Viridian Sands

This story is in progress and will be updated regularly.

© 2023 Snekguy. All rights reserved.

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Disclaimer: This story features sexual content and is intended for adults only.

“You ever been to Borealis before?” the pilot asked, his voice coming through the open door to the cockpit.

The craft shook as turbulence rocked it, Ramos reaching for a nearby handhold to steady himself, securing his harness more tightly about his chest. He was the only passenger in the dropship – the other seats in the cramped bay were empty.

“No,” he replied curtly, trying to suppress the nausea that was starting to gnaw at him. The craft banked, shedding speed as it coasted through the upper atmosphere, the bright glow of flames bleeding in through the canopy.

“I hope they briefed you on the natives, at least. Did you read the pamphlet?”

“Yeah, I read it,” Ramos replied as he wondered how the pilot could remain so nonchalant. He might have run this route dozens of times. “I know about the heat and the gravity, and I got a briefing from an Elysian officer about etiquette back on the carrier.”

“Well, the Rask are a little different from the Elysians,” the man continued, raising his voice over the sound of the rattling. “They’re a bit more aggressive, and they just got their asses kicked by the UNN, so they might not all be happy to see you. Just keep your wits about you, and don’t go wandering around the city on your own.”

“Thanks for the encouragement…”

“Why are you here, anyway?” the pilot pressed. “Forgive me, but you look a little too green to be a Marine. Are you a civilian contractor? They’ve been flying in all kinds of people to help with the reconstruction effort. I even brought in a flock of Valbarans a couple of days ago – those little guys didn’t shut up for the entire flight.”

“I’m an ecological engineer,” Ramos confirmed. “I do ecoscaping, desert greening, forestry.”

“So, you’re like a tree doctor?”

“Something like that. I was working on sustainable agriculture projects and reforestation in the Amazon before the UN pulled me out and sent me here.”

“That makes sense,” the pilot replied, seeming satisfied. “The Rask territory is fucked, for lack of a better word. Farming used to be practically impossible there, and the jungle band that usually protects Borealan territories is chock full of holes that let the desert creep in. Take a look out the window – should be pretty smooth sailing from here.”

Ramos did as the pilot suggested, unfastening his belt with a click and rising from his seat. He gripped a handhold on the bulkhead and leaned in to get a look through the nearest porthole, seeing a vast desert scrolling past beneath him.

Borealis was an arid planet that baked in the heat of its twin suns. At some point in its history, it must have been entirely carpeted in dense rainforests, but a changing climate had caused them to recede until only small pockets of greenery remained. Based on the extensive research that Ramos had done during the six-month trip, he knew that each of the territories – the planet’s nation states – bordered a lake. These massive bodies of water were surrounded by a dense band of jungle that served both to create a micro-climate within their bounds and to shield them from the encroaching desert sands. They were like giant oases in a sea of dunes.

In the distance, he spotted the verdant canopy of the Rask jungle band rushing towards him. As the dropship passed over it, he saw the damage with his own eyes. Simply reading about it and seeing satellite images didn’t do it justice. The band literally looked broken, as though a giant had taken kilometer-wide bites out of it, the breaches letting sand spill through like water from a broken dam. The azure lake reflected the glow of the suns – large enough to rival Earth’s great lakes – but he didn’t need to be a surface hydrologist to see that it was drying out. Without the protection of the jungles and a reliable water cycle, everything was slowly being eroded, like air leaking from a hull breach.

It wasn’t all bad, though. As the dropship began to descend, he noticed that the desert between the bounds of the jungle and the shores of the lake was being developed. There were long, orderly rows of greenhouses whose glass glinted in the sunlight, and he could make out the telltale green circles of center-pivot irrigation farms breaking up the landscape.

There were a few small settlements dotted around between the farms, others hugging the near shore of the lake. The older ones were made up of squat sandstone buildings, but there were newer structures, too – prefabs in shades of white and metallic silver standing out against the yellow sands.

The dropship coasted over the lake, and as they neared the far shore, the territory’s city began to rise up. The squat buildings were constructed from blocks of beige sandstone, overlaid with protective mortar that gave them a hand-sculpted appearance, the wooden support beams that helped to reinforce the structures protruding from their facades in places. They had no windows, probably to keep the interiors cool and to prevent the sand from finding its way inside. Few were more than one or two stories tall, as the punishing gravity probably made that a challenge without advanced building techniques. The larger and more decorative buildings sported self-supporting stone arches, domed roofs, and load-bearing pillars. Between them were cobblestone streets reminiscent of the Victorian era.

What people Ramos could make out from this altitude were wrapped in protective shawls and cloaks, and there seemed to be few vehicles on the narrow streets. He could see a handful of trucks and buggies, but by far the most prevalent were the desert-camouflaged hulls of UNN military vehicles. Puma IFVs flanked by troops were patrolling the streets, and Timberwolf scout trucks surveyed the area with their drone swarms. These were probably peacekeeping forces left over from the recent conflict.

Ramos didn’t have very in-depth knowledge about the recent war that had ravaged the territory, but he knew that the ecological damage wasn’t a result of the conflict. It was an entirely natural process that had been happening for millions of years. The former Rask Matriarch – their equivalent of a president – had launched a rebellion against her allies and had subsequently been deposed. There were still Coalition peacekeeping forces made up of humans, aliens, and Borealans from neighboring territories policing the area. Now, the UN and its alien allies were helping to rebuild the territory and repair its declining ecology.

Not all of the buildings were squat and flat. Sitting in the center of the city was a massive compound surrounded by tall walls, a needle-like spire with a cap of white marble rising from each corner, shining like beacons.

Within their bounds was a sprawling cluster of large domed buildings, each one tipped with another towering spire, the embroidered flags that hung from them waving in the wind. The courtyard was paved with a covering of red marble, veins of lighter yellows and oranges winding their way through the massive blocks of stone, gradually giving way to an oasis at its center. The pool of shimmering water was surrounded by colorful desert flowers and spindly trees that reminded Ramos of desert palms – a little pocket of nature in the heart of the urban sprawl. That must be the Matriarch’s palace. It had to be fifteen thousand square feet at least.

“You’ll probably want to strap back in,” the pilot warned. “We’ll be landing soon.”

Ramos sat back down in his chair and fastened his harness, feeling the dropship shake as it transitioned into VTOL mode, maneuvering on its thrusters. It bounced as its landing gear absorbed the impact, rocking him in his seat, the roar of the engines winding down.

“Watch that first step – it’s a bitch,” the pilot warned, turning to glance over his shoulder from the cockpit. “You think you’re ready for the gravity, but you’re not. Just take it easy. Falls in one-point-three can be nasty.”

“Thanks,” Ramos replied, giving the pilot a grateful nod as he slung his duffel bag over his shoulder. He turned to the rear of the bay, a crack of sunlight forming as the troop ramp began to descend. Almost immediately, a flood of hot, dry air rushed inside to hit him like a fist. Already starting to sweat, he marched out of the bay and out of range of the craft’s AG field. His knees almost buckled as he walked out onto the landing pad, the tarmac so hot that it was practically melting, the harsh sunlight making him squint.

“Fuck me,” he grumbled to himself, readjusting a pack that had abruptly grown thirty percent heavier as it dug into his shoulder. It even felt like his hair was now lying flatter against his head.

As his vision began to adjust, he found himself standing in the middle of a makeshift spaceport. There were maybe two dozen identical landing pads, many of them occupied by other dropships and blocky Wombats – heavy lift vehicles used by the Navy to deliver cargo and armor to the surface of planets. They were enormous up close, like flying houses, eight meters tall and more than twice that long. Each of them had a row of cockpit windows raised high above the slanted nose, along with a set of four swiveling engines, each one about the size of a car in its own right. He watched as a cargo container slid out of the cavernous cargo bay of one of the craft on a set of rails, a nearby truck waiting to load it onto a trailer. Rising above the bulky craft were prefab structures and hastily erected warehouses, along with a control tower that seemed to be the tallest building in the vicinity. Everything was so bright, the pale sunlight bleaching away the color to give his surroundings a sepia tone.

There were people everywhere. He could see humans wearing Marine pressure armor with desert camouflage, engineers in yellow coveralls, and even some wearing casual clothes. Eight-foot Borealans towered head and shoulders above them, some clad in Coalition armor matching that of the Marines, while others were shrouded in shawls to protect them from the sand. There was even a pair of Krell helping to unload cargo, the sixteen-foot-long, alligator-like aliens handling crates that would have given a forklift pause.

Ramos walked over to a flight of stairs and made his way down from the elevated pad, each step weighing him down as though he was carrying an anvil on his shoulders. The pilot had been right – there was a big difference between reading about high gravity and actually experiencing it. From what he had read, spending more than six months on the surface without taking medication and breaks could do permanent damage to a human’s joints. Then there was the heat. As if the gravity wasn’t punishing enough, the place was a goddamned oven.

Wishing that he had a suit with a cooling element like the Marines who were milling about nearby, he made his way along the sandy road, searching for whatever passed for a terminal in this backwater. He paused to fish his phone from his pocket as a truck laden with a flat-packed prefab trundled past him, kicking up a cloud of dust. His instructions said that he was supposed to meet some kind of foreman.

After glancing around for a moment, he heard a voice rise above the clamor of engines and machinery.


He turned his head towards the source of the sound, seeing a large alien jogging in his direction. To his surprise, it was a Polar. Their kind were native to the frozen ice cap of the planet, and unlike their cousins, they were covered in a thick layer of insulating fur that helped to shield them from the cold. As the stranger approached, he had to lift his head to look her in the eye, the eight-foot creature dwarfing him.

She was very obviously female, her generous figure straining against what looked like some kind of full-body environment suit, leaving little to the imagination. Her people used their fat layer to help keep them warm and to store valuable energy over the harsh winters, so her appearance was nothing out of the ordinary, but it was a strange sight to see in a desert. To him, she looked like a giant humanoid cat standing on its hind limbs, her digitigrade legs ending in boots that were designed to fit her feline paws. Tufts of impossibly fluffy fur were visible behind her visor as it spilled from her collar, her snow-white coat patterned with spots that resembled coffee stains. A pair of brilliant, blue eyes peered down at him, her pink nose twitching curiously.

“You must be Ramos!” she began, lifting a tablet computer with a gloved hand. She spoke fluent English, but with a rolling accent that emphasized the Rs, her voice coming through a little speaker on her helmet. “I have been expecting you. What are you doing wandering the spaceport like a lost kitten? Come – we shall get you oriented.”

“Thanks,” he mumbled, falling in behind her as she did an about-face. He had to lean away to avoid being clocked by her long tail, the usually fuzzy appendage packed into a flexible tube.

“This is your first time on Borealis, yes?” she asked as he hurried to match her loping pace. “I can tell by the way you carry yourself. Do not worry – you will grow more accustomed to the gravity in time.”

“Are you my supervisor?” Ramos asked, watching another truck trundle past with a bed full of cargo containers. “They’ve been kind of vague about the details of my assignment.”

“Oh, how rude of me,” the Polar replied as she turned down a dusty path between two landing pads. “My name is Orzi, and I am responsible for managing the alien workers in the camp. You could refer to me as your supervisor, yes.”

“What camp?”

“Goodness, they did not give you much of a briefing, did they?” the Polar asked as she glanced back at him.

“Honestly, it sounded like they weren’t totally sure what I’d be doing until I got here.”

“That is understandable. They have been collecting experts and laborers from all over the Coalition,” Orzi explained, stepping aside to let someone pass. “Developing the territory has been quite the undertaking.”

Ramos followed suit, moving out of the path of half a dozen little aliens who were carrying a long girder between them. They were Jarilans – he had never seen one in person before. The creatures were humanoid insects little more than four feet tall, their bodies encased in colorful, iridescent carapaces that shifted hue in the sunlight as they moved. No two were the same color, and each one had a distinct horn that jutted from their forehead like a stag beetle.

They were holding up the heavy hunk of steel with their brawny upper arms, the lower, more slender pair waving at their sides. These were Workers, their builds short and stocky, their wide hips giving them a low center of gravity. The harsh conditions didn’t seem to phase them, and they trotted past him in an orderly row on their two-toed, digitigrade legs. He was amused to see that they were all wearing oversized high-vis vests over their vibrant shells.

“Comin’ through, Endo!” the lead Worker chimed as she passed him by. She looked up at him with a pair of large, expressive eyes, a set of feathery antennae trailing after her like long pigtails. Her face was made up of interlocking plates that moved as she spoke, forming a mouth, like some kind of china doll brought to life. He noted that her collar was covered with a soft, shimmering ruff of fur.

She trotted past him, Ramos watching curiously as her entourage vanished behind one of the elevated landing pads.

“As I said,” Orzi began, smiling at his surprised expression. “We have aliens from all over the Coalition here.”

They continued through the spaceport, heading out into the desert towards a cluster of prefabs that seemed to have been set down in the middle of nowhere. They formed a small settlement, like something one might expect to see on a burgeoning colony world. There was even the cylindrical profile of a portable fusion plant rising above the rooftops. Each structure was little more than a box with rounded corners and a few windows, suspended a foot off the sand on hydraulic stilts, thick power and data cables joining them together in a makeshift network. A few of them had satellite dishes on the roofs and air conditioning systems jutting from their otherwise matte white facades.

“This is where you will be staying for the duration of your assignment,” Orzi explained as she led him down a main street that was little more than a sandy path just wide enough for a truck. “Your residence will have environmental controls and AG plates, but if you want my advice – do not rely on them too heavily. If you do not give yourself time to adapt to the heat and gravity, each time you leave your quarters will feel like the first step off the shuttle.”

“What about you?” Ramos asked, looking the portly woman up and down. “Don’t I get a suit like yours?”

“Without this suit, I would suffer heat stroke and die,” she replied. “Your discomfort does not warrant such measures.”

She guided him to one of the prefabs, stopping at the foot of a set of metal steps that led up to its door. The number thirty-six had been crudely marked on the wall beside it in green paint.

“I believe this is yours,” Orzi began, checking her tablet again. “You may wish to stow your bag before we continue to orientation.”

“Who’s this one!?” someone yelled, Ramos recoiling in alarm. He searched around for a moment, then lifted his gaze, seeing something standing on the roof of the building.

There was a little Valbaran perched there like a bird, peering down at him with a pair of violet irises framed by dark sclera. It had a basically humanoid body plan, its digitigrade legs ending in two-toed feet that gripped the edge of the prefab, its long tail held out straight behind it for balance. It was only a foot taller than the Workers and probably lighter at maybe sixty pounds. A yellow jumpsuit covered in trailing, vein-like cables clung to its body tightly, revealing a feminine figure. The aliens had wide hips and powerful thighs packed with muscle, their torsos comparatively short for their stature. Its face reminded him of a lizard, with a long snout and a covering of fine, glossy scales in spinach green.

Their most prominent feature was their feathers, however. As he watched, a pair of tendril-like appendages attached to either side of her head stiffened up, a vibrant display of colorful plumage erupting from their sheaths to frame her face in striking red, like a headdress worn by a performer at Carnival. They used these feathers to signal emotions and to communicate, though Ramos had no idea how to interpret them.

Catla’ten’qui!” Orzi chided, placing a hand on her hip. “What did I tell you about climbing on the prefabs? It disturbs the residents!”

“You’re fine, Orzi!” the alien squawked. She had a high-pitched voice, and she spoke in a familiar accent, like a parrot mimicking its owner. “You won’t get stepped on by a careless Rask or flattened by a truck!”

“You will be fine – just wear your visibility sash!” the irritated Polar called back to her.

“Who are you?” the Valbaran demanded, turning her snout to Ramos as she lifted a touch panel that was embedded in the forearm of her suit.

“Uh…my name is Jorge Ramos,” he replied, glancing at Orzi in confusion. “I’m an ecological engineer.”

“Country or colony of origin?” Catla snapped.

“Er, Argentina?”

“Prefab thirty-six!” she barked, giving him another flash of colorful feathers. “Your allocation is twenty kilowatt hours and one-fifty liters of water per day. Exceed your allocation, and we switch you to the ration plan!”

“That seems…reasonable,” Ramos replied with a shrug.

“Don’t spend too long in the shower, Earth’nay!” the Valbaran chirped as she began to bound away across the rooftops.

“What was that about?” he muttered as Orzi led him up the steps. They were a little small for her, and she had to balance her large boots on them, gripping the handrail.

“Catla’ten’qui and her flock are responsible for maintaining the camp’s utilities,” the Polar explained apologetically, pausing to swipe a card over a reader on the door frame. “The Rask territory is a harsh environment, and we have to be careful about how much water we use. One person exceeds their allocation, and the next finds that their toilet no longer flushes.”

“I see,” Ramos replied as he stepped into the prefab. It was about the size of a small apartment, the space divided up into a living area, a bathroom, and a bedroom. Over on the far side of the room was a counter with kitchen appliances and a sink, and there was a small table with a couple of metal chairs. Everything was human-sized, and he wondered if they just printed the furniture to order based on the species of the occupant.

“You should have everything that you need,” Orzi said as she made her way past him, her helmeted head brushing the ceiling. “If anything is missing, you can file a requisition form. The control panel is over here. This controls environmental conditions, lighting, and tracks your utilities usage. Here – allow me to engage the AG plate.”

Ramos’ stomach lurched as he felt all of the extra weight suddenly lift off him, and he had to reach for a nearby wall to steady himself, his inner ear insisting that he was about to float right off the floor like a balloon. As his surprise subsided, he exhaled a sigh of relief, feeling cool air from a nearby vent start to wash over him.

“Better?” Orzi chuckled. “Just be sure to deactivate these systems before you leave for work lest you draw Catla’s ire. She is not above tearing the plate right out of the floor.”

Ramos set down his pack on a nearby couch, but he didn’t have long to enjoy the cool air and low gravity before Orzi was ushering him along again.

“Come – we must get you oriented,” she said as she shut off the power and directed him to the door. As soon as the field was deactivated, all of that extra weight piled onto Ramos’ shoulders again, like someone had draped a lead apron over him.

He followed her out onto the dusty road, and they proceeded to another structure further down the street. This one was larger – made from multiple modular prefabs that had been joined together to create a two-story building.

Inside was a reception area, and Orzi led him to an adjoining prefab that had been set up as an office. As he had suspected, the furniture here was a mix of various sizes and styles to accommodate different physiologies. The Polar headed for a suitably tall desk, sitting down on a reinforced chair with a hole for her tail. She gestured for him to take a seat opposite her, Ramos finding that the table rose to his chest, making him feel like a toddler sitting at the adult’s table.

Orzi disconnected her helmet and set it down on the desk, shaking out a bob of fluffy hair the color of dirty snow, a pair of round ears that were situated high on her head twitching.

“That is better,” she said with a relieved sigh, hitting a touch panel embedded in the table. A holographic display flared to life to hover above its surface, and she began to manipulate it with gesture controls. “Let me see…Jorge Ramos…ecological engineering…”

He waited patiently, glancing around the room. It wasn’t too different from his own residence, but they had installed dividers to separate the office cubicles, and there were potted ferns scattered around for decoration. The air was cooler, but the gravity was still punishing. That would probably be the case for any shared spaces.

“Ah!” Orzi said, getting his attention. “I believe that I have found a suitable assignment for you. Do you have any experience teaching?”

“Teaching?” he repeated, his brow furrowing. “Not in a classroom or anything like that. I suppose I’ve taught farmers how to operate their equipment and how to improve their ecological footprint. I was actually working in the Brazilian Amazon before I was reassigned. We were creating agroforestry farms and restoring biodiversity.”

“Perfect,” the Polar chimed as she began to type at a virtual keyboard. Between her gloves and her claws, maybe it was an easier prospect than using a physical one. “I am assigning you to a pack. They will be your students, and your goal will be to teach them everything they need to know to perform their duties in your eventual absence.”

“A pack?” Ramos pressed.

“You have been briefed about interacting with Borealans, I presume?” Orzi asked as she glanced back at him through the wavering hologram. “They would not have let you come here otherwise.”

“I got a briefing from an Elysian officer on the carrier,” he explained. “He told me about how pack hierarchies work and how to avoid pissing off the locals. Don’t maintain eye contact, don’t try to resolve disputes by being confrontational – that kind of thing.”

“The Rask are a little different from the Elysians,” Orzi began.

“Yeah, my shuttle pilot told me the same thing.”

“Equatorial packs – the group that includes Elysians and Rask, among others – have a very strict social hierarchy. There is an Alpha who leads the pack, and their subordinates form a pecking order, if you will. The Alpha commands absolute obedience and deference. This hierarchy is usually determined via bouts, which are brief, usually violent fights in which the strongest prevail. There are many more nuances, but that is all you really need to know right now. Matriarch Korbaz has given her people orders to respect the Coalition chain of command. Even if you are smaller and weaker than a Rask, they will obey you if instructed to do so by someone of higher social standing. We call these parallel social structures. The Alpha is not really obeying you – rather, they are carrying out the orders of their betters.”

“So, am I going to have any problems?” Ramos asked warily.

“I would advise being assertive,” the Polar replied. “Do not be aggressive and do not challenge the Rask directly, but they are more comfortable and easier to work with when the chain of command is readily apparent. They may become agitated if they are unsure of who has seniority.”

“I’m not hearing a no…”

“You will learn,” she added with a smile. “Remember – we are here to help these people. Their territory has suffered many hardships that contributed to their culture of piracy and raiding. It took a rebellion and a coup to install Matriarch Korbaz, and for the first time, the Rask have a leader who puts the welfare of her subjects first. We must make the most of this opportunity if we wish for the Rask to walk alongside us into a peaceful future.”

“Alright,” Ramos replied, swayed by her words. “When do I get started?”

“Right away, if you are ready,” she said as she rose from her seat. “We shall take a buggy to the work site and get you acquainted with your pack.”


Ramos gripped the tubular frame of the buggy as it bounced along, jostling him in his seat, the harness that secured him to the faded leather digging into his shoulder. Orzi’s generous frame was crammed into the driver’s seat beside him, her chest wobbling through the clinging suit as the suspension rocked her. The vehicle was some kind of homebrew Rask creation. If he had to guess, they had probably taken a civilian SUV and rebuilt the chassis to accommodate their larger stature and heavier build, leaving the engine and drive train intact. There were no doors, so Orzi had given him a pair of sunglasses and a bandanna to protect him from airborne sand.

They had driven out of the camp and into the open desert, heading away from the city, leaving the bright beacons of the palace spires behind them. It wasn’t sandstorm season, so the air was rather clear, a cloudless sky of deep azure hanging over their heads.

Conversation was made difficult by the roar of the engine, so he watched the landscape pass them by instead. There were no paved roads, and the shifting sands quickly swept away any paths or tracks, leaving nothing but an expanse of small dunes. The interior of the territory wasn’t totally devoid of life, however. There were patches of scruffy bushes and palm-like plants with thick, low trunks, their sharp fronds jutting out in every direction. There were even a few alien succulents with blooming flowers that added a splash of color to the otherwise uniform terrain. They weren’t exactly thriving in the nutrient-poor, sandy soil, but there was life clinging to existence here. It was hard to believe that the deserts beyond the bounds of the jungle band were even harsher than this.

They passed a few small settlements, the clusters of low buildings matching the style of those that he had observed during his flight over the capital. The Rask favored self-supporting domes and arches, and there were few windows, helping to keep out the heat and sand. Up close, he remarked that they were decorated with some impressive stonework in places. Where the buildings weren’t covered in clay-like mortar, he caught glimpses of intricate carvings and reliefs, the archways and pillars adorned with decorative flair. Their inhabitants had cultivated various desert plants nearby, adding a little greenery and shade to break up the monotony of the desert. He noted that the settlements were usually built on rocky outcrops that elevated them above the shifting sand, and he saw a couple that were clustered around permanent oases, creating their own miniature territories complete with bands of plant life that flourished beside the water. If what Ramos had read was accurate, recent surveys had put a lot of the Rask territory’s water volume in underground aquifers rather than in the lake itself, which was another valuable resource they would need help exploiting.

There were more recent additions to the landscape, too. The buggy passed a few farms that were formed from prefabs and greenhouses, skirting around large, disk-shaped fields that were being tended by fleets of agricultural drones. The importation of potentially invasive crops was carefully controlled, so these must be native plants. As they drove by one of the farms, he spotted a group of Rask clad in shawls who were helping Jarilan Workers load produce onto a truck.

Eventually, a wall of green began to rise up on the horizon, growing taller and taller as they approached. This was the jungle band – a stretch of rainforest kilometers deep filled with strange, uncatalogued flora and fauna that would be the wet dream of any exobiologist. Ramos had to admit that he was itching to get a closer look.

They weren’t heading directly for the band, though. Instead, they drifted right, heading for one of the breaches. The jungle faded away as it was consumed by the sands, creating a wide expanse that was bereft of any plant life. Far in the distance to his right, he could see the opposite side of the breach, where the jungle once again sprouted from the dunes. The gap was a few kilometers wide in its own right.

“The East Gate!” Orzi shouted over the sound of the rushing wind and rumbling engine. “This is one of the larger breaches and also the location of the largest battle of the rebellion.”

“Why is it called a gate!?” he yelled back to her.

“There are four major gates that roughly correspond to cardinal directions. They allowed Rask sandships and raiding fleets direct access to the Dune Sea from the interior of the territory. While these breaches were a source of ecological damage, they also allowed the Rask to project their naval power all across the region!”

A large structure soon appeared on the horizon, Ramos leaning out of the cab to get a better look. It appeared to be some manner of huge building painted in desert camouflage, but as they drew closer, he realized that it was a gigantic vehicle sitting on a set of four caterpillar tracks. The monster had to be nearly eighty meters long and maybe fifteen high, the tracks alone large enough to dwarf any of the prefabs he had seen in the camp. It had a flat deck that was loaded with cargo containers, and towards its rear was a blocky structure that rose above them, a radar dish mounted on top of what looked almost like a conning tower.

Ramos had seen these before at spaceports – they were crawlers. Their job was to transport massive loads and even idle spacecraft between launch pads, and they were sometimes used to move raw materials on mining colonies. What on Earth was it doing here?

“That is the Wildfire,” Orzi explained. “The Rask retrofitted mining crawlers as land battleships and carriers during the rebellion. What you are looking at is Matriarch Korbaz’s old flagship, now stripped of its armaments and restored to its original function – carrying heavy cargo. There are still three of them left in operational condition, and they have been very helpful for moving equipment around the territory. Their fission plants make for excellent portable generators, too!”

As they passed by the towering crawler, he saw that it was surrounded by smaller trucks and utility vehicles that were unloading cargo, personnel of several different species milling about as they supervised the work.

Yet another unexpected sight rose up ahead of the buggy, soon coming into focus. A giant wall of sheet metal some twenty meters high had been erected, each segment pocked with holes like a cheese grater, its blue color making it blend into the sky. It was held up by a framework of sturdy support pillars, the metal shining in the harsh sunlight. On the left, it extended all the way to the jungle several hundred meters away, and more sections were being erected to the right. Pallets filled with huge sheets of perforated metal were being unloaded by teams of Jarilan Workers, and they were already in the process of lifting a new section into place using a pulley system that was attached to the bed of a truck.

Orzi pulled up nearby, and Ramos leapt out to get a closer look before the buggy had even come to a full stop. Through his tinted sunglasses, he watched two dozen of the little insects lift a section of fence between them, carrying it from its pallet to the growing structure, then hooking a winch cable through one of the holes near its top. There was a flock of five Valbarans standing nearby, the reptiles clustered around a portable hologram projector that was displaying a blueprint, one of their number directing the Jarilans with waves of her arm.

“It’s a windbreak!” Ramos marveled as Orzi made her way over to his side. “The wind and sand coming in from the desert cause erosion and prevent trees from growing, so you’re erecting a fence along the entire length of the breach?”

“That is the plan,” the Polar replied, her visor reflecting the sun as she glanced up at the structure. “Our belief is that, with this barrier in place, you should have the opportunity to restore the jungle band and plug this breach. Once the forest has regrown, the barrier can be torn down, and the trees should be able to take over.”

“You want me to fix this?” Ramos asked with a gesture to the desert.

“Were you not doing similar work in your Amazon?” Orzi replied, glancing down at him. “All of the tools and resources that you require should already be present. The crawler transported a load of new equipment – autonomous planters, fertilizer from Elysia, drilling rigs for wells. If you need anything more, you can file a requisition form at my office. I want you to teach the Rask how to fix this so that they can continue the work in your absence.”

“Can I meet my team?” he asked.

“I am sure they are growing impatient of waiting,” she replied. “Come.”

They headed in the direction of the crawler that was parked some two hundred meters away, Ramos’ boots sinking into the loose sand. He noted that in spite of her considerable mass, Orzi suffered no such difficulties, her wide paws spreading out her weight to make the going easier. Could they be evolved to give her purchase in snow?

In the shadow beneath the crawler, a sort of makeshift camp had been established. Rows of parked industrial vehicles and stacks of crates were being sheltered from the blazing heat of the suns, and a few temporary tents in a military style had been erected for the workers. As Ramos followed Orzi beneath the titanic vehicle, it formed a metal ceiling above his head, snaking cables trailing down in places where its power systems were being tapped.

Ramos turned to admire some of the parked vehicles as he passed them by, seeing some that he recognized. Washington Dynamics tractors from Franklin equipped with intimidating tank treads for use in sand, innumerable attachments like plows and planters, autonomous earth movers made by Krupp-Marion. There was a whole fleet of brand new gear fresh off the jump freighter – probably millions of creds worth of equipment.

One of the tractors was still being assembled, presumably having only recently been unpacked from its shipping crate, a flock of Valbarans equipped with various power tools swarming its hull.

Orzi led him to one of the tents, and when he followed her through the flap, he found himself standing in a makeshift galley. The tent was high enough that the Polar could stand comfortably, and the sandy ground had been strewn with collapsible tables and chairs. There were several human workers who glanced up to peer at the newcomers, along with three Rask sat around a large table with drinks in hand.

The Rask were like the Polars in many respects. They were feline in appearance, they averaged eight feet, and they had digitigrade legs and long tails. Unlike their cousins from the frozen pole, they were only partially furred, their sandy coats limited to the extremities of their limbs and tails. Where Polars had insulating fat, Rask were lean and muscular, the high gravity endowing them with impressive physiques that would put most human bodybuilders to shame. They had dusky skin and sun-bleached hair, the trio peering back at him with fierce, yellow eyes.

They had no need for environment suits – this was their native land. Instead, they wore tough leather in shades of black and brown, adorned with decorative golden studs and pressed patterns. It made them look like bikers to Ramos, and he had a hard time imagining that the heavy jackets and clinging pants did much to keep them cool. Perhaps that wasn’t the point.

“Orzi, you are late,” the largest of the three began as she took a long draw from whatever was in her oversized tankard. Like the Polar, they spoke English, but with a rolling accent that almost sounded Russian to his ears. “We have been sitting idle.”

“You do not look too inconvenienced,” the Polar replied, noting the mostly empty bottle of pink liquid on their table. “Rashka, Kozi, Zhura, this is Jorge Ramos. He has been assigned to oversee your training in the use of these new machines.”

The three women looked him up and down skeptically, their round, fuzzy ears swiveling to track him. The largest one – probably the Alpha, if he had to guess – had a prominent scar down one cheek and dirty-blonde hair that was cropped short. She fixed him with a steely gaze, and he did his best to maintain it. Orzi had said that he needed to assert himself.

The one sitting to her left spoke up first – a slightly smaller specimen with olive skin and messy, platinum-blonde hair that came down to the high collar of her jacket.

“He is so small,” she chimed, giving him a smirk.

“Kozi, the Matriarch has decreed that all of her subjects are to obey their instructors,” the Polar chided. “You will be attentive, and you will do as he says unless you wish to deal with me instead.”

It was no idle threat. As strong as the Rask must be, Orzi had two or three hundred pounds over her.

“We will do as the Matriarch commands,” the large one said as she gave her counterpart a sideways glance, making Kozi shrink back into her seat. Just her deep, husky voice was powerful enough that Ramos could feel it reverberate through his body.

The third Rask remained silent, seeming unimpressed as she took another swig from her cup. Her brow was furrowed into a scowl, and her sandy hair was shaved at the sides, leaving it just a little longer on top. Something glinted near her collar, and Ramos noticed that she was wearing a necklace that had been assembled from spent shell casings the size of his fingers.

The Alpha rose from her seat, and her two packmates followed suit, leaving their drinks on the table. As they approached Ramos, their size became even more apparent. The Alpha must have weighed five hundred pounds, and her two underlings weren’t much smaller. He could get a better look at their clothing now, the subtle patterns that were pressed into the leather leaping out when they caught the light, the studs and buttons glinting. Their jackets were fairly loose, and they wore simple tank tops beneath them, but their pants left little to the imagination as they strained against their muscular thighs and rumps. They ended just above the heel joint, giving way to sandy fur and feline paws. Something else of note was all the belts that they wore, laden with pouches and holsters.

Ramos wasn’t sure which of them to address, so he extended a hand reflexively.

“Jorge Ramos,” he said, waiting for someone to take it. The Alpha glanced at Orzi skeptically, then engulfed his hand in hers, so large that she could have closed her fist over his like she was holding a golf ball. She had three thick fingers and a thumb, each digit tipped with curving black claws that looked like they could have filleted a salmon, her silky fur oddly soft against his skin.

Whore-hey,” she muttered as she tried to pronounce the unfamiliar name.

Hoo-hay,” the one with the messy hair added.

“Uh…you can just call me Ramos,” he muttered as she released his hand. “Most people do.”

“Remember the Matriarch’s orders,” Orzi added, planting her hands on her wide hips. “The human has seniority, and you will do as he instructs. Drop him off at the camp when you are finished with him, and Kozi – keep your hands to yourself.”

“Wait,” Ramos mumbled, glancing up at her. “You’re just gonna leave me here with these…guys?”

“You have everything you need, and there are other new arrivals who require orientation,” she replied as she placed a reassuring hand on his shoulder that was heavy enough to weigh him down. “Rashka and her pack have already received some basic training, and they know what to do next. You can ask any of the other workers if you need help with anything.”

With that, she turned and left through the flap, leaving Ramos standing alone with his new students.

“Okay,” he began after a moment of silence, clearing his throat. “As you know, the UN has sent me here to teach you about ecological engineering. Based on what Orzi has told me, your task is going to be operating and maintaining the equipment used to revitalize the soil and grow new saplings, the goal being to eventually seal up the breaches in the jungle band. Do any of you have any experience with forestry or operating agricultural machinery?”

“Our experience is military,” Rashka replied, the large Rask staring down at him. “We served in a Matriarchy combat unit.”

“Ah, is that where you got the…” Ramos gestured to his face.

“No,” she replied tersely, refusing to elaborate further.

“You’re all soldiers, then? I guess this is a swords to plowshares situation.”

The three aliens shared glances, confused by the reference.

“Very well,” Ramos continued, resisting the urge to loosen his collar. He was sweating, and the oppressive heat wasn’t the only reason. “If you’ve ever driven an APC or maybe a tank, a tractor isn’t all that different, and a lot of the same rules apply. Of course, a lot of our systems are autonomous, so controlling those is more about learning how to give them useful instructions.”

“Proceed,” Rashka said with a curt gesture to the flap.

Ramos headed outside, the three aliens following behind him. He could feel their eyes on his back, like some ancient instinct warning him of sabertooth cats lurking just beyond his sight. As he trudged through the sand beneath the shadow of the crawler, Kozi – seemingly the most outgoing of the three – began to circle around him.

“First time on Borealis?” she asked, smirking at him as he struggled along. “You have not yet learned to walk in sand.”

He glanced down at her feet, seeing that her furry, three-toed paws were spread wide to support her weight, keeping her from sinking. She was remarkably agile, walking backwards ahead of him, her hands clasped behind her back as she bent at the waist to bring herself down to his level. “Want me to carry you?”

“Orzi said hands off,” the angry one muttered. Her name was Zhura if he remembered correctly.

“My hands are off,” Kozi said, raising them in surrender. Ramos noted that her fingers had little fleshy pads like those of a cat. “She did not say I could not speak with him.”

“Focus on your work,” Rashka chided. “We will be out in the sun all day if you waste time flirting.”

“So, what made you want to change professions?” Ramos asked, desperate to change the subject. “You told me that you were soldiers during the war?”

“Matriarch Korbaz put out a call to all those who would help restore the territory,” Rashka replied. “With the rebellion over, it seemed the best way to serve our people and our Matriarch.”

“I guess that’s a noble sentiment,” Ramos replied. “The Matriarch probably needs a lot of manpower if she’s going to establish completely new industries that didn’t exist before. A large chunk of the population is going to have to learn new skills and start working in fabrication plants and on farms. The Coalition can only give you a kickstart – you’ll have to learn how to do all of these things for yourselves.”

They soon arrived at the parking area for the agricultural machinery, Ramos stopping to appraise the impressive vehicles.

“Hey there!” he said, calling out to a Valbaran that was perched on top of one of the dozers. “Are these things ready to roll?”

“They’re fueled and prepped!” she replied, brandishing a wrench at him. “We just got done tweaking the suspension systems and gearboxes for high-G. You’ll need to sign for them before you take them out!”

She leapt down from the vehicle, remarkably agile even in the high gravity, thrusting a tablet computer into his hands. He examined it for a few moments, then signed out all the equipment he thought he’d need, passing it back to her.

“You’re that Earth’nay who arrived with Orzi, yeah?” she asked as she cocked her head at him. Her accent was familiar – maybe she’d been hanging around other humans. “Remember to stay hydrated. The Earth’nay who come here never drink enough, then they fall over, and we have to go out in the ATV to pick them up.”

“He is under my protection,” Rashka added, the Valbaran having to lift her head to look her in the eye. “I will ensure his safety.”

“Alright. Just don’t scratch my paint with those claws, Rask’nay.”

“Shoo,” Kozi said, waving the little reptile away. The Valbaran gave her a flash of red feathers, then scampered off towards the tents with a bobbing gait that reminded Ramos of a pigeon.

“Right,” Ramos said, clapping his hands together. “We’re taking out the Washington, some of the trailers, and some of the earthmovers. Rashka and Kozi – I’m going to show you how to hook up the trailers so everything can be towed out to the field…or the desert, in this case. Zhura – we need to load up with seeds and fertilizer. Can you handle that?”

Zhura glanced at Rashka for confirmation, then nodded, heading back to the camp. While he waited for her to return, Ramos showed Rashka and Kozi how to attach the trailers to the tractor and earthmovers. The tractor was driven manually, but the dozers with their wide treads and large blades had no cabs, instead being controlled remotely. It was a simple matter to slave them to the tractor so that they would follow behind it, towing the rest of the equipment.

When Zhura returned, she had a small group of Jarilans in tow, the Workers carrying large burlap sacks filled with fertilizer and racks of seeds in suspension fluid ready to be loaded into the drill. Several of them set about piling the goods onto a trailer while another approached Ramos, her long, feathery antennae waving in the wind.

“This will be enough for a day’s work,” she explained, turning to watch her team. “The fertilizer was shipped in from Elysia, so it should suit the native plants just fine, and it’s been treated to improve its nutritional content. The seeds are a little something that our geneticists cooked up. We’ve already been tweaking the genomes of the local crops to improve yields and hardiness, and we think we’ve managed to modify these trees to take to poorer soil and grow more rapidly than the wild strain. It should make your job that much easier and cut down the time it takes for them to reach maturity.”

“They won’t impact the local ecosystem too much?” Ramos asked.

“The genes responsible for those enhanced traits are recessive,” the Worker explained. “They’ll stick around for a few generations, but by the time the breach has been repaired, they should give way to local strains and disappear entirely.”

“That’s marvelous,” Ramos mused, watching a Worker effortlessly toss a bag of fertilizer that must have weighed as much as she did. “We could use some of those back on Earth.”

“Hit us up on the comms if you need anything,” the Worker said, giving him a nod before joining her team. They formed an orderly column and waddled off into the sand, a couple of them peering back at him as they chatted to each other.

“Who wants to learn to drive a tractor?” Ramos asked, turning to the waiting Rask. “Rashka – how about you?”

“Very well,” she conceded. She climbed up into the cab, sliding into the driver’s seat and appraising the control panel skeptically. Ramos followed behind her, hefting himself up the ladder and clambering into the passenger seat beside her. It was smaller and set a little lower, intended for riders or instructors, but it was still way too large for a human. The cab was rather spacious, and if he had to guess, it was a modular design that could be swapped out to accommodate different species. Washington Dynamics was based on Franklin, the bread basket of UN space, and they produced some impressive agricultural equipment. There was no room for Kozi and Zhura, so they found handholds on the hull.

“I’m assuming you know how the wheel and pedals work,” Ramos began, Rashka leaning down to get a look beneath the raised dashboard. “On your right is the control panel. It has some switches and buttons that control the tractor’s functions and tap into the trailer, but for the most part, everything is controlled via that large touch panel. See those graphics? I slaved the dozers, which means they’ll try to follow the tractor wherever it goes. I want you to pull out and head to the work site.”

It took a little instruction, but Rashka soon had the Washington trundling along the sand on its four triangular sets of tracks, a procession of dozers forming a column behind it. They matched its movements, practically driving along its tracks, the round camera domes mounted above their hulls twisting and turning as they scanned their surroundings for obstacles. They drove out from beneath the shadow of the crawler, heading for the jungle in the distance.

“You’re doing well,” Ramos said, trying to give the aloof alien some positive reinforcement. “You’ve driven before?”

“Buggies and IFVs,” she replied.

“Give it a little more gas as we crest this dune,” he advised, bouncing in his seat as the tractor tackled the incline. He reached over to twist a knob on the dash, feeling a stream of cool air fill the sealed cabin. This was a hell of a lot nicer than the ramshackle buggy Orzi had driven. It even had that new car smell.

“An unnecessary comfort,” Rashka complained as the breeze blew her hair.

“Sorry, is it too cold for you?” Ramos asked as he turned the dial down a few notches. “I’ve only been here for a day, so I’m not used to the heat yet.”

“You should strive to adapt,” the Rask replied, scrutinizing him with her cold gaze. “You will be dependent on this technology if you do not embrace the reality of the desert.”

He had to resist the impulse to shrink away from her intense stare, remembering what Orzi had told him. If he wanted things to run smoothly, he had to gain their respect, and he couldn’t do that if he folded whenever they challenged him.

“Well, I’m gonna leave it on,” he muttered as he turned his eyes back to the path ahead.

It wasn’t long before they arrived at the limits of the jungle, where the tall trees began to give way to smaller, hardier undergrowth that eventually transitioned into barren sand. Ramos peered into the dark depths, obscured by the shade provided by the canopy, his mind swimming with possibilities. These were strange trees – not at all like the ones he had seen in the rainforests of Earth. They almost seemed to have evergreen qualities, perhaps evolved to survive the cold nights and harsh winters of Borealis. A couple of hundred meters to their right was the windbreak, and it seemed as good a place to start as any.

The two passengers hopped down onto the hot sand, and he followed suit reluctantly, climbing out of the air-conditioned cab. He grunted as the heat hit him. Orzi had been right – the A/C almost made it worse in comparison.

“Gather around!” he said, the three Rask forming a rough crescent near the tractor. “What would you say is the first resource we need for growing plants?”

“Water?” Kozi suggested.

“Yes, very good. How do we find water in a desert?”

“Lakes, oases, rain,” Rashka replied.

“The water cycle here is unreliable, so rain isn’t a good option. Piping in water from the lake would be possible, but tell me, does anyone know how an oasis forms?” The Rask shared glances, but none replied. “Aquifers are underground water sources that can seep up to the surface to create oases and even lakes. That groundwater is also what wells tap into. That machine over there is a portable drilling rig,” he said as he pointed to one of the trailers that was hooked up to a dozer. “It’s going to tap a series of wells that will feed a drip irrigation system that we can lay down once the earthmovers have flattened the area. It’ll keep the new soil that we lay down moist. We have orbital survey data showing the locations of many of these aquifers, but we can use the ground-penetrating radar on the drilling rig to find the best locations. Rashka and Zhura, I’m going to show you how to program the dozers to start working on the first grid square. Kozi, it’s your turn in the tractor. I’ll be your navigator, and we can take out the rig to find some water.”

“Oh, do I get to be all alone with our new teacher?” Kozi asked, glancing at him with a sultry smile.

“Kozi, behave yourself,” Rashka chided. “We are here to work, not to play games with the aliens.”

“Come on, boss,” she replied with an exaggerated pout. “The Matriarch gets to have one. Should we not follow her shining example?”

“Show your Matriarch the respect she is due, or you shall be corrected,” the larger Rask replied with a snarl that bared her sharp teeth.

Ramos glanced between the two, not sure whether he should intervene, but Kozi soon backed down with a deferent bow of her head.

Kozi and Zhura looked to Rashka for confirmation, and after she nodded, they got to work. Before long, the half dozen earthmovers were plowing the dunes flat in the chosen area, and Ramos was driving away with Kozi. He was sat below her in the cab’s passenger seat, using his tablet to examine the feed from the radar as she took the wheel. Like Rashka, she seemed to know her way around a vehicle well enough.

“So, I hope you don’t mind me saying that you seem a little more…approachable than the rest of your pack,” Ramos began as they trundled over a dune.

“Oh, is that why you wanted to get me alone for a while?” she replied as she glanced down at him with a smirk. “Here I thought you had something more fun in mind.”

“You’ve spent more time with humans than they have? Your language skills are certainly better.”

“I like to hang out with the Marines,” she replied, keeping one hand on the wheel as she leaned back into the padded seat. Her leather getup was so tight that he could hear it creaking when she moved. “They seemed to have been expecting to fight an insurgency when they arrived, but nothing about Korbaz’s claim was illegitimate, so there has been very little unrest. They are bored, and there is not much to do in the city besides drink and talk.”

“You’re not angry that the Coalition is occupying your territory?” Ramos asked, giving her a sideways glance.

“We are Borealans,” she replied with a shrug. “There is no shame in fighting and losing.”

“What’s the deal with Rashka?” he continued, pausing for a moment to tell her to hang a right. “Is she always so…distant?”

“She will warm to you if you prove your worth,” the Rask replied with a smile that suggested she was all too familiar with the process.

“Forgive me, but you two don’t seem to get along,” Ramos replied. “Why do you prod her and poke her like that? I thought Borealans were supposed to be subservient to their Alphas?”

“You clearly have much to learn about packs if that is what you believe,” she chuckled. “Have you spent much time with Borealans other than Orzi?”

“There was an Elysian who briefed me on the carrier during the flight here,” Ramos replied. “He seemed pretty normal. Not to imply that you’re not normal, he was just very well-adjusted to living alongside humans.”

“He was probably an auxiliary,” Kozi explained. “They undergo integration training that teaches them how to interact with your kind and how to manage their impulses. There are some stationed here – they are a terrible bore.”

“You haven’t done that?”

No,” she said with a smirk, drumming her hooked claws on the steering wheel. “To us, integration training is like blunting a sharp blade. There is more to being in a pack than just giving and obeying orders,” Kozi continued as she navigated another dune. “Some strive to become powerful Alphas, while others content themselves with lower positions in the hierarchy. The intense competition does not suit everyone. Others enjoy the perks and lack of responsibility of being at the bottom. There is something to be said for being cared for and protected.”

“I assumed it was a constant fight to be top dog, but now that I think about it, I suppose a kind of equilibrium would have to be reached at some point. Fighting all the time can’t be productive.”

“To answer your question,” Koza added. “If I provoke Rashka, it is because I enjoy her corrections…”

“Oh,” Ramos muttered, his cheeks starting to warm. “I didn’t realize you guys were…like that.”

“Like what?” she pressed.


“Even after spending so much time with humans, I still forget that you have such strict preferences,” the Rask said as she suppressed a laugh. “Borealans are primarily attracted to status. Rashka is my Alpha – she takes care of me, and I love her for it. So does Zhura – though she may have more trouble showing it. Rashka can be cold and distant, yes, but she becomes as hot as the midday sand if you know how to get her attention.”

“Not that there’s anything wrong with that,” Ramos added hastily. “I guess I’m still operating in human mode.”

“I think we should be able to fix that,” Kozi purred, leaning a little closer to him. “You’re cute when you blush, you know.”

“Keep your eyes on the road,” he muttered, clearing his throat as she watched him with a toothy grin. “First rule of driving.”

“I like to annoy Rashka until she feels the need to remind me of my place,” Kozi continued as she returned her attention to her task. Her yellow eyes flicked to him, anticipating his reaction. “A little disobedience – a little irritation. Just enough to get her heated. I want all of her intensity focused on me.”

“Looks like the radar found a site!” Ramos declared, interrupting her thought. “Hop out, and I’ll show you how to work the drill.”

Fleeing as though he could leave his embarrassment behind in the cab, he dropped down onto the hot sand, circling around the giant tractor to get a look at the rig that it was pulling behind it. The skeletal trailer had a set of four wheels with thick tires, a tall housing for the drill rising into the air like a flagpole beside a block of machinery and electronics. He walked up to the control panel that jutted from the housing, Kozi sidling up beside him on her long legs. She bent at the waist again to get a closer look, both a display of her impressive flexibility and a tacit dig at his stature, he suspected.

“The GPR will locate the optimal locations, then all you really have to do is maneuver the trailer into position and activate the drill,” he explained as he demonstrated how the controls worked. The trailer extended a set of four outriggers, lifting itself a few inches off the stand and stabilizing itself. “It has a range of about a hundred meters, and it’ll go through solid rock. The only thing you have to watch out for is this readout here that tracks drill integrity. With the amount of wells we’ll be tapping, we’re going to blunt the bit, and it’ll need replacing eventually.”

“How did you learn all of this?” Kozi asked as she watched the drill start to kick up a cloud of sand and dust, her ears flattening against her hair at the high-pitched whine.

“School, training, fieldwork,” he replied. “I’ve spent much of my professional life restoring Earth’s rainforests and developing new agroforestry techniques.”

“What is that?” the Rask asked, tilting her head.

“It means creating sustainable farms inside or nearby dense jungles that don’t harm their ecosystems. That can be cultivating native resources or simply building around the existing forest.”

“I was skeptical when Rashka chose to answer the Matriarch’s call for workers,” Kozi began, turning to gaze at the crawler in the distance. “So many who served beneath her predecessor took up jobs in the new mercenary companies.”

“But not you?” Ramos asked.

“I think Rashka is tired,” she replied in a more somber tone, keeping her eyes on the flat horizon. “The rebellion was hard-fought, and we did not win. I am starting to enjoy this, though. There is a simplicity to it. The former Matriarch promised us prosperity through conquest, but Korbaz believes that we can build it for ourselves. I am starting to believe it.”

“In the tractor, you said that Rashka takes care of you,” Ramos began. “What did you mean by that, exactly?”

“The Alpha is responsible for the welfare of their pack,” Kozi explained, turning her eyes back to him. “Rashka protects us, she ensures that we are housed and fed, and she manages our funds. We look to her for leadership and comfort.”

“She’s like your legal guardian, then?” Ramos mused. “You all live together in a kind of family unit, and she’s the head of the household. Does the Alpha not kind of…lord over their pack? What if she makes you do things you don’t want to do?”

“A bad one might,” Kozi replied. “Bad Alphas do not keep their positions for very long. We share many responsibilities, but Rashka has the final say. We obey because we trust her.”

“The way I heard it, who gets to be top dog is usually decided by two Rask clawing the shit out of each other.”

“Bouts are one of the ways the hierarchy is determined, yes, though usually in the case of a direct challenge to the Alpha’s position or authority. Such challenges must be answered quickly and decisively if the Alpha is not to lose face.”

“I have to tell you, it’s not easy to understand,” Ramos conceded as he turned to monitor the control panel. “We humans like our freedom.”

“Do you?” Kozi scoffed as he walked across the burning sand to stand beside him. “All of the Marines on this planet obey the commands of their Sergeants and Lieutenants just as we obey our Alphas. Most of the contractors and civilians are here because they were told to come, not because they chose to.”

“We tend to separate our professional and personal lives.”

“You do not yet know the joys of giving yourself completely to someone you trust and admire – of relinquishing control in all things. That can change if you want it to…”

Ramos maintained her gaze for a few moments, her yellow eyes burning into him, then the abrupt sound of the drill completing its cycle jolted him out of his stupor. He spun around again, focusing on the readout as the tall Rask peered over his shoulder.

“Okay, that’s the cycle done,” he said hurriedly. “You saw me engage the outriggers, right? Stow them again, then move the tractor so we can take a look.”

She did as he asked, the engine thrumming as she drove the vehicle a short distance from the site, then came jogging back to him across the dunes. Where the trailer had been sat was now a black polymer tube about six inches wide that jutted a good meter from the sand, its top capped off with a valve.

“This pipe is now tapping into the aquifer nearly a hundred meters under our feet,” he said as he gestured to it proudly. “The water in your territory is locked beneath some pretty impermeable rock and shale layers based on our surveys, which puts it under pressure. Generally, we refer to these as artesian wells. We won’t need any pumps to extract it. Here, watch this,” he said as he knelt beside the pipe. As he turned the handle on the quick-release valve to open the flow, a spout of water shot up into the air. It rose a couple of meters in height, then began to rain down again, soaking the surrounding sand.

Rather than shy away, he welcomed the reprieve from the desert heat, lifting his face towards the shower of cool water. He let it splash him, wetting his hair, not caring that it was dampening his clothes. He would dry off quickly enough.

Kozi’s yellow eyes grew wide with wonder as she watched the fountain of water spray into the air, then she began to laugh, shrugging off her leather jacket and tossing it to the sand. She danced beneath its spray, holding out her furry hands to catch the droplets, grinning as she enjoyed her own personal rainstorm. The mist was refracting the sunlight, creating a shimmering rainbow that hovered in the air above her.

Ramos’ laughter joined hers as he sank to the sand, sitting down to watch. She was wearing only her leather pants and her tank top now, the white fabric soon becoming soaked, making it cling to her like a second skin. His chuckling tapered off, his gaze drawn to the defined features that leapt out from beneath her damp clothing. While modest on her large frame, she was impressively endowed by human standards, breasts large enough to overflow his cupped hands bouncing subtly as she spun on the spot. There was nothing to support them but her top, their outline clearly visible beneath the wet fabric, the tan color of her skin bleeding through the garment where it stuck to her.

Below was her toned midriff, the harsh gravity of Borealis carving two perfect rows of muscle into her stomach with all the artistry of a classical sculptor working with marble. The waterlogged vest adhered to her so tightly that he could see the flawless channels they carved into her belly, the white fabric giving way to caramel skin just above her navel. The belt that held up her pants rode low on her wide hips, the leather not needing to be wet to cling to her, the dimples of muscle in her thighs clearly visible when they caught the sunlight. As she turned, inadvertently giving him a view of her firm rear, he noted that there was a little cutout for her tail to poke through. How did she even get into pants that tight? Did someone sew them onto her each morning?

She had muscular upper arms, that tanned complexion giving way to blonde fur below her elbows that matched her messy hair. Her skin was lustrous where it was exposed, little beads of water clinging to her, sparkling like tiny diamonds as they caught the suns. Although she must weigh as much as a Bengal tiger, and the gravity here was thirty percent higher than that of Earth, she moved with such ease that it was easy to forget.

Dripping with water now, she bounded her way over to him, bending over to bring herself closer to eye level. It took all the willpower that he could muster not to look straight down her top, beads of water trickling into her cleavage as she reached up to brush her wet hair out of her face.

“I think drilling wells is my favorite job so far,” she declared, giving him a broad smile. “I feel as though we could make our own oasis anywhere we pleased now.”

“Y-yeah,” he mumbled. “That’s how they form – pressurized groundwater seeping up to the surface through fissures.”

She stood up straight again, her face seeming to fly away from him, lifting her arms above her head as she stretched. She was limber enough to make any human gymnast look stiff and clumsy.

“Shall I close the valve, or will we leave it?” she asked.

“We’ll close it,” he replied, hoping that he wasn’t blushing again as he rose and brushed himself off. He could already feel the water evaporating from his skin in the desert’s dry heat. “Eventually, the pipe will feed an irrigation network that will keep the soil moist.”

Kozi braved the torrent of water again, crouching down to close the valve, then shook out her fluffy hair. On her way back to the tractor, she stooped to retrieve her jacket, waving it like a flag as she turned back to him.

“Keep up, farmboy! Rashka and Zhura will be wondering what has become of us!”

He jogged over to the tractor as she dipped inside the cab, pausing to admire the little pool of water that they had created in the sand around the pipe. It would evaporate soon and become just as dry as the surrounding dunes, but it was a little taste of what the future might bring.




As the tractor neared the work site, Ramos spotted the fleet of six dozers. They had covered some decent ground already and were well into the process of flattening the dunes. Working together in a grid pattern, they could turn a sizeable area of land into a parking lot without much trouble, and there were no drivers who needed breaks or sleep. He couldn’t see the two Rask, but as Kozi turned towards the nearby jungle where they had parked the trailers, they both emerged from the shade of the canopy.

“Why are you wet?” Rashka asked skeptically as Kozi hopped down from the cab.

“We dug our own spring,” Kozi replied breathlessly, slinging her jacket over her shoulder. “He can make water well up from the ground anywhere!”

“Not quite,” Ramos chuckled. “It looks like you two have been doing well.”

“The machines work by themselves,” Zhura replied tersely, one of her ears flicking in what might be irritation. “There is little for us to do other than program instructions.”

“Here,” Rashka added, thrusting a giant canteen that must have contained three or four liters of water into his arms. Ramos had to grip it with both hands, feeling the liquid slosh around inside. It was of Rask design, made from steel, and attached to a leather sling that was embossed with decorative patterns. “You are a newcomer to this desert and still ignorant of its dangers. Drink.”

She fixed him with her steely gaze, and he felt compelled to do as she asked, spilling a little from the heavy container as he drank.

“More,” she commanded.

“Hang on, I gotta take a breath,” he grumbled as Kozi snickered at him. When she was satisfied, Rashka took it back, stowing the canteen on her belt.

“What are you going to teach us next?” Kozi asked, crouching down to his level like she was addressing a toddler.

“I hope you like dirt,” he replied. “Now that the dozers have cleared some of the land, we can start laying down fertilizer. The goal is not to remove the sand, of course. That would be impossible. But, with a flat surface and a lot of the excess cleared away, we should have a good foundation to start building our new jungle. Contrary to what you might believe, sand isn’t some kind of sterilizing agent. It actually allows water to filter through it quite well. The issue is that it lacks the nutrients that plants need to grow and thrive, being composed mostly of silicates and minerals rather than organic matter and healthy biota.”

“How do we do that?” Kozi asked. “Just sprinkle it on the sand?”

“We’re going to use a specialized machine to dig a series of deep channels that we’ll fill with fertile soil,” he explained. “That’s also where we’ll be planting the seeds. Each of the seeds is contained within a protective gel that acts somewhat like an egg, protecting the sapling when it’s at its most vulnerable, keeping it hydrated, and giving it a kickstart with the nutrients that it needs. That’ll improve their chances of taking to the soil.”

“What of the wells that we dug?” Kozi asked.

“Those are going to feed a drip irrigation system that we’ll be laying down between these rows,” Ramos replied. “Small openings in the buried pipes will allow water to flow out, delivering it directly to the roots of the plants to minimize moisture loss by evaporation. Today is more about training and demonstration, so we’re not going about this in the most efficient order, but the soil and seeds will keep for a few days while we get the irrigation network set up.”

“Very well,” Rashka said. “Proceed.”

“I think it’s Zhura’s turn to learn to drive the tractor,” Ramos declared, giving the surly Rask a smile that she returned with a scowl. She looked to Rashka, silently asking whether she had to obey, the Alpha giving her a stern look.

“Fine,” Zhura grumbled.

“Let’s head over to the trailers, and I’ll show you how the seed drill works.”

The seed drill was a large multi-purpose trailer that attached to the back of the tractor. It was made up of three articulated segments, each of them a distinct machine in its own right. To the untrained eye, it looked like a truck-sized mass of pipes and wheels, but all of the blades and machinery had distinct purposes.

At the front section were a series of blades and wheels that would dig furrows into the earth like a plow. On the middle car was a deep tank shaped like a trough where the fertilizer was loaded. The tail section housed the seed racks, where the rows of pre-packaged canisters filled with suspension fluid could be slotted into place like magazines into a rifle. The fertilizer traveled down a series of snaking tubes, filling the furrows with soil, then the seeds in their protective gel coatings were driven into the ground like stakes. The machine could plow a field, fertilize it, and plant seeds all in a single pass.

Ramos directed the three Rask to start loading the fertilizer, the aliens forming a line. Rashka unloaded the heavy burlap sacks from the back of a trailer, then tossed them to Kozi, who passed them to Zhuri, who had climbed up on top of the middle car. She split open the bags with a sharp claw, then upended them into the tank, the three making good time.

Ramos sat down on the hot sand to watch, surmising that he would probably just slow them down if he offered to help. As they exerted themselves, the desert heat started to gnaw at them, and it wasn’t long before all three women had shed their heavy jackets.

They were all wearing simple tank tops beneath the leather, and just like when Kozi had frolicked beneath the shower of water, perspiration soon had the garments glued to their bodies. It was impossible not to notice the outlines of their impressive abdominal muscles and the weight of their ample chests straining against the fabric, Ramos thanking his stars that he was wearing dark sunglasses. Laboring in the heat of the twin suns, the three Rask quickly became drenched in sweat, the moisture making their tanned skin so lustrous that it looked oiled. If Rashka were to flex her bicep, he could probably have seen his reflection in it.

She was an impressive specimen. Where Kozi was a little lighter and leaner, Rashka was all muscle, standing a couple of inches taller than her packmates. She looked like she could probably have flipped the tractor, but despite her brawn, there was nothing masculine about her build. Her wide shoulders were complemented by an hourglass figure that tapered into flared hips, her stout thighs straining against her leather pants, easily comparable in volume to his torso. Her toned core was wide enough that he wondered whether his arms would even meet if he were to hug her. Her breasts would have been absurd on a human woman, but they were more akin to D-cups on her larger build. They were as big as his damned head…

Zhura had a similar build to Kozi, though she was a little stockier, and he noted that she had a collection of scars on her arms that cut into her sandy fur in places. He was amused to see that the Rask often paused to wipe their brows with their furry forearms, and it made him think about their evolution. They were related to Polars like Orzi, so it stood to reason that they likely shared a common ancestor that had been fully furred. Humans had lost their fur in part to aid in the evaporation of sweat, so perhaps something similar had happened to the Rask and their counterparts as they had adapted to their arid environment.

Before long, they had filled the tank with fertilizer, and Ramos had taught them how to load the seeds. He climbed into the tractor after Zhuri as her two packmates rested and drank from their canteens, sitting down in the smaller passenger seat as was becoming customary.

“So, have you ever driven something like this before?” he asked, trying to maintain a cheerful tone.

“No,” Zhuri replied curtly.

“Well, uh…I assume you’ve seen other people drive. This thing has power steering, so just turn the wheel in the direction you want to go. These are your throttle, clutch, and brake pedals. Don’t worry too much about these other controls right now – all you need to do is drive in a straight line.”

He handled the plow and drill himself as Zhuri drove along, keeping her fierce gaze on the sand ahead of them. She was still drenched with sweat, and he could hear her sticking to the leather seat whenever she shifted her weight, her bronze skin shining in the sunlight that poured in through the dusty windshield.

“How are you taking to farming?” Ramos asked, desperate to break the awkward silence. “Kozi seems to be enjoying herself.”

“Kozi is able to find amusement even in the most trivial of things,” the Rask grumbled. She hissed, cursing to herself in her native language as she fumbled with one of the pedals, the sudden sound and the lurching of the tractor making Ramos jump.

“That was the clutch,” he began, but he quickly shrank back into his chair when she gave him an angry look. “So, I take it you’re not as enthusiastic about this whole thing as your packmates are?”

“What do I have to be enthusiastic about?” she muttered, one of her ears flicking as though it was trying to bat away an irritating fly. “We once served our Crewmasters on the battlefield with honor and distinction, but now we till earth and take orders from runts,” she added with another scowl.

“And I’m the runt, I take it?” Ramos asked.

“You have not earned your authority through blood or merit,” she complained as she turned her eyes back to the flat expanse of sand ahead. “It was merely given to you, just as a parent gifts their kitten with a toy, and you treat it with the same frivolity.”

“Correct me if I’m wrong,” Ramos began, starting to get annoyed. “But, the way I heard it, your Matriarch and your Alpha have both ordered you to obey me. That means if I say jump, you jump. You’re not going to learn how to regrow a rainforest and fix your territory’s water cycle through trial and error, and I’m the guy they sent to teach you, so it’s in your best interest to perk those fuzzy ears up and listen to what I say.”

Zhura bared her sharp teeth, loosing a low growl that reverberated through his bones, her ears flattening against her head like an angry cat. Ramos felt himself sinking into his seat again, but he remembered what Orzi had told him. There would be friction, but if he wanted to gain the respect of the pack, he had to assert himself. Not confrontation, but confidence.

“You don’t scare me,” he replied, sitting up a little straighter. “You’re all bark and no bite. Lay a finger on me, and Rashka will give you the correction of a lifetime. Now, pay attention to where you’re going, or do I have to tell her that you’re not cooperating?”

That gave her pause for thought, and although she remained visibly angry, she turned her attention back to driving. After leaving her to stew for a few minutes, Ramos spoke up again.

“What’s so bad about farming, anyway?” he asked, still a little indignant. “I’ve been doing work like this my whole life. A lot of people would jump at the chance to work in forestry or agriculture rather than have people shooting railgun slugs and tank shells at them.”

“We Rask are warriors,” she replied. “Our place is not in the fields and orchards – it is astride sandships with a rifle in hand. There are no tapestries that record the names and deeds of plowmen.”

“Where would you be without farmers?” he pressed. “Food doesn’t just magically appear out of the ether – it has to be cultivated, harvested, processed. What your pack is learning to do here might one day restore your territory’s ecology and make it just as prosperous as Elysia. Don’t you want that?”

“What we need, we take,” she insisted with a snarl.

“And where did that get you? On the wrong end of an XMR – that’s where.”

“Do not mock me, human,” she grumbled as she began to turn the tractor.

“I’m not mocking you,” he sighed. “I want you to understand that what you’re doing here is equally as important as being in the military. You don’t have to raid caravans to bring prosperity and abundance to the Rask, and there are ways to protect your land and serve your Matriarch without holding a gun. If we can repair the jungle band, it will keep out the desert and restore the water cycle – the Rask territory could flourish. The climate would improve, the lake would grow, and nobody would have to go hungry again. Don’t you want that?”

She kept silent for a moment, Ramos glancing out of the window as they passed the channels they had dug on their way there, the deep furrows now filled in with dark soil to create a stripy pattern in the sand.

“What matters is what Rashka wants,” she finally said. “She is Alpha.”

It sounded to him like Zhura hadn’t really been onboard with laying down her weapons and becoming a farmer. If what Kozi had said was to be believed, it seemed unlikely that Rashka would force someone to do something they didn’t want to do, so he had to wonder what circumstances had led to Zhura being here. He didn’t really want to pry – she was surly enough already – so he focused on their work.

It didn’t take long for the tractor to cover the grid square that the dozers had plowed flat, turning the barren sand into a field covered in orderly rows of dark soil. It was only a tiny fraction of the ground they had to cover to seal the breach, but it was a start. As they climbed out of the tractor, Ramos turned to appraise their work, the remainder of the pack returning from the shade of the jungle.

“Not a bad job, Zhura,” Kozi joked as she patted her packmate’s shoulder. “The human will make a farmhand of you yet.”

Zhura didn’t seem to appreciate the compliment, shrugging off Kozi’s hand.

“Drink,” Rashka insisted, shoving the canteen into Ramos’ arms and almost making him lose his balance. He did as she asked, feeling the cool water slide down his parched throat and into his empty stomach. The suns had dipped a little lower in the sky – though their heat hadn’t lessened – and he was starting to get hungry. It must be getting close to evening. Like the Rask, he was drenched in sweat, his clothes sticking to his skin.

“I think we can probably call it for today,” he announced, handing the canteen back. “You guys did a good job. You learned how to tap wells, program drones, and plant seeds. You all got a turn in the tractor, too. Remember – practice makes perfect. The more hands-on experience you gain, the quicker and more efficient you’ll become. This is just the tip of the iceberg, of course. There’s much more to cover, but we’ll pick up where we left off tomorrow.”

“We shall have plenty of time to practice,” Kozi sighed, lifting a hand to shield her eyes from the suns as she gazed at the hazy jungle on the far side of the breach.

“It’ll go a lot faster when you have a rhythm down,” Ramos said, trying to reassure her. “The trick is to split everything up into smaller sections and tackle the grid squares one at a time. It’s a little like carving stone,” he added, remembering the impressive masonry that he had seen in the Rask villages. “You chip away at it little by little, removing a small amount of material with each hit of the chisel until you eventually end up with something beautiful.”

That analogy seemed to reach her, and she gave him an appreciative nod.

“You’ll be teaching others to do the work once I leave, too,” he continued. “Nobody is expecting you to handle all of this on your own.”

“We should set off soon if we are to return home before nightfall,” Rashka said. “We must make a detour to drop off Ramos at the alien camp, and he is not dressed for the cold.”

“Does it get that cold here at night?” he asked.

“The temperature plummets, and it becomes dangerous to be caught in the open,” Kozi replied.

“Oh!” he exclaimed, snapping his fingers. “That explains the jackets and the leather getup! Your clothes aren’t just for protecting you from the heat – they have to be warm enough to keep you alive during the night. I thought you guys were crazy for wearing leather in the desert at first.”

“These clothes are traditionally worn by Rask warriors,” Zhura added. “The jackets are padded to protect from knives and bayonets, the belts allow a soldier to carry all of the weapons and supplies they require, and they can be worn during both night and day. One never knows when they may become stranded or face harsh conditions in an environment such as ours. Winter strikes as quickly as an icy blade.”

“It is rather extreme,” Ramos conceded. “I saw people wearing shawls and cloaks on the way here. What about those?”

“Civilian dress,” Rashka replied. “Near settlements and places of refuge, lighter fabrics are favored. They protect the wearer from the sand and heat. The material is woven from plant fibers and breathes well.”

“Sounds kind of like linen,” Ramos said with a nod. “It’s a very ancient fabric that we weave from something called a flax plant.”

“Are you well, Ramos?” Kozi asked as she leaned down to examine his face. “You are sweating a great deal.”

“I guess I’m just not used to the desert yet,” he chuckled, wiping his brow on his sleeve. “I’ve been working in the Amazon – it’s basically the polar opposite of this environment. I spent about six months on a climate-controlled jump carrier, too.”

“Kozi, Zhura,” Rashka snapped, her commanding voice almost enough to make even Ramos jump to attention. “It is time to return to the crawler. Call back the dozers and see that the trailers are hitched. I do not want any equipment left out here to freeze overnight.”

While the pair packed up, Ramos and Rashka trudged across the sand to where the tractor was parked, the Rask surprising him as she helped him climb up into the cab, extending a hand.

“Thanks,” he muttered, sliding into the passenger seat. Rashka sat down behind the wheel, Ramos noting that she remembered how to work the controls on the dash. He hit the A/C dial, and this time, Rashka didn’t show any signs of disapproval. Perhaps he looked like he needed it.

He relaxed back into his padded seat, letting the cool air flow over him, the sweat that coated his skin making it feel even colder.

“Man, I am looking forward to a shower,” he sighed. “I hope Catla doesn’t cut me off.”

“Catla?” Rashka asked, giving him a questioning look.

“My landlord,” he explained. “Long story.”

“I am sure that the Polar will see to your care,” the giant Rask rumbled in that husky voice. Just hearing her talk was almost like hearing a lion roar, the sound resonating in her chest. “Orzi has proven herself to be a responsible caretaker.”

“I can take care of myself,” he insisted. “To an extent,” he added when she raised a skeptical eyebrow. “I’ve worked in harsh environments before, you know. The Amazon, the Congo, Daintree. It seems like everyone here thinks I need to be coddled.”

“You are ignorant of the desert’s dangers, and your size makes you appear as but a runt to our eyes,” Rashka explained. “I was told to protect you, and so I shall.”

“Zhura used that word,” Ramos added. “Runt. Is it an insult?”

“It can be used in that way,” Rashka conceded. “Runts are the smallest and weakest of their litters, which puts them at a disadvantage when it comes to contests of strength. Zhura surely disapproves of someone in your…position…being given such power and authority over a pack like ours. She sees you as being unworthy. I would remind her that it is the Matriarch’s will that we cooperate, and that to defy you is to defy her.”

“It isn’t always an insult, though?” Ramos pressed. “I’m curious now.”

“It is considered decent behavior to protect a runt,” she continued. “One might be admonished for targeting one – it is seen as dishonorable – and they are sometimes desired in much the way that some Borealans desire your kind.”

“How’s that?” he mumbled.

“Is it not obvious?” she asked, those yellow eyes meeting his gaze. “Some find a certain allure in taking packmates who cannot hope to best them. Has Zhura been uncooperative?” she added, saving her flustered copilot from having to respond to her statement. “Does she require discipline?”

“God, no,” he stammered as he tried to center himself again. “She did everything she was told. She did a fine job, in fact. But I do get the feeling that she doesn’t really want to be here. Not as much as you and Kozi, at least.”

“The end of the war was a difficult time for us,” Rashka replied stiffly, staring out at the horizon. “After our combat unit was dissolved, the new Matriarch gave us a choice. We could join the newly formed mercenary companies and fight for riches, or we could answer her call for laborers. Kozi and I were in agreement, but Zhura did not wish to lay down her rifle. We argued, but I did not force her hand. I gave her the option to leave the pack or to remain.”

“And she chose to stay?” Ramos asked. “She must think a great deal of you two if she turned down that opportunity for your sakes.”

“I am glad that she stayed,” Rashka said, her expression hard to discern. She was like a giant bronze statue sometimes. “We saw one another through the rebellion, and losing her after facing so much would have been…distressing. You have shown her great patience, and I thank you for it. She will adjust in time.”

Ramos heard a clunk as Zhura and Kozi hopped up onto the tractor, Kozi rapping her claws on the glass to signal that they were ready to leave. Rashka put the tractor into gear and they began to trundle away across the sand, the crawler serving as a towering beacon on the horizon, the procession of automated dozers and trailers following behind.

“You know,” Ramos began, glancing up at Rashka with a smile. “You’re not what I was expecting. I was always told Borealans were violent and domineering, and that the Rask were the most aggressive of all. They’d claw your head off if you looked at them funny. You’re not like that at all. In fact, you’re downright likable.”

“I would caution you to be more careful around those outside of our pack,” she replied, deflating his enthusiasm a little.

“Why’s that?”

“Those who are not bound to obey you by order of the Matriarch will not be as lenient or as understanding as I have been.”

“Uh…okay,” he muttered. “Kind of ominous. Are you suggesting that you’d behave differently towards me without the Matriarch’s decree in place?”

Rashka turned those intense eyes on him, her golden irises glowing like burning coals as they reflected the sunlight, her dark pupils drawing him in like tiny singularities. For a brief second, there was something predatory in her stare – something primal that made the hairs on the back of his neck stand on end and butterflies swarm in his belly. In that scant moment, she seemed as insurmountable as a sheer cliff face, the power that she radiated making him shrink away.

Then it was gone, and she was back to her usual stoic self.

“I have not undergone the integration training of the auxiliaries you are familiar with,” she replied. “Provocation – whether intended or not – is often met with…correction.”

Kozi’s gleeful voice echoed in his head, her smirking face appearing before his mind’s eye.

“If I provoke Rashka, it is because I enjoy her corrections…”

He glanced out of the passenger side window, seeing the Rask in question hanging off the outside of the cab. She noticed him, giving him a toothy smile.

They parked the tractor in the shadow of the crawler when they arrived, returning all of the equipment to their proper places. The Valbaran who had helped Ramos sign out the vehicles reappeared with a couple of her flockmates in tow, the three aliens giving the dozers and trailers a brief look over to ensure they hadn’t been damaged. They were cautious, and it led him to believe that some of the Rask hadn’t been quite so diligent in their maintenance.

Ramos was starting to wonder how Rashka and her pack intended to get back to the camp. Orzi had driven him here in a buggy, and it was a bit of a journey, so they couldn’t walk back. His question was soon answered as she led their group over to another ramshackle Rask vehicle that was parked near one of the house-sized treads of the crawler.

“Is that…an armored personnel carrier?” Ramos asked, stopping to appraise the angular hull with wide eyes. It had boxy armor that was slanted at the front to deflect gunfire, and it was sitting on a set of four large wheels with thick tires, the suspension lifting it high off the sand. It was clearly of human origin – military surplus maybe, like the kind the PDF commonly used. It was old – that much was obvious by its outdated design, and the years hadn’t been kind to it. Its crude desert camo paint scheme was flaking off, and when he looked more closely, he noticed that it had several slug holes down its flank. This thing had actually seen combat. On top of the sloping nose were two panels of reinforced glass that served as windshields, along with a pair of headlights whose protective cages were falling off. It might have had some kind of turret or blister at some point, but it was gone now.

“This is how we travel,” Kozi replied as she walked to the back of the vehicle. “It is a little faster and more reliable than a sandboat.”

She pulled open a pair of reinforced doors with the sound of creaking metal, then vanished inside, Ramos following her to get a better look. Inside the hull was a troop compartment that had been stripped of all the seating and cargo netting that he might have expected to see, hollowing it out to make more room for its Rask passengers. It ended up being rather spacious – Kozi not having to duck very much to avoid hitting her head.

He was surprised to see that the bay had been filled with fabrics in shades of pink and purple. The Rask had laid down a soft carpet over the bare metal deck, and they had strewn piles of soft throw pillows around, covering the walls with silken drapes that had been welded to the ceiling on metal rings. It looked like a mobile bedroom now, the carpet ending at the cab, which had also been gutted and rearranged to better suit its eight-foot driver. The contrast between the exposed electronics and dusty displays when compared with the comfortable furnishings was bizarre and intriguing.

“What is this?” he chuckled as Kozi turned in the compartment to look back at him.

“Humans are very utilitarian,” she explained. “It needed a Rask touch.”

As he moved aside to let Zhura pass, he realized that a buggy like Orzi’s wouldn’t have fit a whole pack. They averaged five or sometimes six members, and the eight-foot, five-hundred-pound creatures couldn’t exactly pile into an SUV together. There was room for them in an APC like this one, and it made an unconventional but effective means of transportation. Zhura turned, seeming irritated by his hesitation, reaching down to scruff him like a cat and haul him inside by his coveralls. She deposited him on the padded cushions, then closed the doors behind him, only a sliver of sunlight bleeding through the gaps.

There was the sound of clashing metal again as Rashka opened the driver’s door and squeezed into the cab, taking the wheel. The engine choked a few times, then rumbled to life, the floor shaking beneath them as the vehicle pulled out from beneath the crawler’s shadow. It was a bumpy ride as the APC bounced over the dunes, threatening to shake itself apart, and there were no seatbelts in the furnished bay. At least he’d be hitting his head against silk curtains and soft pillows instead of a hard bulkhead if they crashed. It was dingy inside, the only light coming from the cab, the little bullet holes along the flank letting shafts of light pour in.

“Where did you get this thing?” Ramos asked, raising his voice to be heard over the engine.

“The former Matriarch bought many such vehicles for use in the war,” Kozi replied, sitting on the cushions across from him. She rocked and jostled with the motions of the APC, but she was relaxed, clearly accustomed to this mode of travel. “After the coup, we ended up with more military vehicles than civilian.”

It was hard to hold a conversation in such a loud environment, so it was a mostly quiet ride back to the camp. They eventually came to a stop, Rashka turning in her reclined seat to peer back into the troop compartment.

“We have arrived. We will return to pick you up at first light tomorrow.”

“See you soon, runt,” Zhura whispered as Kozi popped open one of the doors for him. He hopped out onto the sand, finding himself standing on the outskirts of the camp, then he turned to see Kozi give him a grin that exposed her sharp teeth.

“You could come back with us, if you wanted,” she suggested. “See how a Rask pack lives when not on the hunt. It would not be hard to find a place for you – small as you are.”

“Uh, thanks,” he mumbled. “I think I’ll pass for now.”

“Suit yourself,” she said with a shrug. “See you tomorrow, runt.”

She rapped a fist on the hull of the APC, then slammed the door shut. The bulky vehicle revved to life again, then pulled away, Ramos watching it kick up clouds of dust as it drove back in the direction of the city. In the distance, there was a crack of thunder, his eyes drawn to the sky as the glow of a lander entering the atmosphere pierced the blue haze. It was probably heading for the spaceport.

He wondered briefly about the word runt again. Zhura said it as an insult, while it almost seemed endearing coming from Kozi.

After a short walk, he was in the main street of the camp, and he soon located his assigned prefab by its painted number. He rummaged in his pocket for the card that Orzi had given him, then scanned it against the reader, the door sliding open.

Compared to the harsh desert, even the simple furnishings of the prefab were a welcome reprieve. The first thing he did was turn on the A/C and AG plate, feeling the weight lift off his sore limbs. Just walking around on Borealis for a day made him feel like he’d just run a 5k. It was no wonder the natives were all so toned.He stripped off his clothes and boots by the door, not wanting to track sand into the prefab. The stuff had managed to find its way into every nook and cranny. Now nude, he walked over to the shower cubicle in the tiny bathroom, remembering Catla’s warning not to waste water as he figured out the controls.

Washing away all of the sand and sweat beneath the cool, flowing water was like a form of rebirth, and he emerged from the cubicle feeling refreshed. He toweled himself down as he searched the cupboards and fridge for food, finding only a few rudimentary packaged goods. It was enough to fill his belly after a hard day’s work, but he wondered if there were any restaurants or bars in the city. The Rask territory was backward, but not that backward. Kozi had talked about Marines hanging out there, so maybe he could find somewhere to get a hot meal, assuming they’d take UN credits.

He threw a frozen meal in the microwave, then sat down at the little table to eat, watching the light dim through the narrow windows. They were placed high on the walls, and he couldn’t really get a look outside. They were mostly there to let in some natural light.

As he finished up a lukewarm burrito, he heard something bang on the roof above his head. With the half-eaten wrap in hand, he glanced up at the ceiling, following the sound of footsteps as they made their way along. Someone was running across the top of the prefab. It was followed by more – a whole army of feet thumping their way along until they faded, perhaps moving on to the next building.

“There’s more than one of them,” he muttered to himself. “Damned Valbarans are using the roofs as a thoroughfare.”

It wasn’t quite dark outside yet, but his first day working in the desert had left him exhausted, so he was grateful to retire to the bed at the far end of the fab.



Ramos was awoken by the sound of a buzzer. He rolled out of bed, still groggy, heading for the door wearing only his shorts. When he opened it, he found Orzi standing on his steps.

“Morning!” she said cheerfully, pushing her way past him even as she asked permission to enter. “Mind if I stop by for a minute?”

“Sure,” he replied, rubbing one of his eyes. “What’s up?”

“I just wanted to check in and ask how your first day on the job went,” she explained, doing a lap around his small living room before turning to face him. She popped off her helmet, sensing that the A/C was still cranked, her pink nose twitching. “How did you get on with Rashka and her pack?”

“They were remarkably civil,” he said, only now realizing that he was practically nude. He made for the bedroom and pulled on a fresh shirt and sweatpants, Orzi waiting patiently. “The way you described them, I thought I’d be stepping on eggshells. Zhura was a little harder to get on with, but Rashka seems to be keeping her in check. Kozi is…excitable. How well do you know them?”

“I screen all of the packs before assigning them a tutor,” the Polar replied. “We are well acquainted. How was Rashka? She can be willful at times.”

“She can be hard to read,” he admitted as he returned from the bedroom. He paused by the kitchen, leaning on the narrow counter. “I just met them, so I don’t expect them to spill their guts, but I get the impression that a lot happened before I arrived.”

“The war was not kind to Rashka’s pack,” Orzi replied. “It is rarely kind to anyone. They were five once, and while Rashka kept her packmates safe throughout the rebellion, its aftermath split them. Two left to become mercenaries, and I do not think she has yet forgiven herself for failing to keep them together.”

“That explains a lot,” Ramos sighed. “Zhura said something about farmers not having any glory. I get the impression that she’s still not totally onboard with the decision.”

“She may still feel resentment over what happened,” Orzi replied. “Show her patience.”

“They’re learning quickly, and they work well as a team,” he added. “I’m optimistic.”

“Well, you just let me know if you need any help,” she said as she made for the door again. “I have much to do, so I must leave you. Good luck today.”

“Thanks!” he replied, waving her off as she put her helmet on and stepped out into the heat.

Their short conversation had been illuminating. If Rashka’s pack had been split by her decision to become a farmer, then it might explain why she was so protective and why Zhura had such a bad attitude. Maybe she was regretting choosing to stay with her Alpha. It wasn’t Ramos’ place to interfere, but perhaps he could do something about that – give her a new purpose.

The door suddenly slid open, and Kozi barged her way inside, letting in a flood of hot air.

“Hey, runt!” she declared as she raised a clawed hand in greeting. “How are you-”

She stumbled, almost losing her footing, ducking to avoid hitting her head on the ceiling. Glancing down at the floor in confusion, she began to crouch experimentally, waving a hand through the air. Before Ramos could protest, she picked up a metal cup from his table and let it drop.

“Whoa,” she chuckled, following it up with a hissing exclamation in her native language. “You got one of those gravity plates, runt? Is this how humans live?”

“Let me shut it off,” he grumbled, heading for the control panel on the wall.

“No need, this is fun,” she chuckled as she walked over to his couch unsteadily. She flopped down onto it, Ramos hearing its frame creak worryingly, her butt wide enough to almost occupy it entirely. With her long legs extended, she reclined, giving him her signature grin. “Not bad. A little cramped for my tastes.”

Rashka and Zhura followed, seeming less amused by the change in environment. Zhura pulled her leather jacket more tightly closed like someone fastening their coat in the dead of winter.

“Kozi, show some respect to your host,” Rashka grumbled as she glanced around the prefab. She was tall enough that she had to bow her head to fit inside. “We have come to fetch you for work, Ramos.”

“You’re a little early,” he replied, heading back to the bedroom. “Give me a few minutes to get dressed.”

As he began to pull on his work clothes, the three Rask spread out into the prefab, examining their strange new surroundings. They were so large that they made all of the furniture look like toys in comparison. Zhura lifted some of the empty food packaging that had been left on the table, grimacing as she gave it a sniff, while Kozi made for the shower.

“Hey, he has one of these water boxes!” she declared as she slid the glass door aside. Her shoulders were so wide that she could barely get her head inside, reaching in with one arm to toy with the controls. She succeeded in activating the head, hot water spraying her, dampening her messy bob of blonde hair.

“Damn it!” Ramos grumbled as she recoiled, steam billowing out to fill the room. He hopped his way over with only one leg in his coveralls, leaning in to turn it off, the dripping Rask snickering at him. “Don’t touch anything, please. The landlord will have my head if I waste any water.”

“Look at his bed,” Kozi said, ignoring his comment as she squeezed past him. It was small, even by human standards, pressed up against the wall at the furthest end of the prefab. She walked up to it, pawing at the sheets and giving the air a sniff. “Think of it – a bed for a single person, and so tiny! There is no scent on it but his own!”

“Barbaric,” Zhura muttered. “Who could live in such a manner?”

“It’s quite normal for a human, I assure you,” Ramos said as he went after her. “Kozi, would you please wait in the living room so I can get dressed?”

“If you call that a living room,” she chuckled, returning to Rashka’s side. “This whole dwelling is barely larger than our truck,” she whispered, giving her Alpha a smirk. “We should take him home, Rashka – show him how Rask live. Think of it…”

“It is bad enough to have his alien scent all over our vehicle,” Zhura complained, crossing her arms across her broad chest. “I do not want it in the bed chamber, too.”

Kozi began to speak in her native tongue, and while Ramos couldn’t understand the strange yowling and spitting, he picked up on her salacious tone. All he could do was pretend not to notice, turning away from them as he finished zipping up his coveralls.

“I do not need to know what Xeema has been saying about the Marines,” Rashka chided. “That woman should focus on her work rather than fraternizing with every alien that comes through the city.”

Smooth,” Kozi teased. “No claws…”

“Ramos,” Rashka added, raising her voice. “Are you nearly ready?”

“Head out to the truck,” he replied. “I’ll be there in a sec.”

The three women filed out of the prefab, closing the door behind them, Ramos sliding his keycard into his pocket. He paused to switch off all the power on his way out, feeling the weight of the planet’s crushing gravity return, then put on his hat and sunglasses.

The APC was idling in the street outside his door, and he piled into the troop compartment, the vehicle setting off into the desert.



After a long drive, they pulled up beneath the crawler, the three passengers hopping out as Rashka shut off the engine. Ramos walked out into the stifling heat, squinting his eyes against the harsh sunlight. Even in the shadow of the immense industrial machine, it was painfully bright. Rashka soon joined them, and they made their way over to the tent where Ramos had first met them. It was deserted today – probably too early in the morning for most of the staff to have arrived yet – and the pack set about filling their canteens from a water tank near the back.

“Ah, shit,” Ramos said. “Hang on – I think I left my shades in the truck. Be back in five.”

He returned across the hot sand, glancing up at the belly of the crawler as he went, its scale never ceasing to amaze him. The Rask didn’t need to lock their vehicles, so he swung open a door to the APC’s bay and found his sunglasses lying on the carpeted deck. He walked back to the tent, but as he neared it, he heard the sound of voices. He paused, creeping across the soft sand to get a little closer, eavesdropping on the conversation through the tarp-like material.

“Orzi was very clear,” Rashka growled, her voice a low rumble. “The human is not to be inducted.”

“Come on, Rashka,” Kozi whined in a playful tone that suggested she was once again pushing her Alpha’s buttons. “Think of it! He is like a young male who has just shed his coat – fresh-faced and untouched, with skin clean of any scars.”

“I will admit that the sight of it is provocative,” Zhura added reluctantly. “The idea of such impotent creatures going without any form of discipline for so long is unthinkable.”

“You could take him rough,” Kozi added, ending with a sly laugh that made Ramos’ heart skip a beat. “Teach him that his place is beneath you, then show him the same affection you show me after we quarrel. It is like whiplash to them – Xeema said so. You would have him melting into your arms and begging for it to continue. You smelled his bed chamber – these humans sometimes go it alone for months or even years. He would probably thank you.”

“At least it would relieve you of your frustration,” Zhura said, seeming to agree with Kozi. “I have seen the way you look at him when he addresses you as though you were of equal standing – how your eyes grow fierce. He must learn his place, if nothing else. Every word he speaks is an insult to your authority.”

“He does not know the signals,” Kozi scoffed. “Remember – he is of their world, not ours. How is he to know what it means to meet his Alpha’s gaze in such a way or to speak to her in that manner? You cannot simply show them your claws – they are too fragile. You must be creative.”

“Ask Xeema to find you a willing Marine if you are so eager,” Rashka chided. “Your obsession with these aliens grows tiresome.”

“You are not yourself, Rashka,” Kozi pleaded. “You are like a mooring line pulled taut, waiting to snap. Zhura is right – you need relief that my tongue alone cannot provide. It need not be an induction. The runt may be more than willing if we simply ask, as is their custom. Would that be disobeying the Matriarch?”

“We have sacrificed too much,” Rashka added, her packmates going silent. “If Orzi expels us from the program and we cannot serve our territory, then what was the point of any of it? Why did we let our packmates leave us if we do not intend to see this to the end?”

The argument seemed to have ended, so Ramos waited a minute or two more, letting their sordid words swirl around in his head.His heart was pounding in his ears, and butterflies swarmed in his belly, his face burning at the implications.Rashka was not as stoic as he had assumed, then. She was on edge, merely interacting with him requiring her to suppress her emotions like some kind of ascetic monk.Ramos had been provoking her in all manner of ways simply by speaking to her like a human – the only way he knew how.

Was he in danger? He didn’t feel in danger, and Rashka seemed to be sticking to her guns, her sense of duty more powerful than her urges. The Alpha was overwhelming in both her presence and her physicality, strong enough to tear his arms from his sockets, but she had given him no reason to believe that she would ever hurt him. Orzi trusted her, and so should he. It was Kozi who seemed more likely to make a pass at him, but she was playful about it. Zhura mostly just seemed annoyed by his presence.

If he went to Orzi and complained, the pack might be thrown out of the program. After what he had learned about their past, he couldn’t let that happen to them. Perhaps there were ways that he could alleviate some of their discomfort. He gave himself time to calm down, then entered through the flap.

“I’m back,” he declared, seeing the three Rask sitting together around one of the tall tables. “Ready to get to work?”

Rashka looked to her packmates as if to say keep your mouths shut, then rose to her feet. The group headed out to the parking area and signed out their gear, heading through the desert to the work site.




They were laying down the drip irrigation system today, using a trailer that dug trenches in the sand and buried lengths of pipe at an ideal depth for the roots, feeding them a slow trickle of water and nutrients. Ramos had chosen Zhura for the job, figuring that she could use more practice in the tractor, while her two counterparts were back at the site managing the dozers.

The tractor pulled up at the well that he and Kozi had dug the day before, and the pair hopped out, starting to set up the machine to lay down the beginning of the network that would carry water to the burgeoning farm.

“So, this blade excavates a furrow in the ground,” Ramos began as he gestured to the mass of machinery. “Then, these racks hold the lengths of polymer piping, and this mechanism lowers them down. It’s pretty much completely automated – all you have to do is load the pipes. At the near end, we’re going to manually install an adapter that connects it to the valve on the well. You want to flip it open?” he added, giving her a smile as she watched dispassionately. “Kozi got soaked yesterday.”

“No,” she grumbled.

“Listen, I know you think that I’m just some clueless human who has no idea what life is like in your territory,” he said as he crossed his arms and leaned back against the trailer. “You think farming is a waste of time, and you’d rather be off fighting for honor and glory or whatever, but what we’re doing here is worthwhile. Think of the desert as an enemy that has to be defeated,” he continued, the Rask listening with a skeptical frown. “The walls of your fortress have been breached, and your foes are spilling through. They’re sacking your natural resources, razing your farmland, and pillaging your coffers. You’ve been chosen to lead the counter-charge and hold the line. Once more into the breach,” he added, hoping that his words were as inspiring as they had sounded in his head. “This is an opponent that can only be beaten back through plowing, irrigation, and careful strategy.”

“Can we please get this over with?” she sighed.

“Fine,” he replied with a shrug, starting to walk towards the well. “Resist all you want, but when you start seeing those first sprouts pushing up through the soil, I know that you’ll-”

Zhura lunged, Ramos reeling as he felt his back hit the hull of the tractor, the Rask pressing him up against the sun-baked metal as she gripped the collar of his coveralls. Though Rashka always made her look small when the two were standing together, Zhura still towered more than two feet above Ramos, her furry fist as large as his head. She bent down to reach his level, but not so much that he didn’t have to peer up to meet her fierce gaze, the alien bringing her feline nose to within an inch of his.

“You are clueless,” she hissed, her sharp teeth glinting in the sunlight as she spoke. “You do not belong here, and you have no inkling as to how much you test our patience with each word that leaves your lips.”

“Whoa, hey!” he stammered as he reached up to grip her fuzzy forearm with one hand. It was so thick that he couldn’t even get his fingers halfway around it. “You’re not supposed to-”

“Silence,” she snapped, slamming him against the tractor again. “Rashka is doing what she must to protect us, but I do not fear the Polar, and I have not the will to endure your disrespect for love of the Matriarch. You are ignorant and foolish, so I will do you this kindness before someone with a shorter temper tarnishes that clear skin of yours.”

She brought one of her hooked claws to his cheek, Ramos holding as still as a statue – scared to even take in a breath as she dragged it gently across his face. Her touch was as light as a feather, her hand as steady as a surgeon’s, Ramos feeling the point of the sharp implement even though it was barely making contact with him. A flick of her wrist, and she could make him unrecognizable.

“You will show respect to my Alpha,” she hissed, her yellow eyes watching him as he met her stare defiantly. “You have no idea how much stress you have been putting her under, and how much you have already tested her resolve. You will not meet her gaze. When she speaks to you, turn your eyes away. When you speak to her, do not address her as an equal, and never presume to give her commands. You ask, and you do so politely, with deference. Please, Alpha, if you would be so kind.”

“Your highest authority gave you orders to obey me,” Ramos replied through gritted teeth. “If Orzi or Rashka heard that you-”

She gave him another shove to silence him, the metal creaking behind him.

“I have not been so cowed by our defeat that I will be lectured by a clawless runt like you,” she snarled. “You will tell the meddling Polar nothing of this, nor will you trouble Rashka. She has sacrificed more than you could ever know for the opportunity to learn these skills, and she has given much in service of two Matriarchs. Too much. From this moment on, Rashka is your goddess, do you understand? To even look upon her for too long is sacrilege, and to speak as though she were beneath you is to invite the most terrible wrath.”

“Alright, alright!” Ramos conceded as he felt his boots leave the sand. “I didn’t know I was putting her under so much stress!”

Zhura leaned in close, her lips brushing his ear as she whispered to him, her tone as sordid as it was threatening. Her collar filled his field of view, beads of gleaming sweat trickling down her neck towards her cleavage, her damp tank top adhering to her caramel skin beneath her open jacket. Her scent filled his lungs, exertion and something yet sweeter making his head spin.

“If it were within my power, I would have you on your knees in the sand with your face buried between her thighs, writing an apology with your tongue. This correction will have to suffice for now.”

She released him and stepped away, letting him drop back to the sand. He reached up to straighten his collar, giving her a scowl as she glared down at him.

“You know, you could have just talked to me about Rask etiquette,” he complained as he pressed a hand to his cheek, pulling it away to see that there was no blood. “I’m not here to make life difficult for you guys.”

Zhura was still breathing heavily, clearly wound up by the interaction, her long tail flicking back and forth behind her in a way that seemed indecisive. Ramos wasn’t faring much better, the lurid tone of her threat making his face flush, his heart pounding in his chest. They were both soaked with sweat from the desert’s harsh heat, staring one another down, the tension in the air so thick that he could have cut it with a knife.

Ramos was trembling, adrenaline coursing through his veins, a tinge of confusing arousal following his fear like a sweet chaser after a shot of harsh liqueur. The argument that he had overheard earlier that morning was playing back in his mind, Kozi’s words lodging themselves in his brain, Rashka’s struggles only confirmed by Zhura’s outburst. They couldn’t be violent towards him – humans were too fragile for their dominance bouts – so they had to get creative, as Kozi had put it. What exactly did that entail?

Teach him his place.

Take him rough.

You would have him melting into your arms.

It was no secret that the Marines stationed in the city fraternized with their Rask hosts, and he’d have to be suffering from a head injury to not see how the pack viewed him, but those guys were battle-hardened soldiers who could benchpress their own body weight. Ramos would be eaten alive.

Yes, he could go to Orzi, and the pack would be out of the program by morning. He didn’t want that, though. Zhura had no way of knowing it, but he knew exactly how much the Alpha had sacrificed, and what being expelled would do to her. That wasn’t something he was going to allow if he could help it.

“Alright,” he sighed, brushing himself off. “You don’t like me, and I don’t really appreciate being manhandled by my students, but we’re stuck together. I’m going to try to make things easier for Rashka. Not for you, but for her. Don’t maintain eye contact, phrase everything as a polite request, give her space – have I got that right?”

“It may be enough to keep her from breaking, as long as you do not overstay your welcome,” Zhura replied as she strode over to the valve. Ramos joined her, collecting himself for a moment as she waited for instruction.

“Connect the first section of pipe to the valve,” he began. “Pretty please,” he added sarcastically.

“I would forfeit a month’s pay to see what Rashka would do to you were this stupid mandate not in place,” she said with a laugh, crouching to hook up the connector. “I would pay more to do it myself. You have spirit, if nothing else, runt.”

“Just hook up the damned pipe,” he grumbled.

She did as he asked, then rose to her feet, passing by him on her way to the tractor. She brushed her furry tail against him on her way past, Ramos batting it aside, turning to see her smiling at him as she climbed up to the cab. At least she had been able to blow off some steam. She seemed a lot less tense after their confrontation, so maybe she’d be a little easier to get along with now.

He followed behind her, and they maneuvered the vehicle into position, Zhura watching through the rearview mirror as Ramos had taught her.

“Check the dash,” he advised, pointing to the large touch panel that was mounted to her right. “The UI will guide you in and tell you when you’re in position.”

She was getting better at driving, and she managed it, Ramos giving her an approving nod.

“Alright,” he added. “Let’s lay some pipe.”




Over the next few hours, Ramos made sure that everyone had a turn laying down irrigation pipes in the tractor, and they soon had a completed network running between the rows of seeds that they had planted the day prior. When it came time to turn the system on, the pack was quite impressed, Ramos excavating a section to show them how the water dripped out of the holes and soaked into the surrounding soil.

“These are actually made from a biodegradable material formulated by the Valbarans,” he explained. “In a few years, when the jungle has recovered enough that it doesn’t need the irrigation system anymore, all you have to do is flush it with a chemical compound to trigger a reaction that causes it to rot away. Then, you can just use the well for some other purpose, like drinking water or reactor coolant.”

“Impressive,” Rashka said as he climbed to his feet and started to fill in the hole with a shovel. “This will keep the plants watered until the rains return.”

“We’re almost done with the basics,” Ramos panted, pausing to wipe his brow on his sleeve. Doing manual labor in this heat and gravity made him feel like he was working in a chain gang. “Next up is learning how to protect the saplings from the environment while they grow, but the suns seem to have gotten pretty high. What say we break for lunch? With your permission,” he added with a glance to Rashka, quickly turning his eyes to the sand.

The Alpha seemed surprised, but she nodded.

“Very well. We shall break to eat.”

She seemed none the wiser to what had transpired between him and Zhura, but Kozi was a little more perceptive, giving her packmate a suspicious look as the four headed back in the direction of the tractor.

As they walked across the burning sand, the twin suns beating down on them, Ramos began to grow faint. He stumbled, dropping to a knee and taking a moment to center himself as the world began to spin, sweat dripping from his brow.

“Ramos?” Kozi asked, pausing to look back. “Are you well?”

“Dunno if I should have been digging holes in this heat,” he replied with a weak laugh that did little to reassure her. “Just give me a sec.”

Suddenly, he was rising off the ground, his stomach lurching as he was flipped over onto his back. When he glanced up, he saw that Rashka was holding him in her arms like she was carrying a bride over the threshold. The Rask was strong enough that his weight was insignificant to her, no more trouble than a sack of fertilizer. She held him to her chest, the soft mass of her bosom pressing against him through the leather of her jacket, its softness contrasting with the firm bicep beneath his head. When she peered down at him with those golden eyes, he couldn’t bring himself to turn away, his belly filled with fluttering butterflies once again.

“You have not been drinking enough,” she said, her powerful voice vibrating through him.

She carried him over to the tractor and set him down gently in the passenger seat, then plucked her canteen from her belt and popped the cap, cupping his face in her furry hand. It was so large that he could have laid his head in her palm and used it as a pillow, her soft fur brushing against his red cheek, the sweat making the fine strands stick to him. With the other, she brought the canteen to his lips, making him drink as her two packmates watched from behind her.

“More,” she insisted when he tried to stop, pausing to let him take a breath for a moment before resuming. Only when she was satisfied did she pull away, upending a little water into her hand to dampen her fur, then holding it to his forehead like a cool compress.

“I-is this like…some Rask technique?” he mumbled.

“It will cool you,” Rashka replied.

“Thanks, by the way,” he added sheepishly as a droplet of cool water trickled down his cheek. “I guess I’m not used to the desert yet.”

“It will take you time to adapt,” she replied. “Orzi bade me to keep a watchful eye on you, so I will not allow any harm to come to you while you are under my care.”

“And I thought I was the one managing you guys,” he replied as he leaned back in his seat.

“Rashka takes real good care of us,” Kozi added, poking her grinning face into the cab. “You are almost one of the pack now, runt.”

“Thanks, I’m feeling better,” Ramos said as he gently eased Rashka’s enormous hand away.

“You are still red,” Kozi insisted, her smirk suggesting she had already figured out that it wasn’t due to the heat. “I think he needs a few more minutes.”

“We will return to the crawler,” Rashka said, making her way around to the driver’s side of the cab. “Some food will help strengthen his constitution.”

She slid into the seat beside him and switched on the engine, Kozi and Zhura hopping onto the hull as it pulled away. He found himself glancing up at the towering alien, then quickly averted his eyes as she glanced back at him.

“Hey, I just wanted to say that I’m sorry if this whole thing has been…difficult for you,” he began. “They briefed me on the carrier – tried to teach me how to better interact with Borealans, but it’s kind of like learning a new language. There are all of these little nuances, and it can be hard to break habits. You have to kind of learn by doing – by stumbling and falling.”

“You are not at fault,” she replied. “You are a good teacher. We have much to learn from you.”

“I just feel like there’s some tension between the four of us…”

“There will always be tension between those who have been appointed to lead and those who must obey them,” Rashka explained as they trundled over a dune. “Even between Rask, there is always some friction when authority has not been earned through bouts. With a human who is understandably smaller and…less capable than a Rask,” she added with another lingering glance. “Those problems are compounded.”

“Yeah, no claws,” he added as he wiggled his fingers. “I wouldn’t be able to put up much of a fight. Uh, sorry,” he added as she turned her eyes pointedly to the path ahead. “See, this is the thing. I make jokes to break the ice, I try to get friendly with people, and that isn’t working out so well here.”

“It is enough to do your job,” she said, holding back the tension in her voice. “Come to me if anything happens with Kozi or Zhura. You need not trouble Orzi with such things.”

Don’t let my packmates get us kicked out of the program. Her meaning was obvious enough. He considered telling her what Zhura had said but thought better of it. Rashka was under enough pressure already.

“Just let me know if there’s anything I can do to make things easier for you,” he replied cheerfully. He was trying to be helpful, but when her eyes turned on him, they were filled with that predatory hunger again. His mind returned to what he had overheard outside the tent, and he had to stop himself from hurriedly clarifying his statement. Hopefully, she hadn’t taken it to mean that he was making himself available. Ramos wasn’t sure if he could even physically survive a night with Rashka – or if that was even what either of them wanted. She seemed to prefer to just keep her head down and get the job done.

They arrived at the crawler, passing beneath its shadow, giving Ramos an excuse to put a little distance between him and Rashka. He hopped out of the cab, Kozi quickly sidling up to him, bending over to speak to him in the condescending way that she tended to do.

“Feeling better, runt? What were you and Rashka talking about? I could not hear over the noise of the engine…”

“Just work stuff,” he replied, the way that she tilted her head suggesting that she didn’t believe him.

“Well, let me know if you need someone to cool you down again, runt.”

“Kozi,” Rashka grumbled, her packmate standing up straight again.

“Just making sure that our beloved teacher is hydrated,” she replied coyly.

Rashka guided them to a long flight of metal steps that had been lowered from the crawler. They led up to a gantry that ringed the massive machine, the platform creaking under the weight of the three aliens, the wind growing more intense the higher they climbed. It was like being on the outside of a building, Ramos daring himself to look down at the sand some fifteen meters below, holding onto the guardrail tightly. He never got used to the scale of the damned thing.

They entered the landship through a hatch, and Ramos found himself standing in a very human-sized corridor, the Rask having to duck to avoid hitting their heads on the exposed pipes that ran along the ceiling. It wasn’t too different from the cramped hallways of the jump carrier, albeit more poorly maintained, the pack leading him through the winding innards of the great vehicle. Everything smelled of engine oil, and the low thrum of machinery was a constant drone.

They emerged into a wider space that was filled with tables and chairs sized up for the Rask, and Ramos realized that it was a galley. This must have been where the crew came to eat when the crawler was in service. Almost immediately, the smell of cooking food wafted over to him, his stomach switching on practically on command. It smelled like someone was cooking barbecue.

There were already a few other Rask eating at some of the tables, along with a flock of Valbarans who were perched on top of their table like pigeons, having apparently eschewed their chairs. They were probably too short to reach otherwise. The Borealans seemed to be eating various meat dishes, while the little reptiles had brought their own rations, sifting through colorful packages adorned with illegible alien text.

He joined Kozi and Zhura at one of the tables while Rashka walked over to a counter to order their food. It seemed that the kitchen was being staffed by more Rask. Ramos hopped up onto one of the tall chairs, but found that the table barely reached his chest, Kozi snickering at him behind her hand as Zhura gave him a disapproving scowl.

“Come here, runt,” Kozi giggled as she rose from her seat. She shrugged off her jacket and folded it up, placing it on the chair beneath him, lifting him a few inches higher. “There you go.”

“Thanks,” he stammered as she returned to her seat.

“So, what happened between you two?” she asked sweetly as she glanced between Ramos and Zhura. She kept her voice low so as not to be overheard over the chorus of conversations that filled the room. “Come on, Zhura, I can read you like a tapestry. Out with it, unless you would rather I spoke to Rashka when she returns?”

“I merely told the runt to respect our Alpha,” Zhura grumbled, sparing Ramos a resentful glance across the table. “You know how he has been provoking her…”

“Not intentionally, I am sure,” Kozi added. “You and I are not in agreement on the matter of how to resolve our…interpersonal issues, and I think that our beloved Alpha would be very disturbed to hear that you have acted without her consent.”

“I only meant to protect her honor,” Zhura grumbled, her ears pressing flat against her head.

“I do not intend to tell her,” Kozi replied, crossing her arms as she leaned back in her chair. “I assume that our teacher will keep that smooth tongue of his from wagging, too, if he has not already reported your transgression. You are lucky that he is trying so hard for us, Zhura.”

Had Ramos misread the dynamic between the packmates? Rashka was clearly on top, but he had assumed that Kozi was at the bottom, as Zhura was far more aggressive and assertive. It seemed to be the other way around, with Zhura shrinking down into her seat as Kozi chastised her. Perhaps it was all bluster.

“Zhura believes that you must treat Rashka as though she were your Alpha,” Kozi began, turning to address Ramos directly. “A foolish notion, as the Matriarch’s decree requires quite the opposite. Muddying the waters concerning who has seniority will not make things any easier – it will only sow conflict.”

“That’s…about what Orzi told me,” he replied.

“And how perceptive she is, our Polar friend,” Kozi added with a smile. “Rashka thinks that she can stick it out, and that if she simply obeys orders and does as she is bade, everything will fall into place. She treats life like a sandship sometimes. If everyone is at their posts and the chain of command is clear, the sails will be hoisted, and the ship will run smoothly. Perhaps she has the will to see this through to the end – I do not doubt her resolve. What I doubt is whether it will be a pleasant experience for her.” Kozi leaned a little closer to Ramos, lowering her voice to a whisper. “I love my Alpha. She would fight off a pack of wild hounds to protect us, and she is already burdened. You can lessen that burden.”

“I…I don’t know what you mean,” he replied as he lowered his eyes to the table.

“Oh, I think you know exactly what I mean,” Kozi purred. “You are not as stealthy as you think. Why would I start an argument in your tongue if I did not intend to be overheard?”

“Ugh,” Zhura grumbled, exposing her teeth in an expression of displeasure. “You have been spending too much time with the Polars. You are starting to scheme as they do.”

“You could help her let off steam, as the Marines say,” Kozi added. “You would not have to submit to her. In fact, it is more exciting when you resist.”

“Why can’t she let off steam with literally anybody else?” Ramos demanded, joining her in her conspiratorial whispering as his face burned with embarrassment.

“If she could be sated by my tongue, then we would not be having this conversation,” Kozi replied as though it were a matter of fact. “You are the source of her frustration, ergo, you must be the one to relieve it.”

“I don’t see how that will help!” he shot back. “You just said that we shouldn’t muddy the water!”

“Because she would not be carrying all of that tension around waiting to pop,” Kozi explained. “She could let it out a little at a time in a safe, controlled way. Trust me – I know what she likes. I am an expert in annoying her until she cannot help but throw me over her shoulder and carry me off to the sleeping chamber.”

“I didn’t sign up to have some five-hundred-pound alien piledrive my pelvis!” Ramos hissed.

“You do not like her?”

“It’s not a matter of liking or not liking,” Ramos stammered. “I wouldn’t even know where to start. Why am I even explaining this to you?”

“Well, I could help,” Kozi added with an amused grin. “Perhaps I could be your teacher for a while. Would you like that?”

“Out of the question!” he replied. “Listen, I appreciate the pressure you guys are under to get through this program, and I’m going to do everything that I can to help. Rashka has been nothing but decent to me. What I’m not going to do is get bogged down in this…weird alien shit. And you,” he added, jabbing a finger at Zhura. “So help me, if you so much as look at me funny again, I’m going to have you digging ditches for the rest of the program!”

Zhura scowled while Kozi began to laugh, but they were interrupted as Rashka returned to their table with a tray stacked high with meat.

“What is so amusing?”

“Ramos was just telling us a joke,” Kozi replied, turning to him expectantly.

“Oh,” Ramos muttered, narrowing his eyes as he silently cursed her. “Uh…yeah.”

“Let us hear it,” Kozi insisted.

He had to take a moment to wrack his brain, trying to remember something he had overheard in the carrier’s mess, feeling Rashka’s gaze on him.

“A Jarilan, a Valbaran, a Polar, and a human walk into a bar,” he began. “The Valbaran is first to the counter, and the bartender leans over to ask her what she wants to drink. She flashes her feathers, then replies – I can’t reach consensus without my flock, so decide for me. Next, he asks the Polar what she wants. The Polar unzips her collar and sweet-talks him into giving her a free drink. When he asks the Jarilan what she wants, she places a vial of honey on the counter and says – no need, I made my own. Finally, the bartender gets to the human and asks him if he’d like a drink. The human says – what do you mean? I already have three.”

Kozi began to snicker, but Rashka merely raised an eyebrow.

“Get it?” Ramos asked. “The joke is they were all…buying him…drinks…”

Rashka slammed the platter down on the table, making him lurch, the cuts of meat quivering. Ramos had no idea what animal they might have come from, but they were red and marbled with fat, steam rising from them as they dripped with oil. There must have been ten pounds of the stuff.

She hooked the large slabs of meat with her claws and deposited one on the table in front of each person, a few droplets of juice splattering Ramos’ coveralls. He waited to receive some kind of cutlery, but none came, the three Rask starting to dig into their meals with their bare hands. Kozi paused, producing some kind of small vial from her jacket pocket and uncorking it to season the meat with what looked like a condiment.

“What is wrong?” Rashka asked, pausing her chewing as red juices dripped from her lips. “The meat is not to your liking?”

“Don’t suppose they have a salad bar back there?” he joked. “Uh, usually, we have molecular scanners to tell us whether alien food is safe to eat.”

“It is safe for humans,” Rashka replied, tearing off another chunk of flesh with her talons.

“Could I get a…knife and fork?”

Kozi reached for her belt, producing a long, serrated blade with a cruel gut hook. It looked like a Bowie knife, almost large enough to be a machete, the ivory handle wrapped with Rask leather. She plunged it into the table in front of him with a thud, making him flinch away.

“Here,” she said. “You can use this.”

“You haven’t killed anyone with this, have you?” he asked suspiciously as he wrenched it from the table.

“Not recently,” she replied with a grin. She paused, extending her tongue to lick away the red juices that had soaked the sandy fur on her fingers, Ramos’ eyes widening. He watched as eight, nine, ten inches of glistening muscle slid past her lips to coil around her digits like a tentacle, the feline barbs combing through her coat. “What?” she asked. “Never seen a girl wash up before?”

He turned his attention back to his meal, using the unwieldy knife to slice away a mouthful. It was chewy and salty, kind of oily, but not unpleasantly so. It tasted a little like beef, and with some barbecue sauce to sweeten it up, it wouldn’t be half bad. Still, he doubted whether his digestive system would be thanking him tomorrow.

The three Rask devoured their meals in the time it took him to fill up. He’d barely been able to eat more than a few mouthfuls – he felt like he was doing one of those steakhouse challenges where someone was tasked with eating a two-kilo ribeye in one sitting.

“You gonna eat that?” Kozi asked as she gestured to what was left.

“Go ahead,” he replied, leaning back as she reached over to hook it with her claws. She dragged it to her side of the table and began to carve it up.

“How are you guys going to go back to work after that?” he asked, leaning back in his chair as he cradled his full stomach. “I feel like I need to take a nap.”

“You should eat more,” Zhura replied. “Perhaps this is why they are so small?”

“Have you recovered your strength, Ramos?” Rashka asked.

“I’m feeling a lot better, thanks,” he replied. “I’ll remember to drink more water.”

“Then we shall resume work when you are ready.”




“These are called shade cloths,” Ramos explained as he began to unroll a large spool of fabric. “Their purpose is to help shield the saplings from the sun and to trap moisture, preventing it from evaporating away too quickly. We’ll need to keep them protected while they grow. We don’t have a machine for setting these up – it’s just good old-fashioned elbow grease. That means hard work for any Rask in the audience.”

Kozi and Zhura grumbled, but the pack soon set about laying down the spools of cloth. They were formulated from a mesh material that would only allow a certain amount of sunlight through, preventing the plants beneath from being blasted by harmful UV radiation, and they were held up by simple curving poles. It wasn’t too different from what one might expect to find in any backyard vegetable garden.

They labored under the hot sun, Ramos doing his best to keep up, making sure to drink more water from the canteens than he felt his body could even process. He ended up working beside Kozi as she stooped to drive the bent rods into the soil, her bronze skin gleaming with sweat.

“Not much longer,” he sighed, standing up and stretching his back. “I’m looking forward to a cold shower back at the prefab.”

“I do not know if Rashka mentioned it already,” Kozi began, laying some of the fabric over the frame that she had erected. “But we are going out drinking tonight. There is a place in the city that we like to frequent. You should join us.”

“Me?” he scoffed. “I’m not much of a drinker, and a Rask dive bar sounds like a good place to get involved in a stabbing.”

“It is a bar that caters to aliens, too,” she insisted as she lifted her canteen to her lips. She took a long draw, then upended some of it over her face, letting the water soak her tank top to the point that it became practically transparent. “I think you would enjoy it. Come on,” she added with a pout, bending over like she was talking to a child. “We should all spend some quality time together – it will do us all good. You cannot spend your whole visit cooped up in that tiny, miserable prison you call a prefab.”

“I suppose this is the bar that your friend Xeema likes to frequent?” Ramos asked skeptically. “I’m getting wise to your games, Kozi. You’re not gonna get me into bed with Rashka by getting me wasted.”

“I am offended that you think so little of me,” she replied, though her broad smile suggested quite the opposite. “If Rashka invites you to join her pack in recreation, it is because she is starting to see you as part of her family – someone she wishes to bond with. It would not be polite to refuse.”

“Fine, fine,” he grumbled. “If she asks me, I’ll come along, but not until after I’ve had a wash and a change of clothes. This whole miserable planet is like a sauna.”

“She will be glad to hear it,” Kozi chimed, resuming her work.




“Nice job, people!” Ramos declared as he looked over their little plot of land. This small slice of desert was basically finished. It had been plowed flat, fertilized, and irrigated. The seeds had been planted, and the shade cloths had been erected. The three Rask were standing in front of him like soldiers awaiting inspection. “This is only a tiny piece of the breach, but now that you know the basics, you can slowly spread across the whole East Gate one grid square at a time. There’s much more to learn, but this is the core of what we’re doing out here.”

“You have taught us well, and with patience,” Rashka replied. “The suns are close to setting – we should return home before the cold arrives. Ramos, we will return you to your camp.”

“Ramos made a request of us, Rashka,” Kozi said as she moved in front of her curious Alpha. “He asked that we show him the bar we often frequent. He wishes to see more of our territory while he is here.”

“I suppose that there is cause to celebrate, if that is what he wishes,” Rashka replied as she glanced over at Ramos for confirmation.

“Right, Ramos?” Kozi asked, turning away from Rashka to give him a smirk. “Did you not tell me how you wished to explore our great city?”

“Uh…not in so many words,” he mumbled in reply, glancing up at Rashka’s expectant face. Kozi was putting him on the spot – the oversized brat – but he couldn’t exactly call her out in front of her Alpha. “I suppose, if you wouldn’t mind…”

“Very well,” Rashka replied. “We will give you time to bathe and dress, then we shall return to pick you up.”

She wheeled around and headed back to the tractor, Zhura following after her. Ramos and Kozi lagged behind, the furious engineer whispering to her under his breath.

“I just spent all day toiling in the hot desert, and you want me to spend the night partying?” he hissed as she slowed her loping stride to match his pace. “You made me think Rashka was the one who wanted to go, you…you hairball!”

“You are not as wise as you thought, clearly,” she replied with a smile that was far from innocent. “Relax, runt. You are going to have the time of your life.”

They had to end their conversation as they arrived at the tractor, Ramos lifting himself into the passenger seat beside Rashka. Kozi leapt up onto the hull, gripping a handhold outside the cab.

I am going to kill you, he mouthed through the glass as the engine roared to life, the Rask sticking out her tongue at him.




The pack dropped Ramos off at his prefab, then drove off to the city, giving him an hour to get ready before they returned. The first thing he did was get a shower, washing off the day’s sweat and grime, the cool water soothing him.

As much as Kozi’s childish antics annoyed him, she wasn’t entirely wrong. He was curious to see how the Rask lived in their city, and he couldn’t spend all of his free time just sitting in his prefab staring at his tablet. Maybe it would be fun. Lord knew they all needed to blow off some steam and relax a little. It wasn’t as though anyone could force him to drink more than he wanted to, and there would be other off-worlders around, according to Kozi.

He toweled himself dry and opened the little wardrobe in his bedroom. He hadn’t brought more than a duffel bag’s worth of clothes with him, but he had a couple of different outfits. How upscale was this bar, anyhow? He’d forgotten to ask. Would it be formal or casual wear? He went with business casual, figuring that it would be a good compromise, pulling on a pair of slacks and a dress shirt.

As he waited on the couch in the living room, checking the time on his phone, he realized how fast his heart was beating. It wasn’t a date, it was more like hanging out with work friends, but he knew that Kozi would be trying to put the moves on him. Maybe some part of him found this whole situation…fun? He could have refused to cooperate at any point – gone to Rashka or Orzi – but something made him want to play along. Maybe it was just the novelty of being pursued – of being thrust into an environment where the relationship dynamics were so drastically different. The Rask were so rigid in their social order, yet so free and permissive in their romantic lives. It was intimidating, but also refreshing. Women didn’t chase him aggressively and persistently on Earth, and while Kozi’s motives were certainly alien, it was a nice thing to experience for a little while…

He was jolted back to reality by the buzzer, and he hurried over to the door, sliding it open to a flood of dry heat and the sound of a rumbling engine. Kozi pushed past him, stepping into the prefab and appraising his modest abode for a moment before turning to grin down at him.

Gone was the tight leather getup. Instead, she was wearing an outfit made of flowing, gossamer fabrics in shades of pastel blue and green. The material was light and airy, clearly designed for an oppressively hot environment, the layers reminding him of a sari or the silks worn by a belly dancer. There was a sling over one of her shoulders that cradled her chest, winding its way down her torso to leave much of her toned midriff exposed. A tantalizingly low belt made from a length of fabric secured it about her waist, and below, a hanging curtain preserved her modesty like a kind of long loincloth. It left the bronze skin of her thighs exposed, and the subtle translucency of the cloth left very little to the imagination, the shadowy outlines of her impressive figure clearly visible as the light bled through it. Unlike her leathers, there were few embellishments, only a couple of silver clasps helping to secure the garment.

Ramos was staring, but he couldn’t tear his eyes away from her. This wasn’t the first time that he had admired Kozi’s gravity-honed figure, nor the first time that her feminine features had leapt out at him, but she had never looked so…graceful before. He would have described her as scrappy, with her messy hair, her dusty leathers, and her tendency to test the patience of everyone around her. The only word that came to mind now was stunning. To say that she cleaned up well was as much of an understatement as calling the crawler kind of large or the desert a little warm.

“You nearly ready, runt?” she asked as she cocked her wide hips and peered down at him. “What are you wearing?” she added with a giggle, bending over to tug at the collar of his shirt. “Is this how you usually dress when you are relaxing?”

“It’s business casual,” he replied, batting her furry hand away. “Slacks, a light shirt – nothing too formal. Is…that usually how Rask dress, or is this a special occasion?” he asked with a nod to her clothes.

“What do you think?” she asked, spinning on the spot to give him a better view. “If you had not noticed, it gets hot in our territory, and we Rask do not share your human obsession with modesty.”

“Yeah, I can see that,” he mumbled. The Rask were sexual beings, and not exactly prone to insecurity with their impressive physiques. “I guess the leather is just for work and fighting?”

“We should clothe you as one of our own,” she added, looking him up and down hungrily. “What a sight that would be.”

“I don’t think I’ve been here long enough to go native,” he grumbled, reaching for the blazer that he had left on the couch as he turned to the door.

“You will not be needing that,” Kozi said.

“Doesn’t it get cold here at night?”

“Yes, but anywhere Rask congregate after sunset will be kept warm with a roaring fire. The cold makes us sluggish. Come here,” she added, placing a hand on his shoulder and turning him around. She crouched down and began to fumble with his buttons, her large fingers ill-suited to the task, but she managed to open his shirt down past his chest. She spread it a little, then stood up to appraise him, seeming satisfied. “A little better.”

“I look like a fratboy,” he muttered, the complaint meaningless to her.

“Off you go,” she said, turning him back to the door and giving him a gentle push. “We must not keep Rashka waiting.”

They headed outside, Kozi opening one of the doors on the back of the APC and climbing inside after Ramos. He sat down on the padded cushions, glancing across the troop bay to see Zhura sitting adjacent to him. Like Kozi, she was dressed in a revealing silk getup, this one sporting shades of yellow and fiery orange. She favored something that more resembled a tube top, the fabric wrapping around her neck to form an X pattern, a sarong made from a single piece of cloth serving as a skirt.

With the twin suns all but set, night was falling, only the light from the nearby prefabs bleeding into the bay. In the gloom, the moisture on her dusky skin glistened, her reflective eyes seeming to glow like gold coins as she peered back at him.

“Evening,” he mumbled as Kozi slammed the door shut. She rapped her fist on the hull, and the vehicle lurched into motion, setting off towards the city. Rashka was driving, but Ramos couldn’t see into the cab very clearly.

It was hard to have a conversation over the engine noise, but they didn’t drive very far before the old rust bucket jerked to a halt, the vibrations ceasing as Rashka shut it off.

“Are we getting out already?” Ramos asked as everyone began to rise from their seats.

“The peacekeepers are not fond of people driving armored vehicles through the city,” Kozi explained as she hopped out. “Besides, the old cobbled roads were not laid with such machines in mind.”

When Ramos followed her out, he found himself standing on sand, glancing up at the sky to see that night had fallen. Borealis had no moons and very little light pollution, the clear weather giving him a beautiful view of the stars that could only have been matched from a spacecraft’s observation deck. He could see the colorful band of the Milky Way trailing from horizon to horizon. The sand beneath his feet was still tangibly warm, but the hot wind had been replaced with a cool, soothing breeze.

He turned, seeing the city stretching out before him. They had approached from the direction of the spaceport and had parked at its outskirts, putting the lake on the far side, out of view from where he was standing. A skyline of squat sandstone buildings extended into the distance, some larger than others, but few higher than a couple of stories. They sported the usual self-supporting domes, their windowless walls covered over with paste-like mortar, wooden support beams jutting from their facades. Where the stone was exposed, it was almost always given some decorative flair, carved with intricate reliefs or scratchy Rask script, each dwelling likely having been built by hand. Rising above the domed rooftops were the spires of the palace, their caps of white marble visible even by starlight, serving as beacons to the people who lived below. A soft, yellow glow emanated from the streets, suggesting the presence of electric lighting.

Hearing the sound of a metal door closing, he glanced back at the APC, seeing Rashka climb out of the cab. She strode over to him, seeming to grow taller and taller as she neared, Ramos having to tilt his head higher and higher to look her in the face.

Just like her packmates, her leather jacket and pants had been replaced with a flowing silken outfit, the delicate fabrics fluttering as they caught the breeze. She was wearing more than either of her companions, yet, she was paradoxically less clothed. A single length of material was wrapped around her chest and shoulders to form a sling, her ample bosom straining against it, the silk coiling around her torso before ending just above her navel. It was secured with a shining, golden clasp to prevent it from coming loose. Only a couple of inches below it was a sarong not unlike Zhura’s that wrapped around her waist, coming down past her knees. Over it all, she wore a kind of shawl that was draped over her broad shoulders, the billowing cloth reaching down almost as far as the hem of her skirt.

What made it revealing was the quality of the material. It looked like a fine mesh or chiffon, leaving her practically nude, as though she was wreathed in nothing more than colorful smoke. It was so translucent that he could easily see the tanned hue of her skin through it – even the contours of her muscles, her sculpted abs and the silhouette of her wide hips on display. The fabric was thicker over her chest and groin where there were more layers, but not so much that it didn’t leave a tantalizing suggestion of what might lie beneath. In some ways, it was more alluring than mere nudity, guiding the eye and teasing…

“You are staring again, Ramos,” Kozi purred as she sidled up beside him.

He opened his mouth to speak, but nothing came out, the butterflies returning as he gazed up at Rashka. If his tongue hadn’t been disconnected from his brain, he might have told her that she looked radiant – that he’d had no inkling that someone so intimidating and powerful could have appeared so captivating. Maybe it was for the best – he had no idea how the Rask responded to such compliments.

“S-sorry,” he finally stammered. “I wasn’t expecting…to, uh, stop outside the city.”

“We shall continue on foot,” she replied, heading off in the direction of the buildings. Walking away from him, she gave Ramos a front-row view of her sculpted figure. Her pert cheeks rolled beneath her sarong, her long tail swaying in rhythm, the little dimples at the base of her spine and the developed muscles in her back and shoulders casting shadows in the starlight. Even among the Rask, she was an incredible specimen, like a Greek statue imbued with life by Aphrodite.

“Do not forget to pick up your jaw,” Kozi whispered, giving him a shove of encouragement on her way past. Zhura followed behind her, fixing her yellow eyes on him for a moment, seeming to disapprove of his attire.

He took a second to recover his faculties, then hurried after them.

As they entered the city proper, the sand gave way to cobblestone streets barely wide enough to accommodate a buggy. The pack walked beneath curving archways that made the buildings to either side of them feel more contiguous, as though the whole city had been hewn from a single block of stone, the passages winding and organic.

Ramos had been right – the Rask had begun to adopt electric lighting. There were some very out-of-place industrial light poles set up between some of the buildings, casting a soft glow on the stone below, their insulated cables winding along the sides of the buildings. It was a strange marriage between old and new.

They navigated the crooked streets, passing a few Rask clad in shawls or leathers, but there didn’t seem to be much of a nightlife. Most people were probably holed up in their homes to escape the coming cold. The pack came upon a kind of marketplace built within a town square at the junction of several streets, the buildings that encircled it sporting colorful awnings to shield the stalls from the suns. It was empty now, save for a Puma APC that was parked near its center, the camera dome on its gun turret swiveling as it scanned the immediate area. There were three Coalition peacekeepers hanging out in a small checkpoint nearby – two Marines and a Jarilan Drone – barely looking up from their conversation as the pack passed by. It seemed that things inside the city were pretty calm and relaxed. If Rask politics worked anything like their pack system, then the chances of another rebellion rising up to overthrow the new Matriarch were pretty slim.

After a few more twists and turns, Ramos spotted a pink glow bathing the cobblestones. On the left side of the street was a two-story building with a neon sign hanging above its large, wooden doors, one section of its otherwise flat roof adorned with a dome. There were no windows, but as they approached the entrance, he heard the thrum of music bleeding out onto the street. He glanced up at the sign, seeing that it displayed a few different languages. There was the scratchy Rask script, flowing Valbaran characters, and English letters that read Oasis Bar. Not the most original name, but they probably didn’t have much competition.

Rashka pushed open one of the heavy doors, leading them into an arched passageway that looked more like something Ramos would expect to see in a castle than a club. There was a Krell lying down on a rug to the right side of the passage, the giant alligator-like reptile maybe fifteen feet long. It was so large that the olive-green scutes running down its armored back were about level with Ramos’ chest, even though it was lying on its pale belly, its stocky limbs tucked to its sides. On the wall behind it was a rack covered with weapons, some holstered on leather belts, others hanging on slings. He could see pistols and knives of crude Rask design, along with rail rifles and handguns of human origin. There were several wooden signs nailed to the stone, one of them reading please surrender your weapons in English. The alien opened one yellow eye to examine the group as they passed, blinking with a nictitating membrane, then seemed to go back to sleep.

“Is he the bouncer?” Ramos whispered as they walked around the creature.

“Nothing like a Krell to keep a belligerent Rask in line,” Kozi replied. “I once saw a recording of one tearing a Betelgeusian Warrior to pieces with nothing but its jaws. It cored out the pilot like a stone from a fruit.”

“I suppose that’s one way to get a Borealan to respect you.”

As Rashka opened the next set of doors, the music grew louder, and they stepped into the bar proper. Ramos was taken aback, pausing to appraise the strange sight. The first impression he got was that of a medieval tavern. The walls were exposed sandstone that was covered over in places with ornate tapestries, and the floor was paved with flagstones, iron chandeliers hanging from crooked wooden beams that crossed the high ceiling. There was a counter on the far right of the room, the shelves behind it stocked with bottles, and in the center of the space was a recessed fire pit. Flames licked from its bed of burning coals, casting wavering shadows, a few spits laden with meat turning above it. There was a worn stone staircase leading to a wooden balcony that ringed the room, serving as the second story, and above it all was a dome painted with a faded fresco.

Smeared over it all like paint was a veneer of modernity. Naked flame was joined by strips of LED lights that had been wound around the chandeliers and balcony supports like holiday decorations, casting an artificial neon glow. Along with wooden benches of an archaic style were printed tables and chairs to accommodate alien guests, and there were padded booths against the far wall that seemed sized for Valbarans. Each one had a little table with a hookah sitting on top. Speakers had been mounted on the walls, and they were blaring throbbing music in a style that Ramos didn’t recognize.

The bar was packed, filled with Rask and aliens alike, half a dozen languages carrying over the music. He had never seen so many different species in one place before – not even on the carrier. There was a flock of Valbarans wearing colorful tunics and form-fitting bike shorts occupying one of the booths, chattering in their rapid-fire, high-pitched language as they drank and passed the hoses between them. Several packs of Rask were sitting at the wooden benches, a couple of them joined by humans who were wearing casual clothes, others sporting the Navy-blue uniforms of Marines. There were a few other Borealans that he could see – Elysians with lighter skin and red hair, as well as fluffy white Polars. Like the Rask, the furry aliens wore revealing gossamer fabrics, perhaps tolerant enough of the cooler nights that they didn’t require environment suits like Orzi.

The Jarilans were as numerous as the Rask, their colorful, iridescent carapaces picking them out among the crowd. They came in every hue, from lemon yellow to ruby red, their builds just as diverse. He could pick out some squat Workers waddling along with flutes of bubbling liquid held in their lower pair of hands, some leaner Drones who were sticking with the Marines, and even a lanky Pilot. She was taller than a human but not quite as large as a Borealan, with a slim build and long limbs. Curiously, she wore a green gown over her azure shell in the style of the Rask, even though she seemed to have nothing to cover up. Maybe it was just for show. She was sitting between two Rask, the plates that made up her face splitting open to expose a long proboscis that she dipped into her glass like a straw.

Strangest of all, an audience of two dozen people were sitting around a raised stage in one corner of the room. It looked like a recent addition to the bar, its edge lined with more neon strips. Dancing atop it was a male Valbaran – the first that Ramos had ever seen. He was hard to distinguish from the females, with similarly prominent hips and thighs, but his chest was flat and he was subtly smaller. His scales had been waxed to a mirror sheen, and he was wearing a low-cut tunic that exposed his shoulders, along with clinging shorts. He twisted and gyrated in time with the music, performing some exotic dance that he must have memorized down to each step, peacock-like feathers with mesmerizing eye spots erupting from his sheaths to shimmer in the lights that bathed him. He must be the evening’s entertainment.

Rashka led the pack over to an unoccupied booth made from a U-shaped couch that cradled a low table, the seating robust enough to allow a whole pack of Rask to lounge comfortably. Ramos climbed up onto the padded seat, nestling himself in the piles of cushions and pillows. It was about as deep as a king-sized bed, and he could only reach the table if he perched on its edge. The pack joined him, Kozi choosing to sit beside him, the way that her weight made the padding sag drawing him closer to her. Rashka and Zhura sat a little further away, the Rask swiveling their ears and turning their heads as they took in their surroundings.

“This is a lot more…cosmopolitan than I was expecting,” Ramos said as he wriggled to put a little more distance between him and Kozi. “You weren’t lying when you said that aliens like to hang out here.”

“It has become somewhat of an unofficial gathering place for off-worlders,” Kozi replied, extending a long arm over the backrest behind him. “So, what do humans like to drink?”

“What, your friend Xeema didn’t tell you?” he joked.

“A round of Elysian wine,” Rashka said. It was an order, not a suggestion.

“You do like your wine,” Kozi said with a smile. “If we succeed in our work, perhaps there could be vineyards in our territory one day.”

Zhura left to place their order, returning shortly with a tray that was loaded with glasses and a large bottle of pink liquid. She set it down and uncorked the bottle with her claw, pouring a glass for each person, then returned to her seat. Ramos reached for his cup, swirling the drink around for a moment, watching as his companions took their first sips. The Rask were conservative, treating the stuff like it was a spirit, so it must have a pretty high alcohol content.

Ramos took a sip, then a longer one, swishing the stuff around in his mouth.

“What the hell?” he muttered, downing the rest of the glass. The Rask watched him with wide eyes as he wiped his mouth and set the empty cup back down on the table. “This tastes like fruit punch. What’s in this?”

“Xeema told me that the humans she met could tolerate an incredible amount of alcohol,” Kozi explained, grinning at Rashka across the table. “And you said that you were not much of a drinker,” she added, giving Ramos a pat on the back with her giant hand that almost made him double over.

Zhura seemed unconvinced, so she poured him another glass, filling it to the brim in an unspoken challenge. Ramos knocked it back like it was nothing, Kozi giggling in amusement.

“This is a lot to you guys?” he asked, glancing between the aliens skeptically. “What’s the percentage?”

“Nearly four percent,” Kozi replied.

“That’s less than a beer,” he scoffed. “Vodka or rum would be like ten times that.”

“Such a concentration would send a Rask to the infirmary,” Rashka clarified.

“Maybe we don’t metabolize it in the same way,” Ramos said with a shrug.

“We should get Earth drinks,” Kozi suggested, slamming a hand on the table excitedly. “Maybe some Valbaran herb?” she added, giving her Alpha a hopeful glance.

“You know that you cannot take your herb,” Rashka replied, shutting her down.

“That was one time,” Kozi whined, leaning her head on the table dramatically. “How was I to know how strong it was? Look how little they are!” she added with a gesture to the male Valbaran who was dancing on the stage. “It looks like you should be able to smoke a whole bushel of the stuff.”

“Zhura, fetch us some human beverages,” Rashka said.

She soon returned with a couple of bottles of beer and, to Ramos’ amusement, shot glasses. She placed a glass in front of each of them, then filled it with the amber liquid, the three women watching their human ward expectantly. He downed it in one gulp, which, while not impressive to any human above the age of twelve, amazed his hosts. They threw back their own shots, hissing and grimacing as though it was whiskey, then Zhura poured them another round.

More because he wanted something to occupy himself with than because he wanted to impress, Ramos pushed his glass aside and snatched the second bottle from the tray, twisting off the cap and taking a swig.

“Now you are just showing off,” Kozi chuckled. “I suppose that trying to get you drunk is off the table if we will be dead by the time you are sufficiently inebriated.”

“We don’t have to get wasted,” he replied, leaning back into the plush cushions. “Alcohol is best employed as a…social lubricant. I feel like I haven’t really had time to actually talk to you guys yet outside the context of work. We’re going to be spending a lot more time together – we should get to know one another better.”

“What would you ask of us?” Rashka asked, downing another shot as she watched him with her yellow eyes. They reflected the flames from the fire pit, making them glint and shimmer.

“Well, you’re not really supposed to just put me on the spot,” he replied as he took another nervous drink from his bottle. “It’s more of a…back and forth, y’know? You ask me some questions, I ask you some, we have a conversation.”

“I have a question to ask,” Kozi announced, draping a massive arm around him. She had a long reach, tugging him closer to her, her silken gown brushing against his cheek as she practically trapped him in a headlock. He could feel the weight of her bosom as his shoulder pressed into it, as soft as the velvet pillows beneath him. “How long have you been sleeping alone?”

“Kozi,” Rashka warned, her voice a low rumble. The Rask released him, raising her arm nonchalantly.

“Just wondering if all humans sleep on a square bed barely large enough for one,” Kozi explained. “Was it that way on the carrier, too? How long did you say the trip was – six months?”

“Yes,” Ramos replied, giving Rashka a grateful glance. “Not that personal matters are usually a topic of conversations with work friends, but I traveled alone.”

“They pick one,” Kozi added, looking between her packmates as though she couldn’t believe the words that were coming out of her own mouth. “No packs, just one person. A mating pair.”

“Not entirely true,” Ramos replied as he took another sip of his beer. “Depending on one’s culture, marriage is usually between two people, yeah. I guess we’re more like…serial monogamists. We bounce between partners until we find someone that we click with.”

“Okay, but you never take multiple people to bed?” Kozi pressed, pausing to down another shot.

“Not unless we’re feeling especially adventurous.”

“See those Valbarans over there?” she added, gesturing to another booth with her empty glass still in hand. “They are a flock. Six people who spend every moment together. They take a mate, and that is seven. Jarilans?” she continued, nodding to a group of Workers who were watching the dancer from beneath the stage. “You never see them alone. They sleep together in a big heap. If they have males, I have never seen one. Polars, Elysians, even the ghosts have packs.”

“Ghosts?” Ramos asked.

“Araxie,” Kozi replied. “Point is, every species has large social groups except for you,” she said as she gently bumped her furry knuckles to his chest. “The Marines and contractors work in teams, then they separate and go home, I assume to beds like yours. Then you have them,” she said as she nodded to something across the room.

Ramos followed her gaze, seeing a Marine sitting on a padded couch on the other side of the bar. He was wearing a blue Navy uniform, and he was sandwiched between two Rask, one hand barely reaching around his neighbor’s waist as he held a drink in the other. There were three more of the aliens crowding the couch, one of them leaning in to talk to him. The man was laughing, drinking with the pack, more at ease than Ramos could ever imagine being around a Borealan. It was like seeing a drug lord wrestling with his pet tigers.

“Think he goes home to an empty bed?” Kozi asked. “A lot of the humans here find that they like our ways better once they give them a chance.”

Ramos’ eyes lingered on the man for a few moments more, then he turned them to Kozi, looking up to see her smiling at him. She looked smug – like she had just proven some kind of point. He glanced at Rashka and Zhura, realizing that his present situation was not so different from the stranger’s. Kozi wasn’t as smart as she thought, and he knew exactly what she was trying to do, but he couldn’t help imagining himself in the Marine’s place. That was why her tricks were so infuriating – they worked.

“Well, I’m sure a lot of things become less intimidating when you’re used to staring down Scuttlers and Stalkers,” Ramos muttered. “The only thing I stare down is trees.”

Intimidating?” Kozi purred, seeming delighted. “Do you find us intimidating, runt?”

“Certainly not you,” he replied, taking a defiant drink from his bottle.

“But, Rashka, maybe?” Kozi added as she spared her Alpha a lingering glance. Ramos didn’t need to be a mind-reader to know that she was imagining the two of them together, the logistics of which he had a much harder time visualizing.

“Stop making sport of him, Kozi,” Rashka sighed.

“You never complained when I made sport of Nozak,” Kozi grumbled, giving her a petulant pout. “Sometimes, I feel as though you mean for us to be three forever…”

Kozi quickly lowered her eyes in a gesture of submission when her Alpha shot her an angry look. It seemed that she had crossed a line.

“Well, Nozak is not here anymore,” Zhura added as she slammed another beer shot. She seemed to be getting drunk faster than her companions. “Nor is Murzi.”

“Must we speak of such things tonight?” Rashka snapped, Zhura’s ears pressing flat against her head as she cowered. “We have come here to relax.”

The mood soured, and even Kozi went quiet, their Alpha reaching for the bottle before refilling her glass. It didn’t take a genius to see that this wasn’t the first time the subject had been brought up. Based on what he had overheard – or what Kozi had wanted him to hear – Ramos knew that the pack had once been five strong. They must have lost at least one male when their schism had happened, and it was still a very touchy subject. Why hadn’t they already sought to replenish their numbers? Could Kozi’s outburst mean that it was Rashka who was unwilling to move on? They clearly respected her a great deal, but if the Alpha wouldn’t budge, what could they do?

“I have an idea,” Ramos said, clapping his hands together to get their attention. “How about we play a human drinking game? That’s a fun way to get to know one another.”

“A game?” Kozi asked, her ears pricking up.

“What kind of game?” Zhura added, narrowing her eyes suspiciously.

“It’s called truth or lie,” Ramos explained. “It’s quite simple, really. Person A makes a statement about person B, and if it’s true, they have to drink. It’s a fun way to find out more about someone.”

“May we have an example?” Rashka asked.

“Sure. I might say – Rashka has never been on a jump carrier. If it’s true, you have to drink.”

“Oh, I like this!” Kozi said as her tail waved back and forth excitedly. “Can we play?”

Rashka nodded her permission, Zhura rolling her eyes as she scooted a little closer on the couch.

“Since you three are lightweights, we’ll switch things up to keep it fair,” Ramos added as the Rask refilled their shot glasses. “It’s you guys versus me. I ask each of you one question per turn, and you guys each get to ask me one.”

“Very well,” Rashka replied.

“I’ll go first,” he said, filling his own glass from his bottle. “Rashka – you’ve never left Borealis.”

She took a drink, baring her teeth in a grimace as she swallowed.

“You’re getting the hang of it,” he said. “Now, you ask me a question. Anything you want to know about me.”

“You came here because you were ordered to,” Rashka said.

Ramos thought for a moment, then took a drink.

“I’ll give you that one,” he replied. “Yes, the UN org that I work for gave me this assignment, but I could have refused if I had really wanted to. I was a little skeptical when I got here, but now that I’ve seen more of your territory, I want to help you guys. My turn,” he added, turning to Kozi. “You like farming a lot more than you liked war.”

She took a drink, slamming her empty glass on the table.

“Rashka made the right decision,” Kozi said, giving her Alpha an appreciative glance. “My turn. You are untouched.”

“What, like a virgin?” Ramos asked. Kozi nodded gleefully. “Wrong!” he replied. “Her name was Isabella. We were both nineteen, and we did it in the back seat of her parents’ car on a hill overlooking Santa Rosa.”

“Just that once?” Kozi pressed.

“One question at a time,” he chided, wagging his finger at her. “Zhura, your turn. I think you’re at the bottom of the pack.”

Zhura scowled at him, then took a drink.

“You have never held a weapon or been into battle,” Zhura hissed.

“That’s too easy,” he replied, taking another shot. “Where I come from, people generally only partake in one kind of reaping. Rashka,” he continued, filling his glass again. “A human being given authority over you makes you uncomfortable.”

Rashka paused, her expression hard to read. Ramos waited with bated breath, hoping that he hadn’t crossed a line.

“You know the rules,” Kozi said, giving her a shrug.

Rashka took a drink, fixing her reflective eyes on Ramos.

“I am loyal to Matriarch Korbaz, and I will do as she decrees,” Rashka said as she began to refill her shot glass. “But, I will concede that working beneath someone who is less…physically capable can be trying at times. That does not mean that I shall waver in my duties. I sense that I intimidate you,” she added. “In ways that Kozi and Zhura do not.”

Ramos hesitated for a moment, wondering if showing vulnerability would help or hinder him, then took a drink. His response seemed to delight Kozi, who gave him another toothy grin.

“You’re a little, uh…less approachable than your pack,” he admitted. “That doesn’t mean I don’t like you or anything – I just don’t always know how to talk to you.”

“You need not fear me,” Rashka replied. “I have given Orzi my word that I shall protect you.”

“I mean, it’s not really fear,” he began, but he tapered off as she watched him with that intense stare. “Okay, Kozi again,” he said as he quickly switched gears. “You want to expand the pack.”

“I suppose that is obvious,” she muttered, emptying her glass as she spared Rashka a wary glance across the table. “I do not wish to replace Nozak and Murzi,” she continued, speaking more to her Alpha than to Ramos now. “I merely miss having more people around…”

“And a male to bed,” Zhura added.

“Fine, yes,” Kozi admitted with a roll of her eyes. “But I am not drinking again – it was not your turn. It is mine,” she added, directing her attention to Ramos again. “You are attracted to us,” she declared, waiting for him to respond with that same smug expression on her face.

“Dressed up like a fuckin’ Arabian princess asking me stupid questions,” he mumbled as he took another drink. “Are you happy?”

“Very,” she purred.

The Rask were already starting to get a little tipsy, and as Ramos had guessed, it was loosening their lips. With the drinking game as an excuse, and a little alcohol lowering their inhibitions, they were giving him a pretty clear picture of the pack dynamic. More and more, he was starting to realize that he might hold the key to solving their problems. He could alleviate Rashka’s tension while also giving Kozi what she so desperately wanted, and maybe he could help Zhura understand her place in the hierarchy at the same time, all while giving them the best chance to succeed in the program.

All it would take was…letting them have him. Kozi had been salivating over him since he had arrived, but he had to show Rashka that giving in to her urges did not mean failure – not if he initiated. Sex wasn’t just about gratification to the Rask – it was about communication, and it was one of the ways that they navigated their relationships and social lives. If he wanted to be a part of that dialogue, he had to stop thinking about it in human terms.

Still, the human element was unavoidable. These were three very powerful, beautiful women, any one of whom could turn him into a quivering pancake if he played his cards wrong. Did he trust them to be accommodating? Goading Rashka into breaking her oath wasn’t going to help anybody, but she had been kind and gentle with him so far. Kozi might be the pushiest and most annoying of the trio, but she was also the most attuned to the pack’s needs and the dynamics of its members. Zhura wouldn’t step out of line with her two packmates present. No, he felt pretty safe around them.

“Ramos?” Kozi asked, giving him a nudge. “Are you drunk already? You must ask Zhura her question.”

“Oh, s-sorry,” he stammered. “Guess I was spacing out there for a minute.”

“Do not get too drunk,” Rashka warned, addressing her pack. “We must work tomorrow, and I will not tolerate a reduction in productivity due to hangovers or sickness.”

“We should get something to eat,” Kozi suggested. “Some meat in our bellies would help.”

“I could go for some food,” Ramos added.

“Very well,” Rashka replied, rising from her seat on the couch. “I will return with meat.”

She headed off into the bar, soon disappearing into the crowd. As soon as she was out of sight, Kozi draped a long arm over Ramos’ shoulder, pulling him a little closer to her on the cushions. Once again, he felt the meat of her breast engulf his shoulder, her silken clothes tickling his rapidly warming cheek. There was that intoxicating scent again – the same that he had smelled on Zhura during their confrontation – exertion chased by something more alluring. It might be perfume or body wash – it was impossible to say, but it smelled like berries or maybe flowers.

“I am enjoying your game,” she began, her warm breath blowing his hair as she leaned closer to fill his head with her seductive whispering. “I have many probing, personal questions I would like to ask, but it seems as though Rashka will forbid us from drinking too much more. For example…how long has it been since you bedded this Isabella, and which one of us are you most attracted to?”

“You’re nothing if not predictable.”

“Is that why your face burns so hot?” she giggled, brushing a sharp claw against his cheek with a feather-light touch.

“That’s just the alcohol, and the heat,” he grumbled in reply. “I don’t see why you guys need to break a sweat in a damned bar.”

“Oh, I think it suits you,” she replied as she reached down to spread his shirt a little wider. His skin was glistening beneath it, her eyes lingering on his bare chest.

“Rashka said that we are not to induct him!” Zhura hissed, glancing between the two angrily.

“I will not push him down into the cushions and have my fill of him,” Kozi scoffed. “Though, I very well could. We are simply having a conversation.”

“Bit of a handsy conversation,” Ramos muttered, taking another drink from his beer bottle.

“I find that boundaries are often more flexible than they first appear,” she continued. “Tell me, you have been asking some very interesting questions, runt. Questions that pertain to our pack and your place in the hierarchy – questions that lead me to believe you might have a better understanding than you let on.”

“I think I’m starting to learn more about how you communicate,” he replied. “How about we play a new game? You answer my questions, I answer yours.”

“No lies, now,” she purred as she brought her lips down to his ear. She brushed them against it in a way that could plausibly be an accident, making his head swim. “I will go first. How long ago did you bed beautiful Isabella?”

“Five years, going on six,” he muttered.

“You poor, neglected thing,” she gasped in mock concern. “We have ways of fixing that here, you know.”

“My turn,” he continued, trying to shake off the fog of arousal that was creeping into his skull. It was like she was blowing warm, sweet smoke into his ear. “What exactly did Orzi say to Rashka about me? What did she forbid her from doing?”

“We are not to induct you into our pack,” Kozi replied. “That would involve being…forceful. As much as I would relish seeing Rashka turn you into her personal plaything, the Matriarch made it clear that treating our tutors like toys would harm the reconstruction efforts. Of course, were you to proposition Rashka yourself, those limitations would not apply. As you can see,” she added, glancing pointedly at the Marine who was sitting across the room. “There is no harm in indulging the willing.”

“Your turn,” he said, remaining painfully aware that he was sandwiched between a breast and a bicep that each rivaled his head in size. Zhura was watching them almost in a state of panic, not having the authority to tell Kozi to back off, waiting for her Alpha to return at any moment.

“I see the way you look at Rashka,” Kozi began. “It is like a blend of apprehension and longing. You desire her, but you are too afraid to approach. Maybe you do not know how. Am I correct?”

“She’s very large,” Ramos admitted, wondering whether the beer or Kozi’s husky voice was having the greater effect on him. “You and Zhura, I can get a read on, but Rashka feels like she’s a thousand miles away. I never know what she’s thinking.”

“What you need is a guide,” Kozi purred. “Someone to help you navigate these…difficult situations.”

“And I suppose you’re volunteering?”

“Well, if you insist,” she giggled.

“How does it work…between humans and Borealans?” he began, letting her intoxicating proximity get the better of him for a moment. “Does someone have to be a hard-boiled Marine who can do a hundred pushups in one-point-three, like that guy over there, or can it be…gentler?”

“If I were to court a human who was fearful of being taken to bed, and I would find that unbearably adorable,” she began with a delighted trill. “I would tell him or her that they need not worry – that if they stuttered and fretted their way into our bed chamber, we would be as gentle as any Rask can be.”

“That might not be terribly reassuring,” he replied, taking another drink. Maybe there was a little more courage somewhere near the bottom.

“A good Alpha does not throw their weight around without good cause,” Kozi explained. She held out her glass to him, and he filled it from his bottle, the Rask downing another shot. “They can bring their pack to heel with a word or a glance. Rashka takes care of us – she sees to our needs. She can be…doting when she wants to be. She is also free to take what she desires, as is her station.”

“It’s the taking part that might worry a guy.”

“I would tell our hypothetical hopeful that if being taken by your Alpha was such a terrible thing, I would not torment mine as I do,” she added with a lurid whisper.

Ramos felt her arm withdraw, Kozi’s weight leaving his shoulder as she leaned back into the pillows. He looked up to see that Rashka was returning with another tray piled high with meat fresh off the spit, the Rask placing it down on their table with a thud.

Ramos glanced at Zhura, wondering if she was going to rat Kozi out, but she kept her lips sealed. Rashka began to dole out the meat, the pack going quiet for a while as they focused on eating, packing away an incredible quantity of food. With the amount of protein they must need to maintain their huge bodies and considerable muscle mass, it was hardly surprising. She had thought to bring Ramos some cutlery this time, as the bar staff must be accustomed to hosting guests that weren’t equipped with meat hooks for fingers, so he was able to eat more comfortably. Just like the meat they had eaten in the crawler, it was oily, but not unpleasant. Based on the flavors, it led him to believe that Borealans might not be very sensitive to sweetness.

As they relaxed on the couch and digested, they talked mostly about work and the Matriarch’s plans for the territory, but Ramos’ thoughts strayed elsewhere. Kozi’s words had lodged themselves in his mind like splinters, impossible to ignore, playing back like a broken record.

Some part of him had already decided what he was going to do, but the more logical, more apprehensive part of him still needed convincing. Despite Kozi’s assurances, he still wasn’t completely sure how Rashka might react – she was so hard to read.

“We should return home if we are to get enough sleep,” Rashka finally announced, rising from her seat. “Ramos, we shall drive you home.”

He felt his heart start to quicken, something akin to panic gripping him. Should he make some kind of move now? Was it too late?

“Wait,” Kozi interjected. “We have all been drinking. It could be dangerous to take Ramos back to the camp in the vehicle, and it is too far to walk.”

“I am fine,” Rashka replied, her brow furrowing. “Besides, there is nothing but desert between the city and the camp.”

“I just think that we should put our charge’s safety first,” Kozi insisted, giving him a sly look. “Perhaps we could offer him shelter at our dwelling for the night?”

“We have room for guests,” Rashka replied, turning to Ramos. “Is that your wish?”

He hesitated, glancing between the two Rask, Kozi giving him a subtle nod.

“Y-yeah,” he replied after a moment. “I appreciate your hospitality.”

“Very well,” Rashka continued. “We shall proceed on foot.”



They left the bar and headed out into the narrow streets of the city, the cobblestones lit by the glow of the street lamps. It reminded Ramos of an old-world town, the cramped, winding pathways designed only with pedestrians in mind rather than cars and mag-levs. He’d never been to Venice or Paris, but he imagined that it might feel something like this. The pale stars that hung above the alien architecture gave everything a surreal feel when coupled with the lack of people. In any population center on Earth or the larger colonies, the streets would be packed at all hours of the day and night, but the Rask lived simpler lives. It was night, and it was getting cold, so the cobblestone streets were all but deserted.

He had to hurry a little to keep up with the pack, their legs far longer than his, and their bodies adapted to the high gravity. The city was like a maze of stone and mortar, but as dense and as winding as it might have been, the bright spires of the Matriarch’s palace rising above the domed rooftops made it impossible to lose one’s way.

After maybe ten minutes, they came upon a structure, Rashka stopping at the large wooden door. Like many of the Rask houses that he had seen so far, it was one story tall, its walls made of sandstone blocks coated with mortar. There was a dome on the roof, and he could see no outward-facing windows. It was starting to get chilly, so maybe that was as much about keeping in the heat as keeping it out.

She pushed the heavy door aside with a creak, and they piled inside, Rashka illuminating a stone foyer as she flipped a large light switch. Like the lamp posts outside, the electric lighting looked like a recent addition, the cables snaking their way along the walls. They connected to bulbs with heavy shades that made their glow warm and diffuse. It looked a little like a dungeon, but the thick carpeting on the floor and the tapestries on some of the walls helped make it more welcoming.

As they ventured deeper, Ramos saw that it was all open-plan, the dividing walls serving only to block the view from certain areas rather than to section the building off into rooms. There were stone archways in places, but no doors. Like at the bar, the wooden support beams that made up the framework of the house were visible, and there was a fire pit in the middle of the space beneath the self-supporting dome. It seemed to be Zhura’s job to light it, so she made her way over to it and crouched down, stoking the glowing coals with an iron poker.

The Rask sure liked their couches and throw pillows. Ringing the fire was a low, luxurious couch covered in soft cushions and draped with silken coverings not unlike the fabric that their clothes were made from. There were spits and cooking utensils near the pit, too, suggesting that it was where they prepared most of their food. All he had seen them eat so far was roasted meat, so it wasn’t like they needed a rice cooker and a sous-vide.

There was an area of the house that appeared to be a dedicated armory that doubled as a dressing room. The walls were lined with wooden racks that held all manner of weapons and equipment – perhaps leftovers from the rebellion – and he could see a few of their leather outfits hanging from hooks. On the far side of the space was the bedroom, sectioned off from the rest of the house by a couple of walls, identifiable only by a glimpse of silks and cushions through the stone archway.

It seemed that privacy was not of great concern to the packs. They all lived together in a shared space without even having individual bedrooms. As his hosts made themselves comfortable on the couch near the growing fire, he poked around a little more, seeing what looked like a pantry or a storeroom. They must have a bathroom somewhere in the building where they could bathe, too.

“You have never been inside a Rask dwelling before?” Rashka asked, gesturing with a furry hand. “It is perhaps more communal than what you are accustomed to, based on what we saw of your prefab. This is the common area where we relax and cook. Over there, you will find the bed chamber, and that is the pantry and meat locker. The armory is over there, and the spa is over there.”

“You have a spa?” Ramos chuckled.

“I believe that is the correct word,” Rashka replied, considering for a moment. “What did the Polars call it? A sauna? Perhaps a bathroom. It is where we bathe and groom ourselves.”

“Got it,” Ramos replied, seeing that the bathroom was also connected to the rest of the house via an empty archway. “So…I guess I’ll be taking the couch? That works for me.”

“You could join us in bed,” Kozi replied, smirking at his surprise. “Do not give me that look – it spans the whole room. There is space enough for all.”

“Come,” Rashka ordered, Ramos practically standing to attention at the sound of her voice. “Warm yourself by the fireside. The night is already sapping away the day’s heat.”

He did as she asked, climbing onto one of the oversized couches, watching the growing flames start to flicker. It was oddly cozy, the makeshift light fixtures giving the impression of soft torches, reflecting off the stone and casting deep shadows.

“So,” he began, glancing around. “What’s with the tapestries?”

“They are woven to commemorate historical events and great deeds,” Rashka replied. “This one celebrates my pack’s first posting to a sandship. This one, a battle commendation. That one on the far wall is simply decorative. It shows a handler training war hounds. Your people called them razorbacks during the rebellion, I believe.”

“It has kind of a medieval style,” Ramos muttered, admiring the crude figures. The perspective was strange, and the art was alien, but the craftsmanship was undeniable. “We had something similar in our past,” he explained. “For example, the Bayeux Tapestry is a very famous one that was embroidered during our Middle Ages, about sixteen-hundred years ago. It’s seventy meters long and records the Norman conquest of England – one of our ancient territories.”

“Seventy meters,” Zhura added, nodding in approval. “It must have been a great conquest. I should like to see such a thing.”

“There are some in the palace nearly as large,” Kozi said. “They commemorate the Lake Wars, when the wandering tribes first founded the great territories.”

“Strange that we should have this in common,” Rashka said, seeming amused. “Well, I doubt that we shall be awake for much longer. Once Zhura has warmed the house, we shall retire. Until then, would you like something more to drink, Ramos? Perhaps you would like to bathe? Our home shall be your home until you cross the threshold.”

“I, uh, took a shower before I left the prefab,” he replied. “I appreciate your hospitality, though.”

“Come a little closer to the fire, Ramos,” Kozi chimed as she patted the cushions beside her. “You must be cold with only that shirt to wear.”

She wasn’t wrong, and he took a seat beside her. Zhura was on his left, and Rashka was on his right now, sitting a few feet away on the couches. In the light of the fire, the Rask seemed all the more impressive and imposing, their tanned skin reflecting its wavering glow like polished bronze, the deep shadows that it cast seeming to pick out every beautiful contour of their bodies in lurid detail. And their eyes – glimmering like gold, always fixed on him.

He turned his gaze to the flames, peering into them as though they might hold some wisdom – some idea of how he should proceed. Ramos was on the cusp now, standing on the edge and looking down, needing only a nudge to take the plunge. Kozi knew it – he could feel her anticipation, so excited that she might as well be vibrating on the cushion beside him.

“In the bar,” Kozi began, leaning a little closer to him. “You told me that you wished to speak to Rashka. What did you want to say?”

Ramos glanced up at the Alpha, everything else in the room seeming to melt away until only the two of them remained in their little island of warm light. He couldn’t hold her gaze for too long – she was too intense, and he felt compelled to look away.

“I…” he began, the sound of his own rushing blood filling his ears. “I know that having me here and taking orders from someone half your size hasn’t been easy for you or your pack. The more I’ve learned about your way of life, the more I’ve come to realize that I could be doing more to help…alleviate some of that tension. I think you care about the work as much as I do,” he added, growing bold enough to look her in the eyes again. “You’re trying so hard to stay in the program, and I want that for you too. I’m not suggesting that you’d fail without my help or that your resolve would ever waver – I just think that…I could make all of our lives a little easier. For the good of the program,” he added. “If I’m the one to initiate, it’s okay, right?”

Rashka blinked back at him in surprise, her expression difficult to read, then she began to speak in that resonating voice.

“Is this something that Kozi has put you up to, or is this truly what you wish?”

“Kozi helped me understand, but she didn’t put me up to it,” he replied as he spared the Rask in question an appreciative glance. Kozi looked like she was watching the finale of her favorite soap opera, her eyes wide and her ears pricked up attentively, her tail waving back and forth on the cushions behind her. “I’d be lying if I said I knew what I was getting myself into, but…you’ve been kind to me. I trust you.”

“I swore to uphold the Matriarch’s law, and I gave Orzi my oath,” Rashka replied sternly.

“You have broken no laws and violated no oaths if he gives himself to you willingly,” Kozi insisted, her voice wavering with excitement. “Please, my Alpha, let him sate you. Become yourself again.”

Rashka’s stoic facade cracked for a moment, just as it had that time in the tractor, Ramos seeing something hungry and carnal peering back at him from beneath her mask. She took a step closer, then another, Ramos shrinking back into the cushions as she came to tower over him. She was between him and the fire now, its glow silhouetting her, framing her impossibly toned figure beneath her insubstantial clothes.

“Do you have the constitution to take on three Rask?” she asked, her voice a low growl. “Know that if you do this, it cannot simply be undone. One does not shed their inhibitions as lightly as they shed their clothing.”

“She is saying that if you are in, you are in all the way,” Kozi explained with a delighted giggle. “No going back until she is sated.”

“Look at him, ready to flee on the eve of battle,” Zhura added with a dismissive wave of her hand. “The runt has neither the constitution nor the courage.”

“Yes I do,” he shot back, her taunting giving him a sudden rush of determination. “I mean…I won’t know unless I try, right? What, do I have to sign a legal waiver? I said take me, so…go ahead and take me!”

Rashka leaned down, suddenly face to face with him, his breath catching in his throat. Her skull alone was enormous, more akin to something like a lion or a bear than a person. He lurched as she cupped his face in her furry hand, holding it between her thumb and forefinger, her soft pads pressing against his cheeks. Her grip was gentle but firm, her sharp claws kept clear.

“Very well,” she rumbled – something between a purr and a snarl. “There are no parallel social structures in my bed chamber. If you are to be part of my pack for the night, then you serve at my pleasure. Do you understand?”

“I…I understand,” he stammered, butterflies filling his belly. What was it that Kozi had said to him?

You do not yet know the joys of giving yourself completely to someone you trust and admire – of relinquishing control in all things.

Rashka paused there for a moment, but when he passed up his last chance to back out, she drew him in for a kiss. Her pillowy lips pressed against his, locking together despite their mismatched size, the tapered tip of her tongue probing his mouth experimentally. Ramos sucked in a sharp breath, his heart fluttering, a wonderful shiver sliding its way up his spine like a trailing fingertip.

He remembered a solid foot of glistening, pink flesh extending from Kozi’s mouth as she cleaned her fur in the crawler, but Rashka was considerate enough to only give him two or three inches. The slippery, warm muscle was still far larger than that of a human, seeming to fill his head as it slid against the flat of his tongue. It was prehensile, flexing and curling as it wound around its smaller counterpart like a snake, licking the inner lining of his cheeks and glancing his palate. There was no trace of the sharp barbs that he had seen, only wet satin. It tickled, each stroke flooding his brain with fizzling static, Rashka keeping her hold on him to prevent him from pulling away.

Instead, he felt compelled to lean into her, losing himself in the sensations. He could taste her saliva, feel her warmth, each lick imbued with the supreme confidence that Rashka radiated. In that moment, he was hers, her doting embrace burning that truth into his brain like a brand.

She broke off with a wet smack, Ramos watching her pull away through unfocused eyes, a glistening rope of their shared saliva still joining their lips. She released his face, then placed a massive hand on his chest, pushing him back into Kozi’s waiting arms.

“Finish him once or twice for me,” Rashka ordered, flopping back down into her seat on the couch. She crossed her long legs, getting comfortable as though some kind of show was about to begin. “I want him to last long enough that I can enjoy him.”

Kozi wrapped her arms around Ramos, her delighted giggling filling his ears as she pulled him into her chest, her soft bosom spilling over his shoulders through her silken clothes. She buried her feline nose in his hair, taking in a deep, satisfied breath.

Finally,” she purred, her voice an excited whisper. “Did you think that I would not get my way in the end, runt?” She brought her hand to his head, running the sharp points of her claws across his scalp like the teeth of a comb, the unexpected sensation making him arch his spine. “Still dazed from Rashka’s kiss? She is skilled with her tongue – I should know.”

She leaned him back into the cushions, lying him almost prone, cradling him with one arm as she began to peel back his shirt. It was already open most of the way, Kozi’s eyes glittering in the firelight as she fiddled with the last few buttons, her expression that of someone opening a carefully wrapped gift. With his torso exposed, she ran her digits across his slick skin, pressing down just hard enough to leave red trails with her claws.

“Not a scar on you,” she whined, biting her lip as though the notion was unbearably alluring. “For a Rask, that would make you either the most obedient little runt to ever exist, or someone who has somehow avoided all correction. It is hard to decide which possibility excites me more.”

She pushed her nose into the nape of his neck, Ramos flinching as he felt the prick of her teeth, something rough and slimy scouring his skin. He opened his mouth to speak, but she cut him off, filling it with her tongue. Where Rashka had been gentle and considerate, Kozi was far more aggressive, piling fat coils of silken muscle into his mouth until his cheeks bulged outward. It was a kiss deeper and more ravenous than any he had experienced, her winding tip probing the back of his throat, mapping out every inch of him as it slithered and licked.

Only when she sensed that he was out of breath did she relent, stars dancing at the limits of Ramos’ vision as he watched inches of the pink organ slide back into her mouth, vanishing behind a cage of grinning carnivore teeth. He peered up at her, dazed again, his burning face making her exhale a contented sigh.

“You are going to pay for making me wait for this,” she added, more of a sordid promise than a threat.

She sat up, letting him drop to the pillows, reaching for the silver clasp that held her top together. It clattered to the floor as she tossed it aside and began to unwind the ream of gossamer fabric, what lay beneath gradually growing more visible with each layer that she removed. A few moments later, the long strip of cloth was floating to the couch, as light as a feather, Kozi cupping her chest with her furry forearm. Smirking at his anticipation, she pulled it away, her breasts bouncing subtly as they dropped.

Ramos had seen glimpses of them through her wet tank top and her revealing gown, but having them laid bare before him was something else. Kozi’s build was lean and athletic, her boobs just large enough to fill her cupped hand, but so was Ramos’ head. They were suited to high gravity, paradoxically firm and shapely despite their tangible heft, her caramel skin misted with droplets of perspiration that glittered like dew in the firelight. Her rosy nipples were already swelling with desire, and she lifted a hand to her chest, flesh as soft as putty spilling between her fingers as she kneaded.

“Feeling more confident about our decision, are we?” she asked with a pointed glance at the tent that was growing beneath his slacks. “You need not hesitate. Here…”

Kozi hooked an arm around him again, lifting him towards her, the quivering meat of her bosom filling his field of view. Her cleavage engulfed him as she pressed her breasts together with her biceps, burying his red face between them. Her skin was smoother than satin, made slick and shiny by her sweat, her fat softer and more inviting than even the silk cushions they were lounging on. She gave him no choice but to breathe deeply of her alluring scent, exertion and perfume mingling to addle his brain like a hit from some illicit narcotic.

Ramos reached up to plunge his hand into her breast, burying his fingers almost to the knuckle, feeling her velvet flesh bulge between them when he squeezed. It yielded like melting wax, then sprang back when he relented, Kozi tensing as he reached the firmer tissue beneath the cushion of fat. Overcome, he maneuvered a nipple into his mouth, hearing his partner hiss as he sealed his lips around it. She was so responsive, gripping him more tightly as he battered it with his tongue, her breath growing ragged.

“Xeema undersold you,” she growled, easing him away. She sat up, one of her boobs shining with his saliva, her labored breathing making her chest sway gently. “No claws, tongues as smooth as polished steel – absurd. I am going to find every conceivable use for you before the suns rise tomorrow.”

“You seem almost troubled, Kozi,” Rashka added with a dry chuckle. Ramos was once again reminded that they were being watched, Rashka and Zhura simply observing as their packmate made a trembling mess of him. “Surely nature’s endowments can be matched by skill and practice?”

“Zhura,” Kozi ordered, beckoning with a clawed finger. “Come put your Alpha’s theory to the test.”

Ramos sat up a little straighter, feeling a pang of apprehension as Zhura slid off her couch, stalking her way over to him like a tiger slinking through the underbrush. Her usual scowl was replaced with a smile far crueler than Kozi’s, giving him the impression that she saw this as an opportunity for revenge more than pleasure. She had been itching to teach him his place ever since he had arrived.

“Gentle with him, now,” Kozi purred as Zhura planted her furry hands to either side of him on the couch. “Make sure you leave some for the rest of us.”

Zhura leaned down to his level, her yellow eyes locked onto him, her tongue snaking forth to wet her lips like a hungry wolf.

“I have been looking forward to this,” she huffed, laughing to herself as she reached out to take him by the throat. Her grip was firm, but not quite tight enough to choke him, and she leaned in for the third kiss of the evening. He felt her force her tongue past his lips, her wet flesh gliding against his, the occasional sensation of her barbs catching him making him flinch. There was nothing gentle in her – nothing considerate – the Rask simply taking what she wanted. Ramos couldn’t help but feel vulnerable with her claws so close to his neck, and that only heightened his senses, every lash of her tongue imbued with her desire to dominate. Despite himself, those happy chemicals still coursed through his veins, his heart racing as she subjected him to her cruel embrace.

When she broke off, she caught his lower lip in her sharp teeth for a moment, giving it a tug.

“Rashka said to wring one out of you, so let us see how quickly I can have you writhing between my thighs where you belong, runt.”

“I had something else in mind,” Kozi said, curling a protective arm around Ramos again. She positioned herself almost behind him, leaning him back against the soft cushion of her breasts. “Down you go,” she chimed, pointing to the flagstones.

“W-what?” Zhura stammered, the flat bridge of her nose furrowing as she bared her teeth in a snarl. “I thought-”

“Get between his thighs where you belong and show him what a Rask can do with her tongue,” Kozi explained. “You are representing the territory, so watch the barbs, and make it good.”

“But..I do not even know what it looks like,” Zhura protested, looking to Rashka for help. The Alpha simply waved her hand dismissively, unwilling to intercede.

“Uh, are you sure this is a good idea?” Ramos asked. “I dunno how I feel about all those teeth and barbs, even when they’re not attached to someone who looks ready to shank me. Don’t make her do it if she doesn’t want to…”

“Well, that would be Zhura’s sordid little secret,” Kozi whispered. He tensed up as she drew his ear into her mouth, giving it a gentle nibble, one of her hands starting to slide down his torso. “She would never admit it unless she was a little drunk on wine or pleasure, but despite all her bluster, there is nowhere she would rather be than on her knees with someone else’s love dripping from her chin. Is that not right, Zhura?”

“That is…how dare you,” she stammered, her angry face starting to flush pink. “Besides, he is a human. I would never stoop so low as to-”

“You will have to stoop rather low if you wish to reach him,” Kozi added, her furry fingers brushing Ramos’ pants. “He is not very tall.”

“This is ridiculous,” Zhura grumbled, dropping to her knees at the foot of the couch all the same.

Kozi began to disrobe Ramos, popping open the button on his slacks and hooking a claw through his zipper, pulling it down as Zhura watched intently.

“Look, you have frightened him,” Kozi giggled as she noted the diminished bulge beneath his shorts. “Do not fear,” she whispered, her voice like honey in his ear as she began to massage him through the thin fabric. “Zhura is skilled – I taught her myself back when Nozak was still with us. I would put her on her knees, take her by the hair, and have him fuck her throat until her eyes watered. You should have heard her mewl when I would bury my hand between her legs and whisper encouragement in her ear. My teaching methods were a little more…hands-on than yours.”

“Are you trying to humiliate me before the alien?” Zhura demanded, but Ramos could see that her angry expression had already softened. Someone had to end up at the bottom of the pack, and it seemed that Zhura was better suited to her position than he could ever have guessed.

Between Kozi’s groping and her lurid whispering, she soon encouraged him back to full mast, gripping his shaft through the fabric. She pulled back the elastic waistband, releasing him to throb in the firelight, leaning a little closer to get a better look.

“What am I expected to do with this?” Zhura complained, tilting her head. “It is covered in skin.”

Ramos winced as Kozi gripped his member in her furry hand, encompassing its length in her silky coat. She pulled back his foreskin, exposing his shining glans, much to Zhura’s surprise.

“Like this,” Kozi said. “The sensitive part is hidden.”

“Very well,” Zhura muttered, shuffling a little closer to him. “I feel as though you are too prepared for this…”

Ramos watched as she lowered her head, examining his alien organ for a moment, making him wonder what the Borealan guys were packing. He was still apprehensive about her sharp teeth and rough barbs, but his arousal was stronger, his heart starting to beat faster as he watched her extend a clear foot of slimy tongue. Shimmering with a sheen of saliva, the prehensile organ began to wind around his shaft like a tentacle, smearing warm drool on his skin wherever it made contact. It was constantly in motion, always flexing and shifting, like a living thing in its own right. He could see the barbs that the Rask used to clean their fur on the flat of her tongue, but she was careful to only make contact with the smooth, soft underside. It seemed to take some skill, and it was easy to understand how a novice might displease their partner.

Her grip tightened, the silken muscle squeezing him like a boa constrictor ensnaring its prey, guiding him towards her mouth. Her pursed lips slid over his tip, the sensation making him gasp, wet heat encompassing him. Zhura sucked as she took him a little deeper, inching her lips down his shaft, the fleshy lining of her inner cheeks sealing around his member. Her tongue jostled for space all the while, slithering across his manhood, mapping him out. The underside of her organ painted his head, its texture softer and more luxuriant than silk, Ramos feeling every vein as it dragged across his tender anatomy.

Zhura quickly realized where he was most receptive, swirling the length of wet muscle around his glans, making him lift his butt from the couch reflexively. She placed a firm hand on his hip and forced him back down, keeping him in place, those yellow eyes flashing him an angry look.

“I think she wishes for you to be still,” Kozi giggled, making a lazy circle on his belly with the tip of her claw as she watched.

Zhura took him a little deeper, her tongue slithering back into her mouth, gliding against his shaft on a layer of her slick saliva. He couldn’t even keep track of its movements – it was too overwhelming – like being trapped in a tube of damp, writhing muscle.

She began to use the agile tip of her organ to lick and stroke his glans, painting it with practiced finesse, sliding it beneath his foreskin as she made maddening laps around his cock. Just as Kozi had promised, there was no hint of her barbs, and she kept her sharp teeth mercifully clear. Zhura even seemed to be getting into it now, her long lashes fluttering as she doted on him, suddenly intent on doling out as much spine-tingling pleasure as she could muster.

“What do you think?” Kozi whispered, giving his ear another teasing bite. “Did I train her well?”

“Oh, fuck,” he groaned as Zhura sent his head spinning with a quick flurry of licks. He felt like he was melting in her mouth, assailed from every angle by wonderful sensations, every glance of her cheeks and stroke of her tongue sending another throb of pleasure coursing through him.

“I think he approves, Zhura,” Kozi called down to her packmate. She turned her attention back to Ramos as she lounged beside him on the pillows, lightly trailing her claws up his stomach, smirking as he bucked and flinched. “You have never been with two people at once, have you?” she purred. She was enjoying every moment of this, as though it was all happening solely for her personal amusement. Her fuzzy hand came to rest on his cheek, and she turned his face towards her, forcing him to look her in the eyes. “Focus on me, runt.”

She leaned in for a kiss, their lips joining, her pace slower and more sensual now. Each embrace that he had been subjected to was different from the last, conveying entirely different intentions – different desires. Like she was trying to write her name on him, the tip of Kozi’s tongue danced around inside his mouth, her touch just as light and delicate as that of her claws. Coupled with Zhura’s enthusiastic efforts below his belt, he felt like he was floating on a cloud, his focus torn between the two agile tongues. It was a scenario that he would never have dared to even imagine.

“Is it overwhelming?” she crooned as she broke off, still cradling his cheek. He nodded, and her lips curled into a smug smile. “I cannot imagine only ever sharing a bed with one person. I would love to throw you to a sandship full of thirsty Rask sailors who have just made berth – they would toss you around like a pack of caged hounds fighting over a fresh bone. I suppose we shall have to make do with what we have.”

She filled his mouth with her tongue again, her exaggerated sighs and gentle moans filling his ears in kind, manufactured to titillate. He reached up to cup one of her breasts, feeling its butter-soft flesh overflow his palm, her next grunt of pleasure far more sincere. Ramos could do things that the Rask couldn’t with their razor claws, and he was starting to realize it. He trapped her swollen nipple between his fingers, giving it a teasing squeeze, her muscles growing more defined in the shadow of the fire as she tensed.

Kozi broke off with a wet pop, her tongue sliding back past her rosy lips inch by glistening inch, then she thrust out her ample chest in invitation. Her silky skin was tangibly cooler than his burning cheeks, brushing against his face as he nuzzled, Ramos seeking out another firm nipple. He drew it into his mouth, catching it between his lips and teeth, making Kozi shudder. It protruded a good inch due to her exaggerated stature, giving him plenty to work with, and he began to swirl his tongue around it. His sucking and gentle pinching soon had the Rask exhaling enamored sighs into his hair, Ramos kneading her bosom like dough all the while, taking his fill of the bounty that lay before him. What was modest on a Rask’s massive frame bordered on parody to a human, and Kozi wasn’t even the most endowed of her pack.

He faltered as Zhura pushed his cock into her cheek, that slippery, velutinous flesh stretching over his glans like latex. He groaned into Kozi’s bust, his voice muffled by her fat, her breasts rocking against his face as she chuckled at him.

Tasting her sweat on his tongue as he dragged it across her sun-kissed skin, Ramos kept up his mouthing, letting a hand roam down her torso. Even with his view obscured by her wobbling flesh, he could still feel the indents that her abs carved into her flat belly with his fingertips, her sculpted muscles growing firmer beneath his palm. Her skin was made slick by the droplets of moisture that dusted it, his hand gliding past her navel.

“You are tickling me,” she giggled. “Do not get me too excited, now. If I ravish you, I might leave you bruised and exhausted before Rashka can have her fill. Is Zhura’s service to your liking?”

“Do not call it service,” Zhura complained from the foot of the couch, letting his member slide from her mouth along with a sagging rope of her drool. “I am doing this because it is my Alpha’s wish, not merely to please the human.”

“It is my wish that you please him,” Kozi replied, easing Ramos away from her bosom. “Go on – I did not bid you to stop.”

Her eyes narrowing in anger, Zhura returned her slimy lips to Ramos’ glans, her pink tongue flashing as she resumed her sordid work. Despite her outward display of displeasure, her gentle nursing told another story, her expression softening again as she focused on the member that was throbbing in her mouth.

“Here, let me give you some encouragement,” Kozi purred. She reached down and took her subordinate by the hair, Zhura’s ears pricking up and her eyes widening in alarm. Kozi pushed her down, forcing her face into Ramos’ lap, his cock sliding deep into her throat. He and Zhura grunted in unison as her lips kissed his base, the warm, smooth muscles of her gullet gripping him like a fist as they seized around him. He felt her choke, the spasm sending a rush of pleasure flooding through him, her body trying to reject the foreign object even as her tongue curled lovingly around his shaft.

The pressure only grew as Kozi held her there, ripples of muscle caressing Ramos’ length, his glans sliding against the back of Zhura’s narrow throat. Finally, Kozi let her come up for air, her packmate gasping as a drooping web of bubbling saliva sloughed out of her mouth along with Ramos’ pulsing cock. Zhura coughed, strands of glistening drool dangling from her chin, still joining her to the human’s shining shaft.

“That is more like it,” Kozi said with a grin. “I know you like it good and wet.”

Her eyes watering and her cheeks glowing red even through her tanned complexion, Zhura allowed Kozi to set a new, more aggressive pace. With a hand on her head, the smirking Rask made her subordinate bob her face on Ramos’ shaft, Zhura relaxing her throat to let him glide. Each gulp made her warm, slippery reaches massage and knead him, saliva dripping from her lips to leave wet blotches on the cushions between his legs.

It quickly became more than he could stand, Ramos letting out stifled gasps as he dug his fingers into the nearby cushions, an all too familiar tension rising within him. The last time he had been in a situation remotely comparable to this, he had been fumbling in the back seat of a car – he could barely even see straight now. Her furry ears attuned to him like little radar dishes, Kozi relented, letting Zhura take a few labored breaths as she wiped the mess from her lips with the back of her hand.

“As much as I enjoy watching this, I am starting to feel a little…left out,” Kozi muttered. Ramos felt the cushions shift as her weight left them, Kozi sliding down to the foot of the couch, joining Zhura on the flagstones. Kozi knelt beside her, reaching out to clean a glob of saliva from her subordinate’s cheek, then cupped her face. Kozi moved as though intending to kiss her, then pulled back at the last moment, forcing Zhura to close the distance.

Ramos watched, captivated, as the two Rask embraced. Their long, prehensile tongues braided together before their lips had even met, the lustrous flesh vanishing from sight as they joined. Zhura melted into Kozi’s arms, her eyes closing, pressing herself tight against her packmate’s exposed chest. He couldn’t focus on anything but the lurid, passionate sounds of their kiss, the way that their questing tongues bulged their cheeks visible even in the dim firelight.

When Kozi broke away, she shuffled behind Zhura, placing a hand on the back of her packmate’s head. The other roamed down Zhura’s toned stomach, sliding beneath her sarong, making her flinch as those fingers brushed something out of sight.

“Just like old times,” Kozi whispered, giving Zhura a bite on the ear that was far harder than the gentle nibbles she had been giving Ramos. She began to push her subordinate’s face into his lap again, Zhura swallowing his member to the base, Kozi’s hand moving beneath her skirt. “This is how I taught her to give such good head,” Kozi added, addressing Ramos now as she glanced up at him with a smirk. “Positive reinforcement.”

She kept up the pace, whispering lurid encouragements into Zhura’s ear in her own language, her fingers dancing beneath the gossamer skirt. She mouthed at her packmate’s neck and shoulder, leaving sucking kisses, biting hard enough to create red indents in Zhura’s skin. Zhura was overcome, her hips rolling as she ground against Kozi’s fingers rhythmically, moaning softly around Ramos’ shaft. She was putting her all into it now, as though her very being was bound to his enjoyment, caressing every inch of his shaft with her tongue.

Still keeping a hand buried between Zhura’s thighs, Kozi shifted around beside her, leaning so close that their cheeks brushed together. Zhura stopped her sucking, letting Ramos’ cock slide from her mouth, the pair sharing another lurid kiss.

“Our runt is new to this,” Kozi said, taking his shaft in her hand. The saliva soaked into her silky fur, making it wet and slippery, her fist starting to glide up and down his length. “Let us show him why sleeping in pairs is so dull.”

Kozi pulled his pants down to his ankles, then gave his thigh a gentle bite, keeping her reflective eyes locked to his. She dragged the rough side of her long tongue up towards his throbbing member, then spiraled it around his shaft, guiding his erection towards her lips. They pursed tightly around his glans, and she began to suck gently, Zhura dipping lower to slide her winding organ down his length. He had to spread his legs a little wider to give them space, kicking off his slacks, Zhura’s warm cheek resting against his inner thigh as she explored lower.

He flinched as she found his balls, sliding her tongue across them, coating his sensitive skin in her saliva. At the same time, Kozi’s tongue began to stroke his shaft, its tight coils moving with the milking motion of a fist as she kept his tip in the warm embrace of her mouth. Seeing stars, he collapsed back into the cushions, the two Rask sharing his manhood between them. Damp muscle writhed and stroked, painting every inch of his skin, the two aliens passing his member back and forth like they were sharing a lollipop. One would bob her head, taking him into the tight reaches of her throat, while the other crawled her soft lips down his length or lapped at his sack.

Kozi was just as skilled as her student, her tongue so agile that she could have used it to tie a cherry stem into a bow, alternating between slow licks and teasing flurries to ensure that he never knew what was coming next. He sat up to watch them as they made out around his glans, their slithering tongues intertwining like a nest of snakes, ropes of their shared saliva sagging to drape themselves over his erection. They jostled with his member for space, slippery muscle sliding against his skin, their soft lips joining intermittently to trap his tip between them. They were as focused on each other as they were on him, Kozi’s hand still moving slowly beneath Zhura’s skirt, his own pleasure a mere afterthought now.

“It has been too long since I have seen you so enamored,” Kozi purred, pausing her kissing to stroke Zhura’s cheek affectionately with the pad of her thumb. “I feel as though I am reunited with an old packmate. I had been starting to wonder if you were no longer content with your place among us.”

“I…I am content,” she replied, Kozi rewarding her with another deep kiss that sent her lashes fluttering. Ramos had never seen her like this – hanging on Kozi’s every word, gazing into her eyes with such palpable love.

“Good,” Kozi purred. She withdrew her hand from between Zhura’s legs, the fur on her fingers soaked with fluid, then pushed them into her subordinate’s mouth. Zhura nursed at them obediently, her eyes losing their focus, giving Ramos some idea of what Kozi might have meant by drunk on pleasure.

Kozi moved behind her again, one hand closing around Zhura’s throat, pulling her upright. With the other, she trailed her claws across her counterpart’s toned stomach, leaving pink scratches that quickly faded away. Zhura shivered as Kozi cupped her breasts through the silken top that she was wearing, the fabric catching on her talons, mouthing at her shivering packmate’s neck as she weighed them in her hands.

“What do you think, runt?” Kozi asked as she peered at him over Zhura’s shoulder. “I might be a little jealous if they were not mine to play with whenever I please. Is that not right, Zhura?”

“They…they are yours,” Zhura whispered, the admission tinting her cheeks pink.

“When?” Kozi demanded, giving her bust a squeeze.

“W-whenever it pleases you…”

Ramos’ eyes lingered on Zhura’s bust, Kozi pressing her captive’s breasts together to accentuate her cleavage, lifting them to make them wobble gently. She began to unwind the strip of fabric that served as their sling, making them sag a little more with each layer that she removed until Ramos could glimpse more caramel skin beneath.

When the last strip of orange silk fell away, Zhura’s impressive bosom was stripped bare, that tanned flesh pouring over Kozi’s hands like batter. Just as a sculptor shapes a ball of wet clay, Kozi began to knead, careful to keep her claws clear as she rolled her counterpart’s pillowy fat between her fingers. She already knew exactly what Zhura responded to – how she liked to be touched and how roughly, making the Rask writhe and gasp in her arms. Seeing her body in motion was captivating, Ramos watching as the chiseled muscles in her powerful core flexed and shifted, exertion and the heat of the fireplace leaving her so lustrous that she could have been drenched in oil. The sight alone was enough to keep him rock-hard and aching.

As big as Kozi’s breasts had seemed, Zhura’s were even larger, their weight draping them over Kozi’s hands in the high gravity. Even a cup size more was a considerable volume by Borealan standards, and these had enough mass that even Kozi was struggling to keep them from slipping out of her grasp. Ramos watched beautiful ripples spread through the pillowy flesh as Kozi manipulated them, weighing them, pinching her partner’s erect nipples to make her buck and hiss.

“Spit,” she ordered, her words jolting Zhura out of her stupor.

Zhura opened her mouth and extended her tongue, letting a fat glob of saliva slide down her chest and into her cleavage. Kozi squashed her partner’s breasts together, spreading it around, leaving her skin damp. Only then did she let them drop, Zhura’s boobs bouncing as they clapped against her torso, somehow able to maintain their enticing teardrop shape even in the harsh gravity. Kozi slid a hand back beneath Zhura’s skirt, then pushed her forward, those perfect breasts spilling across Ramos’ lap in an avalanche of velvet flesh.

He could feel their tangible heft pressing him down into the cushions, then it left him again, Zhura scooping her bosom up in her hands. She slid him into their tight confines, Ramos watching his cock vanish into the shelf of quivering meat, that wonderful weight bearing down on his shaft. Sweat and saliva blended to make her satin skin slippery, his member sliding between them as she began to move, lifting her bust before letting it drop back into his lap. Kozi watched intently from over her shoulder, crawling her lips across Zhura’s neck, each bite and rough lick making her lover shiver. He could no longer past Zhura’s chest, but he guessed that Kozi’s padded fingers were still stroking her beneath her sarong, playing her like a mewling instrument.

His eyes followed Zhura’s breasts as they rose and fell, bouncing against his thighs, the impact making them shake like mounds of jello. She hugged them to keep them tight, and they bulged around her furry forearms, her biceps flexing to hem them in. Ramos would never have imagined that her cleavage could be as narrow as her throat, almost as warm and wet, her soft flesh pouring around his shaft like molten silicone filling a mold. For all the faded scars that peppered Zhura’s body, her skin was as smooth as glass, soft and delicate in ways that he hadn’t anticipated. Her exterior was so harsh and tough, but beneath all those angry glares and all the leather, she was tender – vulnerable.

“Let him fuck your chest,” Kozi insisted, wetting her lips as she watched. This was all a game to her, and she reveled in manipulating them both. “Finish him off before Rashka grows impatient and does it for us.”

Please,” Zhura gasped, doubling over as Kozi teased her. “If you do not slow your stroking…”

“Beg all you like, but I do not care if the runt sees you finish,” Kozi snarled, giving her another hard bite on the shoulder. “Come morning, he will have learned every last one of your secrets.”

Her arm now moving more rapidly, Kozi redoubled her efforts, Zhura sucking her lower lip into her mouth and chewing on it lasciviously as she tried to endure. Ramos began to push into her bust now, lifting her breasts with each thrust, still captivated by their shaking. Everything below his waist was awash with tingling sensation, a sweet, distracting ache driving him on. The brief respite afforded by Kozi’s teasing was over, and he hadn’t the stamina to hold out for much longer.

“You are doing better than I anticipated, Ramos,” Kozi chuckled as she watched him thrust. “I would have expected someone with your…limited experience to succumb sooner. But now, I want you to paint her for me. Give her what she wants…”

Kozi took Zhura by the throat again, pulling her back, her breasts sliding out of Ramos’ lap. Before he had time to be disappointed, Kozi’s hand had replaced them, fur matted with stringy saliva gripping him fiercely as she began to pump. As her tight fist slid up and down his shaft, she used the fleshy pad on her thumb to tease his glans, her fine hairs caressing his skin. He sat up, digging his fingers into the couch, pleasure shooting up his spine like pulses of light through an optical cable. Smoldering desire grew immediate and urgent, the very beating of his heart married to her ruthless motions, his will to resist sapped away with each stroke. He had no control over her tempo – she could finish him off any time she chose, even if he tried to hold back. It was a loss of control that he wasn’t used to but that he found he enjoyed…

A sudden stab of ecstasy rocked him, and he threw his head back, the building tension and pressure finally releasing. Waves of warm, tingling euphoria crashed over him as a thick rope of his seed splashed against Zhura’s chest, draping itself over her breasts. Kozi didn’t let up, grinning as she watched him buck into her hand, each stroke easing out another wad of his emission.

All he could focus on was the blinding pleasure, Kozi prolonging his bliss as she milked him dry, the corners of his vision darkening as he teetered on the edge of what he could handle. The muscles in his core burning with the effort, he gave her one last spurt, opening his bleary eyes to see her gazing back at him. Zhura’s chest was dripping with his seed – he hadn’t even known that he could produce so much – its pearly color contrasting beautifully with her dusky skin. A gelatinous strand of it dangled from one of her perky breasts, a fat glob slowly sliding its way down her torso, following the chiseled contours of her abs.

“Your submission is written on your skin just as clearly as a scar,” Kozi cooed, whispering into Zhura’s ear as she gripped her by the throat. She raised her other hand, her fur wet with Ramos’ ejaculate, bringing it to Zhura’s lips. “Do your duty and clean my fur.”

Zhura extended her tongue obediently, licking away the sordid residue, combing the barbs through Kozi’s sullied coat one finger at a time. Only when her hand was pristine did Kozi lower it between Zhura’s legs, making her gasp as she began to rub again, tightening her hold on her subordinate’s neck to choke off a lustful moan.

Show him,” Kozi hissed, holding Zhura upright as a pang of pleasure made her try to double over. “Let him see you at your most servile.”

A few more practiced strokes of her fingers were all it took, Zhura’s golden eyes lidding as a ripple passed through her body, the sculpted muscles that Ramos had so admired casting dancing shadows on her skin in the firelight as she tensed. Her legs began to shake, the motion making her bosom sway and wobble, her mouth opening in a silent cry as Kozi cut it off with a squeeze. Kozi didn’t relent, eking out every spasm from her writhing packmate that she could, dragging out her orgasm.

Finally, dripping with sweat, Zhura was released. She took in a deep, wavering breath, gripping the edge of the couch with one hand to steady herself as a few stray aftershocks made her shiver. Kozi merely watched with a satisfied expression, confident that she had gotten everything she wanted, cleaning Zhura’s love from her fingers.

Still a little unsteady, Ramos glanced over at Rashka, wondering what she was doing. She hadn’t moved a muscle, merely sitting on her couch with her legs crossed, watching them as her eyes flickered in the firelight. Perhaps this was all just a private show for her personal amusement.

His brain was still muddled by afterglow, his muscles aching, sweat making the open dress shirt that he was still wearing stick to him. He quickly shed it, the heat of the fire keeping the Rask dwelling toasty. They really didn’t like the cold.

Now that all of the excitement was over, he felt rather exposed sitting there on the couch, totally nude. The Rask were far from done, however.

Kozi pushed Zhura onto the couch beside Ramos, lying her on her back, the stringy remnants of their encounter still clinging to her tanned skin. Kozi unfastened the sarong and tossed it to the floor, then knelt between her packmate’s muscular thighs, peppering them with teasing kisses and licks. Ramos couldn’t see what lay between Zhura’s legs from his seat beside her, but he could see a little tuft of soft fur on her mound that was the same blonde color as her hair.

Kozi roamed higher, dragging her rough tongue across Zhura’s taut belly, Ramos watching her abdominal muscles grow more prominent in response. There was still a trail of milky fluid that had slid down her torso, Kozi following it, licking her stomach clean. She straddled her counterpart, locking her in another bawdy kiss, Ramos seeing flashes of pink tongue between their locked lips.

Kozi continued higher, crawling up Zhura’s body until she was practically straddling her head. She turned, lifted her butt, then sat down. Zhura’s face vanished beneath her cheeks, Kozi sandwiching her subordinate’s head between her thighs, shifting her weight a little to get more comfortable on the cushions. Ramos couldn’t see what was happening beneath the loincloth, the fabric draping over Zhura’s chest. All he could see was Zhura’s muscles flexing as she wriggled, her breasts wobbling with the motion, Kozi grinding her hips.

It didn’t take more than a couple of minutes of watching Kozi ride her packmate’s face before Ramos was hard again, the smirking Rask eyeing his erection.

“Will you not join us, Ramos?” she asked sweetly as she gestured to her prone companion as though she was offering him a spread of snacks at a buffet table. “There is room for two.”

He slid down off the couch, feeling the cool flagstones beneath his bare feet, turning to appraise Zhura with the fire at his back. With Kozi sitting on her face near the backrest of the seat, Zhura’s butt was resting at the edge of the cushions, her paw-like feet planted on the floor. The couch was low by Borealan standards, which put it near waist height for him, meaning that she was in the perfect position for him to reach – no doubt by Kozi’s design.

Ramos slid his hand up Zhura’s thigh as he stepped closer, sweat making her skin warm and slick, muscle like bundles of steel suspension cable rising from beneath her cushion of inviting fat as she tensed. Between her parted legs was that little tuft of fluffy fur, and beneath it, her loins. They were puffy and flushed pink with desire, drooling in anticipation, a strand of shining fluid drooping from them. He lay a hand on her belly, bringing the other to her lips, spreading them apart to reveal the rosy folds of her vulva. The sight was enough to make his mouth water, her satin flesh gleaming in the firelight, so slick and ready for him that his thumb could barely find purchase.

“I warmed her up for you,” Kozi chuckled, giving her trapped packmate another swing of her hips as though warning her to keep still.

Ramos drew closer, pressing the tip of his member against her pillowy labia, feeling them slide apart as he pushed deeper. Flesh like pleats of damp silk welcomed him, dragging over his glans, every wrinkle and crease caressing him. She tensed up, and her tightness surprised him, fever-hot walls of muscle clamping down on him like a vise to halt his progress. Her pelvic floor was no less developed than her biceps or her abs. He gripped her hips, having to spread his arms wide, using the leverage to thrust into her. Eased along by the ample lubricant, he slid another couple of inches, leaning more of his weight on her as he felt another spasm of pleasure make her clench.

“Is she nice and tight?” Kozi asked, watching him as she rode her counterpart’s face. “I was surprised by how well humans compare to our own males, considering the difference in stature. Give her a good push – you are not strong enough to hurt her.”

Ramos didn’t need to be asked twice, forcing himself the rest of the way, those narrow walls of sodden flesh parting around him like he was tunneling through them. His hips hit her thighs, his member vanishing to its base, Zhura letting out a desirous moan that was muffled by Kozi’s presence.

“There you go,” Kozi sighed, adjusting her weight a little as she leaned forward. She extended her claws, dragging them from Zhura’s tuft of pubic fur all the way up to her chest, making her arch her spine off the couch. Ramos winced as her insides clenched shut in response, all of those powerful, high-gravity muscles sandwiching him through the barrier of her pillowy passage. “Feel that?” Kozi giggled, plucking at her packmate’s nerves like the strings of a harp. “All of her strength serves at your pleasure now.”

Zhura reached up and gripped Kozi’s thighs in her hands, making her open her mouth in a silent moan. Ramos was still unable to see her face beneath the trailing loincloth, but he could hear the faint, wet sounds of her licking and sucking. He began to move, struggling to pull back out of her, Zhura’s loins gripping him with a fierceness that bordered on desperation. He could glance down and see her pink flesh clinging to him like a second skin, only the abundance of slippery excitement that coated his shaft easing their coupling along.

Her body was always in motion, never still, every twitch and ripple of muscle translating into his member. Her seething passage rippled along his length, the muscles contracting in cruel waves, swallowing around him in the same way that her throat had. There was a sense that her body wanted him inside her on some base, primal level – like it was trying to drag him deeper.

Contending with her massive, powerful frame was a challenge, but he eventually found a slow, heavy pace. He rocked into her, throwing his weight into every thrust, digging his fingers into her hips to keep her from throwing him off. It was a little like trying to ride a mechanical bull, Zhura strong enough to toss him across the flagstones if she bucked too hard. Thighs as long and almost as thick as his torso sandwiched him on either side, able to crush him with a twitch, instead serving as plush pillows that helped cushion each blow. It was like Kozi had said – Zhura’s strength served at his pleasure now.

The absurdity of his situation suddenly dawned on him in that moment. A couple of days ago, he could never have pictured himself in this scenario – not even as a sordid fantasy dreamed up in the dead of night. He wasn’t particularly strong, or confident, or handsome. He had no special experience with wooing women, and he wasn’t a celebrity or the wealthy heir to some mining corp fortune. What they wanted from him wasn’t status or money, nor was it true love or commitment. This was simply how they navigated social situations, how they determined their place in the world – how they communicated.

He could simply be as he was. They didn’t require anything more of him.

Ramos was jolted back to the present by the wracking squeezing of Zhura’s depths, her insides wringing him with another ruthless clench that sent his head spinning. Kozi had reached down and was toying with her subordinate’s breasts, kneading them like a cat preparing its favorite blanket, molding the soft flesh like putty. He remembered glimpsing Zhura’s sculpted body back when she had pinned him against the tractor – the overwhelming physicality that she exuded making him feel like nothing more than a doll in her hands. Now, it was all his to enjoy.

He ran a hand across her taut belly, tracing the contours of her abs with his fingertips, delighting in the way that her lustrous sweat made her slippery. She was like a work of art in motion – a kinetic sculpture, her muscles responding to his every touch by growing firmer, as smooth as stones polished by the flow of a coursing river. He traced a little vein on her hip with his digit, feeling its pulse, his eyes following her collection of faded scars.

“You want to see?” Kozi cooed, Ramos lifting his gaze. She moved her silken loincloth aside, revealing Zhura’s face – buried between her burnished thighs. He could see their lips joining in a lurid embrace, inches of that winding tongue delving deep, rivulets of Kozi’s glistening excitement leaking down Zhura’s chin. “It suits her, would you not agree?”

“Can she breathe?” he stammered, another spasm making him reel.

“Do not worry – she has a great deal of practice. Though, I think it is time we made her a little more comfortable.”

Kozi lifted off Zhura’s face, her juices forming little strands that joined her vulva to her packmate’s lips, Ramos’ heart missing a beat as he watched eight or nine inches of prehensile tongue slide free. She seemed to have rolled it in on itself to protect Kozi from its barbs – not an easy feat.

“Roll over,” Kozi ordered. Still catching her breath, Zhura did as she was told, bubbles of saliva and more lurid fluids still clinging to her face as she lifted herself up. She and Ramos separated, the sensation making them both shudder, then she flopped onto her belly. Kozi was already leaning back against the cushions with her legs spread wide, exposing her flushed lips in invitation, reaching up to brush some of her messy hair out of her eyes as she watched with a smile.

From Ramos’ perspective, Zhura’s wide rear was suddenly rising towards him, her knees resting on the stone floor. She glanced back at him over her shoulder, the anger in her eyes replaced with carnal need, then spread her thighs a little further to bring her butt into his reach.

He had copped an eyeful of her ass straining against her leather pants more than a few times, but he could reach out and touch it now. Her athletic build was not limited to her core – her cheeks were packed with the same firm, gravity-honed muscle to make them round and springy. Fat just as soft and inviting as that of her bosom quivered as she shifted, begging him to take a greedy handful, and he was all too eager to oblige.

His fingers sank up to the knuckle, the taut, rubbery tissue beneath the memory-foam layer of fat growing as hard as steel, forming little dimples. Emboldened, he gave her rump a gentle slap, watching a ripple spread through her cheek like a raindrop disturbing the surface of a puddle. The sound echoed through the dwelling’s dome like a cathedral, Zhura lurching, Kozi leaning over to get a look at what he was doing.

“What was that?” she giggled. “Do it again. Harder.”

“Alright,” he mumbled, giving Zhura a harder slap that made her ass bounce. She flinched, sucking in a hiss through clenched teeth, making Kozi laugh. With their sharp claws, they might not be able to slap like a human could.

Like a hotdog in a bun, he slid his cock between her cheeks, her fuzzy tail brushing against his belly as it waved back and forth. When he felt the heat of her vulva again, he pushed into her, returning to her warm embrace. With a hand placed gently on her head, Kozi eased Zhura down between her legs, making her pick up where she had left off. Kozi was relaxing now, far more comfortable, cupping one of her breasts as she watched her packmate work.

“Do you know what I so admire about you, Zhura?” she asked in a low purr that made Ramos’ spine tingle. “You expect no reward. You service me as though your very life depended on my satisfaction simply for its own sake. You shall be rewarded, of course, but you would do it regardless…”

Ramos began to move again, his eyes following the beautiful indent of Zhura’s spine, watching the muscles in her back and shoulders shift as she went down on Kozi. As much as he disliked the heat and gravity of Borealis, he loved how it shaped its denizens – how it toned their bodies and made their skin shine.