her ears pricking up attentively.

“Go on,” he added with a nod. “It’s yours. I brought way too much meat to eat on my own anyway, and we’ll be out of here in a couple of days. Might as well share it, or it’ll just go to waste.”

“You really are full of surprises, Boyd,” she chuckled. She dug in, a smile brightening her face as she bit into the succulent meat, taking her time now rather than wolfing down pounds of it without even pausing to chew. Boyd rose to his feet, then headed out of the cave to fetch another portion from his pack, brushing the snow off his suit as he returned to set it down on the stove.

“How is it?” Boyd asked as he sat down beside her, tending to his meal. “Does it meet the high standards of a ship’s cook?”

“It is not bad,” she replied over a mouthful. She paused to swallow, then licked the juice from her lips, inspecting the cut as she held it in her claws. “It is certainly more palatable cooked, I can tell you this for sure. If we had some seasonings, I might even be able to make a meal of this. I could stew it with some vegetables – that might help dull its salty flavor.”

She finished off her portion with a few more large bites as Boyd cooked his share, removing his hood and blowing on the steaming meat before taking a bite. It was indeed salty – and chewy – but there was something to be said for eating an animal that you had brought down yourself. Cooking game meat over a naked flame out in the wilds was a primal experience that was oddly satisfying.

“You can have more if you like,” he said, noting that the hungry Polar was watching him again. “I know that wasn’t enough to satisfy you. There’s plenty to go around, but don’t go crazy, alright? We don’t want a repeat of the MRE incident.”

She hesitated for a moment, then rose from the sleeping bag, lumbering over to the mouth of the cave. When she returned, she was carrying another portion from the meat sled, and she set it down on the ice beside the stove.

“Is this okay?”

He nodded, so she sat back down on the sleeping bag beside him, waiting patiently for him to finish cooking his helping.

“In a way, it is nice not having to worry about the food spoiling,” she mused as she watched him turn his cut of meat over. “One could eat off the floor here if they were so inclined. Checking the dates on cans and packets was a constant preoccupation on the Zemchug. The best foods rarely last long.” She was silent for a little while as Boyd ate his steak, then he began to cook her next serving, her tail starting to flick back and forth indecisively. “And...your wounds?” she asked hesitantly. “They are healing well? There has been no infection?”

Boyd had seldom heard her sound so remorseful, and he turned his head to look up at her, her round ears drooping as she averted her gaze.

“I’m fine, Lorza,” he insisted. “Really. You gave me a good scar to remember you by, but they can clean that up in an afternoon at a UNN medical facility. My arm will be fine – the cast is doing its job. How about you? I got in a few good shots with my knife. How’s your hand?”

“We heal quickly,” she replied with a shrug. “I had almost forgotten about it.”

He gestured for her to give him her hand, and after a moment, she complied. It was huge, so large that she could probably have encompassed his head in her fist, her fingers almost as thick around as his wrist. The pink pads on her fingertips protruded from her white fur, and each digit was tipped by a shining, black hook. They were still dripping with juices from the meat, the fur around them stained yellow by the squid’s fluids. Gently, he brought his fingers to her palm, inspecting the area where he had stabbed her during their fight. He had to dig for it, but he soon found the wound – little more than a knitted scar now. Curious, he splayed his fingers, finding that they barely spanned her palm. Her coat was surprisingly thick – he could feel how soft it was even through his gloves.

The meat smelled ready, so he released her, turning back to the stove. He speared the steak on his knife, then handed it to her, Lorza hooking the steaming cut with her claws. Interestingly, they seemed to let her handle hot food without burning herself.

“Consider it a peace offering,” he said, giving her arm a reassuring pat. “We're square, Lorza. We both got in some good hits, and we both made complete asses of ourselves. I’ve been in drunken brawls that ended in more serious injuries – believe me.”

“You are no longer angry with me, then?” she asked as she poised with her steak suspended near her lips.

“No more than I’m angry with myself for letting things escalate as far as they did,” he replied.

“I am glad this thing is dead,” she snarled, taking an especially savage bite. She sank her carnivore teeth into the dark flesh, tearing a chunk away. “It killed Alexei,” she added through her mouthful. “And we killed it right back.”

“Yeah, that’ll be a story to tell over a few drinks when I get back to civilization,” Boyd chuckled.

“How did you know the grenade would work?” Lorza asked, turning her attention back to him. “What if the creature had merely spat it back out? How did you know that your cast would prevent it from severing your arm?”

“I didn’t,” he admitted with a shrug, taking another wet bite of his steak. “I just had to think on my feet and hope the risk paid off, and this time, it did.”

“Are these kinds of risks...normal in your line of work?”

“We’re not expected to fight alien squid monsters with our bare hands on a daily basis,” he replied. “But, we do have to keep our cool in deadly situations, and we often have to come up with creative solutions for problems. We improvise and adapt because there’s nobody on the line to give us orders or to pull our asses out of the fire when we’re operating undercover – there’s no backup coming. Fighting that thing was only the third time I’ve almost died this week,” he added with a bitter laugh that made Lorza cock her head at him.

“That sounds lonely,” she said, finishing the last bite of her steak. She paused to clean the fur on her fingers with her barbed tongue, Boyd pausing to watch the glistening, pink muscle wind its way around her digits. It was longer than he had realized – and she had remarkable control over it. “Living undercover means never forming real relationships, never being able to truly trust anyone. How do you deal with that?”

Boyd chewed on another mouthful of squid meat as he considered his reply. He was usually so bent on completing his mission that he didn't take the time to stop and think about how living a life of carefully concocted lies impacted him socially. There was scant little time between assignments to build meaningful connections – it wasn’t like he got weekends off – and opening up to the wrong person could mean being killed 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,” he finally said. “You don’t have a choice.”

“Well, I think we make a good team,” Lorza added with a smirk. “Maybe you need a partner.”

“You know what? Sure,” he laughed as he finished his steak. “I could use a partner, at least in my present situation.”

When they were done with their meal, the cold began to creep in, nightfall sending the temperature plummeting. Boyd shivered, glancing down at his suit’s display to see that it was flashing a low battery warning. Lorza unzipped her sleeping bag and flung it open, patting the soft padding in invitation.

“Bedtime,” she declared. “There is more room now,” she added, patting her stomach. “You will not have to be so close to me.”

There wasn’t much left of the hexamine tablet, and its wavering flame was providing enough light to see by, so he decided to let it burn out. Lorza wormed her way into the sleeping bag, her white fur painted orange by the little fire, holding it open for Boyd expectantly.

This time, he crawled in beside her without hesitation, Lorza closing the zipper to seal him in as he lay down next to her on the plush padding. Despite her promise, they were still pressed tightly together in the limited space, her paunchy body affording him little room to breathe. Even when he turned away from her, he could feel her bosom spilling over his shoulders, her soft belly almost enveloping his lower body. Somehow, he found her proximity less unpleasant now. Her warmth and the feeling of her soft fat pressing against him through his suit was relaxing rather than bothersome, the heat that she radiated and the gentle flickering of the hexamine tablet mingling in his tired brain to give the impression that they were sleeping beside a crackling campfire. He would see trees again once they got out here – he would walk on grass, hear the chirping of birds, feel the warmth of a star beating down on his skin.

Lorza shifted a little, trying to get comfortable, the considerable weight of her breasts rocking against him from behind.

“Sorry,” she murmured, glancing down at him apologetically. “Just settling in.”

“It’s fine,” he muttered.

They had slept together every night since the crash, so why was it so different now? Why did it make him feel...embarrassed? Perhaps their newfound friendship had made it feel more intimate than it had the previous times, when they had both been driven by necessity. Being squashed together like two peas in a pod, the comforting scent of her body invading his rebreather, breasts that rivaled his rucksack in size pouring around his neck and shoulders like a wobbling travel pillow – it made him oddly self-conscious. Had their relationship changed so much since the fight with the squid? Maybe he saw her more as a person now, rather than as the alien that she had once been.

Lorza pressed a little closer, seeming to notice the conspicuous lack of complaints and insults.

“Something wrong, Boyd?” she whispered. There was that sensation again, her warm breath blowing against his suit, her lips a scant inch from his ear.

“Nothing’s wrong,” he mumbled in reply, staring intently at the wavering flame in a futile attempt to take his mind off the butterflies that were swarming in his belly. “I guess I’m just tired. We made really good time today – shouldn’t be more than a day or two before we reach the refinery now. Keep your eye on the horizon, and you might spot it. The terrain is pretty flat, and the atmosphere is thin.”

He felt one of her long arms curl around him, and she tugged him a little closer for warmth, sinking him even deeper into the meat of her bosom. The fluffy fur that escaped her collar brushed against the back of his hood, and he felt her chin rest on his head.

“You feel tense,” she murmured, the way that her voice resonated through him making him stiffen. “Try to relax. You will need the rest, as we have a long way to travel yet, mudak.”

She said it more like a nickname than an insult this time, and he chuckled to himself.

“Yeah, yeah, I get it. I’m a naked kitten, and you’re a Persian rug.”

“I will have to purchase one of these rugs when I return to Siberia,” she mused. “I want to see what all the fuss is about.”

As he started to get comfortable, he realized that he was leaning into her voluntarily, treating her chest like a pillow. Could he actually be enjoying her company? As shocking as the realization might be, and despite all of their arguing and fighting, he had gradually become accustomed to her as he had adapted to this new situation. They had spent so much time together – more time than he had spent alone with anyone in a very long time – that he had gotten used to her presence. Her alien scent, the feeling of her body pressed tightly against his, even the sound of her voice no longer irritated him.

For the first time since they had crashed on the moon, that feeling of isolation was no longer gripping him. How long had it been since he had been able to open up to someone outside of UNNI? He had been lying for so long that telling the truth about who he was – letting anyone get close to him emotionally – was almost a revelation. Lorza now understood him in ways that few people outside of the agency could. She had shared in his experiences, in his triumphant highs and his lowest lows. She could be insightful, even funny in a kind of dry way when she wanted to be, and…

He heard Lorza snore – she was already asleep. Slowly so as not to wake her, he turned around to face her, finding himself at eye-level with her chest. The fat that she had put on from her squid meal had really filled her out, and now, she couldn’t even zip up her coveralls all the way. The extra weight had forced her to leave a little of it open, exposing more of the fluffy fur. Boyd’s face reddened behind his mask as he caught himself glancing down into the beginnings of her cleavage, the velvet-soft meat of her breasts squashed together inside her clothing, the dancing firelight creating a deep and tantalizing shadow. The garment was barely staying closed – he could see the way that it was fighting against their weight, threatening to spill its heaving contents at the slightest provocation. Her breathing was deep and regular, the gentle rise and fall of her chest making her assets wobble softly, their proximity giving Boyd no choice but to press into them as they lapped against his chest like surf. One of her arms was still draped over his waist, a belly that rivaled her bosom in girth and softness resting against his groin in a way that was impossible for him to avoid. They were practically spooning – he was closer to Lorza than he’d been to another woman in months. It wasn’t like his job afforded him much opportunity for courting.

He swallowed the lump in his throat, trying to ignore the floral, feminine scent that was invading his senses with each breath. It was a scent that he now associated with warmth, with comfort, the Polar conditioning him like Pavlov’s damned dog. Tearing his gaze away from her chest, he turned to lie on his back, staring intently at the ceiling. He tried to go over the journey ahead in his mind, planning out what he might do if the refinery was staffed, what kind of cover story he might concoct. No matter how hard he tried, his usually clinical, analytical mind was in a tailspin.

Boyd closed his eyes and tried to blank his mind, banishing the intrusive and inappropriate thoughts that his subconscious spewed forth, attempting to ignore the involuntary swelling in his loins as he fell into a troubled sleep.

***

Lorza draped her long arm over Boyd’s shoulders as she walked beside him in the snow. It was another fine day, the skies clear, the wind not quite fast enough to whip up more than a few stray flecks of powder. Her limb was surprisingly heavy, packed with iron muscle beneath the layer of blubber, her high-gravity bones like concrete. He sagged, and she chuckled at him, removing her arm.

“What is wrong, malish?” she asked. “You have been quieter than usual today. You are not growing bored of me, I hope?”

He shook his head, and that seemed to satisfy her. She had certainly warmed to him after their conversation the night before. Now, she was being far friendlier towards him, and she wouldn’t keep her hands to herself. He might have resented it before, but that was no longer the case, he just didn’t know how to respond to her new familiarity. The alien’s concept of personal space and appropriate social interaction might differ a great deal from his own. Strangely, the more he took her otherness into account, the less it bothered him.

“You know, I could carry that for you,” Lorza said as she gestured to the sled that he was dragging behind him. “It would probably be easier for me than it looks for you.”

“I’m good, don’t worry about me,” he replied. “Just keep your eyes on the horizon and tell me if you see the refinery. They’re a lot better than mine.” He glanced down at the display on his wrist, then at Hades as it hung in the sky, checking the coordinates. “It should be visible pretty soon, especially in these conditions.”

“This night might be the last one we spend in a cave,” Lorza said, patting his back with a hand the size of a dinner plate. It was almost strong enough to knock him off balance. “I suppose you will be happy to sleep in a real bed without my fur in your face. You can enjoy a meal made from something that did not try to eat you first.”

“If I can sleep in a muddy foxhole with Bug chemical shells raining down over my head, then I can get used to sharing a sleeping bag with you,” he said as he lugged his sled over another snowdrift. “It’s not as bad as I’ve been making out.”

“Perhaps you can sleep with one of those Persian rugs to preserve my memory,” she chuckled.

“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.

“Be careful, malish, or you will 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, gripping him by the collar like she was scruffing a kitten, lifting him up and placing him back on the snow. “I do not know how you will survive without me,” she said, shooting him a sly smile.

“Come on, let's keep up the pace,” he grumbled as he kicked some of the snow off his boot. “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.”

“You know, I think I may visit somewhere more temperate when I return to Earth. This weather is enough to make even a Polar long for warmth. I hear Toronto is nice in the winter months.”

“Canada is temperate for you?” Boyd asked, shooting her a skeptical glance.

“Notice the fur?” she asked sarcastically. “I am not going anywhere tropical on vacation. It is a mystery to me why you humans seem to enjoy exposing yourselves to solar radiation. Burning your epidermis is a fashion statement to you.”

“You saying you don’t appreciate a sun-kissed tan?” Boyd said, Lorza turning her nose up at him when she realized he was making fun of her.

“You will not appreciate the cancer, is my point.”

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 drifts 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, she helped him along now, steadying him when he lost his balance and helping him mount the steeper slopes.

She seemed to hold no grudges, and she was remarkably forgiving of the way he had treated her. 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, both literal and figurative.

Lorza stopped at the peak of one of the drifts, holding her hand to her brow to shield her eyes from the sun, then he heard her cry out in excitement.

“I see it! Boyd, I can see it!”

He scrambled up the incline to join her, practically dropping to all-fours for purchase as he climbed, coming to a stop beside her. He could see it too – the refinery’s storage tanks and towers rising up above the horizon, hazy like a mirage.

“That's it! That's the refinery!” he exclaimed as he pumped a fist into the air. “We can't be more than a day's walk away now!”

Lorza swept him up in her arms, lifting him off the snow, pressing him tightly against her chest as she spun him around in celebration. 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 Polar, his fall broken by the soft cushion of her bosom, his face pressing into the fluffy cleavage beneath her open zipper. Like a sea mammal surfacing for air, he lifted his head away, her enticing scent lingering in his rebreather. Lorza laughed heartily as she struggled to untangle herself, the motion making her assets wobble. After a moment, she gave up and flopped back onto the snow, spreading her arms as though she was making a snow angel as she caught her breath. She glanced down at Boyd, who was now red-faced, straddling her belly like a space hopper.

“You are not half bad at navigating, malish. You might make a fine cartographer one day.”

Boyd struggled to lift himself off her, but his hands merely sank up to the wrist in her yielding flesh wherever he tried to find purchase, like he was crawling across a waterbed. Lorza stifled her laughter as he inadvertently tickled her, reaching behind his back to unclip the tether from his belt loop. She untangled him, then took him by the arm, rolling him off her. He landed in the snow beside her, then rose to his feet, brushing the melting powder off his suit’s circuits. He gave her a look of disapproval, but she responded with another infectious laugh. He didn't have the heart to scold her, nor could he suppress his smile. Freedom was in sight, and maybe they needed a little levity after everything that they had been through over the last few days.

He tried to help her up, then thought better of it, the Polar smirking at him as she sat upright. She tossed him the end of his tether, then nodded in the direction of the refinery.

“Lead on, mister Boyd.”

CHAPTER 8: HONEYPOT

The sun was getting low, painting the sky in shades of red and orange that were reflected in the snow, silhouetting their destination in its glow. The refinery was growing larger by the hour, and now, it was close enough for them to see the shafts of sunlight that penetrated its many pipes and catwalks. Boyd could make out the storage tanks, the cooling towers for the fission reactors, and even the ice drilling platforms that extended deep into the moon’s subsurface ocean.

Water ice was a valuable commodity. Having it in both solid and liquid form, along with free oxygen to siphon from the atmosphere, made the moon an ideal location. Humans breathed oxygen, they drank water, and hydrogen was what fueled conventional spaceship engines. All of them could be sourced right here.

Wherever there was a colony or an outpost, there would be an ice refinery on a nearby stellar body, if not on the planet itself. Asteroids, comets, gas giants, and frozen moons like this one all contained water ice in abundance. It could be broken down into its component elements through a process known as thermochemical cracking, where it was heated by a nuclear reactor to the point that the hydrogen and oxygen atoms were separated. This one must have been placed here by ExoCorp to supply Hades with fuel and drinking water, and to resupply the ships that docked to the planet’s orbital station. With any luck, it would be manned by civilian workers, or it might be completely automated. The possibility of Syndicate stooges taking control of the facility couldn’t be ruled out, but it wasn't as if they had any other options. Better to keep his concerns to himself so as not to put a damper on Lorza's good mood.

“We should find a place to take shelter soon,” he said. “Though, I’m loathe to stop when our destination is this close. I feel like I could reach out and touch it.”

“There are plenty of small ice caves around here,” Lorza replied. “We have enough food to last us for days, and there are no monsters on our tail, so there is no need to hurry. We can take a break, and you can cook us up some supper.”

“All you think about is food,” Boyd chided, the Polar patting her belly in response.

“I must keep the engine running.”

“Granted, you’re starving, but I still feel like you’re the only person who appreciates my cooking.”

“Does your wife not enjoy your cooking?” Lorza asked, glancing back at him over her shoulder as she stepped over a patch of ice.

“Don’t have one,” he replied, lugging his sled along. “I couldn’t in my line of work.”

“Poor Boyd,” she cooed, putting on an exaggerated pout. “No mate to cook for him, so he must eat his own terrible food. Lorza will have to teach him.”

“You’re going to teach me to cook?” he chuckled incredulously.

“Of course,” she replied, placing a hand on her chest proudly. “We Polars are natural-born chefs, and I was the ship’s cook, if you had forgotten. When we get off this moon, I shall have you making borscht like a true babushka in no time. Then, you can woo a mate.”

“Oh, is that my problem?” Boyd chuckled. “I would have taken a class if I’d known that was all it took.”

“There is a human adage that shows uncharacteristic wisdom,” she continued, raising a finger into the air as though sermonizing. “The path to the heart is through the stomach. This is true for my people also. Literally – the stomach is the organ that Polars associate with emotion, not the heart.”

“I can barely contain my surprise,” he replied.

“Food is central to our culture,” she continued, ignoring his sarcasm. “Hunting together reinforces our social bonds, and preparing the kill brings us together. When the whole pack feasts at the same table and shares the fruits of their labor, we grow as a family. After all, what greater expression of love can there be than sharing resources when they are scarce – to go hungry for the sake of another?”

Boyd hadn’t really thought about it in that light before, but for a species that lived in such harsh conditions, such a simple gesture could hold great meaning for them. No wonder she had appreciated him sharing the squid meat.

“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 do not pair off in the way that humans do,” she replied. “Well, when we are trying to mate, we sometimes have exclusive partners for a time. Generally speaking, all members of a pack and sometimes members of that pack’s community will lie with one another freely. There is no stigma associated with seeking love and affection in such a way.”

“Sounds like some kind of commune,” Boyd muttered.

“Humans are monogamous, and they are said to pair for life,” Lorza replied. “In my experience, this claim is rarely true. I have known them to have multiple partners in sequence and even to seek out new mates in secret. Some who visit the Siberian colony quickly find that our way of approaching relationships suits them far better.”

That was certainly something to think about – a whole village of Lorzas. Just one of them was more than he could handle.

“So...you've never met anyone that you really liked?” he asked. “Does it even work that way for you?”

“Oh, sure,” she said as she helped him over another patch of slippery ice. “We have favorites. I have never found a mate, though. Not in the way that a human would understand the concept.”

“And…have you ever been with a human?” Boyd asked hesitantly, trying to phrase the question in a way that sounded less suggestive. “I hear stories about Equatorials from the Marines – word is they get up to a lot when they're off-duty. If people are visiting your colony...”

“Why? Are you interested in being my first?”

She laughed at him as he shook his head vehemently.

“No, I'm just curious,” he insisted as he raised his hands defensively. “It's not every day that I get to have a heart-to-heart with an alien.”

“I have never laid with a human,” she replied, her openness surprising him. “There was one who interested me,” she added, seeming to reminisce. “A boy who I met while I was studying in the city. He was cute, and we hit it off, as you would say. We shared many classes, and I could sense that he had little experience with women. He liked me, though. Perhaps talking to an eight-foot alien was less intimidating than talking to a female of his own species,” she chuckled. “One night, he accompanied me back to my dorm. I had told him that I needed help with my studies, but it was a pretense to get him alone, of course.”

“What happened?” Boyd asked.

“I propositioned him, but he said no,” she replied with a shrug. “Not all humans are so accepting of aliens in that way.”

“His loss,” Boyd said, Lorza giving him a sideways glance.

“Why do you say that?”

“He passed up an opportunity to try something unique,” Boyd explained. “I doubt he’ll get that chance again. You should always seize the moment and try new things. Even if you end up not liking them, at least you can say that you gave them a fair shake.”

She reached over and gently punched his shoulder. She was being playful, but she was still strong enough to knock him off balance, the Polar grinning at him as he stumbled.

“I did not expect such wisdom from you, malish. What about you? Ever been subjected to a night with an Equatorial?”

“Can’t say that I have,” he replied, shaking his head. “It probably comes as no surprise to you, but there aren’t many positions suitable for Equatorials in my profession. They’re not exactly the most subtle and tactful operatives. Why do you phrase it like that, by the way? Are they really that bad?”

“Worse,” she said with a sordid chuckle. “They make love like they fight – there is a winner and a loser, and they give no quarter.”

“What about Polars?” Boyd asked, shooting her a curious glance that she answered with a smile.

“We put a little more thought and care into it than that,” she replied. “For us, making love is a social experience, one that we use to reinforce bonds between members of a community. There is little distinction between a friend and a lover.” She paused the thought, gesturing past him with a clawed finger. “Look – a cave opening. We should stop here and get some rest.”

Boyd nodded in agreement, somewhat relieved by the change of subject, and they changed course as they headed towards the mouth of the cave. This one was a little more cramped than the last, the ceiling low enough that Lorza had to duck, but there was just enough room to lie down in one of the shallower chambers. Before long, Lorza had laid out the sleeping bag, and Boyd was cooking up another portion of squid steaks.

He flipped the cut of meat over, watching it sizzle, its scent filling the little cave. If he could forget the mobsters who were out for his blood, and the man-eating squids that filled the subsurface ocean beneath their feet, it was almost cozy. Maybe he should take a well-earned vacation once he got back to civilization – do a little camping.

Lorza hovered beside him, eyeing the browning meat, licking her chops as Boyd turned it with his ceramic knife.

“If only we had something warm to drink,” she muttered. “We could boil some snow, yes, but I would fight another squid for a warm mug of sbiten.”

“The fuck is sbiten?” Boyd asked as he tended to the stove.

“It is a Russian drink,” she explained. “It is a kind of mulled wine, I suppose, made from a base of honey. They add ginger, cinnamon, cloves, and other spices, and it best served hot like tea. Polars do not have much appreciation for sweet flavors like humans do, but we enjoy the drink’s other elements. It will warm one’s belly on a cold day.”

“Well, there were tea packets in the MREs,” Boyd said as he paused to glance at her. “But, you ate them.”

“Calories are calories,” she replied with a shrug.

“This one is nearly done,” Boyd added, flipping the steak over again. “Maybe a hot meal will warm you up just as well as...what was it?”

Sbiten,” she replied with a chuckle. Boyd handed the steak off to her, Lorza hooking it in her claws, steam rising from it in the chill air. She took a wet bite as he set another portion to cook, licking her juice from her chin with her prehensile tongue. Every time he saw the damned thing it seemed to get longer.

“You do not give yourself enough credit, Boyd,” she sighed as she swallowed another mouthful. “This is like heaven. Perhaps it is the mild malnutrition talking, but I could eat this all night. We Polars like our meat oily.”

“Considering that I watched you put away about two hundred pounds of the stuff raw, I don’t doubt it,” he replied.

Lorza scooted a little closer on the plush sleeping bag, draping an arm over his shoulders and pulling him closer, Boyd feeling his head sink into one of her weighty breasts like a pillow.

“You know,” she began, pausing to saw off another piece of meat with her sharp teeth. “We are likely the only people who have ever laid eyes on one of these animals, let alone eaten one. We should name it!”

“Name it?” Boyd chuckled, trying to focus on his stove rather than the giant rack that was threatening to swallow his head.

“Yes,” she insisted. “We discovered it, so we should name it. That is customary, nyet?” She scratched her chin with one of her black claws as she considered. “”How about...ice devil?”

“Not bad, not bad,” Boyd mused as he prodded his steak. “Needs to sound more aquatic, though. What about an octo-stalker?”

“I know!” Lorza declared, bumping his head again in her enthusiasm. “Do you know of the Rainbow Spider?”

“Can’t say I’ve heard of it,” Boyd replied. “I assume you’re about to tell me all about it, though.”

“It is a huge predator that lives in the equatorial jungles of Borealis,” she explained, finishing off the last piece of her steak. “It is covered in beautiful, iridescent fur that refracts the light, hence its name. The Elysians especially see hunting one as a rite of passage for their warriors, and its pelt is often worn as capes or robes as a symbol of status. This creature was also colorful and dangerous,” she continued with a nod to his stove. “Why not name it a Rainbow Squid?”

“Fair enough,” Boyd conceded, blowing on his steak as he brought it to his mouth. He took a bite, juggling it around for a moment before continuing. “Rainbow squid it is, and this right here is Boyd’s home-cooked flame-grilled rainbow squid 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. Without his hood, he was once again struck by how soft it was, her warm coat like velvet against his skin. Polars really were a tactile people – so much of their communication happened through touch. It had been alarming at first, but he was starting to grow accustomed to it now.

“Your suit is so warm,” she marveled. The Polar smirked to herself, then slid her hands around his torso, lifting him off the sleeping bag as though he was no larger than a child. He lurched as she planted him in her lap, crossing her arms around him and pulling him into a tight embrace. Her pudgy thighs made for an admirable seat, softer and more inviting than any recliner, and the paunch of her belly cushioned his lower back. Breasts that were each larger than his head spilled over his shoulders, barely contained by the much-suffering fabric of her coveralls, their considerable weight coming to rest on him. Even through the tough material of her work clothes, he could feel himself slowly sinking into them, as though her velvet-soft fat was trying to take a mold of his upper body. Even when he tried to wriggle away, all he succeeded in doing was sinking another couple of warm, yielding inches. “If only you could keep it turned on overnight,” she said, a pleasant shiver sliding down his spine as he felt her warm breath blow his hair. “It would be so nice.”

He finished off his steak, blushing in earnest, her gentle breathing making him all the more aware of her breasts as he felt their weight shift. She lay her chin on his head as she watched the fire dance beneath the little stove, Boyd practically wearing her like a coat, enveloped in fluffy fur and cushy fat. It was oddly relaxing – that was impossible to deny – the cold all but driven away by their combined heat. It felt...good to be held, as strange as that realization made him feel, and he thanked his stars that she couldn’t see his burning face from that high angle.

“You are quieter than usual,” Lorza mumbled, lifting her furry chin from his head. “Is something wrong?”

“No, I’m just...relaxed.”

“I know that some humans do not like to be touched, but we are friends now, da?”

“I don’t mind you touching me,” he said, not really stopping to think about what he was saying.

“I think that you would be a credit to any pack that would have you,” she added. 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 are a Polar at heart,” she explained, Boyd feeling her grip on him grow tighter. “You are a survivor, and you take care of your own. At least, once you have learned who your allies are,” she chuckled as she ruffled his hair affectionately with a giant hand.

“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, watching the flickering of the flame, Boyd feeling an unfamiliar tension growing within his chest that had no relation to his injury. There was nowhere that he could rest his hands, nowhere he could sit where he wasn’t in contact with Lorza. He was acutely aware of the way that his fingers sank into the supple, doughy meat of her thighs, and how the weight of her chest leaned on his shoulders. Fuck, his head was practically nestled between her breasts, every subtle motion making them quiver.

He couldn’t stand the tension any longer, and he struggled out of her lap. Escaping her inviting flesh was as difficult as pulling himself out of quicksand, his hands sinking into her wherever he tried to find purchase, but he succeeded in climbing to his feet.

“What is the matter?” Lorza asked, cocking her head at him.

“I just...bathroom break.”

He hurried off down one of the side tunnels, Lorza watching him with a quizzical expression. Once he had broken line of sight, he leaned against one of the cold ice walls. Hoping that it might have the same effect as taking a cold shower, he tapped at his display, lowering his suit’s temperature. His chest felt so tight – what the hell was wrong with him? He had endured her teasing, and he had resisted her attempts to get under his skin for days, but her genuine shows of affection were burning through his defenses like a hot knife. This wasn’t a form of interrogation – he couldn’t deal with this in the same way.

Did he like her?

He felt his heart skip a beat, his breath catching in his throat as the realization dizzied him. It felt like someone was inflating his heart with a bicycle pump, and it was about to explode. What the hell was he supposed to do now? He struggled to compose himself, drawing on the training that let him keep his head on straight in a firefight, but it was somehow even more difficult to focus. Frustrated, he tore his hood off and took a few gulps of fresh, frigid air. Logically, his mask wasn’t stopping him from breathing, but it was an illogical impulse.

The bite of the cold helped calm him a little, enough that he could put on a stoic front again, but how long would that last? The thought of sharing a sleeping bag with her again, as permissive and affectionate as she had become, filled him with a blend of dread and anticipation that made his mouth dry out. He had to do something about this. Could he endure her company for just one more night? Once they got back to civilization, there would be no further need to sleep together, no reason to be in such close proximity. Maybe that was the issue – they had become too familiar, it was all starting to feel too normal.

He had to stick it out. In just a few more hours, it wouldn’t matter anymore, and she’d have no way of knowing about his temporary lapse. Lying was his job, playing a role was his profession, and this was no different.

Boyd took a few more moments to compose himself, doing a breathing exercise usually reserved for far more dire situations, then slid his hood back over his head. When he made his way back up the tunnel, he found Lorza waiting for him, her blue eyes and her fluffy ears tracking him as he returned to sit beside her. The silence seemed to bug her, so she broke it.

“Boyd,” she began, giving him a concerned look. “I may not be able to read you as easily as I can other humans, but I know you well enough by now to realize when you are acting out of character. You have been behaving strangely all day, did I do something to upset you?”

“It’s nothing like that, just some digestive issues from the squid meat,” he replied with a dismissive shake of his head. “Listen, Lorza – we only have one night left before we’re off this rock, right? What do you say we get some sleep? I’m exhausted from all the walking we’ve been doing, and the sooner we pass out, the sooner we can be up and moving again.”

“Yeah...alright,” she replied, sounding unconvinced.

He had to admit, he wasn't doing a very good job of concealing his emotions. Somehow, trying to hide the way he was starting to feel about her was so much more difficult than what he had been trained for. He felt as though he couldn't look her in the eye, or she’d know.

Boyd lurched suddenly as he felt her giant, fluffy tail wind around his waist, the Polar dragging him 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 are going to get all quiet on me, malish. It is getting colder – the sun must have set. Will you stop your wriggling?”

Boyd couldn’t escape her – she was too strong – so he gave in and let her manhandle him like an overly possessive girl with a new puppy. That pressure in his chest returned as he felt her soft, fluffy hands curl around his torso, the heft of her breasts coming to rest on his shoulders once more. All he could do was sit there and simmer quietly, not knowing how to object in a way that wouldn’t reveal the conflict that was raging within him.

“Your suit grows colder,” she murmured, loosening her grip on him as he breathed a silent sigh of relief into his mask. “You are running out of power, no? We should get into the sleeping bag, unless you want to become a Boyd popsicle.”

There was that blend of dread and anticipation again, Boyd nodding his head, Lorza letting him slide out of her grasp as she unzipped the sleeping bag. He tapped at his display, shutting down his suit to conserve what remained of its charge, feeling the tendrils of cold start to creep in. He turned to see Lorza lying snugly inside the bag, holding it open in invitation with one hand, her breasts squashing together under their own weight as she lay on her side.

“Come. I am letting the heat out.”

He steeled himself, then complied, lowering himself into the bag beside her. She closed it around them, then zipped it up, sealing him inside with her. Not wasting a moment of time, she scooped him up in her arm, tugging him close. She pressed him up against her voluptuous body, Boyd feeling himself sinking into her warm, soft flesh like she was draping a blanket over him. No matter what position he tried to shuffle into, he was always in contact with something round and squishy, her body heat already baking the inside of the bag.

It should have been no more uncomfortable than the previous nights – it wasn’t like had hadn’t endured this before – but she was being extra affectionate and handsy since she had declared them friends. She draped one of her long arms around his waist, her breasts practically consuming his right shoulder as she dragged him closer, pushing her face into the nape of his neck to nuzzle him like a cat.

“My people sleep in piles,” she explained, her hot breath blowing on his shoulder. “I am glad you warmed up to me, Boyd. I can relax around you now, and I sleep much more soundly when I can feel someone else close to me – their warmth, the sound of their heartbeat.”

Could she hear his heart pounding like a hammer with those sensitive ears? Her flowery scent was unavoidable, every breath that he took making his head spin, butterflies swarming in his belly. What the hell was wrong with him? He hadn’t felt this way since he was a damned teenager. Lorza seemed to notice, his face burning as she peeled back his hood, then gently pressed the back of her furry hand against his forehead like she was checking his temperature.

“Are you sick?” she asked. “Your face is so warm.”

“N-no, I'm fine,” he stammered as he blinked back at her. “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 bosom. He breathed in her scent without the filter of his mask, his heart quickening as she scratched his scalp, pleasant shivers rolling down his spine with each gentle prick of her claws. Her coat was impossibly soft against his cheeks – thick, silky, and luxuriant.

Were all Polars this affectionate with one another? Was this normal behavior to them? It was far from his first time sharing a bed with a woman, but he had never felt this kind of intimacy before. It was as if compassion was leaking from her very pores. He felt more wanted in that moment than he ever had, even in the heat of lovemaking. The sensation was confusing and exciting – it made him feel drunk. His head swam as he remembered what she had told him earlier – that there was no distinction between friends and lovers in her culture. Did that only apply to other Polars or to him, too?

“There you go, just relax,” she purred as her hypnotic stroking continued. Her hand was covered in fluffy fur, like she was wearing a mink glove, while her sharp claws felt like the teeth of a comb. “You are so tense tonight. We will be free of this place tomorrow, get some rest.”

Her voice was soft and low, husky yet feminine, her breath tickling his skin as she murmured in his ear. He should pull his hood back up, put his rebreather back on, but he didn’t want it to end. Did she even 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, but this was something different. He wanted this.

That pressure inside him was reaching its boiling point. 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? You should seize the moment, let no opportunity pass you by, and never fear new experiences.

“Lorza,” he mumbled, his voice muffled by her silky fur.

“What is it?” she asked. “Are you finally going to tell me why you have been acting so strange tonight?”

“I...I think I might be attracted to you,” he admitted, speaking into her collar to avoid having to look her in the eye for fear that he might melt into a puddle. “What do we do about that?”

She released him from her embrace, looking down at him with an expression that was a blend of surprise and confusion. She was usually so snarky – she had a comeback for every scenario – but she was speechless now. His face burned as he stammered through the rest of his confession, each sentence making him feel more and more like he had made a grave mistake.

“It might sound dumb, but being stranded here with you – it’s the closest I’ve been to anyone in a long time. Maybe it’s because we’ve both been through the same shit, or maybe it’s because we’ve had no choice but to spend every waking moment together, but you might be the only person alive who knows me as intimately as you do. I’m a UNNI spook – I can’t even tell most people my real name. From the moment I met you, I’ve been lying to you, and it’s only gotten harder. Now, I feel like I can’t even look you in the eye without spilling my guts. What kind of a lousy spy does that make me?”

Her shocked expression softened, replaced by one that was warm and somehow hungry. She didn’t reply, but he got the impression that she was waiting for him to continue.

“Maybe I was only making fun of your figure and your fur because I was trying to deny how much I like it,” he continued. He was rambling now, his embarrassment welling as she scrutinized him with her piercing, blue gaze. “It was just a defense mechanism, I guess. I didn’t want you to know how much I looked forward to sleeping with you – I didn’t want to admit it to myself...”

She reached up to cup one of his burning cheeks in her hand, the delicate fur that covered her palm tickling his skin, tilting his head up so that she could see his face. His breath caught in his throat as she leaned down to press her lips against his. They were so much larger and fuller than those of a human, scaled up in proportion with her eight-foot stature, softer than he could ever have anticipated. As mismatched as they were, Lorza still found a way to lock them to his, subjecting him to a slow and gentle kiss. His heart skipped a beat as he felt the tip of that long, sinuous tongue probe his mouth, the Polar’s pace tentative and exploratory. She had never kissed a human before, and she was probing him, perhaps trying to figure out how much of it he could handle. The soft smacking sound of their embrace was amplified in the silence of the cave, Boyd’s eyelids fluttering as her deft tongue began to explore him.

Its heat surprised him, contrasting with the cool air that surrounded them, its surface slick with her saliva. She started with just the pointed tip, but as her confidence grew, she piled more of its fat coils into his mouth inch by glistening inch. The length of wet muscle twisted and squirmed, bulging his cheeks as it glanced their sensitive inner lining, tickling the roof of his mouth with each exploratory stroke. Its copper flavor pricked his taste buds as he did his best to match her pace, but this was nothing like kissing a human – he was completely on the back foot. She was so strong, so large, and it could easily have become overwhelming if she wasn’t so doting and gentle. Every so often, he could feel the cat-like barbs that lined its upper surface, but she was so skilled that they rarely came into contact with him. Something about her caution made him feel like he was being touched for the first time again, and he found himself pressing closer to her, his hands delving into the fur that lined her cheeks.

There was no need to keep his hands to himself now – no need to fear the intimacy that she had been offering him. He let one of his hands roam down towards her chest, Boyd hurriedly pulling off a glove and tossing it aside, combing his fingers through her fur without the suit coming between them. It was so impossibly soft and fluffy, putting even the most expensive fur coats to shame, trapping her body heat to make her even more inviting. Before long, his fingers found her chest, but her sumptuous breasts were still protected by her coveralls. He took a handful of supple, wobbling flesh through the tough fabric, pawing impotently at her bosom.

Lorza let out a rumbling purr in response, leaning into him, her kiss intensifying. Boyd felt like someone had poured ice water into his brain. His mind was fogging, and the sensation of her massive, slippery organ painting shapes inside his mouth and teasing the back of his throat was all that he could focus on. Her embrace was so impossibly deep, so lurid, but she was so emphatically gentle and considerate of his human limitations. How could something as mundane as a kiss feel so intense? It was like nothing he had ever experienced before, like she was pouring every drop of her affection and her desire into each lingering, dizzying lick.

He was starting to think that it would go on forever, until Lorza finally relented. She withdrew her long, winding tongue, her plush lips breaking away with a wet pop. As she drew back, the panting couple remained joined by a shining strand of their shared saliva, stretching until it broke. Lorza loomed over him, gazing down at him with covetous eyes that reflected the dancing light of the little stove.

Malish,” she cooed, cradling his face in one of her giant hands. “Do you think that I have not been trying to seduce you since we first arrived here? I admit it – at first, all I wanted was to make you pliable and cooperative. I thought that I could use sex as a bargaining chip, as we Polars often do with others of our kind, but you resisted me. I am not accustomed to being refused, so I thought that perhaps you just did not feel attraction to aliens. It would not be the first time – I believe I told you the story about my study partner.”

She ran her fingers through his hair, pleasant shivers sliding down his spine as her sharp claws danced across his scalp, her touch just light enough that he could feel their prick. The sensation made his brain fizzle and pop, like someone was setting off fireworks inside his skull. He had been so sure that she would reject him – that she would mock him and tease him for his lapse, but this was a better reaction than he could have imagined.

“As time passed, and we got to know each another better, I started to realize that you are not like other humans,” she continued. “I could not break your resolve. Anyone else would have cracked the moment that I invited them to share my sleeping bag, but not you. Something about you is different. Maybe it is because you are a spy, but I think it is this intangible quality that makes you a good agent rather than the other way around.”

She leaned closer, catching his ear between her pointed teeth, chewing it gently as she whispered to him in a low and sultry tone.

“I wanted to do things to you,” she purred, her tongue sliding out to glance his skin. “Things that would have cooked us in this sleeping bag. I would have you hungering for my touch more than you hungered for food.”

She began to move lower, nuzzling as she went, Boyd flinching reflexively as those carnivore teeth pressed against his neck. Her bite was gentle, just hard enough that he could feel it, and he bucked as he felt her slide a thick thigh between his legs. His already aching erection pressed into her doughy flesh, so soft and yielding that their clothing did nothing to diminish it, a gasp escaping his tightly-pursed lips as her tongue slid out to graze his throat.

“I had given up,” she continued, pausing to nip at his neck where his suit ended. “It was only when we started to talk in earnest that I realized I wanted something more. I wanted to have you, and the fact I could not was maddening.”

She bit him a little harder this time, grinding her thigh against his stiff member, Boyd taking handfuls of her coveralls as she teased him. Transitioning to gentle kisses, she peppered his neck, planting her puffy lips against the red indents that she had left in his skin as if to soothe them.

“But, now,” she continued as her lips roamed up to his ear again. “Now, you come to me willingly, eagerly. Let me have you, Boyd. I want you...”

He squirmed in her arms as she mouthed and licked, her dexterous tongue sliding beneath the collar of his suit, her attentions leaving Boyd almost unable to formulate a coherent reply as he gasped and flinched.

“Don’t stop,” he whispered, a sudden violent desire welling inside him. “We’ve been an inch from death so many times – I want to feel alive.”

The Polar hesitated for a moment, breathing heavily as she peered down at him, then she rolled off him to let him up.

“Clothes. Now.”

Boyd didn’t need to be told twice, scrambling to take off his suit, which was made doubly difficult in the confined space of the sleeping bag. It wasn’t exactly easy to get into, and it was no easier to get out of, the skin-tight material sticking to him like spandex. Lorza wasn’t faring much better – having put on more weight than she had started out with after eating the squid, leaving her coveralls a couple of sizes too small for her. He couldn’t help but pause his struggling to watch her, awed by the way that her massive breasts were swaying with her movements, shaking within the tight confines of her clothes as she struggled to pull her zipper down. Finally, it gave in, the weight of her copious bust spreading the garment apart to unleash a cascade of fur and flesh. As the zipper passed her chest, they burst forth, a pair of breasts more comparable to the size of beach balls than anything in human proportions quivering as gravity spread them apart. They spilled over the sides of her torso as she lay on her back, the Polar gathering them in one arm, pulling the zipper lower with the other. Her velvet fat bulged around her forearm as she fought to contain them, her hand vanishing as one of her boobs consumed it like an amoeba absorbing its prey.

Next came her belly, her paunch subtle, but just generous enough to create a little bulge that lit a fire inside him. Calling her figure voluptuous was an understatement that did her no justice. She was Rubenesque, like a classical painting leaping from the canvas, overflowing with a health and vitality that tugged at something primal buried deep in his psyche. There was beauty in someone slim and lithe, but his attraction to Lorza was one steeped in instinct, her child-bearing hips and exaggerated feminine features inspiring the same lust in him that had once motivated his cave-dwelling ancestors to carve fertility fetishes obsessively. He couldn’t have kept his hands off her if his life had depended on it.

Her tummy quivering almost as much as her chest, she dragged the zipper to her crotch, where he saw a flash of her black panties. She seemed to go without a bra, but she wore her bottoms, the dark fabric contrasting with her white fur. Lorza lifted one leg to kick her suit the rest of the way off, then the other, the ample meat of her thighs shaking with the effort. Sitting upright now, she let her breasts fall, the heavy globes of fat bouncing as they clapped against her torso. They were made for far higher gravity than this, somehow maintaining their teardrop shape and their enticing fullness despite their size, Boyd’s eyes lingering on them as she began to slide off her underwear. He couldn’t see what they had been concealing from where he was lying – he was at the wrong angle.

She tossed her underwear aside, so large that Boyd could probably have used them as a sail. He did the same, finally succeeding in peeling off his suit, then tearing off his shorts. The potential danger that he was exposing himself to never even entered his mind, neither the thin atmosphere nor the potentially lethal cold giving him pause. He freed his erection, Lorza’s eyes wandering down to his throbbing member, the Polar wetting her lips in anticipation. They were both nude in the partially open sleeping bag now, Boyd feeling her fur against his hip and thigh, her hanging breasts within arm’s reach.

Wasting no time, he sat up beside her, plunging his eager hands into Lorza’s bust, the Polar tensing as she loosed a sharp gasp. They were at the perfect height for him, and he tried to lift the nearest one from below, marveling at its heft. It barely budged, instead draping itself over his hand, filling his palm. His hand quickly vanished up to the wrist, engulfed by silken fur and flesh so soft that he could almost manipulate it like wet clay. When he squeezed, it spilled through his fingers, springing back when he relented.

“How long have you been wanting to do that?” Lorza laughed, the motion sending ripples through her bosom.

Boyd slid his hand higher, admiring the way that her fat deformed beneath it, combing her fur with his fingers as he went. She was a playground of tactile sensation, and there was so much ground to cover, one of his digits glancing a swollen nipple after what felt like an eternity. It was firm, erect, an appreciative shudder passing through her body when he gently trapped it between two fingers. Growing more aggressive, he pressed deeper, finding sensitive breast tissue beneath the thick layer of blubber. Maybe it was his imagination, but she felt softer than any woman that he remembered, as though her alien flesh was somehow more delicate. He had been distracted by her chest 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.

“Come here,” she chuckled, reaching out to catch the back of his head in her hand. She drew him closer, turning her torso towards him, plunging his face into the depths of her cleavage. His vision went dark, all sound muffled, Boyd filling his lungs with her scent unreservedly. Like being pressed between two incomparably soft pillows, he found himself totally encompassed, some of their weight coming to rest on him as her breasts draped over his bare shoulders.

He raised his arms, trying to lift them as though he was carrying a bag of fertilizer on each arm, but they merely poured over his limbs like melting wax. Giving up, he elected to burrow deeper instead, delighting in the sensation of her fur brushing against his face. He leaned into her, attempting to wrap his arms around her core, but finding that they barely made it halfway around her. She returned his embrace, holding him tight, her affectionate purring resonating through his body.

“Take your fill of me,” she cooed, Boyd arching his back as she trailed her claws down his spine. “Hold nothing back – I want all of it.”

He surfaced for air, freeing himself from her chest, his eyes wandering between her breasts as they stared him in the face. Her nipples were almost at eye level, so he reached for one of her boobs, fighting to maneuver it closer. It was a struggle, flesh like putty slipping out of his grasp, and it took both hands to wrestle it into range. He leaned in, digging through her fur, taking the swollen nub of pink flesh into his mouth. He pursed his lips around it, starting to circle it with his tongue, drawing on it more aggressively as Lorza let out a growl of encouragement. She pressed a hand to the back of his head again, forcing him closer, her flesh bulging around his face like he was pressing his fist into a ball of dough. Boyd kneaded her supple tissue all the while, rolling her fat between his fingers as he nursed, pinching her nipple between his teeth and his tongue.

“I had no idea that humans had such smooth tongues,” she gasped, following up with a low rumble that Boyd could feel in his bones. “Harder,” she demanded, Boyd feeling a pleasant sting as she gripped his hair more tightly. He had let it grow out a little more than regulation usually allowed during his weeks undercover, and there was just enough for her to get a hold on. “You will not hurt me.”

He did as she asked, batting her nipple with his tongue, sucking ardently as he teased her with his lips. It was so much larger than the human equivalent, almost as long as his pinky finger, but it gave him more to work with.

As he mouthed and licked, he let one of his hands wander down towards her midriff, taking a generous handful of the subtle roll of flesh that overhung her beltline. The Polar lurched as he squeezed aggressively, finding it just as soft and as irresistible as her chest, the alien easing him away gently as though he was tickling her.

“All of your mocking really was because you were attracted to me,” she giggled, covering her mouth with her hand in a way that came off as strangely demure. “You used to make fun of me for being fat, and now, it is the first place your hands wander.”

“Oh, I was absolutely full of shit,” he replied with a candor that surprised even himself. “You have no idea how much just being in contact with you was fucking with my head.”

“I am glad to have such an effect,” she cooed, placing a hand on his chest to ease him back down onto the sleeping bag beside her. “Now, let me see what else you have been hiding from me, malish.”

She lay a hand on his belly – large enough to span it – the sharpness of her claws contrasting with the softness of her fleshy paw pads. She paused to examine his injured ribs, tutting at the extent of the bruising.

“Poor thing,” she murmured, baby-talking him. “Let Lorza make it better.”

[Editing note: I’m gonna abandon the stint/collapsed lung subplot and cut it in editing, it hasn’t really felt necessary.]

Testing the firmness of his abs, she roamed lower, her claws leaving red trails on his skin. She never pressed down hard enough to draw blood, but it kept him on his toes, the subtle sting only making him harder as she neared the base of his shaft.

“You really are all naked,” she chuckled, the thought seeming to amuse her. “I like it,” she added, her voice dripping with desire now. “It makes you smooth...” With a torturously slow pace, she walked her fingers up his shaft, Boyd’s breath halting each time one of her pads touched him. Finally, she relented, closing her first around his entire length to bury it in her opulent fur. He was by no means poorly endowed, but her hand was so large that only his glans was visible, the Polar smirking as she eyed it.

“Is it different from what you’re used to?” Boyd asked.

“Yes, but I have plenty to work with,” she replied with a toothy grin. “It is covered in skin – was not expecting that.”

“Yours aren’t?” he added, his brow furrowing as he tried to imagine what that might look like.

“Not like this,” she said, gripping him more tightly as she slid her hand lower. She inadvertently pulled back his foreskin, exposing his shining head to the cold air, her eyes widening. “I am glad that is supposed to happen...”

Just the warmth of her hand was enough to make him ache, his entire length buried in her silky coat, Boyd painfully aware of each delicate strand of hair as she began to stroke slowly. The lazy rise and fall was enough to make him lift his butt off the padded fabric beneath him, thrusting into her fist in search of more stimulation.

“You really are eager,” she purred, watching his pained expression with a smile of satisfaction. “A whole week of pent-up frustration, and who knows how long of a dry spell before that. How many weeks were you living in a prefab on that dustbowl of a planet? Did you even satisfy your urges with your hand, or are you too highly trained for that? What does it take to make a spy give in?”

“Apparently, sharing a sleeping bag with you,” he grunted. She laughed at that, Boyd feeling another throb of pleasure as he watched her breasts way, her smile widening.

“If you think you can flatter me, you are entirely correct, and I encourage it.”

Her steady pace was sending warm waves of pleasure washing over him now, the very rhythm of his heart seeming married to the gentle pumping of her fist. At her apex, she paused to wet the pad on her thumb with his leaking pre, making slow circles around his glans. It was like being massaged with a marshmallow – a strange but welcome sensation.

She noticed that his eyes were fixed firmly on her chest, so she snuck her free arm beneath him, lifting him into a reclining position as she continued her doting handjob. Her breasts spilled over his torso, voluminous enough to practically cover him in a blanket of warm, velvet-soft flesh. His entire field of view was blocked as one of her boobs practically engulfed his head, the fluffy strands of her fur brushing his cheeks, her scent filling his lungs with every breath. She was lowering her bosom into his reach, presenting herself to him, and he wasn’t one to refuse such an alluring offer.

Fat with the consistency of melting butter poured between his digits as he reached up to delve his hands into her breast, filling them with her heaving flesh, so ample that even two was scarcely enough to handle her. Boyd ran his fingers through her thick, luxuriant fur, taking his fill of her now that there was no need to hold back. He gathered her boob up in both arms, feeling it spill around them, wobbling like a mound of jello being tapped with a spoon. Even then, it was a struggle to wrangle it, but he succeeded in bringing a swollen nipple to his lips. Lorza shivered contentedly as he began to draw on it, batting it with his tongue, her flesh swallowing his fingers up to the knuckle.

She kept up her slow, teasing stroking all the while, the delightful pressure of her fist and the feeling of her silky, fluffy coat gliding up and down his length keeping him on edge. He felt her change the angle, directing his member into something impossibly soft and squishy. Although he couldn’t see anything other than the mountain of flesh and fur that was smothering him, he could guess that it was her other breast, his glans sinking into its yielding surface with each upward stroke. For all her strength, she was so gentle, almost to the point that it was frustrating. He wanted more, bucking into her fist, but she maintained that lazy pumping motion regardless.

“I have something that you might enjoy,” she purred, drawing back a little so that he could actually see her. She released his member to leave it throbbing in the cold air, and as her breasts rose away from him, he saw that she was bringing her hand to her mouth. She opened her fingers, Boyd’s heart starting to race as he watched that impossibly long length of pink, glistening flesh part her lips. She was putting her tongue on display now – she wanted him to see it – strands of her saliva drooping from it as it snaked through the air. Fully extended, it must have been close to a foot in length, easily as long as his forearm. She dragged it across her palm slowly, decadently, like she was sampling some delicious morsel of food. The winding organ left a thick web of bubbling saliva in its wake, matting her coat, and she began to lower it back down towards his aching erection.

There was an audible squelch as she gripped his cock in her damp fist, her satin fur soaked with warm, slimy drool. She coated his skin as she began to pump, tightening her grip, the wet strands of her hair gliding along his shaft. It was a strange, but enjoyable sensation, Boyd unable to prevent himself from moving in time with her strokes. He would never have anticipated that she could make him feel this way. What would have been mundane foreplay under different circumstances had him veering dangerously close to the edge with each pump, Lorza seeming to know precisely when to back off to keep him wanting.

“I like you this way,” she cooed, gazing down at him with her blue eyes as she cradled him in her arm. “You can be so obtuse, but here – with me – you are open like the pages of a book. Every twitch and gasp betrays you.” “Gotta admit, it’s nice to be able to let go,” he sighed as she gave him another cruel squeeze. “How are you so damned good at this?”

“Practice,” she replied with a smirk. “Though, I have no experience with humans. What do you say – will you be my study partner?”

“Sure, my schedule really freed up this week,” he replied.

She responded with a low, sultry laugh, Boyd writhing as she began to twist her fist. She was making a maddening spiral motion now, occasionally pressing her soft thumb pad against his glans, alternating the tightness of her grip to keep him guessing. He was enraptured, his whole body moving with her, his spine arching as he thrust into her waiting hand. Her saliva made her touch so wonderfully slippery, that soft fur caressing him, her warmth drawing him in. Boyd allowed himself to melt into her embrace, the Polar hugging him closer as her pace increased, letting the quivering meat of her bust spill over him against. His entire world was warmth and pleasure, the bitter bite of the frigid air only encouraging him to press closer – to put more of himself in contact with her. Despite himself, he began to gasp, stifled sighs escaping him with her every affectionate squeeze. Just when he felt like one more thrust might send him stumbling over the edge, she slowed, gradually easing off until she stopped moving altogether. She gazed down at him with a smirk, still holding his member in her hand, her grip disappointingly loose.

“Perhaps I should rub one out of you so that you will last,” she chuckled, trailing a finger up his pulsing length to make him groan into her cleavage. “You wanted me all this time – you were forced to share a bed with me, and you did not even have the privacy to take care of your needs yourself. Humans have such strange hangups,” she mused, lowering him back to the sleeping bag. She leaned in close to bring her soft lips to his ear, her sordid whispering filling his head, one of her breasts practically pouring over his chest. “You should have come to me sooner. No Polar would deny a friend in need, you know. We could have taken our frustrations out on each other. Fucking is so much better than fighting, would you not agree?”

“I think I can be convinced,” he replied.

Lorza smiled, then began to crawl lower, planting a kiss on his neck. Her questing lips wandered down his chest, the Polar leaving lingering, sucking kisses as she trailed towards his belly. She had planted a hand to either side of him now, not quite straddling him due to her height, her breasts draping over his torso as she dragged them lower. They were large enough to spill over his sides, covering him completely while still having enough excess mass to spill onto the padded sleeping bag beneath him.

Before long, he felt his member slide between them, the weight of her assets squashing them together tightly enough to create an enticing pressure. His cock was completely buried, surrounded on all sides by her pillowy, fluffy cleavage. Her feline nose was level with his navel now, and she peered up at him with a sultry expression on her face, those blue eyes reflecting the dancing flame from the stove that still burned off to her right. His breath hitched as she slowly extended her tongue, putting its length and dexterity on display once more, a warm droplet of saliva falling to his stomach. She licked his belly, leaving a damp smear from his waistline to his chest, the sensation of her barbs making him flinch. They weren’t painful, but he could feel them – like a little forest of firm bumps.

Lorza was kneeling at the bottom of the sleeping bag now, tenting it, exposing his upper body to the cold. She noticed that he was starting to shiver and put on a mock pout.

“Do not worry – I have other ways of keeping you warm,” she cooed as she shuffled a little lower, the motion making her breasts bounce. She doubled over to bring her puffy lips within a hair’s breadth of his member, a shiver of anticipation coursing through him as he felt her hot breath wash over his sensitive glans. After what felt like an eternity to him, she finally slid them over his head, pursing them in a lurid kiss. He felt her tongue lap at him, sneaking beneath his foreskin, stars dancing before his eyes as she swirled it around his tender tip. There were no barbs that he could feel – maybe she was skilled enough to only use the smooth underside of the organ.

She painted him with the barest tip of her pointed tongue, drawing teasing shapes, the warmth of her mouth making his head spin. He wanted so badly to thrust – to bury himself to the hilt in her wet, hot flesh, but she lay a hand on his hips to keep him securely on the sleeping bag. Leaning just a little of her weight on him, he found that he couldn’t even buck half an inch deeper. She was setting the pace, and she wanted him to know it.

He propped himself up on his elbows, watching as her length of shining, pink muscle began to slide past her lips. It wound around his shaft like a fat, slimy snake, smearing his skin with lubricating saliva to leave it glistening in the wavering firelight. She had such perfect control over it, the prehensile organ sliding lower, wrapping him in its tight coils. Her lips remained sealed around his glans all the while, sucking gently, the tangible weight of her breasts pouring over his thighs. He lurched as the tip of her tongue reached his balls, lapping at them gently, teasing them.

Suddenly, her grip on him tightened, her slithering coils squeezing him like a fist. His entire length was trapped in a prison of damp velvet, her hot, slippery muscle flexing around him. Moving it like a hand, she began to slide her tongue up and down, the delicious tightness joined by the feeling of her drool-soaked flesh gliding against his skin. It was like nothing he had ever experienced before, and he found himself collapsing back onto the sleeping bag. Lorza chuckled at his reaction, the vibrations only stimulating him further.

She discovered the sensitive spot beneath his glans, Boyd flinching again as he felt her start to lick his frenulum, the silken texture of her tongue making him grit his teeth. Each stroke of her organ was different from the last – a little tighter or looser, faster or slower, sometimes lingering around his glans or sneaking lower to drag across his balls. Fat strands of her drool escaped her lips, sliding down his shaft in globs, matting his pubic hair.

After a few minutes of her relentless massage, she finally deigned to take him deeper, Boyd finding himself holding his breath in anticipation as her luscious lips inched lower. They slid past his head, Lorza drawing him in with her tongue, guiding him into the warm confines of her mouth. The undulating muscle began to uncoil, replaced by the smooth sensation of her inner cheeks pressing around him, his glans brushing against the ribbed roof of her mouth. Her tongue was still there – fighting him for space, stroking and glancing him as it shifted around. The strands of her hair tickled his belly as her lips kissed his base, Lorza taking his entire length into her mouth, holding him there in a position that would have had any human woman gagging.

A ripple of satin-soft muscle caressed his glans, a jolt of pleasure shooting up through his body, Boyd realizing that she was swallowing around him. She was taking him into her throat, pressing down on his cock, her pink nose bumping against his stomach. God, it was tight, each swallow making him reel as she drank down the saliva that was pooling in her mouth. How long could she keep this up? Her lung capacity dwarfed that of a human – it was one of the things that allowed her to survive on the moon without a rebreather.

She gripped him more tightly as he bucked, her furry hands wrapping around his hips, those black claws coming a little too close to his belly for comfort as her thumbs met beneath his navel. Still, he trusted her, another seething throb of pleasure sending him sinking back to the padded fabric as she swirled her tongue around his shaft.

“Fuck, Lorza,” he groaned as her questing organ slid past her lips to cradle his balls. “You’re a goddamned artist.”

She chuckled to herself again, her tone taking on a lurid quality, her purring resonating up through his body to tickle his senses. Another gulp forced him upright, Boyd delving his fingers into her slate-grey hair, taking handfuls. He could feel the narrow confines of her gullet struggling around him, flexing, each swallow creating a milking motion that only drew him deeper. Flesh like luxuriant satin soaked in honey dizzied him with its cruel contractions, fighting him as though it was trying to reject him, Lorza finally reaching her limit as she gradually drew back. She kept those soft lips tightly pursed around his shaft, pausing at her apex to deliver another nerve-jangling lick to his tender head, creating a gentle spiral. She could have tied a knot with that thing.

The smirking Polar released him with a lurid smack, her lips still joined to his shining member by a sagging rope of her saliva, Lorza watching it slowly break to drape itself over his throbbing shaft. His cock was standing erect in the cool air now, beating like a heart, soaked in her shining residue.

“You are fun,” she cooed, her eyes rising from his cock to meet his gaze. They flashed in the firelight, making butterflies swarm in his belly. “Such a sensitive little creature...”

“Am not,” he protested, his breath coming in ragged bursts.

“Let us find out just how sensitive you can be,” she purred, closing her fist around his shaft again. Her delicate fur surrounded him, her saliva soaking into it, and she began to stroke lazily. She leaned a little closer, extending her tongue to lap at the bead of pre that was welling at his tip, massaging his balls with her free hand. He couldn’t help but buck in time with her rhythm, the tingling euphoria of someone who has been teetering on the edge for far too long washing over him in waves, his mind fizzing with soothing static. His usually razor-sharp, analytical brain was being drowned in happy chemicals, and it was a relief.

She left a lingering kiss on his glans again, Boyd letting slip a whine unbecoming of a UNNI agent, the Polar watching him intently as she laughed.

“What was that noise, malish? I have you mewling like a kitten.”

“I’ll get you back for this,” he growled, his eyes losing their focus as his threat was rewarded with another affection-laden lick.

“Oh, I am counting on it,” she replied with a grin. She released him from her hand, pulling it away to admire the stringy saliva that still connected them, making sure that he could see it too. She placed the same damp hand on his chest, pushing him back down onto the sleeping bag.

“Stay down, and let me have my fun. When I am done, you can have yours.”

Dazed and wanting, he did as she asked, watching her with unfocused eyes as she leaned over him again. He arched his spine off the padding as he felt her lick the sweat from his abs with her rough tongue, leaving a trail of warm drool as she continued downwards. His erection was aching with need now, and Lorza knew it, stroking him with a furry finger to keep him excited. She tickled his balls, breathing warm air on his glans, made all the more alluring by the chill air.

“You have me dripping,” she murmured, wetting her lips as she eyed his member covetously. “I want a turn now, so be a good little human and come for me.”

She gripped his cock again, starting to pump with a more aggressive pace, her grip tight and ruthless. She mouthed and licked as she went, peppering his glans with flurries of licks and hot, sucking kisses. A dull, familiar pressure began to well deep inside his core, growing in its urgency as she prolonged his pleasure, each swell more intense than the last. Her fur was so exceptionally soft – it was like masturbating into an expensive sheepskin, the sensation joined by the agile dance of her tongue. He could feel his resolve melting away as she paused to coat his inner thighs and belly with kisses, mouthing passionately, her tongue trailing across his skin. Her attentions flooded his head with white noise, overriding any logical thoughts until all he could do was react.

Her tempo rose in intensity, Lorza cradling his balls in her velvet palm as her hand pistoned up and down, but she eased off to let his excitement wane when she felt him start to tense up. It was a kind of wonderful, sensual torture. She heard him groan in exasperation, laughing at his plight, then began to make lazy circles around his glans with one of her fleshy finger pads.

“Very well, I shall stop my teasing,” she chuckled as she watched him writhe. “It is really your own fault for providing such amusing reactions. What?” she added, her lips curling into another sordid smirk. “No comeback? No witty retort? What is the matter, Boyd? Have you lost your bite?”

Before his lust-addled mind could formulate a reply, she slammed her face down into his lap, hilting him in a single, wracking motion. He was returned to the unbearable tightness of her throat, her tongue welcoming him back by winding around him, constricting like a predatory snake. The pressure forced more of her saliva from her lips, his belly and thighs sodden with it.

She began to bob her head, careful to keep her sharp teeth clear, his member sliding against the soft cushion of her tongue. Her throat clung to him like a latex glove, every subtle ripple and squeeze translating into his cock, her muscles kneading him with each indulgent swallow. She went faster and faster, plunging him in and out, her tongue stroking him lovingly whenever he wasn’t buried in her seizing gullet. She lifted him off the sleeping bag, raising his butt off the cave floor, her pointed claws pricking his skin as she brought him towards her mouth for leverage.

All he could do was cover his burning face with his hands and try to endure the ecstasy that she was subjecting him to, euphoria spreading through his body like a fever, held aloft like a doll as she brought him closer and closer to climax. A rising moan caught in his throat as one last, wracking thrust sent him toppling over the edge, Lorza swallowing him as deep as she could manage in response.

She held him in the reaches of her tight throat, drinking down the first rope of his seed, the stroking of her muscles drawing it out of him like she was squeezing a tube of toothpaste. He threw his head back, white-hot pleasure shooting through him, biting his lip to stave off a pained cry. There was nobody to overhear them in the little cave, but Lorza would hold it over his head for the rest of their journey together.

Her tongue joined the ruthless clenching of her throat, tightening as it glided up his length, milking him to ease out every pang of pleasure that she could. He felt the next spurt splash against the roof of her mouth, each glance of her tongue against his hypersensitive glans setting off fireworks in his skull, his body contorting as he flooded her eager mouth with his emission.