© 2017 Snekguy. All rights reserved.
This work was made possible by the generous support of my Patrons:
Disclaimer: This work of erotic fiction is intended for adults only. The story contains the following themes: size difference, long tongue, scales, kissing, oral, vaginal, blowbob, boobjob, anal, double penetration, mud, excessive cum, muscle, analingus, exhibitionism, public sex, body painting, large insertion, reptile.
CHAPTER 1: AN ALIEN TONGUE
Lena leaned back in her office chair, the back support creaking as she rubbed her eyes with the heels of her hands. It was getting late, she had planned to go back to her apartment hours ago but this last translation almost seemed to be purposefully evading her. Perhaps it would be a better idea to call it a day and take another crack at it tomorrow, a fresh perspective might help her solve the problem.
She rested her elbows on her desk and cradled her face in her hands as she pored over the data readout, reaching forward occasionally to swipe at the touch screen as her tired eyes scanned the display. She hit the test icon, and the computer's speakers loosed a low rumbling sound, half way between the growl of a lion and the roar of an elephant. It was loud, she could feel the vibrations in her bones, but it wasn't...right.
Something massive stirred across her cramped office in the yellow light of her table lamp, a monstrous shadow raising its long snout to peer at her with its amber, reptilian eyes. It opened its jaws wide, its lipless mouth lined with rows of protruding teeth.
Sleethe yawned conspicuously, the alien blinking at her with his nictating membranes.
“I know you're tired,” Lena complained, “but just hang on a little longer. I swear I've almost got this.”
The alien loosed a series of huffing sounds, settling back into his curled up position on the floor of her office like a giant dog. He was fourteen feet long from nose to tail, weighing in at close to a ton. He was so large that he occupied almost the entirety of Lena's modest workspace with his bulk. He was a Krell, hailing from the planet of the same name, an amphibious reptile of enormous scale. Standing upright he was eight or nine feet tall, even with his hunched posture, and he had enough strength to flip a car like it was a toy. For all intents and purposes he looked like a giant alligator, the spinach-colored, armored scales that lined his back tapering into beige on his fatty underbelly.
Despite their fearsome appearance, Krell were inhumanly friendly and easygoing. The slow, plodding aliens wouldn't hurt so much as a fly. At least until their friends were put in harm's way, and then they would go into an anabolic frenzy until the threat was eliminated, expending an enormous amount of energy. That, coupled with a leathery hide that made them almost impervious to damage, made them ideal auxiliaries for the UNN.
Sleethe was a former linebreaker, Krell units tasked with acting as living tanks to defend their comrades from danger, but now he was her research partner. In more ways that one...
Lena was not accustomed to male attention. While her peers were off chasing boys, she had concerned herself with academics, rapidly becoming the foremost xenolinguist in her field. Once she had found the time to court however, she had quickly discovered that she lacked the social skills of her prettier, more experienced friends.
She didn't think of herself as unattractive, but she was meek and unassuming, a wallflower by every definition. She could hold a conversation in both Elysian and Polar, but she had no idea how to do her hair, and she had no sense of fashion. She had published dozens of papers on the subject of linguistics, but when it came to approaching boys, she found that she couldn't utter so much as a 'hello'. It was a cruel irony, and so she had dedicated herself to her work, foregoing male company in favor of her studies. There had been a boyfriend or two, but nothing lasted very long. Her work always took priority over her relationships.
That was until she had met Sleethe. A few months prior she had been tasked with solving a Krell-related problem on the Pinwheel, the giant military space station upon which she now lived and worked. The all-male population of aliens had begun to inexplicably reproduce, their exploding numbers threatening the safety of the station and its inhabitants. Along with several colleagues from various fields, she had discovered that the Krell could spontaneously change their sex when there was a severe gender imbalance, leading some of them to transition into females and begin breeding.
The aliens lacked the necessary vocal apparatus to reproduce human speech, and their own language was an enigma. Much of it was only intelligible underwater, and some of the deep, rumbling tones that they used to communicate were completely below the range of human hearing. Despite that handicap, they always seemed to end up where they were needed, following orders and completing their assigned tasks despite being unable to speak. It was just another one of the many mysteries associated with the enigmatic species.
During her attempts to parse their odd language, Lena had met Sleethe, and the two had hit it off. For all her linguistic skills, the two hadn't needed to utter a single word during that first intense, passionate encounter. She still got goosebumps when she thought about it. She remembered how his low, rumbling mating call had reverberated through her body like the massage of an invisible hand, how he had lifted her off her feet as if she was no more than a doll and had thrust her against the wall. He had been so frighteningly powerful, yet so gentle and considerate, pushing his inhumanly long and dexterous tongue beneath her skirt and-
Lena shook her head, dispelling the thought as she realized that her heart was racing, returning her attention to the data readout on the monitor in front of her. Now was not the time to be getting riled up, she had work to do.
For the last few months of her life she had been completely engrossed with trying to create translation software that could accurately interpret what a Krell was saying, in order to reproduce it in English and vice versa. She had encountered innumerable hurdles however. Not only did Krell communicate in completely different frequencies to humans, but their very thought processes were alien and strange. They often came off as slow and simple, leading some people to write them off as being unintelligent, but that wasn't the case at all. The Krell almost seemed to experience time in a completely unique way, their lifespans potentially indefinite as far as xenobiologists could gather.
The aliens simply kept living and growing until some external factor killed them, and being that they were Krell, there wasn't much that could do that. They thought in time scales that humans could scarcely comprehend, and so there was no point of reference from which to begin deconstructing their language. It was unlike anything that she had studied before, truly alien.
Lena had made some progress however, assembling a small dictionary of basic verbs and phrases, but the issue now was getting the computer to reproduce the sounds in the correct frequencies. Because much of their communication happened below the range of human hearing, she couldn't ascertain if the resulting synthesized speech sounded right, which was where Sleethe came in.
“Tell me if this one sounds right,” she said, leaning around her monitor to watch the giant alien as he lazily wound his oar-like tail across the floor. It was almost half the length of his body, packed with fat and enough muscle to propel him through the water like a torpedo. She tapped the test button, and the speakers emitted a sound. She couldn't hear this one, but she could feel it in a way, the low tone making the desk vibrate beneath her hands.
Sleethe raised his head again, listening intently, Lena watching hopefully as his reptilian pupils dilated with interest. He grumbled affirmatively, nodding his massive head, the loose skin beneath his jaw flapping.
“Yes!” Lena exclaimed, making a note of the frequency. “I knew that it had to be somewhere between twenty eight and thirty two hertz. Not that you guys only communicate at one frequency, that would make things too easy for me...but it's a start.”
Sleethe returned his head to the floor, closing his eyes and exhaling loudly. He was a cold blooded creature, his metabolism about as slow as one could get without being dead. His favorite activities included lounging on any available surface, lounging in any available body of water, and lounging beneath any heat source that he could fit under. Pretty much lounging in general. In the months that she had known him, she had never once seen him eat. It had alarmed her at first, but if he was anything like the large reptiles back on Earth, he might only need to eat a meal once a year.
Lena heard a click as her office door opened, Sleethe turning his head to get a look as one of her colleagues entered the room.
“Oh, Miss Webber!” The woman exclaimed, seeming surprised to see her. She was clad in a similar white lab coat to the one that Lena was wearing, holding a tablet computer in her hands. “I didn't realized that you were still working. It's gone midnight, I was going to close up.”
“I've made a breakthrough on the Krell translation software,” Lena replied, “I guess the time got away from me. You go on home Helen, I'll lock up when I'm done.”
Her colleague nodded, glancing at Sleethe before closing the door behind her.
“Looks like everyone has punched out,” Lena mused, her reptilian companion peering at her with his yellow eyes. She was never quite sure if he understood her in the way that another human would, but he always seemed to pay attention to what she was saying. They were able to convey so much through body language that anything more was hardly necessary.
She was pretty tired, and she was about ready to finish her work and head back to her apartment, but the prospect of being alone with the alien filled her with a kind of mischievous excitement. Although Sleethe frequently visited her apartment, it was built with humans in mind, and so it was not the most comfortable or the most convenient place for him to live. He usually returned to the heat lamps and the shallow pools of the Krell barracks when their work was over, to sleep in a pile with his own kind.
The Pinwheel was the largest space station and Naval dock in UNN territory, but it was still crowded with personnel and tourists, which meant that getting some alone time with the sixteen foot long alien was often prohibitively difficult. She saw her chance, and she was going to take it.
“Sleethe,” she whispered suggestively, the alien opening one eye to gaze at her. “Want to have some...fun?”
The Krell huffed, blowing air out of his snout as he rolled over onto his back, exposing his pale belly and stretching sleepily.
“Come on, don't play coy.”
He deliberated for a moment, the gears in his head turning slowly, and then he pushed himself back over onto his segmented stomach and slithered closer to her. He was too lazy to stand up, and the room was small enough that he could easily reach her by shuffling along the floor.
The cumbersome Krell pushed his snout under her desk, his head alone almost as large as her five foot, four inch frame. She brushed her dirty-blonde hair out of her face and adjusted her glasses, leaning back and looking down at him as his nostrils blew warm air up her black pencil skirt.
She reached down a hand and ran her slim fingers along his leathery snout, his dull green scales tough and thick, yet oddly yielding. She slid her hand under his chin and felt the softer scales of his underbelly, far smoother and more pleasing to the touch, the layer of fat beneath his skin giving him a chubby feel. He was like a walking slab of hard muscle and armored hide, with broad shoulders and massive arms, but his vulnerable underside was sensitive and he enjoyed being stroked. Lena liked to curl up in his arms and push her face into his chest on the rare occasion that they were able to sleep together, probing with her fingers in search of the rock hard muscle that lay beneath.
As large and as heavy as he was, he was a gentle lover, always conscious of Lena's human limitations. He opened his jaws as if he was going to swallow her up, like an alligator basking on a shore, his sharp teeth jutting out at odd angles. He lacked lips, and so kissing was a clumsy affair, but he made up for it with a tongue of monumental proportions.
Lena watched as the long, azure organ snaked out of his mouth, a clear foot of slimy muscle. The mucous membranes in humans were pink, but in Krell they were varying shades of blue due to the hemocyanin that their species used to transport oxygen to their tissues. Cut a Krell, and it would bleed blue instead of red.
Her cheeks reddened as his agile organ brushed her thigh through her pantyhose, leaving a smear of viscous saliva. Sleethe knew exactly what she wanted, he was an intuitive creature.
She waited for a moment, listening for any lingering employees, but it seemed like the coast was clear. Her heart was thudding in her chest, butterflies fluttering in her belly as she anticipated the touch of his warm tongue, Sleethe's nose disappearing from view as he pushed his snout beneath her long skirt.
The hanging flesh beneath his throat inflated, and he loosed a low, reverberating roar that shook her to the core. The deep baritone sounded like the rumble of some ancient dinosaur, and while it was undeniably intimidating, she knew it to be a mating call. The sound seemed to penetrate down to her bones, making her very flesh vibrate as she sat in her chair. It was like sitting atop a subwoofer, the oscillations tickling her senses, teasing her in ways that transcended touch. It felt as if a thousand tiny fingers were caressing her from within, or like someone had thrust an invisible vibrator inside her without her knowledge and had cranked it up to the highest setting.
It was this resonating mating call that had been the catalyst of their relationship. While clandestinely observing a Krell breeding frenzy for research purposes, she had been hit with wave after wave of their vibrating solicitations, leaving her wanting and confused. When Sleethe had stumbled upon her, frustrated after having lost his recent bid to mate, the two had found a solution to their shared problem. It was as if he could smell the arousal on her, sense her tension, and despite knowing the Krell words for 'no' and 'stop' she had let him take her. What followed had been the most intense experience of her life, and what's more, she had discovered that the burly alien was a model lover.
He hit her with another call, and she sank into her seat, her eyelids fluttering as his intense resonance made her legs tremble. She suddenly felt warm, feverish, her panties moistening as his nose brushed her mound. The Krell licked her inner thighs diligently, as if preparing her for what was to come, ropes of his drool hanging from the mesh of her undergarments with the consistency of jelly.
“D-Don't make too much of a mess,” she stammered, beside herself with seething arousal as he rumbled and lapped at her belly with his warm tongue. “I don't want to have to go find the mop again, I think the janitor noticed that someone had used it the last time we did this at work...”
He didn't respond, either ignoring her or not understanding, but she was too far gone to care. She slipped her pantyhose down around her knees, eager to feel his slick flesh on her naked skin, and she pulled her underwear aside to grant him access to her dripping loins. The fabric was glued to her swollen lips, sodden with a combination of her juices and his thick saliva. The mere act of exposing herself sent a pleasant tremor rolling through her petite body, and she spread her lips with her fingers in invitation to him.
Sleethe wasted no time, his purple tongue gliding between her labia and parting them wide, lapping slowly at her vulva. He used the tapered tip to explore every fold and crease of her sex, intimately familiar with his mammalian lover. Lena shivered, her trembling hands gripping the edge of the desk as his warm organ scoured her sensitive anatomy, his gooey saliva making his contact wonderfully slippery. She couldn't see what he was doing under her skirt, she could only feel it, heightening her senses as he teased her.
The reptile had scarcely touched her, and yet she was already in a state of euphoria, lust clouding her brain like a fog. She considered throwing caution to the wind and leaning over the desk, letting the alien mount her with his brutish organ and flood her with his copious, milky emission. It was too much of a risk however, he came far too much, she'd never get it all out of the carpet.
Sleethe bumped the desk with his head as he lapped beneath her skirt, raising it off the ground for a moment, and Lena had to scramble to prevent her computer monitor from toppling to the floor. She straightened it, then convulsed as his roving tongue found her clitoris, her spine arching as she covered her mouth with her hand to suppress a pained gasp. They were alone, but it wouldn't do to draw too much attention. The last thing she needed was some passer by on the torus thinking that someone was being murdered and calling the MPs to investigate.
'I'm sorry for the disturbance officer, everything is fine, I just have a foot of Krell tongue inside me.'
She laughed at the thought, the waves of pleasure making her giddy and foolish.
The slick surface of his long tongue grazed her sensitive clitoris, the intense sensation making white stars dance before her eyes. She felt like she was floating on a cloud, Sleethe's services unreserved and wanton. He seemed to enjoy her taste, lapping ardently, unconcerned with the mess that he was making. Her heart skipped a beat as the pointed tip located her opening, so long and flexible that he could press his wet flesh against the length of her vulva even as he prepared to penetrate her. His organ was as long and as thick as her forearm, but as soft and as flexible as that of a human, a rope of slimy muscle that could coil and wind in order to touch her in places that nobody else could ever hope to reach.
The anticipation was killing her, Sleethe pausing to lap wetly at her inner thighs, intentionally keeping her on edge as she waited impatiently. God, it felt like someone was dragging wet silk across her skin, it was so hot and slimy. She wanted his length inside her, she ached for it, she felt a tangible emptiness that only he could fill.
As if sensing her thoughts, he pressed his tongue against her twitching entrance, and there was a brief moment of resistance before he pushed inside her. Lena took in a sharp breath, biting her lip as his tongue wormed its way deeper into her passage, so thick and long that it seemed to press against everywhere at once. She realized that her thighs were shaking, her excitement wetting the chair beneath her. She was so overwhelmed by the intensity of the sensations that she had to press her glasses into the bridge of her nose with one finger to save them from falling off as she writhed.
A human tongue could reach perhaps an inch inside a woman, but Sleethe could reach all the way to her cervix. Not only that, but he could pile his length inside her, folding his organ in on itself like a slice of ham in a sub sandwich and filling her to capacity.
He was so slippery and hot, lewd thoughts dancing through Lena's head as she considered that his thick, bubbling saliva was mingling with her juices. She was full of her lover's drool, and strings of it were hanging from her mound and thighs. His organ almost seemed to have a life of its own, wriggling and worming as it pushed deeper, its fleshy surface sliding against her silken walls and searing her nerves with bursts of nigh unbearable pleasure.
She felt as if her body below the waist was melting like slagged metal, her legs going numb as Sleethe's tongue roiled in her depths. He found a slow, heavy pace, the bottom half of his tongue buried in her loins and the top half gliding between her labia and dragging against her glistening vulva. He was stimulating her everywhere at once, and she leaned forward to rest atop her desk, burying her red face in her crossed arms as she basked in her euphoria.
“You're so...good...at this...” Lena gasped, her breath coming in ragged bursts. He had always been God's gift to women when it came to giving head simply due to his wonderful tongue, but as they had learned more about one another and they had spent more time together, his knowledge of her alien anatomy had increased. Now he seemed to know exactly where to lick, precisely how much pressure to apply, and just how deep he should probe. He understood the purpose of her clitoris, knew how to find her G-spot. He could turn her into a delirious wreck without needing any guidance at all, all she had to do was lie back and let him have his sordid way with her.
Lena was already getting close, lurid thoughts swirling in her head as she felt Sleethe's rough snout bump against her belly. She liked not being able to see what he was doing to her down there, her imagination running wild as she envisioned his long, blue appendage pressing against her pink flesh.
He never stopped moving his tongue, he was insatiable, goaded on by the reflexive rolling of her hips. Her body was trying to fuck him, electrical pleasure coursing up her spine in tingling waves as his organ twisted and flexed. She could feel every subtle shift of his slimy tongue, her walls contracting around it desperately, the muscles in her pelvis aching as she worked them over.
Maybe she had been spending too much time at the office, she needed to do some exercise, maybe some kegels. She realized that she was drooling on the sleeve of her lab coat, wiping it away before reeling from another punishing lick.
“Oh God, you're doing the thing,” she stammered. Excitement washed over her as she felt his tongue change position, pushing hard against her upper wall. He was probing for her sweet spot, apparently bored with painting her insides with his saliva, now intending to finish her off hard and fast. That, or he had understood that they didn't have all night. It was sometimes hard to tell with Sleethe.
She loosed an embarrassing whine as he found what he was looking for, digging into her most sensitive spot with his tongue, a wracking throb of pleasure reducing her to a shivering mess. She felt him grip her ankles with his many-fingered hands, his rough digits closing around her limbs to keep her from bucking free or falling from her chair in the throes of her ecstasy.
Even as he began to fuck her with his tongue, he kept up his ardent licking. The tip of his slippery appendage teased her in places that no man should have been able to reach, its length grazing her vulva from the outside and brushing against her engorged clitoris, his teeth pressing against her belly and thighs as he practically swallowed her lower body in order to get deeper.
Lena cradled her head in her hands, her vision blurring with every pulse of pleasure, her hair now messy and damp with sweat. She could hear her heart hammering in her ears, her swollen nipples brushing uncomfortably against the lining of her bra as she rocked back and forth.
She could feel her impending orgasm welling deep inside her, promising to be so intense that she was almost afraid of it.
“If you stop, I'm going to have you made into a pair of boots,” she mumbled. He blew warm air up her blouse as he huffed, a shiver rolling down her spine as he gave her an especially cruel lick.
“Nearly there,” Lena gasped, “nearly-”
She opened her mouth in a silent wail, her eyes screwing shut as his relentless teasing pushed her over the edge. She wheezed like she had just been punched in the gut, doubling over as her climax tore through her, her muscles seizing and her thighs clamping around his head like a vice. Rather than slowing, the alien redoubled his efforts, Lena clawing at her desk as her conscious mind took a back seat to her primal lust.
As soon as the first wave of her orgasm began to fade, a second made her its plaything, the beleaguered woman little more than a puppet with its strings cut as she lay on the desk and trembled. Sleethe could withstand a bullet to the chest, and so there was no danger of hurting him as she pressed him between her legs, his tough scales cool and rough against her quivering thighs.
Even as she was dazed by another climax, he kept up his lapping, the violent clenching of her insides and her flowing juices doing little to dissuade him. She was hypersensitive, every glance of his smooth tongue against her inner walls filling her with a kind of desperate need. She could hear him licking beneath the table, it sounded like a wet towel being dragged across the floor. His saliva, or maybe it was her come, rained from between her legs and dripped from her office chair to wet the carpet beneath. She was too lost in her pleasure to pay any mind to the mess that they were making.
All she was able to do was grip the desk and hold on for dear life as wave after wave of pleasure tore at her. She felt as if her brain fluid had been replaced with champagne, fizzing and popping as sparks danced in her mind. Gradually the rolling of her hips began to abate, Sleethe's pace taking on a slower and more placating quality. He eased out one last punishing tremor, Lena's nails digging into her palms as she balled her fists, her tension ebbing as she began to come down from her high.
She settled into her afterglow like a warm blanket, Sleethe sensing that she was done and withdrawing his long organ. He provoked another aftershock as his slimy flesh slid against her tender insides, Lena shivering contentedly as she watched him emerge from beneath her skirt. His toothy snout was linked to her loins by a sagging web of clear fluid, which he cleaned away with his tongue, licking his chops as he retreated beneath the table.
“We made a mess,” she grumbled, swaying drunkenly as she propped herself up on her elbows. “You're a messy eater, Sleethe.”
He seemed to have lost interest, pushing himself along the floor on his belly and returning to his usual place by the far wall. Lena found that her legs were too unsteady to support her, so she removed her glasses and slid down out of her seat, crawling towards him on her hands and knees. She struggled out of her pantyhose as she went, kicking off her pumps and discarding the sodden garment. The giant reptile opened an eye to peer at her, rumbling an invitation and lifting one of his muscular arms. She rolled under it and pressed up against his soft underbelly, hearing him grumble appreciatively as she scratched his stomach with her nails.
His arm closed around her, trapping her in a bear hug, his bicep alone probably weighing nearly as much as she did as it protruded from beneath his scaly hide. She felt another pang of arousal as she tested its firmness with her fingers, craning her neck to peer up at her scaly lover. Sometimes Lena couldn't believe that this was real. She feared that she might wake up one day and realize that it had all been a lurid dream, the content of which she wouldn't dare reveal to her friends.
It was entirely real however, Lena had bagged herself an alien warrior as a boyfriend. She still didn't really understand why he had taken such a liking to her, and she didn't have the vocabulary to ask, but she wasn't about to question her stroke of good fortune.
She pushed her face into his chest, feeling the firm slabs of his pectoral muscles beneath the layer of pudgy fat, and closed her eyes. She loved his scent, he smelled like wet leather. Maybe she'd take a quick post-coital nap, but she'd have to clean up the mess that they had made before her colleagues arrived for work tomorrow. Perhaps she would stay overnight and pretend that she had just been working overtime. She could wash up in the bathroom, and she usually carried a change of underwear for just such an occasion. Nobody would notice that her flesh-colored pantyhose were missing.
Besides, maybe they'd go a second round somewhere that she could more easily clean up after herself. One of the labs had a tile floor and Sleethe could do her on top of one of the tables...
She felt like a horny teenager sometimes, or at least what she thought a horny teenager must act like, as her formative years had been consumed by study and schoolwork. She nuzzled Sleethe's chest, the smooth scales on his underside so imperceptibly small that it felt as smooth as skin against her cheek, and he rumbled happily.
Sleep now, worry later.
CHAPTER 2: ACADEMIC PURSUITS
Lena taped the wireless pickup to her throat, then brought up her wrist-mounted computer, a military model that she had recently gotten her hands on. Having the station's security chief owe her a favor had really paid off. She calibrated it, punching in commands on the touch screen, and the computer registered the microphone.
“Testing, testing, one two three...”
The graph charted her voice in peaks and valleys, it was working correctly.
“Ok Sleethe, are you ready?”
The Krell lifted his head lazily, blinking at her as he waited. Lena cleared her throat and spoke clearly, her eyes glued to the wrist display as the software that she had written struggled to translate.
“Hello, I am a human, my name is Lena.”
The speaker on the computer loosed a series of low rumbling sounds and high pitches hisses, and her heart sank. If she could hear all of the tones, then there must be some kind of problem with the calibration. She looked to Sleethe, and he shook his massive head, the hanging skin beneath his jaw flapping back and forth.
“Damn it. Maybe the speaker isn't powerful enough to transmit at the right frequency. Am I going to have to carry a subwoofer around in a backpack to make this setup work? Maybe I can boost the power output to the embedded speaker, but that's going to drain the battery like nobody's business...”
She gave Sleethe a sideways glance.
“Think the Navy will get mad if I write some custom firmware for this thing?”
Her reptilian companion returned his head to the floor of her office, closing his yellow eyes and exhaling loudly.
“Your input is appreciated,” she said sarcastically. She returned to her seat at her desk and removed the computer from her forearm, hooking it up to her terminal with a cable and resuming work on her program.
Just as she was starting to become engrossed, her office door opened, and she was distracted as Helen walked into the room.
“I'm sorry to disturb you Miss Webber, but there's a vidphone call coming through and your terminal is set to silent mode.”
“Oh, sorry Helen. I'm working with audio equipment and I didn't want anything to throw off my measurements. I'll be right there.”
The secretary nodded and retreated back the way she had come, closing the door behind her.
“Must be something important if Helen came to fetch me,” she mused, rising to her feet and straightening her lab coat. “Wait here Sleethe, I'll be back soon.”
He opened one eye to watch her as she left the office, more concerned with getting his beauty sleep than with the affairs of the scurrying humans.
Lena made her way down the corridor towards the front desk, passing by many doors that resembled her own. Some of these offices were occupied, others were not. The research center was fairly small by most standards, but so were all of the accommodations on the Pinwheel. It was built into the station's hull, the facade that faced out towards the station's donut-shaped torus sculpted to resemble a real brick and mortar building, all to sell the illusion that the station's occupants were living on a terrestrial planet and not a giant wheel that was spinning through space.
Lena found that it helped to think of things in terms of spaceships, rather than traditional buildings. The research center would make for a tiny building, but it was expansive and lavish by Navy standards. She had traveled on jump carriers before, and the personnel were crammed together like sardines, sleeping in bunks that were three men tall. She might complain about the size of her office, but at least on the Pinwheel she could stretch her legs and feel a breeze in her hair, even if it was artificial.
She arrived at the front desk where Helen was waiting for her, and the secretary pointed to a video phone that was mounted on a nearby wall. Lena walked over to it, seeing that a man was waiting for her on the monitor. She immediately recognized his bushy, salt and pepper beard, along with his signature tweed jacket. It was Professor Barnes of the United Academy of Sciences, an alliance of research institutes and colleges that spanned several human colonies. She had studied under him during her years at Cambridge University, and she had worked on xenolinguistics for his research division during her internship on Franklin. He was her mentor and benefactor, and she suddenly felt rather embarrassed for having made the old man wait.
“Professor Barnes!” She exclaimed, “what a pleasant surprise! To what do I owe the pleasure?”
“Oh, there you are Miss Webber,” he grumbled. He had a thick London accent, and his appreciation of scotch had reddened his cheeks over the years. At times he looked like an especially portly and unkempt Santa Claus, perpetually out of breath. Barnes straightened his round spectacles as he leaned closer to the camera to get a better look at her.
“Damn this infernal...there we are. You're looking as ravishing as ever, my dear girl. Might I inquire as to how work on your Krell translator is proceeding?”
“Very well Professor,” she replied, “I've made some progress recently. I'm encountering some hardware problems, but I hope to find a solution soon.”
“Very good, very good,” he mumbled. “There have been some very exciting developments as of late, Miss Webber. Your UNN sponsored visit to the Krell homeworld last year made waves in the scientific community. The Brokers had never allowed anyone to visit the planet before, as secretive as they tend to be. They seem to care deeply about the Krell, guarding them against even entirely benign research ventures, which I'm sure that you can imagine has frustrated our efforts to study the 61 Cygni system and the Krell species to no end.”
The Brokers were the enigmatic founders of the Coalition, the multi-species alliance to which the UNN belonged. Due to the crisis on the Pinwheel, they had allowed a small research team to land on the surface of the Krell homeworld in an attempt to find a solution to the population problem. The miserly aliens seemed to have a deep and mysterious relationship with the Krell, she remembered how the primitive planet had been ringed with Broker orbital defenses and ships.
Humans were the third species to join the Coalition, the Brokers and Krell both preceding them, and the aliens seemed almost symbiotic at times. It was Broker vessels that dropped off Krell auxiliaries on the station, and Brokers who defended their planet, the Krell themselves lacking the necessary technology and seeming to live in a tribal state.
She remembered her time on Krell well, the foggy swamps and the green skies, the mud flats and the stench of rotting vegetation. The planet had been rather awful, Webber was not accustomed to fieldwork, but the fleeting glimpses into the Krell culture and their strange way of life had stuck with her. It was fascinating, and not even being able to ask Sleethe to explain the details to her was a source of endless academic frustration.
“Why do you bring it up, Professor?”
“Well, the UAS had been going back and forth with the Brokers for months, trying to secure limited access to the planet so that we might continue the research that you and your colleagues started. It looks as if we might finally have made a deal that suits them, however their terms are very strict. In exchange for some rather...exorbitant fees, they will allow a single human to visit a location of their choosing. This person may bring whatever scientific equipment that they require, on the condition that do not carry a weapon, and that they do their utmost to avoid disturbing the local Krell in their natural habitat. The scientist in question may stay for as long as they need, but they may only make one visit. Once they leave the planet they will not be allowed to return again, at least until a new deal is brokered.”
Lena was smart enough to know where Barnes was going with this, and a mixture of excitement and apprehension overcame her.
“You want...me to go? Why? Surely there are explorers and field agents who are far more qualified than I am?”
“There are indeed, but I believe that you're the woman for the job, my dear. My colleagues did not agree unfortunately, but their efforts to find someone else have all been rather fruitless, and so they finally acquiesced and let me place this call. They first contacted one Luc Dubois, a Frenchman who fancies himself an adventurer. I believe you're already acquainted with the man.”
Lena rolled her eyes, remembering the self-styled explorer. He had accompanied the research team to the surface of the planet during their last visit. Describing him as 'kind of an asshole' would be the understatement of the century.
“Needless to say, he was not interested in the venture,” Barnes continued. “In fact he seemed immediately hostile to the idea. Perhaps the last expedition didn't agree with him.”
Lena suppressed a smirk, remembering the man's encounter with an especially aggressive female Krell. He was probably still nursing his wounded pride.
“Next we tried to contact Davi Sousa, but it appears that he's wrapped up in some classified work on Jarilo. He wouldn't say much about it besides that it was very important and that he was entirely occupied for the foreseeable future. You are the third choice, and my first. It is my opinion that you are uniquely qualified for this position Miss Webber, due to your unparalleled knowledge of Krell language and your recent progress in coding translation software. You also have a Krell companion, and the Brokers only specified the number of humans who could travel to 61 Cygni. He can serve as your guide, and hopefully keep you safe from any unforeseen dangers that you might face in the uncharted swamps.”
Lena hesitated for a moment, it was all happening so fast. Did she want to return to the Krell homeworld? Absolutely, there were so many mysteries that she had yet to unravel, so many curiosities both personal and professional that she longed to satisfy. But what of her work on the Krell translator? It could help her immensely, but it was not yet complete.
“I can see that you'll require some time to think about it,” Barnes said, “there's no rush. This expedition has taken months to organize, and it can certainly stand to wait a few more days. You know where to reach me when you come to a decision. I hope that you'll accept the offer Miss Webber, I can't think of anyone better suited to the task than you.”
“I'll give it some thought and get back to you very soon,” she replied. “Thank you Professor Barnes, I won't let you down.”
They said their goodbyes and she disconnected, standing in front of the terminal as she chewed nervously on a fingernail. The timescale on the Krell translator had just been slashed, she had to get it ready and working before Barnes and his colleagues ran out of patience and decided to hire someone else for the job. She could visit the planet without it, but the ability to communicate at least partially with the locals would doubtless reveal invaluable information. Rather than merely observing their culture and their alien practices from afar, she could have the Krell explain what was happening, provide crucial context that would make all the difference. The stars had aligned, and this was something that only she could accomplish.
She spun around and marched back towards her office, her pumps echoing on the tile floor.
“Hold my calls Helen, I don't want to be disturbed,” she barked as the secretary watched her pass by the front desk. “I have work to do...”
Over the next few days Lena worked tirelessly on the Krell translator, consuming more coffee than was healthy and toiling until she collapsed at her desk. She tweaked the software and added more simple phrases to its growing library. She managed to bypass the security features on the wrist computer and access the kernel, loading her own custom firmware that allowed her more direct control over the device's internal components. She disabled the GPS and wireless connectivity features in order to free up battery life for the boosted speaker, as they would be of no use to her on the primitive Krell homeworld, finally reaching a low enough frequency that it got a reaction from Sleethe.
It was all coming together, Lena always worked well under pressure. Barnes hadn't given her a deadline to meet, but she felt that three or four days was probably about as long as his colleagues would wait around for her. They were no doubt as impatient as she was, and she suspected that being out of the loop on the first expedition to the remote planet had hurt their egos. They would be eager to make up for it, and she suspected that the UAS logo would be plastered all over whatever publicity this venture generated.
Sleethe helped where he could, feeding her new words and phrases, doing his best to convey their meaning in his own limited way. He was invaluable for actually testing the device, as when it was working correctly Lena's human ears couldn't pick it up. He simply nodded, or shook his leathery head depending on the tone and frequency of her synthetic communications, helping her to fine tune it.
On the night of the third day, she felt confident enough to perform a real test in order to find out if she could hold even a simple conversation with her Krell companion. They wouldn't be discussing philosophy or current events, but with the words that the device could accurately reproduce she expected to at least be able to ask some basic questions. The conjugation of the verbs and her general grammar would be atrocious of course, as she had no real way to uncover the underlying rules that governed the language. Did they use masculine and feminine nouns? Did they have massive tables of conjugated verbs for past, present and future, or did they use a simplified system? What was their concept of time, and how was it referenced in their day to day conversations?
All of that was out of her reach, at least for now, but simple greetings and questions should be attainable in theory. She would just sound like a tourist reading from a phrasebook.
Lena stood up from her desk, rubbing her red eyes. She hadn't worked this hard since she was an undergraduate. She disconnected the wrist computer from her terminal and slotted it over her forearm. It looked like a medieval gauntlet with the glove removed, the padded lining ensuring that it didn't chafe or catch on her clothing. It had a holographic display and a touch panel that she could interact with, and she had slapped together a graphical user interface that was designed to work in tandem with her translation software. The onboard CPU paled in comparison to that of her work terminal, but it was good enough to process and synthesize Krell speech, and she had expanded the flash memory in order to fit her entire dictionary on the device. It was as portable and as optimized as it was ever going to get.
She taped the pickup to her throat, then synced it with the computer, popping an earbud into one of her ears and plugging it into a jack on the gauntlet so that she could hear Sleethe's replies without the conversation becoming more confused than it needed to be.
“Alright you big lug, let's do this.”
Sleethe seemed to realize that the serious business was about to start, perhaps due to the tone of her voice, and so he rose from his usual heap on the floor of her office and sat up straight and alert. He watched her with his amber eyes, waiting for her to begin.
“Ok, let's try something simple for starters,” she muttered, tapping at the touch panel with her fingers as she played with the settings. It was a learning algorithm, which meant that it would theoretically get better over time and that she would have to make fewer manual adjustments, but at this early stage she had to modulate the frequency herself. Once the algorithm had assisted with enough conversations, it would be able to judge when an exchange was happening and what settings to use all by itself. At least that was the intention. There were already existing programs that could assist with translating Borealan languages, Lena knew because she had helped develop many of them, but their languages were already very similar to those of humans. Krell was a whole different ball game.
She cleared her throat and hit the activation icon, the holographic display indicating that the program was waiting for her input.
“Hello Sleethe, can you hear me?”
The resulting synthesized sentence sounded like hissing and warbling to Lena's human ears. The speaker on her arm vibrated, the rumbling tones that it emitted were so low that they were barely audible. She watched with bated breath as her reptilian friend cocked his massive head, listening intently. After a moment he replied, his powerful growl shaking her bones.
The software took a few moments to process the new input, and then she heard a halting, text-to-speech voice speak into her ear.
“Yes. The noise of you reaches my jaw.”
Lena resisted the urge to throw her arms into the air in triumph, not wanting to tear her earbud out, and she settled for a more moderated fist pump instead. Sleethe's reply had been borderline nonsense, but he had understood her words, and she had understood his. The meaning had been conveyed, even if the dictionary was limited and the translator needed more work.
Her scaly partner slapped his heavy tail on the floor as he picked up on her excitement, the clapping sound echoing through her office. She hopped on the spot for a moment, elated that her hard work had finally produced tangible results, a grin brightening her tired features.
“We did it Sleethe! This is gonna work!”
She remembered that she could now speak to him in a facsimile of his own language, tapping on her touch screen and then repeating the phrase. The device released another burst of hisses and grunts, Lena waiting for his reply with bated breath.
“Success, the structure does not sway.”
More borderline nonsense, but it sounded positive enough. Her heart began to beat faster as she considered that for the first time since she had met him, she might really be able to hold a conversation with her boyfriend. They understood one another well enough even without the ability to communicate verbally, getting by on gestures and body language, along with the limited vocabulary of human words that Sleethe had learned as part of his military training. She had never felt that there was anything lacking in their relationship, but things could only get better from this point onward.
Lena wanted to make a fresh pot of coffee, she wanted to stay up all night and talk with Sleethe until the station's sun lamps turned on, tweaking the software as they shared their secrets like schoolgirls at a slumber party. She needed sleep however, she was close to collapse, and now that she had finally cracked the enigma code that was Krell language she felt as if she had earned her rest.
“I need to sleep,” she said, theorizing that simple phrases would be more accurately translated. “Will you come to bed with me?”
Sleethe rolled over onto his side, raising an arm in invitation. Interesting, even with the translation software he didn't seem to speak unless it was necessary. She wondered if that was for her benefit, or if all of the Krell behaved in the same manner. She had to admit that she had rarely seen what might be interpreted as an in-depth conversation between two of the giant lizards during her studies.
She walked over to him and dropped to the floor, letting him hook her with his strong arm and hug her small frame up against his soft underbelly. She was too tired to head back to her apartment, too exhausted to remove her clothing. She immediately felt a wave of calm and relaxation overcome her as she pressed her face into his chest and took in his familiar scent, his slow, heavy breathing somehow therapeutic.
Lena wanted to tell him that she loved him. Not that he didn't know it already, but putting it into words held special meaning for her. Would he understand the importance of the phrase? Did the Krell have a concept of love that approximated that of humans, did they have any cultural or social parallels? Perhaps it was too risky, too easy to misconstrue, too likely to be lost in translation.
Instead she wrapped her arms around his massive chest as best she could manage, it was like trying to hug an oil barrel. She felt him blow warm air in her hair, his many fingers pressing gently into the small of her back. She hadn't told him that they were going back to his homeworld yet, she would break the news tomorrow using her newly minted translator. Lena hoped that he would be as excited as she was.
CHAPTER 3: FIELD WORK
The Courser emerged from superlight like a whale breaching the surface of the ocean, a spray of colorful gases expanding in its wake like a miniature nebula as it tore a hole back into reality. The long, slim ship drifted for a moment, inertia carrying it along as it tumbled slowly. After a brief delay its engines flared to life, thrusters spaced along its sleek hull righting it with bursts of blue flame as the flight computer took control.
Lena opened her eyes and blinked away stinging tears, struggling back to awareness and straining against her safety harness. She felt like she had been worked over with baseball bats, every muscle in her body ached. She spat the plastic bit out of her mouth, intended to prevent her from biting off her tongue during the jump, and unclasped the catch that bound her to her crash couch.
The pilots told her that superlight got easier every time you did it, some of the more experienced captains could even stand unaided during the dimensional transition, so she had heard. It hadn't gotten any easier for Lena however, and she doubled over, a wave of nausea overwhelming her.
She was a linguist, and so she didn't claim to understand the intricacies of the process, she would leave that to the theoretical physicists. What she did know was that faster than light travel was impossible, at least in our three dimensions of reality. The laws of physics did not allow it. The jump drive drew energy from an onboard power plant, charging up and creating a quantum mechanical black hole, better known as a microhole by the pilots and engineers. It manifested in front of the ship, tearing a breach in the fabric of spacetime, which sucked in the ship and everything in its immediate vicinity.
In doing so the vessel was granted access to a higher dimension of space, or perhaps an entirely distinct universe, where the laws of time and physics operated very differently. You couldn't exceed ninety nine percent light speed in conventional space, but in this strange void it was possible to be massless, for time to run in peculiar and illogical streams. A ship could travel at impossible speeds and follow the swells and currents of time in order to reach a destination far sooner than would otherwise be feasible.
The big downside was that the wracking energies played havoc with nervous systems, the symptoms ranging from seizures and uncontrollable muscle spasms, to hallucinations and temporary insanity. Something about the jump dimension didn't agree with organic life, almost as if some higher power didn't want them to be there.
At the end of the process the vessel was spewed out dozens of light years closer to its destination, the range of the jump dependent on the power capacity of the ship in question. Coursers were small vessels compared to the massive jump carriers and freighters, but they were designed to be as fast as possible. The vessel was shaped like a knitting needle, the engines and nuclear reactors housed far away at the rear of the hull. It was the most optimal ratio between mass, carrying capacity and power consumption that the Navy could build. One of the vessels had been docked at the station, and the security chief had requisitioned it for her, a short hop from the Pinwheel to the 61 Cygni system wouldn't even take a day.
Lena walked across the cramped cabin on shaky legs, making her way over to where Sleethe was strapped down. There were no chairs on the Courser that could accommodate him, and so he had to be tightly strapped to a cargo pallet for his own safety. The giant reptile risked killing both himself and everyone in the immediate vicinity with his inhuman strength and weight if he was not properly secured.
She knelt and began to untie him, loosening the belt that was holding his jaws shut first, then moving down to his limbs. Once free, he stood and shook himself like a wet dog, having to stoop lower than usual in the confining space. Krell did not commonly travel this way, Coursers were not built with their kind in mind.
“Beginning approach,” the pilot said, his voice coming through on the intercom along with a burst of static. The Courser was too small to carry a landing craft, and so the plan was to rendezvous with a Broker vessel that would ferry them down to the surface of the planet.
Lena wasn't sure how she felt about how closely the mysterious aliens were becoming involved with the expedition. They obviously wanted to keep a close eye on her, but why? What damage could one unarmed academic possibly do?
She walked over to the one of the small portholes, scarcely larger than her own face, and she peered out at the blackness of space beyond. She could make out the twin suns of 61 Cygni, two red dwarf stars that looked like a pair of evil eyes hanging in the sky. They were smaller and darker than the sun, but Krell orbited closer to its parents than the Earth did to Sol. She couldn't make out their destination, it was directly in front of the ship, but she could feel the acceleration as they burned towards it.
Before long they began to decelerate, Lena feeling the inertial change in her inner ear.
“You excited to be back home, big guy?”
Sleethe huffed affirmatively, but he didn't seem very enthusiastic. She wondered if he even cared where they were going as long there would be a heat source to bask under. As they drew closer, she started to notice Broker drone ships coming and going, buzzing around the orbital defense platforms that encircled the planet like clouds of flies. It was hard to judge distance in space, but there were small ones that were vaguely spherical, and larger ones that were bulky and no doubt built to carry cargo. They had entered orbit, she could just make out the green haze of the planet below.
“We're about to dock with the Broker lander,” the pilot said, “stand by. You'll hear a loud clunk, don't panic, it's just the docking clamps.”
There was a rumble that reverberated through the metal deck, and the porthole was filled with a silver hull as the two vessels mated. Lena felt a sudden wave of apprehension. In a few moments she would be passed from the care of the UNN into the hands of the Brokers. She didn't even know what they looked like, and despite working extensively on Borealan and Krell languages, she had never heard so much as an audio clip or seen a single character from the Broker language. While all of the other races of the Coalition mingled and shared their culture and technology, the enigmatic Brokers seemed to go out of their way to keep themselves separate.
At least she had Sleethe with her, but she would soon be dozens of light years from any other humans. She might be the loneliest and most isolated mammal in the entire galactic arm.
There was a pneumatic hiss as a door in the Courser's hull slid open, its small cabin now linked to the Broker vessel via a short umbilical walkway. Lena hefted a large rucksack that contained a wide variety of scientific gear and instruments, her reptilian companion lifting a duffel bag that was larger and heavier than she was with ease. She had packed enough gear and supplies to last her for weeks. The pilot's voice came in over the intercom again, hissing and popping with interference.
“Good luck Doctor Webber, watch your step now. Have a safe journey, and don't let the Brokers try to sell you anything.”
She swallowed hard, steeling herself, and began to walk towards the open door. The Broker ship was better lit than the dingy UNN vessel, the industrial interior of the Courser giving way to bright, clean metal. Lena peeked nervously inside the umbilical, bathed in pale light from the alien ship, and she urged Sleethe to follow behind her. While he seemed unconcerned by the strange design of the Broker vessel, he was sniffing the air intently, perhaps picking up on something that Lena's human nose could not detect.
As Sleethe stepped into the metal tunnel, there was a worrying creaking sound, as if it was about to give way. Instead, Lena's eyes widened as she watched the umbilical grow to accommodate his exaggerated stature. The metal was flexing like a sheet of silver flesh, expanding and shifting, until it looked as if it had been built to spec.
Lena was amazed, awestruck, but Sleethe simply plodded along the tunnel as if it was all routine for him. Of course, he had no doubt been on Broker vessels at some point in the past. He must have been brought from his home planet to the Pinwheel on one such ship.
She hurried along behind him as he began to outpace her, his long tail dragging across the smooth floor. There were no windows to space, and no visible light fixtures, the glow somehow seeming to emanate from the very walls themselves.
It was a short walk to the alien vessel, and after a moment she found herself standing in an empty room. It was made from featureless, silver metal, much the same as the umbilical. There wasn't so much as a chair in sight, no readouts or consoles to be seen anywhere. The passage behind them closed up rapidly, like footage of a wound healing that was being played back in a time lapse. She reached out a tentative hand and prodded the metal, feeling it give a little under the pressure. It was flexible, more like hard rubber than the gleaming steel that it so resembled.
The room gave her the willies, it was too empty, so unnaturally featureless that it was making her snowblind. She found herself clinging to Sleethe's powerful arm, the Krell warbling sympathetically as he coiled his long tail around her, like a knee-high wall of scales to keep her safe. She realized that there was no noise, that was part of what was making the chamber so unnerving. All that she could hear was her own blood rushing in her ears, and Sleethe's heavy breathing, the usual creaks and hums of a spaceship were completely absent. Somehow she got the impression that this was a holding cell, rather than accommodation for guests.
She stood up straight and brushed herself off, feeling a little embarrassed. She was a professional woman damn it, and there were no doubt cameras scrutinizing her. She wasn't about to give the Brokers a bad impression of humanity.
“H-Hello?” She asked, her voice echoing in the room.
“Doctor Lena Webber, please remain calm during transit, you will be reaching the surface of the planet shortly.”
The reply came from everywhere at once, in perfect clarity and unbroken English, as if a native speaker was talking not an inch from her ear. It was a little disarming.
“Are you...a Broker?” Lena asked.
“Yes I am a Broker,” it stated, as if that should have been obvious.
“Where are you? Are you piloting the ship?”
“The ship is a drone vessel,” the disembodied voice replied. “It is being flow by an auto-pilot system. I am presently in high orbit on the master control station.”
That must be what controlled all of the drones and the orbital defenses that she had seen on the way in. How much of it was automated? Somehow she got the impression that she might be talking to the only Broker in the system.
This was a big deal for her. She had never so much as seen a Broker, not even on the Pinwheel, and to be able to talk with one directly was a rare opportunity. She opened her mouth to ask it a question, but was interrupted as the alien continued.
“During your visit, please refrain from disrupting the day to day activities of the native Krell. You may observe, and participate if you should wish it, but we ask that you do not disturb them unduly.”
“Of course,” Lena said, a little confused by the request. “I'm here in an academic capacity, to observe the Krell culture and learn more about their language and customs. To do otherwise would completely invalidate all of my findings.”
It was a little patronizing in fact, as if the alien didn't expect her to know any better.
“You may stay for as long as your supplies last, and you may venture as far as you can travel on foot. Please be aware that we do not consider you to be under our protection, and we accept no liability if something should happen to you once you have left the confines of the ship. You must acknowledge that you are visiting the planet at your own risk, and of your own volition, and we would ask you to state for the record that you understand and accept our terms.”
What was with all the legalese? She was visiting a planet, not taking out a home insurance policy. The Broker acted more like a lawyer than anything that she had expected. So much for mysterious and all-knowing aliens imparting secret knowledge, this one sounded like he was trying to sell her a used car.
“Yeah, I get it,” she replied tersely. “I'm not here for you, I'm here for the Krell.”
The Broker did not reply. Perhaps her comment had offended the creature, implying that for all their mystery and posturing, the simple Krell were of far more interest to her than the advanced aliens. At least that was how she had intended it to come across.
Emboldened by the alien's lack of a rebuttal, she spoke up again.
“When will we be arriving on the planet?”
Almost before she could finish her sentence, the door behind her opened, the stench of rotting vegetation wafting into the ship.
“You have already arrived.”
Impossible, she couldn't have been in the vessel for more than a few minutes, and she hadn't felt any turbulence during reentry. She turned and walked slowly towards the hole that had opened up in the hull, feeling warm wind on her face and smelling the familiar scents of the planet. Sleethe slung the duffel bag over his broad shoulder and followed behind her, stepping out into the mud as she hovered by the door. Despite his bulk, his many splayed toes distributed the weight evenly across the surface like a camel walking on sand, and so he didn't sink. She poked her head out of the Broker ship, alarmed by how quickly and quietly they had set down.
On a UNN ship, she would have been asked to strap into a crash couch for her own safety, then the vessel would have been shaken and buffeted by the stresses of entering the atmosphere and decelerating. There would have been a slew of noises and vibrations as the landing gear had hit the dirt and the engines had powered down.
There had been nothing in the Broker ship, not so much as a whisper, not a hint of turbulence. They had traveled thousands of miles at alarming speed and she hadn't even noticed.
Lena readjusted the heavy rucksack on her back, then stepped out onto the surface of Krell. She had come prepared for the hostile environment this time, and she was wearing most of a UNN hazmat suit to protect her from the pervasive mud, the hood removed and a wide brimmed hat perched upon her head. It was cumbersome, but the last time that she had visited she had been completely drenched in grime, and she still wasn't sure what kind of insects and poisonous plants might inhabit the unexplored swamps. There was little difference in gravity, it was close enough to Earth norm that she didn't feel any real change.
Her yellow boots sank into the mud up to the heel as she struggled forward, the wet dirt sucking at her as she went, the white plastic of the suit already splashed with dark blotches of stagnant water. The planet was made up mostly of swamps and marshes, with twisted trees that resembled mangroves visible beyond the clearing that they had set down in. 'Set down' wasn't entirely accurate, as when she turned to get a look at the Broker ship, she noticed that it was hovering an inch off the mud. There was no landing gear at all, it was like the cylindrical ship was resting on a cushion of air. The outside was just as featureless as the inside, with no cockpit and no engines visible. It looked to her like a cigar wrapped in cooking foil.
Without so much as a fare ye well, the shining vessel rose into the sky, as if the hand of God had reached down and plucked it from the ground. There was no buffeting wind, no roar from its thrusters, it disappeared into the green haze as silently as it had come.
Lena found herself standing alone in the mud, Sleethe already making his way towards the mangrove forest at the edge of the clearing.
“Hey, wait up Sleethe!”
She struggled with her pack, wading through the deep mud as he turned his head to watch her. The bog made the going harder, she was sinking up to her knees in some places, the holes that she made rapidly filling with dark water. The sky above her was tinted green, the twin suns barely visible through the mist, and there was an unhealthy fog that seemed to cling to the ground which made seeing beyond maybe a hundred feet impossible.
Krell was no tourist destination. The smell alone would put off most explorers, it reminded her of fresh compost, and Lena had always thought that the planet looked sickly.
Sleethe waited for her to catch up, and then began to lead her towards the trees. Did he know where he was going? Lena had no idea where the Brokers had set down, and they had been quite explicit that the exact location of her visit was to be decided by them. They wouldn't have dropped her into the middle of nowhere, there must be a Krell village nearby.
The pair crossed the mud flat, reaching the trees, their gnarled trunks perched on spindly roots that stuck out of the wet soil like pale fingers. Each one was suspended in the air, as if the tide had recently gone out, no doubt evolved to survive frequent flooding. There were great masses of vines and creepers winding around their trunks and dangling from their skeletal branches, the forest canopy above them blocking what little light from the suns made it through the clouds to give everything a very gloomy and dingy feel. There were islands of ferns and small bushes that seemed to cluster around the roots, taking hold wherever they could. Perhaps the trees provided some measure of security against the ever shifting and uneven ground.
Unfortunately the twisted roots made the going even harder, and Lena had to struggle to climb over the obstacles, the humidity making strands of her blonde hair stick to her face. She had forgotten just how uncomfortable this damned planet could be. Her boots were already filling with sweat, and she could taste the muggy air in the back of her throat. If she pursed her lips and sucked, she could probably take a drink of water from the very atmosphere.
Sleethe was patient, hanging back to help her over some of the larger roots, but the going was slow. The hazmat suit might protect her from the dirt, but it wasn't designed for hiking, and she had completely misjudged how much she could carry under these conditions. The straps of her pack were digging into her shoulders, and she was already hopelessly out of breath. She was used to office work after all, she wasn't built to trek through difficult terrain where her sweat couldn't even evaporate properly in order to cool her.
Her Krell companion noticed her discomfort, reaching down to pluck her rucksack from her back as if it didn't weigh any more than a lunch box. It was a relief, but she was a little embarrassed all the same. It wasn't as if Barnes had given her any time to exercise in preparation for the expedition.
Sleethe seemed right at home. The humidity was keeping him wet and giving his spinach-colored scales an attractive shine that made him look glossy. His wide feet were designed to walk on mud, and despite weighing several times what Lena did, he was able to travel much easier. He cleared a path for her, breaking through some of the smaller and more brittle roots with his exaggerated strength and weight, an unstoppable force as he lumbered long.
“Come on Lena, you can do this,” she muttered under her breath. She wrapped her fingers around a raised root that was blocking her path, her hands gloved in yellow rubber like she was wearing a pair of marigolds, and she heaved herself up and over it. She swung one leg over, then the other, and dropped down into the mud on the other side. She sank up to her knees, waving her arms for balance, marching onward once she had gotten her bearings again. Her thighs were already burning due to her odd gait, walking in the damp soil was demanding far more of her body that she had anticipated.
She leaned against a nearby root as she took a short break to rest, planting a hand on top of her wide brimmed hat to keep it from falling from her head as she craned her neck to look around. The forest looked dead to her, the trees pale and ghostly, choked with creepers as the layer of white mist rolled across the ground. They had thick, fleshy leaves however, and there were all kinds of strange plants and vines living on and around them.
There was even a creeper winding its way along this exposed root where it protruded from the mud, tiny flowers blooming here and there in vibrant shades of pink and blue. They had star-shaped petals, with bright purple stamens, designed to attract the attention of pollinating insects no doubt. Around her feet were what almost looked like water lilies, but sitting atop the mud rather than floating on water. The forest was very much alive.
She remembered her encounter with a snake-like creature that lurked below the surface of the mud the last time that she had traversed a mangrove forest like this. The animal had been harmless, but it had frightened her out of her wits, and imagining the loathsome worms milling about in the sludge below her feet sent a shiver down her spine. She longed to get out of this mud, the Krell villages were built on raised platforms for that very reason, and the sooner they found one the better.
Lena steeled herself and pressed onward.
It took them a while, but eventually they emerged on the far side of the mangrove forest. It had been a leisurely stroll for Sleethe, but Lena felt as if she had just run a triathlon. She was more sweat than woman, her muscles burning, and with every breath she tasted the swamp on her tongue. She pulled her sodden hair out of her face with her gloved fingers, overheating inside the hazmat suit, but the alternative was bathing in the mud like a pig on a farm. Everything up to her waist was coated in a layer of sludge such that she could scarcely see the white and yellow material beneath it.
Through the mist Lena noticed what looked like artificial structures, and Sleethe began to make his way towards them. The pair skirted along the muddy shore of a stagnant lake, it was wide and deep, the far shore obscured by the rolling fog that seemed to hang over everything like a blanket. She could make out shapes moving along the surface, perhaps dead logs or floating natives, it was impossible to tell with such low visibility.
As they got closer to the structures in the distance, Lena was able to make them out in greater detail. They were wooden shacks, their circular walls made up of wet, uneven planks and salvaged tree branches. The roofs were layered with what looked like palm fronds and leaves, slanted, obviously to ward off what must be frequent and heavy rainfall. She remembered that the Krell dwellings had no windows, and that they used curtains made from vines and decorated with beads and shells in place of doors. Privacy was not of great concern to the aliens.
The whole affair was suspended a few feet off the ground on stilts that very much resembled the roots of the trees, at least at the lowest tier. The structure looked to be dozens of feet high in places. Many of the supports 'were' trees, she realized, their branches cut away and the buildings constructed around the naked trunks like tiered treehouses.
It made sense to repurpose the existing trees, they were strong and sturdy, their roots extending deep beneath the earth to anchor them securely to the soft ground. The raised village was a little haphazard, buildings had clearly been added as they were needed, and there had obviously been little forward planning. The wooden platforms that encircled them were connected by twisted rope bridges made from vines, and rickety walkways that looked very precarious and unsafe. There were no guards or handrails, but at least if she lost her footing and fell, she would land safely in the mud below.
It was almost identical to the village that Lena had stayed in during her first visit to the planet. The Krell could not mine here, they didn't have access to stone or any building materials besides what they could salvage from the forests. Industry was basically impossible, and that went some way to explaining why they were so primitive, despite their obvious intelligence. They could not mine ores or smelt metal, they couldn't pour concrete or make a foundation for anything that was too heavy to be supported by wooden stilts or a nearby tree. Who could guess how deep they would have to dig before they reached bedrock.
She found it odd that despite their close relationship, the Brokers had not elevated the Krell in any way. They had not provided them with the technology necessary to improve their lot, they had not helped them to build factories and they hadn't supplied them with any advanced materials to make their lives any easier. The Krell likely had nothing to trade that the Brokers valued, but still, their lack of charity irked her. It was always possible that the Krell were just happier this way she supposed, they certainly didn't seem to take advantage of any of the advanced technology on the station besides the heat lamps. When they weren't deployed they just lazed around in their pools, basking and sleeping, occasionally playing cards or pool with the Marines.
They seemed to like games, perhaps she could befriend some of the natives that way.
As they neared the forest of stilts and dead trees, cloaked in a layer of mist, Sleethe raised his snout towards the overcast sky and loosed a rumbling call. It echoed across the lake, the sound carrying an impressive distance, and then the village began to stir.
Lena could make out figures emerging from their huts, she could hear the creaking of the damp wood as they took to the walkways and bridges, crocodilian faces peering down at her from above. From the lake too the Krell were rising, the dark water sliding off their scaly backs in sheets as they made their way up the muddy bank, their heavy tails carving furrows behind them as they went.
They came in all shapes and sizes, some larger than Sleethe, some smaller, and the larger ones seemed to have slightly darker scales. They were no doubt older than their spinach-colored counterparts.
None wore clothing, the Krell had internal genitalia that remained out of view until needed, and so they had no modesty to preserve. As they drew closer, Lena noticed that many of the aliens were wearing decorative jewelry, strings of beads and shells that hung about their long necks. She could distinguish the females from the males, they were imperceptibly smaller and their features were softer, with wider hips and thicker thighs. They did not have breasts, they laid eggs and did not nurse their young as mammals did, but there were small fatty deposits on their chests that might give that impression from the right angle.
They were painted too, the aliens were decorated with all manner of patterns and symbols, dyes and pigments staining their scaly hides. She blushed, remembering how a Krell elder had marked her and Sleethe with alien runes during her last visit, likely in some kind of bonding ceremony. The giant alien had drawn a pattern on her forehead in some kind of red ochre, like two joined snakes, and the dye had stained her skin for weeks. For all she knew, she was married to her reptilian companion.
The natives crowded around them, drawn by Sleethe's call, and Lena began to feel a little boxed in by the gigantic reptiles. She knew that they wouldn't hurt her, but they were so...large, and they had little concept of personal space.
One of the largest Krell leaned closer to her, nudging her with his long snout as he sniffed her. He must have been ten feet tall and twice as long, his scales tinted dark green, the remnants of some water weeds clinging to the spines on his back as he had just emerged from the lake. On his pale belly were more Krell runes, almost like hand prints in shades of blue and brown. They hadn't been washed off by his time in the lake. What were the dyes made from, and how long did they linger after being applied?
While Lena could make out a little of what was being said as Sleethe began to talk, it was a perfect opportunity to make use of her translator. It was protected beneath her sleeve, and so she removed the yellow glove and stowed it in her pocket, rolling up the hazmat suit to expose the wrist mounted computer. It was mil-spec, supposedly water proof, but she wasn't taking any chances with her baby. She tapped at the touch panel, then realized that the other glove was too thick to register her inputs, so she removed that too.
The holographic display flared to life, the aliens cocking their heads as they examined it, mesmerized by its orange glow and the floating icons. She entered a command, the earbud already in place, and began to listen...
“-where you are from?”
“Me and mine descend on benefactor metal, (unintelligible) of humans. Mine seeks knowledge.”
Sleethe was explaining the purpose of their visit, and the word that he was using to describe Lena seemed to translate as 'mine', or at least that was the closest that the software could interpret. She felt a flutter in her belly, it was like he was announcing to the other aliens that they were a couple.
None of the Krell seemed phased by the idea. Despite being a primitive culture they didn't show any reaction to the concept of one of their own taking a scrawny, warm-blooded alien as his mate. Rather than being open-minded and accepting of interspecies relationships, she suspected that it was more due to their signature aloofness. If it didn't get in the way of basking and swimming, then who cared?
'Benefactors' must be their word for Brokers. She would try to uncover the secrets of their strange relationship during her stay, mostly because they clearly didn't want her to.
Sleethe took a step back and let the crowd of aliens close in, the Krell jostling and rubbing shoulders as they leaned down close to her. They thrust their scaly snouts into her hair, pawing at her suit with their many fingered hands. They were very tactile creatures. Lena kept reminding herself that they were gentle and friendly, despite the fact that any one of them could have crushed her underfoot as if she was little more than a bug.
She was somewhat hesitant to make an attempt to communicate, the translator still needed a lot of work, but if she never used it then the learning algorithm wouldn't be able to refine its parameters. Better to just jump into the deep end and hope for the best.
She activated the speaker and cleared her throat.
“Hello, my name is Lena, thank you for your hospitality.”
The device emitted a series of warbles and rumbles, the group of Krell going silent and staring curiously at her. She was no doubt communicating in a butchered pidgin of their language, but hopefully she had made herself understood.
“I...uh...I hope to learn a lot about your culture during my stay. I'm...using a machine to translate your language.”
Sleethe at least seemed to get the gist of what she was trying to convey, further explaining her situation to their hosts as she listened in on the exchange. The light on her arm spoke for her, at least that was the way that he put it, and the other aliens nodded to one another as if that was all the explanation that was needed. They were not curious about the technology, they were not interested in the talking machine. It helped her to speak and that was all they needed to know about it apparently.
“Sleethe, can you ask them if they have somewhere that we can stay while we're here?”
It seemed a little presumptuous to just walk into a village of strangers and expect to be put up for the duration of their visit, but that was the Krell way. The aliens were unnaturally friendly, and the last time they had visited the planet the locals had done just that.
Lena felt a tremor through the ground, the mud beneath her boots rippling as something impossibly large approached the gathering. The Krell parted, letting an even more monstrous example of their species pass them to stand before Lena and Sleethe.
It was as large to Sleethe as he was to Lena, it must have been twelve feet tall at least, absolutely massive and with a hide so dark that it was bordering on black. Its legs were as thick as tree trunks, the spread of its many toes as large as a manhole cover to prevent it from sinking into the mud. Its tail was at least half of its body length, trailing off a ways behind it, packed with so much fat and muscle that a grown man would not have been able to straddle it.
It brought its snout down to sniff her, bending double to get down to her level as it rested its gigantic hands on its knees. It was the size of a damned dinosaur, she could have put her fist inside one of its nostrils with room to spare. This was no doubt a very old Krell, perhaps the village elder, and it looked as if the whole tribe had been using his segmented underbelly as a canvas. There were all kinds of markings and runes, with geometric patterns and strange shapes that almost looked like crude depictions of trees and animals. It reminded her of cave paintings, but drawn onto a living being rather than a stone wall. They were intricate and elaborate, there was no way that the usually lazy lizards would apply them every time they faded or were washed off, and so it was safe to assume that the colored pigments must stain their leathery hides for a very long time.
She had been unable to wash off the marking that had been drawn on her head the last time that she had visited, and it had only come off after the upper layers of her epidermis had been shed, and the dye along with it. Who knew how long those same pigments might linger when applied to a Krell's rough skin.
It was wearing decorative jewelry that matched its exaggerated stature, the necklace that hung from its thick neck was large enough that Lena could have worn it as a skirt. There were tiny white shells that had been threaded through string made from woven grasses, colorful beads adding shades of red and blue to the display. There were also animal bones and small skulls, carved like ivory with intricate geometric patterns, not trophies from hunts but rather items of interest that they had found and decided to use. At least that was the impression that Lena got, the temperament of the Krell led her to believe that they were unlikely to hunt for sport.
How did such a heavy creature even fit in the village without the whole structure collapsing under its weight? Perhaps the Krell were better architects than the outward appearance of their rickety shacks would suggest.
Lena wasn't sure if she should be doing anything in response, if there was some local custom that she was unaware of when greeting an elder. As similar as everything seemed to her last visit, the Brokers could have set down clear across the planet from the previous location. Sleethe spoke with the giant in their native tongue, Lena's translator doing its best to follow what was being said, but it was still very rusty and unreliable.
Sleethe explained again why they were here, and asked for permission to stay in their village, the elder considering for a moment before giving an affirmative reply. Lena thanked him, and the meaning seemed to have been conveyed accurately enough.
Now that a decision had been reached and the aliens had sated what little curiosity they had, the crowd dispersed and the gaggle of Krell lumbered away to return to their usual business. It was almost as if having an alien visit their village was routine, but that couldn't possibly be the case. They might have seen Brokers before, but they had never seen a human. Lena herself had been one of only a handful of humans who had ever set foot on the planet.
The pair followed the elder over to the village, the giant creature mounting a gangplank that led to the next level, the wood creaking ominously under his weight. Lena waited until he was clear before following behind him. It looked like it was scarcely able to hold him, and she didn't want to be the straw that broke the camel's back. While it wouldn't be fatal, a fall from this height would probably bury her up to her waist in mud.
The surface was slippery with moisture, her already muddy boots skidding on the damp wood, and with no hand rail to hold onto she had to extend her arms for balance. Sleethe gripped the surface with his seven, clawed toes, reaching out a hand to steady her as she climbed. They emerged onto the lowest tier of the village, a wooden platform that ringed the first of many small huts that was suspended perhaps six feet from the mud below. Each hut had a platform, and each platform was joined to the larger village by a haphazard network of walkways and bridges. The layout seemed completely random, as were the elevations of the different shacks. Rather than have each building at the same elevation, the connecting walkways slanted up and down as necessary.
Everything creaked, and every surface was coated in a layer of moisture that gave it a reflective sheen, making Lena feel as if one wrong step might send her tumbling to the ground below. She had to keep in mind that if the heavy Krell could cross these bridges without them falling apart, then she should have no problem. Even so, she stayed close to Sleethe, confident in the knowledge that he would reach out and catch her if she should slip and fall.
She was glad of her hat. Water rained down from the upper levels, the moisture in the atmosphere condensing on every available surface and dripping from the higher tiers of the village. There were creepers and vines growing even here, almost as if they had been intentionally guided by the Krell in order to further reinforce the structure. It gave everything an Elvish feel, like something from a children's storybook or a fantasy movie. If Elves lived in swamps, then this is what they would build.
She noticed that some of the trees that she had assumed at first glance to be dead had fleshy leaves growing from their twisted branches. They were alive, cultivated for the purpose of holding up the village, snaking between the structures as they climbed higher in search of light. Their branches braced against the shacks, reinforcing them and acting as support beams. Remarkable. As much as the design of the village appeared random and clumsy, this level of planning must span generations. Some of these trees must have been growing for hundreds of years.
As well as being wet, the glistening wood from which the village was constructed was coated in mosses and fungi, the pervasive damp making it a haven for mushrooms and other clinging plant life. The Krell settlement was practically an organism in its own right.
The closer she looked, the more intricacies she began to notice in the woodwork. Much like the village that she had visited during her previous expedition, there was an undeniable artistry hidden beneath the moss and vines. There were Krell runes carved into every available surface, wherever there was a wooden wall or an exposed tree trunk someone had gone to great lengths to decorate it with rolling script and intricate reliefs.
Lena ran her ungloved fingers across the wall of a nearby shack, feeling the indentations that had been cut into the wood. This could be purely decorative, or it could be some kind of historical record. She couldn't read Krell, but during her stay she intended to take rubbings of every damned inch of this village. She would catalog everything, and no matter what it took she would decipher this alien text. Decoding their language and their script could be her life's greatest work, and there was no competition. Only one human had been allowed to set foot on the planet and every new discovery would be hers alone.
The towering elder led them deeper into the village, the thick trunks that coiled around the structure and the hanging creepers giving the impression that they were deep inside some jungle. It was so dense that very little light made it through the platforms and foliage above them, Lena's eyes taking a moment to adjust to the gloom as they pressed on. It was like being inside some giant, maze-like treehouse. There were structures both above and below her, and all around her were either the foliage-covered roofs of Krell houses, or the thick supports and tree trunks that were holding aloft the huts over her head. It was almost like walking beneath a pier at low tide, the forest of long stilts exposed, their glossy surfaces covered in barnacles and clinging seaweeds.
The rope bridges felt especially precarious, but these at least had handholds that she could cling to as the crude constructions waved back and forth, their design not dissimilar from those of human origin that one might find on a nature trail. She was starting to understand why there was such a glaring lack of safety features. Humans were small and light, they fell over easily, but Krell were sure footed and it was hard to imagine one toppling over by accident. Their wide feet provided them with a lot of balance, and their massive tails seemed to anchor them to the ground with their weight. They lumbered along slowly and confidently, too bottom-heavy to risk a fall.
As she crossed a bridge made from knotted vines, she chanced a look over the edge, her stomach lurching as she peered down at the sheer drop below. They were getting higher and higher the further they went, and they were now at least twenty feet off the ground.
When they passed by houses, occasionally a Krell would poke its long snout out from behind a bead curtain, watching as the strange procession passed them by. Sometimes the elder would stop and bump heads with them affectionately, like two cats brushing up against each other, obviously some kind of greeting reserved for friends or maybe relatives.
As they neared what Lena surmised must be the center of this tiered village, she saw a much larger structure, far older than the other huts. The wood had been worn from decades of exposure to the elements, and there were three enormous trees holding it up like pillars as they cradled it in their branches. It was old growth, gnarled and twisted, the rough bark covered in mushrooms with bright red caps and creepers that sprouted with purple flowers. This was the heart of the settlement, no doubt some kind of town hall or chieftain's hut.
Rather than being built from planks, this one was made from thick logs that had obviously been felled somewhere else and carted here. Even for a Krell dwelling this was large, it reminded her more of a church or a cathedral such was its scale. How much did it weigh? It was no surprise that it needed several massive trees to support it, their branches wound around it like the pale bones of some skeletal hand.
It was elaborately decorated, each of the wooden logs had been stripped of its bark and was carved with spiraling runes and patterns, winding their way all around the building. Some were far older than others, the combination of time and the elements dulling them. Others were obscured by thick sheets of green moss that clung to the wood in moist blankets, droplets of dew making the carpet of greenery glisten under what little sunlight penetrated the platforms above.
Here and there Lena could make out more elaborate decorations, what looked like representations of trees and animals, along with crude figures of Krell engaging in various indeterminable activities. It reminded her of what she had seen when she had visited the Lascaux caves in the Dordogne region of France to view the paleolithic paintings, left there tens of thousands of years ago by the primitive ancestors of modern humans. Each figure likely told a story, or perhaps they had some religious significance. Much like Borealan tapestries, these carvings might be a record of their ancient history, or a kind of library of knowledge. Neither paper nor unshielded electronics would last very long in this atmosphere, rust and damp would destroy all of their information. Carving their history into wood might be the only method that they had to preserve it.
She tore herself away as elder stopped at a large door on the structure's face, lifting the curtain of decorative beads and shells with his long arm, creating a sound like rain hitting a tin roof. He was inviting them inside, and Lena didn't even need to duck as she walked beneath the giant alien and into the building proper.
It was dark inside, and expansive, the ceiling extending high above her head and the walls so far away that she could scarcely make them out in the gloom. The circular space must have been about fifty weed wide, large enough to accommodate a whole lot of Krell at once, and the roof was high enough that even the larger elders wouldn't risk bashing their heads on low hanging beams. It smelled musty and old, and there was a sense of reverence, as if this was some kind of holy place. She was almost scared to speak, as if she might somehow disturb the peace.
It was cooler inside, and the walls went some way towards keeping out the humidity, not that it could have been described as dry. She could make out the pale trunks of the ancient trees as they pushed through the walls and rose towards the ceiling. Either they had breached the walls over the years or the structure had been built around them. Some of the higher branches had curled around the rafters, almost like vines in their own right, pushing through the roof and disappearing from view in their never ending climb towards the sky. They were an integral part of the structure now. It was quite beautiful to see the ways in which the Krell lived in harmony with nature.
The elder passed them, moving off into the cavernous room as Lena stood beside Sleethe and watched. His tail sounded like a burlap sack being dragged across cement as it trailed behind him, it was like a damned train car made of flesh. If the alien were to lie on his belly, he would have been as long as a city bus. His footsteps shook the floorboards beneath her, every vibration traveling through the damp wood and up her legs.
It was too dark to see what the elder was doing, but she heard something that sounded like two stones being struck against one another. Suddenly there was a flare of orange flame, its flickering light dancing across the uneven walls and casting deep shadows. The elder lifted a long staff made from a twisted branch, one end wrapped in some kind of cloth, which was now burning brightly. He lumbered around the circumference of the room, lighting torches as he went, until Lena found herself encircled by two dozen of the burning balls of fire. It did a decent job of illuminating the room, they didn't have electricity and so this was the next best thing.
She wondered briefly if the open flames posed a danger in this wooden city, but everything was so damp that she doubted the fire would ever catch. The torches must have been soaked in something flammable, as they burned brightly.
Now she could get a better look at the interior. As was customary for Krell, there were sleeping pits dotted about the floor. The aliens liked to sleep in recesses in the ground, and so they carved out Krell-sized bowls and lined them with soft cushions. They usually slept half a dozen individuals to one pit, huddling for warmth when they were forced to leave their beloved heat lamps.
The interior was just as intricately decorated as the exterior, with more carvings and symbols etched into every available surface. There were clay cauldrons lining the far wall too, large enough that a person could have climbed inside one, and she wondered if they were used for cooking. The elder set down his staff and dipped his long arm into one of the pots. When he withdrew it, she saw that he was cupping a handful of what looked like red-brown ochre or clay. Those pots contained the pigments that they used to apply their tribal markings.
Lena turned on her translator again, eager to pick up on the conversation as the elder plodded back over to where her and Sleethe were waiting. She adjusted her earbud and listened intently as the Krell stood before them. First the elder bumped heads with Sleethe, the two rumbling in low tones that the translator could not decipher, as they corresponded to no words or phrases that were logged in its database. It was like an Eskimo kiss between two giant crocodiles, and then the elder withdrew.
“You are as kin,” he said, her translator finally pulling its weight.
Next he smeared some of the red ochre on his fingers, and reached out towards Sleethe's scaly forehead. He drew a symbol there, like two crossing snakes, one that Lena recognized immediately. This was the same ceremony that the elder of the previous village had performed, the one that she had assumed to be some kind of marriage or bonding ritual.
Sleethe seemed oddly reverent as the elder pulled back to examine his handiwork, the rune bright and prominent against his spinach-colored scales. Next the giant moved towards Lena. He dropped to one knee to get down to her height, the floorboards bouncing beneath her as he shifted his weight. He brought his snout down towards her face as if he was going to swallow her whole, but instead he sniffed her curiously.
He seemed especially interested in her blonde hair, he might never have seen any before, and he carefully removed her hat like he was plucking it from the head of a doll. He ran his many fingers through the blonde strands, Lena tensing up as she felt his dull claws on her scalp. He lowered himself even further, pressing his monstrous forehead against hers, the same greeting that he had given Sleethe and some of the other Krell villagers. His head was about two feet wide, his hide as rough and leathery as tree bark, but he was gentle enough that he didn't knock her off balance.
“You are as kin,” the translator interpreted, his rumbling tones shaking her bones at such close range.
She watched as he smeared more of the red clay on his fingers, and then she closed her eyes reflexively as he brought his hand towards her face. She felt his rough digits on her skin, tough and scaly, and when she opened her eyes again he was finished.
He rose to full height and took a step back, his massive, heavy head seeming to fly away from her as he examined the mark with his yellow eyes. Lena looked towards Sleethe, and her Krell companion seemed pleased, his gaze lingering on her forehead. She couldn't see it herself, but she knew that the elder had drawn an identical mark on her face. It must be important, moreso than she had realized. It wasn't just ceremonial or it would not have needed to be reapplied a second time. She could always use her translator to ask about it, but she felt that she might ruin the moment. She would save that question for later. Maybe it served to signal something to the other villagers, perhaps that they were a couple and that she was off-limits to prospective males.
The Krell had a rather odd method of courting. At a time during their life cycle that UNN scientists had been so far unable to determine, the Krell would collectively go into heat. They would mate with anything and everything that they could get their hands on, engaging in massive breeding frenzies in which dozens of individuals competed for the best partners.
But if at some time during this orgy of reptilian reproduction, an individual found someone that they really clicked with, they would enter a monogamous relationship and proceed to breed with that Krell exclusively. Assuming that the feelings were reciprocated of course. It wasn't yet clear how they chose their forever-mate, but if one was not found, then the Krell in question would simply try again next season. Time was certainly something that the Krell weren't short on. They had hundreds of years in which to search for their ideal partner, and if they didn't find one then it didn't hamper their ability to reproduce with the general population. To a human, free love and commitment were on opposite ends of the spectrum, but the aliens somehow made it work.
Lena and Sleethe were in just such a relationship. She had met him by chance shortly following a breeding frenzy in the Krell barracks, and he had taken a liking to her after being spurned by one of his own kind. There was no accounting for taste, in Lena's opinion that anonymous female had made a very poor romantic decision.
“Make this temple as your home,” the elder said, spreading his arms as his booming voice reverberated through the floor. “You may rest within the pits.”
“Thank you,” Lena said, hoping that her translator would do a good enough job of conveying her gratitude without butchering the simple phrase. After a brief delay her speaker loosed a short rumble that approximated Krell speech, and the elder bowed his massive head deferentially. So far so good, the software was working about as well as she could have hoped.
The elder was now satisfied apparently, passing by them without another word and making his way slowly towards the curtain of beads that served as the door. She found herself wondering if the translation had been accurate, and if this building really was some kind of temple, or if it had a religious significance in the Krell culture. Just another mystery to unravel.
Lena watched as the elder's impossibly long tail slowly trailed out of view, then turned to Sleethe who was waiting patiently beside her.
“Looks like we're in business, big guy. Let's settle in.”
Sleethe seemed to understand her well enough without the translator, but the learning algorithm needed all the experience that it could get, and so she let it run as her companion walked over to a nearby wall and set their bags against it. He seemed to have chosen a sleeping pit for them that was at the foot of the wall, knowing that she would want to brace some of her equipment against the tightly joined logs.
There was a familiar fire rising inside her now, a burning need to discover, the same lust for knowledge and recognition that fueled her on those sleepless nights when she worked herself to exhaustion. Far from simple linguistic work, she had also been given a slew of scientific equipment by Barnes and his associates. The Professors were expecting her to do some field work in their place, explore the planet, collect samples of local flora and fauna to bring back with her so that they might study them. She felt like Darwin setting foot on the Galapagos islands, specimen containers in hand as he went on the hunt for strange bugs and lizards. She was not especially qualified for such tasks, but as the only human allowed to visit the planet, they had to make do.
She patted Sleethe on his scaly thigh, grateful to have him serving as her pack mule. Carrying the gear was trivial for him, meanwhile Lena would never have made it off the ship if she had been tasked with hauling it all herself. The lack of vehicles would have been a further complication if it wasn't for her green friend. He could carry her across terrain that she couldn't traverse, and he would keep her safe from any unknown dangers that she might encounter out in the bush.
She knelt and unzipped the duffel bag, her expression brightening as she pulled out a pair of binoculars. It was more mil-spec gear, security chief Moralez had owed her big time for her help in saving the Pinwheel from the outbreak of baby Krell, and so he had let her raid their stores of surplus equipment before the expedition. 'As long as you bring it back in one piece,' he had told her.
She had also packed as many MREs as she could reasonably carry alongside all of her scientific equipment, as the deal that the UAS had made with the Brokers stipulated that she could stay as long as she wanted. She had a suspicion that the aliens might be counting on her supplies being the limiting factor, and so she was loaded up to the eyeballs with freeze dried pasta and cereal bars.
Having grown up in Munich, she wasn't much of an outdoorsman, but perhaps with Sleethe's help she could find some edible fauna to supplement her diet and stretch out her visit a little longer. She had one of the scanners that they gave to scouts in the field that would let them know if food was dangerous to eat, and so it shouldn't be too difficult.
The duffel bag contained plenty of other goodies and gadgets. She had brought petri dishes for taking samples of local bacteria and studying their growth, stasis containers that would let her freeze samples and specimens for the journey home, and a light trap for catching insects. There was a crack hammer for breaking off pieces of rock, an elemental tracer for scanning minerals, even a deep scanner that could fire a pulse below the ground. She had sub-soil probes for taking core samples, a laser range finder, and the meteorology guys had given her an automated weather balloon drone. Lena didn't want to imagine the arguments that must have gone down at the UAS over what she would bring and which fields of study would be prioritized.
The crown jewel of her hoard however was a matte white, twenty five pound plastic block. She struggled to pull it from the bag, setting the device on the wood floor beside the sleeping pit. To the uninitiated it looked a bit like a portable vacuum cleaner, but it was actually a work station with a litany of features. She hit a button on the side of the blocky device, and the chassis split open like a clam, revealing the sensitive equipment that it had been protecting.
This was about as large as they could make this kind of workstation while keeping it reasonably portable, and even then it was heavy and cumbersome. She hit another switch and it spread itself open even further, unpacking itself with a whir of electric motors as Sleethe peered over her shoulder curiously. It had a built in microscope, an internal computer with the ability to perform all of the expected functions like cataloging data and running complex calculations, and lots of other bells and whistles that would help it act as her home base where her scientific studies were concerned. It had three monitors that were folded in on one another, and she flipped them open and turned on the computer, the device booting to a UAS splash screen.
It was solar powered, which might be an issue on Krell, but its battery was charged and she had brought along a few spares. Even if it eventually ran out of juice, she could still do things the old fashioned way. Cuvier hadn't needed a portable work station after all.
“Looks like the computer survived the trip,” she said, shutting it down again to save battery. “We'll use this building as our home base.”
She stood and struggled out of her hazmat suit, relieved to be free of the stifling, confining garment. Beneath it she wore a pair of shorts and a tank top, remembering how humid and hot the planet had been the first time around. She felt a little exposed, the shorts rode high on her thighs and the grey tank top left little to the imagination. She was accustomed to wearing lab coats and long skirts, but the Krell didn't care about modesty and there were no other humans for light years. Might as well let it all hang out for the sake of comfort. If she had to live and work in this soup of heat and moisture, then she was at least going to minimize her suffering.
What she wouldn't give for a cold shower. Her skin already glistened with sweat and her clothing was damp and clingy, the humidity was inescapable.
She felt Sleethe's eyes on her, and she wondered how the alien saw her. Was he attracted to her in the same way that he was to females of his own species? They had secondary sexual characteristics after all, wide hips and soft chests, but Lena was so...different. Her skin was soft and smooth rather than tough and scaly, her face was flat with no snout, and she had lips to cover her teeth. While female Krell did store fat on their chests, they were nothing like Lena's breasts, now hanging free beneath the sliver of thin fabric that concealed them.
Did he like that she was soft? Was she exotic to him, or did he look past her alien appearance because his attraction to her ran deeper than simple sex appeal? One day soon she might be able to ask him those questions, and actually understand his answers.
There was a warmth rising inside her now as his yellow eyes played over her body, distinct from the pervasive heat of the temple. His gigantic form was well suited to this environment, and she was starting to understand why they enjoyed lounging in water so much when they were on the station. The atmosphere on Krell was like being in a sauna, and the moisture clung to his scaly skin to give him a glossy sheen, like someone had rubbed him down in oil. The flickering torches that lit the room reflected on his body, light and shadow accentuating his already impressive musculature.
His arms were massive and near the same length as his legs, with biceps that would have put a human weight lifter to shame. His pectoral muscles were similarly hard and prominent, the beginnings of his abdominal muscles visible despite the paunch of fat that made his underbelly so pleasant to sleep against. His physiology was different to that of humans. He had more muscles and in different configurations, but it was familiar enough that it evoked a deep and primal attraction in her. Sometimes she would awaken from a daydream to find herself chewing on the end of a pen as she watched him sleep from across her office. Overall he had the physique of a strongman, functional strength that was a result of his lifestyle, rather than the product of a carefully crafted diet and exercise routine. Something about that fact made him more attractive to her. He wasn't grandstanding, he wasn't trying to impress her, that was just the way he was.
She was a professional woman however, she couldn't let herself melt every time he glanced in her direction like some kind of giddy schoolgirl. Knowing that once he made his move her willpower would evaporate, she tapped at the wrist-mounted computer that was secured to her arm and distracted herself with the floating icons.
“There's no time to waste, we might as well get started. How long do we have until nightfall, Sleethe? How long are the days here? I need to get a gauge on how much usable light we'll get.”
“Suns are high,” he replied, the translator chittering in her ear. “Light for maybe six more human hours.”
The days were long here then, that was good, more light meant more work. Sleethe had to live on human time, and so he had a pretty good grasp of Earth-standard hours and days, even if he couldn't do the math required to determine the exact length of the Krell equivalent. If you were expected to show up to a battle on time, then you needed to know how your employers measured it. That was a problem with some of the personnel on the station who came from colony planets, if you said 'be here in an hour' they might have a very different concept of what that meant. There was usually a period of adjustment where the intern or the recruit in question was constantly late. Lena had even met a woman who had been born on a tidally locked colony and who had been convinced that the Pinwheel's lamps shut off at night to save power.
Truth be told, it had been a long day and she was about ready for a nap, she didn't fancy wading out into the mud again so soon. What she did feel like doing however, was examining this room in laborious detail. Now that the torches were lit she could make out all manner of Krell runes and carvings. It was time to start cataloging it.
Sleethe watched as she began to walk along the wall, holding her wrist-mounted computer up to the uneven logs as she used a flashlight attachment to illuminate the reliefs and the rolling script. She took photographs as she went, perhaps the computer would be able to recognize any patterns or recurring characters that she missed.
She was pretty sure that the Krell text was read from top to bottom, like many Asian languages back on Earth. Perhaps so that it could more easily fit on the tree trunks and planks that served as their parchment. Borealan script closely resembled its ancient origins, the letters reminiscent of the cuts and claw marks that their primitive ancestors had carved into rocks with their bare hands. Krell script on the other hand was more complex, made up of swirling lines that flowed into each other like water cascading down the wood. It was almost calligraphic, what tools did they use to produce this?
Interwoven between the text were pictures, comparatively crude when compared to the obvious skill that was required to produce the writing. They depicted what were clearly Krell engaged in all manner of activities, again reminding her of the paleolithic cave paintings that she had studied on Earth. There didn't seem to be any distinct chronology to the carvings, but for all she knew she could be walking around the circumference of the room in the wrong direction.
Much of it was higher than she could reach, carved into the wood by Krell who were two or even three times her height. Even Sleethe would not have been able to reach many of the reliefs that she could see.
“Sleethe, what's this figure here?”
The Krell lumbered over to her side, crouching down to her level as he examined the picture that she was pointing at. It wasn't a Krell, it almost looked like some kind of machine. It had a bulbous body, with two legs and four arms that more resembled hoses than limbs. There were dozens of Krell crowded around it, as if they were listening to it, or it was teaching them.
“Benefactor,” Sleethe replied, her translator picking up on the word.
“They're Brokers? So that's what they look like...”
She returned to her duffel bag and retrieved a handheld scanner that was shaped like a pistol, but with a dish where the barrel would have been. She returned to Sleethe's side and tapped at the buttons on the handle, waving it near the engraving. There was a series of beeps, and then the device displayed a value on her wrist computer's screen. Most of these devices could be synced to her onboard computer, and while she had disabled GPS and wireless network functionality to save battery, it could still communicate with her field equipment at short range.
“Radiocarbon levels put this log at about five hundred years old. That makes sense, I'm not sure how fast the trees here grow but they're younger than this structure, because they're growing through and around it. Can't say how old the carving itself is, but it's reasonable to assume that it's old. It certainly looks aged and worn. Sleethe, do you know how long the Brokers have been in contact with your species?”
He shook his massive head, the loose skin beneath his jaw flapping, and she scratched her chin pensively.
“You're not old enough then. They must predate your birth...uh, your hatching. Just how old are you anyway?”
For all Lena knew he could be three hundred, but based on the larger Krell that she had seen she knew that he couldn't be ancient. He was about average size for a Krell, maybe middle aged, if a term like that could even apply to such a long-lived species.
Sleethe shrugged his massive shoulders, Lena chuckling at his adoption of human gestures.
“I guess Krell don't have birthdays then? I don't blame you, who would want to buy gifts for a relative who lives to be seven hundred years old?”
Now that she knew what they were, Lena was starting to see more Brokers pop out at her, they were everywhere along the wall. There were depictions of them perhaps teaching or organizing the Krell, leading them, along with carvings of their cigar-shaped spaceships and other vehicles and machines that Lena didn't recognize.
It was common knowledge that the Brokers and the Krell had a special relationship that predated humanity's first contact, but she hadn't imagined that the two races had been in cahoots for such a long time. The UNN was the third organization to join the Coalition, an alliance of species who were fighting a war on all fronts against the hostile Bugs, with the Borealans being the fourth member. For a long period of time before making contact with humans, the Brokers and Krell had fought the war alone. How they had met and the finer points of their interactions were left a mystery. Broker vessels carted Krell troops to the Pinwheel, and Broker defense platforms ringed the Krell homeworld. It certainly appeared to be a one-sided relationship, very few people had ever seen a Broker in the flesh and they did not participate in combat, but they did finance much of what went on behind the scenes.
The Krell had not spoken ill of them, as much as Krell could make themselves understood, and they never seemed to be doing anything against their will. They were always happy and friendly, performing their duties without complaint. If they needed to go back home, then it was a Broker ship that turned up to take them away. The personnel on the station joked about Krell showing up in the right place at the right time, it was a running gag that the reptiles appeared when needed and were gone just as quickly, but Lena didn't like being in the dark.
It was clear by how pervasive the depictions of the Brokers were that learning about the Krell would also entail learning about their mysterious benefactors.
CHAPTER 4: SWEAT AND SCALES
Lena removed her wrist-mounted computer, setting it down beside the computer terminal and hooking up a cable to link the two. She had meticulously cataloged the entire interior of the Krell temple, at least everything that she could reach. There was surely a whole Krell alphabet hidden in the photos that she had taken, and now she would offload the task of sorting through them and identifying duplicate characters to the computer. It had taken her a few hours, the heat and humidity taking their tole on her. She was drenched from head to toe in sweat, her hair sticking to her face and her sparse clothing clinging to her body. She had foregone shoes and socks, they just weren't worth the discomfort, electing to go barefoot on the damp wood as she worked.
She stood, stretching her arms above her head, and began to walk around the circumference of the room again as she admired the artistry of the carvings. The reliefs surely held great meaning, but she would wait until the computer had deciphered the Krell alphabet before attempting to interpret them. She stood before one of the larger scenes, the engraving depicting what looked like dozens of cigar-shaped Broker craft landing in a clearing as the Krell looked on from the cover of a mangrove forest. Was it first contact, perhaps?
The wooden floor beneath her shook as Sleethe approached. He had been sleeping in one of the pits for a good while, not too interested in helping with field work, and it seemed that he had woken up.
She ignored him, keeping her eyes on the wall as he sidled up behind her, his dancing shadow cast by the flickering flames of the torches. He bumped up against her, she could feel the firm bunches of his abdominal muscles through his soft underbelly pressing against the back of her head. At a little over five feet tall, Lena scarcely reached his chest.
He blew warm breath in her hair, his snout coming down to nuzzle as he took in her scent. Lena's heart began to race as his large, rough hands slid across her belly and thighs, his many fingers pressing into her supple flesh as the humidity and her perspiration made his contact wonderfully slippery. His dull claws dragged across her milky skin, the firelight making it glisten, Sleethe huffing in her ear like a bull as she felt the heat of his erection press against her rear.
“Sleethe,” she whined, gasping as his hand roamed beneath her stained tank top and cupped one of her breasts. His fingers sank deep into her meat, his hand so large that it encompassed her boob entirely, a pang of pleasure shooting up her spine as she leaned back against the wall of muscle and scales. “Here? What if someone sees us? What if the elder comes back?”
His answer was another cruel squeeze, Lena's knees going weak as he mauled her breast. She couldn't refuse him at this point, there was a wetness spreading beneath her shorts, and it had nothing to do with the humidity. He was so brutish, when he wanted something he became completely single-minded, and yet despite his size and strength he always treated her like a china doll. He was so gentle, so considerate. Yet she felt that sexual energy that he exuded all the same, that animal lust, a desire to throw her to the floor and make her his own that was lurking just beneath the surface.
He seemed to be enjoying the texture of her slick skin, his hands exploring her, sliding beneath her top and the waistband of her shorts as he tested the firmness of her ass and clawed at her thighs. Lena tried to stay in shape as much as her schedule allowed, but the sedentary lifestyle that office work required of her had left her a little doughy. Sleethe didn't mind, in fact he rather enjoyed it, Lena bucking and writhing in his arms as he toyed with her.
His member was growing, she could feel it through her shorts, digging into her cheeks. She slipped a hand behind her back, glancing the thick shaft with her slim fingers and feeling a tremor pass through him. He might weigh as much as a small truck, but he was still a man, with male weaknesses. She slid her digits along his length, his size never ceasing to amaze her. She couldn't see it, but the image of his alien penis was burned into her mind like a brand. His organ was azure blue in color, with a smooth shaft that was as long and as thick as her forearm, the glans flared and shaped like a shovel for scooping out the sperm of rival males during their breeding frenzies. Her mouth was watering just thinking about it, the memory of fullness, of that satisfying ache making her head spin.
Sleethe slid his member up her spine, making her shiver as it slipped beneath her tank top, the wide tip pressing between her shoulder blades as he frotted against her. It was hot against her skin, the cold-blooded reptile mustering what warmth his body could provide and pumping it into his organ along with his blood.
His impossibly long tongue snaked from between his crocodilian jaws, like damp velvet as he licked her neck and ear, his thick saliva leaking down her shoulder. He tasted the salt on her skin, breathed in her scent, as if preparing to dine on some fine delicacy.
Something about the heat and humidity was clouding her mind, making her hotter and more eager than she had felt in a while. It was as if the frustration of being damp and filthy was adding to her arousal. His wet leather scent was invading her senses, making her yearn for more. This was the first time that they had been alone for a good few days, not since they had last fooled around in her office. It had been even longer since they had gotten an opportunity to make love.
Sleethe was so big and their sex was so messy, that finding a secluded spot to do the deed and then cleaning up after him was quite an ordeal. The UNN had made Krell-sized condoms and had distributed them in an effort to curb their population shortly after the breeding incident that had rocked the station. While that might contain his...emissions, Lena feared that the condom might expand inside her like a balloon and injure her. He produced so much of it that it was safer to just...let it flow, so to speak. That might be acceptable in her apartment, more specifically the shower cubicle, but it caused problems elsewhere.
Sleethe hooked his thumbs around the waistbands of her shorts and panties, dragging them down around her knees in one smooth motion, Lena mewling softly as he exposed her. He slid a finger between her thighs, sparks of pleasure dancing through her body as he dragged his digit between her labia, pulling away with a fat strand of her excitement clinging to his claw as if intending to show her how aroused she was.
Lena was awash in tingling euphoria, she felt feverish, her cheeks as red as they had ever been. He gripped her hips with his hands, large enough to wrap around her lower body, his claws meeting across her belly as they sank into her flesh. She reached behind her, her hands gripping his rough scales with a kind of desperation wherever they could find purchase, as if she was holding on to him for dear life.
Surely he wouldn't take her here, up against the wall? Would that be disrespectful to their culture? Wasn't this some kind of holy place for the Krell?
She stifled a gasp as he repositioned himself, thrusting his hips and pushing his thick organ between her legs, eased along by the pervasive damp that hung in the air. She clamped down on him reflexively, squeezing his impressive girth between the soft cushion of her thighs, his flared member emerging like a bright blue strap-on. His smooth shaft pressed against her loins, and she couldn't help but grind against it, her body seeking out what stimulation it could glean as if it was running on autopilot.
He was throbbing, she could feel his erection beating between her legs, his powerful heart making it jump and flex with every pulse of warm blood that rushed through it. It was hard and rigid, but less so than a human penis. It had more in common with rubber or silicone, maintaining its firmness but bending and flexing when enough pressure was applied. That was just as well, or sex might not have been possible for them, it was only due to that flexibility that he didn't injure her.
Lena caught herself gazing down at it, her eyes playing across its length, his rounded shaft completely flush and devoid of any visible veins or imperfections. The business end was as large as her clenched fist, and it was already dripping a strand of his excitement, Lena's eyelids drooping at the sight.
Sleethe kept one hand on her hip, the other crawling slowly up her torso, pulling up her tank top and letting her breasts fall free. They bounced gently as they settled, her Krell lover peering over her shoulder as he watched them, his yellow eyes drinking in her figure. He engulfed one of her breasts in his palm, kneading it softly, and Lena watched with bated breath as his blue tongue snaked out of his mouth and made for the second.
Her legs turned to jelly as his slippery organ curled around her boob, strong and flexible, squeezing and licking. His slimy flesh found her engorged nipple, the tapered tip circling it as he teased her. She realized that she was standing on her toes, her weight supported effortlessly in his strong arms, his azure member firm enough that it was practically lifting her off the floor.
She moaned as he rubbed his shaft against her vulva, her juices wetting its already moist surface as it pressed against her loins. She felt so hypersensitive, like her nervous system had been kicked into overdrive. Even the sensation of his manhood pressing against her inner thighs was enough to make her seethe with a lust that threatened to overcome her faculties and reduce her to a drooling beast.
Her body was so slippery, beads of sweat and moisture clinging to her skin in the soupy atmosphere, sparkling like diamonds as they reflected the light of the fires. Sleethe loosed a low, powerful rumble that resonated inside her, a mating call that shook her bones. She rocked her head back, her mouth open in a silent cry as the oscillations tickled her senses, the vibrations that he produced powerful enough to stimulate her without him even needing to touch her. It was like he had thrust a vibrator inside her, as if she was sitting atop a washing machine, the walls of her passage trembling in resonance with the sonic blast.
“P-People will hear,” she stammered, “you're being too loud...”
He rumbled affectionately, Lena's thighs trembling around his shaft as his call caressed her insides. It was as if invisible fingers were stroking her, phantom tongues probing her passage and gliding against her depths. He didn't care if anyone heard them, he was wanton, shameless.
She yelped as he picked her up in his arms, lifting her clear off the floor. He wrapped one arm around her belly and hugged her close, his scaly bicep bulging beneath her hands as she gripped it. It felt like steel suspension cables wrapped in leather, impossibly firm. His other arm supported her weight from below, leaving Lena in a sitting position two feet off the ground, her back resting against the hard slabs of his pectoral muscles.
His blue tongue slid out of his mouth, its warm, slimy surface glancing her burning cheek. Without lips, Sleethe couldn't kiss her the way that a human could. There were no gentle pecks, no restrained embraces. She felt butterflies in her stomach, knowing what was coming, a strand of saliva falling from his open jaws to land in her hair as his organ wormed its way towards her.
It parted her lips, its immense length sliding inside her mouth, the metallic taste of his saliva pricking her taste buds. His fleshy organ licked her inner cheeks, tickling her palate and coiling around her tongue as she put up an impotent resistance. He had such fine control over it, drawing shapes with its pointed tip, his viscous drool escaping the corners of her mouth as he roiled. It was a French kiss so deep and lurid that it made her head spin, bright stars dancing before her eyes as he piled more of his length into her mouth.
No, this wasn't a kiss, it was a bawdy sex act. His slippery tongue pushed deeper into her throat as she rubbed her damp thighs together, her toes curling as her feet dangled in the air. It was coated in a layer of his drool, viscous and syrupy as it hung from her chin in strings and dripped down onto her breasts, only adding to the sweat and damp that already sullied her pale skin.
She felt him lick the back of her throat, slow and heavy, a clear foot of his smooth tongue now bulging her cheeks as it struggled for space. It felt as if someone had soaked a length of satin in personal lubricant and was pushing it into her mouth. She gagged a little as the tip of his organ slid into her esophagus, her throat muscles closing around it as her body rejected the invasion.
Lena suppressed the impulse, tears welling in her eyes as she swallowed a mouthful of his slaver around the obstruction, enduring the discomfort. Like everything with Sleethe, his kisses were overwhelming and exaggerated. He was just a little too big, a little too heavy, a little too strong. His tongue was a little too long to kiss her, his manhood was a bit too large to be comfortable, and that fact filled her with a burning need the likes of which she had never experienced before meeting him.
He could break her, he could choke her, he could rip her asunder with his member and leave her ruined on the ground. But he wouldn't. He had learned her limits, he knew her body like the back of his hand, both inside and out. He knew exactly how deep he could thrust, and how long he could deprive her of oxygen with his salacious embrace. He had made it his mission in life. Despite his power and his imposing stature, despite all of the excitement that it brought, she felt completely safe in his arms.
Sensing that his warm-blooded lover was running out of air, Sleethe pulled back, pausing to tease her with a flurry of licks and strokes before withdrawing from her mouth. Lena rolled her head back, her eyes following the blue organ as it slid out of her. It just kept coming and coming. Finally she watched the tip disappear between his jagged teeth, like a fat strand of spaghetti, the sagging web of stringy saliva that joined it to her lips collapsing onto her face and sloughing down her chest. Gravity directed the mess between her boobs, globs of it rolling down her belly before it was stopped by his scaly arm. She couldn't help but run her fingers through the gunk, it had the consistency of honey.
Lena was giddy, so excited that she was trembling like a leaf, her loins drooling as he held her aloft. She had already been raring to go, but the obscene kiss had her burning up, she was primed and ready for him. He knew how to get her riled up, it made the next step easier...
She covered her red face with her hands, loosing an unbecoming whine as she felt the flared glans of his member press against her sex from below. He rubbed it between her labia, grazing her vulva with its wide head as he wet it with her juices. When it was sufficiently slippery, he located her entrance, Lena wincing as he began to apply pressure.
His glans was the size of her clenched fist, and while somewhat flexible, it was still big. She never really got used to it. Once they got started, the ache would slowly turn to pleasure as her body grew accustomed to its size and shape, but this first thrust was always just as intense as their first encounter. She knew that it would fit, they had done this innumerable times by now, but she still felt that pang of uncertainty as he splayed her open.
He lowered her slowly, inch by inch, Lena unable to stop herself from shivering and arching her spine as the pressure mounted. Finally there was a 'pop', Sleethe's alien organ pushing past the initial resistance and sliding inside her.
She loosed a very unladylike groan, gritting her teeth and digging her fingernails into his leathery skin as his shovel-shaped glans spread her insides apart. It hurt, that was undeniable. But like sucking on a wedge of lime after a shot of tequila, it was chased by a sweet and permeating pleasure.
Sleethe grumbled in her ear, his long snout breathing hot air in the nape of her neck as he nuzzled. If he was too big for her, then she was also too tight for him. Her muscles clamped down on him like a vice, flesh like wet velvet encompassing him as her walls tried desperately to conform to his size and shape. It was like trying to wear a latex glove that was a size too small.
He pushed deeper, lowering her onto his shaft, Lena helpless in his arms as his flared head seared her nerves with pleasure so harsh and raw that it confused her senses. She wanted both for him to go deeper and faster, and for him to slow, a dull ache permeating her lower body.
After a few inches he stopped and began to pull back, his glans digging into her tender walls and scouring them as he went. He was so large and so thick that he hit her everywhere at once due to his sheer size, a tremor passing through her body as he grazed her sweet spot. He drew back until only his glans was lodged inside her, and then pushed back into her again.
It was the faltering beginnings of a rhythm, Lena slowly acclimatizing to the cruel parody of male anatomy that was invading her, the discomfort giving way to a euphoria that made her feel drunk. Sleethe watched her intently with his yellow eyes, observing her reactions with his reptilian pupils and feeling her body respond to his touch, noting that she was starting to relax and that their coupling was growing easier.
Lena found herself pushing down in order to take him deeper. While she had little control over their pace, suspended in the air as she was, she could still roll her hips and gyrate in order to make his wide glans dig into her passage at just the right angle. With every gentle thrust he gained more ground, her loins now able to clamp down around his smooth shaft as he bounced her gently on the end of his erection. He couldn't get all the way inside her no matter how favorable the circumstances, her passage was not a foot deep, but they usually managed to find a compromise that suited them both.
The ache was all but gone now, bursts of ecstasy washing through her in wracking pulses as their speed increased, his member creating a visible bulge beneath her tummy. Her juices dribbled down the length of his cock, her beleaguered body doing its utmost to ease things along.
Sleethe's grip around her waist grew tighter, his muscles bulging, and she could hear his breathing growing deeper and less regular as they moved together. He had her pressed so tightly against his soft underside that she could feel the rows of rock hard abs under his fat layer as they flexed in time with his thrusts, his heart hammering beneath his broad chest as he grew more excited.
Their pace quickened, his slow, heavy thrusts becoming more rapid as she leaned back against his scaly torso and let him have his way with her. She felt like she was floating on a cloud, heat radiating up through her body, electrical pleasure coursing up her spine like it was a copper cable. The dull thud of his member as it hammered her from below rocked her body, her breasts and thighs rippling with every blow, the bouncing of her pert breasts drawing his attention.
Once again his blue tongue slid out of his mouth and crept down across her shoulder like some kind of fleshy snake, seeking out the nearest boob and wrapping around it like a constrictor. He squeezed, his organ agile enough that he could lick and tease her sensitive nipple at the same time, this new level of sensation making her reel.
Every time Lena thought that it couldn't get any better, it did. Each time she told herself that the pleasure could not grow any more intense, that she could not become more aroused than she already was, it happened despite her. Sleethe was getting close now, she could feel it in the way that his member pulsed and flexed inside her, pressing so tightly against the walls of her tunnel that she could sense every throb of blood that passed through it. It was like a living thing in its own right, beating like a second heart.
He circled her nipple with the tip of his tongue, his saliva mingling with her sweat, the combined sensations making her buck and writhe as he impaled her from below. She was teetering on the edge of an orgasm so powerful that it almost scared her. She wanted to reach around his thick arm and slip a finger between her thighs, to rub herself to completion as he fucked her senseless. She would wait for Sleethe to finish first however, she needed to feel his warm seed flood through her, for him to fill her with his thick emission as he always did. The thought of having his come on her, inside her...it filled her with a kind of debauched glee that she wouldn't have dared admit to anyone.
She didn't know how they were going to clean up the mess, but she was too far gone to care now.
Sleethe shivered, his member surging inside her, and with scarcely a moment of warning he exploded in the reaches of her passage. Lena's eyes rolled back into her head as his ejaculate welled inside her like hot magma, thick and sticky, with the consistency of jelly. It felt like someone was pumping her full of warm preserves, the sensation of fullness as he filled her to capacity driving her over the edge.
Lena joined him in his climax, her loins contracting and squeezing as the tremors of her orgasm ripped through her, only encouraging more of Sleeth's come from his body as her muscles massaged and wrung him violently. The Krell was designed to inseminate a woman many times Lena's size and weight, his copious emission as exaggerated as the rest of him, and she felt the hot fluid begin to seep from between her trembling thighs as it ran out of room. Every new wad of ejaculate that splashed against her sensitive walls forced more of it out of her, the wet splat as the heavy globs fell to the floor beneath them audible even over her own labored breathing.
She pushed her balled fist into her mouth to stifle a pained cry, sinking her teeth into her own skin as she bit down, her body reduced to a quivering wreck as wave after wave of her orgasm tore into her. Each throb of nigh unbearable sensation was just as acute and as powerful as the last, her skin shining with sweat as she danced in Sleethe's grasp, her mind clouded by a fog of bestial lust.
It felt like it would never end. The two lovers were locked together, every thrust and shiver that passed through one of them felt by the other. It created a devilish feedback loop, Lena's loins so sensitive that even a small movement from the monstrous erection that was still buried inside her would send another aftershock coursing through her exhausted body. Time lost all meaning, her consciousness seeming to recede until all that was left was the moment, heat and searing pleasure her only experience.
Finally she clawed her way back to awareness, finding herself face down on the wooden floor, her shorts and panties still down around her ankles. She reached a hand between her thighs, her fingers meeting a mass of warm, clinging Krell semen that was still leaking from her swollen lips. Clumps of his come were sticking to her inner thighs and her belly, fat strands of it dangling from her splayed loins, that sensation of fullness still lingering. She shivered and moaned into the floor as she accidentally brushed her clitoris beneath the jellied mass, sending an aftershock tearing through her nervous system. She couldn't stop herself from grinning. She must look ridiculous, wallowing in a spreading pool of her alien lover's ejaculate as she smirked like an idiot.
She heard an affectionate rumble, turning her head to see Sleethe lounging beside her. He must have set her down at some point, she couldn't remember. It was like trying to recall the events of the prior evening after getting black-out drunk.
She struggled into a sitting position, her legs shaky and unsteady. Fucked so hard that she couldn't stand...how becoming of a professional woman. Fortunately the wooden floorboards that made up the temple were uneven, leaving large gaps between them in places, and most of the goop was draining away to fall into the mud some distance below.
Sleethe leaned over and licked her face with his long tongue, his equivalent of a peck on the cheek. She giggled, pushing him away as she wallowed in her afterglow.
“You're a dork.”
CHAPTER 5: LENA THE INTREPID
Lena knelt and placed the weather balloon on the surface of the mud. It was a blocky device about the size of a lunchbox, serial numbers and logos decorating its white casing. She pressed an activation switch on the top and watched it unfold, taking a step back as it whirred to life, its protective shell opening up and expanding into an octagonal dish to reveal the probe within. It was as much a drone as a weather balloon, with four little rotors that were currently folded up in order to keep them safe. The body of the drone contained all of the sensory equipment that would need take atmospheric and meteorological readings. Once she turned it on, a latex balloon would fill with helium, sending it high into the planet's atmosphere where it would float until it had collected all of the data that it needed. When its task was complete, it would disconnect from the balloon and fall back to the ground, using its limited supply of electricity to power its rotors and navigate back to this landing pad.
Because there were no satellites in orbit above Krell that were under human control, and because there were no receiving stations on the ground, the little drone would have to physically return with its payload. A tether would have been another possible option, but nobody knew what the winds in the upper atmosphere were like on this planet, and there was a good chance that the cable would snap and that the balloon would be lost before it transmitted any useful information back down to the ground. While the air would be too thin for its rotors to function at the altitude that such weather balloons operated, the little drone could simply fall until it encountered more favorable conditions.
She would have to return to the octagonal landing pad once a day to make sure that it was clean, the drone wouldn't be able to find its way back if it got covered in mud.
Sleethe watched curiously as the white balloon inflated, the probe slowly rising into the air until it vanished from view inside the sickly, green haze that blanketed the planet. If all went according to plan, in three or four days she would return to find the drone sitting upon the landing pad, ready to give up all of the readings that it had taken during its visit to the stratosphere.
Lena looked back over her shoulder at the Krell village, perhaps two hundred meters behind them, the mist billowing between the many trees and stilts that acted as its supports and obscuring the mountain of huts and shacks that rested atop them. Sleethe was acting as her pack mule again today, hefting a rucksack full of supplies and equipment with ease that would have been impossible for Lena to carry through this bog. Once again she was clad in her white hazmat suit, her yellow boots sinking up to the ankles in the wet mud, and she was wearing her wide-brimmed had to protect her from the sun and rain.
The system's twin suns were on the rise, it was early in the morning and Lena was ready to get her science on after having spent the previous night in the temple with Sleethe. While the stars were dimmer and redder than Sol, they still kicked out a lot of UV radiation, so she needed to be careful about protecting her skin. She had a fair complexion and she had always burned easily. Unfortunately sunscreen was not a viable option in this muggy environment, the sweat and moisture would just wash it away, so she had to rely on her hat.
The humidity was still a nightmare, and the entire planet stank of rotting vegetation, but she would get used to it in time.
“Ok Sleethe, you ready to do some exploring?”
He huffed affirmatively, and they set off along the muddy shore of the lake.
They struggled through the twisted roots of the mangrove trees, their pale trunks curving and winding as they reached towards the sky. This patch of swampland was even denser than the one that they had traversed on their journey towards the Krell village, weeds and all manner of smaller plants growing thick and strong wherever they could take purchase. Lena spoke into her wrist computer as she went, taking notes of everything that she saw for the benefit of the biologists and botanists back at the UAS.
“The mud seems firmer near the trees, perhaps the roots act to prevent erosion of the soil. I'm noticing that other plants seem to cluster around the roots, and anything that can either grow up or cling to the trees in some way appears to be doing so. The forest floor is coated in dead leaves and decaying plant matter, it's pretty much all compost, very nutrient-rich.”
She paused by a creeper that was coiling its way around one of the exposed roots, waving Sleethe over. He was perfectly at home in this environment, not sinking even an inch into the mud on his splayed toes despite his weight. He held the pack out to her and she rummaged through its contents, retrieving a pair of forceps and a stasis chamber.
These devices were an example of the scant technology that the Brokers seemed willing to share, transparent containers about the size of a small jam jar that were equipped with a stasis field. The machinery was no larger than the lid of one such jar, situated beneath the container, and it could somehow bend space within the enclosure in order slow the passage of time. It meant that perishable items could be transported over great distances, or in this case, that specimens could be kept as fresh as the day that they were collected during their transit back to human space. These containers were rare and expensive, it had been quite a feat for the UAS to collect even a dozen of them for use during her expedition. They must have called in all of their favors and expended a great deal of resources.
Lena searched around for a moment, trying to identify the largest of the purple flowers that were blooming along the length of the creeper, and then plucked one of the plants from its stem with the forceps. She placed it carefully within the container, sealing the lid, and then watched as a colored light on the base turned from blue to orange. The Brokers seemed to use those colors instead of red and green, perhaps seeing in slightly different wavelengths to humans. It took some getting used to.
There was no visual indication that the stasis field had activated besides that, but time inside the container had now slowed to a fraction of what it should be.
It would probably be fine to place several plant specimens in the same jar, and so she could make the most out of each one.
She placed the container carefully back inside her bag, and then tapped at the touch screen on her arm, now mounted outside of her suit for ease of access. The gloves were stowed in her pockets, she couldn't interact with the monitor through them, and constantly taking them on and off was becoming a chore. She took a few photographs of where she had found the plant, and then switched on her translation software.
“What do your people call this plant, Sleethe?”
“Purple flower,” he replied.
They moved on, Lena now knee deep in the muck. She struggled through the rough terrain as tangled nets of smaller roots from the weeds and shrubs made the going even tougher. She stopped here and there to take more samples of interesting plants, doing her best to catalog where she had found them, and what kind of conditions they were growing in. There was also moss and fungi clinging to every available surface, this muggy environment was a haven for them.
Lena was no botanist, and so much of her specimen collecting was simple guesswork. If something looked unusual or different, then she'd pick it up and put it in a container. There were sure to be all kinds of critters hidden away in these forests too, and she wasn't especially looking forward to the task of catching bugs.
She climbed over a large root, landing in a patch of tall, green weeds that seemed to be growing around a pile of decaying logs. Perhaps there might be mushrooms growing on them, or maybe there were some bugs or other creatures living in the wood. She waded through the undergrowth and then crouched, extending a hand towards the wet bark.
Suddenly she was in the air, her yellow boots dangling two feet off the mud as Sleethe plucked her off the ground, holding her by the collar of her suit like he was scruffing a cat. He emitted a sound that she had never heard him make before, half way between a hiss and a growl, like an angry alligator. With his free arm he reached down and gave the log a thump, and to her shock it began to move.
What had looked to her like a felled tree was actually some kind of reptile. It almost looked like a leatherback turtle, but as long as a man was tall and shaped more like a salamander, its stubby legs emerging from the mud as it grumbled at Sleethe and pulled itself along. It had been perfectly camouflaged, its tough hide textured like bark and covered in green markings that resembled moss, its tube-like body writhing along the ground like an eel as it made its slow escape. She could make out its head now, extending from its body on a long neck like a snapping turtle, its sharp beak open wide as it peered back at them with a pair of beady eyes.
Sleethe set Lena down gently once it was out of range, and she readjusted her suit as she watched the creature slither away, cursing herself when she remembered that she was supposed to be documenting this kind of thing. She looked up at Sleethe, his calm and stoicism staying the rapid beating of her heart.
“What was that?”
“Biting log,” he replied. The naming conventions of the Krell were deflating in their simplicity.
“Was it dangerous?”
“If you don't see it.”
“Tell me if you spot another, I want to get a picture of it.”
She gave him an affectionate pat on his scaly thigh and began to move forward again, this time paying closer attention to where she was going. She tried to stay closer to Sleethe too, this was his home, he knew this environment better than she ever would. There was plenty to explore and discover within these mangrove forests, but there must be other biomes too. Was the whole planet made up of swamps and marshes, or just the places where the Krell chose to live?
Her hazmat suit was starting to feel more and more like a mistake the longer she spent inside it. While it did a fine job of protecting her from the mud, it was inflexible and hard to move around in, the plastic material only compounding her suffering in the heat and humidity. After wearing it for just a few minutes and exerting herself, the suit would begin to fill with sweat, sloshing around in her boots and soaking into her socks. It was disgusting and uncomfortable.
It was only a level C suit, levels B and A providing far more protection with their powered respirators and radiation shielded lining. While the suit that she was using did come with a hood, she had elected to leave it off. The last thing she needed was to seal herself up, her deodorant stick wasn't really cutting it out here.
“You know, I envy you Sleethe,” she grumbled as she struggled over a mass of roots. “You always smell good no matter what environment you're in.”
After walking for some time, the terrain started to change. Lena's boots began to sink deeper into the mud, and she noticed that there was a film of water over the ground, her deep footprints filling with dirty liquid a brief moment after she made them. Before long she realized that they were on the bank of a river, or what looked like the marshland that usually surrounded a river delta. This one must be feeding either from or into the large lake beside the village.
Lena's theory about the mangrove trees had been proven correct. Their tangled roots were shoring the soil beneath them, preventing the silt and mud from being carried away by the river. It wasn't very fast moving, and the surface was covered in a thick layer of weeds and debris. She felt a pang of fear as she looked out over the drifting pieces of wood and broken branches, remembering her run-in with the 'biting log'. She couldn't see beneath the surface of the water, she had no idea how deep it was or what swamp beasts might be lurking in its depths, just waiting for a careless explorer to step into their reach.
She could see more trees on the far side despite the layer of fog that hung over everything. The river wasn't specially wide but she had no idea how deep it was, and so wading across it wasn't a very good idea. Instead she decided to explore the shore, feeling along with her feet for weeds and obstructions as she struggled through the water. Sleethe followed nearby, crashing through the terrain like a monster, the vines and roots doing little to impede such a strong and heavy creature.
Movement caught her eye, and she paused to watch an insect skip along the surface of the water a short distance away. It looked like a large spider with far too many legs, the span of its spindly limbs about that of a man's hand. Its weight was spread across the surface of the river like a pond skimmer. Much like the water striders and sea skippers of Earth, it must be using the surface tension of the water and perhaps a hydrophobic coating to prevent itself from sinking.
She considered catching it, but large insects gave her the willies and so she elected to take a few photos of it instead. Perhaps she could employ Sleethe to do the bug catching for her, he seemed perfectly at home in this environment, protected by his leathery skin and thick scales. There was no chance that some creepy crawlie might find its way inside his clothing.
Lena shuddered at the thought. Fortunately she hadn't seen any Krell equivalents of mosquitoes, or she would have been off the planet faster than you could say 'I don't want to catch space malaria'.
The water was actually quite pleasant, it was colder than the humid air and it was helping to cool her down a little as she waded through it. She longed to tear off her suit and take a bath, to wash off the sweat that was caking her body, but the fear of slimy eels and other unseen horrors nipped that impulse in the bud rather quickly.
There had been a shower of sorts in the village that she had used to wash herself off after her...night of passion with Sleethe. More of a specific point on the roof of the temple where water seemed to condense in large enough quantities that there was continuous drip off the side of the building, than something that was designed for the purpose. Everything on this planet was wet, all the time, and even when it wasn't actively raining there was usually moisture dripping from every overhang and pooling in every available recess.
Still, inundating her whole body in water would be a dream right now, maybe she would ask Sleethe to take her down to the shore of the lake when they got back to the village. That area was surely safe and devoid of lurking critters. In fact she should probably make a habit of bathing in the lake once or twice a day during her stay.
Her wandering thoughts were snapped back to reality by the sensation of something slippery brushing against her leg, and she froze up, a shiver running down her spine as something shifted in the water around her feet.
“Ew! Ew! Sleethe!”
Her reptilian bodyguard was by her side in the space of a second, plunging his muscular arms beneath the water. He struggled with something for a moment, and then pulled back, withdrawing what looked like a black tube from the murky river. It was a fat eel, perhaps three feet long, its winding body coated in a layer of reflective slime as it thrashed about in his scaly hands. Lena recoiled in horror, the idea that something like that had been hiding in the mud at the bottom of the river filling her with revulsion. He held it out towards her, and she stumbled backwards, recoiling from it.
“Keep it away! Oh God, what is it?”
“Harmless,” he replied, her translator picking up his resonating speech. “Eats only fallen leaves.”
A herbivore then? It wouldn't hurt her after all. She felt a little foolish for reacting the way that she had. It was still a repulsive specimen, staring at her with a pair of beady and expressionless eyes, its mucous-covered body flexing like a length of rubber hose as it battled to free itself. Lena reluctantly held up her wrist computer and took a few snapshots of it with the camera, along with a short video, documenting the grotesque creature before Sleethe lowered his hands into the water and released it.
Her pride slightly wounded, she carried on her way, pausing to take samples of floating water plants here and there. There were beautiful lilies atop the surface of the lake, anchored to the riverbed by a thick stalk, a pale blue flower blooming between its fleshy leaves. While Lena was tempted to ask her companion what his people called them, she had a sneaking suspicion that it would be something along the lines of 'blue flower', and so she collected some specimens without comment.
“You like flower?” Sleethe asked as he handed her one of the stasis containers, watching as she carefully plucked one of the blooming plants with her forceps and placed it inside.
“I don't think there's anyone alive who doesn't like flowers,” she chuckled, “but these are just specimens to take back home with us.”
He cocked his head at her, and she realized that her sentence had been too complex for the translator to interpret accurately.
“Yes,” she reiterated, “I'm taking them home.”
That seemed to satisfy him, and she wondered where the sudden spark of interest had come from. Perhaps he would keep a lookout for native plants and point them out to her if she missed them?
Once the container was sealed and placed safely back in Sleethe's rucksack, they continued their search for alien wildlife. She was growing more confident the longer they trekked. As much as the humidity was getting to her, not to mention the smell, she was starting to get the hang of feeling her way along with her feet. The cool water was soothing too, making for a welcome reprieve, even if it was only felt through the lining of her suit. She was still baking inside the garment, stewing in her own juices, but even such minor relief was a stark contrast compared to the usually inescapable heat.
“Is this why you guys like water so much?” She grumbled, pushing her way through an especially thick patch of water weeds. “To cool yourselves down?”
Probably not, they were cold-blooded after all, but perhaps even the lethargic reptiles could get too hot in this muggy hellscape.
The suns were out in force, it was nearing midday now and she had been exploring all morning. It was odd that they were so red and dim compared to Sol, like two red rubies in the sky, their glow barely visible through the cloud layer. Yet she could feel their heat on her face when she lifted the wide brim of her hat, the UV radiation that they gave off penetrating the mist and seeking to redden her cheeks. The quality of the light told her that it was late afternoon, and yet the heat was that of a summer's day. It might have been a good planet to get a tan on, if it didn't also resemble the fevered dreams of a Cajun who was blacked out on his own moonshine. Banjos and airboats wouldn't have been out of place here.
A sudden ripple on the surface of the river drew her attention, and she spied something splashing into the water from the nearby bank. It looked like it was making its way towards her, and she tensed up as she saw its wake drawing closer, confirming her fears. It hadn't sounded very large, what could it have been? Another eel?
She resisted the urge to call to Sleethe for assistance. This was her job. If naturalists on nature shows could handle horrible snakes and wrestle with giant catfish, then so could she.
The disturbance slowed as the unseen creature dove beneath the surface, the wake that it had left slowly dissipating. Lena squeezed her eyes shut as she felt something moving between her legs, it must be investigating her. Was it dangerous? Sleethe had not leapt to her defense, and so it didn't seem likely.
Come on Lena, she thought to herself, you're going to have to get over this fear if you want to be taken seriously. You're not in Munich anymore, you're not on the Pinwheel, you're doing real field work and everyone back home is counting on you. Sleethe can do it, Sousa could do it, even that asshole Dubois could do it. If they can, then why not you?
A fresh determination welled up inside her and she hastily pulled on her yellow gloves, reaching beneath the murky surface of the lake, careful to keep her face out of the water. It was completely opaque, so full of mud and weeds that she couldn't see anything, her only option was to feel her way around. Her questing fingers tangled on the roots and stalks of the water weeds, like a thin mesh of plant fiber that anchored them to the mud below.
She pushed through her squeamishness, gripping what felt like a muscular tube as it wriggled in an attempt to break free. Sleethe was standing beside her now, watching curiously as she wrestled with whatever it was, the alien animal stronger than she had anticipated.
“Come on you...” Lena hissed through gritted teeth, feeling her way around the creature's body. She wasn't sure what she had caught, but it wasn't an eel and it didn't feel like a fish. It was heavy, struggling against her as she strained to drag it to the surface.
She was doing it! The disgust and fear was evaporating, replaced with an odd kind of exhilaration. What would her colleagues say if they could see her now, waist deep in a muddy river, wrestling with an alien monster?
There was a splash as she succeeded in pulling the thrashing creature from the water, its stumpy tail waving back and forth as it powered its stubby limbs. It was an amphibian the size of a dog, with a fat body and a large head, its slimy skin patterned with orange and brown camouflage markings. It looked almost like an otter, but it was clearly some kind of newt or salamander, its bumpy hide covered in mucous with the consistency of snot.
“Ha! I got him! Grab him Sleethe, I want to take some pictures.”
She heaved the frightened creature into the arms of her Krell companion, who lifted it easily, holding it by the torso as it attempted to swim in the air.
She lifted her wrist computer and began to talk into it, making notes of what she saw as she took snapshots, trying to document the beast as best she could. It was way too large to fit into a stasis container.
“Its skin is orange and warty like that of a toad, covered in raised bumps and some kind of slimy secretion. It's big, probably rivals a Japanese salamander in size, but its body appears thicker and rounder. It almost looks like a turtle in that respect. It has four short legs with stubby toes. The tail is pretty short and oar-like, no fins or flukes visible. There are flaps of dorsal skin running along its body that look like they might aid with respiration maybe. Sleethe, crouch down a little, I'm gonna get a test tube from the bag.”
She struggled through the mud to get behind him, rummaging through one of the pockets of the rucksack and retrieving a transparent test tube. She popped the plastic cap and dragged the tube across the creature's exposed belly, trying to collect as much of its mucous as she could.
She sealed the cap, then nodded for Sleethe to release it. Once free, the creature darted away, knowing now that this white and yellow intruder was not some new prey item. Lena's hands were shaking and she was a little out of breath, but she felt elated. She had overcome her fear in the aid of science. What was it that her father had always told her?
'Do one thing every day that scares you.'
They followed the river, the water moving too slowly to gauge whether they were going up or downstream. Lena made good progress, identifying perhaps a dozen new species along the way and taking samples of plants. She even had Sleethe catch a small fish, filling a stasis container with river water before placing the fish inside it. Once it got back to a UAS lab, they would deactivate the field and it would spring back to life, as if it had been plucked from its habitat only moments before.
She was starting to get very tired however. Even if she had been in shape, and she wasn't, wading through the weeds and deep mud would have been exhausting. She found one of the sturdy roots that the mangroves used to anchor themselves to the soil, and draped herself over it, taking a breather.
“Boy, this terrain is really limiting our range,” she grumbled. “I wish we had a ship, or a boat.”
“Boat?” Sleethe asked.
“You know what a boat is, it floats along the water and you sit on it.”
“Sit on boat.”
She wasn't sure if he was trying to understand, or if he was just repeating what she was saying to him. What the translation algorithm actually did with the words and phrases that she fed it was somewhat of a mystery, because in order to read back the resulting translation, it would again have to be translated from Krell to English again. What resulted was usually incomprehensible nonsense.
“Sit on me.”
Lena turned her head to see Sleethe pushing himself out into the river, lying flat like a crocodile. Despite his weight, he floated easily, his long body extended to its full sixteen feet. His oar-like tail waved back and forth slowly, keeping him steady in the current. They must be moving upstream after all.
“You want me to...ride you? Well I guess you're big enough...”
The more she thought about it, the better the idea seemed. She had been denied a vehicle by the Brokers, they obviously wanted to limit her range to how far she could walk in this mire. But Sleethe was fast in the water, he was arguably more at home in a river than on land, and he was more than large enough for her to sit on his back. This entire planet was a patchwork of waterways, lakes and deltas. Rivers and streams were as prevalent as roads here.
“Alright big guy...let's give it a go.”
She waded closer to him, he was floating a few meters away, obviously having to move further towards the middle of the river so that the water was deep enough to accommodate him. Lena made it up to her chest, and then realized that she couldn't get any closer without flooding her suit and sinking. She couldn't swim in the hazmat suit, it was too confining, too inflexible.
Noticing her difficulties, Sleethe moved closer, pulling himself along the muddy riverbed with his arms and legs as he entered the shallow water near the bank. He got within arm's reach of her, and she gripped the raised spines on his back as she tried to pull herself up. While his underbelly was smooth, his back was heavily armored, covered in a layer of thick scales and horny scutes. His scales overlapped one another like medieval armor, and while outwardly similar to reptilian scales, scutes were more akin to what one mind find on a tortoise's shell. Scales were made of keratin, but scutes were formed from a layer of horn or bone that was then overlaid with skin. This line of dermal armor began at the top of his skull, and ended about half way down his tail, where they faded into scales.
They provided her with a lot of purchase, and with Sleethe sinking a little in the water to help her, she was able to clamber up onto his back. He was so large that she was unable to straddle him, and so she elected to sit cross-legged, which was a difficult feat in the restrictive suit. She gripped the rucksack that was still slung across his back for more purchase, realizing that he was actually remarkably stable. She didn't feel like she was going to topple into the water.
She grinned, the novelty of the situation overcoming her professional composure. When she had been a little girl, she had begged her parents to buy her a pony, as many children do. Her father had declined, stating that their Munich apartment was too small to house a pony, and that such creatures belonged out in the country and not in the bustling city. After her tantrum had subsided, he had dried her tears and he had promised that he would take her horse riding after the school year was over, provided that her grades didn't slip.
Little Lena had worked hard, topping her class, much to the obvious chagrin of her father who was then forced to either fulfill his promise or face her fury. Riding that fat little pony while the instructor led it around its pen was one of the fondest memories of her youth. It was not simply that she had gotten her way and that she had been able to ride the horses, but that she had earned it. It was one of the defining moments of her life, something that had shaped her character and personality from then on, teaching her that truly striving for something made it all the sweeter. While many of her childhood friends had been content to settle, using their wiles to land husbands who cared for them like children, Lena had fought to become the most prominent linguist in her field.
And now here she was, riding a Krell up an alien river, as much a result of her hard work and effort as that pony ride had been.
She patted his back, and he began to swim, heading away from the bank and into the deeper water as his long tail powered him forward. She could feel his long spine winding back and forth beneath her, his arms and legs tucked against his sides to make him more streamlined as his muscular body cut through the water. He was almost indistinguishable from a large crocodile or an alligator at this angle, his nostrils emerging from beneath the dark water for air. It was only really the breadth of his shoulders that gave him away as a biped.
He was surprisingly fast, the mangrove trees to either side of them passing by quickly. Lena figured that they were probably going fifteen or perhaps twenty miles per hour. She was sure that Sleethe could go even faster were she not perched upon his back, but he would have to pace himself to give her a smooth ride.
After a while they found the mouth of the river, and it looked to Lena to be flowing from the same lake that bordered the Krell settlement. They had traveled West from the village and they seemed to have gone in a big curve, eventually ending up traveling North and into the lake. Home would be a short trip to the East, they could probably get there in record time this way.
“Let's go out onto the lake, Sleethe. Just don't drop me, I can't swim in this suit.”
They left the mangroves behind them, heading out over the open water, Sleethe scarcely making a ripple on the surface as he swam. He was like a giant, scaly torpedo. Before long she could no longer see the shoreline, the rolling mist obscuring it, and it made her a little alarmed. If she had been out here alone on some rickety boat, she wouldn't have known which direction led back to dry land. It was like being in the middle of the ocean.
She wondered how large and deep the lake was. If she had ridden a UNN dropship down to the surface rather than a Broker vessel, she might have been able to see it out of one of the portholes. She imagined what monstrous fish and amphibians might be living in its depths, and whether the Krell were truly the biggest and meanest things on the planet.
Lena couldn't imagine anything tougher and more aggressive than a Borealan, but she had been shocked to learn that they were not the largest, nor the most dangerous creatures on their home planet. Perhaps the same was true here.
“Oh! Hang on Sleethe, I have a thing for this.”
He slowed, floating along the surface, remarkably buoyant as she rummaged through the pack. She had to be careful not to drop any of her tools, or they would sink into the depths and the UAS would chew her out for damaging their expensive toys.
She found what she was looking for, a portable sonar device. It was about the size and shape of a baseball, made from yellow plastic and attached to a coiled cable. It sent pulses below the water, allowing her to map the bottom of the lake, and to detect any large fish. It wasn't too different from what fishermen sometimes used, and it could sync wirelessly to her wrist-mounted computer in order to display its findings.
She turned it on and then tapped at her touch screen, a graphical user interface popping up that showed her a height map, currently blank. She uncoiled some of the line and dropped it into the murky water beside Sleethe, watching it sink out of view. She fed it more of the cable, until she felt that it was at a suitable depth, and then activated the sonar.
Sleethe twisted his head, peering beneath the water as the device sent out a sound pulse.
“It's ok big guy, it's just sonar. You can hear that, huh?”
Much of Krell communication seemed to happen underwater. While Lena's original assumption was that part of their language was geared towards underwater communication and was thus practically inaccessible to humans, she was starting to have her doubts. She had gleaned enough of a lexicon from Sleethe to hold conversations, and so there was nothing that was obviously missing. Perhaps they had two parallel languages, one for use on land and one for in water? It would require further study.
Hoping that the sonar device wasn't bothering the Krell elsewhere in the lake, she let it run for a while, retrieving a cereal bar from one of the pockets on the rucksack and munching on it as they drifted.
“So what do you eat, Sleethe?”
“Eat?” He rumbled, raising his snout from the water so that she could hear him more clearly.
“Yes. I've never seen you eat, not once in the time that I've known you.”
“Eat happens not often. Lena eats all day, Krell eats few times a season.”
Then it was as she had guessed. Much like the large reptiles of Earth, the Krell would likely consume a smaller number of very large meals over the course of months and years, living on their reserves in the interim. Being ectotherms, cold-blooded animals that regulated their heat using their environment, they saved an enormous quantity of energy when compared to ravenous mammals like humans who generated their own.
“I don't eat all day,” she complained, “I eat three meals per day. That's normal for a human!”
She was distracted by a beeping sound, her computer indicating that the sonar probe had finished mapping the bottom of the lake. She turned her attention to the screen on her wrist and watched as the probe displayed a heightmap, projecting a three-dimensional hologram. The lake was deep, but it was no record setter, as the lowest points seemed to be around two hundred feet.
The lake bottom was irregular, full of peaks and valleys that displayed in different colors in order to illustrate their respective heights. The peaks were blue, while the valleys were red. There were a few anomalous shapes too, no doubt fish or sunken logs, some of them quite large.
The thought of such huge lake creatures and fish swimming beneath her yellow boots made her shiver, some of the shapeless blobs were the size of Great Whites and Basking Sharks. There were surely shoals of smaller animals too, but the resolution on the sonar wasn't that good, it wouldn't be able to pick up anything smaller than a car.
Something caught her eye, angular and artificial, out of place.
“What the hell...”
She gestured with her fingers, zooming in on the object as close as the limited resolution would allow. There was a structure built into a ledge maybe seventy feet down, blocky, angular and distinctly synthetic. It looked like a base of some kind, with half a dozen square sections connected by what looked like pipes. It was large, and while the sonar heightmap was blurry and grainy, Lena felt confident in her assessment. Could it be of Krell origin? Surely they didn't have the technology to build something like that?
“Sleethe,” Lena said, patting him on the back. He craned his neck to peer back over his shoulder at her with one yellow eye, and she showed him the hologram. “Do you know what this is?”
“Benefactors,” he replied.
“The Brokers made this? You knew it was there?”
He nodded affirmatively. It annoyed her to be kept out of the loop, but then again she hadn't asked him if there had been any secret Broker bases hidden in the vicinity. What was that structure doing there, and how many other Broker relics and installations might be scattered around the planet, the native Krell failing to understand their significance and seeing them as little more than curiosities?
“I want to know about the Brokers,” she insisted, “tell me if you know of anything else like this. Ok?”
“Secrets?” Sleethe asked.
“Yeah, secrets. Tell me about secrets.”
“Forbidden,” he replied, the translator struggling to parse the word. “Krell not go there.”
“What? Why not? Who told you it was forbidden to go there, the elders?”
“This is 'your' planet Sleethe, not theirs. What right do they have to tell you where you can and can't go?”
The Krell were a simple people, with little understanding of technology and galactic politics. Not only that, but they were not a very curious race either. The Borealans had rapidly adopted human technology when first contact had been made, modernizing at a breakneck pace and trying to get their paws on any offworld tech that they could buy or trade. They had a rudimentary spaceship fleet now, their powder rifles had largely been replaced with railguns, and they were even starting to travel into human space in an effort to learn and explore. They sought standing and respect amongst the galactic community, wanting to be seen as competitive and cosmopolitan.
Not so with the Krell. Since coming into contact with both the Brokers and humanity, the Krell apparently hadn't deemed it necessary to improve their level of technology one iota. They still lived in wooden huts, they didn't have any industry, and they seemed completely indifferent when presented with the opportunity to improve their quality of life.
They weren't stupid, Lena knew that from experience. Krell linebreakers were able to operate advanced weaponry just as well as any human or Borealan. They made formidable soldiers, having a good grasp of battlefield tactics and being able to follow any order that was properly communicated to them. They could learn to play pool and card games, much to the delight of the Marines, and she had even seen one smoking a cigar once.
Was it the wisdom of a noble savage, or was there some method to their madness?
The Brokers seemed somewhat reluctant to share their technology, perhaps wary of losing their leading edge, but the UNN had no such qualms. Having their allies be well equipped and up to date benefited everyone in the Coalition, and there had been little consideration paid to how such an influx of advanced tech might impact the social development of more primitive alien species.
Give them better guns and point them at the enemy, that had been the logic at the time. But despite her qualms, Lena had to admit that there had been no serious repercussions so far. There were concerns that Elysia, the most powerful nation on Borealis and one with close ties to the UNN, was being given an unfair advantage over its neighboring territories. It was too soon to predict how the local politics of the planet would play out in the long term, but it had not resulted in any grave destruction of culture or loss of identity as some anthropologists had predicted.
The Krell on the other hand didn't care about any of that. They didn't want better building materials, medicine, or computers. They didn't seem to care about their place in the galaxy. It was something that Lena couldn't get her head around. As a scientist it was her purpose in life to explore and to understand.
She examined her display again, wondering if there was any way to reach the sunken Broker installation. What would she find inside? How long had it been there, and what was its purpose?
Oh well, she couldn't do anything about it right now, and she was starting to get hungry. Best return to the shore.
“Let's get back to the village, Sleethe.”
The giant reptile turned about, heading back the way that they had come with powerful strokes of his muscular tail as Lena reeled in her sonar probe.
CHAPTER 6: REST AND CONJUGATION
“Oh, my muscles are burning,” Lena complained as she sat on the muddy shore and rubbed her legs through her suit. Her thighs and calves were on fire, the stress of struggling through miles of bog in an unusual and unwieldy gait had taken its toll. The pain had taken some time to hit her, but now she felt like she had run a triathlon. She had done more exercise that morning than she had done in the last six months combined.
“I hope you like girls with strong legs Sleethe, because by the time we get back to the Pinwheel I'm going to be able to squat you.”
Her reptilian companion lumbered out of the lake, the dark water sloughing off his scaly shoulders as he made his way onto moderately dryer land. There were a few natives milling about nearby, one of whom was floating just off the shore, his pale belly turned towards the suns as he drifted lazily. The stranger opened one yellow eye to watch them for a moment, before losing interest and closing it again.
At their apex Lena could really feel the heat coming off the system's binary stars, despite how gloomy the sky was and how dim they were. She kept expecting to look up and see a blinding, yellow ball, but all that she could make out were sickly clouds and two faint points of red light that just barely shone through them. The disconnect was messing with her head.
“This suit is killing me,” she complained, making a futile attempt to loosen the collar as Sleethe came to a stop beside her. She reached down and tugged off one of her yellow boots, so caked in mud that the brightly colored rubber was scarcely visible. She upended it, watching in disgust as what must have been close to a pint of sweat poured out of it, grimacing as she flexed her toes inside her sodden sock.
“Alright, this...this isn't working.”
She tugged off her other boot and did the same, then struggled to remove her socks, the damp fabric clinging to her skin. Fortunately she couldn't smell herself over the pungent stink of the surrounding swamps, but it couldn't have been pleasant.
“New plan Sleethe, I'm taking a bath.”
She stood, wincing as her thighs burned, and unzipped her hazmat suit. She slid her arms out of the sleeves and pulled it down around her waist, transferring her wrist-mounted computer from the outside of the suit to her bare forearm. She danced on the spot in an effort to escape the clinging plastic, made all the more difficult by her feet sinking into the mud, until finally she succeeded in freeing herself. She let the restrictive garment fall to the ground, stretching her arms above her head, now clad only in her high cut shorts and her sweat-stained tank top. It was liberating, she could feel the soft mud between her toes, pleasantly cool against her skin after her feet had been jammed into those rubber boots all day. Her shorts and top hadn't fared much better than her socks, but she wasn't ready to go full nudist just yet. These aliens might have no concept of nakedness or modesty, but she had a litany of human hangups and she intended to adhere to them.
Lena made her way back towards the lake, Sleethe pausing for a moment before following behind her, probably wondering what she was doing. Her feet were sinking up to the shin in the damp soil, and it was sticking to her legs in clumps, but without the hazmat suit she was much more nimble. It didn't make walking easy, but it was a hell of a lot less tiring this way.
Why had she been so squeamish about the mud? So what if it got on her skin, or her clothes? She could wash it off, there was water everywhere on this planet, she was never more than a hundred meters from a lake or a river. Who cared if there were creepy crawlies in the mud, or slimy fish in the water? She had wrestled a giant salamander, tangled with eels and spiders, they didn't pose any real danger to her. Her trek through the mangrove swamps had almost been a form of exposure therapy.
She stopped at the water's edge, dipping a tentative toe into the murky liquid, hesitating for a moment before taking the plunge as she remembered the giant blips on her sonar. They wouldn't hurt her, nothing of that size could swim in the shallows and Sleethe was always nearby, ready to pounce on anything that threatened her safety with his inhuman strength and speed.
As she stepped into the lake, the dirt that caked her feet melted away, turning into a dark cloud that soon dissipated and vanished. The water was cool and soothing, contrasting with the hot air, and Lena wasted no time wading up to her waist. She let the water soak into her shorts, feeling the gentle current wash away the sweat and grime, leaving her feeling renewed. She proceeded a little deeper, her breasts floating on the surface of the lake as they bobbed beneath her loose top. She ran a hand across her belly and under her arms. This was the closest thing to a bath that she had gotten since leaving the Pinwheel. There was some body wash and shampoo in her bag back at the temple. Trying to get clean might be futile if she had to then walk through mud to get back to the village, but at least it would feel good.
She waded deep enough that her toes left the muddy lake bottom, and she took a deep breath, letting herself float on the surface. The wrist-mounted computer weighed her down, but not enough to make her sink. While the risk of getting alien microbes in her ears when she dunked her head was certainly a concern, she had immuno-boosting medicine that she could take if it became necessary. She lay back, letting the cool water flow through her hair, her golden locks spreading into a straw-colored cloud around her head. She had cut it short prior to her expedition, but there was still a fair amount of it. It might have been more practical to shave it even shorter, but Sleethe liked it long. He played with it, combed it with his claws, smelled it. Krell didn't have hair, and it seemed to fascinate them.
Feeling a displacement in the water beside her, Lena opened her eyes and turned her head to see Sleethe's green snout peering back at her. He was floating alongside her, his massive body like a small island on the calm water. He had shed his pack near her hazmat suit and had elected to join her.
“You know, I'm starting to think there's something to floating around in water all day,” she said. Sleethe repositioned himself, remarkably stealthy, his massive form barely disturbing the water. Being sixteen feet long from nose to tail, the best that he could do was keep his head level with her, his skull alone was nearly as long as she was tall.
This planet was quite peaceful, despite being an eyesore and being covered in mud and mist. She watched the green clouds roll across the sky, like a puffy blanket in shades of apple and honeydew, the low light tricking her senses into thinking that the sun was setting despite the system's stars being at their highest point.
Did these clouds ever clear? Could the Krell even see the night sky? It might go some way towards explaining their lack of interest in exploration.
She could almost tolerate the muggy heat of the atmosphere with so much of her body submerged in the comparatively cool lake. While murky and dark, the water was clearer than the river had been. There was less floating scum, and the depth meant that whatever weeds and plants must inhabit the water were deep beneath the surface.
“So is this what you do all day, Sleethe? Float around in the water and bask in the sun? That's why you like your heat lamps and the Olympic swimming pool on the Pinwheel so much, huh?”
He grumbled affirmatively, his eyes closed as he drifted. There were other Krell around too, a handful of them floating about further away from the shore, and she could see one basking on the mud with only its tail trailing into the lake. Cold blooded animals had to regulate their body temperature using their environment. When they were too cold they would bask, when they were too hot they would retreat into the shade or submerge themselves in cool water. The aliens were perfectly suited to their surroundings, while Lena was a mammalian furnace, constantly cranking out her own heat that was very hard for her body to dissipate in this atmosphere. It was hot and humid, the moisture preventing her sweat from evaporating from her skin, which was a human's primary method of cooling.
She ran her fingers through her floating hair, getting rid of any grime and sweat that still lingered. It had been days since she had felt this clean. She was absolutely going to do this a couple of times a day. Perhaps if she wore just her boots when she walked to and from the village, she might be able to stay relatively clean of mud.
But what of their expeditions into the surrounding swamps and marshes? Now that she was free of it, she didn't want to don that hazmat suit ever again, it was so hot and it made walking in this environment so much harder than it needed to be. Could she wear her shorts and tank top for the rest of her stay? Could she even go barefoot? While walking barefoot through a forest would have been begging for a serious injury on pretty much any other planet, Krell seemed to be entirely blanketed in mud and wet soil. If worst came to worst and she did hurt herself, or if she encountered terrain that she couldn't cross, Sleethe could carry her.
The hazmat suit would also protect her from poisonous plants and animals, but she hadn't encountered anything like that so far. There didn't seem to be any biting insects, and she hadn't reacted badly to any of the plants that she had handled. There was an epinephrine injector that she always carried with her that she could use in the unlikely event that something stung or bit her and she reacted badly. It was probably safe.
Yes, it was the best choice. In an environment like this, her clothing and technology was only hampering her. Like the native people she would forego shoes and suits. When in Rome...
Lena tried to relax. She knew in the back of her mind that her time was limited and that she must try to explore and catalog this planet as much as possible, but the gentle lapping of the water was hypnotic. It made her want to sleep, but she kept sinking, the threat of breathing in a lungful of dank swamp water keeping her alert. Sleethe had no such problems, he was incredibly buoyant and his nostrils were evolved so that they were always sticking out of the water.
An idea crossed her mind, and she turned onto her front, paddling closer to him as he opened one eye to watch her lazily. She moved down his long body and patted his leathery hide.
“Turn over big guy, you're gonna be my pool float.”
He seemed to get the gist of her request, slowly rolling onto his back, exposing his pale belly. Lena tried to clamber up onto it, but there were no scutes or spikes to hang onto here, the fine scales of his underside were as soft and as smooth as human skin. After a moment she gave up, frustrated, and then she felt something scaly on her butt.
Sleethe lifted her with one hand cupped under her rump, depositing her on his chest. Lena rose precariously to her hands and knees, but then lowered her center of gravity when she realized that she might slide off him, lying prone with her head resting between his pectoral muscles. He was so soft despite how powerful he was, his pudgy fat layer as pleasant to lie on as any mattress. Her arms were just long enough for the tips of her fingers to dangle into the water as she hugged his barrel chest, her legs trailing down his belly.
He was warm, but cooler than the hot air around her, his body shedding its excess heat into the conductive water even as the suns beat down on him. Lena shifted her weight a little in order to get comfortable, her hands sinking into his doughy fat layer until they met hard muscle, a pang of arousal tickling her senses as she felt him flex.
One of his massive hands came to rest in the small of her back, pushing aside the damp fabric of her tank top as he stroked her skin with his fingers, the sensation soothing and hypnotic. She sighed into his chest, her eyelids fluttering as his dull claws slid up and down her spine.
“Oh Sleethe...that feels nice. Like that...”
A sauna and a massage, she couldn't have expected more from a five star resort. Lena let the tension melt from her tired muscles, Sleethe's placating stroking lulling her to sleep.
Lena was roused by the sensation of movement, opening her eyes slowly and blinking as they adjusted to the light. There was mud beneath her, Sleethe was carrying her in one of his strong arms as he made his way towards the village, her discarded clothing and the rucksack in his other hand. He was walking her back to the temple, keeping her clear of the dirt.
She felt butterflies in her stomach, overcome with a sudden powerful love for him as she craned her neck to look up at his face. He had somehow managed to get her out of the water and half way back to the village without waking her, and she wasn't a heavy sleeper. He was so inhumanly gentle.
Noticing that she was awake, he rumbled a greeting. The stilts and trees of the Krell village were now visible through the lingering mist, and as they approached the gangplank that let to the first level he set her down gently on the damp wood. She expected to slip, clinging to his scaly forearm for purchase, but then realized that her bare feet were able to grip the material far easier than her rubber boots could.
She was far more nimble without the restrictive suit, and so the danger of falling was lessened, the short woman skirting closer to the edges of the platforms to catch a glimpse at the support structures below. It was so intricate, appearing haphazard and makeshift at a glance, but the evidence of careful planning was everywhere if one took the time to look.
They made their way across rope bridges and rickety planks, Lena letting the water that was constantly raining from the structures above them fall on her skin. She had tried to avoid it on her first journey through the elaborate village, but now the idea of trying to stay clean and dry seemed absurd to her. It just wasn't possible here, and it had only taken her a day to come to terms with that fact.
Her sparse clothing was sticking to her now, heavy and impregnated with lake water, unable to dry out due to the moisture that always lingered in the atmosphere. She would have to find a convenient rock, or a piece of wood that she could drape them across. Perhaps the suns would dry them out, but it didn't seem likely. She had clean clothes in her duffel bag of course, but she didn't want to burn through them too quickly if washing them was going to be an issue.
There weren't very many Krell walking about the village, and Lena wondered if they only used the huts to sleep in. There were no obvious stores, no tailors or markets, nobody manufacturing anything that she could see.
Borealis was primitive compared to human space, but when taking a stroll along an Elysian street one would still see taverns and artisans, stores selling food and clothing. That didn't seem to be the case here, there was no traffic, no bustle. It wasn't quite a ghost town, but the vast majority of the village's denizens must currently be elsewhere. Did they work? Did they have jobs and earn currency? Where would they spend it with no economy to speak of? Someone must have made the necklaces and jewelry that she had seen some of them wearing, someone must go out and collect the dyes and pigments that they used for body painting, someone had built these structures.
Before long they were greeted by the twisting trunks of the pale trees that encircled the temple, Lena stepping through the curtain of beads and into the cavernous interior. She made a beeline for the duffel bag and rummaged around inside, pulling out an MRE. Sleethe lumbered along behind her, dropping down into one of the cushioned sleeping pits and resting his head on the rim as he watched her.
“Unlike you, I have to keep myself fed, and today's meal is...” She turned the brown packet over in her hands and read the label. “Menu number two, scalloped potatoes and ham, twelve hundred calories. Sounds delightful.”
She broke open the brown plastic and disgorged the contents out into the floor. There were several small packets, and a couple of brown cardboard boxes, everything labeled with large print and the UNN logo. Hamburger bun, apple sauce, sports drink. What? Apparently there was more to an MRE than just the main course that was printed on the bag.
She had eaten military rations the last time that she had visited the planet, but there had been half a dozen people with her back then, and they had all shared and prepared their meals communally. Now she was alone, and she would have to figure out how to work all of this stuff for herself. She opened the cardboard boxes and divided the packets up into a row on the floor in front of her. There were several courses it looked like, and she picked up the silver bag marked 'scalloped potatoes and ham', reading the information on the back.
It was self-heating, requiring her to use a chemical adhesive patch to warm the food. It appeared that only the main course needed to be heated in such a manner, and so she searched for the patches. They were two thin pieces of plastic which, when torn open, would react with the air and create a chemical reaction that produced heat. She tore off the adhesive patches and stuck them to either side of the meal's silver pouch, pulling away the protective covers and exposing the chemical heaters to the air. The packet said that it would take eight to ten minutes, and so she elected to start eating the other courses while she waited.
She opened the hamburger bun packet, extracting two somewhat squashed circles of bread. They should have put these in a cardboard box too, it looked as if they had been compressed during transit. There were two small packets that contained peanut butter and fruit jelly respectively, reminding her of the sauce packets that one might find at a fast food restaurant. She broke them open with her teeth and squeezed them out onto the bun, making a rudimentary PB&J sandwich. It didn't taste half bad. The bread was a little dry and crumbly, but the jelly was especially sweet and tasted strongly of strawberries. She chewed as she waited for the main course to heat, prodding the bag with a tentative finger to test if it was working.
It was hot to the touch, the chemical reaction was doing its work. Not hot enough to burn her, it appeared that most of the energy was being directed towards the inside of the packet, but enough that she could feel the warmth radiating from it. Hot meals would be a comfort for soldiers in the field, a little taste of home. Lena was no Marine, but the idea of having something warm in her belly was immediately appealing, and she hadn't been away from home for more than a couple of days.
When she was done with the sandwich she started on the applesauce, using a plastic spoon to fish it from inside the packet. It was smooth and sweet, the consistency of baby food, and she could make out mango and pineapple flavors on top of the apple. This was a military ration and so everything had a purpose, be it protein, sugar or vitamins. She would do well to eat the entire contents of the MRE each time that she opened one, regardless of how hungry she felt. She would need her strength in this environment, her work here was more physically taxing than anything that she was used to.
She scooted closer to the rucksack and began to remove the stasis containers one by one, lining them up and examining the specimens within as she ate. She had bugs, flowers, cuttings from plants and fungi. There was quite a haul, not bad for a morning's work. The containers looked like glass, but they weren't fragile. Being of Broker origin they were functionally indestructible and so there was no danger of them breaking on the way home.
The spoon held in her mouth, Lena turned one of the stasis containers over in her hands, examining the water-skipper bug within. It had ten legs, each one covered in tiny brown hairs that were probably hydrophobic, and its little head was covered in beady black eyes like a spider. It wasn't so scary close up...
Sleethe watched her lazily as she admired the flowers, and she smiled at his aloofness.
“We did a good job Sleethe. Barnes will like these. Samples, specimens, yeah?”
Her translator did its best, approximating the rumbling and hissing of a Krell, and after a moment her reptilian friend warbled his reply.
“Yeah, I'm collecting them.” She leaned over to her stock of food and picked up a small packet of candy, popping one into her mouth. They were sour and gummy, this one raspberry flavored. “Open your mouth, Sleethe.”
He opened his long jaws, akin to a crocodile waiting for curious birds on the edge of a river, and she tossed one of the candies into his mouth. He swallowed it whole, not even taking the time to taste it.
“So do you eat for pleasure, or only when you need to?”
Sleethe shrugged his wide shoulders.
“Come on you lazy lizard, we're supposed to be doing research. Do the Krell have snacks? Delicacies? Do they eat anything for the fun of it? I know that the UNN gives you MREs when you're deployed, and I know that you eat them.” She picked up the brown packet, gesturing to it. “MRE, like this, right? So if you'll eat MREs, why won't you eat anything else?”
He considered for a moment, probably parsing what the translator had told him, and then replied.
“Packet food for replenish energy. Krell fights for protect friends. Loses energy. Eats to replenish.”
That made sense at least. While the Krell were slow and lethargic in most circumstances, they were also capable of huge bursts of speed and power, usually when their lives or the lives of their comrades were threatened. Lena had seen it happen on a small scale, like when she had been threatened by the biting log and Sleethe had lifted her off the ground and out of its range before she had time to blink, for example. But she couldn't imagine what an enraged Krell truly looked like, how fast and how powerful they could become when they were fighting the enemy. They weren't aggressive by nature, but they were incredibly protective of their friends, or their 'kin' as they seemed to refer to them. Using Krell in an offensive capacity wasn't very effective, that was a role better suited to the aggressive and belligerent Borealans, but assign them to a squad in a defensive capacity and they would put themselves in the path of an oncoming train if it meant keeping their charges safe.
Sudden bursts of speed would of course expend energy, calories that the Krell would have to burn from their fat stores. It seemed that they would supplement their large and infrequent meals with smaller ones where necessary, in order to top up their reserves. It was like the opposite of a low calorie diet, the aliens always seeking to maintain a consistent store of fat.
“Oh, my main course is ready!” Lena scooted across the wooden planks and retrieved her dinner, tearing open the packet and watching as a plume of steam curled slowly towards the ceiling. The heating strips had done their job. She peered inside the silver pouch, narrowing her eyes at the food. It looked like vomit, chunky and creamy. She dipped a spoon inside and brought a hunk of ham to her lips, her expression brightening when she tasted it.
“Hey, not bad...”
It was no home-cooked meal, but it was a damn sight better than the vending machine sandwiches that she ate at work on days when she was too busy to leave the office. There were chopped potatoes in a cream sauce, large cuts of ham that tasted somewhat like bacon, and hints of cheese and chives.
“You're missing out Sleethe, not that this would make more than a mouthful for you. You'd need a wheelbarrow full.”
She finished off the meal, feeling rather full as she sat on the damp floor. It was more than she usually ate in one sitting, but she would surely need these calories during tomorrow's swamp adventures. Lena got up and walked over to her portable computer terminal, chewing on some candy as she crouched and ran a finger over the monitor to activate the display. Had the computer finished sorting and cataloging the Krell alphabet yet?
It seemed that it had, and she recovered her spectacles from their case before examining the results. The computer had identified forty three individual characters, or at least what appeared to be characters. The algorithm was pretty good at differentiating changes in handwriting and style, but she should take it with a pinch of salt all the same. As she had surmised, the rolling script was read from top to bottom, and apparently left to right, similar to Japanese and other East Asian languages. The characters more resembled Arabic however, swirling and calligraphic. There was artistry in the carving of their language into the trees and walls, such care had been taken. It was more than just doodling and graffiti.
“Sleethe, I'm gonna need your help with this.”
He slid out of the recess in the floor, making his way over to her side, where he squatted and brought his long snout down close to examine her display.
“I know these,” he said, her translator picking up his subsonic tones.
“Alphabet,” Lena said, nodding. “You can read, right? You must be able to read, the care and attention put into these carvings means that they have to be a huge part of your culture.”
“I read,” he said, nodding his massive head. “I teach.”
“Yes! Excellent, that's what I want. I want to be able to read this, like you do.”
He sat heavily beside her, the floor shaking under his weight, and Lena scooted further to her left to give him more room. The displays were small by human standards, for a Krell it was like trying to read from a cellphone screen at arm's length.
“First, phonetics,” Lena said excitedly. She prepared her wrist-computer, setting it to record the ensuing conversation for later analysis. “Point to the letters, and tell me what they sound like.”
Sleethe seemed to understand, gesturing to the first swirling character with his scaly finger. He emitted a short burst of sound, which Lena logged, numbering the audio file.
Deciphering an entirely new alphabet could be a real challenge, there was no Rosetta Stone for Krell. These characters could be as simple as those used in Latin based languages, or they could have emotional connotations, even conveying specific ideas and other more complex themes. She had to pray that the resemblances to Chinese were purely superficial, because that language could be an absolute nightmare to work with. Different combinations of the same characters could convey entirely different meanings and they could even change based on their context, all while appearing outwardly similar. Even the Chinese themselves had trouble with it, and Lena had been taught the story of 'Mr.Shi Eating Lions' as part of her linguistics training.
It was a short passage written in Mandarin Chinese by one Zhao Yuanren, describing the misadventures of a poet named Mister Shi who lived in a stone den, and who liked to eat lions in very specific quantities. The story was absurd, but it was clear and comprehensible. It made grammatical sense on paper. However when read aloud in its original language, the story consisted of only a single word, 'shi' that was endlessly repeated.
The story's title was 'Shi Shi Shi Shi Shi', and the body of the text was approximately ninety repetitions of the word 'shi', but each referring to a different word and character. It clearly demonstrated the complexity of the language and its reliance on context to convey meaning.
Sleethe continued to sound off, and Lena carefully recorded each vocalization, matching it to one of the Krell characters. It took a while, but eventually she ended up with a library of numbered voice clips, and she began to transfer them over to the main console for analysis once they were done. The next step was using the computer to match the individual sounds to the library of Krell words and phrases that she had accrued for use with the translation software, and in doing so reconstruct them from the ground up, along with their associated characters in the alien alphabet. There was no accounting for grammar and innumerable other factors that might alter the way the words were written and pronounced, but at the end of the process she would hopefully have enough to work with that she could piece the fragments together herself.
Computers were incredibly efficient at sorting, mathematics and pattern recognition, but interpreting art and meaning was usually better left to human minds.
CHAPTER 7: CANVAS
By the time she was done, and her wrist computer had finished transferring the data, it was getting too late to set off on another expedition. The suns were getting low as illustrated by what little light was still bleeding through the curtain, and the misty landscape was growing even more gloomy than it had been already. While the prospect of trying to bag some nocturnal insects was attractive, she would save that for another day, as the morning's trek had left her exhausted and sore.
Just when she was starting to think about calling it a night and finding a sleeping pit for her and Sleethe, a call rang out across the village. It was deep and resonating, penetrating Lena to the bone as she felt the floorboards beneath her shudder. It was the longest and loudest Krell call that she had ever heard, so powerful that it sounded as if it must be coming from a creature a mile long. She wondered for a moment if it was a mating call, if the denizens of the rickety village were being assembled for a breeding frenzy, but this one was different. The Krell were certainly being called to do something, but what?
She looked to Sleethe, and he saw the question in her eyes before she had even opened her mouth to ask it.
“Community,” he said, a simple and cryptic statement.
“What does that mean, Sleethe?”
“All will assemble, commune.”
The Krell were being called together, but for what purpose?
The wooden planks beneath her hands began to tremble as she sat upon them, this time not from a rumbling voice, but from footsteps. They were faint at first, but getting stronger. What felt to her like an army of Krell was drawing closer, their heavy marching making the structure itself shake precariously.
“Are they coming here? To the temple?”
Sleethe nodded. Well, what had she been expecting? This was clearly the cultural center of the village as well as the physical one. If they were going to congregate anywhere, then it would be here.
The heavy footsteps drew closer and closer, until finally the first of the procession pushed its long snout through the bead curtain. It was a female, identifiable by her wider hips and thicker thighs, the same spinach-green color as Sleethe and about the same size. Following behind her was a larger male with a darker coloration, and behind him was a younger and more vibrantly colored male, they just kept coming. They filed in one by one, fanning out in a large circle around the cavernous temple, until finally the last one brushed past the curtain. Sleethe stood along with them, moving back towards the base of the wall to join his kin as Lena sat beside her duffel bag on the floor, feeling out of place and wondering if she was expected to participate.
She was now surrounded by a wall of scales and muscles. Her chosen sleeping pit and the small pile of her gear was near the far wall, a little to the right of the entrance. There must have been fifty at least, in all shapes, colors and sizes. Now that they were all assembled, the differences in their markings and jewelry really stood out to her. No two were quite the same.
The largest was the elder, his onyx scutes reflecting the dancing firelight like black glass as he stepped into the center of the room. He was still adorned in body paints, symbols and runes drawn onto his skin in colorful pigments. He wore more jewelry this time, laden with so many colorful necklaces woven from beads and shells that they hung down to his belly, overlaid one on top of the other until it became an indistinguishable mass of geometric patterns.
Lena turned up the gain on her translator and waited, sensing that something important was happening, listening intently as he began to speak.
“We commune to welcome outsiders into the great family. One born of our lakes, and another from above.” The translator had some issues with that last word. He had gestured to the sky to punctuate his statement, and the dictionary suggested that he was referring to a direction, but Lena got the impression that it was more along the lines of 'on high' or 'the heavens'. He was of course referring to her and Sleethe.
“Step forward, those who are outside, and join our circle.”
Sleethe left his place in the ring of Krell that encircled the expansive room, lumbering towards the dark elder. He stopped beside Lena, putting out one of his scaly hands, and she took it as she rose to her feet. She began to blush, realizing that a hundred eyes were on her, examining her through the gloom of the temple as she walked beside her mate. She felt exposed, vulnerable. Her clothing was sparse and it had never completely dried out after her nap in the lake, it was sticking to her skin and leaving little to the imagination. She kept reminding herself that the Krell didn't care. Krell had no concept of modesty in the sense that humans did, and yet a lifetime of social conditioning made her cheeks flush with embarrassment all the same. Humans were taught to be ashamed of their nakedness and it was a very hard concept to shake, the Krell were not.
They came to a stop before the elder, the massive creature leaning down to brush his head against Sleethe's, another one of their greetings. He did the same to Lena, crouching down to reach her and bumping his leathery forehead gently against her brow. She brushed her damp hair out of her face with her fingers as she looked up at him, wondering what was going to happen next.
She got a better look at his neckwear now that he was closer, resisting the urge to take a photo as he rose back up to full height. It looked so damned heavy, but then again he was an especially large Krell, the immense weight would mean little to him. The jewelry glistened in the wavering firelight, every colorful bead and stone reflecting the flames, every twisted shell glinting as it hung from his neck. It almost looked like a dozen poisonous serpents were coiled about his shoulders. The thick bands of vibrant reds and oranges were striped with black and white patterns, reminding her of coral snakes. Still others hung lower across his broad chest, curtains of decorative beads and shells not dissimilar from the ones that they used to cover their doors dangling free. They were more intricately crafted, arranged in geometric patterns, squares and triangles formed from sheets of woven beads that resembled pixels on a monitor.
“Welcome to our lake,” the elder said, his baritone voice almost deep enough to make her teeth chatter. “Tell me stranger, you have walked great distances to reach us, our eyes have not seen those of your kind before. Why have you come here?”
At least the translator was doing a decent job, the more experience the algorithm got, the more accurate the translations were becoming. It was hard to estimate if the reverse was true, and if the software was outputting anything coherent. She would have to rely on Sleethe to correct her if she slipped up. She cleared her throat, speaking as clearly as possible and trying to use very simple phrases.
“Thank you for your hospitality. I came here from...far away. Our two peoples are friends, but we know little about you. I have come to learn. I want to know your history, your culture, how you live. I want to study you and your home.”
“You seek knowledge?” The elder asked, peering at her with his yellow eyes. That seemed to pique his curiosity, it was rare to see a Krell take interest in anything that didn't involve sleeping.
“Yes, I want to learn.”
The elder turned his long snout towards Sleethe.
“And you, guardian of Benefactors. Why have you come?”
Guardian of Benefactors? Odd wording. That seemed to imply that not all Krell served the Brokers as soldiers. While they were members of the Coalition and they served as auxiliaries in the UNN, it was no secret that the Brokers were the ones who mediated on their behalf. It was a relationship that Lena was increasingly finding herself questioning.
“We are mated. Where she goes, I follow. She is my kin.”
It seemed that no further explanation was required, and the elder bowed his head, satisfied by their replies. He turned and made his way over towards the large clay pots on the other side of the hall, that Lena knew to contain the dyes and pigments that they used for marking their scaly hides. He called over the three nearest males, and they left their place in the circle, lifting one of the six pots in each arm and following the elder back over to where the pair were waiting.
They set them down nearby, Lena standing on her toes to see over the rims of the containers. Each one was filled with a colored powder. There was red and orange, yellow and white, blue and purple. She had already received a red mark on her forehead to indicate that she was mated, was the elder going to draw on her again? Much like henna, the pigments were semi-permanent and did not wash off. It had taken the better part of a month for the one that she had received on her first visit to fade.
“No afraid,” Sleethe said, and she looked up at him as he waited beside her. “Krell will not harm you. This is our way.”
Cryptic, or perhaps poorly translated, but the intent was clear enough. The Krell were going to do something and she shouldn't be afraid of it. The elder began to speak again, his booming voice echoing throughout the temple.
“We accept you among us, become as kin.”
The elder dipped his hand into one of the clay pots, coating his fingers in dye, and then moved towards Sleethe. He drew runes on her partner's pale belly, intricate, calligraphic text that Lena could not parse. It was as much art as writing, undeniably sophisticated, and yet oddly brutish and tribal. He decorated the runes carefully with dots and patterns, occasionally dipping his fingers into the pot again like an artist wetting a paintbrush. He worked quickly, clearly skilled and practiced. He might have been performing this ritual for hundreds of years as far as Lena knew.
When he took a step back to examine his work, Sleethe was adorned with a new marking that looked almost like a tattoo. Unable to contain her curiosity, Lena dared to interrupt the ceremony with a question.
“What does it mean?”
“Guardian,” Sleethe replied. It was his vocation, then? It seemed strange to her that the aliens would adorn their bodies with such information, until she considered that humans also wore uniforms and insignias that denoted their job or their status. This was not dissimilar, however the Krell did not wear clothing in the way that humans did. She had seen them wearing ponchos on occasion, but those were body armor provided by the UNN, or garments with pockets that seemed entirely geared towards utility. A different story entirely.
The elder then dipped his hand into the white pot, and brought it up to Sleethe's face, carefully decorating it with a series of white dots that stood out prominently against his spinach scales. The elder applied more of them beneath his eyes and on his cheeks, moving down the length of his snout as he added progressively fewer of them, eventually tapering off when they reached his nose. The red mark of matrimony was still prominent in the center of his forehead, as Lena had taken to calling it. Even after swimming in lakes and rivers all day, it hadn't faded even a little.
Next the elder selected a blue pigment, painting a swirling pattern that intertwined with a series of runes across Sleethe's chest, running from shoulder to shoulder. Lena gave him a questioning glance.
“My home,” Sleethe explained. Vocation, place of residence, marital status. It was almost as if the elder was painting official documents onto them. Perhaps this ritual was less frivolous than she had initially assumed.
The elder turned towards Lena, plunging his fingers into one of the pots and covering them in red dye. He brought his hand down towards her, but then hesitated, studying her alien body with his reptilian eyes. She realized that her sodden tank top was covering her torso entirely, the elder had nowhere to paint. All eyes in the room were on her, dozens of facing watching expectantly, lit by the dancing flames and framed in deep shadow.Sleethe was watching her too, making no comment, but waiting to see what she would do next.
She felt the heat in her cheeks, and she began to rub her hands together nervously, unsure of what to do. They had done all of this for her and Sleethe, a ceremony to welcome them into 'the circle', to make them 'kin'. It would be offensive, a grave insult to refuse their hospitality. These aliens were trying to make her a part of their family.
Come on Lena, she though to herself, the Krell have no concept of nakedness. What does it matter if they see you topless? You're an alien to them, an oddity. Are you really going to forego this initiation because of human hangups that are only applicable to a society that's light years away?
She steeled herself, sliding her fingers under the bottom of her tank top, lifting the damp fabric over her head. Her breasts fell free, and she struggled to pull the clinging garment loose, finally discarding it on the floor as she brushed her wet hair out of her face. It looked like she could keep her shorts on, that was something at least, and she glanced about the room as she felt the villagers scrutinizing her. She resisted the urge to cross her arms across her chest, to cover herself. She had to get used to this, she had to grow accustomed to nudity.
Sleethe seemed pleased, as did the elder, who leaned closer and gently pressed his fingers against her belly. Lena flinched, feeling his cool scales and his dull claws, looking down between her hanging breasts as he began to paint. She was more sensitive than a Krell, her skin smooth and clean, unprotected. She had no armored scutes or tough scales, her nakedness making her feel all the more vulnerable and amplifying her senses as the elder marked her.
He painted a similar pattern to what Sleethe was now wearing, but the choices of runes and the decorative flourishes were subtly different. It seemed to be challenging for the elder, he had to miniaturize his work, Lena's petite body serving as a very limited canvas compared to what he was used to. It was a struggle to stay still as he drew shapes on her pale skin, his touch tickling her, his scaly fingers leaving trails of dye wherever they roamed.
After a minute or two he stepped back to appraise his work, seeming satisfied. Lena craned her neck to get a look at the pattern over the mounds of her bare breasts, seeing swirling calligraphy that extended from the base of her ribcage down to her navel. It was a vibrant red, not painted on her skin, but staining it. It wasn't going to be coming off any time soon.
“Sleethe,” she whispered, “what does it say?”
“Scholar,” he replied.
So she had been marked as a scholar, then? The thought filled her with an odd kind of pride. It also suggested that the Krell had scholars of their own, perhaps she would be able to seek one out and quiz him?
The elder coated his fingers in blue pigment, and began to draw across her chest. This was the pattern that Sleethe had said described as a person's home, where they had originated from she assumed. He decorated the space between her clavicle and the top of her breasts with intricate markings, every complex character framed with swirling lines that flowed into one another like water. He seemed to run out of space, improvising as he went and extending the design down between her boobs until it neared the top of the red marking on her belly. Undeterred, he married it to the rest of the tattoo-like pattern, joining them seamlessly into one continuous design.
Again the elder plunged his hand into one of the clay pots, and this time withdrew it with a coating of purple dye. Lena had to make a conscious effort not to flinch away as he brought his many-fingered hand down towards her face, using his thumb to spread two symmetrical lines on her cheeks, just beneath her eyes. He brushed a finger along the bridge of her nose, extending it down across her lips and to the tip of her chin. This one was surely decorative, he was just following the natural lines and contours of her body.
It was an odd sensation, being touched so intimately by a stranger under the watchful eyes of all these people. She didn't know how to feel about it, an odd excitement was rising inside her to challenge her vulnerability and embarrassment. Her skin glistened in the firelight, every droplet of sweat and moisture that clung to her smooth skin reflecting the flickering flames, accentuating her curves as reptilian fingers roamed across them. Despite the pervasive damp, the pigments stained her skin all the same, a semi-permanent mark. Why did that idea excite her so?
The elder retreated a few paces, raising his long arms into the air and glancing about the room.
“Purpose now revealed, origins known. Come, put your marks upon them.”
The circle of Krell began to close in, drawing closer as Lena turned her head this way and that, edging nearer to Sleethe for protection. He noticed that she was becoming alarmed, running his fingers through her hair to relax her in the way that he knew she liked.
“No harm,” he whispered. Having so many giant creatures bearing down on her made her nervous all the same, but Sleethe sprang into action whenever there was even a semblance of a threat, and so she had to trust his judgment. If he told her that it was safe, then it must be safe. She was out of her element here, a fish out of water just the same as the salamander that she had wrestled from the river that morning.
The Krell villagers crowded the pair, brushing against one another so closely that they very nearly blocked out the firelight. They delved their hands into the pots, reaching out towards Lena and Sleethe with a rainbow of colorful pigments. The villagers were going to draw on them too? For what purpose? What meaning would these new symbols convey?
A dozen hands reached out towards Sleethe, painting patterns on his pale belly, the Krell lifting his arms as they applied dots and swirling shapes. They placed their 'marks' wherever they could reach, his back and his tail, his thighs and his neck. They were covering his whole body in runes and decorations, less intricate and more artistic this time. It reminded her of schoolchildren signing their names on a classmate's cast.
They weren't just after Sleethe, and she pulled away as their claws reached down towards her, only to bump into the aliens who were pressing in from the rear. Their hands roamed across her body, feeling the smoothness of her skin, testing it. They had never seen a human before, let alone come into contact with one, and her lack of scales seemed to be an endless curiosity to them. They ran their claws through her hair, their size and strength alarming, but they were inhumanly careful and gentle. They recognized her physical limitations, just as Sleethe did.
Lena tensed as she felt someone's fingers in the small of her back, drawing a shape or a rune just above the elastic of her shorts. More joined it, Lena sighing as a hand reached down towards her belly and began to write beneath her navel in purple dye. In an instant there were half a dozen hands on her skin, stroking her like masseuses, leaving colorful trails wherever they went.
As she had noted with Sleethe, these were not formal declarations woven from complex passages of text, but rather art and decoration. The Krell were adorning her with patterns that they found aesthetically pleasing, and perhaps the odd rune or character here and there. Their strokes were symmetrical where possible, the aliens taking care to work together in order to produce the best result, complimenting each other's work.
She could scarcely prevent herself from twisting and writhing, the experience so unlike anything in human culture. There were no boundaries here, there was no consideration for personal space, no hesitation to make contact. It was frightening, leaving her feeling unmoored from the social conventions that had defined her life up to this point, and yet it was somehow liberating.
Humans lived in an invisible hamster ball, repelling one another like the opposite ends of a magnet when they got too close. Touching a stranger, or even a friend without express permission was a social faux pas at best, and an affront at worst. It would be unthinkable to go up to a stranger and run your hands across their body, to paint on their skin, no matter how benign your intentions might be. Some cultures were more friendly and physical than others, but personal space was always of great value, as was security of self.
The Krell had no such hangups. They were as close to her as a fond friend or a lover, there was no distance between her and them as there was with other humans. In that moment she truly felt like a part of their 'circle', one of their kin, and the thought moved her.
Alien hands glided across her belly and shoulders, painting shapes on her hips and writing runes down her spine. Her nervous system was being assaulted from all angles, overwhelming her brain, still more fingers pressing into her flesh and teasing her senses as new Krell cycled in. A gasp escaped her lips as one of the females gently stroked her throat, Lena's instincts ordering her to pull away and to shield her vulnerable vital point, while at the same time a rogue shiver of pleasure rolled down her spine. The Krell were not aware of her erogenous zones, running their fingers wherever they pleased and exploring her.
She arched her spine as someone brushed her hair aside, exposing the back of her neck as they drew circles with their dull claws, the sensation making her weak at the knees. Another gripped her gently by the hand, applying red dye to the sensitive region on her wrist, moving up her forearm and tracing a swirling line up towards her elbow.
One of them was painting on her thigh, his fingers roaming tantalizingly close to her crotch as he drew bands in shades of orange and yellow, not unlike the patterning on some of the jewelry that they wore. He wrapped them around her leg, winding down towards her shin.
Someone cupped one of her breasts, taking the opportunity to test its shape and firmness as they stained her milky skin with a yellow hand print, a jolt of undeniably erotic pleasure weaving its way through her body. Another one of the females dipped her finger in the purple paint and circled Lena's nipple, making a pattern that resembled a blooming flower with petals that trailed across her breast. The woman was decorating the natural contours of her body, likely having no idea of the way that Lena was responding to her touch. They were so forceful, yet gentle, not giving her even a second of reprieve as they transformed her body into a beautiful tapestry.
It went on for minutes, until finally they withdrew, leaving Lena standing beside Sleethe in the middle of the circle with trembling legs. The elder began to speak again, his resonating voice jolting her out of her stupor.
“Now walk among us as kin. You are one with the circle.”
At that, the ceremony seemed to be over, and the Krell began to file out of the temple.
Lena stood beside Sleethe on shaking legs, watching as the procession of Krell slowly left the great hall. When the last long tail had dragged through the bead curtain, she turned to Sleethe, her voice wavering as she gripped his scaly arm.
“Well that was, uh...intense...”
He huffed appreciatively, combing her hair with his claws in an effort to calm her. Lena didn't know how to feel. So many conflicting emotions were roiling in her head that she felt as if she she might explode under the pressure. It had been frightening, moving, sexual. She was confused and aroused, her nerves still tingling, as if the hands of the Krell had never left her skin.
It was all over now. They had been inducted into the 'circle', the extended family of this Krell village. They were now marked with all of the appropriate information, and then some...
Yet still she felt agitated, like there was a rising pressure inside her, ready to burst forth at any moment. She realized that she was wet, and not because of the humidity. She looked up at Sleethe with imploring eyes.
“I think...I need to...” She shook her head violently, trying to compose herself, as if she could somehow dislodge the obtrusive thoughts through the motion alone. Sleethe gazed down at her with his yellow eyes, blinking with his nictating membranes, and then he took her by the hand. Lena stumbled along behind him, allowing herself to be led, too dazed and affected to question what he was doing. The elder had replaced the clay pots in their usual position, and Sleethe came to a stop before them, gesturing with his long arm.
“Elder give mark. Kin give mark. And now Sleethe give mark.”
“What?” Lena asked, “isn't the ceremony over?”
Her breath caught in her throat as he dipped a hand into one of the pots, coating it in red pigment, and then turned to loom over her. Lena could guess at his intentions, her heart was already racing, that residual tension left over from the ceremony only growing stronger as his fingers neared her belly. He hooked a clawed digit around the elastic waistband of her shorts, pulling them slowly down to expose her, the crotch of her panties linked to her loins by a glistening strand of excitement.
She trembled as they fell around her ankles, leaving her standing naked before him in the now deserted temple.
“Sleethe,” she whined, her voice scarcely a whisper. “What if someone comes back? We can't...”
He was a willful creature, and he ignored her concerns as he he pressed his large hand flat against her mound. She shivered, suppressing a gasp as his touch sent a ripple of pleasure through her body, his scaly hand pressing down over her womb. Lena liked to stay clean for him, so she was shaved down there, and when he pulled his hand away she saw the red palm print that he had left on her pale skin.
She was immediately overcome with arousal, a droplet of her juices leaking down her inner thigh as she examined the semi-permanent mark, the heel of his hand print not a millimeter above her lips. His seven fingers were splayed wide, his thumb on one hip and his pinkie on the other, his ring finger rising to meet the vocation mark that the elder had drawn on her torso. The fingers would be visible above her waistline, everyone would be able to see it...
He plunged his hand into another pot, coating it in orange dye, and reached behind her back to take a generous handful of her ass. She yelped as his fingers delved into her soft flesh, his dull claws kneading her fat and seeking out the firm muscle that lay beneath. His hand was large enough that it encompassed her entire cheek, and when he pulled away he left another massive imprint on her milky skin.
“Sleethe, h-hold on, this won't come off for weeks!”
He took another handful of dye, purple this time, a low moan escaping Lena's lips as he gripped her inner thigh and squeezed gently. His touch was like an electric shock in her heightened state, and Lena couldn't help but wrap her slim fingers around his scaly forearm, his digits sinking deep into her supple meat as she trembled. He drew back and she peered down to see another bright hand print on her skin, he was marking her erogenous zones, branding her.
Why was this making her so hot? She was burning up. She felt feverish, like there was a smoldering fire inside her that was slowly rising, its flames licking a her sanity.
Sleethe wrapped one of his arms around her, pulling her towards him and pressing her up against his muscular midsection, Lena feeling the firmness of his abs through his fat layer. He reached his hand behind her back and cupped her other butt cheek, mauling her supple flesh as she writhed in his grasp. She couldn't hold back any longer, she was going to explode. With a desperate whine she abandoned her self-control and wrapped her arms around her lover.
She ran her fingers across his scaly ass and tail, so thick and muscular that it felt like steel overlaid with crocodile skin. Her arms scarcely reached around to the other side, his body so large that her fingers couldn't even meet. She slid her hand across the smooth surface of his belly, his scales so fine that it almost felt like human skin, biting her lip as his rock-hard muscles bulged up from beneath. There was so much of him, and she wanted it all, a seething lust overtaking her as she pressed her lips against whatever she could reach. He gripped her ass as she mouthed and kissed, rubbing her naked body up against his as if trying to meld into one being, the heat of her face contrasting with his cool skin.
He released her, leaving another colorful hand print to mark her as his own. Lena felt something warm and hard against her belly, looking down to see his erection slowly rising from beneath the genital slit that housed it, blue and prominent as it throbbed in the air. She took it in her hand, taking a moment to stroke it as Sleethe rumbled appreciatively. It was still growing, sliding up her belly until its flared tip was resting between her breasts.
Lena used her upper arms to press them together, engulfing him in her cleavage, her heart racing as she felt his member throb against her chest. She kissed his belly, not really sure what she was doing at this point, but the desire to taste him was maddening. She began to slid up and down, Sleethe so endowed that the length of his shaft rubbed against her stomach, even while the glans was buried between her boobs. Pressing up against him to trap his erection between her body and his, she stimulated him with her damp skin, running her fingers lightly up and down his length and pushing her breasts together more tightly.
Sleethe seemed similarly overcome, beginning to thrust gently, his shovel-shaped glans rubbing against the wet silk of her breast as they deformed around it like fresh cookie dough. He was so warm, his body pumping blood through his thick organ, Lena able to feel every pulse as it traveled up his length.
“Don't stop,” she whispered, “write your name on me...”
He reached behind him with one of his long arms, fumbling for the nearest pot and coating his hand in orange pigment, Lena feeling butterflies in her belly as his claws found her spine. He made swirling patterns, and it was all that she could do to save from wriggling, her hands trembling as she handled his erection. Oh God, he was writing his name on her in those strange runes, the whole village would be able to read it.
He wasn't being subtle about it either, she had hoped that he might write it on her inner thigh or on her butt where it would be less conspicuous. She should be asking him to stop, but the words never came. She wanted this, she wanted everyone to see how he had marked her, but why? Why did that thought fill her with such salacious glee? Had the alien ritual unlocked some kind of previously hidden perversion? She couldn't remember ever feeling so aroused, besides the first time that Sleethe had taken her in the Krell barracks back on the Pinwheel. Her knees were weak, her mouth was dry, and she felt like someone was microwaving popcorn in her skull.
She reached behind her massive lover, trying to find the rim of one of the pots with her hand, Sleethe realizing what she was doing and dragging one of them closer. She plunged her fingers into the pigment within, it felt like wet clay. She coated her hand in the dye and brought it back around, leaning back as she pressed her palm against his pale belly, just above where his thick shaft was emerging from his body. She held it there for a moment and then pulled back, wetting her lips as she looked down at the tiny, red hand print that she had left on his hide.
“They'll all know,” she mumbled, slurring her words like a drunk as she shivered with barely contained excitement. “Everyone will see where I've touched you...”
Sleethe thrusted, his flared glans emerging from her cleavage, its azure flesh damp with her sweat. There was a bead of pearly fluid already welling at the tip, and she brought her tongue down to lap at it, smirking as she felt her lover shudder in response. It was far too large for her to take in her mouth, and so she contented herself with kissing and licking, coating his sensitive head in her saliva as she lashed and teased with her pink tongue.
It smelled strongly of his familiar musk, mingling with his wet leather scent as she stroked and rubbed. She realized that she was leaving fingerprints along the length of his shaft, her loins aching as she played her eyes over it. She reached for the pots again, finding a rim, and coating her fingers with the pigment. This time it was yellow, and she gripped Sleethe's shaft in her hand, squeezing it rhythmically as she ran her tongue across his tender glans.
He was becoming more aroused now, his thrusting growing stronger, his member emerging from between her breasts like a piston and pressing against her waiting lips. She left yellow marks up the length of his member, painting it with haphazard finger prints and smears as it moved. It almost looked like smeared lipstick, which would have been erotic, had Sleethe known what lipstick was.
She doted on the flared tip of his erection as his smooth flesh slid against her torso, her arms now crossed around it, holding it tightly and squeezing it between her breasts. She mouthed and sucked, painting it with her tongue, her teasing glances making him swell and throb. She wanted to take him into her mouth, let him drive that brutish organ deep into her throat, feel it spasm and twitch as she swallowed around its girth. It was too big however, she couldn't hope to get it past her lips, let alone into her throat. All that she could do was mouthe and kiss, rubbing it against her warm cheeks and dragging her smooth tongue across its surface.
Sleethe did not seem to mind, the contact of her puffy lips and her slick tongue as they crawled across his sensitive glans making him leak, Lena lapping at the clear fluid as it welled at the tip of his cock. His familiar taste set her on fire, her loins burning and aching as they dripped strands of excitement, the anticipation driving her crazy.
Naughty thoughts swirled in her head, base and carnal desires overpowering her higher faculties. They could make a real mess in here, the gunk just drained through the floor. She wanted his warm emission on her, in her, all over her. Just like the salacious hand prints that now stained her skin, she wanted to see it, she wanted to watch as it clung to her body and marked her.
She reached behind him again, pressing his pulsing member between her torso as his belly as she fumbled for more dye. Her fingers now coated in a rainbow of stains, she planted orange hand prints on his pale underside, stroking gleefully as she ran her fingers up and down his length to keep him wanting. She squeezed his hips, sliding her hand around behind him to cup his steely ass in her palm, biting her lower lip and gazing up at her oversized lover she felt his firm muscles flex and twitch at her touch.
Her hand prints looked so tiny on his massive body, but they stood out, drawing the eye as if to serve as a record of where her fingers had roamed. A lewd impulse sparked in her mind, and she once again dipped her fingers in pigment, red this time. She brought her index finger towards his hip, just above one of the half dozen colorful smears that now stained his scaly skin, and began to write.
It was crude, her hand was trembling and she was trying to keep Sleethe on edge all the while, the end result looking like little more than the finger painting of a child. She wrote her name on him, 'LENA', in bold red letters that stood out prominently against his pale underbelly. She drew a heart beside it for good measure, giggling drunkenly to herself as she used his flesh as a canvas. The aliens wouldn't be able to read it, they wouldn't know what it meant, but she did.
Sleethe emitted a comely rumble as she turned her attention back to his thick member, sucking as much of his shovel-like glans into her mouth as she could manage and lashing the rubbery organ with cruel strokes of her tongue. She wanted him to finish, she wanted to taste him.
Her stroking reached a fever pitch as he thrust against her, fucking her cleavage in earnest as she pressed the supple globes around his shaft, her soft lips and her eager tongue waiting to greet him each time that he emerged. Her fingers caressed his impressive length, the alien's azure flesh now a rainbow of colored pigments and dyes.
Lena could feel him getting closer, worshiping his totemic organ as if her life depended on it, fixating on it as if it was the only thing that mattered. Suddenly she felt his fingers curl around the back of her head, his other hand sliding down her spine as he held her close, delivering one last punishing thrust as he was wracked by a shuddering orgasm. Despite his immense size and strength, he reacted like any other man in that brief moment of overwhelming pleasure. Knowing that she could bring the powerful creature to his knees with naught but her inch-long tongue never ceased to fill Lena with a blend of satisfaction and lust, and she closed her eyes reflexively as his warm ejaculate splashed against her lips.
His member swelled and throbbed in her arms, and with each pulse came a flood of his viscous emission, filling her waiting mouth to capacity. It coated her red cheeks and slid down her neck, thick strands of the pearly fluid sloughing down her chest and pooling between her breasts as she squeezed them tightly together. It was so thick and clumpy, clinging to her pale skin in fat globs, another massive rope leaving his cock with a tremendous shudder. It hung across the bridge of her nose in an unbroken strand as another wave of orgasm ripped through him, his ecstasy palpable.
She let it slide out of her mouth, some of the slippery fluid escaping down her throat all the same, but it was soon replaced with another syrupy mouthful that bulged her cheeks. It was salty, and thick like preserves, but she was too far gone to pay such things any mind. She kept up her licking and mouthing as best she could, moving his milky come around with her tongue as she let the next mouthful of hot, gelatinous seed slide down the length of his shaft to wet her breasts below.
It was so potent, her lover's taste and smell coating her skin, erupting forth in such quantities that even after being with him for so long it never ceased to amaze her. This monstrous organ was evolved to impregnate females many times Lena's size, its emission designed to fill a mate to capacity, sticking to their insides and clumping up in order to ensure insemination. It was a breeding organ, brutish and unsubtle, and she couldn't take her mind off it.
She glanced up at Sleethe as another wad of his ejaculate hit her chin, watching adoringly as he shivered and rumbled, a strand of his saliva escaping his toothless jaws to fall down into her hair. She held onto him, milking him, kneading the length of his beautiful organ in order to ease out every last drop of his gluey semen. Eventually he began to calm, coming down from his high as his rubbery member rested against Lena's chest, her slim fingers stroking placatingly as his barrel chest rose and fell with each ragged breath.
“Good boy,” she whispered, blowing warm air on his sensitive glans and feeling him twitch. As well as the colorful pigments, her entire upper body was now drenched in his fluids, Lena wiping away a gelatinous strand that was dangling obscenely from her chin with the back of her hand. She licked the residue from her lips, swallowing what remained in her mouth, feeling its warmth as it slid down her throat. Sleethe pulled back and Lena released him from her tight cleavage, all of the mess that had pooled there released to slide slowly down her belly, her breasts bouncing gently as she let them fall. She ran her fingers through it, playing with it, so aroused that she felt as if her legs might give out.
There was almost no Lena visible now. The patches of naked skin that hadn't been covered by hand prints and runes were now coated with semen so thick that it was opaque. A sense of emptiness overcame her, an ache, a deep and maddening itch that could only be satisfied by one thing.
She wrapped her fingers around his member, just beneath the head of his cock, and tugged him along to the nearest sleeping pit like she was leading a horse to water.
“The pots,” she commanded, her voice wavering. “Bring them.”
He did as he was told, dragging one of the heavy clay pots behind him as Lena reached the lip of one of the holes. They resembled deep, bowl-shaped indents in the floor that were lined with cushions. The Krell liked to sleep in them, and they provided some measure of privacy for wayward lovers. She hopped down into the recess, lying on her back on the downy pillows and opening her legs in invitation, as if it her intentions weren't obvious enough already. Her lust had transcended simple desire, now it was a need, a deep and shameless greed that made her head spin.
Sleethe was still hard, the species had no refractory period due to their frenzied method of mating, able to breed with dozens of females in quick succession. He could go again immediately, there was no reason to wait.
Lena lay there in the pit, her lover's thick fluids still clinging to her face and chest, chewing idly on a fingernail as she played her eyes across his mammoth body. She could see her tiny hand prints coating his belly and hips, along with her name and the little heart that she had drawn. His still rigid member was a patchwork of partial hand prints and smears left by her fingers, a few stray blobs of his semen still clinging to his azure flesh.
“Cover your hands in dye,” she said, pointing towards the clay pot. He delved both hands into the container, Lena watching as he withdrew them, stained purple by the pigment. She beckoned to him with her finger, Sleethe lumbering down into the pit, the cushions sagging as he put his immense weight on them. The pit was deep enough to completely obscure Lena from outside view, yet scarcely enough to reach the Krell's knees.
He crouched over her, his member tantalizingly close, and as he reached down towards her she caught his thick wrists in her hands. She guided him down towards her hips, and had him wrap his fingers around her lower body, his hands large enough that his thumbs left symmetrical marks on her belly while his fingers delved into the meat of her ass and cradled her lower back. There was no clean skin between her knees and her navel now, it was all covered in his lurid hand prints, overlaid one on top of the other to mark everywhere that he had groped and squeezed.
Lena mewled as he lifted her butt off the cushions, kneading her cheeks in his hands as he rubbed the smooth length of his shaft against her sodden vulva, so wet now that his contact was almost frictionless. She couldn't be any more ready for him, but a nagging voice in the back of her head still warned her that they needed to take it slow. What she wouldn't give to feel him bottom out inside her with the first thrust, but it wasn't in the cards.
An obscene idea popped into her head, her feverish mind throwing them out with abandon tonight, and she scraped a cupped palm across her chest. The layer of clinging fluid was so thick, a sagging web of it linking the mess to her breasts as she pulled her hand away, coated in his slippery semen. She caught his member in her fingers and smeared the lurid concoction all over it, feeling his firm organ pulse and jump at her touch. She hoped that the slimy goo would ease along their encounter. He was a different species, he couldn't get her pregnant no matter how deep he fucked this syrupy gunk. The thought of it made her head spin, her seething excitement making her so impossibly sensitive that just having his warm, smooth organ pressed between her labia had her teetering on the edge of sanity.
Sleethe pressed the wide head of his member against her opening, Lena feeling it throb in time with the beating of his massive heart. He seemed almost as eager as she was, a rope of his saliva escaping his jaws to land on her belly as he crouched over her. He kept his hands securely wrapped around her hips, positioning her like she was little more than a doll as he prepared to take her.
She could feel the layer of warm slime that now coated his glans, making their coupling even more slippery than it would have been, and once again that familiar sensation of pleasure bordering on pain shot through her as he pushed forward. The fat head of his member splayed her wide, eased along by their mingling fluids, Lena's nails digging into the palms of her hands as she balled her fists and endured it.
No matter how many times they did this, it always felt like the first time, her body always shrinking back down to its natural proportions when he was done with her. His shovel-shaped head slid inside her, the copious lubrication making his penetration easier than normal as her flowing juices blended with his syrupy ejaculate. It wasn't cooling or drying, she realized. Just as the hot and humid atmosphere made her skin damp and clammy, so too did it keep her lover's semen warm and wet, as if it had left his body scant moments ago. She could still taste him on her lips, still smell his musk, his fluids clinging to her chest and still dripping from her red face.
Her thighs snapped together reflexively as he pushed deeper, stretching her silken walls to capacity. She arched her spine, feeling his erection dig into her passage, scouring her sensitive flesh as it drove deeper. It felt like someone was pushing a hot fist into her, his azure flesh flexible and rubbery enough that it was more discomfort than acute pain, Lena so aroused that the dull ache morphed into a smoldering pleasure almost immediately.
Sleethe grumbled in his low tones, the sonic waves tickling her senses and making her boobs and thighs ripple like water on the surface of a pond. Her insides gripped him with renewed fervor and aggression, squeezing down on him like a vice as he struggled to get deeper. She could feel his slippery fluids inside her, thick and clumpy, his cruel organ smearing them all over her most intimate reaches as he inched forward little by little.
Finally there was a popping sensation as he succeeded in getting his wide glans all the way inside her, digging into her g-spot by virtue of its alien shape alone. It sent a harsh burst of pleasure tearing through her body, her walls doing their utmost to close around it. She felt the smoothness of his shaft, felt every throb of blood that rushed through it, her skin sticking to the plush pillows beneath her with a lurid mixture of sweat and bodily fluids.
It was impossible to get clean in this environment, it was maddening, and there was some perverse catharsis in becoming as sullied as possible.
She loosed a pained cry as he gave her another, harder thrust, his member boring its way into her sensitive reaches as she squirmed and gasped. She could hear her blood pumping in her ears, along with her ragged breath, her breasts bouncing enticingly as her chest rose and fell rapidly.
Sleethe leaned closer, doubling over in order to bring his long snout down towards her wobbling breasts, his lipless jaws opening and his blue tongue winding forth like a snake. His hot, slimy flesh found her boob, this one painted with a yellow hand print and still glazed with a sheen of his come. He was undeterred, the length of wet muscle curling around the soft globe and squeezing it, her malleable flesh deforming around it as his grip tightened like a boa constrictor crushing its prey. He kneaded the tender breast tissue beneath her velvety fat, the tapered end of his lengthy organ seeking out one of her swollen nipples and beginning to tease it.
Lena was awash in pleasure, drowning in it, as if every ragged lungful of air sent her deeper into her fugue. Her body was scarcely under her control, she felt feverish, mad. All she could do was lie there and endure the throes of her ecstasy, anything more than that would have overloaded her brain.
Her reptilian lover reached the limits of her passage, the heavenly blend of bliss and soreness that only he could provide making her groan like a wounded beast. She braced herself for what she knew was coming, squirming in his scaly grasp as his glans raked against her sensitive passage on the way back out. Another stab of sharp pleasure rocked her as its cruel shape grated against her sweet spot. He didn't even have to go searching for it, there was no finesse or skill required, he was so large and so oddly shaped that he left no part of her untouched.
He paused there for a moment, enduring his own brand of torment as her muscles contracted and clenched around him, milking him in an almost deliberate effort to push him over the edge. He was still sensitive from his last orgasm, she could feel it in the way that he was hesitating, the way that his prehensile tongue faltered as it lapped at her breast.
Lena was jolted out of her stupor, glancing to her right and realizing that her translator was still attached to her forearm, still activated and listening for input. She had never turned it off after the ceremony, she had been too distracted. Sleethe had never spoken during sex before, not in a way that she could understand. Her heart fluttered as she wet her lips and replied, hoping that the translator would pick up her breathy, wavering voice.
“You think I'm tight? What else?”
He heard the translator as it did its best to approximate his language, the giant reptile taking a moment to parse the phrase. His tongue slid back into his mouth, leaving a wet smear on her bust.
“Smooth, soft,” he rumbled in that wonderfully masculine and raspy voice. He planted his tongue on her belly, dragging it up between her breasts and glancing her neck, Lena shivering in delight. “Pale skin is like glass...”
“And what will you do with me?” She prompted, seething with arousal as he sweet-talked her.
“Breed,” he rumbled, pulling her closer and impaling her on his thick shaft.
Lena grunted, his sudden movement taking her by surprise, a jolt of pleasure dancing up her spine. He found a pace as she slowly grew accustomed to feeling him moving inside her, his mammoth organ pumping faster and faster as he held her steady with his massive hands. She was like a toy in his grasp, her head rocking back and her breasts bouncing with every thrust. She was practically upside down now, only her shoulders and head resting on the cushions as Sleethe held her hips in the air, the muscles beneath his painted skin flexing as he slid her up and down his shaft.
“Don't stop,” she gasped, hooking her legs around his leathery hips in an effort to keep him inside her as if afraid that he might try to escape. “I'm already getting...”
There was a wet slap as his tongue flopped onto her belly, Sleethe bringing his snout down close to her. He was remarkably flexible despite his size. He huffed, breathing hot air on her damp skin, Lena peering up at him as his slippery organ crept lower.
“What are you..? Oh, come on!”
She covered her burning face with her hands as his tongue crawled across her mound, its slimy surface probing between her splayed labia, even as he drove his member deep into her tunnel. He was clumsy, distracted, coating her belly and thighs in his thick saliva as he searched. Lena felt a pang of pleasure so sharp and sudden that it made her heart skip a beat as his smooth organ found what it was looking for, grazing her engorged clitoris like wet silk. He began to lick, matching pace with his steady thrusting, the sensations combining into a blur of ecstasy that forced unbecoming whines and mewls from her lips.
Lena crossed her arms over her face, as if it might somehow dampen the stimuli, reduced to a shuddering wreck as he loomed over her. He drove his flared member as deep inside her as he had ever been, the satisfying ache edging more towards an urgent pleasure with each thrust. His tongue was so warm and smooth, his saliva trickling down her belly due to her odd position, Lena glimpsing flashes of its blue flesh when she dared to take a peek.
It was too much stimulation, she couldn't think straight. It felt like someone was frying her brain in a pan of hot oil. His tongue was too large and too unwieldy to do much besides lather her in drool and glance her swollen clitoris, but every time he managed to slide his warm flesh across her most sensitive anatomy, the pleasure was so stark and powerful that it very nearly brought tears to her eyes.
Her hands shot down to grip his scaly wrists as she felt her orgasm welling up inside her, her body twisting and writhing as if in agony, only Sleethe's hold on her preventing her from wriggling free. Everything was coming to a head. The body paint that marked her so intimately, the warm globs of Sleethe's ejaculate that still clung obscenely to her chest and face, the sweat and humidity that made her skin slippery to the touch. The sensation of his member splitting her open as it dug into her body, tearing at every nerve on its way in and out, the unbearable teasing of his agile tongue...
Her orgasm snuck up on her like some kind of stalking predator. In one moment she was feeling that wonderful pleasure rising inside her, and in the next it was upon her, her beleaguered mind filling with static as her muscles seized and her hips shook. She covered her mouth with her hand, her breath catching in her throat as she bucked, her spine curving as tingling pleasure coursed through her glistening body to lick at her nerves like flames. She forced her eyes shut so tightly that she saw stars, flashes of white light pulsing in her mind like strobes, her toes curling so hard that it hurt. It felt like someone was running an electrical current through her dancing body, her mind taking a back seat to raw instinct, Sleethe holding onto her as she quivered on the end of his cock. The muscles in her belly and thighs were practically vibrating, aching as they cramped, fresh sweat pouring from her skin as her body made a futile attempt to prevent itself from overheating.
All the while Lena's consciousness was lost, the ebb and flow of her pleasure buffeting her, leaving her unmoored and adrift on an ocean of rapturous euphoria. With a blend of fear and anticipation, what was left of her higher functions realized that this was only the first wave, and that more were soon to follow.
They came crashing down on her one after another, each more powerful than the last, her loins pulsing and trembling with the effort. Her cruel wringing pushed Sleethe over the edge too, and he joined her in her drawn out orgasm, one of her shuddering contractions chased by a flood of warmth. His thick member throbbed inside her, Lena cooing softly as she felt him jump and flex, another flood of his hot emission quickly filling her to capacity. With nowhere left to go, it was forced out of her, a delicious fullness adding to the dying embers of her climax as his thick semen poured up her back.
He released her, and she slid off the end of his member, collapsing into the pile of pillows. She writhed for a moment, her fingers moving frantically between her sodden thighs as she eased out another aftershock, her movements burying her deeper into the damp cushions. Sleethe's warm mess was still leaking out of her, no longer plugged up by his thick glans. Lena could feel the syrupy fluid between her fingers as she stroked herself, her afterglow so encompassing and potent that she felt like she was floating.
Her titanic lover dropped down beside her, his weight bouncing her into the air as his bulk displaced the cushions. She felt his soft underbelly press up against her from behind, his massive arm curling around her body and pulling her tight against his chest. She hugged his bicep, almost as thick around as a person, wallowing in her euphoria as he blew warm air into her hair.
They lay together for what must have been minutes, but the feeling wasn't going away. What if he had fucked her silly, and she would stay like this forever? She giggled to herself at the thought, relaxing her tired muscles as she listened to Sleethe's heavy breathing. Lena felt like she had run a marathon, and then had taken a hit of ecstasy shortly after. Her brain was fried and the somewhat athletic sex had only compounded her soreness from that morning's romp through the swamp.
Even lying here, covered in sweat and fluids, the softness of the cushions beneath her and the warmth of Sleethe's body made her feel as if all the stress had been worked out of her muscles like someone wringing a dish rag of dirty water. This feeling would fade eventually, but for now it felt like nothing existed beyond the rim of the sleeping pit. Her lover's taste was on her lips, his scent all over her, his love still slowly dribbling out of her loins as soreness and satisfaction confused her nerves. Perfect...
As she gripped his girthy arm, running her fingers gently across his leathery hide and enjoying its familiar texture, she noticed that her hands were stained with rainbow pigments. They almost looked marbled, the dyes clinging to her pale skin. She felt another pulse of residual pleasure, looking down at her body over the bulk of Sleethe's arm. His hand prints were all over her, and she was pretty sure that he had written his name on her back. Her thighs, butt, breasts and groin. All coated in brightly colored dye that stood out prominently against her milky complexion, on display to everyone, a record of everywhere that Sleethe had touched her.
Lena wanted to stay awake, she wanted to enjoy this for as long as it lasted, but her body was being uncooperative. Her eyes were so heavy, and Sleethe's rhythmic breathing was hypnotic, lulling her into sleep. She finally gave in, closing her eyes, hoping that just a little of this wonderful feeling would remain when she next opened them.
CHAPTER 8: CULTURAL PURSUITS
Lena leaned her head back, letting the slow stream of water flow through her hair. She was standing outside the temple, beneath a spot on the roof where water condensated and pooled, collecting in large enough quantities to create a sort of makeshift shower. It was a slow rain, but it was enough to clean her up. This time she had soaps and shampoos from her duffel bag, and she was reveling in the sensation of having her skin clean of sweat, if only for the duration of her shower. She would go down to the lake later in the day and have a good swim, but she wasn't about to walk through the village with the sticky evidence of what her and Sleethe had done the previous night still clinging to her skin.
She could wash off his ejaculate, but she couldn't wash off the pigments. Just the thought of it made her cheeks redden, and she stuck out her butt, turning her head and peering back over her shoulder as she attempted to assess the damage. There was a hand print on one breast that encompassed it completely, while the floral design that had been painted on the other one was still intact. Both of her butt cheeks had several hand prints each in varying colors, as did her thighs. There were two very large and prominent marks on her hips where Sleethe had held her while he...while they had made love, and there was a very noticeable one on her groin, the finger marks rising above her waistline and impossible to conceal.
Having her lover mark her body had been such a rush at the time, she had been drunk on the arousal, but now she was having some regrets. She gave the hand print on her boob an experimental scrub with the soap, but she knew that it was no use. The dye had stained several layers of her skin, like a semi-permanent tattoo, and it wouldn't come off until she shed those layers. Fortunately they should be completely gone by the time that she returned home, but she still had to contend with the locals.
Should she put her hazmat suit back on? No, it might offend them. Besides, fuck the hazmat suit. The entire village had seen her breasts already and so she no longer felt any need to conceal them. She was cooler without her tank top, more comfortable, more hygienic. Nope, this was now a bra-less planet. She wasn't wearing her shorts right now either, nobody ever seemed to come to the temple unless some kind of ceremony was happening.
The flow of water was just strong enough to wash the soap suds off her body, and she stepped out from beneath the gentle stream feeling refreshed. It was a shame that it wasn't cool, the water was the same temperature as the humidity in the environment. There was no point drying off, and so she made her way back around the wooden platform that skirted the temple, admiring the carvings on the twisted trees that served as its supports as she went.
She was actually starting to enjoy herself now that she was growing more accustomed to the planet. Without boots, the damp wood was less slippery and precarious. The more layers of clothing that she removed, the more comfortable she felt, and the less the muggy air interfered with her. It was only the last vestiges of her modesty that still compelled her to cover her lower body in the company of the aliens.
She made her way back into the temple, pushing through the bead curtain and wringing water out of her hair with her hands, heading back over to her pile of gear. She stooped to rummage for a pair of clean shorts, dancing on the spot as she struggled to pull them on, the fabric sticking to her wet skin. If only she had thought to bring a bathing suit, it would have made things so much easier.
Sleethe had been gone when she had woken up, and she noted that the sleeping pit was still empty. Where had he wandered off to, and how had he managed to leave without rousing her? Oh well, he'd probably be back soon, he wouldn't have left her on her own unless it was for something important.
Lena sat in front of her computer terminal, hitting the button that would bring it out of sleep mode. Good, it had finished parsing the Krell alphabet, now she could give it a look over and see if she could make sense of it. With any luck she might be able to start reading the runes on these walls soon.
She reached over into her bag and withdrew another ration packet, opening it up and fishing for a protein bar as she began to scrolls through the characters that the algorithm had been able to identify. Fortunately it didn't look to be as complex as she had feared. Chinese this was not, it was perhaps closer to Latin but with more unique sounds and concepts to convey. Not all of the letters corresponded to the phonetic information that she had recorded with Sleethe's help, and so those examples must be either combinations of multiple characters, or perhaps used to express more complex themes. It was an oddly efficient language, which contrasted starkly with the artistry that she saw in their architecture and their culture. Maybe she was still missing something...
Her concentration was broken as someone lumbered in through the curtain, making a sound like a pair of maracas or a rainstick as the shells and beads clattered against their scutes. It was Sleethe, and he seemed to have something bundled up in his arms. It was hard to tell exactly what in the dimly lit temple.
“Hey big guy, what kept you? Been doing some sunbathing to get your body temperature up?”
He walked over to her, his heavy footsteps making the floor vibrate beneath her, then came to a stop with his arms outstretched over her head like he was about to drop whatever it was that he was carrying.
“What have you got there?”
Sleethe huffed with amusement, opening his massive arms and letting the contents rain down on her. It was flowers. Dozens, no, hundreds of flowers. Every shape and size, every color under the sun, the petals lazily floating down onto her like confetti. She laughed in surprise, reaching out and catching one of them in her hand, bringing it closer to examine it. It was beautiful, with pink petals that were splayed wide, and dozens of yellow stamens protruding from its center. She looked up, watching as Sleethe's payload fluttered about her, falling from a considerable height due to her sitting position and his exaggerated stature.
They landed on her crossed legs, coming to rest on her head and shoulders, carpeting the wood floor around her like colorful snow. There were lilies that he must have picked from the water. They looked almost like teacups with thick, purple stamens, their wide brim of petals a shade of pristine white. There were flowers that almost looked like roses with their bunched up petals, colored a deep pink that faded towards a darker red as it neared the center. Lena could pick out examples that looked like stars in shades of blue and green, what resembled tulips and daisies, orchids and bluebells. They came in reds and pinks, blues and vibrant purples, fiery oranges and lemon yellows. Many were still attached to their green stems, while others were simply clumps of colored petals. Lena beamed as she lifted her arms into the air and let the plants cascade over her.
“What are you doing, you big goof?” Lena chuckled, lying on her back in the carpet of flowers, her enchantment impossible to disguise. “Did you do all of this for me?”
“Lena wants flowers,” Sleethe stated, her translator reproducing his speech.
“Specimens,” she giggled. “I need specimens for my work. But...this is pretty great too.”
She sifted through the blanket of flowers, brushing them out of her hair and selecting a few of the more intact examples, placing them carefully into stasis containers. Sleethe seemed pleased with himself, and while most of these specimens were damaged, he had managed to find some very strange plants that she was quite interested in cataloging. Also, it had been kind of cute. Ok, very cute.
“You'll have to show me where you found a few of these,” she said, placing what closely resembled a foxglove into one of the containers. “I didn't see any of them on our foray into the swamp, and I'd like to take pictures of their natural habitats.”
“Come, I show.”
“Right now? I just finished decoding your alphabet, and I wanted to start matching them to the reliefs on the walls. Will it take long? Are we going out into the swamp again?”
He shook his head, reaching out a hand towards her and lifting her to her feet.
“Flowers close. Come.”
She followed behind him, and they left the temple through the curtain of beads, emerging into the village. He led her downwards, descending through a maze of platforms and rope bridges. It was like an artificial jungle. Lena was able to keep her bearings by keeping an eye on where the pale trees that held up the temple were in relation to her. It was the oldest structure, placed dead center in the middle of the village, and so as long as she could see their twisted trunks she had a pretty good idea of where she was.
The rope bridges felt a little precarious at times, swinging back and forth and creaking under her weight, but if they could hold Sleethe's massive frame then they could hold her too. She really was finding it easier to get around without her boots on, she was able to grip the damp wood with her toes and she rarely found herself slipping as she had before.
As they descended into the dank depths of the village, she began to notice changes in the environment. The structure appeared to have been built from the ground up, and so the deeper they got, the older the buildings became. It was also wetter and cooler, as any moisture that collected above would inevitably find its way downwards. Many of the planks that made up the walls of the huts and the floors of the platforms that skirted them were swollen with damp, the carvings and runes less legible due to the way that the wood had warped and shifted over what must have been centuries. It was getting dark too, the structures above them blocking out what little sunlight penetrated the thick cloud cover.
Everywhere that she looked there were supports and twisted trees that had been cultivated in order to prop up the village. It was like being inside a dense, artificial forest. The beams were braced against anything and everything, the huts and trees, even each other. They were so dense in places that she couldn't even see past them. Once again she was reminded of walking beneath a pier at low tide, it was just as damp, but with fungi and mosses instead of barnacles and seaweed.
It seemed that whenever the builders of this crazy construct felt it was necessary, they just added another support, or else let the mangrove trees naturally wind their way through in their quest for light. It looked to Lena like a gentle breeze would send the whole thing toppling over like a stack of playing cards, and yet hundreds of Krell lived here, with a combined weight of perhaps two or three hundred tons. That didn't include the weight of the structure itself of course, which she had no way to estimate.
She remarked that there was more moss here too, more fungi clinging to every available surface. They must like the relative cool and the darkness provided by the upper platforms, they were flourishing here in quantities that surprised her. Even the floor was covered in a layer of thick moss that almost felt like wet grass under her bare feet, and everywhere grew mushrooms with brightly colored caps. She wondered if they were edible, or perhaps poisonous. She had to be careful not to eat anything unless she had her food scanner on hand, what was safe by Krell standards might not be safe for a human to consume.
The Krell had remarkably effective immune systems that seemed to make them almost impervious to disease and sickness, much like the crocodiles of Earth. They could even lose a limb and be relatively none the worse for wear, even in their native environment infections must be rare. Not so with Lena, but she had brought medical equipment for use where necessary. With any luck she wouldn't ingest tepid swamp water or get bitten by some horrible creature and get a nasty infection.
They were now so close to the ground that she could make out the mud through the mist, where was Sleethe leading her? This wasn't the route that they had taken to exit the village previously.
He dropped down into the mud, and Lena followed him down the gangplank, feeling the muck between her toes as she sank into the ground up to her ankles. It really was cooler down here, not so cool that it was much of a relief from the pervasive heat and humidity, but it was noticeable. Sleethe gestured for her to follow, winding his way between the great supports as he went. He could scarcely move, everything was so tightly packed, but Lena's small stature made it far easier for her.
She wondered how far into the mud these supports had been driven, and how far the roots of the trees dug down. Much like the plants that grew around the roots of the mangroves, perhaps they were also helping to make the earth here harder and better able to support the village above. Everything here was interdependent it seemed, even their artificial structures were like ecosystems in their own right, carefully tended to by the Krell.
“Who built all of this Sleethe?”
“Builders,” he replied, his voice echoing between the pillars.
“Long time before me.”
Before his birth then. That could mean decades, or it could mean centuries. 'Builder' likely referred to another vocation, like the ones that the elder had painted on their bodies.
“And who maintains it now?” Lena asked, feeling the soft moss beneath her hand as she leaned on one of the supports. “Who adds new supports and grows more trees?”
His answers were as helpful as ever. As they struggled through the bowels of the village, Lena began to notice splashes of color amongst the ashen trees and the brown mud. There were flowers growing here, clinging to whatever they could grasp with their roots. They were behaving somewhat like creepers, unable to grow in the mud itself, but thriving where the mangroves made the earth firm enough to take hold and climbing up the wooden supports. There were flowering shrubs, clumps of dark green leaves with vibrant, star-shaped flowers in hues of indigo and purple. Vines similar to the ones that she had seen during her trip through the swamp were here also, coiling their way along roots and beams, covered in blossoms that looked like pink roses.
It was almost as if someone had hidden a beautiful garden down here, like something out of a storybook. They were everywhere that she looked, growing thicker and more numerous as she walked slowly forward, sprouting from the ugly muck and damp as if to spite it. Soon there wasn't a support or
a tree in sight that wasn't decorated with flowers like a maypole at a midsummer festival, creating a kaleidoscope of rainbow colors. Even the ever present rotting vegetation smell that hung over the planet was giving way to their sweet aroma, as if someone had been spraying around a bottle of perfume.
Movement caught her eye, and she noticed a small insect flying through the air, its abdomen flashing brightly in the gloom like a firefly. It bobbed around lazily, before landing in the center of a blooming flower that was growing up one of the supports, its petals spread open like a tiny explosion of oranges and yellows. It was pollinating, most likely. Did these flying insects serve the same purpose that bees did on Earth? Flowering plants were evolved to attract pollinating insects after all, that was their purpose.
She started to notice more of them, dozens of insects winking with a ghostly green glow as they flew between the patches of flowers. They almost looked like errant stars, the slow and leisurely pace in which they hovered about had a hypnotic quality that made her feel almost compelled to watch them.
“Sleethe, it's...like a dream. Why are these plants growing here?”
He turned around to face her, gesturing to his pale belly. Lena blushed, seeing the hand prints and the writing that she had left there during their night of passion. The implication was easy enough to understand.
“The pigments? This is where you get them from? You cultivate these flowers and then use them to make the colored dyes?”
He nodded, watching her as she explored. They must boil these plants, or perhaps grind them into a fine powder, as ancient humans once did in order to color their textiles. She had to wonder what about the dyes made them so potent and long-lasting. Was it a natural property of the plants that grew here, or did the Krell add something else to the mixture before it went into those large clay pots?
She brought up her wrist-mounted computer and began to capture video, recording the insects as they floated between the flowers.
“I hope they like this back home,” she muttered, “I know I do.”
After spending perhaps a half hour cataloging everything, she turned the camera back on herself, intending to provide some context for what was happening.
“As you can see,” she began, wiping her damp hair out of her face. “The Krell have cultivated some kind of botanical garden down here amongst the supports that hold up the village. They must have brought seeds from far and wide, because I didn't see any of these plants growing locally. Sleethe tells me that they're used to make pigments, dyes that the native people use to stain their skin. I underwent one such ceremony myself just last night, where...”
Lena looked down at herself, her cheeks reddening as she realized that she was still nude save for her shorts. She quickly turned the camera off, surprising herself by how comfortable she already felt in her nudity. It had only been a couple of days, but already being naked was becoming so routine that she hadn't even thought about it. Better delete the video from that file when she got back to the temple...
“I'd like to come down here again when I have more gear,” she said, “take some measurements and make some more records. For now, let's go back up into the village. You'd better lead the way, because I'll probably get lost in this maze.”
Sleethe nodded, setting off, but she caught his scaly hand as he passed her by and held it for a moment.
“Thanks big guy, this was pretty cool.”
He huffed, pleased with himself, then began to guide her back through the forest of wooden pillars and into the billowing mist.
After a short climb back up the way they had come, Lena emerged into sunlight again, clearing the layer of fog as she felt the warmth of the system's twin stars on her cheeks. There were so many tiers and layers to this village, but now she could see the roiling clouds above her, tracking their way slowly across the green sky. It was hotter up here, but less claustrophobic. While the brief reprieve from the heat had been welcome, it felt good to be able to see more than ten feet in any direction again.
Sleethe reached out a leathery hand, and she took it, the reptile helping her off the gangplank and onto one of the wooden platforms that ringed the dwellings.
“Before we go back to the temple,” Lena began, “mind if I take a look around the village? I want to see how the people here live.”
He nodded his head, releasing her hand.
“Go where you will,” he said, her translator buzzing in her ear.
“Any idea where the people here hang out? Is there a town square, a community center, anything like that?”
He shrugged. He might be a Krell, but he wasn't native to this village, and all villages didn't necessarily share a common layout. Oh well, time to do some exploring.
Lena wandered with Sleethe in tow for perhaps a half hour, but she didn't find much of interest. There were very few Krell actually living in the village itself, it seemed that they mostly just came here to sleep. She had chanced a glance inside some of the unoccupied dwellings, finding little inside beyond one or two sleeping pits and a few shelves and chests to hold sundries. It appeared that they didn't bathe in their homes, they didn't eat there, and whatever jobs and duties they were tasked with performing were done elsewhere.
“It's like a ghost town,” she complained, the wooden floorboards creaking under Sleethe's weight as he lumbered along beside her. “There's nobody here. Where are all the Krell who attended the ceremony? What are they doing?”
“Basking or swimming, maybe hunting,” Sleethe replied with a shrug. “Hut only for sleeping.”
“But are there no stores? Where do people buy or trade goods? Where do they turn those flowers into usable dyes, where do they make the necklaces that everyone seems to be wearing, where do they cook their food?”
“Necklace? I can show.”
“Sure, show me the necklaces. That's something at least.”
He led her downwards, and they followed the trail of rope bridges and gangplanks that she was now growing accustomed to as they traveled from platform to platform. Eventually her bare feet found mud, and Sleethe began to lead her away from the village, off towards the shore of the lake. She got the impression that he didn't quite know where he was going, his long snout turning this way and that as he searched. Lena had to keep in mind that while native to Krell, he wasn't native to this particular village. While it seemed that the Krell had a planet-spanning culture where each village shared many similarities, he had known where to find the flowers after all, perhaps there were subtle differences between them. Each settlement seemed to be a fair distance apart, they had traveled several miles to and from the village without seeing any other signs of civilization.
After walking for perhaps a quarter hour they neared the treeline of one of the many mangrove forests, and Sleethe seemed to spot what he was looking for. He changed course, Lena marching through the mud behind him, and through the mist she saw a cluster of shapes. As they neared and her eyes penetrated the fog, the dark silhouettes became a circle of perhaps a dozen Krell, sitting on the ground near one of the pale trees. They were doing...something, but Lena was too short to see past the wall of scutes and scales.
Sleethe rumbled a greeting as they approached, and it was returned as the group of aliens shifted positions to peer at him. One of them stood, a female judging by the wide hips and slimmer torso, taller and darker than the others. Not necessarily an elder, but certainly older. She lumbered towards them, glancing down at Lena. The academic felt a moment of self-consciousness as the woman's yellow eyes scanned her naked body, an arm moving to cover her breasts reflexively, but then she realized that the stranger was simply reading her credentials. At a glance she would know who Lena was, where she had come from, and what her profession was.
As soon as the dark female was close enough, she brushed heads with Sleethe, and then crouched down to bump her forehead against Lena's. Despite her stature, Lena did her best to return the greeting, their own version of an Eskimo kiss. Her earbud crackled to life as the translator picked up the beginnings of their conversation.
“Welcome, kin. Why are you here?” The female asked.
“My mate is scholar, she seeks the knowledge of necklaces,” Sleethe replied. The female turned her long snout to stare down at Lena, examining her curiously. She wondered what the aliens made of her. While the men on the Pinwheel seemed to see relations with aliens almost as a sport, there was some resentment amongst the female personnel, especially where Borealans were concerned. The felines were naturally endowed with exaggerated feminine traits, and they were very promiscuous when compared with most human women. While it was certainly possible for those same women to pursue alien partners, the Equatorials were a little too aggressive for their liking and the far gentler Polars were in very short supply. There were plenty of Krell on the station, but to Lena's knowledge she was the only human of either gender to be romantically involved with one of the giant reptiles. Their loss, the Krell were model lovers in her opinion.
“A female? Then she may join us,” the stranger said, gesturing towards the circle of waiting Krell. Sleethe nodded to Lena, and she felt the female's hand on the small of her back, gently guiding her towards the group of aliens. Sleethe wasn't coming it seemed, was making jewelry a female-only activity? Perhaps like the Maasai tribes of Kenya and Tanzania, the Krell women set aside time to work on their craft each day.
Lena sat down in the circle, crossing her legs on the mud as the two Krell to her immediate left and right peered down at her. These were young, judging by the lighter color of their scales. While Sleethe was a spinach green and the older Krell were almost onyx black, these juveniles were closer to pistachio, and they were almost imperceptibly smaller than Sleethe was.
“A new sister wishes to learn from us,” the dark female said, “we will impart our knowledge.”
The circle of young aliens examined her, no doubt curious as to where she was from, the answer to which was drawn across her chest.
“You have many marks,” one of the young Krell commented.
Lena reddened, realizing that Sleethe's salacious hand prints were all over her body. It had been the hottest thing conceivable at the time, but now it was like having to live with a tattoo that one had gotten while drunk.
“She is small, there is little room,” another added. There was a chorus of rumbling agreements, Lena seemed to have dodged a bullet. She turned her attention towards the center of the circle, where there was a pile of what looked like trash. Upon closer inspection it was comprised of the materials required to make the necklaces that they wore. There were colorful beads arranged on flat leaves, lengths of dry grass that were being woven together to form string, assorted shells and bones. One of the females was carving a piece of wood with a small knife, not metal, it looked perhaps ceramic or obsidian.
“You are not from here,” the teacher said, lumbering over and crouching in front of Lena. She was like an insect before the giant Krell, her dark scutes reflecting the light like glass as she examined her new student.
“No, I'm human,” she replied.
“But you seek knowledge? This is admirable. Come, I will teach it.”
Lena rose to her feet and followed the teacher over to the pile, where the alien stooped to pick up a handful of dry grass or perhaps reeds. She turned and dropped it on the floor at Lena's feet, then gestured to it.
“You are scholar, but even scholar will make necklaces if they are female.”
So her assumption had been correct, making jewelry was a task reserved only for women. There were similar customs in a great number of human cultures.
“Why do you make necklaces?” Lena asked.
“Are necklaces not made where you were spawned?”
“Then you are as a hatchling. I will teach you this.” She took Lena by the hand and led her over to the pile of beads, selecting a shiny red one between her claws. It was about the size of a marble, not a small feat for such a large creature. She held it up to the light, Lena watching as the bead refracted the glow from the twin suns. It seemed to be made from some kind of glass. They probably smelted it from silica sand, but Lena hadn't seen any during her exploratory forays into the swamps. Perhaps these beads, or the materials required to make them, were imported from somewhere else. Evidence of trade between villages perhaps?
“Beads are arranged in patterns,” the teacher explained, “each pattern is different. Some bring luck while fishing, others enhance fertility, some make the wearer grow larger.”
They had magical properties then, they were charms as well as decorative jewelry. Lena hadn't pegged the Krell as a superstitious people, but tribal cultures all had their spells and fetishes.
“Every necklace is unique,” the teacher continued, “each person have different needs. Different desires. The hunter wishes for speed and stealth, the romantic wishes to meet a mate when she is in season, a parent hopes that their spawn will survive until adulthood. Before you make your necklace, tell me what you wish for.”
“I...uh,” Lena stammered, pondering the question. What did she wish for? “Knowledge,” she finally replied, and the teacher rumbled approvingly.
“You are scholar, this is natural. What else?”
Her love life was in order, so what else did she want? This was all nonsense of course, the necklaces would not confer any mystical powers, but it would be rude to treat their beliefs with anything less than the same reverence that the Krell afforded them.
“Respect,” she replied. She was prominent in her field, but some people still treated her like a little girl at times. As much as she respected Barnes and valued his tutelage, he still saw her more like a granddaughter than as a fellow academic. She was hoping that this expedition would win her some more clout with the higher ups at the UAS, show them that she was capable of getting her hands dirty in the field.
“I will teach you the patterns,” the teacher said, “come.”
Many of the other females were already hard at work on their own necklaces. They were weaving together plant fibers to make string, slotting beads onto them, and then arranging them in colorful patterns. They added shells here and there, sometimes a small piece of carved wood. The work was surprisingly intricate for the large and outwardly clumsy reptiles.
So each female made their own necklace, as if wearing their hopes and dreams on their sleeve for all others to see. It was an odd concept, one that was foreign to human society where such aspirations and heartfelt desires were kept under lock and key, only to be shared with one's closest confidantes. Just as the Krell wore their official information on their skin, so too did they put aspects of their personality on display via these items of jewelry.
There was no need for dating services on Krell, if someone sorely wanted a mate, then you would be able to read it in the patterns on their necklace. Looking for friends to share in a hunting trip? Just go looking for hunters, their aspirations would be woven into their jewelry.
The teacher placed a large, flat leaf in Lena's hands, about the size and shape of a water lily. She began to pile it with beads and fronds of dry grass, selecting them based on color and shape as Lena became weighed down by the load. When she was done, she directed Lena to return to her place in the circle. She sat down in the mud, placing the laden leaf at her feet. It was obviously there to prevent the beads from getting lost or dirty in the wet soil. The teacher crouched in front of her and began to weave the fronds together, braiding them into a stronger strand. When that was done, she deftly threaded the beads onto the string, creating a colored pattern that reminded Lena of a coral snake. It was surprisingly delicate work, and it was immediately obvious to Lena how the colorful bands would look when the piece was finished.
She began to copy the teacher, who seemed pleased by how quickly she had understood. Perhaps the juveniles had needed more instruction. She explained to Lena how the pattern that she had arranged communicated the pursuit of knowledge and a desire to be respected and recognized, but it was steeped in Krell mythology, and coupled with the often lackluster translations she didn't glean much useful information from the exchange. She elected to just do as the teacher instructed, rather than making an attempt to understand the finer points. There was something about the twin suns being sisters, a lake spirit, too vague and metaphorical for an accurate translation.
The teacher left Lena to her own devices for a while, tending to her other students, and before long Lena had finished assembling what was to be the base of the necklace. She had ended up with a disk of beads, one bead thick and ten beads deep, the pattern that the teacher had shown her repeating around its circumference. It was quite pretty, and Lena was proud of her handiwork. It was just as good as any of those made by her immediate neighbors. She had a few beads left over, as she had made the necklace smaller than those of the other students so that it would fit around her relatively tiny neck.
Noting that she was done, the teacher returned to examine it, turning it over in her massive hands as she inspected Lena's craftsmanship.
“Good, but small. You are also small, no matter. Come, next we add shells.”
Lena rose to her feet and walked over to the pile of materials, where the aliens had assembled a large stack of assorted shells. They had obviously been gathered along the shore of the lake, or perhaps on the muddy bottom, coming in all shapes and sizes. They were not unlike the seashells that one might find littering the beaches of Earth, spirals and conchs, snail and clam shells.
“What do these represent?” Lena asked.
“Just for looks,” the teacher replied dismissively. They were just decorative then? Fair enough. Lena selected the shells that she liked the look of, returning to her seat with a handful and beginning to attach them to another string that was placed at the bottom rung of the necklace, the shells having already been drilled with holes at some point. She noted that they still smelled of the lake. They must have been collected recently. Come to think of it, all of these materials seemed to have been recently harvested. She asked the teacher if that was the case, and the dark-scaled Krell seemed pleased that she was showing an interest.
“Materials must be collected on same day, only beads are reused. Unused shells must be returned to the lake, unused reeds left to decay. The magic is strongest when fresh.”
Ah, it was part of their superstitions then. The beads were artificial in nature and so they seemed to be exempt, but all of the organic components had to be collected and used on the same day, or else returned to nature.
Before long Lena had finished, and a chain of assorted shells now dangled beneath the colorful bands of beads. There was only one touch left, the wooden charms that she had seen some of the females carving. There was a pile of them on a flat leaf beside the reeds, polished smooth like pebbles on a riverbed, about the size of Lena's palm. They too were organic, and so they must have been fashioned earlier that day, the ashen color suggested that they had come from the mangrove trees.
Carving was something that Lena was not well versed in, and so when the teacher handed her a charm and one of the obsidian knives, she didn't know where to begin. The knife itself was the size of a small sword, she wouldn't have been able to make good use of it even if she had been a master whittler.
“Have you never carved?” The teacher asked her, cocking her head. Apparently carving was as common as writing here, in fact it might be the Krell equivalent. There was no paper here, no computers, no means of storing information besides carving it into wood. In a sense, Lena was illiterate by Krell standards.
“No,” she admitted, “can you show me?”
The aged Krell sat before her on the mud, taking the items from Lena's hands and beginning to explain the purpose of the wooden medallion as she chipped away at it. The knife was incredibly sharp, cutting through the dense material with alarming ease. Where had they obtained obsidian? Like the beads, was it imported from some far off land where the rocks breached the surface of the swamp?
“Charm is for strengthen body or mind,” she muttered as she chipped away at the wood. “You must engrave a rune, and the rune grants power. Beads are your hopes and wishes, rune is what you wish to better about yourself. Admit the flaw, and the rune will help correct it. This rune must be carved by you, but since you cannot carve, I will help.”
Lena watched as the alien carved a swirling character into the wood, and then handed it back to her. She threaded a string through the hole at one end, adding more beads to decorate the bare string as the charm hung from the top layer of the necklace like a pendant. Finally it was complete, Lena holding up her newly minted necklace, smiling as she admired it. The fact that she had made it herself gave it more value than some random trinket that had been bought from a store, and perhaps that was the point. Though she couldn't read the necklace in the way that the Krell did, she knew that the pattern embodied her quest for knowledge and her desire to be recognized for her accomplishments.
“What does the rune mean?” She asked, the teacher rumbling her reply.
“Make you grow taller.”
Lena suppressed a laugh. That was a magical power that she could certainly use.
“If women make the necklaces, where do the men get them?” She asked, the thought only now occurring to her. Most of the males that she had seen had been wearing them, and the village elder had been absolutely covered in several layers of decorative jewelry.
“We make for them, a gift for mates,” she said as her tone turned sly. “He must bare his desires, admit his flaws. Only then can we make necklace for him.”
Lena chuckled again, the Krell females were crafty.
“What about the elder? He had a lot of necklaces.”
“For ceremony,” the teacher explained, “elder carry hopes and desires of whole circle.”
So the elder wore the equivalent of every necklace in the village? It probably wasn't that simple, Lena was sure that they must have pooled some of the elements together, as the elder had not been wearing a hundred separate necklaces. Still, it was a heartwarming concept, to have the leader of the village literally carry the hopes and dreams of his kin.
“Better than most,” the teacher said, her comment directed towards Lena's handiwork. She took it from the academic's hands and draped it about her shoulders, the dangling shells tickling the bare skin atop her breasts. “You know all I can teach, scholar. Take it back with you.”
That was her cue to leave, and Lena thanked the teacher profusely before exiting the circle of juvenile Krell, heading off towards the lake in order to find Sleethe. She suspected that he was probably lounging in the water, and sure enough, that was where she found him.
“Hey Sleethe!” She called, her voice carrying out over the lake. He opened one eye sleepily and wound his way back towards the shore like a massive alligator. The dark water poured from his scutes as he climbed up the muddy shore.
“Look,” Lena announced, twirling for him as she sported her new necklace. “Anyone would think I was going native.”
He examined it for a few moments, clearly still groggy, and then warbled in approval.
“Maybe I'll make one for you soon,” she added with a grin, and the idea seemed to fluster him. She laughed at his reaction, taking him by the scaly arm and steering him towards the village.
“Alright, I'd better get some work done. Let's get back to the temple.”
CHAPTER 9: SECRET HISTORY
The flashlight played across the murals, illuminating the engravings as Lena examined them. Much of the Krell script was phonetic, and so it was fairly easy to piece together what the carved runes were trying to convey. There were some that she just couldn't get her head around, too complex to be parsed by her, or by the computer's algorithms. Still, it wasn't too hard to infer meaning through context.
She had begun beside the entrance, moving clockwise as she walked around the circular room. It was logical to assume that if the Krell wrote up to down and left to right, then the pictograms and reliefs were likely arranged in a similar pattern. She had employed Sleethe's help in some places, having him lift her up onto his shoulders so that she could reach the higher murals.
She was fairly confident that this was a history of their race, which was immensely exciting, but she had no frame of reference. The Krell didn't record time in any way that she could understand. They didn't have a calendar, at least none that she had been able to uncover so far. Whenever she asked Sleethe about it, he was only able to give her very vague measurements that only related to him personally. She could carbon date the wood, but that wouldn't be of any help if the murals were describing events that had transpired far before the walls that they had been inscribed onto had been erected.
Still, a history was starting to come together, one that grew more unusual the more that she learned about it. By the time that the twin suns were getting low in the sky she had collected detailed pictures of each and every mural, adding to the ones that were already in the computer's database, and with the help of some photo editing software she had managed to clean them up as best she could. That left her with a catalog of murals, arranged in the correct order, and with a ninety percent accurate translation of the runes.
Lena took a bite of her protein bar, flicking through the images, Sleethe sitting behind her as he looked over her shoulder at the images flashing by on the trio of screens.
“Ok, let's start from the top. I'm going to read, and you're going to tell me if it's right or wrong. Got it?”
He huffed affirmatively, and she brought up the first image, careful to record everything with her wrist device.
This first mural showed a group of Krell going about what she now knew to be their usual business. They built, cultivated plants, lounged on the mud and swam in the lakes. It seemed very peaceful. The best translation that she could come up with, a combination of machine learning and her own interpretation, was displayed to one side.
“So, an indeterminate number of years ago, the Krell were minding their own business and living their lives. Then...”
She scrolled to the next image, this one showing half a dozen Krell who were hiding inside a thicket of mangrove trees, while a trio of cigar-shaped Broker vessels descended from the sky to land in a clearing. The drawings were fairly crude, reminding her of Medieval etchings, but they did a fair enough job. The Krell appeared afraid, confused, their snouts emerging from between the pale trunks as they looked on.
“The Benefactors came, and they landed on your planet.”
Sleethe nodded, and so she moved on to the next picture. This one depicted a closeup of one of the cigar-shaped vessels, a hole opening up in its hull. It looked much the same as the ship that she had arrived on. The Krell were slowly emerging from the forest, taking a few tentative steps towards what looked like a refrigerator with two legs and four tentacles. The thing seemed to be greeting them.
This was where things got a little more abstract, as the runes appeared to record a conversation between the Krell and the Brokers.
“The benefactors sailed from the skies. They had seen the...purity of the Krell and they...were envious of your flesh. Do I have that right? What was it that they wanted from you?”
Sleethe pushed his fingers into his bicep and rumbled a reply.
“They were envious of your strength?”
The story was written from a Krell perspective, and so she had to take everything they said with a pinch of salt. Depending on how long ago this had happened, it could have been warped by retellings, little more than a legend at this point. She scrolled to the next picture. This one showed a circle of very large Krell, and a Broker at their center, waving its tentacle-like arms as if it was giving a speech. It was hard to tell how big everyone was. The Krell didn't do much for measuring scale, because their heights varied so dramatically. If they were elders then they must be big, they were dwarfing the Broker.
“The elders of tens of ten villages, well that's a hundred. The elders of a hundred villages convened, and the Benefactors asked for their help. They were a peaceful race of...what's this word Sleethe?”
He leaned in close and examined the rune.
“I give, you give,” he rumbled.
“What do you mean?”
He reached over and plucked the half-eaten cereal bar from her hand, then retrieved one of the now sodden flowers from the floor of the temple. He mimed exchanging the items, and Lena snapped her fingers.
“Traders! Thanks Sleethe. So they were a peaceful race of traders, who were threatened by...well this rune must mean 'Bugs'. This one must be describing the war with the Betelgeusians.”
Sleethe nodded, slamming his massive fist down into his palm, as if crushing an insect.
“Bugs hurt friends.”
She leaned back and reached up to scratch him under the chin, the giant reptile cooing happily as she ran her fingers across his leathery neck. She sometimes forgot that he had served as a Linebreaker in the UNN, he must have been in many battles against the Bugs.
“The Benefactors had lost their villages one after another, and prophesied that the Bugs would come to the homes of the Krell as well, unless the two races allied to fight them off. In exchange, the Benefactors offered their debt. Sleethe, is this the birth of the Coalition?”
Amazing, she knew that the Coalition had existed long before humanity had become its third member species, but to uncover the events surrounding its founding was of great historical significance. She moved on to the next slide.
“The Benefactors were few, weak of body but strong of mind. The Krell were many, weak of mind but strong of body. The Benefactors bade that they become kin, and in doing so become protected by the...circle.”
The next picture was a carved relief of a Broker, its blocky body painted with runes and markings. Had it undergone the very same ritual as Lena? It was so hard to make out any features on these depictions, the Brokers did not seem to have eyes or mouths, and they were shaped more like artificial constructs than living things. Were those suits, perhaps? Maybe it was just artistic license by the Krell, expecting a primitive tribal culture to accurately depict an advanced alien was asking a little too much of them.
The next carving in the sequence portrayed many Krell being led onto the cigar-shaped vessels. The perspective was a little off, but it was obviously attempting to convey that a great number of the reptiles had been taken away.
“The Benefactors took the...strongest of the people away. They taught them...conflict. This must mean war or fighting, the Brokers taught the Krell how to fight. Not too different from what we're doing I suppose, teaching the Krell how to use human weapons and then sending them into battle as auxiliaries.”
She was starting to feel a little guilty, but she pressed on.
The next one showed what looked like Krell in strange body armor, wielding weapons that she couldn't identify and which had probably not been accurately reproduced anyway. This mural was like some grand tapestry depicting a monumental battle, with such care and attention to detail. The Krell were killing scores of Bugs, easy to identify by their six limbs. How had she not put two and two together while she had been taking recordings of the murals? Granted, they were a little crude.
The Krell had clearly won some kind of victory against the enemy, and the only evidence of Brokers being present was the depiction of their ships floating above, spewing fire like dragons. Air support, how quaint.
“The Krell took back the stars one by one. Where the Benefactors had fled their homes, they...recovered? Recaptured? If I'm reading this right, it looks like the Bugs captured the Broker colonies one by one and drove them off, and so they employed the Krell to take them back.”
The next slide showed what was almost the opposite of the previous relief. This was a battle that the Krell were losing, Bug drones cutting them down and swarming over their bodies as the Broker ships retreated.
“The Bugs...changed? Adapted? There was a stalemate, guess the Bugs developed new ways to counter the Krell and slowed their advance.”
She moved on to the next picture, Sleethe blowing warm breath in her hair as he watched. This one was a carving of a Broker holding some kind of sphere in its tentacles.
“Many people born from the swamp were lost, and so the Benefactors returned, asking for more soldiers. There were none left to give, and so the Benefactors bade them to make more, but it was not...the season? Oh, it wasn't mating season, you couldn't make more babies. The Benefactors used their...strength of mind, to build the metal eggs.”
She glanced back at Sleethe, an odd feeling of foreboding overtaking her. What were these 'metal eggs'? She swiped at the touch screen, bringing up the next picture. It portrayed what looked like a baby Krell curled up inside an egg, little more than a tiny lizard at that stage of their lives. She had handled such juveniles back on the Pinwheel, during the breeding epidemic that had almost crippled the station.
“The metal eggs birthed new Krell out of season...Sleethe? What is this? Some kind of breeding program? A genetic experiment?”
He couldn't give her an answer, he had no frame of reference. His people had no knowledge of genetics and biology. Who knew in what ways these Brokers had exploited them, free of all scrutiny from those more versed in science and ethics. They had come offering friendship, and they had instead used the Krell to breed a disposable army.
Lena pressed on, her excitement giving way to disgust. The next slide was a carving of dozens of Krell standing in formation as they were presided over by a Broker.
“Those hatched from the metal eggs grew faster than their swamp-born kin, reaching maturity quickly. In a single...season, finally a concrete measure of time for once, the young came of age. Accelerated growth...”
Yes, this was some kind of genetic manipulation. The Krell hadn't been able to breed fast enough to replenish their numbers, and so the Brokers had bred more of them through artificial wombs, tweaking their genes or perhaps altering them through other means in order to speed up their growth.
“The new generation numbered more than the trees, more than the stars. They crashed over the enemy like a great wave, and drove them away from the Benefactor's homes.”
Here was an engraving of a horde of Krell descending upon a swarm of Bugs and fighting them off. The Brokers looked on from above, presiding over the battle but never seeming to take part. At first the Krell looked like they were flying, but on closer inspection they seemed to be swimming, this scene was taking place underwater. There were strange objects that Lena couldn't identify, boxes and spheres floating about that might represent anything. The next scene showed dozens of Broker ships landing in a clearing and disgorging the army of Krell.
“The Benefactors were pleased, and returned the soldiers to the swamp. But those born of the metal eggs knew nothing of their home, they knew nothing of the ways of their people. They were as hatchlings, lost and without purpose.”
The next relief showed what looked like elders, based on their size, trying to teach younger Krell. Some were painting, others carving murals, one was cultivating plants and another seemed to be collecting fish beside a lake. Clearly their accelerated growth had meant that the generation of Krell that the Brokers had reared for war were lacking in fundamental skills, as they had essentially skipped over their upbringing. It wasn't hard to imagine what kind of social problems might have ensued. The Brokers had dumped a population of Krell back onto the planet who had only known war, and who were probably incapable of caring for themselves in the wild.
Her dislike of the Brokers was slowly turning to contempt.
She scrolled to the final image, and this one was very much like the first. The Krell were returning to their usual business and it seemed as if the elders had succeeded in reintegrating the soldiers.
“In time those born of the metal eggs learned the ways of our people, and took their place among us. The Benefactors...gave us their debt?”
They kept bringing up this 'debt' and Lena wasn't sure what that meant. It seemed that the Brokers at least felt some responsibility towards the Krell for the services that they had rendered, was that the reason that the planet's orbit was clogged with Broker defensive structures and drone ships?
The Brokers always tried to come off as mysterious and omnipotent, never showing themselves and only interacting with other races through proxies. But it seemed that in reality they had lost all of their colonies to the Betelgeusians, and they had been forced to seek help from the most primitive species encountered in the galactic arm to date.
It was no wonder that the Brokers didn't want anyone visiting the planet. If the knowledge got out that they had manipulated the Krell and used them as disposable soldiers, how might the other members of the Coalition react? It would cause an interstellar incident. Her mind flashed back to the underwater structure that was hidden at the bottom of the lake, were there more secrets hidden down there?
They would never have let her come here if they had thought her capable of deciphering the Krell language and writing system, and why should they? This was all software that she had developed herself, it wasn't available to the public and they would have had no way of knowing about it beforehand.
“Well,” she said, leaning back and resting her head on Sleethe's lap. “It seems that the Brokers have underestimated us. That's what happens when you think that you're smarter than everyone else, you get taken by surprise when someone proves you wrong. But I guess you knew all of this already, didn't you? You just had no way to tell anyone.”
Sleethe huffed, combing her damp hair with his fingers. Maybe he understood, and maybe he didn't, but Sleethe was Sleethe and she was just happy to be around him.
There were still some questions left unanswered however, most notably when all of this had taken place. If only there was someone that she could ask about it. As she looked down at the monitors, enjoying the sensation of Sleethe's fingers running through her hair, the splash of red runes and pictograms that was painted across her belly jumped out at her.
Of course! How could she have forgotten? The Krell elder had written her vocation right on her skin, scholar, which meant that there must be other scholars around here somewhere. Otherwise why would the elder have known which symbol to use off the top of his head?
“Sleethe!” She exclaimed, springing to her feet and turning to face him. “I need to find a scholar!”
CHAPTER 10: SCHOLAR
“Now why the hell would a scholar be all the way out here?” Lena complained to nobody in particular, trudging through the mud as she followed Sleethe through the dense undergrowth. They had traveled some miles downstream, Lena riding her reptilian companion like a boat again, following the instructions of the elder. Sleethe had taken her to see him, and she had asked him where she might find a fellow scholar. She had only been able to understand some of the reply that he had given, but he had directed them to follow the river downstream by a measure of distance that meant nothing to her, and then to search in the bogs. Fortunately the vague instructions meant something to Sleethe, and he had taken her to what she had to assume was the correct location.
All of the other Krell lived in the village, so why was this scholar out in the middle of the swamp? Was he exiled? Some kind of hermit maybe? It didn't look like there were any structures out here, no huts or neighboring villages. There wasn't much of anything, really. After a while the thick mangrove forests that bordered the Krell settlement had given way to marshland, flat terrain with a few scraggly trees clinging to life here and there. There was a layer of water that covered the muddy ground, almost knee deep to Lena, she could feel the damp earth beneath her bare feet. Where the mud had been mostly barren before, it was now covered in reeds and grasses, these species apparently able to cling to the mud without the help of the mangrove roots. Maybe the soil was of a different quality here, or maybe these plants were just very specialized, she couldn't say.
The going was certainly easier without her suit and her boots, she was growing accustomed to feeling her way along with her toes. In fact, in the nature documentaries that she was fond of watching, the hosts often removed their boots when they traversed this kind of terrain. It was easy to see why. There was much less danger of becoming tangled, or stepping on some kind of animal if you could use your toes to probe the waters ahead of you.
It had already been late in the day when they had set off, Lena unable to contain her excitement until the following morning, and the twin suns were just dipping beneath the horizon. She always got like this when there was a problem that needed solving, she couldn't get a wink of sleep until she found a solution. Truth be told, it was actually much cooler now, and the planet was so dim that this twilight was hardly a noticeable deviation from the norm.
Sleethe marched through the tall reeds beside her, the plants barely reaching his knees, but they were at waist height for Lena.
“You see anything, big guy?”
He rumbled a 'no', and shook his leathery head.
“Just what the hell are we looking for, anyway? Does he live in a cave? A hut? Can you tell me why he doesn't live in the village with the rest of his kin?”
“Too big,” he replied, giving her a sideways glance.
“Too big? How could he be too big? The elder is huge, and he can still fit in the village. He's so big that he makes you look like...well, me. Ok, bad analogy, but how can a Krell possibly get so big that he can no longer live in the village? He'd have to be...no, no. That's impossible.”
Sleethe must not have understood her, or maybe something was being lost in translation. The elder was so large that she sometimes found herself wondering how he could even move. The strain on his bones and joints must have been immense. There had to be some kind of upper limit on Krell growth, otherwise they'd get so large that they'd no longer be able to move, they wouldn't be able to feed themselves. Could that be the only reason that they died of old age? Perhaps they got so large that, like a beached whale, their bodies just gave out?
She stopped, watching as Sleethe began to sniff the air. He must have smelled something. Lena opened her mouth to ask him what his was, but he put a finger to his lips, gesturing for her to be silent. Well, he had no lips, but he had learned to mimic the gesture well enough. He pointed into the distance, and Lena squinted, trying to see through the blanket of mist.
There was a shape there, not a Krell, something else...
From beyond the fog bounded a deer, prancing on four spindly legs, its body coated in a layer of fine brown hair that camouflaged it against the swaying reeds. It was a mammal, the first one that she had seen so far on Krell. Had they evolved here too? It looked so much like a water deer, uncanny. Could this be an example of convergent evolution, animals that lived in similar environments adapting similar traits?
She crouched, trying to stay out of view behind the straw-colored stalks, and raised her wrist computer. She zoomed in, taking a few snapshots before the skittish creature notice Sleethe, hopping off towards the cover of a felled tree. It slowed when it reached the rotten wood, sniffing it experimentally. The trunk had obviously fallen at an angle and was now jutting up into the air at forty five degrees, probably still attached to the stump by a few broken fibers. Must have been a big tree, how had it gotten here? There were none like it that she could see.
There was a terrific splashing sound, and the deer bleated in alarm, a crack like thunder silencing its terrified wail. The felled tree was moving, rising high into the air. That was no tree, it was a giant alligator! Its skull must have been ten or fifteen feet long, its monstrous jaws now closed around the struggling deer like a bear trap, pearly teeth as long as her index finger interlocking like a giant zipper. This was no Krell, it was a dinosaur, its horny scutes as black as night and as large as roofing tiles. Water rained down from its lower jaw, the leathery skin beneath its throat vibrating as it rumbled, a sound so deep and resonating that it seemed to shake the very planet that they were standing on. The thing rose like some kind of living obelisk, Lena now able to make out its neck and shoulders, it was so large and heavy that most of its titanic body had been hidden beneath the mud. Like a crocodile waiting for passing prey, it had been lying there with its mouth open, so large that it hadn't even crossed Lena's mind that it could be anything but a tree.
It juggled the now limp deer in its mouth, biting down on it and moving the body towards the back of its throat, the sound of bones snapping like matchsticks reaching Lena's ears as she was transfixed by the macabre sight. It ate the deer, swallowing it almost whole, and then with a monumental crash it fell back to the marsh. It sprayed dark water like a tidal wave, displacing the liquid with its sheer mass, the ripples of which reached all the way to Lena despite her distance from the creature.
Lena could see the tip of its tail, what must have been thirty or forty feet from its head. Was it possible? Could this be a Krell that had grown to fifty feet? She couldn't even process what she was seeing, this wasn't even an animal, it had more in common with a tornado or an earthquake. It was a force of nature made animate, it could have crushed a UNN dropship like a used soda can.
It noticed them, turning its head in their direction, so large that it almost seemed to move in slow motion. Lena dropped to all fours instinctively as she felt its yellow eyes find her, tears welling in her eyes and snot leaking from her nose as she trembled, a primal terror that she had never experienced before overcoming her. It was like a nightmare. She wanted to run but she was frozen stiff, she wanted to scream but her voice had left her. Her lizard brain took over, her most primal instincts ordering her to hide from the gaze of this predator lest she become its next meal.
She yelped as she felt something touch her back, looking up through bleary eyes to see Sleethe staring down at her. He was perfectly calm and confident, cocking his head at her as if confused by her reaction. He warbled sympathetically, her translator buzzing in her ear.
“Do not fear.”
She took a few sobbing breaths, composing herself as she rose slowly to her feet, Sleethe holding her shaking hand in his.
“Scholar,” he said, pointing to the giant monster as it watched them curiously.
“Sorry,” she said, wiping her eyes with the back of her hand. “I wish you'd warned me beforehand.”
“Sleethe said big.”
“I guess that's on me then.”
The ground shook as the monstrous Krell began to lumber towards them, crawling on all fours as a crocodile would, rather than rising to the usual upright posture. Was it so large that it could no longer stand? It strode slowly across the marsh, but it was so huge that within moments it was upon them. Lena had only ever seen something this large once before, when she had visited the Museum of Natural History in Chicago. She had seen Sue, the largest and best preserved tyrannosaurus fossil in existence. Sue was forty feet long, and this Krell was a little bigger than that. More importantly, Sue had lived sixty five million years before Lena had been born, and this Krell was staring right at her.
“Hello scholar,” Sleethe called out, Lena edging slowly behind him as she monster tracked her with golden eyes the size of softballs. There was no reverence in Sleethe's voice, no respect that he had not afforded the other Krell. He was treating this as any old conversation, but this specimen was as a God to them. Good lord, it was over half the length of a blue whale!
It opened its mouth and replied, its tone so low that she felt it more than she heard it, rattling her bones like someone had taken her by the shoulders and was violently shaking her. The translator had completely given up, it couldn't even attempt to parse this.
“Sleethe, you'll have to translate for me, his voice is out of range of my pickup.”
“He asks why we come,” Sleethe said. He used his long tail to nudge Lena out from behind his back, and into the open so that the giant Krell could see her. He pointed to the red runes on her belly, and the scholar's reptilian pupils tracked his clawed finger, its nictating membranes blinking slowly as it examined her. Sleethe must be showing it that she too was a scholar.
Lena composed herself, trying to calm the frantic beating of her heart. If she could wrestle a salamander then she could do this too. She might not be able to understand the giant creature, but it could understand her.
“We come seeking knowledge,” she said, trying to sound confident despite the wavering of her voice. It was a simple enough phrase, and the translator seemed to do a fair job, as the giant Krell gave her its reply. She could feel its breath on her skin even at this distance, it could have blown her off her feet like a jet engine if it had been so inclined.
“Scholar asks what knowledge you want,” Sleethe relayed. What did she want to know? She had been so frightened by the sudden appearance of the giant krell that she had very nearly forgotten. Ah yes, the Brokers. What she needed most right now was a timescale, when the Brokers had arrived on this planet, and when the campaign to retake their lost colonies had ended.
“I want to know...when did the Benefactors arrive here?”
The great beast cocked its enormous head at her, it was the size of a car, and then it emitted a booming reply. Lena had to stop herself from covering her ears reflexively, its voice almost loud enough to hurt.
“Scholar says ten and two seasons.”
“Twelve seasons ago?” Finally, a measurement of time that made sense. 'Season' must refer to mating seasons, or so she assumed, but how many Earth years passed between seasons?
“Sleethe,” she said, “come here. I need your help with something.”
He turned to her, and crouched lower, watching her as she began to tap at her touch screen. It projected a flickering, orange hologram, the scholar looking on with mild interest as she began to enter in numbers.
“Ok, I need your help here, big guy. You're the key to this, so try to understand.”
She had brought up the calculator function on her wrist-mounted computer, and it was time to do some math. Sleethe had lived and worked alongside humans, she knew that he had some grasp of human timekeeping.
“I need to know how long a Krell season is in Earth time, understand? Do you know how long a year is?”
He shook his head, and she cursed under her breath.
“Alright, what about a month? Do you know what a month is? If they told you that you were being deployed to the front, and that it would take two months to get there, how long would that be in seasons?”
He shrugged his broad shoulders.
“Come on Sleethe, you can't be a soldier if you don't understand time keeping. Maybe I'm going about this the wrong way...”
Perhaps using large measurements was throwing him off. If she started from the bottom rather than the top, maybe he would have a better idea of what she was talking about. After all, they seemed to describe numbers in values of ten.
“Imagine I'm your commanding officer, you know what that is?”
“Good, alright. I'm your commanding officer, and I tell you to be ready for roll call in one hour. Understand?”
Again he nodded, progress!
“You understand how long an hour is on the Pinwheel? How long is that for a Krell? If the elder told you to be somewhere in an hour, how long would that be?”
He scratched the leathery pouch of skin that hung beneath his lower jaw as he considered, Lena could practically see the gears turning in his head. Math apparently wasn't one of his strong suits. Finally he held up a finger and thumb to the sky and closed one eye, like he was measuring something that only he could see. Lena gave him a 'what the hell' expression, and then he did it again.
“Small suns path,” he explained. Of course, he was measuring time by how far the suns would have moved across the sky.
“Yes! Good Sleethe, good! And how many of those does it take for the suns to rise and set?”
He took a moment to think, miming the passage of the twin stars overhead.
“Ten and four,” he said with a shrug.
“Fourteen hours in a Krell day, perfect, that must mean that there are twenty eight hours in one rotation. You're a genius and you don't even know it,” she said excitedly as she recorded the information. There was a problem to be solved, and so the marshland around her fell away, her fear of the giant scholar evaporating as she tapped at her touch panel.
“So if a day here is twenty eight hours, then how long is a week?”
Sleethe pondered for a moment, then shrugged. Damn it, the Krell were too primitive, they lacked the necessary knowledge to track the orbit of their planet and to keep accurate time. Life on the Pinwheel was so regimented, so orderly, they were probably called when they were needed and left to their own devices when they weren't. It was easy to keep the time when the sunlamps in the ceiling of the torus turned on every day at precisely oh-five hundred hours, and shut off at twenty-two hundred hours, when you couldn't go ten feet without seeing some kind of digital clock or hearing an announcement over the intercom.
This wasn't going to work, what she needed was a frame of reference.
Lena turned her eyes back to the giant scholar, wracking her brain as she tried to think of a solution. There was a radiocarbon dating tool in her pack, the straps of which were now digging uncomfortably into her bare shoulders, but that method of dating only worked on dead tissue. You couldn't carbon date a living creature. There must be some way to measure age in a Krell without having to rely on asking them, like the rings of a tree trunk, or dental growth standards in humans. If only Sousa were here, he'd be able to figure it out. Would she just have to give up and accept defeat?
The scholar shifted positions, spreading its immense weight about and getting comfortable. How much did it weigh? Large predatory dinosaurs could weigh up to about twenty tons, this Krell could conceivably exceed that.
Now that he was closer, and she was no longer cowering in terror, she could get a better look at him. Someone had painted him with the same scholar symbol that Lena was wearing at some point, it was on his shoulder rather than his belly, as his fleshy underside now seemed to be inaccessible due to his four-legged gait. The vibrant red dye was faded and old, but still visible. The aliens must reapply it periodically.
What shocked her more than its sheer mass was the fact that Sleethe had barely reacted when the scholar had risen from the marsh like a surfacing submarine. This was normal for him, mundane. How many of these things were scattered around the planet, could they grow even larger than this? Was this the fate of all long-lived Krell, to spend their later years living alone in the wilderness like a feral animal? She began to wonder how they fed themselves, and how much energy they must expend, even with their slow metabolism. Then she remembered how it had snapped up that deer. They probably ate everything that crossed their path. Would it have eaten Lena if Sleethe hadn't been with her?
The scholar lifted its massive arm, the width of Sleethe's torso, and scratched his neck idly. Something flashed in the dim twilight, and Lena's eyes immediately locked onto it. There was something dangling from its wrist.
“What's that on his wrist?” Lena asked Sleethe, forgetting that her translator was now doing a fine job and that she could have asked the question herself. She was almost afraid to speak to it directly, it looked like something that the ancient Aztecs or the Incas might have worshiped as a deity, Quetzalcoatl in the flesh.
The scholar replied, the sound waves making the water around Lena's ankles ripple, and Sleethe turned to her as he conveyed the beast's booming reply.
So it was one of the Krell necklaces, beads and shells woven together with strings made from grasses and plant fibers. At some point the scholar's neck had been small enough that the necklace would fit around it, but now the jewelry was little more than a bracelet.
Hang on, whatever materials that constituted the necklace would be dead, and it would therefore be possible to carbon date them. Carbon-14 is a radioactive isotope, found in the air in carbon dioxide molecules, and a small amount of this isotope enters the body of every living thing through the food chain. At least where carbon dioxide is present in the atmosphere, as it was on Krell. When the organism in question dies, it stops taking in Carbon-14, and the isotopes present in its body begin to decay. That radioactive decay is measurable if one has the appropriate tools, and thus it becomes possible to estimate the time of death by measuring the rate of that decay. She had brought the tool with her, the same one that she had used to date the wood in the temple. This might be her best chance to get some kind of accurate measurement of time in terms that she could understand.
“Sleethe, ask the scholar if I can take a closer look at the necklace.”
He relayed her request, and the scholar reached its long arm slowly towards her. A powerful urge to flee overcame her as his leathery hand came to a stop not a foot away, so large that it could have plucked her off the ground like a toy, but she powered through it and slung her pack off her back. She rummaged inside for the handheld tool, drawing it and taking a tentative step forward.
The scholar seemed unconcerned. He was so large that she couldn't possibly harm him in any way, and he had no natural predators. She reached out towards the dangling beads and shells, the garment remarkably intact despite its obvious age and the wear and tear that this creature's lifestyle must subject it to.
“When was this made?” She asked, taking a piece of carved wood in her hand and running it under the lens of the scanner. It was about the size and shape of a pocket watch, smooth and polished, with a decorative rune carved into its surface. There was a hole drilled in the top through which the string was threaded. These necklaces were made for individuals, the materials harvested on or near the day of their use. Just like when she had constructed the necklace that was now hanging about her shoulders, it was another one of their rituals, an event that the recipient was expected to attend. The scholar would know when this had been made, it would have been present.
It replied, and Sleethe translated the answer for her.
“Scholar says eight seasons.”
Eight seasons, perfect. Now if she could get a fairly accurate reading from the carbon dating tool, then she could compare the two numbers and come up with an estimate of how many years constituted a season.
Her eyes narrowed as the result appeared on her wrist monitor. This wood had died roughly two hundred years ago. It couldn't have been cut more than a couple of days before the ceremony, so that meant...
She turned to her wrist computer, bringing up the calculator function and entering in values as the two Krell watched her curiously, her fingers flying across the touch panel.
“Yes!” Lena exclaimed, the glow of the hologram reflecting in her eyes as she read out the results. “I've got it, one Krell season is...twenty five years. Really? You guys only have a breeding season once every twenty five years? I guess you have to give the generation that was conceived during the last one time to grow and mature. That explains what happened on the Pinwheel too, we've only been in contact with your people for about twenty years, that's why your reproductive method took us off guard. So if a season is twenty five years, and your first contact with the brokers was twelve seasons ago, that makes...three hundred years!?”
She glanced up at the scholar who was waiting patiently, her eyes wide.
“Scholar, how many seasons have you been alive?”
The giant creature rumbled a reply, and Sleethe translated for her.
“Scholar says doesn't know. We don't count that.”
Just like Sleethe then, the scholar didn't know its own age. The Krell really didn't seem fond of time keeping. The timescales that they lived on were so much larger than those of humans, and their metabolisms were so slow. Lena was gradually starting to understand their way of thinking, and why they appeared so deficient to humans. Those who didn't know them better often assumed that they were stupid, slow in the sense that they seemed to live in another world, scarcely reacting to what happened around them and spending the majority of their time sleeping.
An hour was but the blink of an eye for them, a day inconsequential. They went into heat once every twenty five years, they only ate a meal every few months, for the vast majority of their lives their metabolisms were slowed down to a crawl. They spent all of their time basking and sleeping. If this enormous Krell was any indication, then they lived for centuries. Obsessing over hours and days would be like a human trying to manage their life down to the second. It just wasn't a useful expenditure of effort.
An idea occurred to Lena, and she spoke through her translator again. This thing was old, it had been alive for at least three hundred years and change, likely longer. She had hoped to meet someone who had access to better records of what had happened during their campaign to retake the Broker colonies, but this specimen was so old that it might actually have lived through it. Perhaps it was even one of the Krell who had been artificially conceived by the Brokers.
“Were you alive when the Benefactors arrived?”
The scholar replied affirmatively, Sleethe translating the powerful blast of sound for her.
“Did you fight in the war?”
Another affirmative reply.
“Will you tell us what happened? What you saw?”
The giant Krell shifted its immense weight, settling in the mud, and then began to relay its story as Sleethe translated for Lena's benefit.
The Krell were packed like sardines inside the craft, its featureless, white walls pressing down on them as they brushed shoulders. There were maybe fifty of them crammed into the Broker vessel, and Rahee was among them. All but a handful had been born of the metal eggs, and they knew only war. From the moment that they had cracked the shells of their eggs and they had emerged into the light, they had been trained for a singular purpose, to take back the Broker colonies from their insectoid enemies.
The ever expanding wave of Betelgeusian fleets had landed on the shores of Broker space one season prior, the mercantile race of traders finding themselves overwhelmed and completely unable to handle the threat. The Bugs had crashed down on them like a ruthless tide, seizing their fertile core colonies one by one, leaving the Broker forces in disarray. They had rallied what soldiers they could, artificial constructs and drones that fought on their behalf, the Brokers themselves too frail and too few to fight. But as their manufacturing centers fell along with their planets, their capacity was reduced little by little, until even what little resistance they were able to mount against the marauding insect fleets was crushed. But now that tide was being turned, the Brokers were retaking their lost planets with the help of the Krell.
They had descended from the skies one day on their shining, silver ships, both to extend the hand of friendship and to deliver a dire warning. Soon the Betelgeusians would turn their compound eyes on the Krell, so they had been told, and the tribal reptiles would be unable to endure. They had proposed a Coalition between races, a joining of their two peoples for the benefit of both. Take back the lost colonies of the Brokers, and in turn the enigmatic strangers would protect their home.
The elders had convened a great meeting, the first of its kind, in which representatives from a hundred villages had traveled to debate this proposal. In the end they had agreed, pledging kinship to the Brokers, and in doing so compelling the disparate tribes to come to their aid.
The Krell had left their planet by the tens of thousands, the Brokers arming and training them for conflict. They bestowed technological wonders upon them, weapons that could kill from great distances, armor that made one almost impervious to harm. Even so, their kin died by the thousands, the Brokers using their metal eggs to replenish the dwindling numbers of their army. This new generation grew to maturity alarmingly quickly, and many were cut down just as fast, expended on the battlefield like ammunition.
That was what Rahee had been told by the older veterans in any case. The grizzled soldiers were his only connection to his people's culture and their oral history, as he too was born of the metal eggs. He had no mother, no father. He had been birthed by a cold machine rather than by a warm body. He had been Krell only in flesh back in those days, his mind and his soul had belonged to the Brokers.
The alarm rang out, echoing inside the tiny craft as the Krell shifted restlessly. They knew it almost by instinct, they had been conditioned to respond to the sound from the day they were hatched. Unlike his own people, the Brokers only taught what was needed and no more. Which alarm to respond to, how to fire a gun, and how best to counter the Bugs.
He checked his weapon and his gear as he prepared for the drop, the ceramic armor that enclosed him in a protective shell was the same matte white as the walls of the craft, as was the rifle that he held in his hands. He didn't like to wear the suit, it chafed against his scutes, something about it felt wrong.
There was a rush of wind as a hole opened in one end of the craft, the featureless walls splitting apart as if the hull was no harder than mud. The Krell marched forward, jumping into the void two by two, until Rahee was standing on the lip of the dropship. He looked out over the landscape, the smell of salt reaching his snout. Every colony was new, different, no two were alike. After fighting on a dozen worlds he had become numb to the changes in gravity and atmosphere. This one seemed to be an endless expanse of ocean, the horizon flat in all directions, the blue sky almost indistinguishable from the water save for the presence of a few fluffy clouds. All around him were more of the cigar-shaped, silver vessels, hundreds of them disgorging their cargo of troops. The Krell leap from the ships and landed in the water far below, the white foam from the splashes of his fellow soldiers visible on its calm surface.
He braced himself, taking a deep breath that would last him for an hour and change, then he jumped. There was a brief rush of air before he felt his body enter the water, the height of the fall and his immense weight driving him far below the surface. The armor was light, it did not weigh him down. He looked about in an effort to get his bearings as he tumbled, finally locating the glow of the system's blue-tinted star above him as his nictating membranes covered his eyes to protect them from the saltwater.
His kin were all around him, using their muscular, oar-like tails to swim into formation. A voice echoed through the water, powerful and resonating as it reached his ears. It lacked the poetry of the Krell, it was their Broker commander, ordering the attack to begin.
The enemy was somewhere below them, dug into what had once been a Broker settlement, but was now a teeming insect hive. There was no cover in the open water, nowhere to hide when the bolts of superheated plasma began to shoot up from the dark depths like burning stars, boiling the water around them and scalding Rahee as they passed him by. He swam, charging along with his kin, more like a shoal of giant fish than any recognizable military formation.
The Broker ships dropped torpedoes, the sleek, silver tubes shooting past the formation of Krell and leaving trails of bubbles in their wake. There were a series of orange explosions, blooming like fiery flowers as the torpedoes found their targets, softening up the Bug defenses before the Krell assault. After a moment Rahee was hit with a wall of force that sent him reeling, the shockwaves from the explosions finally reaching him. He recovered quickly, winding through the water as he dodged the relatively slow-moving return fire.
As the ocean floor came into view, the wall of glowing shields that he was so accustomed to seeing were not present, they likely couldn't function in liquid because the magnetically contained plasma would boil the water around the wielder. Instead the Bugs were taking cover around rock formations and sprawling corals. The sunlight was dim at this depth, and so their iridescent carapaces were illuminated by the red glow from nearby hydrothermal vents, the tall towers belching dark plumes of bubbling water. There was a Broker facility nearby, silver metal standing out against the surrounding nature, its blocky sections connected by glass tubes.
The Brokers were an aquatic race, but unlike the Krell who were equally at home on land and in the water, they needed pressurized suits when they ventured onto the surface. That was one of the factors that made the Krell so valuable to them as soldiers, they could travel anywhere that a Broker could.
The Bugs were much the same, the insectoid aliens modified their bodies to suit whatever environments they found themselves in. These ones had fins on their limbs that allowed them to swim, along with frilly gills on their chests that would let them filter oxygen from the water. Rahee had fought them on land too, where they had no such adaptations.
The Krell returned fire once they were in range, their gauss rifles more accurate and reliable than the plasma weaponry favored by the Bugs when used underwater. The almost featureless, white rifles released a hail of magnetically accelerated flechettes, shaped like needles and sporting hydrodynamic fins to keep them on target. Where the projectiles hit their marks, colorful carapaces shattered, the injured Bugs struggling or floating limply as their wounds leaked smoky clouds of ichor and viscera.
The clouds of debris from the torpedoes were slowly falling back to the ocean floor, leaving large holes in the Betelgeusian lines, and the Krell took advantage of the cover that they provided as they reached the bottom. They landed as if in slow motion, kicking up clouds of silt and sand as they touched down, immediately taking cover in the maze of coral formations and chimneys.
Rahee reloaded his weapon, keeping a lookout through the murky water as his kin landed beside him, like paratroopers in microgravity. They stayed low, moving through the water with their rifles raised, walking along the bottom with the sluggish and bounding gait of deep-sea divers.
Soon after rounding the nearest chimney, the heat from the boiling water that it was expelling felt even fifty feet below the dark plume, they encountered the enemy. The Bugs fell upon them, engaging them in close quarters with their plasma pistols and sharp daggers drawn. They were about five feet tall, covered in a stiff exoskeleton, bipedal but with two pairs of arms. Their colorful shells shimmered in the light of the vent. The aliens came in a rainbow of iridescent hues, reds and golds, greens and blues. Their compound eyes glowed an eerie green, their insect mandibles moving ceaselessly as they attacked.
Rahee batted them aside like they were no more than dolls, the usual speed of the hostile aliens hampered by the water, and he dashed them against the sharp coral. There was a scuffle as the squad of Krell battled the Bugs, blades flashing and plasma pistols boiling the water around them, clouds of kicked up silt and streams of bubbles reducing visibility. The daggers used by the insects were sharp, but not enough to pierce both the Broker armor and the layers of bony scutes that protected the reptiles, their brute force and sheer mass making short work of the Betelgeusians. The Krell tore them limb from limb, crushing their chitinous carapaces with vicious punches and heavy slams from their muscular tails. Bursts of needles from the gauss guns nailed their targets to the rocks, the aliens twitching and spewing blood from their gills as they fought to free themselves.
The Bugs didn't stop, even as they were dying they still fought tooth and nail, almost as if they had no consideration for their own safety. The Krell moved on, leaving a cloud of sand and alien fluids in their wake as they advanced through the coral, dismembered limbs floating slowly to the seabed as they twitched reflexively.
They leapt over a rise, falling slowly to the ground in the water, and Rahee spotted their target. It was the building that they had seen from above, a Broker installation made up of silver boxes and glass tubes. He felt for the canister that was hanging from his belt, ensuring that it hadn't been torn off during the scuffle. It was still there.
The canister contained a nerve agent that was deadly to the Bugs, engineered by the Brokers with the intent of wiping them out. Their destination was one of many water purifying stations scattered around the planet's oceans. When the Brokers had colonized this world, they had erected these installations to make the local waters more hospitable, releasing essential nutrients and elements into the water in order to change its chemical composition and to make it more suitable for Broker habitation. It was a kind of terraforming in a sense. Now they were going to repurpose those machines, swapping out the cocktail for a poison that would be dispersed through the water, saturating the area and killing the Bugs in their hives.
There was no danger to the Krell, or so they had been told, because the reptiles held their breath underwater rather than filtering oxygen through gills. Rahee could still hear the dull thud of battle and gunfire as the other teams moved on their objectives, the sound carried great distances underwater. He loosed a resonating call and urged his comrades forward. There was no time to lose, they had to accomplish their task before they ran out of air. The more fighting they had to do, the more oxygen they would expend, limiting their dive time.
They reached the door to the installation, the facility itself partially buried in natural coral formations that had been encouraged to grow around it, and one of Rahee's kin entered the code that would grant them access. There was damage to the exterior of the building and blast marks scarred the door, the Bugs had obviously attempted to gain entry at some point. Fortunately Broker building materials were made of stern stuff and their efforts had been resisted.
There was a whoosh as the door slid back, along with a rush of stale water. This place had been sealed up since the Brokers had evacuated the colony some seasons prior. This was one of their prized core colonies, those closest to the Broker home planet, and with the help of the Krell the aquatic aliens were slowly gaining back the ground that they had ceded to the invaders.
Broker society was highly automated and the aliens were slow to reproduce, which meant that there were often only a few thousand individuals per planet. Even with all of their combat drones and their remotely piloted ships, it just wasn't enough to hold off the Bugs. But now they had an army of Krell millions strong, the metal eggs of the Brokers able to rival the Betelgeusian Queens in their production of fresh soldiers.
They flooded into the facility, checking rooms as they went. It didn't look like the Bugs had succeeded in gaining entry, but one could never be too sure. The insects could be crafty and ruthlessly intelligent when they needed to be.
Rahee located the control room, the massive water purifier working silently on one wall of the large space. It looked like a giant glass cylinder, dozens of pipes snaking to and from it, vanishing into the walls and ceiling. He could see liquid inside, bubbling as canisters in recesses along its control panel injected their contents into the stream. His team covered him as he tapped at the buttons, just as he had been instructed by his handlers. He didn't know how the machine worked or any of the more technical aspects of its operation, but they had taught him just enough to be able to switch out the canisters. There was a hiss as one of the cylindrical containers ejected from its recess, and Rahee quickly pulled it free, inserting the replacement. He returned his hands to the console and entered in the command that would begin the process, watching as a light on the canister began to blink in confirmation. The toxin was colorless, but it was currently being injected into the purifier, and soon the waters for miles around would be contaminated with it.
Their task now complete, the Krell moved out of the facility, Rahee hearing the rapport of gunfire as those at the head of the pack warded off another Bug attack. Once they were in the open water again, they turned their snouts towards the surface, leaping from the seabed and propelling themselves upwards with their powerful tails. They were chased by a few stray plasma bolts, but the Bugs had been decimated by the torpedo attack, and now they were starting to succumb to the spreading toxin.
As the squad moved into clearer and more shallow waters, Rahee saw other groups of Krell all around him, having accomplished their respective objectives. Casualties seemed light, that was good. The shimmering surface of the ocean came into view, beams of sunlight penetrating the waves, and finally Rahree emerged into the air. He sucked in a deep breath, filling his lungs. He let himself float, taking a moment to rest his burning muscles as his comrades surfaced around him.
Almost immediately the shining Broker ships descended from the sky, moving faster than their mass should have allowed and stopping with such abruptness that any crew inside would have been liquefied. There were no crew of course, these were drone ships, controlled by Brokers who were hidden safely in orbit.
The ships flew down low, their troop bays open as they submerged themselves in the water, just deep enough that the Krell could climb inside. Rahee swam, powering through the surf as a sense of urgency overcame him. He hoped that none of the Krell had been injured, or were lagging behind, because the troop carriers would not make a second pass. If they weren't onboard when the ships took off, then they wouldn't be going home.
He made it into the bay, the sterile walls somehow comforting, his fellow Krell jostling for room as they helped their kin into the ship. The second that they were full to capacity and the final passenger's tail had cleared the hole, the ships began to rise, tilting slightly to vent the seawater that had flooded their interiors. As they ascended the hole in the hull began to seal, closing like a wound that was knitting before Rahee's eyes, until all sense of motion and speed vanished along with their view of the ocean below.
There was relief among the troops, the sense of a job well done, but Rahee knew that it would not be long before they were deployed to some other lost colony. This planet was just one of many stepping stones on the path to the final goal, pushing the Bugs out of Broker space.
The ride back to the mothership was fast, and when the troop bay was once again open to the light, they were inside the vessel's cavernous hangar. Rahee stepped out, feeling the metal deck beneath his leathery feet, blinking as his eyes adjusted to the artificial glare. Everything that the Brokers made looked the same, their ships and their buildings, their armor and their weapons. Matte white or silver, completely featureless, shifting and bending to take new shapes as needed. It was like living flesh, but cold and hard like metal. The hangar was large enough to fit a hundred of the dropships comfortably, and Rahee could see them all around him as they disgorged their troops, some far enough away that they were scarcely the width of his finger. The far wall of the giant cube in which they found themselves was open to space, black night peppered with stars visible beyond the force field that held in the atmosphere, allowing only solid objects to pass through.
He shook himself, saltwater pouring from his back, and began to remove his uncomfortable armor. It was never long before the giant motherships jumped away, moving on to their next destination with mechanical efficiency.
The sound of metal on metal reached his ears, and he looked up to see a Broker making its way towards his squad. He straightened, the Krell forming a line ready for inspection. The alien would take a head count, and then put in an order for the geneticists to grow more soldiers as needed.
Rahee had never seen a Broker before, at least not in the flesh. They wore powered exoskeletons in order to walk around on land, pressurized suits that protected their frail bodies. The torso was silver and blocky, just like all of their technology, featureless save for a series of lenses and sensors that jutted from its smooth surface. It was suspended on two robotic legs, skeletal and functional, while four segmented tentacles protruded from the sides. They looked like steel cables, each one tipped with a grasping claw or some kind of tool or miscellaneous attachment.
It came to a stop in front of them, the lenses twisting and focusing as they stood to attention.
“No casualties, that is good,” it hissed through an unseen speaker. The Brokers could speak Krell, at least well enough to make themselves understood. Their speech lacked artistry, but like many things that they did, it served its purpose and nothing more.
“Where to next?” One of the older Krell asked, his dark scutes shining under the artificial light. He was tall, perhaps eight or nine seasons old. It took the swamp-born longer to grow than those who were hatched from the metal eggs. Rahee was already far larger, as were many of his artificially spawned kin, so big now that it was becoming difficult to outfit them and even the dropships were beginning to have trouble carrying them. The spurt of growth that had seen him attain adulthood in a few short months showed no sign of slowing.
“You are returning home,” the Broker replied. There was a muttering amongst the ranks, Rahee looking to his kin for validation. Home? But the war was not yet won.
“But Benefactor,” the elder continued, “were we not instructed to take an outlying colony after the battle here was done?”
“That mission has been canceled,” the alien replied in its tinny, rasping voice. “Another mothership will handle that task. The swamp-born are to form their own line and proceed to debriefing, they will be transferred to another ship and reassigned. Those hatched from the metal eggs are to proceed to the barracks and await processing, you are being returned to the homeworld.”
“Then...the war is over?” Rahee asked, his kin awaiting the Broker's answer with bated breath.
“For you the war is over, we no longer have need of you. You will be returned to your home planet.”
The homeworld? Rahee had few memories of it. He knew that he had been born there at some point, he had hatched from his metal egg in one of the swamps, and he had rapidly grown to maturity. When he was large enough to hold a weapon, he had been plucked squealing from the stagnant waters and sent off to a Broker training facility to learn what was necessary for war. The older Krell spoke fondly of it, but it had never been much of a home to him, no moreso than the featureless rooms that he had been raised in or the firing ranges that he had trained at.
The Krell exchanged glances, some relieved and hopeful, others concerned. For the older Krell, going home was the culmination of all of their efforts over the seasons, they would have welcomed it. For the rest, it was an upset. They would be removed from the environments that were familiar to them, and thrust into a world that they had never truly known. What would Rahee do without war? What else was there? More importantly, why was their campaign to retake the Broker colonies being cut short? As with everything, the Brokers never revealed more than was necessary.
“Have we displeased you?” He asked, the Broker turning its many lenses on him.
“No. You have simply become too large to feed and transport.”
The Brokers had done something to Rahee and his kin, changed them in some way that was beyond Krell ability to understand. They had wanted soldiers quickly, faster than the Krell could naturally reproduce. Rahee had been one of the first batch. But they were already larger than their elders, their growth showing no sign of stopping. Had the Brokers made a mistake? Perhaps they were not as omnipotent as they seemed...
Lena listened intently as Sleethe relayed the scholar's story to her. He told tales of his battles and his interactions with the Brokers, along with hints of genetic manipulation that was far outside the understanding of the Krell but well within human experience. He had been returned to Krell once he became too large to be deployed into combat, the Brokers simply discarding the oversized reptiles back on the homeworld and growing a new clutch to replace them. They had made no effort to treat the condition that they had inadvertently created, the Krell born from these 'metal eggs' continuing to grow at an alarming rate. She had assumed that this was a natural part of the Krell life cycle, but apparently not. While growing to this size was perhaps in the realm of possibility for a Krell conceived through natural means, a combination of their natural propensity for size and the genetic meddling of the Brokers had accelerated that growth tenfold.
“Did you hear any more about the war after they returned you to Krell?” Lena asked, “do you know what happened between then and now?”
The scholar seemed pensive for a moment, then replied, Sleethe translating as the sound waves rocked her.
“One day they stop,” he said.
“They just stopped? What do you mean? They clearly didn't win the war, we're still fighting it to this day. The Betelgeusians still occupy contested systems and they still mount incursions into Coalition space.”
“Scholar says they stop,” Sleethe explained. “Scholar's kin said they reached Benefactor colony, then they stop. Leave under control of Bugs.”
“They pulled back? They fought for hundreds of years to drive the Betelgeusians off their core colonies, expended all of this effort, and then one day they just stopped? How can that be?”
“It happen maybe one season ago, a little more,” Sleethe relayed. “Scholar does not know why.”
That didn't make any sense. Leaving even one planet under Bug control would put all neighboring systems in jeopardy. Whenever a new Betelgeusian queen was birthed, she immediately headed off-planet with a small support fleet and sought out a new system where she could start a colony of her own. Why would the Brokers pull back?
Lena wracked her brain, trying to think of any historical events that might have happened around that time. A season was roughly twenty five years, and that coincided with several events in human history. First contact with the Betelgeusians, where the hostile aliens had destroyed a colony ship that had been bound for a habitable planet in the Betelgeuse system, from which the aliens got their name. Contact with the Brokers and the Krell, and humanity's subsequent entry in the Coalition. The building of the Pinwheel space station...
This information was another puzzle piece, that was for sure, but she didn't yet have a clear view of the whole picture.
“What was it like coming back to a planet that you had barely known?” She asked. “Was it difficult to adapt to the native lifestyle?”
She listened as he told the story of how he had been practically abandoned on the planet along with his kin, all those who were now too large to serve the Brokers. They had been dropped outside a village with nothing more than the scutes on their backs, left to their own devices as they attempted to navigate the unfamiliar environment. Fortunately the Krell were a kind and charitable people. The villagers took the strangers in, but quickly found that these oversized Krell lacked even the most basic skills required for survival. They had to be taught as if they were hatchlings. How to hunt and fish, how to navigate the swamps and lakes, the minutia of Krell life had needed to be instilled them.
It had taken years by the sound of it, but eventually a modicum of normalcy had been achieved. In time the genetically engineered Krell were able to take up a place in society, and the social damage that the Brokers had done to them had been largely repaired. Over the seasons however, they had continued to grow. After a couple of hundred years, the long-lived reptiles had grown to such a monumental size that they could no longer live in the villages. They couldn't fit inside the houses and temples, they couldn't hunt where the normal Krell hunted, the structure of the village could not longer support their weight.
They had become exiles in a sense, forced out of populated areas not through the hate or fear of their kin, but rather because of their sheer size. Now they lived in the marshes and lakes, eating whatever they could catch in order to fuel their enormous nutritional requirements. Like many of the older Krell, Rahee had taken up the mantle of scholar. His job in the community was now to be a receptacle for knowledge.
The scholar's ability to recall the events of his past so precisely led Lena to believe that the species might have memories that far outclassed those of humans. Perhaps that was why they were able to operate advanced equipment and how they always showed up where they were needed without having to be constantly reminded. A photographic memory might go some way towards explaining how an alien from a planet that had not yet discovered electricity could field strip a railgun after being shown only once. After all, who needed books or computers when you could simply ask someone who had an infallible memory?
Lena wasn't sure what to say. She wanted to apologize on behalf of the Brokers, to express her sorrow for how Rahee had been brought into the world, and how he and his people had been treated. Yet he didn't seem unhappy. He was no leper, no freak. He had found a niche in Krell society that suited him, and he remained a valued member of their community. He was clearly healthy, somehow finding enough food to sustain himself. Did it matter that his mobility was limited, when the favorite pastime of the Krell seemed to be lounging and basking?
When he was done with his tale, she thanked him for his time, and it seemed that Rahee had no further expectations of her. He rumbled a fare ye well, and then lumbered off back into the marsh, returning to his hunting spot to wait for another careless deer to pass by. It was like watching a scaly island sinking into the water, the fifty foot alien able to submerge himself almost completely in the bog.
“Well Sleethe, that was...certainly enlightening. I came here to learn about the Krell, but your history is to intertwined with that of the Brokers that it's practically impossible to separate the two. Let's get back to the village, I want to see if my weather drone has come down yet.”
It was very late by the time they returned to the Krell village, and Lena was exhausted by the day's events. Her eyes were itchy and she was having trouble staying focused, her longing for the comfort of a sleeping pit growing as she trekked through the mud. She made for the drone's landing pad, having kept it clear of debris so that the drone could locate it when it was ready to deliver its payload. About three days had passed since she had sent the weather balloon up into the stratosphere in order to take measurements of the planet's weather, and perhaps to locate landmarks or other interesting geographical features from the sky. It should have been back by now. But as the white hexagon came into view, she noted that there was no drone.
“Damn it,” she grumbled, kneeling by the landing pad and brushing away a few stray leaves with her hand. “It should have returned by now. There have been no massive storms, and even then, the balloon should have carried it above the weather. Maybe it couldn't find the landing pad through the cloud layer...”
Sleethe couldn't provide any advice, and merely stood beside her, watching as she puzzled over the missing drone.
“Oh well,” she sighed, finally giving up and rising to her feet. “Let's get some sleep.”
CHAPTER 11: RAPTURE OF THE DEEP
The next morning Lena awoke feeling refreshed and eager to continue her work, rousing her sleepy partner with a few sharp prods and encouraging him out of their sleeping pit. Once she had made a cup of MRE coffee and had eaten a breakfast of cereal bars, she was ready to face the day.
The more she learned about the Brokers and their odd behavior, the more intrigued she became. She had deciphered the Krell language, along with the history that was recorded in their murals, and she had even been able to interview someone who had actually lived through the war. Having uncovered the jealously guarded secret of the relationship between the two species, now one unanswered question stood out to her.
Why had the Brokers stopped their war in its tracks?
She was out of leads, and besides randomly scouring the swamps for more scholars, only one option remained. There was something at the bottom of the lake outside the village, some kind of structure that resembled the Broker installations that Rahee had described during his war story. Lena had seen it on her sonar when she had surveyed the waters. Was there some way to reach it? Could it hold further secrets that the Brokers had assumed to be out of her grasp? Arrogance seemed to be their greatest weakness, they had repeatedly underestimated her scientific and deductive abilities up to this point.
There was a rebreather in her duffel bag, another military issue device that she had scavenged from the surplus supplies before leaving the Pinwheel. It was a tool that was usually used to protect support personnel from the toxic gases often employed as weapons by the Bugs, the Marines being equipped with helmets that could accomplish the same task.
She rummaged in her bag and retrieved the device. It resembled the mask that a handyman might wear to protect from dust, or maybe the masks that the citizens of overcrowded cities tended to wear, but it was made primarily from hard plastic and it could seal over the wearer's nose and mouth. There were two small cylinders that extended up past the cheeks, one containing a battery that powered the device, and another that contained a limited chemical oxygen generator to compensate for any leakage. It could recycle oxygen from her exhaled CO2 if it detected that there was none present in the atmosphere, but only for a limited time. It was designed for cases like fires and decompressions, where the oxygen content in the atmosphere might drop before the user was aware of the danger. It should also allow her to breathe underwater for a certain amount of time.
She was no diver however, and oxygen was the least of her concerns. While the lake was fairly warm at the surface, it would get progressively colder the deeper it got, and if the temperature dropped low enough then it could very quickly result in hypothermia. She had no diving suit, and the only reason she had a rebreather was to navigate environments that might potentially harbor dangerous gasses or plant spores. There was also the issue of pressure, and while the mysterious underwater structure had not appeared to be too far below the surface, it could still cause problems. Scuba divers breathed a special mixture of gases, usually oxygen, helium and nitrogen. She new that the 'bends', otherwise known as decompression sickness, was common at greater depths if the proper equipment and procedures were not observed.
She wouldn't know her limits unless she tried, so perhaps a test dive was in order.
“Hey Sleethe, feel like taking a bath?”
Lena dipped her toes in the lake, the warmth of the morning suns beating down on her skin. She was starting to get a tan at this point, her porcelain complexion bronzing almost imperceptibly. There was a splash as Sleethe slid into the water on his belly, submerging himself and floating away from the shore. He rolled over, exposing his pale underside to the suns, seeking to warm his cold blood no doubt.
Lena had brought a few things down to the lake in her backpack, the soaps and shampoos that she had made part of her morning routine, and the rebreather with the intent to test it out. She slipped off her shorts after ensuring that they were alone, then waded into the lake to join Sleethe, pouring body wash into her hand from a plastic bottle as she went. One nice thing about this planet was that she could leave her belongings lying around without fear of them disappearing. The Krell were not overly curious, and so far none of them had interfered with her equipment. She stuck the bottle into the mud on the shore, and then proceeded to waist-height, lathering herself with the soap as she went.
The water was cooler than the humid air, and it was a great feeling to be able to clean all of the dirt and sweat from her skin, if only for a short while. She washed her hair as Sleethe circled her, swimming slowly with lazy, powerful strokes of his tail. When she was done bathing, she returned the bottles to her bag and retrieved the rebreather, securing it over her face with a strap and turning it on. Immediately the padded cushion around her mouth and nose sealed up, creating an airtight lock, and the stench of rotting vegetation that had been the norm since she had arrived was suddenly blocked out. She had almost grown used to the smell over time, and its absence was very noticeable.
Lena returned to the lake, this time submerging her head beneath the water. She was hesitant to open her eyes, worried that some native bacteria would make them their home, but she was equipped with ample medical supplies and so there should be no such issues. She blinked beneath the surface, her vision adjusting to the water, and eventually the scene came into view. Besides the silt and mud that she was kicking up, it was much clearer than it had initially appeared. She couldn't see very far, but far enough.
Fighting against her every instinct, she took a breath, finding that the rebreather was doing its job. In the absence of oxygen that could be siphoned from the air, it would recycle her own breath, the CO2 scrubbers extracting as much oxygen from her exhalations as they could before feeding it back to her. The waste elements would be stored in a compartment for later disposal. It was a stopgap measure, intended only for emergencies, but it should buy her at least a few minutes in which she could be safely submerged. That was another thing that she wanted to test, how long she could last before she started to suffocate, and she rose briefly to the surface to use her wrist computer. She opened up the stopwatch function, giving the rebreather a moment to return to its normal filtering mode, and then activated the clock before diving down again.
She glanced at the orange glow of the timer on her forearm, watching the seconds tick past, and then began to swim deeper. There were all manner of shells lining the silt on the bottom of the lake, this must be where the females came to gather them when they made their necklaces. Lena had left her jewelry in her pack for fear of losing it during the dive. She let herself sink a little, walking along the bottom and examining it through the clouds of mud that her footsteps kicked up. She was quite buoyant, and so she had to make an effort to prevent herself from rising towards the surface.
There were a few small fish swimming back and forth, tiny, silvery creatures that darted out of her path as she swam by them. Before long a dark shadow loomed over her, and she looked up to see Sleethe coming to investigate. He seemed fascinated by her previously undisclosed ability to stay underwater for any length of time, and she tapped her mask with her finger as he examined her, her mane of blonde hair floating about her head like a straw-colored cloud.
He seemed to understand, and he spun on his axis, dancing gracefully in the water as she laughed at him. He was pleased with himself, apparently able to recognize her smile through her eyes, even with her face mostly covered. He was so fast and agile underwater, it was a stark contrast to how cumbersome he sometimes seemed on land.
Lena proceeded deeper, Sleethe hovering nearby as she swam, the water growing darker and cooler. It was a welcome reprieve from the heat of the surface, but she knew that prolonged exposure to cold temperatures would quickly become dangerous without protective gear. Still, it wasn't as cold as she had anticipated. She should be able to go deeper than this without any immediate problems.
The bottom of the lake continued to slope downwards, the bare silt now giving way to plant life, forests of weeds and submerged grasses floating idly in the currents. There was more animal life here, shoals of larger fish weaving between the greenery, and Lena was reminded of the large blips that her sonar had picked up. Hopefully she wouldn't encounter anything large and predatory...
Sleethe swam by her like a green torpedo, playfully scaring away the fish and sending the shoals scattering in all directions. This was his domain, and Lena was only a guest here. It was a fascinating look at a part of his life that, until now, she had never been able to experience first hand.
She waded into the forest of water weeds, their long, sinewy stalks rising ten or more feet above her. There were floating sacks attached to them to keep them upright, like kelp or seaweed, their fleshy leaves reaching for the surface in order to catch as much sunlight as they could.
Lena remembered being terrified of seaweed as a child. Her parents had taken her to a beach in Rügen when she had been very young, an island off the coast of Germany that was located in the Baltic sea. Initially entranced by the rolling waves and the frothing surf, little Lena had quickly been sent packing by the slimy, ghastly seaweed that the ocean deposited on the sands. Her father had carried the tearful girl back down to the water's edge, showing her that the weeds were not alive and could not harm her, but despite his reassurances she had retained a fear of the stuff.
Now she was more than twenty feet beneath the surface of an alien lake, watching as the plants waved back and forth as if under the power of a slow and gentle breeze. She was becoming adept at suppressing her squeamishness, no longer would she be afraid of slimy weeds and mysterious creatures.
She felt more shells with her toes, the mud here cool and pleasant on her skin. She had half a mind to bring it back to the shore in handfuls and lather herself with it, wasn't it supposed to be good for the skin? There were little crustaceans too, the original owners of the shells, like hermit crabs as they scuttled out of her way carrying their spiraling conchs on their backs.
There was a strong current as Sleethe shot past her, flying above her head and blowing through the weeds like a gust of wind. He was chasing the fish, making the large shoals split up into a spreading cloud before they reformed again in a silvery mass. At this depth there was still a fair amount of light, but the ground sloped continually downwards, the water beyond her field of view murky and dark.
She checked her wrist display, three minutes on the clock so far, and she felt fine. No shortness of breath or lightheadedness. The cold was starting to get more noticeable, but it was still tolerable, no worse than getting out of bed on a brisk morning.
Sleethe was having a riot, apparently full of energy after basking under the suns, darting in and out of the kelp forest playfully as she watched him. He vanished between the stalks, and then a moment later he was back, now with something long and angry clutched in his arms. Lena fought the instinct to swim away as he 'landed' in front of her, kicking up a cloud of silt as he settled. Held in his muscular arms was a large fish, almost as long as Lena was tall, struggling ardently as he wrestled with it. He had brought it to show her, and she quickly raised her wrist computer, turning on the camera function and taking some video. This time she was sure to keep the camera facing away from her. The last thing she needed was her naked, painted body showing up in slideshows at universities across UNN space.
It looked a little like a big catfish, its streamlined body coated in smooth scales. It was tinted grey, with camouflaged patterning on its fins and back, no doubt to protect it from predators who might be attacking from above. Rather than the large dorsal fin that was common on so many Earth fish, its back was almost smooth save for a fluke near the powerful tail. There was a cluster of long whiskers protruding from its face, no doubt sensory apparatus that perhaps detected prey or predators. It had two beady eyes, black and glassy like those of a shark.
Lena looked to Sleethe, the intuitive alien apparently guessing what she wanted from her eyes alone, and he drew a little closer to her. She reached out a hand and ran it along the smooth side of the fish, feeling its muscles twist and writhe beneath the surface. She laughed into her mask, smiling up at Sleethe as she stroked the animal. It was magnificent, a prize catch for any fisherman. It must have weighed at least eighty kilograms.
Sleethe turned away from her and ejected the creature, the alien fish powering its flared tail and shooting off into the safety of the weeds. Lena gave him two thumbs up, and he rose from the lakebed, putting on a show of spins and loops for her before swimming out of sight.
Five minutes on the clock, Lena noted, glancing at the orange hologram on her wrist. Good job all of this UNN gear was waterproof, she didn't want to imagine what it must cost for a civilian to get their hands on tech like this.
A sound reached her ears suddenly, startling her at first, but then the harmonic tones entranced her. What was that? It sounded like whale song, if whales could actually write a decent ditty. Was it some lake monster? As if to answer her question, Sleethe emerged from the kelp, his attention focused away from Lena as he listened intently. He opened his jaws and gave a reply, and then Lena realized that the beautiful song was coming from the Krell.
It sounded like poetry being recited to the tune of a song, but in a language that she didn't speak. She rapidly hit the record function on her computer, hoping that the microphone would be able to pick some of this up through the water. Whatever language they were speaking, it wasn't Krell as she knew it, the translator didn't even recognize it.
Lena had known that they communicated differently underwater, but what tests she had been able to conduct had not yielded any results like this. When she had submerged herself in the Pinwheel's Olympic swimming pool and had instructed Sleethe to speak, all that he had done was loose some rumbling calls that were devoid of this artistry. Sound carried very far underwater, and it was the reason that the Krell had such powerful voices and were capable of such a large range of vocalizations. The mating call affected her so because it was designed to carry for miles beneath the water, the vibrations at such close ranges able to literally shake her in her boots. This was something else however, something new.
As she watched, another Krell appeared from the direction of the shore. This one was male, his scales a little lighter than those of her partner, indicating that he must be younger. He might be investigating the unusual activity, perhaps assuming that some kind of fishing expedition was ongoing. He had no necklace, and he wasn't mated judging by the absence of a red mark on his forehead. Beyond that she couldn't read the runes that were inscribed on his pale underbelly.
He seemed very interested in Lena, which was unusual for the Krell, they had largely ignored her unless there was some kind of ceremony going on. Maybe he had assumed that she was some kind of new fish, and was surprised by her presence here. After giving her a thorough look over he turned to Sleeth, who was now floating nearby like a giant, scaly blimp. The two exchanged another series of musical calls. The best way that Lena could describe it was like two dolphins singing a cappella, alternating between high pitched whistles and resonating roars that made her feel as if the very water around her was trembling.
Did they have an entirely alternate language for use underwater, or was this something else?
After a brief exchange, the young male proceeded into the forest of weeds. As soon as his tail had vanished between the floating stalks, Lena noticed that a red light was beeping on her mask. The CO2 scrubber must have run its course, and it could no longer recycle enough oxygen to keep her healthy. She began to swim up towards the surface immediately, glancing at her wrist display and noting that nine minutes had passed on the holographic stopwatch. So she would have nine minutes before her oxygen supply became critical, would that be enough to investigate the sunken Broker facility?
The corners of her vision began to darken, and she was beginning to feel a little dizzy. Worse, using her muscles to swim expended more oxygen, compounding her problem as she struggled to reach safety. Had she made a deadly mistake? Her thoughts slowed, and she began to become confused, no longer sure of where she was or what she was trying to do.
Suddenly she felt something lift her, and in a moment she was propelled from the lake with a monumental splash. She pulled the mask from her face, taking in a desperate gulp of air, her mind and her vision clearing almost the second that she filled her lungs. She was floating in the water, Sleethe carrying her in his scaly arms and letting her float gently on the surface of the lake, nudging her with his snout. She patted his nose apologetically.
“Thanks big guy, let's call that eight minutes...”
Sleethe returned her to the shore and deposited her gently on the mud. Despite her protests that she was perfectly capable of swimming back under her own power, the big lug had carried her all the way. She hadn't realized how cold she had gotten until she felt the warm mud between her fingers, the twin suns beating down on her face as Sleethe flopped down beside her. He rolled in the mud like a giant dog, before lying with his belly exposed, basking to warm himself. Now that it was later in the morning, many of their Krell neighbors were also warming themselves on the shore, or else floating on the water. As cold-blooded reptiles, it was the only way for them to control their body temperature.
Lena returned the rebreather to her pack, confident now that she could survive for about eight minutes beneath the surface of the lake. She fiddled with her computer, bringing up the three dimensional sonar image that her probe had taken a couple of days prior. It showed a wire frame map of the lakebed, along with a few large blips that might be large fish or perhaps submerged Krell. Judging by how big the scholar had been, it was certainly possible that one might show up on her scan.
She zoomed in on the Broker structure, discernible from the surrounding terrain by its harsh angles and smooth lines, obviously artificial in origin. It was at about seventy feet below the surface, perched on a sort of rocky crag, the actual depth of the lake far exceeding that at its lowest point.
If Sleethe swam her down, then she would have eight minutes per visit to explore. Actually it might take a minute to get there and back, better make that six minutes.
Her calculations were disturbed as Sleethe nudged her with his snout, almost toppling her over in the process. She put out her hand to catch herself, and it sank deep into the muck all the way up to her wrist. As she turned her head to scold him, she felt his warm, wet tongue rake across her cheek. Giggling, she pushed him away, wiping off his sticky saliva with her clean hand as she made a futile attempt to clean off the other on her shorts.
“I'm fine, you goon. Stop fretting. I'm trying to do work here, go bask for a while.”
He gave her another lick, his smooth tongue glancing across her neck, a wave of distinctly erotic tingling making her shiver as it rolled down her spine. She wanted to ward him off and focus on her calculations, but he was insatiable sometimes, her ticklish nature making it hard to convey her disapproval. Her heart skipped in her chest as she noticed the tip of his azure blue erection peeking out from beneath its genital slit, leaking a strand of clear fluid in anticipation. It was true that they hadn't fooled around in a while now, but he had picked a hell of a time to remind her of that fact.
She turned her head this way and that, looking about the muddy shore to see how many other Krell were nearby. There were three in view, one of them floating in the water a few hundred meters offshore, and two others who were basking nearby on the bank. Lena was suddenly very aware of her nakedness, the sexual urges that were rising up inside her giving it new context.
Sleethe's long, flexible tongue glanced her nipple and slid down her belly, pausing at the waistband of her shorts as she loosed a stifled moan and arched her spine.
“Sleethe,” she grumbled, “we can't do this here. People will see us!”
The natives might have no concept of modesty or privacy, but she certainly did. Lena might have foregone her clothing for convenience, but the idea of making love out in public like this was imbuing her with an odd blend of apprehension and excitement. Her mouth was dry, she could hear her heart pounding in her ears. What was happening to her?
She laughed giddily as he crawled closer, lapping at her neck and chest, his warm organ teasing her in all of the places that he knew were vulnerable. The giant reptile loomed over her, planting his massive hands to either side of her, and she fell backwards into the mud.
“I just got clean,” she complained, “we should do this later...” She was interrupted as he curled his tongue around her breast, engulfing it in what felt like wet velvet, squeezing her gently as her eyelashes fluttered. “Let's go back up the temple, then we can...we can...”
Her voice trailed off as she felt the warmth of his member pressing against her thigh, fully erect now, as long and as thick are her forearm. It was leaking fluids on her skin as it brushed against her crotch, Lena sensing its firmness through the thin fabric as it pressed against her lips through her shorts. Its length was still coated in the hand prints and smears of dye that she had left there after their last session in the temple, reds and yellows standing out against his blue flesh.
Her chest began to rise and fall more rapidly at the salacious sight, a sudden warmth overtaking her as his monstrous organ leaked on her belly. She shifted her weight, feeling the slimy mud beneath her hands. Thoughts swarmed in her head, some demanding that she push him away and insist that they not do this on the shore. Still others teased the possibility of throwing shame to the wind, of indulging in these lurid urges, fucking right here in the mud in full view of everyone.
She glanced to her right, swallowing hard as she noticed that their immediate neighbor was watching them, one yellow eye open as she lay on her back. It was a female, judging by the curve of her hips, a little older than Sleethe. She wasn't leering at them, she was just observing with mild interest as she basked in the sunlight.
Lena was brought back into the moment as her partner's mammoth erection pressed against her belly, almost as if he was trying to show her how deep it would go if he were to tear off her shorts and go for broke. She could feel it pulse as it lay there, the throb of hot blood making it bounce against her stomach. A drop of his saliva fell from his lipless jaws, splashing on her forehead and dribbling down her face, practically boiling on her red cheek as she bit her lip and turned her eyes up towards him.
His blue tongue snaked down towards her as if it had a mind of its own, parting her lips and pressing against her closed teeth. He seemed confused by her reluctance, smelling the excitement radiating from her, seeing the hardness of her nipples and feeling the spreading damp between her thighs. Her body was ready and willing, aching for him, but Lena was still clinging to her alien morality. The little devil whispering in her ear assured her that nobody would ever find out, that this kind of thing was normal and socially acceptable on Krell. In fact, it would be borderline anthropocentric to refuse him...
Lena caved, opening her mouth and welcoming his probing tongue as it bulged her cheeks. Her brain fizzed and popped in her skull. Sleethe's wanton and unrestrained kisses always made her feel like she was melting. Her knees grew weak and her blood rushed in her ears, overpowered only by the lurid smacking of their embrace as she did her utmost to match his aggressive pace. Her tiny, pink organ was easily overcome, his slippery tongue gliding against her inner cheeks and lapping at the roof of her mouth, his bubbling saliva dripping from her chin and falling to her naked chest in fat ropes.
She dug her fingers into the soft mud as jolts of pleasure coursed through her nervous system like errant embers from a bonfire, packing the soil into her fists as Sleethe pinned her against the ground. He was being so dominant today, brutish, taking her on the beach like she was the only thing that mattered. To be wanted in that way, to be so desired that he couldn't help himself...it made her feel so...sexy.
His open jaws were to either side of her face now, his sharp teeth a hair's breadth from her cheeks, but she knew that he would never hurt her. He was really going deep, his slimy organ pushing into her throat, Lena's eyes watering as her muscles spasmed around it. Despite the discomfort, she loved it when he kissed her like this. So deep, filling her head, a sex act in its own right. She closed her lips around the base and sucked affectionately, licking his length and tasting his metallic drool on her tongue.
Lena writhed beneath him, covering her body in mud and slime, her hands sinking into the wet soil and her heels sliding as they tried to find purchase. The cold of the lake was already a distant memory, now her body was burning up, sweat dripping her her pores to mingle with her lover's fluids. She had felt so clean after her bath, so refreshed, and now she was being sullied on the ground. There was something exciting about that, the idea making some long repressed desire surface in the back of her mind. She wanted to be covered in mud and sweat, drool and come, filthy in a very literal sense.
Sleethe pulled out of her mouth and let her take a gasping breath, his tongue joined to her lips by sagging strands of saliva, Lena blinking away tears as he turned his attention to her shorts. The female was still watching them idly, her interest mounting it seemed. She was looking right at Lena as she lay beneath her alien lover, her pale skin covered in hand prints and mud, strings of drool that were not her own hanging from her pink lips. What did she think of Lena's display? Was she jealous, disapproving? Did she drink in Sleethe's muscular physique and his surging erection, wishing that it was her and not Lena who was pinned beneath him?
Lena yelped as her lover tore her shorts off in one smooth motion, exposing her, a sticky web of her juices linking her swollen sex to the fabric. His azure tongue slapped wetly between her breasts, sliding slowly down towards her loins, Lena twitching and trembling as he tormented her. In an instant his leathery hands were parting her thighs, his dull claws sinking into her yielding flesh, and his hot breath was washing over her.
She moaned as he began to lick her, the sound drawing the interest of their observer, the female blinking her nictating membrane at Lena as the human writhed in the mud. Lena didn't care about being loud anymore, she wanted them to hear. It was liberating in a way.
He was so good at giving head that it sometimes made her feel like she was going to pass out from the pleasure, as if her brain might shut itself down to protect her from becoming overstimulated. This time was no exception, Sleethe delighting in exploring every inch of her vulva with his dexterous tongue, dragging his damp flesh across every fold and wrinkle as if her taste was the most wonderful thing in the world to him. He gave her is all every time, never holding anything back, having no reservations and not a hint of shame as he ate her out.
She lurched as he pushed into her opening, her juices mingling with his saliva as he slid deep into her reaches, his tongue alone thick enough to fill her. He could reach so far inside her, his organ roiling and undulating to sear her nerves with unbearable stimulation. Her walls clenched around him, squeezing and wringing as the contractions made her hips shake, but he remained undeterred. He licked her from within, his deft glances drawing shapes in her passage. He was teasing and gentle when he wanted to be, and then his pace would reach a cruel and wracking intensity, his blue flesh digging into her most sensitive spots as she bucked and shivered.
Sleethe withdrew, only priming her for what was to come it seemed, Lena squirming as his tongue slowly slid back out of her to lap dotingly at her thighs and belly. His large hands gripped her hips, his dull claws digging into her painted flesh, and with all the effort of playing with a toy he flipped her onto her belly.
Lena found herself face down in the mud, her breasts pressing against the ground as her lover lifted her rear into the air. The dark slime matted her blonde hair, sticking to her cheek and coating her chest, her once porcelain skin now stained with colorful dyes and black muck. She was beyond caring however, in fact she was reveling in it. There was something base and lurid about letting Sleethe have his way with her in the dirt, like animals, their bestial copulation taking precedence over all other concerns.
It was actually fairly pleasant, the mud was cool and damp, warding off some of the pervasive heat as it coated her. It was all over her hands and forearms in a dark layer, in her hair and on her face, all over her back and chest where she had lain on the ground. It was slippery and slimy, thick and clumpy. She dug her fingers into it and clawed out deep furrows as Sleethe's pulsing member pressed between her swollen lips.
He really was going to take her, right here on the shore in full view of everyone. She could feel his warm breath washing over her muddy back as he leaned over her, Lena no larger than a doll to him as he gripped her with his leathery hands and prepared to mount her. The anticipation was torture, she could feel his flared glans throbbing against her sodden sex, trickles of her excitement leaking down her inner thighs as she curled her toes in the soil. Was he making her wait just to tease her?
The unspoken question was soon answered as his shovel-like member pressed deeper, splaying her open as she loosed a guttural groan, her matted hair falling over her face. That familiar ache returned, a wonderful soreness that always preceded their lovemaking. He was so much larger than her, such that she never truly got used to the feeling of having him inside her. She balled her fists as he pushed past the resistance, his wide glans sliding inside her as her walls closed around it violently. She gasped as his firm erection raked her insides, his bubbling saliva and her own fluids easing it along, so large and so thick that it dug into her sweet spot by virtue of its sheer girth alone.
Immediately her legs turned to jelly, and she would have fallen flat on her stomach had he not been holding her. She could feel him tense as he pushed deeper, grinding against her tender passage in all the right ways, scouring her nerves as her body fought against it. She fit him like a latex glove, so tight that there wasn't even room for a slip of paper between his surging erection and her velvet flesh. She looked down between her parted thighs, getting more mud in her hair but not caring, watching lecherously as his azure shaft penetrated her. She could see the pigments that still stained his length, hand prints and smears of color that looked like lipstick. Perhaps she could have painted her lips with the dye and covered its smooth surface in kisses, that would have been hot...
Her thighs trembled as he inched forward, Lena baring her teeth and enduring the discomfort, knowing all too well what her reward would be. It was always a little hard at first, but once she got into the swing of things it would get easier. The ache would be dulled, and in its place would rise a raw, harsh pleasure. It was like taking off your sunglasses on a summer's day, the brightness and depth of color overwhelming your eyes before they had a chance to adjust.
A flutter of arousal shot through her as she watched a thick rope of her own juices fall to the mud, pushed out of her as Sleethe filled her to capacity. Her passage was wringing him like a fist gloved in slimy silk, milking and teasing, struggling to conform to his alien shape as her hot flesh pressed down on him from all sides. She could feel everything, every flex and jump, every throb of warm blood that coursed along its length.
He reached as far as he could, Lena lying with one side of her face in the mud as he held her rump off the ground, at waist height to the crouching alien. He waited there for a few moments, letting her catch her breath before the coupling began in earnest, the sense of fullness alone nearly enough to send her into a convulsing orgasm. Lena glanced at their observer, the female had turned her head to face them, watching with both eyes now and giving them her full attention.
Sleethe pulled back, Lena's eyelids fluttering and her mouth opening in a silent wail as his glans dug into her sensitive walls like an arrowhead. It was the outward motion that felt the best, the shape of his member designed to scoop out the sperm of his rivals, creating a kind of maddening rib that scraped her on its way out. Or did it hurt? It could be hard to tell sometimes, the intensity of the sensation so powerful that it seemed to confuse her senses. If she was grinning like a maniac and drooling into the mud, then it probably felt good...
As soon as his member neared her entrance, digging into her g-spot in a way that made her claw at the damp earth with her fingernails, he thrust back inside her again. He filled her to capacity in one motion, a glob of his drool falling from his jaws to land wetly in the small of her back as he began to move. From her position, she could see the bulge that his manhood made in her belly, distending it ever so slightly when he was all the way inside her. Well, all the way for her, not all the way for him. He was about a foot long after all. Being so large, his erection was a little softer and more malleable than that of a human, more like a large silicone toy. But that flexibility just meant that he could fill her even more effectively, able to bend and shift in order to reach everywhere.
He picked up the pace, each heavy thrust punctuated by a grunt from Lena, her vision blurring and her body rocking as he drove into her like a piston. Lena could see the female's eyes tracking his hips as they thrust his shaft in and out of her, Sleethe's tiny partner mewling and cooing with every movement.
After several minutes of unrestrained rutting, Lena was jolted from her fugue by the feeling of something warm and wet pressing between her cheeks. Something glanced her bud, and she strained to look back over her shoulder, seeing that it was Sleethe's winding tongue. Much like when he licked her during sex, he was bent double, keeping his length inside her as his long tongue snaked out of his mouth with surprising dexterity. He could manipulate it like a hand, and now it was pressing against her rump, lashing at her cheeks like a wet towel.
It slid between them, glancing her butt again, and a shiver rolled through her body. Sleethe took notice, her insides gripping him ever harder, and she heard him rumble affectionately as his member bounced inside her.
He licked her there again, his smooth flesh raking across her sensitive bud, and again she tightened up. Lena had never been touched...there...before. It felt surprisingly good, she hadn't realized how sensitive she was. Another whine escaped her lips as Sleethe thrust into her, her head filling with white light, as if his blue cock was an eraser that was rubbing out her mind.
This time she felt the tapered tip of his tongue probing for an opening, his pace slowing somewhat as he explored her. She had half a mind to ward him off. Even in her current debauched state, experimenting with anal was a little much. What was he even doing back there? Still, that flash of pleasure when he had licked her...it had felt pretty good.
Lena yelped as his tongue penetrated her, his saliva easing its passage as his slick flesh grazed hers, her eyes widening in surprise. He only reached perhaps an inch inside her before she closed around him, but the rich nerve endings in her rear responded with a powerful rush of sensation. She hadn't expected that it would feel this way, it felt almost as good as when he went down on her, a new dimension of sensation adding to her mounting excitement.
If there had ever been a little angel to compliment the devil that sat upon her shoulder, it had long ago thrown in the towel, and Lena reeled under the unexpected stimulation as lurid whispers filled her head. She wanted more of this...deeper...
“M-More,” she stammered, knowing that Sleethe would understand her tone if not her words. She sometimes found herself begging and pleading for him to move faster, or to thrust harder in her most impassioned moments, he would know what she wanted from him.
She tried to relax, an almost impossible feat given the circumstances that she found herself in. Her entire body was on fire, aflame with surges of tingling pleasure and bursts of electrical ecstasy that made every muscle in her body spasm. Each time that he pushed his flared glans into her depths she tensed, her passage doing its utmost to accommodate his odd shape as he plunged her reaches. She could feel him in her belly, the impact reverberating through her body and making the softer parts of her anatomy quiver like a plate of jello.
Sleethe tried to push his tongue inside her again, and this time she allowed it, struggling to stave off the urge to push him back out. His organ was long and thick, but as soft and as flexible as that as a human. There was no pain, only a sense of fullness as his winding tongue slid into her, pleasure sparking as its smooth surface pressed against her in new and unexpected ways. His thick saliva was so slippery and his tongue was just the right shape, it went inside her so easily...
She moaned into the mud, Sleethe now filling both of her holes, the heat that radiated from his buried tongue burning in her mind like molten metal. He was treating her butt like he would her loins, licking her from the inside, drawing teasing shapes and writhing. Lena couldn't do much more than mumble curses under her breath as he pushed deeper, her brow furrowed and her toes curling so much that they cramped. When his tongue pressed down she loosed an unbecoming wail that must have been heard clear across the lake, his organ pressing on her vaginal canal from the other side, compressing the flesh between his buried tongue and his hard member. She could feel it, she could feel everything. She feared that she was losing her mind.
Her burly lover picked up the pace again, slamming into her with renewed vigor, Lena on all fours beneath his bulk as he rocked her with every thrust. He was so perceptive, as if he could read her emotions and the reactions of her petite body like a book, feeling every twitch and hearing every moan as he carefully moderated his stimulation in order to keep her teetering on the edge of the precipice.
The world around Lena melted away. All that existed for her, all that she could concentrate on, was the sensation that was tearing through her like a bolt of lightning. His massive member and his roiling tongue rubbed against each other through her walls. She had never felt so completely full, as if he was reaching inside her with an incorporeal hand and stimulating her through the barrier of her flesh. There was nowhere that he couldn't reach, nowhere that he couldn't touch her.
She rose from her elbows to support herself with her hands, the two of them mating like wild animals as he pushed into her from behind, strands of their mingling fluids falling from between her legs with every thrust. He was going so deep, there must have been a clear foot of his wriggling tongue inside her now, its heat spreading up through her body like a fever. It was so slimy, his saliva coating her twitching passage, his blue organ gliding against her insides as it reached ever deeper. Beyond a certain point there was nothing more than a sense of being filled, but around her entrance and a few inches inside her, the feeling of him licking and moving was enough to make her head spin. He piled his tongue into her ass like he did when he kissed her, the thick coils spreading her open, hitting her from every angle.
Having his member inside her was already enough to make her feel as if she might split apart like a log beneath a wood cutter's axe, but this was a whole new sensation. She was just...full. She could feel Sleethe in her loins, in her ass, in her belly. She was full of Sleethe. The idea made her bite her lip, her brain boiling with raunchy thoughts as he ravished her.
Lena could imagine it as if seeing herself in an X-ray. His thick erection was spreading her passage as wide as it would go with its impressive girth, her muscles contracting and twitching around its smooth length as they tried to accommodate it, his firm member crushing her g-spot against her pubic bone. There was nothing but a thin barrier of flesh separating her vaginal canal from her ass, which was now full of his long tongue. She could feel the two pressing together tightly, almost as if someone had taken a fistful of her nerves and was squeezing them in their hand. There was something wonderfully arousing about the contrast of his blue meat against her pink insides, mammal and reptile, human and alien. Her entire lower body was overcome with a permeating pleasure and warmth, almost like she was immersed in a pool of liquid ecstasy up to the navel.
She came suddenly and powerfully, an unexpected climax sneaking up on her through the haze, ripping through her like a surge of electrical current. A kind of hyperawareness overcame her, as if all of her nerves had just had their sensitivity amplified tenfold. Taken completely off-guard, she collapsed face-first into the mud, all reason leaving her trembling body along with her sweat and fluids as she convulsed.
Sleethe held onto her trembling hips with his hands, keeping her rear level with his member as her legs dangled limply, her knees no longer having the strength to support her weight. The orgasm was so jarring and sharp, the waves of raw pleasure inescapable as they washed over her, like claws raking up her spine. There was a brief moment of respite between the wracking pulses, where her consciousness clawed its way back to the forefront of her mind, in awe of the intensity of her euphoria and fearing the next throb. As inevitable as the rising suns, it came, Lena rubbing her face in the mud and arching her spine as she panted and moaned. She lost all semblance of decency and control, her primal instincts snatching the wheel from her hands.
He wasn't stopping and nor was the pleasure, driving his member into her with a renewed ferocity as her loins clenched around him, spasming and shuddering such that she might as well have been vibrating. He bellowed a rumbling mating call, the sonic resonance shaking her from the inside out, ringing her like a bell that had been struck by a hammer.
Lena's skin was shining with fresh sudor, leaking from her pores as her beleaguered body desperately tried to cool itself, at least where it was open to the air. Most of her body was now covered in slimy mud, coating her chest, back and butt in a dark layer. It was in her hair and on her breasts, kept wet by the humidity in the air, the academic smearing it on her face with her hands as she attempted to hide her obscene expression and stifle her wails.
She rode out her climax, Sleethe's ceaseless thrusting and licking prolonging it to an unreasonable length, until finally the harsh pleasure began to fade. It was replaced by a deep and pervasive ache, a soreness that was somehow profoundly satisfying, like scratching a troublesome itch until it bled. She took in labored gulps of air, the taste of the damp soil on her lips as she wet them with her tongue, her eyes struggling to focus.
The female Krell was watching her. Was it Lena's imagination, or were her eyelids drooping? Was she aroused, impressed by their bawdy display?
She had expected Sleethe to stop after her orgasm, but there had been no flood of thick, gooey liquid that characterized his climaxes. He wasn't done apparently, and Lena was rocked by another rush of intense pleasure as his continued thrusting provoked a rippling aftershock.
“Y-You're still going?” She stammered, her voice cracking as he plowed into her, her arms trembling as she struggled to support herself on her hands again. How could he not be done? Her passage was gripping him like a vice, he would be tearing her apart if not for the copious lubricant that was still leaking from her splayed opening.
He seemed to sense the discomfort brought on by her new sensitivity, slowing the rocking of his hips and giving her time to recover. She could feel his cock jumping and twitching inside of her as he let it sit, marinating in her juices as she wallowed in her smoldering afterglow. He withdrew his tongue from her butt, the sensation of it slowly sliding out of her making her mewl like a kitten. He began to lick her almost apologetically, dragging his long tongue between her cheeks and grazing her bud.
Every time that his smooth tongue touched her there, white points of light danced before her eyes, the sensation penetrating her dull fugue like a hot knife. She couldn't help but slide a couple of trembling fingers between her parted thighs, rubbing at her mound and stimulating herself as he lapped, her juices still flowing enough that they dripped down her hand in creamy globs.
The feeling wasn't going away. It was as if he had broken her body, getting it stuck in 'orgasm mode' like a busted radio that could only pick up one channel. There was an urgency to it, Lena feeling that she could go again, and she took the initiative as she pushed back against Sleethe.
This time it was his turn to groan and twitch, his tiny human partner taking him as deep as he would go with one thrust, burying his member inside her as her fleshy tunnel gripping him. He resumed his prior bucking, and now Lena matched pace with him, looking back over her shoulder and glaring at him almost angrily. She must look insane. Her hair was like a blonde explosion, the mud and sweat matting it into haphazard spikes and clumps, her red face coated in muck.
Once again his tongue pressed up against her hole, her nubile body tensing as he circled it, and then he was inside her again. Were it not for the drool that was dripping from his crocodilian jaws and the tapered shape of his muscle, it might have been far more difficult, but his azure organ was almost built for the task. He stirred her up, circling his tongue about, spreading her open as he dragged its satin surface across the walls of her tunnel. She was so impossibly sensitive there, untouched. She could safely say that nobody had ever thrust their tongue all the way up her ass before. All the while his monstrous member raked her passage, leaking what felt like warm precome as he went. He must be getting close, she loved the way that he dripped clear fluid from his flared tip when she teased him.
“Harder,” she snarled, mauling her swollen clitoris with her fingers as his weight buffeted her. Pleasure and pain, aching and soreness, lust and desire. It was all just sensation and emotion, the lines blurring and becoming harder to distinguish the longer it went on. She wondered what he was doing to her, then her face flushed anew as she realized that she had asked the question out loud. She couldn't even be sure if she was speaking or thinking anymore. She began to laugh, giggling like a schoolgirl as he drove her into the ground, pressing her down.
With one hand between her shoulder blades and the other taking a rough handful of her butt, he squashed her into the mud beneath him. She might have panicked, fearing that he had gone off the rails and that he was about to crush her in his reckless passion, but she trusted him implicitly. He would sooner throw himself into a sun than even risk injuring her. Whatever he was doing, it would work out.
As she had suspected, the soft mud beneath her body absorbed the weight, and she found herself sinking into a Lena-shaped impression. There was a delightful pressure on top of her now, Sleethe driving into her in a way that just wasn't possible without such a soft medium to cushion her. His angle had changed, the savage rib of his shovel-shaped glans digging into her g-spot and compressing it as she writhed impotently beneath him.
His breathing was ragged and his pace was irregular, Lena grinning to herself as her own breath blew bubbles in the mud. This great warrior, this armor plated, muscle-bound beast with teeth as long as her fingers was overwhelmed with desire for her. He could flip a truck, absorb enough damage to kill a whole platoon of Marines, but once inside her he was as malleable and as amorous as a lovesick teenager. Like putty in her hands.
There was a surge of hot fluid, like an erupting volcano as his thick shaft pulsated, filling her with his viscous emission. Her heart leapt in her chest as she felt it splash against her reaches, flooding her, filling every inch of her with gelatinous come. He doubled over, his tongue slipping out of her rear as he growled like a beast, pressing her deeper into the mud. Lena sank her fingers into the soil, reeling as the delightful pressure that she felt as she was pumped full of his semen forced another searing climax from her exhausted body. This one was even more acute, even more powerful, reducing her to a quivering wreck as she lay limply in the mud.
Lena felt a firmness in her belly as his ejaculate compacted inside her, his flared glans acting like a plug, forcing his viscous seed into every crevice and detail of her passage. It just kept coming, erupting from her like a fountain as it ran out of room, Sleethe keeping a firm hold on her as his member pulsed like a living thing. If she had been a female Krell she would have been so, so pregnant by now. It was a good thing that their two species couldn't reproduce.
Still, the sensation of being pumped full of his warm, gelatinous come satisfied her in the most primal of ways. Her higher faculties might know that as potent as he was, Sleethe could not impregnate her, his genes were too alien. But still her body responded as if it was being bred, rewarding her with the appropriate neurochemicals, stimulating the pleasure center of her brain with electrical impulses. Lena the scientist knew what was happening, she understood the mechanisms that were at work in her body. Lena the animal writhed in the mud, her eyes rolling back into her head as her lover's clumpy ejaculate seeped from between her thighs in fat blobs.
There wasn't a inch of her skin that wasn't obscured by paint, mud or semen now. She rolled onto her back as Sleethe's thick member slid out of her, along with all of the fluid that it had been keeping inside her. She could almost feel her belly deflate as it poured out in a thick, pearly stream, but that was probably just her imagination.
He leaned down and dragged his tongue across her throat affectionately, almost as if he was concerned for her. She couldn't blame him. She was a quivering wreck, only her wide grin indicating that she wasn't suffering from some form of epilepsy. The contrast between his brutish lovemaking and his gentleness made her seethe with a blend of genuine love for him, and a wanton lust that would have filled her with shame on her more scrupulous days.
“You big goof,” she mumbled, twitching as another aftershock rippled through her. When she regained the use of her legs and her sense of balance, she would have to bathe again. Her entire body was caked in mud and ejaculate. While it was unbearably erotic in the heat of the moment, it would probably become disgusting once this mind-bending arousal wore off. But right now she just wanted to lie here for a while, enjoy the sensation a little...
She gave one last glance at the voyeuristic female that had been watching them, feeling butterflies in her belly as they made eye contact. What must she think of them? What did their frenetic coupling look like to her? Lena maintained the gaze as Sleethe dragged his tongue across her chest, reaching up with her slim fingers to stroke his scales, reveling in the idea that their intimacy was being observed by a third party.
They could never do this on the Pinwheel, on Earth, or anywhere in human space. Lena could never be so open and unashamed about her relationship, how much she enjoyed her lover's company, her burning desire for him. Now it was on display, witnessed by at least one other person. The thought was somehow validating.
She relaxed her muscles as Sleethe nuzzled and purred in his low, rumbling tones, dropping down into the mud beside her and lying on his side. His member flopped across her flat belly, still nearly a foot long despite his receding erection, his blue flesh leaving milky residue on her skin. She stroked it with the tip of her finger, feeling him throb, another blob of his semen seeping from the flared head. The smears of dye and pigments were prominent, she hoped that the female Krell had seen them.
Lena settled in for a post-coital nap in the mud, at least the muck would shield her skin from the sun and save her from further tanning. She was worried that even when the body paint wore off, she would be left with some very embarrassing tan lines.
CHAPTER 12: SUNKEN SECRETS
“Ok Sleethe,” Lena said as she secured the rebreather's strap around her head, ensuring that the device was firmly anchored to her face. “Here's what we're gonna do. You're going to swim me down to the Broker facility, and we're going to assess the situation. Pay close attention to what I'm doing, because when I give the signal, you have to get me back to the surface as soon as possible. Understand? I only have about six minutes of oxygen with this thing, so we'll probably need to make several trips. I don't know how long this will take, or even if we'll be able to get inside at all.”
He nodded, and Lena could only hope that her translator had done a good enough job. She was standing waist-deep in the water on the shore of the lake, steeling herself for the possibly ill-advised and potentially dangerous dive that she was about to attempt.
Based on everything that she knew about diving, which admittedly was not a whole lot, the cold and the pressure would not do her any lasting damage as long as she was careful about how long she spent down there. She had no wetsuit, and so there was nothing to be done about the temperature. Any clothing that she wore to keep warm would have the opposite effect as it became waterlogged. At about sixty feet the pressure shouldn't be too bad, she wouldn't get the bends, as far as she knew. She had to hope that six minutes would be enough time to get anything done, assuming that the Broker structure wasn't completely sealed off and inaccessible. It would surely have security features to keep any nosy Krell out, but would they still be active after being abandoned for hundreds of years?
“Let's go Sleethe.”
She climbed up onto his back and sat on him as he swam her out onto the lake, the shore slowly fading from view as it was enveloped by mist. Before long there was nothing in sight besides the flat water on all sides, like she was in the middle of a wide ocean. She brought up the hologram of the sonar scan and tracked their progress, giving Sleethe directions until they were right on top of it.
For the time being she had elected to bring nothing but her wrist computer, even foregoing shorts for the fear that they would become soaked with water and weigh her down. After their escapades on the shore earlier in the day, she hardly felt exposed anymore. Hopefully the flashlight would work underwater...
She patted Sleethe on the back, and he slowed, floating in the water like a living island as she slid off him. The water at this depth was still fairly warm, but she knew how quickly the temperature would plummet, and she wasn't looking forward to it. Why was she doing this? Her job was to document the flora and fauna that inhabited the planet, to take measurements of its environment and to study the native culture. Nobody had told her that she had to risk her life in pursuit of Broker secrets. Why not give it up and go back to the temple?
Nope, she couldn't stand living with the curiosity, it would drive her mad.
“Alright big guy, let's go for a swim.”
Sleethe wrapped his powerful arm around her midsection, holding her like someone might carry a small dog, and then plunged into the lake. In mere seconds the warmth of the surface was far behind her, cold water surrounding her as the sunlight faded. She could scarcely open her eyes, the rushing water hitting her in the face with the force of a showerhead, Sleethe's undulating movements rocking her as he swam into the dark depths.
Her ears popped as they descended, as if she was taking a shuttle ride. She was surprised by how obvious the pressure change was. She could feel it pressing down on her, even at what had appeared to be such a shallow depth. Sixty feet was now feeling a lot deeper than it had when she had been studying the sonar map in the safety of the temple. She could still breathe however, she was safe for the time being.
Sleethe released her suddenly, and after a brief moment of panic her bare feet found the frigid mud, their presence kicking up a cloud of silt and debris. She was now standing on the lakebed, sixty feet beneath the surface. Lena collected herself, remembering that every second she spent marveling at her situation or being afraid, was a second wasted. She had work to do.
She blinked as her eyes adjusted to the water. Unfortunately the goggles were an optional accessory that she had not deemed necessary when she had been rummaging through the Pinwheel's surplus stores. She took a deep breath, trying to remind her body that she wasn't drowning, and bounded forward as her vision came into focus. The beam of light from her wrist computer didn't do a very good job of penetrating the murky water, but it was enough to see a couple of feet in front of her. Sleethe was hovering nearby like a living submarine, keeping an eye on her and leading her towards their destination. One and a half minutes had already passed, judging by the holographic counter on her forearm, its orange glow clearly visible. Pick up the pace, Lena.
After a few steps the structure came into view, emerging from the gloom as its white surface reflected the light. It looked like it was built from giant, white cubes with rounded edges. There were no visible windows or doors on its surface. There wasn't much of anything in fact, the nearest face of the building was featureless besides the gunk that was clinging to it.
There were water weeds growing all over it, lichens and what looked like clusters of barnacles, it had clearly been left in disrepair for a very long period of time. Colonies of crustaceans seemed to have made their homes around its base, where the silt and mud deposited over the eons was slowly burying it. It almost looked like it was sinking into the ground, but she knew that all of this had built up over centuries.
She reached the first building and began to circle it, searching for an opening that would let her inside, referencing her sonar scan as she went. The wireframe model showed six such buildings, all in irregular sizes and linked by tubes. If the tubes were made from glass, might Sleethe be able to break into them?
One such tube came into view as she rounded the first of the featureless blocks, appearing from the wall and vanishing into the adjacent building. The silt had built up here too, the glass tube was half buried in muck, tiny crabs milling about in the forest of weeds that had sprung up around it. Unfortunately the glass wasn't so much as cracked, it was likely made from supermaterials that humans hadn't even discovered yet.
Lena checked her timer. Two and a half minutes had elapsed.
Sleethe disturbed the weeds as he swam nearby, hovering over the installation and turning his long snout this way and that, searching. He must know what she was trying to accomplish, scouting for an entrance from above.
Her feet were starting to get painfully cold. Walking in this mud was like wading through snow, and so she paddled a little higher. The exercise warmed her, but too much exertion would expend her oxygen supply very quickly. She couldn't see any way inside, would all of this effort be for nothing?
Sleethe abruptly shot out of view, vanishing into the murky water as the powerful strokes of his tail disturbed a shoal of nearby fish. When he reemerged again, he was heading straight for her, and he swooped down to pluck her off the ground. He held her in his arms as he swam her up and over the installation, Lena gazing down at it as he carried her along. The third block of the structure was in the shadow of the underwater cliff that had shown up on her scan. The rock face extended up thirty or forty feet towards the surface. As Sleethe swam her lower, she noticed a pile of rubble, and her eyes lit up.
It was a rockslide! At some point part of the cliff had collapsed, raining large boulders down on the Broker base. Even at this distance she could make out where the building had buckled under the stress, but if it had torn an opening in the material, then it was buried under the subsequent buildup of mud and silt.
Apparently their advanced materials weren't so advanced that they were immune to the slow advance of nature. It might have taken a lot longer to decay than a human structure would have, but the planet was slowly reclaiming it.
Sleethe deposited her beside the pile of rocks, and they both began to inspect it, trying to find a break in the white material where Lena might slip through. It almost looked like the building was made of putty or soft plastic, it had dented inward and sagged where the rocks had crushed it. It wasn't made of anything that Lena could recognize. Maybe it would be worth taking some samples back with her, perhaps the UAS could study its composition and find a way to reproduce it.
Finally she located a space between two rocks where she could see inside the structure, pulling away handfuls of silt and small stones as she peered in. It looked the same inside as out, matte white walls with no discernible details. The tear looked large enough for her to get inside, but the boulders that were blocking her way must have been five or six hundred pounds apiece, there was no way for her to move them. She waved Sleethe over and he swam up beside her, immediately realizing what she was trying to accomplish. Lena took a few steps back and floated nearby as he braced his feet against the lakebed, his massive biceps bulging beneath his leathery skin as he hooked his hands under the nearest rock and strained to lift it.
Even underwater these boulders were incredibly heavy, but Sleethe was as strong as ten men, succeeding in lifting it off the pile. A stream of bubbles trailed from his nostrils as he cast it aside, its impact shaking the ground beneath Lena's feet. It landed in the mud and sank a few inches, its considerable weight easily apparent. She watched in awe as he moved on to the next one, even larger than the first. They were stacked on top of the building's sagging wall almost like a pyramid, the joints between them filled in with mud and silt that had accumulated there over time. They had been here long enough that some of them had barnacles and weeds clinging to their irregular surfaces.
Lena could see Sleethe's muscles ripple beneath his armored scales as he lifted the next boulder, bracing his legs like a strongman lifting a barbell. It must have been half a ton of rock at least, but but it was soon rolling across the muddy lakebottom beside him. He dislodged three more of the rocks, and then Lena watched his head vanish into the opening, checking out the interior. If his head could fit inside, then so could she.
She began to swim over to him, but then the orange glow of her holographic counter caught her eye. Seven minutes had passed. She patted Sleethe on his scaly rump when he came into range, and gestured to her wrist. He didn't waste a second, curling his arm around her and shooting up towards the surface of the lake like a green torpedo. Perhaps the minor incident during the first test of the rebreather had scared him.
In less than a minute her head was above the water, and she took a few moments to let her rebreather recharge and to recover from the cold. She swore that she could feel the cool blood moving from her extremities back into her core. That didn't seem very safe. She lay flat on the calm surface of the water, ensuring that she was completely reheated before braving the frigid depths again. When she was ready to resume her expedition, she reset her timer and had Sleethe swim her back down.
Before long she was floating in front of the Broker structure again, and now there was a vaguely Lena-sized hole in the rocks where she should be able to slip through. She rested her hands on the pile of mud and stones as she gauged the size of the hole. It looked like she would fit. She poked her arms through first, then her head, using the leverage to pull the rest of her body through the opening. There was a flare of pain a she scraped her thigh on one of the boulders, the jagged rock tearing into her skin. Lena yelped into her mask as a small cloud of blood billowed from the injury, floating into the Broker facility and turning to examine the wound.
It stung, but it was superficial, no reason to abort the dive. She would have to give it a thorough clean with antiseptic and dress it when she returned to the shore, there was nothing to be done about it right now.
Sleethe must have smelled the blood in the water, because his long snout pushed between the boulders and he stared at her with a concerned expression. She gave him two thumbs up, and he withdrew again, satisfied that she wasn't bleeding to death. Lena took a moment to work through the stinging pain, and then proceeded.
Finally, she was inside the Broker base, and there were none of the egotistical aliens around to hamper her investigations. She floated through the water, turning her head to examine the interior. It reminded her of being on the Broker spacecraft when she had flown down to the planet's surface. Everything was matte white and silver, made from clean, geometric shapes with rounded edges. It was so synthetic, it lacked any artistic flair or decoration that would have characterized the dwellings and buildings of the other Coalition races. The first structure was perhaps thirty feet squared, a perfect cube with an equally high ceiling. The proportions were odd, how could the inhabitants make use of that space?
Unlike the spaceship however, there was furniture here. Where humans would have used chairs, the Brokers seemed to have mesh nets that hung from the ceiling on cables, like small hammocks. The Krell scholar had suggested that they were an aquatic race, was this how they took a load off? Did they swim up to these nets and sit in them? There were tables here and there too. Large, flat surfaces that were lifted off the floor with a single leg that propped them up from the center, and which looked too fragile to hold their weight.
Lena swam closer and examined them. They were as flat and as featureless as the walls, no clues there. What had been the purpose of this structure when it was in use? Habitation? Research? Espionage? The room was so bare that it was very hard to imagine what its function might have been.
She moved on to the next structure, swimming along a glass tunnel that was half buried in the mud, her torch lighting her way. She could see the weeds that were clinging to it from below, taking a photo of how their roots wound across the transparent material. She could see the undersides of the barnacle-like creatures too, their fleshy 'foot' clinging to the glass like that of a snail.
The next building was longer than it was wide, and it was full of alien machinery. This must be the engine room, so to speak, the structure that housed all of the systems that did...whatever this outpost was designed to do. Lena swam about the room, carefully documenting everything with her computer's camera. There were large glass tubes that might have been for containing live specimens, or perhaps for filtering water. There were surfaces littered with all manner of what looked to her like science or engineering equipment, tools that would fit no hand that Lena could conceive of. It was all impossible to quantify. There were weeds and mosses her and there, some creatures had managed to find their way into the breach and had made this structure their home, almost like a shipwreck.
She came across something that looked near enough to a touch panel or a computer screen, and leaned in to examine it more closely. Information was what she wanted, but if there was a computer system in this base, would it still be active after all these years? Would the data be corrupted? Could she even turn on a Broker computer?
She reached out with her hand and brushed the flat surface, and to her surprise it flared to life. The whole room lit up with a dull, blue light, bubbles rising in the large transparent tanks and miscellaneous machinery activating itself. Just like inside the Broker spaceship, the light had no visible source, as if it was radiating from the walls themselves. She panicked for a moment as she was assailed by the odd sounds, but then calmed as the screen began to display alien characters. Krell had been a hard enough language to decipher, this would be impossible. It was the most complex language that she had ever seen. Before her very eyes the blocky characters were shifting and moving, what she assumed to be letters flying across the screen as they interlocked to form new words, a mad exchange of data as the vertical lines of text merged into one another and scrambled.
Each letter was contained within a square, the contents of which seemed infinitely variable, further diversifying as they came into contact with other squares. Was it a language, numbers, computer code? A mixture of all three? No way to know. She had a feeling that her portable work station would not have the processing power to make any kind of sense of this.
She tapped at the screen with her fingers, experimenting, and it seemed to react to her touch. After a few random presses, the display changed. Now there was a horizontal row of icons that resembled larger squares, a vertical line of pictograms in the upper left corner of each. They were overlaid on top of each other, almost like...files.
Brokers and humans might not share a common language, but they were both technological civilizations that used computers extensively. Would there be innate similarities between those systems? Were certain features necessary for computing, rather than being an aesthetic or technical choice?
She pressed one of the boxes, and something behind her cast a blue glow on the wall. She turned towards a large table in the center of the room, surrounded by a dozen of the hammocks that she had seen in the previous building, and saw that there was a blue image shimmering in the air above it.
It was a hologram, a three dimensional image being projected by some kind of hidden system, far more advanced than anything used by the UNN. It was so lifelike, so solid. It depicted what looked like an embryo in an egg, curled up in a fetal position with large, black eyes. Clearly still early in development. Could it be a Krell? It was hard to be sure.
She took a picture of it, and then turned back to the screen. She swiped at the squares with her finger, and they scrolled past with a fluid animation, overlapping one another. Yep, these were folders alright. Broker GUI design followed the same logic as that of humans, slick and intuitive. They must be very visual creatures, much like humans were.
It was an unexpected stroke of luck. She had read reports about the recent studies on Betelgeusians that detailed how they communicated entirely through pheromones, using organic computer systems that worked through scent in lieu of keyboards or touch commands for input. If the Broker system had been anything like that, then she would have been completely stumped.
She scrolled to the next folder icon, and the hologram that was hovering above the table changed. The embryo fizzled out, and was replaced by an equally impressive image of an adult Krell. It rotated slowly, three dimensional characters in the form of cubes displaying undecipherable information. As she watched, a double helix appeared, it was a strand of DNA. The animation was describing a gene editing process no doubt. Was this some kind of conference room? Was she accessing the equivalent of a Broker presentation?
Lena was careful to document everything, recording a video of the animation as she let it run its course. She might not be able to retrieve data from the computer, but as long as that data was holographic, she could take pictures and recordings. She had started off her career as a linguist, then she had been tasked with doing the field work of a dozen different disciplines, and now she was playing at espionage like some kind of UNNI agent.
The next hologram was a Betelgeusian, the variety with fins on their limbs and gills on their chests, the same that the scholar had described in his story. She swiped past it, and then came across something that looked very sensitive indeed.
Lena might not be a soldier, but she lived on a military space station. She had seen this kind of thing before, only in passing, but it was immediately recognizable. The hologram now showed a field of small spheres, with smaller spheres orbiting them. These were obviously solar systems. It was a tactical map, the stars and planets color coded. Some were blue, but a handful were flashing orange, and there were icons that looked like triangles which were green in color. The triangles numbered two dozen or more and were spread out around the starfield, many of them clustering around the orange planets. Might those be fleets or spaceships? There was data everywhere, but nothing that Lena could read.
She was no astronomer, and so she couldn't tell at a glance where these systems were, but her portable work station would have that information in its database for sure.
Something odd stood out to her, and she swam closer to get a better look at the hologram. One of the flashing orange systems was different from the others. It had more information cubes floating around it for one, but while all of the other orange planets and systems were surrounded by green triangles, this one was not. There were green triangles here, but they seemed to be keeping their distance. If these were battle plans or fleet movements, then that might mean anything. They were perhaps waiting for the right time to attack, holding off until more support arrived maybe.
But there was another icon here, a small, yellow blip. It was the only icon of its kind, there were no others on the map. There was a trail of small dots behind it that curved away and out of view, as if they had been plotting the object's course. Something was different about this solar system.
Lena remembered how the scholar had talked about the war abruptly ending, how one day the Brokers had halted their advance for reasons that were beyond the understanding of the Krell. Could this be it? Was this the last field report, the last set of orders that the inhabitants of this base had received before packing up and leaving the planet?
She checked the counter on her wrist, eighty seconds left, she had better make for the exit.
The portable workstation's cooling fans whirred loudly as it read the data from Lena's wrist computer, transferring all of the video files and photos that she had recorded during her dive. She had spent the better part of the day exploring the Broker base, but besides the hologram files she hadn't found much else of use. Sure it was all interesting, but with no frame of reference there wasn't much that she could do besides gawk at the alien tech.
The holograms had been interesting however, especially the one that had resembled a tactical map. The first thing that she wanted to do was use the workstation to get a match on those solar systems. Even if the map was three hundred years old, the constellations would not have significantly changed, it should be trivial for the computer to match them against the database.
She had been asking a lot of the little workstation, it was down to fifteen percent battery. She had replacements fortunately, but she hadn't expected to burn through the first charge in only a few days. Without it, she would not have been able to churn through the data at such a prodigious rate. She didn't want to imagine how long it would have taken to parse the Krell alphabet by hand.
She sat cross legged on the damp wood of the temple as she waited for a match, Sleethe lazing about in the nearest sleeping pit, his scaly chin resting on the rim as he watched the animated icon spin.
After a few more moments it flashed a message indicating that it was finished, the star systems had been matched. She tapped at the screen excitedly, and the computer displayed a video recording of the Broker hologram with a UNN starmap superimposed on top of it. The little spheres now each had their own label. It seemed to be a representation of the Orion constellation. She could see Rigel, Bellatrix, Saiph, Sigma Orionis and other stars.
Most of the systems were blue, and those that had an orange planet were encircled by triangles. She was sure now that they must represent Broker fleets. Blue meant that the system had been cleared of Bugs, orange must mean that they were still infested, as that was where the fleets were concentrated. One star stood out as different however.
Lena felt a cold chill wash over her as she realized that the system was Betelgeuse. She knew all about the system, as did everyone in UNN space. It was at Betelgeuse that first contact with the Bugs had resulted in the destruction of a human colony ship, along with forty thousand colonists. It was humanity's first interaction with an alien species, and the most disastrous. The expedition had expected to find a fertile colony planet ready to be claimed, but instead they had found a Bug hive. When they had attempted peaceful communication, the Betelgeusians had attacked them. They hadn't stood a chance.
It was shortly after what became known as the 'Betelgeuse incident' that the Brokers had contacted humanity and had invited them to join the Coalition. It had turned out that the Bugs were not native to that system, it was merely one of their many conquests, but the name had stuck.
But this...what was she looking at? The system was flashing orange, indicating that it was under Bug control. If it was a former Broker colony, or merely a nearby system that posed a threat was impossible to tell. What she could tell however, was that the Broker ships were holding off, and that the yellow blip was on a direct course.
She was starting to get a very bad feeling about this, but she needed to know more. She tapped in a command, requesting that the computer calculate the age of the map based on stellar drift. Stars were always moving, and it would be possible to determine when this map had been made based on how far the systems had traveled since.
After a moment the computer displayed the results. The map was approximately twenty six years old. In her heart Lena already knew the answer to the question that she was about to ask, but she needed to see it. She needed to see the result displayed on the monitors to be certain.
This time she asked the computer to determine a possible origin of the yellow blip based on the projected course, assuming that it had taken the most direct path possible. She could feel her heart beating in her chest as she watched the activity icon spin, and then it displayed the results. The starmap zoomed out, showing more surrounding systems. The line of yellow dots curved away in a very deliberate fashion, trailing off towards a single point.
One possible point of origin: Sol.
Sleethe raised his head from the floor, sensing the change in Lena, looking at her with concern in his amber eyes. She was shaking, her fingers curling into fists as she sat on the floor.
They had known. That was why the Brokers had ended their campaign so abruptly, that was why they had sent the Krell soldiers home prematurely. They had been taking back their colonies one by one with their genetically engineered army of Krell, until they had reached the Betelgeuse system. There they had stopped, holding back their ships as an alien vessel approached the system. Twenty six years ago, the year of the Betelgeuse incident. The Brokers had allowed the colony ship to approach, they had known that Betelgeuse was infested with hostile Bugs, but they had given no warning. They had made no attempt to warn the ship before it had been destroyed, and its crew of forty thousand along with it.
Had they been afraid of this new presence, wary of it? No, they had an army of Krell at their back. They had let the ship enter the system and had allowed it to be destroyed because it would gain them an ally in their war. A new member for their Coalition, this one with a fleet of powerful ships and extensive experience with interstellar warfare, unlike the primitive Krell. The Brokers had watched those people die, and then they had sent an envoy to UNN space, offering the hand of friendship as if they had been powerless to prevent the tragedy.
Then they had hidden away the mutant Krell that they had created. They had cordoned off the planet and had relied on their air of mystery to keep the UNN from finding out about what they had done, knowing perhaps that the humans would take offense at the way that they had exploited the Krell. Granted, that exploitation was now over and they were no longer breeding Krell, those who were ferried to the Pinwheel to serve as auxiliaries were healthy and normal. But it didn't excuse what they had done.
The Brokers had reluctantly allowed a UNN team to visit the planet in order to protect the Pinwheel, a military asset as important to them as it was to humanity, and one that they had extensively funded if the rumors were to be believed. Lena's current presence on the planet had only been arranged after what had sounded like extensive prodding by Barnes and the other higher ups at the UAS, the Brokers perhaps caving because they feared arousing more suspicion.
They had agreed to let a single human visit the planet. What harm could a single primitive, stupid human ever do? A dumb human who can't speak Krell, with no vehicle to get around, and who can't even breathe underwater?
“I'll tell you what she can do,” Lena growled under her breath, “blow your whole sordid history wide open.”
CHAPTER 13: BROKEN SILENCE
Lena finished copying the files to her wrist computer, having first compressed and encrypted all of the data that she had obtained on the Brokers and their history with the Krell. The photographs of the murals and of the underwater base, the recordings of the holograms that she had taken and the testimony from the scholar, the map and the damning calculations that she had done. It was all there, backed up both on the workstation and on her wrist computer's memory banks. No matter how advanced the Broker computers were, they would not be able to decrypt the files in any reasonable amount of time. There was enough evidence here to drag the Brokers through the proverbial mud as soon as she got back to UNN space.
But what to do until then? Asking to leave early would arouse suspicion, and she still had a big job to do here. The best option was perhaps to continue on as normal, as if nothing had happened, resuming her scientific research and steering clear of Broker-related mysteries. Regardless of what other secrets they might be hiding on this planet, she had all that she needed.
Sleethe raised his head from the floor, turning his snout towards the entrance to the temple as if he could hear something that Lena couldn't.
“What is it Sleethe? Is something wrong?”
After a moment she heard it too, a distant rumbling noise. Was it some kind of Krell call? No, it was different. There was a loud crack like thunder, and Lena rose to her feet, moving to the door and pushing through the bead curtain. Other Krell were emerging from their residences too, staring at the sky, and soon Sleethe followed behind her.
She shielded her eyes from the suns with one hand as she looked at the clouds, but they were thick and almost opaque. Whatever the noise was, it was coming from above them. Suddenly the clouds lit up, something bright was descending from above them like a meteorite. The yellow glow grew brighter and brighter until the object penetrated the smog. It looked like a ball of fire, trailing smoke as it descended. It was a ship, shedding the heat of reentry, the crack that she had heard had been the vessel breaking the sound barrier.
Lena was used to seeing shuttles bank and circle around to shed velocity, but this one dropped straight to the ground alarmingly fast, disappearing from view somewhere behind the village. It must have been a Broker ship, only they could move like that.
“Let's go Sleethe, I get the feeling we have an uninvited guest.”
They descended the ramps and bridges that led to the ground, then circled around behind the village, the Broker vessel soon coming into view. It was another of the silver cigars, and Lena knew it to be a drone ship. It was no coincidence that this vessel had arrived shortly after her discovery, they must have been watching her this whole time. She was a little afraid, but Sleethe was with her, and her indignation at what she had uncovered was almost strong enough to overpower it. The vessel had set down in a clearing on a mud flat behind the village, floating just off the ground, with no landing gear visible. As Lena approached, a hole split open in its hull and a landing ramp emerged like a silver tongue, extending to plant itself in the dirt.
She watched with bated breath as an angular shape emerged from within. It was immediately recognizable, she had seen representations of them on the murals in the Krell temple.
It was a Broker.
The creature looked like a squat refrigerator on legs. It was clearly robotic, with a bulky, square hull in their usual shade of matte white. It was featureless save for a litany of sensors and lenses that protruded from it, as if it had a dozen cameras and scopes of varying sizes glued to its front. It was supported on two skeletal legs that looked like they were made up of silver rods and pistons, surprisingly dexterous despite their spartan appearance. Finally it had four segmented, silver arms, like tentacles or thick cables. They were agile and flexible, each one tipped with some kind of grasping claw or attachment.
Lena had learned enough to guess at the purpose of this machine. She had seen the small net hammocks that the aliens had used in their base, and she knew that they were aquatic in nature. Either these robots were decoys designed to confuse and intimidate, their operators controlling them from range, or they were environment suits that contained one of the fragile aliens within.
It walked slowly down the ramp, Lena standing with her hands on her bare hips, modesty being the least of her worries. She could hear more Krell approaching from behind, the noise and spectacle seemed to be drawing the whole village, the reptiles rising from the lake and descending from their huts to gawk.
The Broker seemed worried about stepping into the mud, perhaps fearing that it would sink, and so it stopped at the end of the ramp. Its four arms seemed to hang in the air rather than resting at its sides, which led Lena to imagine that they were entirely robotic, rather than serving as sleeves for a creature within.
It spoke, a somewhat tinny and robotic reproduction of the English language emanating from a hidden speaker.
“Doctor Lena Webber, we have urgent business that must be discussed.”
“And what business is that?” She shot back, crossing her arms and staring the alien down. She wasn't about to be intimidated by a refrigerator on legs, not after all that she had seen during her expedition.
“You have obtained information of the utmost sensitivity. I must request on behalf of my government that it be returned immediately.”
“Oh yes, I have a lot of sensitive information, that's for sure. I know all about your experiments on the Krell, and I know about what happened at Betelgeuse. What makes you think that you can convince me to hand it over?”
The creature seemed to pause, as still as a statue, the only movement coming from its many lenses as they zoomed and focused like an antique camera. It was impossible to tell what it might be thinking, a robot had no body language, no expression that could be read. It was quite the Poker face.
“The information that you have uncovered could lead to an embarrassing political incident for my government, and it could erode the bonds of trust and cooperation that bind the Coalition. If you share what you have learned here, it might destroy the alliance. That would not serve us, that would not serve the Krell, and it would not serve you. There is no profit in releasing the files.”
“There's profit in it for me. Exposing the truth and showing everyone what you really are is a reward in itself.”
Her reply seemed to fluster the creature, she could see its mechanical claws grasping at the air, the whirring and fidgeting of its cameras growing more intense.
“You would put the security of billions in jeopardy for your own satisfaction?”
“I assume that you're about to try to sell me an alternative, so out with it,” she snapped.
“Very well, my proposition is as follows. If you turn over all of the sensitive information that relates to my species, and destroy any backups or copies that you have on file, I will provide you with a comprehensive codex of Krell. This is information collected over hundreds of years by Broker scientists and surveyors, with a catalog of every living thing that inhabits the planet. The data covers every discipline, from biology and archaeology, to seismology and geology. Your mission here is a scientific one, and I can help you accomplish that mission. You will have a complete record of the planet's natural history spanning eons.”
“Tempting,” Lena said, pretending to consider as she scratched her chin conspicuously. “It doesn't really make up for the lives of forty thousand people though, does it?”
“You must consider the political ramifications of what you are doing,” the Broker said hurriedly, its arms twitching nervously. “You hold in your hands the power to destroy all that we have built! What of the outlying Broker systems that depend on UNN fleets to protect them? What of the Krell? We would be forced to abandon them, leaving their planet helpless.”
“Let's say that I accepted your offer,” Lena posited, “what then? More people will come here, you can't keep this planet locked down forever. The UAS put enough pressure on you that you had to let me visit, and what next? Do you think that one expedition will be enough? That once their curiosity is satisfied, the UAS won't send more researchers? The more you try to hide this planet, the more curious people will get. As you have no doubt seen, having curious humans running amok can be a very dangerous prospect for aliens with a guilty conscience.”
“We could wipe out all evidence,” the Broker suggested, “erase all Broker structures and remove any trace that we were ever here. The researchers that your UAS sends would be free to explore without any danger of them uncovering any classified information.”
“That's what you thought about me,” Lena replied with a smirk. “You underestimated me. You assumed that I wouldn't be able to develop a Krell translator, you assumed that I wouldn't be able to read the murals in the temple. You assumed that I wouldn't be able to reach the sunken base, much less succeed in deciphering any of the data contained in its computers. You were wrong on all counts. What would a hundred people like me discover, a thousand? Unless you burn down every temple and every record of Krell history, unless you destroy every Broker facility that remains and kill every scholar, you can't possibly ensure that nobody will follow in my footsteps.”
“That...is not for you to decide,” the Broker replied. “If the terms are not suitable, I can offer more. Money for research grants, a large sum transferred to an untraceable account in your name. I could make you rich beyond your wildest dreams with the press of a button.”
“Money doesn't interest me,” she laughed.
“Then what is your price? What if I were to construct a permanent research base for humans on the planet's surface, where a UAS research team could live and work? I could make the whole planet available to your scientists. You could live here with your...mate.”
“And what if I refuse?”
“You must understand,” the Broker said after a moment of hesitation, “that I cannot allow you to leave this planet with the information that you have gathered.”
Sleethe seemed to pick up on the Broker's menacing tone, a low rumble emanating from deep in his throat. It sounded like the growling of a giant dog, like the monstrous wolf of Norse mythology was about to swallow up the sun. The other villagers picked up on it, and soon the sound spread, until the cacophony was enough to shake the ground. Now it was Lena who had a Krell army at her back, her kin, the circle to which she now belonged.
The Broker took a step back, alarmed and afraid by this sudden display of aggression and solidarity. Lena put up a hand to stay Sleeth, and the growling gradually subsided.
“You don't know what I did with it,” Lena realized. “You know that I have it, but you don't know where I hid it, and now you're doubting what my actual capabilities are.”
“My satellite network has detected no outgoing communications,” it replied, as if trying to reassure itself. “I am certain that you have the data on your person.”
“You can't kill me, that would draw too much scrutiny. How would I suffer an accident or an animal attack with my Krell bodyguard at my side? How would a Broker vessel malfunction or otherwise fail and crash? Nobody would buy it. The UAS has a lot riding on this expedition, they'd come to investigate. The way I see it, I hold all the cards.”
“Then what do you ask?” The Broker demanded, its tone of voice becoming strained, almost as if it was in physical pain.
“Here are my terms,” Lena said, the alien's many robotic eyes focusing on her. “You will build a permanent research base on Krell, and you will provide funding for a UAS team to live there indefinitely. You will also provide me with the codex that you described. In exchange, I will destroy the information that I have gathered, and all of the copies. But I will only do so on the day that I leave the planet, otherwise you might be tempted to try to harm me in the interim. Rest assured that you can't access or otherwise destroy that information without my help. Even if you physically destroyed all of my computers, you wouldn't find all of the backups.”
It was a bluff of course. If the Broker killed her and destroyed her computers, it was very unlikely that the truth would ever come to light. But her exploits had made this creature doubt itself, doubt its ability to predict her actions, and she could use that doubt as leverage. It was like a cornered animal now, out of options and unsure of what to do next. Whether it really believed her or not, it had to entertain the possibility that she was telling the truth. Too much was at stake.
“I will of course promise my silence,” she continued, “but if I find out that you've destroyed any temples or killed any scholars I'll spill the whole story to the press. Material evidence or no, the rumors will start an inquiry.”
“But...you believe that others will find out the truth eventually. You said as much yourself,” the Broker complained, its metallic claws clicking with exasperation. “If I agree to your demands, we will be exposed all the same.”
“You can't keep this a secret any longer,” Lena said as the creature's many eyes tracked her. “The renewed interest in the planet makes that an impossibility. I'm not offering you secrecy, what I'm offering you is time. Time to do damage control, time to offer the information up willingly, to make yourselves look better. For all intents and purposes you're already exposed, but if you agree to my terms then that exposure won't come from me. It might buy you years, or maybe only a few weeks or months, but you'll have time to come clean and make amends.”
The Broker paused, frozen in place for what must have been a minute or longer as it deliberated. Was it perhaps convening with others of its kind? Eventually it whirred back to life, the lenses focusing on Lena once more as its robotic voice echoed through its speakers.
“I will accept your terms. I have no other choice.”
“Then we have a deal,” Lena said with a satisfied expression on her face. “Humans usually shake on it, but I'd rather not if it's all the same to you.”
The Broker turned and began to walk up the ramp, its metal feet clanging against the material.
“Oh, and one more thing,” she called after it. “Give me my damned weather drone back, I know you took it.”
She watched as the creature vanished into the darkness of the ship, the ramp shrinking back into the silver hull and the round hole sealing like a wound. It rose into the air silently, accelerating at a speed that should rightfully have killed its occupant, then vanished into the cloud layer.
Once it was out of view, Lena let slip a long sigh of relief. She had won. She couldn't be entirely sure that the Broker would keep its end of the bargain, but the looming threat of a dead man's switch in the form of hidden backups should keep it in line.
Sleethe planted a large hand on her shoulder, and she gave it a reassuring pat. She didn't know how much of the conversation he had understood, but her stress must have been apparent to him.
“It's alright big guy, I think we're safe for now. Thanks for backing me up back there...”
More than simply succeeding in diffusing the situation with the Broker, her relief was twofold. Now she could explore the planet without the looming threat of retribution hovering over her head, she could do the work that she had been sent here to do without having to play the role of a secret agent. Now that the truth had been uncovered and she had come to an agreement with the Brokers, her real visit could now begin.
Lena took Sleethe's hand and led him back towards the village, the crowd of Krell now dispersing. Just like Sleethe, they had protected her when they had sensed a threat. Far from being a simple ceremony, her induction into their tribe had made her a very real member of their extended family in their eyes, their circle. It gave her a new appreciation for their primitive ways.
“Now that we can put this whole business behind us,” she said as Sleethe lumbered along beside her, “what say you and me go find some more specimens?”
The suns were setting in the sky when Lena and Sleethe returned to the village. They had spent the rest of the day trekking through the swamps in search of new specimens, and they had come across some choice plants and insects for the stasis containers. Lena was nude, caked in mud up to her chest, embracing her newfound freedom and confidence.
As she neared the forest of mangrove trees and stilts that made up the village's supports, she noticed that the weather drone had returned to its landing pad. The Broker had taken it after all. The alien must have returned it to its proper place and it had made its way back under its own power, exactly as it had been programmed to do. She stopped to collect it, cleaning some mud and dead leaves from the pad before hitting the switch that would collapse it all back down into a portable package. She could transfer the data to her workstation when they got back to the temple.
Something drew her interest as she neared the ramp that led up to the village however, a faint sound that was carried on the wind, almost like a whisper. It was unmistakably music, but where was it coming from? She attempted to find the source of the sound, staring down the beach in the direction that it appeared to be coming from. There was an orange glow down near the border of the forest, it looked like a bonfire, a plume of dark smoke rising from it.
“What is that, Sleethe?” She asked, her translator interpreting the question.
“Ceremony of music,” he replied.
“Music? Can we go see?”
He nodded, changing course and setting off towards the shoreline, leaving Lena to wonder what the purpose of a 'music ceremony' was as she shrugged off her rucksack and followed behind him.
Soon the bonfire came into view, large even by Krell standards, a towering pyramid of stacked logs that burned brighter than the suns at their peak. It was giving off an enormous plume of smoke. The wood must have been very wet, as was everything on this planet. How had they managed to get it lit? Around the bonfire were sat two dozen Krell, many of them lying on their sides with their bellies towards the fire, basking in its intense heat.
The closer she got, the louder the music became, until finally the Krell band came into view. They were clustered around the far side of the bonfire, five individuals playing primitive instruments made primarily from carved wood. Due to their lack of lips, the Krell had apparently not developed wind instruments, but there were drums and strings, accompanied by the throaty singing of the giant reptiles. It almost sounded like Mongolian throat singing, guttural and resonating, penetrating her to the bone much in the way that their mating calls did. This was less powerful and deliberate however, and so it didn't titillate her in the same way, but the sound waves still made her feel like her whole body was gently vibrating.
The beating of the drums was loud and powerful, yet placating, their rhythm slow and calming as the aliens beat their fists on what looked like tanned hide that was stretched over a wooden frame. Two of them were drummers, and the three others had string instruments. There was a distinct 'twang' to their tune, like a violin or a guitar might produce, the accompanying melody was soothing.
Due more to the reverberating tone of the music than a catchy tune, Lena found herself almost unable to keep her hips from swaying, it was captivating. The Krell playing the hypnotic song were decked out in full ceremonial gear, much like the village Elder had been during the ceremony in the temple. Dozens of elaborate necklaces were draped about their necks, creating a beautiful display of vibrant colors and decorative shells. Their bodies were painted with all manner of colored dyes, and Lena had to wonder if they were merely for show, or if they described the profession or skill set of the wearer.
The heat from the bonfire grew stronger as she approached it, but rather than adding to the already stifling heat that was common to the planet, it seemed to burn away much of the humidity that usually lingered in the air. It was hot, yet dry and oddly refreshing. The wood was indeed sourced from the mangrove trees. The pale, twisted roots and trunks had been cut with some kind of bladed implement. They must have been saturated with damp, but much like the torches in the temple, the Krell seemed to use some kind of flammable liquid or resin to ensure that the logs caught fire.
Sleethe flopped down on his belly, then rolled onto his side to face the fire, rumbling contentedly as the heat washed over him. Lena sat daintily in front of him, leaving back on his soft underbelly and enjoying the music. Their string instruments were surprisingly sophisticated, and they played them well. It sounded more advanced than what one would usually associate with tribal music, more delicate and measured than that of the Native Americans or the disparate Amazonian tribes whose languages and cultures she had studied.
She no longer felt exposed when she was naked. The Krell didn't mind, and there wasn't a human soul for light years. The feeling of the warmth from the flickering flames on her skin, the cool, wet mud beneath her, the sound of the music and the wind in her hair. It was serene, peaceful. If everything went according to plan, then she might be able to live here with the Krell. If the Brokers built a permanent research base as per their agreement, then she would certainty be offered a position on the team. Barnes would be thrilled with her. Not only would she have brought back a comprehensive record of the planet's entire biological and geological history in the form of the Broker codex, but she would have secured unconditional access to the planet where the UAS had struggled to get even one researcher down to the surface.
A sudden impulse overcame her, a reckless desire to dance. She leapt to her feet, much to the surprise of Sleethe, and made her way through the mud towards the fire. She stopped when the heat became too great, turning back towards the aliens. Lena had never danced before in her life, even during her school prom she had sat and watched the other girls. She had been too afraid, too meek and timid, certain that her classmates would laugh at her attempts.
She began to move, letting the rhythm of the drums guide her motions, the music flowing through her veins like blood. She spun and pranced, waving her arms, shaking her hips to the beat as Sleethe and the other aliens looked on. The Krell could not dance, they were too large and heavy, too cumbersome. How did the old saying go? Dance like nobody's watching. Did it count if the people watching you had never seen someone dance before?
Sleethe seemed especially entranced, following her naked body with his eyes as she shimmied and twirled, the moisture on her painted skin reflecting the firelight.
Lena danced until she could scarcely stand, sweat pouring from her body as she collapsed beside Sleethe, laughing heartily between gulps of air as she caught her breath. The band continued, invigorated by her display, and Sleethe leaned closer to lick her cheek affectionately. She had never felt so alive, so free. So much of her life had been spent poring over computer terminals in schools and offices, doing work that sapped away her time and negated any semblance of a social life. There had been no parties for her, no starstruck romances, but since meeting Sleethe that had all changed. She had changed too, this planet had changed her. She had gained courage, confidence, she had overcome so many fears and boundaries that had once held her back.
She leaned back against her lover's squashy belly, closing her eyes and relaxing, letting the slow rise and fall of his barrel chest lull her. They could sleep here if they wanted to, nude on the beach in front of the bonfire. Nobody would care, nobody would stop them. Lena was starting to think that civilization was overrated.
Lena stepped off the docking umbilical of the Broker vessel, leaving the matte white of its featureless interior behind her as she boarded a UNN Courser. The human ship had arrived in orbit earlier that afternoon, ready to ferry her back to the Pinwheel now that her time was up. Her boots left the smooth material of the alien vessel, clanking against the metal grates that served as the floors for many of the UNN's naval vessels. Immediately the scents of humanity washed over her, she had almost forgotten them during her six weeks living on Krell. Oil, stale air, metal. It was familiar, yet somehow strange. Was she already starting to miss the smells of the swamps?
Her clothing was almost intolerably uncomfortable. She had grown so accustomed to nudity that now the fabric chafed against her skin. She was always conscious of it, it was confining, restrictive. She was wearing civilian clothes, a yellow jumpsuit usually reserved for engineers, no underwear of course. She would keep up appearances, but the very idea of wearing a bra now seemed almost offensive to her. The necklace that she had made still hung around her neck, the shells and beads clattering as she slung her rucksack off her shoulders. It was one of the few souvenirs that she had been able to bring back with her that wasn't confined to a specimen jar.
Her pale skin had been darkened by the twin suns, and was now a healthy bronze that could have been mistaken for the result of a tanning bed. While the Krell body paint had eventually faded as her skin had shed its layers over time, there were now very conspicuous bright spots on her body where the dyes had shielded it from the sunlight. Every hand print and symbol was visible, even without their original, vibrant colors. She was going to have to wear long skirts and turtlenecks around her colleagues for the time being.
Sleethe lumbered along after her, and as soon as his long tail had cleared the airlock, the Broker vessel disengaged its bridge and the door slammed shut with a hermetic hiss. The Brokers would be glad to be free of her no doubt, and she watched through a nearby porthole as the silver cigar darted off towards the green planet. Lena had kept her side of the bargain, for the most part. She had shown the Broker the incriminating files on her work station and her wrist computer, then she had deleted them. The aliens were building a research base not too far from the village, the location had been her idea. They had handed over all of their information on the planet and its inhabitants too, and Barnes would soon be receiving some very generous research grants from anonymous donors.
“Welcome aboard Miss Webber,” the pilot said, his voice crackling over the intercom. “Take a few moments to get settled in, then please strap in for a jump. I have orders to take you straight back to Fort Hamilton.”
It would be a fun conversation with Barnes when she got back to the office, she couldn't wait to see the expression on his face when she told him about the information that she had secured, and the deal that she had negotiated for the UAS's continued presence on the planet. She was going to be hailed as a hero in academic circles.
Sleethe dropped his duffel bag on the floor, eyeing the cargo pallet that Lena would soon have to strap him onto for his own safety. Krell were too big to use crash couches, the best solution was to tie them down and ensure that they couldn't move a muscle during a superlight jump, or the wracking energies could cause them to destroy the whole ship and accidentally kill its crew.
He gave a longing glance out of the porthole, staring at his homeworld as the Courser turned on its axis, reorienting itself in preparation for the jump.
“Don't worry big guy, we'll be coming back soon. Who has two thumbs, and is the only human who's developed a Krell translator?” She gestured to herself, and that seemed to set his mind more at ease. “They can't run the research base without me, and where I go, you go too.”
He huffed and brushed his head against hers, an affectionate gesture. The villagers had done the same when they had seen her off, dozens of them bumping her with their scaly foreheads like oversized cats, until she had run out of time and had been forced to give them a tearful goodbye as she mounted the ramp to the Broker ship. She would hopefully be seeing them again soon. While the human scientists would live and work in the habitat that the Brokers were already constructing, Lena preferred the more rustic environs of the village. Maybe she would even get her own hut to share with Sleethe, that would be nice. There were also some ideas floating around in her head that concerned mesh suits and lightweight clothing that might make their stay more tolerable, and wouldn't drive Lena crazy if she was forced to dress for company.
She helped strap Sleethe down onto the pallet, securing his limbs, his tail and his snout with belts. He looked like a captive alligator that was being transferred between zoos. She ran her fingers across his leathery head sympathetically, then returned to her own seat, buckling in and inserting a plastic bit into her mouth. As the pilot informed her that he was about to start the jump sequence, she fiddled with her necklace, upending one of the larger conch shells that she had chosen for decoration. From inside the shell, a small, green piece of plastic that was no larger than a fingernail fell into her cupped palm. Lena held it up to the light, a grin spreading across her face as she examined the soldered metal that linked the tiny memory chips together.
It was still safe, it hadn't fallen out during her trip. The little square of plastic was the expanded memory card that she had installed in her wrist computer in order to give it more room to store vocabulary and sound clips for the translator. It now contained a backup of all of the data that she had accrued on the Brokers. She had removed the chip from her wrist-mounted computer the night before leaving, ensuring that it was well hidden. The Broker had been so paranoid that it had extensively examined all of her gear, even scanning the lining of her clothing to ensure that she wasn't smuggling a storage device somewhere, but it hadn't thought to check this primitive artifact of native culture.
Lena put it back in the shell, checking that her harness was properly fitted as the warping energies of the jump drive began to make the hairs on her arms stand on end. Mysterious, all-knowing puppet masters the Brokers were not, and now she had enough dirt on them to ensure that they could never exploit another species again.
She might give them a year or two first, let them have their chance to come forward and offer the information up voluntarily as she had suggested. But if they tried to cover everything up once more, sweep it all under the rug and deny accountability, she would make sure that this data made it into the hands of every journalist in UNN space.
“See you soon,” she muttered, taking one last look out of the window at the green planet. The Courser's hull warped and twisted, then her senses went dark, the vessel leaving the paltry three dimensions of reality that she was used to far behind it.