Worlds Apart 2

© 2020 Snekguy. All rights reserved.

This work was made possible by the generous support of my Patrons:

https://www.patreon.com/Snekguy

Disclaimer: This work of erotic fiction is intended for adults only. The story contains the following themes:

romance, muscle, large breasts, size difference, oral, vaginal, tailjob, handjob, cumplay, pregnancy, long tongue, kissing.

CHAPTER 1: CONJUGATION

Jamie ran, his sneakers pounding on the asphalt, his earbuds blaring music as he weaved through the throngs of pedestrians that clogged the street. A pizza box was clutched in his arm, the grease starting to soak the cardboard. The constant motion had probably reduced it to mush by now, but he didn’t care. He passed beneath the rows of trees that were planted along the sidewalk, winter leaving them naked, their gnarled branches reaching up into the sky like skeletal fingers. On the road beyond the natural barrier that they created, cars zipped past, their nav systems coordinating the flow of traffic like shoals of fish.

It was late in the evening, and the sun was beginning to set, the vibrant reds and oranges reflecting off the glass facades of the kilometer-tall buildings that dominated the skyline. Above his head, their spires reached up beyond the clouds, the network of skyways that joined their upper floors creating a maze of streets above ground level. Winding mag-lev rails trailed between them, snaking between the structures.

He arrived at the foot of his residential building and stepped into the cavernous lobby, which took up almost the entire ground floor. Towering pillars of concrete extended into the air, a network of steel support beams hanging above his head, the abundance of glass letting natural light flood in. The core of the building was an open shaft that rose all the way to the roof some five hundred floors above, convection carrying a constant stream of fresh air up through its many levels. There were walkways bridging the gap, and every twenty stories or so was a commercial plaza where the residents could shop.

The ground floor served as a terminal as much as a lobby. There were dozens of glass elevator shafts that would ferry their occupants up through the center of the building. He made for the nearest one, keying in his floor number, watching the city fall away beyond the windows until he could scarcely even see the ground anymore.

It came to a stop, and he stepped out into a long hallway lined with numbered doors. He soon arrived at his apartment, pulling his phone out of his pocket and scanning it across a reader that was embedded in the frame. The panel slid into a recess automatically, letting him pass, Jamie wiping his brow with his forearm as he proceeded inside. He was drenched in sweat from his jog, the mesh shirt that he was wearing sticking to his skin.

The apartment was open plan, one wall dominated by a large window that looked out over the skyline beyond, the rays of the setting sun bleeding in between the high-rises to bathe the room in an orange glow. There was a living area, along with a kitchen that was separated from it by a low wall, the bedroom and bathroom sectioned off behind their own doors. The furniture was a strange blend of shapes and sizes. The couch that occupied much of the main living space was wide enough to seat half a dozen people, and the kitchen table was at about chest height to his six-foot frame, the chairs that surrounded it similarly scaled up. There were chairs better suited to his stature, too, and the counters were at a comfortable height. Even so, it often made him feel like he had been shrunk down to the size of a child. It was necessary to make such concessions when your roommate was a clear two feet taller than you.

The woman in question emerged from the bedroom, leaning against the doorframe, itself scaled up so that she could fit through it more easily. Even so, her eight-foot, five hundred pound frame filled it almost completely. She raised a furry hand to her mouth, opening it wide in a yawn, exposing a set of sharp teeth. Her round ears twitched as she scratched her cropped, blonde hair with her hooked claws, a pair of feline eyes the color of emerald peering back at him groggily.

Hear me coming?” he chuckled, Liz nodding her head.

I got tired of waiting for you, so I took a nap,” she replied.

Her outfit, or lack thereof, caught Jamie’s eye as the door slid shut behind him. She was wearing only a tight-fitting t-shirt in revealing white and a pair of black panties. As large as she was, it was mostly muscle, the high gravity of her home planet having imbued her with a physique that would have put an Olympic athlete to shame. She had never set foot in a gym, and she hadn’t needed to. Just walking around on Borealis was a form of resistance training. He could see the outlines of her abs beneath the fabric, so firm that they could have been chiseled from marble, a pair of weighty breasts that befitted her exaggerated stature straining against her shirt just above them. She hadn’t seen fit to wear a bra, that much was obvious.

His gaze wandered down to her thighs, skin the color of caramel dimpled by muscle, almost as thick around as his torso. Her legs were digitigrade, ending in feet that more resembled the paws of a lion, a coat of sandy fur rising to her knees. Her arms were much the same, her developed biceps smooth, while a covering of straw-colored fur began at the elbows.

She might be intimidating now, but Jamie remembered her as she once was. They had met at age six, when she had been little more than a fluffy kitten in a duck-patterned sundress. The two had quickly formed a close friendship, becoming inseparable, eventually attending high school and college together. As she had matured, she had lost the majority of her coat, and she had sprouted into a young woman. On the cusp of adulthood, they had declared their feelings for each other, but their relationship had been short-lived. Her parents had taken her back to their home planet, and several excruciating years had passed with no contact.

It was only a few months prior that she had returned to Earth, and they had made an attempt to pick up where they had left off. They had discovered that, as much as they had grown into different people, that fire was still smoldering. They liked who they had become, and ever since, they had been making up for lost time.

Sorry,” Jamie said, stowing his earbuds in the pocket of his shorts. “My shift ran late, and I decided to take the scenic route home.”

Her pink nose twitched, and her eyes turned to the box that he was still clutching.

I accept your offering of pizza as penance,” she said, a smile curling her lips. She was always hungry, and greasy, salty foods were her vice.

I’m afraid it may have been turned to paste by now,” he replied, walking over to set the box down on a glass coffee table in front of the couch. “Now I know why they don’t deliver pizzas on foot.”

It’s pizza,” she said, shrugging her broad shoulders. “It was pretty much paste when it came out of the oven.”

I’m gonna get a shower,” he added, making his way over to the bathroom. “You want to watch a vidcast or something when I’m done?”

Liz intercepted him on the way there, hooking one of her black claws into the mesh of his shirt and tugging him to a stop. She leaned down to bury her face in the nape of his neck, taking in his scent, her feline nose cool against his damp skin.

Why the hurry?” she mumbled, her lips brushing his ear. “You know how good you smell to me after a run.”

Her sense of smell was many times more sensitive than his own, she could pick up the very pheromones in his sweat. He felt breasts larger than his head spill over his shoulders as she let their weight rest on him, knowing that it would entice him, flesh as soft as butter pressing against his back through the insubstantial barrier of her shirt.

I get the feeling your pizza is going to go cold,” he muttered, leaning into her as she gave him a gentle bite on the shoulder.

We can heat it up later,” she cooed, Jamie laughing at her seductive tone. “Hang on a sec,” she added, tugging at his shirt again. “I’m actually...stuck...”

He reached over his shoulder, helping to free her claw from the mesh, Liz grinning down at him as he turned to face her. He gave her a playful push, and she retreated back towards the couch, biting her lip in anticipation as she lowered herself down onto the cushions. The frame creaked under her weight, her ample bosom wobbling beneath her shirt as she settled, her nipples already tenting the fabric. Jamie reached down to part her knees, opening her legs wide, taking the opportunity to run a hand up her inner thigh. Her dusky skin was as smooth as satin, a layer of husky fat yielding before his fingers, muscle like iron rising to greet them as she tensed at his touch.

Earth’s gravity is making you softer,” he muttered, watching her arch her back as he took a generous handful of her thigh and squeezed. “I like it.”

Rude,” she mumbled, her cheeks warming as his fingers neared her panties. He brushed her swollen lips through the material, finding it wet with her excitement, a beautiful tremor passing through her massive frame as he teased her. It made her toned midriff flex, the outlines of her muscles visible beneath her tight shirt.

Do me first,” she added, the need in her breathy voice making his member strain against his running shorts. “Do me, then I’ll do you.”

They had been together long enough now that he knew what she wanted, Liz leaning over to get a better look as he knelt between her legs. He brushed her thigh with his lips, leaving a sucking kiss, his oversized partner rolling her hips in frustration.

Stop fucking with me,” she gasped, her claws scratching the leather covering of the couch. A visitor might assume that they owned an especially unruly cat or perhaps a poorly-trained dog, but Liz could be careless with her talons, and the couch was one of their preferred places to fool around.

Jamie finally relented, hooking his fingers around her panties and pulling them aside to expose her. She was so ready for him that a strand of her juices linked the sodden fabric to her lips, her loins puffy and swollen with arousal, their blushing hue making his mouth water.

Liz didn’t give him much time to admire the sight, delving a clawed hand into his long, blonde hair as she drew him closer. He brought his fingers to her labia, parting them, exposing a sliver of glistening pink. She wasn’t configured any differently from a human, save for her size, the delicate folds of her vulva making his heart quicken.

You know,” he began, Liz cocking her head at him as she waited for him to proceed. “Usually, when I get home from work, you’re supposed to ask me how my day has been.”

She chuckled, both amused and frustrated by his antics. That was the thing about Borealans, they liked teasing, they enjoyed games. Making her just a little mad always got her engine revving.

Your day is about to end with five hundred pounds of cat sitting on your face,” she replied, giving his hair a tug that sent a pleasant shiver down his spine.

That was his cue, Jamie extending his tongue, dragging it between her lips. Liz threw her head back, letting slip a low, rumbling growl of pleasure that he could feel in his bones. Her grip on him tightened as he began to lap slowly, mouthing and kissing as he went, her thighs pressing against his red cheeks. She could have crushed his skull like a melon with those powerful muscles, but he trusted her to restrain herself, even as he doted on her.

I need this today,” she sighed, letting herself sink into the couch as he traced the folds of her loins with the tip of his tongue.

You need this every day,” he replied, Liz pushing him back down between her thighs.

You were late, and you know how much trouble I have getting myself off with these claws. Besides, I don’t see you complaining.”

He replied with a teasing lick, making her massive frame shudder. He knew her like the back of his hand by now, how to push her buttons, his tongue roaming up to her swollen clitoris. She bared her sharp teeth as he drew it into his mouth, teasing her with quick flurries, pursing his lips around it.

Yeah,” she mumbled, her claws pricking his scalp as she held him close. “Get me there quick, I’m burning up tonight.”

He pressed a finger against her twitching opening, her lubricating fluids letting him slide inside her up to the knuckle in one smooth motion. Despite her size, she was incredibly tight, her pelvic floor muscles just as toned as the rest of her body. He could feel them squeezing him beyond the wet silk of her undulating walls, wringing his digit in waves, as though trying to ease him deeper. He began to curl it against the roof of her passage, quickly finding her sweet spot, Liz taking a fistful of his hair as she arched her back involuntarily.

Fuck,” she hissed, starting to grind her hips against his mouth. “Use that smooth tongue of yours, keep going.”

She bucked as he rubbed her from within, pressing his finger into her g-spot, massaging it in a slow circle. He kept his lips locked to hers all the while, painting her burning vulva with his tongue, as though pleasing her was his life’s sole purpose. He glanced up at her over her smooth mound, Liz gazing back at him, her cheeks flushed a shade of red. She gave him a sly grin, then reached down with her free hand, lifting the hem of her shirt to expose her midriff to him. He watched those chiseled muscles flex beneath her tanned skin as she writhed, admiring their definition, the faded trio of scars that he was so familiar with trailing across her belly.

He wasn’t the only one who had gotten a feel for their partner’s desires over the last few months.

Jamie upped his pace, feeling her depths clenching around his finger as he pushed her closer to the edge, her breath coming in ragged bursts. Beads of sweat were welling on her caramel skin, glistening droplets following the contours of her washboard abs as they dripped down towards her navel.

God, you’re beautiful,” he muttered as he paused his licking for a moment. “You know that?”

Are you trying to embarrass me to death?” she chuckled, her face burning ever hotter. “Come on, big guy, I’m almost there.”

He couldn’t help but smirk at the nickname as he lowered his head back down between her burnished thighs, Liz loosing a sordid sigh as he slid his tongue between her puffy lips. It was an ironic pet name that she had chosen for him, an in-joke about how he had been a clear head taller than her when they were adolescents. That was no longer the case, obviously. To say that she had filled out would be an understatement.

I’m gonna-”

Liz doubled over on the couch, her heavy breasts swinging above his head within the confines of her shirt, a rumbling growl of lust emanating from her. She gritted her teeth, her pained expression softening as the first pulse of her climax rocked her, her long tail flicking back and forth on the cushions beside her. Her thighs closed around his head, but not enough to apply much pressure, sinking his cheeks into their soft surface as he kept up his licking. Each wave of pleasure made her velvet insides tighten, the powerful muscles in her reaches milking his digit, her juices leaking down his hand as she tried in vain to fuck it. Her orgasm was sharp and fast, Jamie easing out a few stray aftershocks with his gentle lapping, relief making her sag back into the cushions with a drunken smile on her face.

She loosed a satisfied moan, opening her legs a little to set him free, Jamie rising to smile up at her. Liz reached down, wiping away the sagging rope of fluid that was hanging from his chin with her furry thumb, the sight seeming to send another tremor through her.

Little monster,” she grumbled. “Borealans aren’t supposed to show weakness, but you’ve figured out all of mine. You’re getting too dangerous to keep around, might have to eat you.”

You’re welcome to try,” he replied, more aware than ever of his aching erection as it tented his shorts. Liz’s green eyes wandered down towards his bulge, her long, pink tongue emerging to wet her lips.

Gimme a sec,” she breathed, relaxing back into the cushions with a smile on her face. “I’ll take care of you in a minute.”

Jamie hopped up onto the oversized couch beside her, running a hand across her taut belly, the layer of sweat that coated her dusky skin making his fingers glide. It was always warm in their apartment, as Liz had become accustomed to the heat of her homeworld, and she tended to set the thermostat pretty high. Jamie didn’t mind, not when it encouraged her to wear as little as possible.

Ever since they had moved in together, his life had taken on a dream-like quality. The alien had a healthy libido, and they were still enamored with each other, the honeymoon phase of their relationship seeming to drag on indefinitely. Their differences in stature and physiology hadn’t created as many hurdles as he had anticipated. Instead, they had only resulted in more exploration, more experimentation. The carefree attitude that Liz had adopted on Borealis had made her so free, so permissive, modesty and restraint no longer factoring into her decision-making process. When they woke up in the morning, they made love. When one of them took a shower, the other often joined in. When they got back from work, when they went to bed, when the mood took them while they were just lounging on the couch, they held nothing back. As childhood friends who had left so much unspoken for so long, who had been separated for years, there was a lot to make up for. No more hesitation, as Liz liked to say.

Alright,” she said, starting to lift off her shirt. Her shifting made Jamie slide towards her, her immense weight creating a dent in the cushions that drew him in like a gravity well. “How do you want it, big guy?”

Her breasts spilled free of her shirt as she tugged it over her head, clapping against her torso as they fell, the impact making them bounce. Their volume was more comparable to that of beach balls than the human equivalent, large enough to comfortably fill his lap, their weight pulling them into a wonderful teardrop shape. They would have been absurd on a human woman, but they were far more appropriate on her exaggerated frame. She tossed the garment aside, grinning as she caught him staring. She used her upper arms to press them together, her biceps sinking into the yielding globes, Liz pushing her chest out in invitation.

Guess I have my answer,” she chuckled, letting them drop again. She reached out to place a furry hand on his chest, encouraging him to lie back, her ample chest swaying as she dropped to all fours and crawled atop him. Jamie felt her claws on his belly as she slid her fingers beneath his shirt, lifting it enough to expose his torso. Jamie had been on the track team in college, and he had kept up his running well after graduation, giving him a lean figure that Liz seemed to appreciate. She drew closer, extending her tongue, the organ near a foot long. He shivered as she dragged it across his belly, the rough barbs that lined its upper surface grazing him as she sampled his sweat, its tapered tip slipping into his navel on its way past.

You’re wearing these stupid shorts again,” she grumbled, hooking her claws around his waistband.

You love ‘em,” he replied, Liz flashing her teeth in a grin.

She pulled them down, his underwear along with them, freeing his erection. Her feline eyes played over it as she watched it bob in the air in time with the beating of his heart, the vertical slits of her pupils dilating into dark circles. She brought a finger to its tip, wetting the fleshy pad on the end of her digit with a bead of his pre, rubbing gently.

Last one to come has to warm up the pizza,” she said.

But you already...”

His complaint trailed off as she brought her hand to her mouth, extending her tongue again, dragging it across her palm. She opened her fingers to show him the matted fur, soaked with her bubbling saliva, a mischievous grin spreading across her face. She enclosed him in her damp fist, the sensation of her warm, sodden coat sliding against his shaft making him buck into her hand. She began to pump slowly, gliding on a layer of drool, alternating the pressure of her squeezing to keep him on edge.

The lazy stroking of her hand was captivating, her fingers acting as ribs as they slid over his tender glans, the texture of her silky coat downright luxuriant. Her warm, slippery grasp quickly had him lifting his butt off the leather cushions in time with her motions.

As he watched, she sat up straighter, gathering up her breasts as best she could in her free arm. They draped themselves over her forearm like candles melting off the edge of a shelf, spilling between her fingers as she cupped one of them, keeping up her teasing handjob all the while. She was putting on a show for him, creating a deep cleavage as she squashed them together, molding them like putty.

She finally relinquished her hold on his member, leaving it throbbing in the air, his glistening skin joined to her palm by a sagging web of her saliva. She wiped it on the couch absent-mindedly, then brought it to her chest, cupping a breast in each hand. That sly smile returned, and she leaned closer, poising with her chest hovering a scant inch above his member. Jamie propped himself up on his elbows, watching in anticipation as she let them drop, a cascade of wobbling flesh burying his lower body. Her boobs spilled over his waist like cake batter pouring from a pan, so large that they draped over his hips, covering him from his navel to his thighs. His member was completely buried in her cleavage, soft skin slick with sweat enveloping his length, the pleasant weight of her bust bearing down on him.

I’ll hold them,” she began, struggling to wrangle her assets. She gathered them up and crossed her arms over them, hugging them against her chest. The pressure made Jamie’s head spin, her delicate fat forming a muffin top above her forearms, molding around his shaft. “Go ahead and fuck them,” she cooed, those green eyes watching him eagerly.

He lifted his hips, thrusting into her cleavage, the impact sending a beautiful ripple through her bust. Her coffee-colored skin was impossibly smooth, a blend of her sweat and the saliva that still dampened his length making everything slippery, her flesh providing just the right amount of resistance.

She held them there, letting him push into them, his member completely buried in the depths of her cleavage. Jamie couldn’t resist reaching down to take generous handfuls, clawing and kneading like he was shaping wet clay, Liz’s long lashes fluttering. They were larger than her own head, weighty enough that when he tried to lift one from below, his hand merely sank into it. Beneath the supple layer of fat was firmer breast tissue, so deep that he had to bury his fingers up to the knuckle to reach it.

The gentle rocking of his hips made her breasts quiver like a plate of jello, his thrusting sending waves through her bust, like ripples on the calm surface of a pond. She squashed the two spheres together, deforming them in her furry hands, her straw-colored coat contrasting beautifully with her tanned skin. She let more of their weight rest in his lap, the pressure that bore down on his member intensifying, the two walls of satin flesh closing around him.

Liz uncrossed her arms, struggling to grip her ample breasts in her hands, the softness of her fat and the dampness of her skin making it a challenge. They slipped through her fingers, escaping her grasp as they spilled free, but she eventually managed to get a hold of them. She began to stroke him with them, kneading like a baker with a fresh ball of dough, moving them independently of one another. Her bosom seemed to swirl around his cock, the unexpected changes in pressure and tightness making him gasp. It was like being massaged with a pair of silk pillows, Jamie lying back on the couch, letting the pleasant waves of sensation wash over him.

Let me know when you’re close,” she whispered, sensing that he was reaching his limits. She gave him another tormenting squeeze that made the meat of her bosom bulge between her furry digits, the warm, slimy depths of her cleavage narrowing around him. He couldn’t help but rut into them, her flesh clapping against his hips, her boobs bouncing in his lap. She gave him a satisfied grin, crossing her arms around them again, her fat spilling over and under her fluffy forelimbs.

You wear those tight shirts on purpose,” Jamie grunted, hypnotized by the shaking of her breasts.

Nuh-uh,” she giggled, watching him with a wide smile. “You try getting loose t-shirts at my size, it’s impossible. Besides, you’re one to talk, walking around in those short shorts. You know it makes me want to tear them off you.”

You can tear them off any time you want,” he replied, wincing as she gave him another punishing squeeze.

Oh, like I need your permission?”

Liz’s biceps bulged as she tightened her hold, his head lolling back, a twinge of pleasure coursing up his spine like an icy finger.

Come on,” she cooed, her tone turning sly. “Give it up already, I want my pizza.”

He upped his pace, fucking her bust in earnest, Liz chewing on her lower lip lasciviously as she watched him intently. The gliding of her wet skin against his glans, the gentle wobbling of her fat, her teasing squeezing – it all became too much.

Jamie’s back arched off the cushions, his damp skin gluing him to the leather for a moment, a stifled grunt of bestial lust escaping him as he pumped a thick wad of his seed into her cleavage. There was nowhere for it to go, his warm ejaculate quickly filling the pocket that his member had created between her breasts, coating his length in a sticky sheen. Liz held her bust still as she watched him writhe, batting her lashes as he bucked reflexively, globs of pearly fluid leaking down his shaft. Every throb was joined by a surge of tingling pleasure, its intensity making his head spin, the sweet ache of relief permeating him as he painted her dusky skin with his lust. Gradually, the ecstasy subsided, giving way to euphoria that draped itself over him like a warm blanket.

Liz drew back, parting her breasts, Jamie’s heart fluttering as he saw that they remained linked by a sagging web of his emission. A fat droplet of it slowly seeped down her torso, sliding between the twin rows of her abs, the sight making his lingering erection flex once more.

I’m gonna need pizza and a towel now,” she muttered, running a furry finger through the gunk. She pulled it away, watching with drooping eyelids as a rope of it clung to her pad, soon breaking to drape itself over her thigh. “You sure make a lot of mess for someone so small.”

He rose to his knees unsteadily, leaning a hand against the backrest for support as he reached up to cup her rosy cheek. He drew her in for a kiss, Liz leaning into him, delving her clawed fingers into his hair. Their difference in stature had once made them clumsy, her larger lips and tongue struggling to lock comfortably with his own, but months of enthusiastic practice had made them experts. Her slippery coils wound into his mouth, the tapered tip of her organ glancing his inner cheeks as it coiled around his tongue, his alien lover locking him in an embrace so deep and lurid that kiss seemed far too mundane a word to do it justice.

After a few moments, she loosed an affectionate purr, gently placing a hand on his chest to push him away.

Pizza,” she insisted, Jamie nodding his head. He stumbled to his feet, swiping the pizza box off the nearby coffee table and making his way over to the kitchen. He put it in the microwave, then rummage through one of the drawers, tossing Liz a towel. She wiped herself down, Jamie admiring her as she ran the checkered cloth across her generous bust and down her taut belly. Once that was done, she leaned down to pick up her discarded shirt, her breasts swaying enticingly as she pulled it over her head.

It’s inside-out,” he chuckled, leaning on the kitchen counter as the pizza box slowly rotated behind the glass door. Liz shrugged, letting herself fall back into the couch, crossing her long legs as she loosed a satisfied sigh.

What time is it?” she mumbled, glancing at the digital clock that was displayed on a wall-mounted monitor across the room. “We’ve got time to watch something, maybe fuck again if you want to.”

As if I’d refuse,” he replied, amused by her brashness. There had been a time when she had been too shy to express her feelings, when his merest touch had made her cover her burning face in embarrassment. She had returned from Borealis with a newfound confidence, a new directness that he admired. Liz knew what she wanted, she didn’t beat around the bush, she never hesitated anymore. It was a quality that he found himself doing his best to emulate.

There was a ping from the microwave, Jamie returning to her side with a hot pizza, the pair lounging together as they browsed the list of available movies. Liz leaned over to grab a slice, blowing on it for a moment to cool it, then sliding it into her mouth. She chewed happily, using the barbs on her prehensile tongue to clean away the melted cheese from her furry fingers.

Pizza and head,” she sighed as she draped an arm around his shoulder, tugging him closer. “You spoil me.” “I can’t tell if you’re being sarcastic,” he replied, one of her boobs making an admirable pillow as he leaned against her. “But you’re welcome.”

What would the upscale equivalent of pizza and head be?” Liz wondered, idly tapping at the remote.

A candlelit dinner and a hot oil massage?” Jamie suggested, Liz’s bust shaking as she laughed.

Good suggestion. Don’t think I won’t take you up on that sometime. Better grab a few slices for yourself, by the way,” she added as she gestured to the open box with a clawed finger. “This is some good stuff. You should make a note of whatever place you got the pie from.”

I can pick up another one on the way back from work tomorrow,” he replied, relaxing into her embrace as he enjoyed the fading embers of his afterglow.

Ah, here’s something to watch,” Liz said as she hovered her cursor over one of the titles. “Battle for Epsilon. It’s a war movie, those are usually exciting, and they often toss in a romance subplot for the chicks.”

I would not describe you as a chick,” he scoffed.

I don’t have to be a dainty little flower to like romance,” she chided. “Now, cuddle with me, or I’ll pull your arms out of their sockets.”

Yes, dear,” he replied, Liz giving him a grin.

***

The credits rolled, Liz opening her mouth in a yawn, stretching her muscular arms above her head. Jamie sat up straight on the couch beside her, her sudden movement jolting him back to alertness. The sun had set some time ago, their apartment lit only by the rows of text scrolling across the monitor, the pizza box sitting empty on the coffee table along with a few empty snack wrappers. Liz had even used her barbed tongue to lick away the remnants of cheese from the cardboard.

That was pretty good,” he said. “Though, I don’t know why everything has to be a propaganda piece.”

Yeah,” Liz replied. “I get that there’s a war going on, but if there’s no danger to the characters because they’re guaranteed to win every fight, then there’s no tension. They can lose and still come out on top in the end.”

I’m gonna get that shower if you want to join me,” Jamie said, beginning to rise to his feet. Liz placed a hand on his shoulder to stop him, Jamie sinking back down into the cushions.

Hang on a sec,” she said, her tone losing its playful quality. “There’s something I wanted to talk to you about.”

What’s that?” he asked, his brow furrowing. “Is something wrong?”

Ever since they were kids, Liz had always confided in him. He was the first person that she came to when she had a problem.

For as long as I can remember, all I’ve wanted is to be with you,” she began. “I wanted an apartment with a view of the city, and now we’re sharing one,” she added as she waved to the wall-length window. “We both have steady jobs, enough income to live comfortably, and we’ve done a pretty good job of making up for all those wasted years. We achieved all of our childhood dreams.”

I guess we did, didn’t we?” Jamie replied. The thought made his stomach swarm with butterflies, but Liz still had a serious expression on her face, so he abstained from making a joke about owning a pet dinosaur.

We achieved all of our goals, so...now what?” she asked. Jamie cocked his head at her, not quite understanding.

What do you mean?” he said, a twinge of apprehension tying a knot in his guts. “Aren’t you happy?”

Of course I’m happy,” she replied hastily. “I’ve got my Jamie on tap. How should I put this..?” She trailed off, pondering for a moment as he waited expectantly. “We’re on a road trip, right? I’m loving every second of the ride, but I’d like to know where we’re going. Does that make sense?”

Yeah,” he replied, “I think I get what you mean.”

Ever since we moved in together, I’ve been happy, Jamie. All the time. That’s something I never had before, not when I was a girl, not when I was on Borealis. Yet I can’t help but feel like we’re spinning our wheels, like we should be moving towards a goal other than eating takeout and getting each other off, as much fun as we’ve been having.”

It sounds like you have something in mind,” he said, Liz nodding her head slowly.

Have you ever put any serious thought into...kids?” she asked.

Jamie’s cheeks flushed pink, and he blinked up at her, not sure how to respond.

Not...not seriously,” he admitted, reaching up to brush his hair out of his face. “I guess I figured that if you wanted to be with me, you probably didn’t want any. It’s not like a human and a Borealan can...you know. We’re different species.”

I know that,” she sighed. “You’re talking to a xenobiology major, you dork. There are other ways to go about it, though. We’d have options.”

What, like adoption?” Jamie asked.

Adoption is one possibility,” she replied with a shrug.

This is all happening pretty quickly,” Jamie said with a nervous chuckle. “I’ve not even had time to process how I feel about this whole thing yet. This is some pretty life-changing stuff you’re talking about, Liz.”

I didn’t mean to spring it on you,” she replied, “it’s something that I’ve been thinking about for a while. I didn’t want to just throw it on the table without doing a little research first.”

Most people wait until their late twenties, early thirties to have kids,” Jamie continued. “I feel like we’re a little young.”

It’s not like it’s unheard of.”

Well, no, but...” Jamie trailed off. He didn’t want to sound like he was arguing against the idea, as much apprehension as it instilled in him.

When my parents took me back to the homeworld, I met my littermates for the first time since I was a baby,” she continued. “My siblings, rather. One of my sisters had kittens while I was there, and they were the cutest things I’d ever seen. They were small enough to fit in the palms of my hands,” she said, cupping them to demonstrate. “I get all warm and fuzzy whenever I think about holding them. Maybe it’s some kind of Borealan instinct, but being here with you – making love like we do – it’s starting to drive me kind of crazy. My body doesn’t know that you can’t get me pregnant, and it’s like...we keep trying, but nothing ever happens.”

Would adoption fix that, though?” Jamie asked. “Assuming that we could adopt, which wouldn’t be a given, what species would we even choose? There aren’t any Borealan kittens waiting for adoption in orphanages on Earth, I can guess that much. Would you want a human kid? Would you want to go back to Borealis and somehow bring a kitten back with you?”

Adoption wouldn’t be my first choice,” she admitted, “but...how would you feel about it?”

Adoption specifically?” he asked, Liz nodding her head at him. He leaned forward on the couch, running his fingers through his hair as he considered. “I dunno,” he sighed. “It wouldn’t really be our kid, you know? We’d be raising someone else’s child, and as noble as that sounds, it rubs me the wrong way. If we were going to have a kid, I’d prefer it to be related to us, a product of us. I don’t know if that’s even possible in our situation.”

We’re different species,” Liz added, the frame of the couch creaking as she leaned back into the cushions beside him. “We look pretty similar, but that’s just convergent evolution, a product of evolving to fill the same ecological niche. We’re both descended from mammalian ancestors, we’re both predators with binocular vision, we both adapted to stand upright so that we could use our forelimbs as manipulators. We can breathe a similar mix of gasses, eat similar food, tolerate similar pressures and gravities. We both speak, because the conditions of our atmospheres are conducive to carrying sound. But all that said, you have more in common genetically with a mushroom than you do with me. You’d have an easier time knocking up a rose bush. We don’t even have the same number of chromosomes.”

You said that we had other options?” he asked, the way that she shifted her weight uncomfortably making him wary of her reply.

Artificial insemination is one of them,” she began. “It’s not like fertility clinics on Earth stock Borealan sperm, so I’d have to go back to the homeworld to find a donor.”

Whoa, whoa,” Jamie said with a dramatic wave of his hands. “Hit the brakes. You’re talking about letting some Borealan guy...”

No, of course not,” she said with a roll of her eyes. “That’s not how artificial insemination works, Jamie. He’d have to...jerk off into a cup or something. That’s why they use the determiner artificial instead of just calling it insemination. We’d freeze it, then bring it back to a clinic on Earth.”

So, you’d be having the donor’s kid,” Jamie continued, staring at the carpet.

In that case, yeah,” she replied. “I wouldn’t even know the guy, though, he’d just be donating his genetic material. Think of it like donating blood.”

Maybe I’m thinking emotionally and not logically,” Jamie began, “but the idea of that makes me want to track said donor down and force-feed him his genetic material.”

And I thought that Borealans were supposed to be the territorial ones,” she sighed. “The last option would be finding a surrogate. You’d jerk off into your own cup and artificially inseminate a human woman, who would then carry your child in my stead.”

You don’t sound too enthusiastic about that one,” he said, turning his head to glance up at her.

I mean...none of them are ideal,” she replied, averting her eyes. “Which species we might go with is a conversation in itself. I was raised on Earth, but would it be ethical to put a kitten through the same experiences that I had? How would a human child with a Borealan mother turn out? I’m not going to lie, I’d love a kitten, but I didn’t know how you’d feel about that. We’ve been together for so long, but this subject has never come up before.”

I had no idea you felt this way,” Jamie said, reaching out to place a comforting hand on her thigh. His touch seemed to soothe her, and she took his hand in hers, engulfing it in her furry fingers. “Like I said, I assumed that if you were dating me, kids weren’t on the table.”

You don’t have to decide right away,” she added, “I know this is coming out of left field. You can take all the time you need to think about it, I’m not gonna pressure you into making a decision that you might regret.”

I do have one question, though,” Jamie added. “What would you do if I said no? Having a kid would change our lives, it’s a huge responsibility. Practically everything that we do for the next twenty years would revolve around them in some way. What if I’m not ready to give up the lifestyle we’ve built together just yet?”

She released his hand, bringing one of her black claws to her mouth, chewing on it like a human might bite their nail as she mulled it over.

I guess it’s just one of those things,” she replied, the tip of her furry tail twitching indecisively on the cushions beside her. “Being in a relationship is like a balancing act, we have to consider our own wants and needs, weigh them against those of our partner. I’d never try to twist your arm, I’d never hold our relationship hostage to get what I want. I’m not your Alpha, we’re not a pack, I can’t just order you around. But I’d hope that you’d realize how important this is to me, how much I want this.”

It’s really that important to you?” he asked.

I feel incomplete without it,” she admitted, her green eyes turning back to him.

Then, I’ll put some serious thought into it,” he added. “We both knew going into this that it wouldn’t always be easy, that there would be hurdles. We’ve overcome them all so far, and we’ll overcome this one, too.”

Alright,” she said, giving him a reassuring smile.

***

She wants kids?” Mike asked, dealing a deck of cards as he sat across the table from Jamie. It was a Friday evening, just after closing, so he was playing his weekly poker game with his colleagues at the supermarket. The five friends were sitting around a circular table in the breakroom, a cramped space with a few plastic chairs scattered about, a couple of vending machines standing up against the wall. There was a kitchen area with a fridge and cupboards that would have looked far more at home in an apartment, a solitary coffee machine sitting atop the counter.

That’s what she says,” Jamie replied, picking up his cards to examine his hand.

Don’t think that this will just go away if you ignore it,” Abby said. She was sitting to his right, still wearing an apron with the store’s logo emblazoned on the front. Her dark hair was pulled back in a tight bun, and she had a cigarette between her lips, a lazy wisp of smoke rising towards the spinning blades of the ceiling fan above. “When women get all maternal, it’s not something that’s going to wear off. If she says she wants a baby, she’ll get one. Her whole body chemistry is gearing up for it.”

Maybe aliens are different,” Jamie replied with a shrug, but Abby shook her head.

I wouldn’t count on it.”

She’s got the baby-rabies,” another of his colleagues added, eliciting laughter from everyone besides Jamie.

I don’t know what to do,” he continued, pausing to take a drink from a can of soda. “She laid out all of our options, and they’re all bad. I don’t want to raise another guy’s kid, and I certainly don’t want Liz to have someone else’s baby. Does that make me selfish?”

Love is selfish,” Abby insisted, waving her cigarette at him before taking another puff. “We have exclusive relationships because we’re possessive, and let’s not pretend otherwise. We get married because we want exclusive access to a person, we want it in writing, like we’re signing a lease on a car.”

You’re the only one of us who’s had kids,” Mike added, Abby glancing across the table at him. “What’s it like?”

It’s a huge pain in the ass,” she replied, taking another long drag. “Their constant screaming at all hours of the night will make you want to smother them if it means getting a couple of hours of uninterrupted sleep. Every piece of clothing you own will be covered in vomit stains before long, and you’ll be spending most of your day handling human feces. That said, I’ll be damned if our brains aren’t wired to make us love the little bastards more than life itself. You won’t get it until you hold a baby you helped make in your own hands, but you look down at the little dreg, and it’s like...I would literally kill a lion with my bare hands to keep you safe.”

I am both horrified and inspired,” Mike mused.

There must be another option,” Jamie continued, leaning back in his chair as he stared blankly at his cards. “Every time we encountered some unsolvable problem, we found a way. I don’t want to choose the lesser evil, and I don’t want to disappoint Liz. There has to be something that nobody has thought of, something so out-there that I’m the first one to consider it.”

I think you may be screwed on this one, Jamie,” Mike replied. “You can’t beat biology.”

We live in a time when most forms of cancer can be cured with gene therapy,” Jamie replied, “where birth defects can be detected and edited out in the womb while a baby is still a clump of cells. We wiped out HIV with targeted viruses, we cured sickle cell, so why can’t we find a way for two different species to reproduce? Why is that so impossible?”

Sounds like you’ve been doing some research,” Abby muttered, tapping her cigarette against the edge of her ashtray. “If human and Borealan DNA is as different as your girlfriend says, then they’re not even in the same ballpark. The fact that you look kind of similar is a coincidence. You might as well try to splice a dog’s genome with a sea sponge.”

What if it went wrong?” Mike said, Jamie glancing across the table at him. “What if the kid ended up like a Chinese soldier and started fucking melting or something? You read about the kind of shit that happened to the PLA guys in the Sino-American war, right? They tried to turn them into super-soldiers with shoddy gene-editing tech, and it went about as well as you’d expect.”

There are gene therapy clinics,” Abby added with a shrug. “Maybe go ask the experts, see what they say.”

Maybe I’ll do that,” Jamie said, nodding his head. He examined his cards again, then pushed a stack of colorful, plastic chips towards the center of the table. “Raise.”

***

It’s a nice thought, Jamie,” Liz said as she lounged beside him on the bed. She was nude, the sheets discarded somewhere on the carpet, the silver moonlight that bled in through the window reflecting off the sweat that misted her dark skin. She rolled over onto her side, her ample breasts spilling onto the mattress beside him, gravity squashing them together. “I think your friends are right, though. I’m not sure that any gene-editing tech could make it work.”

Why not?” he asked, sitting up on the bed beside her. He was still a little hazy from their most recent bout of lovemaking. “I’m no geneticist, but if they can go in and edit a baby’s genes to cure its cleft lip before it develops, why can’t they do this?”

There are a couple of big issues,” Liz began, Jamie trying to keep his eyes off her chest as she explained. “DNA is made up of two chains that are formed into a double helix, spiraling around each other, and those helixes are bundled up into chromosomes. A chromosome is basically a big package of DNA all wound up like a ball of yarn, makes the DNA easier to manage.”

The bed creaked as she shifted her weight, the motion making her bosom wobble.

When we reproduce, the chromosomes from each parent are combined to make a new genome, which is a hybrid of both. Genes that are recessive or defective in the chromosomes from one parent will be overridden by the other’s. The problem is, each of those genes has to match up with a counterpart. If your genes are imparting different instructions, or if you have a different number of genes, the resulting code is nonsense. It doesn’t work. The same issues arise if you have a different number of chromosomes.”

So, you have to be almost identical to begin with,” Jamie mused. “At least as far as species go.”

Pretty much,” Liz replied. “If there’s even a small mismatch, you’re out of luck.”

I still want to look into it,” Jamie added. “I might take a sick day tomorrow, find out where the nearest clinic is and go pay them a visit.”

If you want to,” she replied. “I don’t think it will do any good, but...thanks for taking this whole thing seriously. I appreciate that you’re actually thinking about it like you promised.”

I always keep my word,” he replied. “You’re really smart, you know that? I feel like I don’t tell you that enough.”

Oh?” Liz cooed, giving him a wry smile.

You know all about biology, linguistics, your job at the embassy would boil my brain if I tried to fill in for you.”

Flattery will get you everywhere,” she purred, rolling over on top of him. She let her breasts settle around his head, burying him in an avalanche of wobbling flesh. Her damp skin was silky smooth against his cheeks, the wonderful blend of her exertion and body wash filling his lungs. “You ready for another round?”

CHAPTER 2: GENETIC DETERMINISM

The mag-lev train zipped along its rail noiselessly, Jamie peering out of a nearby window as he watched the landscape fly past. The track was elevated high off the ground, the streets below little more than a blur, the towering spires of the city gradually giving way to sparser buildings as they reached the outskirts. Ahead of him, he could see the complex that housed the clinic, a cluster of hospital and university buildings that formed their own little settlement amongst the surrounding greenery. They were all whitewashed blocks of concrete and steel, the main structures forming a broken ring around a park area in the center of the campus, the green lawns framed by neat rows of trees.

The train slid to a stop in a nearby station, Jamie stepping out through the automatic doors. It was a short walk to the campus, and after checking a nearby information kiosk, he located the gene therapy clinic. The waiting room was much like any upscale hospital lobby, rows of padded benches lining the walls, a few potted plants adding a touch of greenery to the whitewashed surroundings. Jamie announced himself to a secretary who was sitting behind a desk, then took a seat, waiting for his turn to be seen. There were a few patients occupying the benches, each one being sent through before him, until his name was finally called.

The secretary directed him down a short corridor, Jamie pausing to glance through a long window to his left. He could see through into some kind of lab or cleanroom. Everything in there was white, from the walls and ceiling to the lab coats that the occupants were wearing. Large, expensive-looking machinery with white housings occupied most of the surfaces, many of the employees hunched over them, tapping at touch screens and holographic displays. Jamie watched one of them raise a vial of fluid, holding it up to the bright halogen light strips for a moment before inserting it into some kind of centrifuge.

Another man in a lab coat emerged from a door ahead of him, raising a hand in greeting. This must be the doctor. He was an older fellow with a clean-shaven face, his brown hair just starting to turn gray in places. They introduced themselves, the man waving Jamie into an unremarkable office, the two of them taking a seat to either side of a wooden desk.

I’m told that you’re interested in pursuing fertility treatments with our clinic,” the doctor began, pulling up Jamie’s information on a holographic display that was being projected from a console mounted atop his desk. “When we get clients in your age bracket, it’s usually because they’ve been diagnosed with a condition that makes conception difficult, or they’re in a same-sex relationship. I took the liberty of looking through the medical records that you forwarded, and I couldn’t see anything that stood out to me as unusual in your history. Might I inquire as to what kind of treatment you’re looking for, exactly?”

I have what may be an...unusual request,” Jamie began, the doctor peeling his eyes away from the display to peer across the table at him.

I should warn you that our clinic operates in full compliance with UN law,” he began. “We offer cosmetic gene modification, but no enhancements or other procedures that aren’t deemed medically necessary.”

Oh, it’s nothing like that,” Jamie insisted. “My partner and I are having problems conceiving because, well, we’re different species.”

Different species?” the doctor asked, giving Jamie his full attention. He didn’t seem shocked, more intrigued than anything.

My partner is a Borealan, and we’ve recently started looking into ways to have kids. Adoption, surrogates, and artificial insemination are on the menu, but I wanted to know if there was any hope of us conceiving a child together?”

This is a first,” the doctor mused, scratching his chin as he considered. “I suppose this kind of thing was bound to come up eventually. With more and more alien species joining the Coalition and interstellar travel becoming more frequent, humans and aliens are ending up in closer and closer proximity. I happen to know that the Borealan genome has been sequenced,” he continued, Jamie’s heart skipping a beat.

R-really? Does that mean...”

Unfortunately, just because the DNA has been sequenced doesn’t mean that we know what each individual gene does and how they interact with one another. That will take years of research. I can tell you that humans and Borealans have different numbers of chromosomes, meaning that sexual reproduction is quite impossible. Reproduction in eukaryotes relies on a process called meiosis, where chromosomes from the two parents fuse during fertilization to create a new genome. If the number of chromosomes is abnormal, it results in a condition known as aneuploidy, which in the majority of cases will cause a miscarriage. The baby just wouldn’t develop properly, or at all, because the instructions being given to its cells would be gibberish. Not that fertilization would occur to begin with in this case,” he added, “as the genetic codes of the two parents would be completely incompatible.”

Why is that?” Jamie asked. “We’re so similar, we both breathe oxygen, we both have skin and hair. If we took the gene that tells Borealan cells to develop into hair follicles, why would it be so different from that of a human?”

Take a look at this,” the doctor continued, waving a hand through his holographic display. He brought up an animated graphic of a DNA strand, a double-helix that slowly rotated in the air. “This is DNA. As you can see, it’s made up of two chains, which are joined by structures that look like the rungs of a ladder. These are called your base pairs. Think of them like the binary code in a computer, a set of instructions. A gene is a larger segment of that chain, which works kind of like a program, giving the cells their orders. It tells them how to form, how to behave, even when to die.”

He zoomed the image in, the strand unraveling, a long section highlighted in red.

Humans have around twenty-five thousand genes, though not all of them are active, and some will be superseded by more dominant genes during meiosis. In other species, the order in which they’re arranged, the number of genes, and what those genes do are all totally different. Splicing two completely unrelated genomes together would require perfect knowledge of each gene’s functions, and its interactions with other genes, which can change its function entirely.”

Then, it’s not impossible in theory,” Jamie said as he examined the floating graphic. “It’s just so complex as to be infeasible.”

Sequencing a genome is no more difficult than running the data through a sufficiently powerful computer,” the doctor continued, shutting off the display. “The difficult part is figuring out what those genes do, and there’s no method that we know of other than experimentation. If we have a genome that we know is healthy, and one that we know is damaged, we can compare them to find out where the errors are. We can activate genes in a lab environment, deactivate others, then observe the results. There’s no way to fast-track that process, I’m afraid.”

I see,” Jamie said, his hope fading.

Sorry we couldn’t be of more help,” the doctor said, Jamie giving him an appreciative nod. “If you’re still looking for artificial insemination or surrogate services, that’s something that we can definitely arrange for you.”

Jamie tried to perk up, reminding himself that he was here for Liz. Even if his dreams of conceiving a child with her had been dashed, there were still other avenues open to them.

Tell me about artificial insemination,” he began. “My partner says that if we can secure a Borealan donor, the process should be pretty straightforward.”

***

Jamie arrived back at his apartment to find Liz lounging on the couch, a tablet computer clutched in her furry hands. She was in her usual state of undress, wearing only a pair of tight shorts and a loose-fitting tank top that barely served to preserve her modesty. She didn’t even look up as he entered the room, she was too engrossed in whatever she was reading.

Hey, Liz,” he called as he tossed his jacket onto the coat rack by the door. “I’m back from the clinic. They basically told me the same thing you did, I don’t know why I got my hopes up like that. Guess it was a pretty stupid suggestion.”

He walked over and sat down on the edge of the cushions, Liz looking up from her work, blinking her green eyes at him as he brandished a handful of colorful pamphlets.

I made some progress, though. The doctors over there provide both artificial insemination and surrogate services. They can arrange the whole thing, we just have to decide which one we want to go with. They gave me all these leaflets.”

It wasn’t a stupid suggestion,” Liz shot back, Jamie cocking his head at her. “It was too smart. That was the problem.”

Huh?” Jamie asked, lowering his pamphlets.

We can’t splice two unrelated species together because our understanding of genetics and our level of medical technology doesn’t allow it,” she added, waving her tablet as she spoke. She was going a mile a minute, just like she had when they were kids, and she was explaining some lofty concept about xenolinguistics or exobiology to him. He hadn’t seen her so enthusiastic in a long time.

And?” he asked, wondering where she was going.

And, there are two species that we know of that are more advanced than humanity, at least in that area. The first are the Brokers, and good luck getting them to share any of their technology without a hefty price tag. I’ve been researching all day, and there’s so little information on them that I can’t even work out what they actually look like.”

What’s the second?” Jamie asked.

The Betelgeusians,” she replied, her emerald eyes glinting.

The Bugs?” Jamie repeated, raising an eyebrow incredulously. “You mean the species of murderous insects we’ve been at war with for our entire lifetimes? The species that raze whole colonies without a shred of remorse?”

That’s the one,” she replied, turning her attention back to her tablet. She scrolled through an article, the tip of one of her hooked claws covered by a rubber cap to prevent her from scratching up the glass. “Betelgeusian tech is all organic. Even their guns and ships have genetically-engineered components, each one a purpose-built lifeform designed to carry out a specific role. They have an understanding of DNA that transcends even Earth’s most celebrated geneticists. The problem is, capturing their technology for study is extremely difficult. Their equipment literally dies in captivity, and since they tend to fight to the death, obtaining undamaged samples is rare.”

I’m listening,” Jamie replied, “but I’m having a hard time seeing how that helps us.”

When we were talking about genetics last night, it got me thinking,” she continued. “Back on Borealis, I’d hang out with Coalition auxiliaries whenever I could, Borealans who had served alongside UNN troops. They were a little more mellow than the other natives, and they knew what it was like to live around humans during their deployments. Anyway,” she added with a dismissive wave of her hand. “Borealans like to share war stories, the bloodier the better, and they’d often get to talking about their experiences in the Navy.” She set down her tablet now, giving him her full attention. “This one time, not long before I made it off-world, I was at a banquet hall where a lot of the auxiliaries liked to hang out. There was a pack there that had just shipped home after finishing a tour, and they were talking about something so unusual that it stuck with me.”

What was it?” Jamie asked.

They said that they had been deployed to a planet to root out a Betelgeusian hive that was dug in there, but that the enemy had been inducted. That stood out as bizarre to me, because Betelgeusians aren’t known to surrender, and inducted is a very Borealan term to use. It refers to forcibly making someone a member of your pack, usually through defeating them in a dominance bout. After a little more prodding, they revealed that when they had extracted, they had left said hive intact.”

Wait a minute,” Jamie said, her words sparking a memory. “I remember that, it was all over the news a few months back. The talking heads were going crazy about how the Coalition had voted to let a colony of Bugs join the alliance. I don’t really follow politics, but you couldn’t get away from it for weeks. Everyone was talking about it at work.”

Now you’re on the right track,” she continued, picking up her tablet again. “The planet is called Jarilo, and it’s a rare find. The conditions there are remarkably similar to those of Earth. A UNN fleet was tasked with securing it at all costs and driving out the Betelgeusians who had staked their claim to it.”

And that’s when they surrendered?” Jamie asked.

It’s unheard of,” Liz replied, turning her eyes back to her device. “I could find no other recorded instance of a hive fleet surrendering. Not even a retreat. Epsilon Eridani, Kruger, Valbara. They fight to the death every time, like cornered animals, but something about Jarilo was different. Something changed their behavior, made them more amenable. Take a look at this.”

She turned her tablet around, Jamie leaning closer to get a look. A video was playing, showing a strange creature from the shoulders up. It was a Betelgeusian, Jamie had seen enough footage of them to recognize it, but there was something different about this one.

The Drones that served as the foot soldiers in the Bug fleets wore helmets that blended seamlessly with their carapace, sporting a pair of glowing, compound eyes. This specimen had no such helmet. Its eyes were large, expressive, almost mammalian in appearance. The sclera was a vibrant pink in color, the dark pupils drawing him in. In place of the grotesque mandibles of a Drone, there was a pair of small, red lips that were remarkably human. They almost looked like they had been painted on, and upon closer inspection, they didn’t have much range of motion. Its chitin was iridescent, like mother of pearl, shining as it caught the light. Like a mantis disguising itself as an orchid, this Bug seemed to have taken on a more sympathetic form, its face reminding him of a china doll.

Bugs usually had a long horn that protruded from their foreheads, reminiscent of a stag beetle. This one still retained the horn, but as it rose from her head, the thick stem branched out into two swooping projections. They were ornate, symmetrical, giving the impression that she was wearing a tiara. From her head sprouted four feathery antennae, two of them standing erect atop her skull, while the latter hung down her back like a pair of long braids. Around her neck was a large, fluffy ring of white fur, like an Elizabethan ruff made from the fuzz that one might find on a moth.

Jamie quickly realized that he had given the creature a gender, even though he had no idea what it actually was. It had a distinctly feminine appearance. Uncanny, really.

This is their ambassador,” Liz continued, putting emphasis on that last word. “The hive on Jarilo needed a spokesperson, someone to be their public face, so they just made an entirely new life form that was perfectly tailored to that task. It speaks English, it emotes, and it isn’t afraid to give interviews.”

It kind of looks...”

Human, right?” Liz added. “Jamie, not only do I think that hybridizing DNA from different species is possible, I think it might already have happened. Just look at this thing, don’t you think it has some human DNA in it?”

They could have just made it up to look like that,” he replied. “But...if there really are friendly Bugs out there, if there’s even a small chance that they can help us, we can’t leave it alone. We have to get in contact with them somehow, find out if there’s a way that we can have a kid of our own, made from us.”

To think that I’m the one with a background in biology, but it took your idea to point me in the right direction,” she said as she gave him a warm smile. “You’re not the dumb jock you think you are, you know.”

A broken clock is right twice a day,” he replied with a shrug, Liz chuckling at him.

Now the problem is, how do we get in contact with the people on Jarilo? According to what I was able to find online, the planet has human colonists, and there are several settlements dotted around the planet. The article didn’t mention the hive. Maybe they don’t want to advertise it to the whole Galaxy.”

I’ve had some experiences with interstellar communications,” Jamie said with a grimace, remembering all of the wasted effort he had expended trying to get in touch with Liz after she had left Earth. “It’s either so slow as to be pointless, or it costs enough to empty the average savings account.”

Yeah, I don’t think waiting an eternity to get an email through a satellite comms buffer is the best way to go about this,” Liz replied. “You know...even if we managed to get a message through, and whoever we contacted was able to send a reply, it’s not like they’d ever let a Betelgeusian set foot on Earth. We’d have to find a way to go there to get whatever treatment they might offer.”

Liz,” Jamie began warily, raising his hands in a gesture for her to slow down. “I can already tell what you’re thinking, but this isn’t the kind of situation where we need to be decisive. There’s a thin line between seizing the moment and being impulsive. We have jobs, responsibilities, we don’t even know anything about Jarilo.”

If there’s a possibility-”

That’s all we have right now,” he interrupted, “a possibility. We don’t know what’s waiting for us out there.

If you’re never willing to gamble, you’ll never win big.”

But what if it’s dangerous? What if you get hurt?”

You don’t need to protect me anymore, Jamie,” she said with a smile. “I’m not a scared little girl anymore, I can handle myself.”

I’ve never even been off Earth,” he protested. “How would we even get there? What would we do about our responsibilities here?”

This might be our only chance to conceive,” she replied, her tone pleading. “The alternative is staying here, never taking that chance, never knowing if we made the right decision. We go with one of the other options, and we always wonder. Can you live with that?”

Jamie sighed, combing his fingers through his hair. He was arguing against the only option that sat right with him, the only way for them to have a baby together. So what if they had an apartment to take care of, so what if they had jobs? What was an apartment or a job compared to something as profound as this?

You’re right,” he conceded, Liz’s round ears pricking up. “This might be the most difficult option, but it’s also the best one.”

When is that ever not the case?” she chuckled. She hooked him with her tail and pulled him into her arms, trapping him in a bear hug as his pamphlets fluttered through the air. She pressed his face into her cleavage through the scant fabric of her top, her warm breath blowing his hair as she nuzzled. “Don’t worry,” she cooed, “this will be an adventure. We’re gonna go out there, we’re gonna make this work, and we’re gonna pop your space cherry.”

But how will we get there?” he asked, his voice muffled by her boobs.

Leave that to me,” she replied. “I work at an embassy, remember? I’m in a perfect position to look into it.”

***

The next day, Jamie could barely contain his excitement as he made his way home from work. It was an odd blend of anticipation and apprehension that made his stomach swarm with butterflies. His hope that he and Liz might have a child together had been renewed, but the prospect of going into space – of visiting an alien planet – filled him with fear. He was what the more traveled denizens of UN space called muddy in reference to the terrestrial dirt that they imagined caked the shoes of those who had never been beyond orbit.

Space travel wasn’t fast, cheap, or convenient. Crossing the vast distances between planets could take months, with the passengers trapped in cramped vessels like sardines crammed into a can. Not only that, but he had heard that superlight travel was an uncomfortable experience, the energies that allowed a ship to violate the laws of physics playing merry hell with living nervous systems. It wasn’t something he was particularly excited to experience for himself, but he would brave the ordeal if it meant finding a solution to their problem.

He arrived at his building and entered the lobby, riding an elevator up to his floor. As he stepped through into his apartment, Liz was sitting in her usual place on the couch, her ears swiveling to track him as he entered the room.

Jamie! You’re finally back,” she said, turning to wave him over. He walked over to the couch and flopped down beside her, still coated in sweat from his jog. She wasted no time thrusting her tablet into his hands, Jamie examining the text on the display. “I spent a good deal of time misappropriating the embassy’s resources today to get info on Jarilo.”

What did you find out?” he asked.

Jarilo isn’t like other colonies,” she began. “There are generally two kinds of colonization programs that I could find. The first are supported by the UN. They give citizens of the more populated planets like Earth or Mars a grant to move to a developing colony, and that grant increases based on your qualifications. If you’re a mechanical engineer or a farmer, you can get paid a nice chunk of change to move somewhere like Franklin and start a life there.”

Makes sense,” Jamie said as he scrolled through the text. “They want to reduce overpopulation and get people with the right skillsets to where they’re most needed.”

The other kind are corporate ops, usually mining or some kind of resource exploitation. A corporation will ship out colonists to planets like Hades, where they’re then employed to work on-site. On paper, it’s all above-board. The corp offers them lodging, a steady job, and a chance to start fresh. In reality, these corporations have total control over the colonists. They often pay them in scrip, a currency that can only be exchanged at stores owned by the same people who issued it. They sometimes saddle colonists with debt and make them work it off, too, which turns them into indentured servants in all but name. They’re not scrupulous about who they hire, either. It’s a popular way for people to escape debt or criminal charges. They just take a corporate contract and vanish.”

That one sounds...grim,” Jamie muttered. “So, which kind of colony is Jarilo?”

Neither,” she replied. “At least, not exactly. There are grants available to incentivize people to move there, I was able to dig some up, but it looks like all of the applications have to go through the UNN.”

Why would the Navy have the final say in who gets to settle on a colony?” he wondered, his brow furrowing.

It must have something to do with the Betelgeusians,” she replied, slamming her fist into her furry palm confidently. “There’s a whole fleet in orbit around the planet, and I can’t figure out if it’s there to protect the hive from the rest of the Galaxy or to protect the rest of the Galaxy from the hive. Either way, they aren’t letting just anybody come in and out.”

This sounds like it’s turning into some kind of heist movie,” Jamie muttered, eliciting a chuckle from Liz.

Believe it or not, I was going to suggest that we pose as colonists and hitch a ride on a jump liner, but the Navy presence throws a wrench in that plan.”

I don’t think we necessarily need to go undercover,” Jamie added. “Maybe they’ll let us through if we just explain what we’re doing there?”

So...we tell them we’re seeking treatment, and just see what they say?” Liz asked.

I don’t see why they’d turn us away,” Jamie replied with a shrug. “We don’t have criminal records, we’re not fugitives. Neither of us are war vets harboring grudges against the Bugs.”

What if the Navy is there to keep the Betelgeusians completely isolated, to stop anyone from interacting with them at all?” Liz suggested.

Well, they’re not doing a very good job of it,” he replied. “The Bugs have an ambassador who seems pretty happy to go on newscasts, and there are human colonists sharing the planet with the hive. If the UNN wanted to completely isolate them, surely letting civilians run around on the surface would be counterproductive?”

I guess that makes sense,” she conceded.

If they turn us away, then we can start doing the spy movie shit,” he added. “Until then, let’s try not to act suspicious, because we aren’t...”

Hang on,” Liz said, her feline eyes narrowing. “I just had an idea.”

Does it have anything to do with becoming stowaways?”

No, no. Back in college, when I was studying xenobiology, there was an organization that would give out university scholarships to promising students. They had us sit a special exam one time. Hand me the tablet,” she added, Jamie passing the device back to her. “Here we are,” she said, tapping at the touch screen. “The United Academy of Sciences. They sponsor all kinds of scientific expeditions, they give out research grants, that kind of thing.”

What are you getting at?” Jamie asked.

What we’re planning here is pretty ambitious. It’s never been done before, and if we succeed, the implications for the field of genetics will be huge. What if we contacted the UAS and got them to sponsor us? They’d have a much better chance of getting us through the blockade, and they might cover the travel costs too. I still have some funds left over from my stint on Borealis, but it’s not going to be enough to finance a two-way interplanetary trip.”

I don’t know if we should be making a circus out of this,” Jamie replied, Liz setting down her tablet on the armrest of the couch as she glanced over at him. “Do we really want starting a family to become some kind of science experiment?”

It was always going to be a science experiment, Jamie,” Liz sighed. “If not presided over by Bugs or researchers from the UAS, then the doctors who would be performing the fertility treatments we’d need. The stars are aligning here, let’s not pass up this opportunity.”

There are a lot of what-if’s in this scenario,” he said, rising from the couch to pace back and forth in front of it as he continued. “The UAS might decline, we don’t know if this is even the kind of venture they’d be interested in funding. The Navy might not let us through, the Bugs might not even have the know-how that we assume they do, and nothing would come of it.”

And what if it all works out the way we want it to?” Liz asked quietly, Jamie stopping his pacing. “Wouldn’t it be worth all of the trouble?”

I know how much you want this,” he replied, “I’d walk over broken glass to make it happen. I want it too, I just don’t want you to get your hopes up until we know more.”

I said I wouldn’t railroad you,” Liz added, chewing on the end of her claw as she reined in her enthusiasm for a moment. “We’re a team, not a pack. This isn’t just about what I want, it involves the both of us, and we need to be on the same page if we’re going to go through with this.” She glanced up at him with those green eyes, expectant, hesitant. “So...what’s the verdict?”

Come on,” Jamie said, slipping her a smile. “Of course I’m not going to say no. Let’s get in touch with the UAS and see if they’re interested. We’ll go from there.”

Liz beamed back at him, practically bouncing in her seat.

We’ll make a daddy out of you yet, Jamie.”

***

Another day passed, and Liz soon got her answer from the United Academy of Sciences, Jamie listening to her read off the email from across the breakfast table as he ate.

They say they’re interested!” she exclaimed, her eyes scanning her tablet’s display frantically.

No way. Seriously?” Jamie asked as he set down his spoon. “They’ll do it, just like that?”

They agreed to fund the trip. They called it an expedition,” she added with a chuckle. “Their plan is to redirect a UAS survey vessel to take us to Jarilo, and they say they’ll take care of negotiating with the Navy to get us past the blockade. We’re supposed to meet up with one of their scientists on the ground who will guide us from there. Looks like they already have people doing work on Jarilo.”

They must be studying the Bugs,” Jamie added. “Do you know what this means?”

That we have our ticket to Jarilo,” she replied with a toothy grin.

Not just that. If the UAS is willing to fund the whole venture, it means that they must think there’s a chance it could work, that we might really be able to have a baby together. If their experts had thought we were crazy for even suggesting it, they wouldn’t be shelling out to send us there.”

Holy shit, you’re right,” Liz said, making his cutlery clatter as she slammed her hand on the table. “The UAS works with the best biologists and geneticists in UN space. If anyone would know, it would be them. Maybe they know something that we don’t...”

Let’s send them a reply,” he said, picking up his fork and spearing a piece of bacon. “We’ll need to know when they want this to happen so that we can make the necessary arrangements. A journey like this will take months, minimum. Maybe a year or more, depending on what we actually do when we get to Jarilo. If we’re not working, we won’t be bringing in any money,” he added as he prodded at a fried egg. “We’d better make sure we have enough savings to cover the cost of rent while we’re away, or we won’t have an apartment to come back to. I’ll talk to the landlord, see if they can’t shut off the utilities while we’re gone.”

I should have enough left over from my time living on Borealis to cover it,” Liz replied. “As for our jobs, I don’t think I have enough sick days saved up to take a year-long vacation.”

I think we might have to choose between our jobs and the possibility of having a kid,” he replied with a sigh.

Don’t frown so much,” Liz added, brushing his leg beneath the table with her furry tail. “You’ll get worry lines.”

Getting to Jarilo is the priority, of course,” he continued as he gestured with his fork. “But if everything goes the way we imagine, you’ll be pregnant by the time we get back, and we’ll have no income. That’s not exactly the best environment to bring a child into.”

I wouldn’t be able to work anyway if I was pregnant,” she replied, glancing down at her flat stomach as though imagining what that might look like.

I’m pretty tight with the manager at the supermarket,” Jamie continued. “Maybe I can talk with him, arrange something. Man, it wouldn’t be so bad if it was just a few weeks.”

No job means no maternity leave, either,” Liz grumbled. “This would be so much easier on Borealis,” she added with a frustrated growl that made Jamie’s teeth chatter. “Want an apartment? No problem. Beat up a guy who owns one. Pregnant? Can’t work? Doesn’t matter. You have a support group of four or five people who will wait on you hand and foot.”

Hey, I can wait on you hand and foot,” Jamie reminded her.

I don’t doubt that,” she chuckled. “We might be pushing our luck, but maybe the UAS will help us out? After all, the experiment won’t have concluded until the baby is born, right?”

Maybe,” Jamie said with a nod. “Just be sure to word it very...diplomatically.”

I work at an embassy, it’s my job to be diplomatic,” she replied with a wink.

***

The plan was progressing far faster than Jamie had anticipated. After some back and forth between Liz and the UAS, the date had been set, and it was only a scant few weeks away. Interstellar travel wasn’t something that one did on a whim. The survey vessel couldn’t wait around for them indefinitely, as it had other assignments that were being put on hold.

Jamie had given his two weeks’ notice, and while his manager had been understanding, he couldn’t guarantee that he would be able to rehire Jamie when he returned. It was a pretty low-skilled position, and it would be very easy to replace him. Liz, on the other hand, had fared much better. Her Borealan heritage and her mastery of xenolinguistics made her an asset that the embassy would rehire as soon as she was able to work again. Jamie had also contacted their bank to make sure that they would continue to pay the rent on the apartment while he and Liz were away, because they would be out of contact while in deep space.

The only way to get messages between planets fast enough that the recipient hadn’t died by the time it arrived was through a network of quantum-entangled satellites. They were outrageously expensive to build, and they were only capable of sending small packets of data at a time. Official messages from governments or the Navy were bumped up the queue, while civilian messages usually languished in the comms buffer while they waited for a slot to open up. For a vessel traveling through deep space, communication was impossible, as it was limited by the slow crawl of light speed. If your target was twenty light-years away, then it would take twenty years for a tight-beam laser or a radio transmission to reach it.

Going into space didn’t just remove a person from their familiar surroundings, it severed all connections with everything that they knew. Jamie wouldn’t even be able to look up the news on his phone or make a call out there. After living his entire life in an environment where all the information he could ever need was just a tap away, and every device from cars to refrigerators was connected to a planet-spanning network, being unplugged was an odd prospect. Liz was nonplussed, as she had spent three years living on Borealis, a planet where running water was considered cutting edge.

The days flew by, until finally, it was time to face the music. It was an overcast morning when they left their residential building for what could be the last time in months, a chill wind creeping beneath Jamie’s jacket as he hauled two suitcases towards a taxi that was waiting for them on the curb. Liz followed after him, her Borealan strength letting her carry far more baggage than he ever could. She was wearing her signature bomber jacket, its collar lined with fur, the brown leather creaking as she tossed the bags into the back of the van. She dusted off her hands, then planted them on her hips, watching as Jamie slammed the door shut.

I hope we didn’t forget anything,” she said, turning to glance up at the towering facade of their building. It was so high that the spire was out of view, shrouded in a layer of clouds. “If we remember that we left the stove on when we’re out past Pluto, it’s not like we can ask the pilot to turn the ship around.”

I think we’ve done all that we can to prepare,” Jamie replied, making his way around to one of the sliding passenger doors. They had opted to hire a van rather than a car, as Liz was too large to fit inside a conventional taxi. She joined their baggage in the compartment at the rear, sitting down the floor, hunching over to avoid hitting her head.

Comfortable?” Jamie asked, peering back at her.

It is what it is,” she grumbled.

Jamie directed the nav computer to take them to the spaceport, the van pulling out into the street, matching speed and distance with the other cars to optimize the flow of traffic. He lounged in the passenger seat, fiddling with his phone as the taxi weaved its way along.

I’m making sure to max out my storage with as much media as I can get,” he explained. “Movies, shows, music, whatever I can find. We’re going to need the entertainment when we’re cooped up on that survey ship for God knows how long.”

Depends on the speed of the ship,” Liz explained, bracing her arms against the sides of the compartment to steady herself. “Jarilo is in the 70 Virginis system, which is about sixty light-years away. The jump carrier I hitched a ride on when I left Borealis could do twelve a month, so that’s like...five months. A smaller ship isn’t necessarily faster. It depends on the capacity of the generators. I have no idea what the UAS survey vessel can do.”

Here’s hoping it’s not a ten-month round trip,” Jamie sighed.

You think you’re going to be bored out of your mind because you’ve never been away from your phone,” Liz added, “but this is going to be a totally new experience. You’ve never even left the city, but you’ll be going into deep space, you’ll be visiting a totally alien planet. You’re not going to be bored, trust me.”

What if I do get bored?” he asked, turning to glance back at her.

We’ll be stuck in a tiny cabin for weeks,” she replied with a knowing smile. “I think we can find some creative ways to pass the time.”

The taxi pulled onto the freeway, the vehicles that clogged the lanes moving together like a shoal of fish, their chassis glinting in the light of the rising sun that was slowly burning away the clouds. The towering skyscrapers gradually thinned out, giving way to rolling countryside. It took a good hour for the spaceport to come into view, Jamie leaning forward to get a look out of the windshield at an SSTO as it took off, the plane’s boosters burning brightly as it rose into the azure haze.

The green fields and farmland abruptly gave way to a massive, sprawling complex, almost a self-contained city in its own right. There were several terminals of curving glass and steel, each one linked by a complex network of mag-lev rails and roads, the tall control towers looming above it all. The surrounding area was occupied by long runways and huge landing pads, the sight of a cargo crawler the size of a building trundling along on its tank tracks drawing Jamie’s gaze.

The base of the orbital tether was located nearby, a several-meter-wide strand of what looked like black cable rising up into the sky until it vanished from view. It was anchored to the Earth by a skeletal, ring-shaped structure made of exposed beams and hefty machinery that was the size of a building in its own right, flanked by sturdy supports that extended deep into the ground. Jamie could see the mag-lev rails that led into the structure, but the passenger car that ran up and down the cable was out of view. Despite its immense size, this was only a transit tether, intended for civilian use. The larger variety were located off the coast, their anchors ringed by artificial islands that serviced waterborne cargo ships. They were intended solely for goods, not passengers. Massive interstellar freighters would dock at the stations in orbit that served as their counterbalance, loading and unloading cargo from around Coalition space that would then be ferried up and down the elevator.

The taxi slid into a parking spot, Jamie hopping out onto the asphalt, glancing around to see an ocean of cars. Liz soon emerged from the rear compartment, stretching her arms above her head, glad to be free of the cramped interior. Jamie went to find a baggage cart, and they piled their belongings into it, Liz pushing it as they made their way to the terminal. They stepped through the automatic doors, emerging into a long, squat structure.

The roof was mostly glass, like a giant greenhouse that let the sunlight bleed in. The majority of the building was taken up by a large concourse that was lined on either side by stores and restaurants, escalators and elevators leading to the higher floors. Even this early in the morning, it was packed with crowds of people who were hurrying to catch their next flight.

Which gate are we leaving from?” Liz asked, Jamie pulling up his phone.

Twenty-eight. It’s right at the other end of the terminal.”

Lovely,” she grumbled, pushing the cart along behind him. They passed by dozens of storefronts, the scents of cooking food distracting Jamie as he weaved his way through the throngs of weary travelers.

You want to get some breakfast?” he asked, turning to glance back at Liz. “We’re here a good couple of hours early.”

Sure,” she replied. “I don’t expect the galley in the survey ship is going to be serving filet mignon. This might be our last chance to get some comfort food before we leave.”

They steered their cart into a fast food restaurant, choosing a small table at the back of the room. The seating wasn’t sturdy enough to handle Liz’s weight, so she sat down on the floor, the table still at a comfortable height due to her stature. After examining the laminated menus, they ordered burgers and fries, Liz eating portions large enough for five people. While a human needed two-thousand calories a day to function properly, Borealans needed ten-thousand calories to maintain their enormous bodies, and plenty of protein. An employee wearing a colorful apron brought over a stack of cheeseburgers that would have looked more at home on a buffet table, Liz lifting one to her mouth and taking a generous bite. Meat and cheese was her favorite combination, so greasy fast food ticked all of the boxes.

You’ve been to space before,” Jamie said, pausing to take a bite of his burger. “What was it like?”

I spent about a year in space,” she replied, extending her long tongue to lick some of the grease from her furry fingers. “And that was just traveling to and from Borealis. Six months there, six months back. I’m not sure what I could tell you that isn’t already obvious, though. You’re in a cramped, sterile environment for long periods of time, and you’ll have to endure several jumps to get where you’re going. That part is never very pleasant.”

Do they really hurt as much as people say they do?” he asked warily.

Liz pondered for a moment, taking another wet bite of a burger. They were so small in her giant hands, barely the size of a slider by human standards.

It’s not that it hurts, exactly,” she replied. “You might get muscle cramps and migraines, those hurt, but it varies from person to person. When a ship performs a superlight jump, it briefly exits reality as we know it, traveling into a higher dimension where the laws of physics no longer prohibit faster than light travel. We can’t break that speed limit here, so we just send the ship somewhere we can. The downside is, living nervous systems don’t do well there. Something about its properties stops them from functioning right. It doesn’t matter that you’re inside a ship or wearing a spacesuit. It’s something to do with the way that the fundamental laws of physics differ in that dimension. You’ll lose consciousness, and your nerves will go haywire, resulting in muscle spasms and disorientation when you come to. It’s good practice to use the manacles on the crash couches and to bite down on a bit so that you don’t accidentally bite your tongue off.”

I thought you might try to dress it up a little for me,” Jamie grumbled, dipping a fry into his ketchup.

There’s no way to sugarcoat it,” she replied with a shrug. “It sucks, but it’s not dangerous as long as the right precautions are taken, and it gets a little easier each time you do it. I’ve even heard stories of ship captains who can remain standing on their bridge during a jump because they’ve done thousands of them. Don’t worry,” she added, brushing his leg with her tail beneath their table in an attempt to reassure him. “The jumps will be weeks apart, and we’ll only be doing a few. Maybe half a dozen, depending on the ship. The rest of the journey should be pretty relaxing.”

I guess taking a few months off work to hang out isn’t so bad,” he said, perking up a little.

They finished up their food, then proceeded through the terminal, reinvigorated by their full stomachs. They soon arrived at a security checkpoint, where they were met by a pair of uniformed guards who were screening a queue of people. Liz and Jamie hauled their bags onto a conveyor that passed them through a scanner before sending them to be loaded, then they were waved forward.

Jamie lifted his arms as one of the guards passed a handheld device over his jacket, checking for weapons and contraband. Upon finding nothing, he waved him through the gate, Jamie turning to watch Liz step forward.

The guard hesitated as he glanced up at her towering, eight-foot frame, failing to conceal his alarm. Liz didn’t stand out so much in the spaceport, it was one of the few places on Earth that one might expect to encounter an alien, but the reputation that the Borealans had garnered for being belligerent preceded them wherever they went. Liz wouldn’t have swatted a fly if it could be avoided, but the guard had no way of knowing that. All he could see were the claws, the rippling muscles, and the bomber jacket.

He lifted his scanner, wary of getting too close as he ran it over her midriff, probably operating at the greatest distance the sensor would allow. She was tall enough that he had to stand on his toes to reach her torso, waving the device over her leather jacket. He was visibly relieved when he confirmed that she didn’t have any concealed weapons, motioning for her to carry on. Liz gave Jamie a toothy grin as she joined him on the other side of the gate, and they began to load their carry-on bags back onto the cart.

Hey, look,” Jamie said as he gestured to another row of stores. “Duty-free. Want to load up on some tax-exempt booze for our trip?”

You know Borealans can’t hold their drink,” she replied, “but go ahead. Getting plastered is a good way to pass the time, right?”

They made their way into one of the stores and began to peruse the shelves of glitzy jewelry, drinks, and gaudy souvenirs. Jamie picked up a small shopping basket on his way to the alcohol section, where he selected a few choice bottles of spirits, Liz idly spinning a rack loaded with colorful badges while she waited.

Hey!” Jamie called to her, alarming a tourist who was browsing nearby. “They have snacks over here, I know you won’t say no to those.”

That got her attention, and she strode over to join him, the tourist slinking away when he saw the fearsome alien approaching. Such reactions had bothered Liz when she was younger. Her alien heritage had been a source of embarrassment for her, and she had taken great pains to hide her Borealan features beneath mittens and beanies. She had even tucked her tail into her pants in an attempt to avoid drawing attention. She had returned from the homeworld prouder and more confident, no longer fearing the curious stares of strangers.

What have they got?” she asked, ignoring a display of exotic chocolates and candies completely. Her kind weren’t very sensitive to sweet flavors, so sugary treats were of little interest to her.

Beef jerky,” Jamie cooed, waving a packet of smoked meat at her. She looked conflicted, like a drunk eyeing an open bottle of bourbon after months of sobriety, but she soon caved. He laughed as she scooped an armful of the plastic packets off the shelf, dumping them into the little basket he was carrying.

Might as well indulge,” she muttered. “We can probably fit them in one of the bags.”

Don’t worry,” he added, giving her a playful nudge with his elbow. “The UAS is paying for the elevator ride, so we don’t have to worry about bringing a few extra pounds aboard.”

They paid for their goods, then located their gate, taking a seat on the rows of benches nearby as they waited. For once, there were seats large enough to be comfortable for a Borealan, so Liz didn’t have to sit on the carpet. Rather than sit a few feet away from her on the human-sized benches, Jamie elected to take a turn on the floor by her side. He leaned back against the wall, idly scrolling through his phone as he glanced around the terminal. There were quite a few people milling about, also waiting for their turn to the ride elevator up into space. It looked like it was going to be fairly packed. The company that operated the tether wanted to get their money’s worth, no doubt.

Have you ridden one of these things before?” Jamie asked, glancing up at his companion.

A couple of times,” she replied. “It’s a much smoother ride than a shuttle, I’ll tell you that much. It takes a few hours to get up to the station, but it’s kind of like being in a giant elevator car, which I suppose is pretty apt. You can look out of the windows, watch the Earth slowly fall away.”

Any last messages you want to send before we leave?” Jamie asked as he tapped at his phone. “I’m sending one to my parents.”

What did they say when you told them where we were going?” Liz asked.

Not a lot,” he replied with a shrug. “We haven’t talked much since I moved out. They weren’t exactly overflowing with support after you left.”

You’d be surprised how easily a cute grandchild can reel in wayward relatives,” Liz replied, reaching down to ruffle his hair affectionately.

It took another hour before their ride arrived at the gate, a mag-lev train with several cars pulling up to the terminal. A small gantry extended as its doors opened automatically, a good eighty people starting to form a queue as they boarded. Before long, they were packed into the seats, the train starting to accelerate along its rail as it veered away from the terminal. To Jamie’s right, he could see the anchor of the tether through the windows, looming ever larger as they neared it.

The base of the structure stood several stories tall, concrete buildings that might be control rooms, warehouses, and boarding areas built into the exposed superstructure. Between them emerged a set of eight giant pylons that somewhat resembled oversized pistons. They were used both for securing the massive, sixty-thousand-kilometer cable and for making minute adjustments to its angle and tension to keep the orbiting station at the other end in the correct position. The structure that joined everything together was made up of naked beams and supports, like a giant, metal rib cage that enclosed the anchor.

The mag-lev made a semi-circle around the base, its rail raised a good twenty feet off the ground, eventually sliding into a cavernous hangar. It resembled a train station, with a concave roof made from exposed support beams and panes of glass that let sunlight shine through, half a dozen other magnetic tracks terminating here. Jamie gripped the handhold above his head to steady himself as the train slid to a stop, the automatic doors opening again to let the occupants dismount. He and Liz stepped out onto one of the platforms, the other passengers giving his alien companion a wide berth as though afraid that she might step on them.

At the far end of the station were a series of doors that led deeper into the building, the crowd slowly flowing in their direction. They stepped through onto a ring-shaped platform that encircled the base of the monstrous cable, the roof above their heads covered over by concrete this time, rather than glass. Ahead of them was the passenger car, a circular climber that attached to the cable like a steel fitting around a garden hose.

It was even larger than the train, and it could hold many more people, Jamie able to see a few passengers who were already milling about inside through the many round windows that lined its white hull. It looked almost like an old space capsule, albeit many times the size, tapering into a conical shape at the top to diminish air resistance during the climb. He was a little unnerved to see the housings for the flotation devices that ringed the base, designed to be deployed in the event of a malfunction that required it to detach from the cable and fall back to Earth. How exactly it did that when it seemed to be built around the cable, he wasn’t quite sure.

They began to load into the car, walking along gantries that led to the open hatches, Liz having to duck to avoid hitting her head as she stepped through. The interior was the same white color as the hull, the deck carpeted in UN blue. There were rows of seats that faced outward from the cylindrical bulkhead at the center, arranged on an incline, kind of like the seating in a theater. The other occupants were already loading their belongings into the baggage compartments above their seats, helped by a crew of half a dozen uniformed stewardesses. One of them walked up to Liz and greeted her, remarkably nonplussed by the sight of the giant alien. She had probably seen several in her time.

We have Borealan seating this way, Ma’am,” she said, leading her around the circular compartment until they reached a set of larger seats. They were more like office chairs, with a cutout below the backrest, perhaps more suited to species with tails. Liz thanked her, then took a seat at the far right of the row, meaning that Jamie could sit in a human-sized seat beside her. As Liz began to stow their bags, he noticed that the passenger compartment wasn’t an unbroken ring. There was a wall blocking the way to his left. Upon closer inspection, he realized that it was a sealed booth for the crawler’s operator. He could see someone sitting at a control panel through a small window.

I didn’t expect it to be this big,” Jamie muttered. “There are bathrooms, stewardesses, enough room to get up and walk around. It’s more like an airliner than what I was imagining.”

It’s a smoother ride than an airliner,” Liz replied, slamming the baggage compartment above their seats shut. “By the time we’re going to be traveling at any real speed, we’ll be beyond the atmosphere.”

A few minutes passed, and then the seatbelt signs above the windows ahead of them came on, Jamie fastening his harness around his waist. There was a crackle as a woman’s voice came through sets of speakers that were spaced around the compartment, the chatter of conversation dying down. One of the stewardesses began to list off safety instructions, informing them of what to do during an emergency separation and letting them know to remain seated until the climber cleared the upper atmosphere.

The car began to move, Jamie feeling no vibrations of any kind, which suggested that it must use a mag-lev system similar to the train that they had ridden here. It quickly cleared the anchor, rising into the air, Jamie watching the surrounding countryside shrink away. In only a few minutes, they were nearing the cruising altitude of a plane. The car was going straight up, it had no need to gradually gain altitude as an aircraft would.

They sped up through the clouds, the city coming into view in the distance. At this altitude, the mile-high skyscrapers were no larger than chopsticks, the sun reflecting off their thousands of windows to make them glitter like diamonds in the morning light. Beyond the urban sprawl was the shining ocean, fading into the atmospheric haze at the limits of his vision.

As soon as the seatbelt sign turned off, Jamie hurried to one of the round windows, pressing his face against the glass as he tried to get a look down. Because of the upward slope of the hull, he couldn’t see the tether directly below, but he could see the endless expanse of the planet as the flat horizon slowly began to curve.

Take a good look,” Liz said as she joined him by the window, planting a hand on his shoulder. “This might be the last you see of Earth for a while.”

I can’t believe I’m really going into space,” he said, turning to glance up at her. “It’s surreal. I work at a supermarket, I don’t make enough to be a tourist, I shouldn’t have any reason to be here.”

Space elevator-induced imposter syndrome,” Liz mused, ruffling his blonde hair. “That’s a new one. Just wait until you see the planet in its entirety. It’s a strange feeling, seeing everything that you’ve ever known reduced to a tiny, blue marble that could fit in the palm of your hand.”

A few more of the passengers had risen from their seats now, milling about the compartment, admiring the view. The stewardesses soon reappeared to offer refreshments, and Jamie was surprised to see that alcohol was allowed onboard. It wasn’t exactly a first-class experience, but it was turning into a far more enjoyable ride than he had been anticipating. It was kind of like riding a very spacious and well-furnished bus.

Before long, the sky above became an inky black, the cold, naked stars starting to twinkle. They must be approaching the limits of Earth’s atmosphere now, the cusp of space. The world below only grew rounder as time passed, like a fisheye lens filter was gradually being applied to it, the finer details becoming less defined.

Keep an eye out for the station,” Liz said, gesturing to the ceiling. “You should be able to get a pretty good view of it when we get close enough. We’re probably about halfway up by now.”

CHAPTER 3: VECTOR

Another couple of hours passed, Jamie only leaving his place at the window to eat a meal that was offered to him by a stewardess. It wasn’t especially good, bringing to mind the age-old jokes about airline food, but travel had made him ravenous. Liz was similarly unimpressed, but at least they had given her a larger portion. All things considered, they were very accommodating of aliens. They probably had to be, as this was one of the few places on Earth that they were likely to pass through regularly.

The Earth was finally small enough for him to see it in its entirety. It was about the size of a basketball now, framed against the black backdrop of space, its azure oceans making it shine like a jewel as it reflected the unfiltered glare of the sun. Jamie hadn’t imagined that the tether would be so absurdly long. It was a little unnerving, being so deep into the void, so exposed. There was only a pane of reinforced glass, or maybe some kind of transparent polymer that separated him from the instantaneous death that lay just a couple of inches away. This far out, the gravity of the Earth barely had any effect. It was only the climber’s AG field that was keeping their feet rooted to the carpet.

Check it out,” Liz said, “you can see the station.”

Really?” Jamie asked, squinting into the darkness. “I don’t see anything.”

Oh yeah, I forgot that my eyes are better than yours,” she chuckled. “It might take a few more minutes.”

She was right, as usual, the glint of the station soon coming into view. At this distance, he couldn’t make out much detail, but that gradually changed as they approached.

Their tether wasn’t the only one, he realized. There were a dozen or more that converged on the underside of the station, what looked like an upside-down dome made from white metal. He could see hundreds of glittering windows, the long cables disappearing into recesses in the hull. It was hard to tell with no frame of reference, but as they neared, he guessed that the disk was maybe three thousand feet across.

That’s the underside of the station,” Liz explained. She had been here before, likely to this very station. “This one is called American Terminus because it has tethers in both hemispheres.”

Why is that?” Jamie asked, watching the disk loom above them.

A conventional space elevator can only be tethered to the equator,” Liz explained. “You couldn’t have one in the states, or in Argentina, because it would be pulled out of its orbit. Instead, these stations have multiple tethers that terminate in both hemispheres. They serve several countries at once. This one has anchors in Canada, the USA, Argentina, Brazil, Mexico. They all end up in the same place.”

Look!” Jamie exclaimed, pressing his nose against the glass. Along a nearby tether sped a large, cylindrical pod, several times the size of their own climber. It was heading back towards Earth, quickly vanishing from view.

That’s probably a cargo crawler,” Liz said. “It’ll be full of shipping containers.”

Is the station just this upside-down dome?” Jamie asked.

No, that’s just the lowest segment where the crawlers dock. There’s a central pillar that runs up vertically through the station, like the trunk of a tree. Right at the top are the docks, huge berths that are open to space. That’s where the jump freighters come in to unload their cargo. Beneath those are several disks that branch off from the central structure, stacked one on top of the other, kind of like pineapple rings. They don’t spin like you might imagine because gravity is provided by the AG fields, so they’re stationary. That’s where the crew lives, where the hotels are, that kind of stuff.”

How big is it?”

Not sure,” she said, scratching her chin with one of her claws. “If I remember, it was at least six thousand feet tall. It’s pretty huge.”

It’s over a mile tall?” Jamie mused, trying and failing to get a better look.

It’s big,” she confirmed with a nod. “Like I said, this thing services the entire American continent.”

The seatbelt signs came on once again as the cavernous opening above swallowed them, casting them into shadow as it blotted out the sterile glare of the sun. Jamie returned to his seat reluctantly, strapping in, the voice of a stewardess echoing through the speakers.

Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to American Terminus Station. We hope that your ride with us has been a pleasant one. Please remain seated while the seatbelt sign is on. Be sure to remove all bags and belongings from the overhead storage compartments once the crawler has come to a full stop. Checked baggage will be unloaded from the cargo bays shortly. Please proceed down the gantries, and follow the colored arrows to reach the baggage reclamation area.”

Jamie felt the floor vibrate beneath his feet, a tremor rocking the crawler as what must have been docking clamps locked it into place. Once he could leave his seat, he made his way over to the windows, but all that he could see was the featureless metal of what must be a docking bay.

The sealed hatches that were spaced out at intervals along the hull popped open, stale air rushing into the passenger compartment. It smelled metallic, processed, like an air vent exhaust in a tall building. The oxygen that he was breathing had probably been recycled innumerable times.

He and Liz loaded up with their bags, following the crowd of travelers as they slowly filed out onto a ring-shaped platform that surrounded the crawler, not dissimilar to the one in the anchor back on the ground. Large doors led out into a subtly curving corridor that was wide enough for five or six people to stand shoulder to shoulder, far more spacious than Jamie had been anticipating. The ceiling was even high enough that Liz didn’t have to duck.

All of the exposed hull material was white, making him feel a little like he was in a hospital, while the carpet was the same UN-blue that he had seen in the crawler. He soon found the arrows that the stewardess had mentioned, a series of color-coded lines painted onto the walls, each one leading to a different part of the station. He read off the names as he walked by. Main elevator, customs and immigration, baggage reclamation, bathrooms, maintenance.

The gaggle of chattering travelers turned off into an expansive room, a series of conveyor belts slowly winding their way along. This was where the baggage would be unloaded, identical to what one would expect to see in an airport. After a few minutes of waiting, a myriad of backpacks and suitcases began to emerge from an opening in the far wall, the passengers crowding around as they collected their respective belongings.

Jamie and Liz proceeded on, making their way out into another corridor. Jamie paused to examine an information kiosk, pulling up a map, and checking it against his phone. As Liz had described, the station was made up of a huge central tube that ran vertically through half a dozen pancake-shaped disks, terminating in a large dock at the top of the structure.

We’re supposed to go to umbilical D-twelve,” Jamie said, squinting at the map. “I see, each section has a letter. We’re in F right now, so we need to take the elevator two levels up.”

Lead the way, navigator,” Liz said as she hoisted one of their packs over her shoulder. They made their way inward towards the central pillar, following another of the color-coded lines, Jamie lamenting that they were moving further away from the windows. He wanted nothing more right now than to get a look outside. Liz seemed to pick up on his excitement, smiling down at him as she loped along by his side.

You’re like a little kid with a new toy,” she chuckled. “You were never into this kind of stuff when we were younger. The only thing you ever seemed interested in was running track. One would think that dating an alien would make you curious about space travel, but no, Jamie’s eyes are fixed squarely on the asphalt.”

A man can broaden his horizons,” Jamie replied, leading her up to the wide elevator doors. He tapped at the touch panel, waiting for them to open.

You’re a dork,” she chuckled, giving his butt an affectionate whip with her tail.

The doors slid open, Jamie and Liz stepping aside as another dozen people came pouring out of the car, making their way down the corridor. When Jamie stepped inside, he noted that there were surprisingly few buttons on the touch panel, far fewer than there were in the residential buildings that he was accustomed to. Technically speaking, this place only had six levels. He tapped in D, and the doors slid shut, Jamie feeling a subtle sense of motion as the elevator began to rise.

You want help with any of that stuff?” Jamie asked, eyeing the bags that Liz was carrying.

Are you kidding?” she scoffed. “It’s only one G. Try hauling this stuff around in one-point-three.”

Wait a minute,” Jamie said, feigning surprise. “Are you suggesting that Borealis has higher gravity than Earth? I have literally never heard about this before.”

Oh, haha,” Liz replied sarcastically, shifting the weight of her bags. “I don’t see you complaining, mister let me lick your abs.”

Those are private bedroom things,” he protested, Liz giving him another whip with her tail. He caught it this time, feeling Liz tense as he held it in his hand.

Don’t you pull it,” she warned, her cheeks starting to warm. “Not unless this elevator has an emergency stop, and you’re prepared to deal with the consequences.”

Truce,” he replied, releasing the furry appendage.

The doors opened, and they stepped out into another corridor, only distinguishable from the last by the different colored lines that ran along the walls. Once they reached its end, they emerged into a more familiar environment, a kind of miniature concourse that ran around the exterior of the disk. It was lined with stores, restaurants, and hotels, wide enough that it resembled a carpeted street. Between the crowds of travelers, Jamie could make out soldiers clad in black armor, their faces hidden behind the opaque visors of their helmets. He had played enough VR games to know that they were carrying CR-52s, top-loading PDWs that fired caseless ammunition. These were UNN Marines, not just spaceport security.

So far from the front, it was sometimes easy to forget that the Coalition was at war…

We have to go left,” Jamie said, gesturing down the curving concourse. “I’m not sure what an umbilical is, though.”

You’ll see,” Liz replied, following behind him as they weaved through the crowds. “It’s a way for ships to dock together, or for smaller ships to dock with stations without requiring a berth.”

They soon reached the end of the concourse and entered the boarding area. There were rows of airlocks spaced far apart on the curving walls, and finally, windows. Jamie hurried over to the nearest one, pressing his nose up against the glass as he peered outside. To his dismay, he still couldn’t see the Earth. It was too far below the station.

What he could see, however, was a docked ship. Its bulky, white hull was maybe two hundred and fifty feet from its rounded nose to the conical engine nozzles at the rear, covered in a skin of interlocking tiles. It was vaguely cylindrical, but there was nothing streamlined about it. Everywhere he looked, there was some kind of bulging blister or uneven protrusion, like a plastic mold full of air bubbles. Above a row of cockpit windows was a bulbous, rounded dome, reminiscent of a beluga whale. There were no wings or control surfaces of any kind, which suggested that it wasn’t capable of atmospheric flight. There was only a scattering of thruster nozzles that had charred the surrounding hull material black. In bold letters along its flank was stenciled UAS Magellan.

Hey, that’s a UAS ship!” Jamie said, Liz leaning down to peer through the window. “Think that’s our ride?”

Look at that radome,” she mused. “Probably, yeah. Where is it docked?”

The vessel was linked to the station via a skeletal, fifty-foot tube that had been extruded from its hull, wrapped in what looked like a white tarp. That must be the umbilical.

Looks like one of the airlocks down the corridor,” he replied. “I’m gonna guess that’s D-fourteen.” He paused to pull up his phone, double-checking their instructions. “Not sure what we’re supposed to do now. The email the science types sent us says that we’re supposed to show up at the umbilical, and that’s it. I don’t see anybody,” he added, peering about the boarding area. There were a few people sitting on rows of benches, presumably waiting for their ride, but there was nobody who stood out to Jamie.

I guess we’ll take a seat and wait,” Liz replied, lugging their baggage over to the benches. She had scarcely gone ten paces before someone waved to them from across the room, starting to jog in their direction. It was an olive-skinned man wearing white overalls, a UAS patch sewn onto his upper arm.

Lizka and James, right?” he asked as he came to a stop in front of them. “My name’s Sarris, I’m the radar operator on the Magellan,” he added as he gestured to the vessel beyond the windows.

Sorry, have we...met before?” Jamie asked.

Nah,” Sarris replied, nodding to Liz. “They told me that a human and a Borealan would be coming to D-fourteen, and your friend is the only one I’ve seen.”

Oh, of course,” Jamie chuckled. He had been around Liz for so long that he tended to forget how rare it was to see a Borealan this deep inside UN space. “Yeah, I’m Jamie, and this is Liz. Pleased to meet you.”

I’ll let the Cap known that you’ve arrived,” he continued, reaching into his pocket and pulling out a phone. “Cap, the passengers are here,” he began as he held the device up to his ear. “Yeah, I’m sure. You seen any other eight-foot felines around here? Yeah, I can do that, sure. I’ll see you later.”

He slid the phone back into his pocket, turning back to Liz and Jamie, who had been waiting patiently for him to finish.

The Captain says we should start boarding,” he said, glancing at Liz’s haul of bags. “Do you need any help with that stuff?”

Thanks, I got it,” she replied with a smile.

Alright then, this way.”

They followed behind him as he led them towards one of the airlocks, Sarris pausing by the reinforced door. Beyond the small windows, Jamie could see a pressurized chamber, along with a second door that led to the umbilical. A sudden pang of fear gripped him. Didn’t they need space suits for this kind of thing? He could see some hanging from racks on the walls inside the chamber, little more than flimsy, yellow pressure suits with a hood-like helmet. They looked more like hazmat suits than space suits to Jamie.

I’m assuming you’ve been on a ship before,” Sarris said, addressing Liz. “How about you?” he asked, turning his attention to Jamie.

This is my first time,” Jamie admitted, hoping he didn’t look as worried as he felt.

Okay,” Sarris began, gesturing to the door. “The airlock is just two doors, one on the inside and one on the outside. It’s there to equalize pressure and to act as a failsafe if there’s a blowout. Which won’t happen,” he added hurriedly as he noticed Jamie’s alarmed expression. “Door one opens, we go inside and equalize pressure. Then, door two opens, and we continue down the umbilical that leads to the ship. Easy.”

He reached up and scanned his phone on a panel beside the door, and it opened with surprising speed, vanishing into a recess in the ceiling above. The scent of the station’s stale air gave way to an odd, acrid smell that reminded Jamie of ozone. The three of them stepped inside, and the door closed again with a whoosh, the hiss of escaping gas filling the chamber. They waited for a few moments, and when the process was complete, the second door opened. Beyond it was the umbilical, an extensible, metal frame that resembled the load-bearing jib of a crane. Jamie could see the far door that led into the ship proper, perhaps fifty feet away. The white material that protected them from the vacuum of space seemed flimsy and thin, giving the impression that someone could put their hand through it if they weren’t careful. The walkway was metal, textured with a diamond plate pattern for better grip, exposed cables winding their way between the supports like vines through a jungle canopy.

Sorry, you might have to duck a little,” Sarris warned as he led on. The metal platform emitted worrying creaks beneath his boots, Jamie sharing a shrug with Liz before following after him. The umbilical was barely tall enough for an average human, never mind a Borealan, Liz having to double over as she made her way along. She finally relented, handing off a couple of the bags to Jamie when he offered to carry them.

Welcome to the Magellan,” Sarris announced as he reached the door, extending a hand to give the hull an affectionate slap. “She’s a survey vessel, Pythia class, and she’s going to be your home for the next few months. Cap says I should give you the tour before everyone else gets back. They’re making the most of a few hours of shore leave,” he explained as he entered a code into a bulky number pad on the door. It slid open, revealing another, smaller airlock.

There was barely enough room for Liz to squeeze inside behind them, another rush of ozone-scented air indicating that the pressure was equalizing. With the opening of one last hatch, they were finally standing inside the ship. It was about what Jamie had imagined. He found himself in a fairly narrow corridor, just wide enough for two people to pass one another, and just tall enough that Liz would have to watch her head. The walls were mostly white hull material, pipes and electrical cables snaking their way along them, the deck made up of textured sheet metal. It was lit by light strips that were embedded in the ceiling, casting everything in a bright, synthetic glow.

Let me show you to your quarters, and you can put those bags down,” Sarris said as he set off towards the aft. “There are three decks, and most of the living space is up on deck three. That’s where the cabins are, and the rec room. Deck two has the bridge, the computer lab, the kitchen, the galley. The lower deck has the science lab and the server room. The hold and the engine room extend up through a couple of decks.”

They turned left off the main corridor, Jamie spying signs that placed him between the hold to his left and the engine room to his right. Mounted on the wall in the middle of the corridor was a ladder that led to an opening in the ceiling. Sarris climbed up, Jamie following behind him, Liz passing up her bags before squeezing through after them. It was a tight fit, the aperture brushing her broad shoulders.

This time, they continued towards the stern, quickly arriving at rows of cabins. Jamie could make out six doors, and judging by the layout of the ship that he had seen so far, there were probably another six on the other side. It seemed that two corridors ran the length of the ship, hugging the exterior, while all of the rooms were situated between them.

You’re in cabin nine,” Sarris said, stopping at one of the doors. “Sorry,” he added as he hit a button in the frame, the panel sliding aside. “We don’t have locks or codes on the doors, as we’re not used to having guests aboard. The crew will respect your space, though, so don’t worry about it.”

The cabin resembled a small hotel room. It was little more than a bed, a shower cubicle, and a sliding cupboard for their belongings. It was nice enough, Jamie had seen much worse. Sarris was already looking Liz up and down, however. Jamie could see the wheels in the man’s head turning as he sized her up, his eyes darting first to the bed, then to the shower cubicle. She would probably fit in the shower if she crouched, but the single bed was a no-go.

Ma’am, are you...going to fit in here?” Sarris asked skeptically. “This ship wasn’t built with a Borealan crew in mind.”

Don’t worry about me,” she replied, tossing her bags onto the bed. “This isn’t my first rodeo, I’ve flown on human ships before.”

If you need anything, just talk to the Cap,” he added.

Any extra blankets and pillows that you have aboard would be a good start,” she replied, turning to appraise one corner of the room. She lifted her furry hands, holding them up to her face, forming a square with her fingers like she was about to take a photo.

You got it,” he replied, giving Jamie a confused glance. “I’ll let our requisitions officer know.”

How’s your food situation?” she continued. “I don’t know if you’re aware, but Borealans eat enough for about five humans.”

The UAS made us aware of your nutritional requirements,” Sarris replied confidently. “We’ve stocked up on supplies.”

Jamie set the bags that he was carrying on the bed, then they continued their tour of the ship. Deck one housed twelve cabins for the crew, along with a rec room where they could unwind when they weren’t on duty. It wasn’t dissimilar from the break room at the supermarket where Jamie worked, albeit much more comfortable. Right at the back of the ship was the engine room that housed the reactors and the jump drive, running through all three decks.

Deck two housed a large computer lab where many of the crew did most of their work analyzing data from the Magellan’s arrays of sensors. Sarris explained that the purpose of a survey ship was to mount expeditions into deep space, searching for potential colony planets and mapping out uncharted systems, of which there was no shortage. The kitchen and the galley were also on this level, along with a large cargo hold that extended into the lower deck.

On the final deck was the science lab, where experiments could be conducted, and the server room where all of the ship’s data was stored. The ship was far from spacious, but Jamie was surprised by how much they had packed into the limited space. Having lived in a small apartment for most of his life, he was no longer too worried about getting cabin fever.

Their last stop was another ladder that led into an observation deck mounted beneath the vessel’s belly. It was little more than a glorified cupola, a bubble-shaped capsule large enough for maybe three people to stand inside it, lined with windows that would look down on whatever planet the ship was orbiting. There were computer terminals where the occupants could access tools like advanced telescopes and radar systems that could penetrate dense cloud cover to map alien terrain.

Finally, Jamie got the unobstructed view that he had been wanting. To his left was the bottom half of the space station, its disk-shaped modules attached via a thick, pillar-like central structure. Its hull was a stark white against the backdrop of space, every surface covered in glittering windows that reflected the unfiltered glare of the sun. From out of view beneath the upturned dome at the bottom were the tethers, at least a dozen of them trailing down towards the planet. They were so unimaginably long that they didn’t seem to diverge at all this far from the ground, even though their anchors were separated by thousands of miles. The jewel in the crown was Earth, Jamie’s gaze lingering on it. It was like a blue marble wreathed in swirling clouds, glowing brightly in the harsh sunlight, so small from this distance that he felt he could have reached out and plucked it from the sky.

Liz’s words in the crawler resonated with him now, and a profound sense of his own insignificance washed over him like a tide. He remembered worrying about making rent payments, being disappointed that his favorite brand of soda wasn’t in stock, grumbling to himself about delays during his daily commute to work. Everything that he had ever known – every experience, every person – had just been condensed down into a singularity that he could cover up with his thumb.

Nice view,” Liz said, following his gaze. “Puts things into perspective, doesn’t it?”

I think that covers everything,” Sarris said. “Nowhere is really off-limits save for the engine room and other people’s quarters. You should probably stay out of the lab, too, and don’t take anything out of the cargo hold without getting the okay from Bradley first. He’s our req officer. This isn’t a military ship, we’re all pretty laid back here.

When will we meet the rest of the crew?” Liz asked, turning back to face him.

They’ll be along shortly, we have to get underway pretty soon,” Sarris replied. “They’re probably dragging their feet as much as possible. This is the last time any of them will be setting foot outside of the ship for the next few months.”

What about you?” Jamie asked, wondering why the radar operator had stayed behind.

I drew the short straw,” he chuckled. “Oh,” he added, fishing in his pocket for his phone as it began to chime. “Speak of the devil, and he shall appear. The crew is on their way back. If you guys need anything that isn’t already onboard, now is your last chance. Out in the black, there are no rest stops, no convenience stores.

I think we have everything we need,” Liz replied. They had been diligent in their packing, double and triple-checking their list of necessities.

They followed Sarris back up to the airlock, where they awaited the rest of the crew. After a few minutes, the outer door to the umbilical opened, and a group of people carrying armfuls of shopping bags stepped into the pressure chamber. They were all wearing the same white uniform as Sarris, each one sporting a UAS patch.

As soon as the inner door opened, all eyes were on Liz, the reactions ranging from surprise to fascination. A woman at the head of the group stepped forward, setting down a pair of plastic bags that were loaded with goods. Jamie could see snacks, drinks, frozen junk food, presumably all things that they didn’t have in the hold.

So, these are our passengers?” she asked as she appraised the pair. She was a stout woman with brown hair that was tied back in a utilitarian ponytail, a pair of icy, blue eyes peering out from a weathered face. If Jamie had to guess, he’d put her in her late forties.

This is Liz and Jamie,” Sarris confirmed.

I’m Captain Cassidy,” she said, extending a hand to Jamie. He took it, noting her surprisingly firm grip. “Most just call me Cassie or Cap.” She reached out to Liz, shaking the alien’s giant, furry hand without reservation. “It’s been a good while since I’ve seen a Borealan,” she said, craning her neck as she appraised the towering feline. “I was part of a survey team that did some work mapping Borealis a couple of years back.

Did you stop in Elysia?” Liz asked.

Didn’t get to go planetside, unfortunately. We were just there to scan the surface from orbit. Beautiful planet, though.”

Borealis is often best enjoyed from a distance,” Liz chuckled.

I trust that Sarris has helped you get settled in?” she asked, Jamie and Liz nodding their heads. “This is my crew,” Cassidy added as she turned to gesture to the group of people who were standing in the airlock behind her. There were nine of them in total, all of them hauling shopping bags. Jamie could sympathize. This was their last opportunity to stock up on snacks and comfort food.I’m sure you’ll all get well-acquainted over the coming months,” she continued, stooping to lift her bags. “Right now, we need to get this stuff to the hold.”

The crew gave them brief greetings as they passed, following their captain down the corridor.

You’ve earned some brownie points with the crew already,” Sarris said once his companions were out of earshot. “Any excuse to take a little shore leave and stock up on perishables is a good one.”

So, what happens now?” Jamie asked.

Once the crew have put their haul away, I assume we’ll be moving out,” Sarris replied. “Now that you two have arrived, we can get back on schedule. I don’t think Cap would mind you being on the bridge when we undock if you wanted to get a good view.

Sound good to me,” Jamie replied, Liz giving him a nod.

They proceeded to the stern of the ship, entering a room that was arranged in a semi-circle, the forward bulkhead giving way to a single, long pane of glass that wrapped around the nose of the vessel. It doubled as a display, Jamie noting that there were a few icons and system status readouts at the edges. Beyond was the inky darkness of space, the hull of the terminus station curving away to the left.

To the left and right of the bridge were consoles where the crew would sit, banks of monitors and holographic displays showing more readouts from the ship’s systems. There was more seating further towards the back wall, as well as a prominent captain’s chair situated in the center of the room, equipped with its own holographic projector that was creating a flickering display within easy reach of its occupant.

As if on cue, Captain Cassidy and some of her crew began to file onto the bridge. Jamie half expected Sarris to stand to attention and salute his superior, but he reminded himself that this wasn’t some Navy frigate, it was a civilian science ship. Sarris would no more salute his captain than Jamie would salute his shift manager.

Hey, Cap,” Sarris began. “Is it cool if the passengers stay to watch us undock?”

Of course,” she replied, gesturing to the seats at the back of the room. “Make sure you guys strap in. I had our Chief Engineer rig up a Borealan-sized crash couch that you can use when we jump.”

One of the chairs was indeed larger than the rest, the weld bead that secured it to the metal deck decidedly makeshift compared to the bolts on the neighboring seats. The chairs had some extensive padding, and Jamie was a little alarmed to see that each one was equipped with a pair of manacles on the armrests that would fold over the wrists of whoever was sitting in them. Liz had mentioned those, they were intended to stop people from injuring themselves during a jump. It was a rather macabre sight, and it really drove the reality of his situation home.

Two of the crew members took up seats behind the consoles, while Cassidy sat down in the bridge chair, reaching up to tap idly at the holographic display that was hovering in the air to her right. Jamie sat down beside Liz and fumbled with his buckle for a few moments, the smirking feline eventually reaching over to help him, securing the harness tightly about his chest. Sarris joined them, taking a seat to Jamie’s right.

We have clearance from flight control,” a man announced from behind one of the consoles. He was wearing a pair of headphones, suggesting that he was responsible for communications.

Good,” the Captain replied. “Daryl, decouple us and take us out. Let her drift a little before you warm up the engines. All hands, prepare for undocking procedures,” she continued as her voice crackled over an intercom system.I hope nobody left any of their shit on the station, because you can kiss it goodbye.”

Jamie felt the deck beneath his feet vibrate as the umbilical detached, starting to retract back towards the hull. He knew exactly what was happening, as an external camera view had opened in a semi-transparent window on the main viewport. This was it, no turning back now…

As they drifted away from the station, Jamie got a better view of the structure. Despite its size, it looked like a toy to him. There was no atmospheric haze to indicate distance, the shadows harsh and black in the sun’s glow, no point of reference as it hung there in empty space. There were a few ships milling around it like bees swarming a hive, the blue glow of thrusters picking them out as they coasted along. Up at the top, he could make out the large engine nozzles of a freighter that was docked in one of the berths, metal cradles that resembled rib cages. It was so far away, yet the most minute details were crystal clear in the absence of an obscuring atmosphere.

Alright, Daryl, give her a shunt,” Cassidy said. “Let’s get her to minimum safe distance.”

Acceleration tugged at Jamie gently, pressing him back into his padded seat, the deck beneath his feet vibrating as the helmsman fired the main drive. It quickly subsided, the vessel drifting further from the station. It was hard to estimate their speed, but judging by how the mile-long structure was rapidly shrinking in the rear camera view, they were going fast.

Jump prep, two minutes,” the Captain announced over the intercom. “Get yourselves strapped in, guys.” Her chair swiveled to face the back of the room, and she addressed the passengers directly. “I have to ask, do we have any first-time fliers here?”

Me,” Jamie said, raising a hand. “Liz has already explained what to expect, though.”

Alright,” Cassidy replied. “Sarris, you’re responsible for our guest. Make sure his arms are clamped and he has his bit before we jump.”

Sarris leaned over to double-check Jamie’s harness, then reached into a small compartment beneath the seat, fumbling for a moment. He withdrew a small box, handing it to Jamie, who opened it curiously. Inside was a transparent, plastic bit, like a retainer that a dentist might prescribe.

Bite down on this,” Sarris explained. “It’ll stop you from biting your tongue off.”

Jamie did as he asked, adjusting it inside his mouth, gripping the armrests of his chair as he waited for the countdown. Liz reached over to give his hand a reassuring squeeze, Jamie returning a grateful glance.

Okay, keep your hands on the armrests,” Sarris explained. “These manacles are going to close over your wrists automatically. They have sensors, so they can’t hurt you.”

One minute,” Cassidy announced.

Charging drive,” the helmsman added. “Surrounding space is clear, course is locked in. We’re good to go on your mark, Cap.”

Jamie kept reminding himself that superlight jumps weren’t dangerous, that everyone here had done it multiple times, but it didn’t do much to alleviate his tension. The seconds dragged by until finally, the Captain gave the order.

Punch it,” she said, the helmsman hitting a button on his console.

Jamie’s world went black.

***

Like climbing out of quicksand, Jamie slowly awoke, splitting pain bouncing around inside his skull. There was something chewy in his mouth, which he spat out reflexively. He tried to move his hands, intending to cradle his head, but he found that they were immobilized. He couldn’t see anything but shifting blobs and floating points of light that stabbed into his eyes like daggers, his ears filled with a buzzing like radio static. Panic gripped him, and he fought against his bonds, but he couldn’t free himself.

Where was he? Why couldn’t he remember anything?

Gradually, his memories started to return to him, as though his neurons were reestablishing their connections. His vision started to clear, the shapes becoming more defined, the buzzing in his ears morphing into the sound of muffled conversation.

Jamie,” someone said, the husky voice sparking recognition. He blinked his eyes, seeing Liz’s familiar features materialize in front of him. “There we go,” she chuckled, “he’s back. Don’t try to get up yet, just sit there for a while, get your bearings.”

She released the clamps on his chair, Jamie able to lift his arms again, finding that his muscles were twitching erratically. He pressed his fingers against his temples, wincing as another throb of pain dizzied him.

Feels like someone’s drilling into my brain,” he grumbled, his words still a little slurred.

It’ll subside in a few minutes,” Liz promised.

He looked around the bridge, but it seemed that some minutes had passed since they had completed the jump, and the crew had all left the room. Only Cassidy remained, rising from her chair and walking over to join them.

Now that we’re alone, I wondered if we might talk?” she asked. “We were diverted twelve light-years from our course to pick you two up, and the UAS didn’t give me a very satisfactory explanation as to why. If we’re going to be living together for the better part of a year, I’d like to get better acquainted with you, assuming you have no objections.”

It’s alright,” Liz replied, crossing her arms in a way that came off a little defensive. “We’re not UNNI agents on a secret mission or anything like that.”

You don’t look like scientists or researchers to me,” she mused. “Should I keep guessing?”

I work in a supermarket, and Liz is a translator at an embassy,” Jamie added, his mind slowly clearing as the effects of the jump wore off. “We’re pretty ordinary.”

Ordinary people don’t get chauffeured to colony planets that are under UNN blockade,” Cassidy replied, giving them both a skeptical look. “Whatever you guys are doing there, the higher-ups at the UAS are treating it as top priority.”

Jamie and Liz exchanged a silent glance, an unspoken question. It seemed that the UAS had respected their privacy, choosing not to inform the crew of the Magellan of their intentions. It was a personal matter, but it wasn’t exactly a secret, and refusing to explain why they were traveling to Jarilo would only make Cassidy and her people mistrustful.

I don’t see any reason not to tell her,” Jamie said, Liz nodding. The Borealan paid very little mind to what others thought of her, and he knew that she would have no objections to revealing the nature of their journey.

We’re trying for a baby,” Liz said bluntly, the previously stoic captain raising her eyebrows in surprise. “The technology to make it work doesn’t exist in UN space, but it might on Jarilo.”

So that’s why the UAS are being so uncharacteristically accommodating,” she mused. “I might be the Magellan’s captain, but this is their ship, so I wasn’t exactly in a position to demand an explanation. An experiment in inter-species reproduction,” she added, glancing between the two of them. “Alright, I’m less mad about being diverted now.”

We’ve exhausted every other option,” Jamie explained. “The doctors told us that it wasn’t possible, then we learned about the Bugs on Jarilo. If it wasn’t for the UAS agreeing to fund the trip, we’d have no way of getting out here.”

Do you want me to keep it a secret from the crew?” Cassidy asked. “They don’t have to know if you don’t want them to.”

It’s fine,” Liz replied. “We’re sharing a cabin, it’s not like they wouldn’t figure out that we’re a couple eventually.”

We’re all scientists here,” Cassidy said. “I’d expect some curiosity that might border on the inappropriate, but nothing negative.”

Alright then,” Liz replied, helping Jamie out of his chair. His legs were still shaky, but the worst of it had passed now.

Drink a lot of water,” the Captain advised, “you’ll thank me later. I guess that’s all I needed to talk to you about. You have the run of the ship, so feel free to mingle with the rest of the team, make use of the facilities. It’s going to be a long ride to Jarilo.”

***

What did you think of your first jump?” Liz asked, supporting Jamie by the arm as they stepped into one of the corridors outside the bridge.

Feels like the kind of hangover you’d get after drinking a gallon of absinthe,” he replied, eliciting a chuckle from her.

It’ll pass soon. Let’s get you back to the cabin.”

So, we’re going to be stuck on this ship with a bunch of strangers, and all they know about us is that we’re fucking,” Jamie muttered. “We’re in space. We can’t even make small talk about the weather.”

You can talk about the thermostat in the cabin,” Liz added with a sarcastic smile. “That almost counts as weather.”

What do you think the crew is going to make of us?” Jamie wondered, the pair pausing to check that there was nobody in earshot. “I’ve known you practically my whole life, and I didn’t even question your presence on Earth until I was maybe nine or ten years old. You being there was just normal for me, part of everyday life. Sometimes I forget that most people have never even seen an alien.”

If you’re worried that they’ll disapprove, I don’t see why,” Liz replied with a shrug. “Yeah, inter-species couples are rare, but not as much as you might think. Back on Borealis, when I used to hang around with the auxiliaries, practically every one of them had a story to tell about an encounter with a human colleague. It seems to happen pretty routinely, at least in the Navy.”

I guess this is the first time I’ve had to consider what other people think of our relationship,” he continued, leaning back against the bulkhead. “We’re going to be stuck with these guys for months. It’s going to be miserable if we don’t all get along.”

Honestly, I doubt that most people have thought about the subject long enough to form any kind of opinion,” she said. “Think of it this way,” she added, leaning a hand on the wall beside him as she leaned in to whisper. “Maybe it’s our job to give them the best possible impression.”

That’s a nice way to look at it,” he chuckled.

Either way, get ready for a lot of probing personal questions that are preempted by an apology,” she added with a smirk.

***

They had almost finished unpacking their gear when there was a knock at their cabin door.

Come in!” Jamie said, the panel sliding out of the way. Standing behind it was a pile of sheets and blankets on legs, which slowly began to amble its way into their room. Jamie quickly realized that it was a crew member who was overloaded with the extra bedding that Liz had requested before the jump. She strode over to the newcomer, who gladly passed off the load to her, an errant pillow falling to the carpet. The man was in his late thirties, maybe early forties, a pair of dark eyes peering out from beneath a bushy brow.

Hope you guys are settling in alright,” he said, clearly relieved to be free of his burden. His accent was hard to place, maybe Britain or Australia. “Name’s Bradley, I’m the ship’s requisitions officer. You need anything, food, soap, toothpaste, come see me. I can probably sort you out.”

The two men watched as Liz hauled the blankets over to the corner of the room. She tossed them in a heap, crouching to begin spreading them around. When she was satisfied, she did the same with the sheets on the bed, stripping the mattress and tossing the bedding into the pile. The result was a rat’s nest large enough for her and Jamie to sleep in.

Bradley was confused by the odd sight, but Jamie had been around Borealans long enough to be familiar with their preferred sleeping arrangements. Her parents had foregone seating entirely while they were living on Earth, preferring to lounge on similar piles of cushions in their home.

Thanks,” Jamie said, Bradley giving him a nod.

I’ll be around if you need anything else,” the man said, leaving the way he had come.

Liz gripped the metal frame of the bed, lifting it easily, propping the now useless piece of furniture up against the wall to give them a few extra feet of usable floor space. She dusted off her furry hands, looking pleased with herself.

What do we do now?” Jamie wondered.

I’m hungry, how about you?”

You’re always hungry,” he chuckled. “Alright, let’s go find the kitchen.”

They made their way out of the cabin and down the corridor, the signs on the walls soon leading them to the galley. The room was split between a dining area with a pair of tables that could seat a dozen people, and a kitchen that was tightly packed with worktops and appliances in shining steel. There were two people already seated, Jamie recognizing one of them as Sarris. The other was a woman with red hair who was sitting beside him, digging into a microwave burrito.

Help yourselves to food,” Sarris said, raising a hand in greeting. “The crew is too small to warrant a full-time cook, so we make our own meals. Just be sure to record what you eat on that tablet beside the fridge so Bradley can keep track of our supplies.”

There was a wide selection of meals, most frozen or canned, Liz pulling out a few pieces of shrink-wrapped beef from the freezer while Jamie examined the unusually large microwave that was built into one of the counters. He had been expecting some kind of military-style rations, but it seemed that they would be eating pretty much the same as they did back home. Liz began to slice open the packets with her claws, laying the meat down on a plate before cutting them into thin strips, electing to use a knife for hygiene reasons. After locating a suitably large pan, she lathered it in oil, setting it to warm over an open flame as she prepared the sauce. Liz had learned to blend human cooking with the native styles that she had picked up during her time on Borealis, resulting in a kind of fusion of both cuisines. Borealans were decadent when it came to their feasts, favoring meat above all else, along with a smattering of gourds and grains. They weren’t sensitive to sweet flavors, but Liz had adapted her cooking to better suit Jamie’s tastes, glazing his share of the meat with sauces and condiments.

Today, she was making something akin to crispy beef with a sweet, sticky glaze, the smell of cooking soon attracting a couple of passers-by. Daryl, the helmsman from the bridge, and another crew member they hadn’t met before poked their heads into the galley to see what was going on.

Knowing that food would make a great ice-breaker, Liz waved the strangers in, offering to cook up portions for them. Before very long, she had a whole table of hungry crewmen eagerly waiting for her to finish. She tasked Jamie with locating a suitably large serving tray, then joined them at the table, pushing a chair aside and sitting on the deck as she often did when there was no seating that could accommodate her. Even with four crewmen and Jamie to feed, Liz’s portion was roughly half of the food that she had prepared.

Her cooking was a hit, and it quickly loosened their tongues, idle conversation filling the galley as they ate. It wasn’t long before questions about Liz and Jamie’s relationship and the nature of their journey came up.

Daryl was the first to ask, gesturing with a piece of crispy beef as he ate.

So, you two are...together?”

That’s correct,” Liz replied with a smile.

Bravest man in the Galaxy right here,” he muttered, giving Jamie an appreciative glance. “Why are you going to Jarilo if I might ask?”

We’re trying for a baby,” Liz explained, four pairs of eyes widening. It would be a stretch to assume that two different species would be in a relationship to begin with, let alone that they would be searching for something most would consider impossible.

I told you they didn’t look like researchers,” Sarris added, suggesting that the passengers had already become a topic of some debate amongst the crew.

Why would you need to go all the way to Jarilo for that?” Daryl wondered.

Isn’t it obvious?” the red-headed woman asked. “Different species can’t reproduce, but the Betelgeusians living on Jarilo have an understanding of genetic engineering that outstrips our own, possibly by thousands of years. They’re hoping that they can find a way.”

I wouldn’t let the Bugs go rummaging around inside my genome,” Daryl muttered.

I think it’s romantic,” the woman replied, turning her nose up at him.

You guessed right,” Liz continued. “Jarilo might be our only chance to conceive naturally. At least, as naturally as two completely unrelated species can conceive.”

I analyze biochemistry,” the woman continued, “it’s my job to learn about alien ecosystems. In order to determine the habitability of a potential colony planet, one has to know what kind of life lives there, if any. The last thing you want to do is land a ship on a planet that meets all of the criteria for being a second Earth, only to discover that the plant life there excretes hydrogen cyanide.”

Do you have to land for that?” Jamie asked.

No, we usually use spectrometers to analyze the composition of the atmosphere and oceans. We can tell what kinds of organisms are active there based on factors like methane levels, anomalous trace gasses, that kind of thing. If we need samples for further study, we can send down probes. I’m Jessie, by the way,she added.

What do you think our chances are?” Liz asked.

Who can say?” Jessie replied, shrugging her shoulders. “It would be like asking someone living in the fifteenth century whether nuclear fission was possible. It’s so far beyond their understanding that they wouldn’t have an answer for you.” She paused to take a bite of another piece of beef, Liz waiting as she chewed. “All I can say is that the Betelgeusians do things with genetics that we don’t fully understand.”

What would the baby even look like?” Daryl wondered aloud, sucking some barbecue sauce from his fingers. “Say the Bugs can do it, would it be like...half and half?”

And would it be able to reproduce with humans or Borealans?” Jessie added. “Lions and tigers are genetically similar, and they can reproduce, but the resulting offspring are sterile.”

Ligers,” Jamie said, Jessie nodding her head.

We haven’t gotten that far yet,” Liz said with a shrug. “Assuming the Betelgeusians can do what we ask, and that certainly isn’t a given, we’ll have to see what our options are.”

It’s exciting, though,” Jessie continued. “Even with all the uncertainty, you two might be the first people ever to cross this boundary.”

***

Liz and Jamie returned to their cabin, Jamie sliding off his jacket as they stepped through the automatic door. He didn’t really need it anymore, as the climate in the ship was kept at a constant temperature and humidity.

What time is it?” Jamie asked, stifling a yawn. “There’s no sunlight, I have no idea if it’s day or night.”

You tired?” Liz asked. “It’s been a long day, we’ve done a lot of traveling.”

Yeah, I guess we’ve been pretty busy. It was nice to start getting to know some of the crew,” he added, kicking off his shoes. “What do you think of them so far?”

They seem cool,” she replied, pulling her shirt over her head. “I’d like to talk to Jessie a little more. She seems to be the resident xenobiology expert, so maybe she can shed some more light on what we can expect on Jarilo.”

You’re finally surrounded by academics again,” Jamie chuckled. “Now you can have some stimulating conversations.”

If stimulating conversation was all I wanted, I’d be dating a mathematician,” she replied as she leaned over to pull down her sweatpants. She gave him an admirable view of her butt, wriggling to get the elastic waistband past her wide hips, the tight panties that she was wearing leaving nothing to the imagination. Her hips were broader than his shoulders, her butt like a pair of beach balls being tightly squashed together. Even beneath the black fabric of her underwear, he could see the way that her muscles dimpled her cheeks, the elastic hem digging into the cushion of soft flesh.

Now wearing only her t-shirt and her undergarments, she flopped down into the pile of bedding, wriggling to bury herself deeper in her nest. Jamie stripped down to his shorts, Liz reaching out to wrap her tail around his waist, using it like a furry tentacle as she dragged him into the pile. She caught him in her arms, her ample breasts cushioning him, then deposited him on the blankets beside her.

How is it?” he asked. “Can you feel the deck through the sheets?”

Feels soft enough,” she replied, leaning back as she loosed a contented sigh. She soon turned her eyes on Jamie, that predatory gaze all too familiar to him.

Wanna practice?” she cooed.

Practice what?” he asked, raising an eyebrow.

Making babies,” she replied, propping herself up on her elbows. She swung a meaty thigh over his waist, planting her hands to either side of his shoulders as she straddled him, her breasts swinging beneath her shirt. Her legs were so long that her knees reached his armpits, Jamie finding himself sandwiched between her steely thighs like a hotdog in a bun. He was already hard, Liz grinding against his bulge, her warmth penetrating the layers of their underwear. She exposed her fangs in a grin as he winced, pushing up to meet her reflexively.

I’m not sure that’s how it’s going to go down,” he chuckled, Liz’s boobs bouncing as she shrugged her shoulders.

It doesn’t hurt to be prepared,” she added, doubling over so that she could whisper in his ear. “Maybe they’ll fix it so we can do it for real. Doesn’t the idea of that get you going, fucking a baby into me? That’s what I imagine every time we make love,” she cooed, pausing to nibble on his earlobe with her sharp teeth. “My Borealan instincts think I’m making kittens, even if I know better, and I wallow in it. I’d never say that I was glad I can’t get pregnant, but not having to use condoms is a perk. Means I can feel everything,” she added with a sordid chuckle.

How thin do you think these walls are?” he asked, reaching up to tap on the bulkhead.

I can’t hear anything through them, even with my ears. I think we’re free to make as much noise as we like...”

Jamie didn’t need any more convincing, starting to tear off his shirt as Liz smiled down at him. She ran her claws across his belly, their light touch making him shiver, tracing the faded cuts that she had left during some of their more heated sessions. Liz had never given him a scratch deep enough to leave a scar, not since their first encounter, when her Borealan instincts had reared their head for the very first time. He wore the marks that she hard carved into his back with pride, a memento of the night when they had finally confessed their true feelings for one another.

He reached up in turn, sliding his hand beneath her shirt, feeling the toned muscles of her midriff flex at his touch. Each one was the size of his fist, a flawless six-pack, her velvet skin irresistible beneath his fingertips.

She was in too much of a hurry to disrobe, already soaking the crotch of her panties in anticipation. With one of her hooked claws, she reached down to pull them aside, exposing her flushed lips. They were puffy and rosy, swollen with desire, flesh the color of a blushing cheek visible between them.

Jamie fumbled with his shorts, tugging them down just enough to free his erection, his member throbbing against her leg. He felt her silky fur brush against his sensitive glans as she reached down to grab it, guiding it towards her drooling loins, a droplet of her juices sliding down her inner thigh. They winced in unison as she brought his tip to her vulva, rubbing it between her lips, the pleated folds of her loins caressing him. When he was suitably slippery, she shifted her position, pressing the head of his cock against her twitching opening. With one confident thrust, she took him inside her, undulating walls of wet satin enveloping him.

When was the last time we went a whole day without doing this?” she sighed, her long lashes fluttering as she lowered herself down onto his shaft. “I get this...empty ache if I abstain for too long, like I need to be filled. God, that sounds bad when I say it like that,” she chuckled.

You have your opinion, and I have mine,” Jamie replied.

She took him all the way to the hilt, letting more of her weight rest on him, pressing him into the nest of blankets. He bared his teeth as she wriggled, shaking her hips like she was settling into a comfy seat, the motion stirring him around inside her. Despite her size, she was almost unbearably tight, her pelvic floor muscles no less honed by the cruel environment of her homeworld than the rest of her body. He could feel her every twitch, waves of muscle rolling up and down his shaft like the teasing stroking of a fist, cushioned by the slippery flesh of her tunnel. She was fever hot, making him feel like he was melting into her, the boundaries between their bodies blurring as the shared sensations rocked them.

They remained that way for a moment, just enjoying the feeling of being joined. Jamie reached down to run his hands up her thighs, pressing his fingers into the layer of pillowy fat that made them so soft, firm muscle rising up to greet him as he probed. Her skin was as smooth as glass above the knee, coated in sandy fur below it, her complexion the color of caramel.

Liz leaned against the cabin wall above his head, casting him into shadow, her breasts wobbling beneath her shirt as she began to move. She slowly rocked her hips back and forth, keeping him deep inside her, the lazy motion sending bursts of tingling pleasure shooting up his spine. His alien lover wet her lips with her prehensile tongue, closing her eyes as though lost in a trance, her breathing growing heavier.

Jamie lifted her shirt, admiring the way that her toned core flexed, glancing up at her shadowy underboob as she towered over him. He rested the other hand on the wide flare of her hip, pulling himself into her, matching her steady pace.

I wish we could turn off the AG field, just in this room,” she sighed. “I want to know what sex in zero-G feels like.”

I could lift you up,” he chuckled, imagining propping the five-hundred-pound alien up against the wall like she weighed a tenth of that.

We could be floating around like we’re underwater,” she continued, her tone low and husky. “Like a pair of trapeze artists flying through the air, clinging to each other. It’s romantic...”

Liz began to move faster, making a teasing infinity loop with her hips, the damp silk of her insides gripping him like a latex glove. She had all the core control of a dancer or a gymnast, chiseled muscle shifting beneath her dusky skin, her loins tightening around his pulsing shaft each time her movements drove it into her cushiony walls.

She slid a hand up to her chest, raising her shirt, letting one of her heavy breasts fall free. It bounced against her torso, the supple flesh wobbling enticingly, spilling over her hand like a ball of melting wax as she began to knead it. She trapped the erect nipple between the fleshy pads on her finger and thumb, giving it a gentle pinch that sent a shiver coursing down her spine. Jamie felt her tunnel clench around him, stroking him with a sharp contraction that made him gasp.

He quickly replaced her hand with his own, Liz bringing her chest down towards him so that he could more easily reach her, the quivering globe of fat spilling through his fingers as he struggled to grasp it. He supported it from below, her breast practically draping itself over his hand as he brought her nipple to his lips, trapping it between them. Liz’s massive frame shuddered as he began to draw on it, teasing her with quick flicks of his tongue, gently pinching it between his teeth as she pushed out her chest in encouragement.

The punishing pace of her rutting grew faster, Liz lifting herself from his lap before letting her weight carry her back down. The clap of her butt slapping against his thighs filled the cabin, and Jamie found himself hoping that the walls were indeed as well-insulated as she had told him. She was coming down hard enough to bruise, but she was very familiar with his limits, knowing exactly how much he could take thanks to their months of cohabitation.

Tell me when you’re close,” she purred, the impact of her thrusting making every soft part of her body quiver like a mound of jello being tapped with a spoon. “I want to savor it...”

Her depths wrung him with sordid intent as she danced atop him, every subtle shift of her hips, every clench of the velvet muscles in her reaches translating into him. Jamie found himself mesmerized by her sinuous, flowing movements, the way that her abs rippled beneath her flat tummy in waves. Like a gyroscope, her torso could remain in place, seeming to hang there in the air as her hips twisted and shimmied.

When they were younger, it was Jamie who had been obsessed with sports. He had been the one to spend thousands of hours running track, jogging around that oval circuit until his every muscle burned. No matter how hard he had tried, he had never managed to convince Liz to leverage her natural strength for competitive means. She had always been far more invested in her studies. Yet her people were built for an environment that would cripple the average human, one where the harsh pull of gravity mandated that every body reach its physical peak if it was even to move around. Even after months in low-G had made Liz a little softer than when she had first returned to Earth, she still retained a figure that would have made a Greek goddess envious.

Her ruthless pace became too much for him, Liz reaching down to enclose his hands in hers, pinning them to the sheets as she felt him throb inside her. A drunken smile spread across her face as he bucked up into her, her breasts and thighs quivering with the impact, his beaming partner letting her weight push him into her most intimate reaches. She cooed contentedly as the first rope of his seed painted her clenching walls, the wringing of her velvet insides easing more of it out of him, milking him as he writhed in the nest of bedding beneath her. Her eyes glazed over as she felt his warm emission flood her, her lips parting in a silent cry, her own steady thrusting halting abruptly.

Her satin muscles clenched around his pulsing shaft, caressing it in wracking waves, milking another thick spurt of ejaculate from him. She shivered as she joined him in his climax, her thighs tensing around him, as though the trembling Borealan was afraid that he would pull out of her. Through the blinding pleasure of his orgasm, he watched her sculpted body writhe and twist atop him, her toned muscles tensing beneath her sun-kissed skin. She had worked up just enough of a sweat to catch the harsh, halogen lights of the cabin, her sudor making her shine beautifully.

Fuck,” she moaned, loosing a drawn-out sigh. Her tensing muscles slowly relaxed, her taut body seeming to deflate like a punctured balloon as her ecstasy gave way to the warmth of her afterglow. “It’s so hot...I can feel everything...”

She let slip an adorable whimper as he flexed inside her one final time, her spasming passage swallowing up the last of his emission. Her muscles twitched around his aching cock, stroking him as though trying to ease him deeper.

I needed that,” Jamie sighed, flopping back down into their nest.

Let’s stay like this for a minute,” she pleaded, releasing him from her furry grasp. She reached up to knead one of her breasts with one hand, planting the other on his belly, easing out one last shuddering aftershock with a quick shake of her hips. Neither one of them dared to move much. They were too sensitive now, euphoria making them giddy.

I swear I can feel them moving around inside me,” she giggled, reaching down to rub her flat stomach. “Maybe it’s just my imagination...”

You’re way more into this than you ever let on,” Jamie mused, Liz biting her lip as she gave him a hasty nod in reply.

Now that we’ve talked about it – now that we’re actually doing it,” she added with a nervous giggle, “it all feels so much more real. I know, I know,she continued with a dismissive wave of her hand. “I shouldn’t get my hopes up until we know for sure what to expect, but I get so...fuzzy thinking about it. I feel like my brain has been replaced with cotton balls, like I’ve suddenly contracted some kind of fever.

Jamie reached out to place a hand on her stomach, feeling her abs tense beneath his palm, his alien lover eyeing him expectantly.

What are you thinking?” she whispered.

I’m imagining what you’re going to look like with a baby bump,” he replied, her cheeks warming.

Abs or a baby? Jamie’s toughest decision yet,” she joked.

After another couple of minutes, she finally elected to separate, the pair wincing in tandem as their still tender loins parted. She rose off him, Jamie watching as his glistening length slid out of her inch by inch, her pink flesh clinging to him like a second skin. He had been plugging a sordid blend of their fluids inside her, a thick, pearly glob of it sliding down her inner thigh. She collapsed into the nest beside him, wasting no time hooking him in her arm and dragging him into a bear hug.

So,” she purred, pushing her face into his hair as she nuzzled. “Think four months of being cooped up in this cabin together with nothing productive to do is going to be as bad as you thought?”

I think I’ll survive.”

***

Life on the Magellan was rather uneventful. Most of the crew had duties to attend to that limited the time available for socializing. They worked primarily in the lab and the computer room, analyzing samples and trawling through petabytes of data from their prior missions. The long journey through the gulf of empty space gave them ample opportunities to go over everything with a fine-toothed comb.

Liz and Jamie spent most of their time in the rec room and the kitchen when they weren’t holed up in their cabin. The rec room had a large projector on one wall that made a decent home cinema, which let them catch up on a backlog of shows and movies that they hadn’t found the time to watch back on Earth. The most socializing happened at lunch and dinner, which had become something of an event thanks to Liz’s skills in the kitchen. She had far more free time than most of the crew, which was an opportunity to prepare lavish meals, quickly earning her a lot of goodwill. The ship now had a full-time cook, and with Jamie acting as her assistant, Liz was able to lay out some impressive feasts with the limited ingredients available to her.

After the first week, they were on friendly terms with most of the crew. A few of them even took to joining the couple for movie nights when they had time off, sometimes resulting in half a dozen crew attending viewings. Jamie had been starting to miss his game nights with his coworkers back home, but he quickly discovered that both Bradley and Higgins were avid card players, and it wasn’t long before they were playing together regularly.

It took almost a month for the superlight drive to recharge enough to make a second jump. According to Higgins, who Jamie had quizzed extensively on the subject during their poker games, the limiting factor was mostly the number and output of the generators aboard. The majority of the floor space in the engine room was taken up by four massive nuclear fission reactors, extending up through all three decks. Not only did they provide power to the ship and its ravenous superlight drive, but they could superheat the water that was used to cool them, splitting the hydrogen and oxygen molecules in a process referred to as thermochemical cracking. The result was a kind of enclosed ecosystem that turned wastewater into oxygen for life support and hydrogen fuel for the conventional engines. The Magellan could make jumps of up to fifteen light-years at a time, which meant that for a distance of sixty light-years, four jumps would be necessary in total.

He had once asked Higgins to explain how a superlight drive worked, but even the chief engineer couldn’t give him a straight answer. It wasn’t a mechanical matter, but rather one of theoretical physics that only a handful of top mathematicians could even grasp. All he could say with any certainty was that the device expended an obscene amount of energy to shunt the vessel into an alternate reality where it was no longer constrained by the light-speed limit.

Jamie had been dreading the second jump. As he followed the Captain to the bridge, he felt like he was walking into the operating room of a hospital, ready for some ghastly surgery. Liz seemed to sense his apprehension, placing a reassuring hand on his shoulder as they neared the door.

Once inside, they strapped into their seats again, Jamie pulling his harness taut as he peered out at the blackness beyond the viewport. It was one thing to be in the Earth’s orbit. There was still a planet in view, oceans and continents, solid ground. Out here, in the void between stars, there was absolutely nothing. They were surrounded by twinkling points of cold light, so far from Earth that even the constellations had shifted, unrecognizable now. That is, if he had ever cared to learn them in the first place…

He placed his bit in his mouth, adjusting it with his tongue as he listened to Cassidy announce the impending jump, his heartbeat quickening. He kept telling himself that he had survived the first jump, and he would survive the second, but the waiting was excruciating.

Hey,” Liz said, leaning over to whisper to him as the timer ticked down. “At least nobody can call you muddy anymore, right?”

The hairs on his arms stood on end, like an electric current was passing through him, then he blacked out.

***

Liz set down a large platter of bacon-wrapped sausages on the galley table, Jamie following after her with a sizable serving of fried eggs and mushrooms. It was morning, or at least what passed for morning when there was no day or night, and a few of the crew had turned up for breakfast. Liz was more than happy to cook for them. It had become her favorite part of the day, save for that which she spent with Jamie in their secluded cabin. It was almost like she had adopted the crew as her litter, and she was practicing for motherhood. Then again, Borealans were great lovers of food, and she would have been tasked with keeping her pack happy and fed during her time living on the homeworld. Either way, the crew appreciated it.

Today, both Captain Cassidy and Jessie the biochemist were in attendance, leaning over to fork sausages onto their plates as Liz watched with a satisfied smile. Jamie joined them, the conversation soon turning to Jarilo.

What do we know about the planet?” Liz asked, digging into her breakfast.

It’s been colonized for a little while now,” Jessie explained. “Surface gravity is point-nine-eight Gs, the atmosphere has a slightly higher oxygen content than Earth, it has a very active magnetosphere that shields it from solar radiation. It’s what we call a garden world, a planet with an environment that’s ideal for life. It has a little more landmass than Earth, something like sixty percent ocean coverage if memory serves. Practically every continent has been colonized by a species of giant tree that resemble the Sequoias of the Pacific Northwest. There’s a lot of life there, too,” she added as she gestured with her fork. “The native animals seem to be something analogous to Earth’s early therapsids, with both reptilian and mammalian traits.

I bet Liz already knows what those are,” Jamie interjected, the Borealan giving him a grin.

Mammal-like reptiles,” she explained. “They’re sometimes referred to as stem-mammals, as they’re some of that group’s earliest known ancestors. They lived before the dinosaurs.” She turned her attention back to Jessie, her green eyes alight with curiosity. “That’s fascinating, though. I wonder if we can see some of them when we go down there?”

It must be strange, knowing Earth’s fossil record far better than your own,” Jessie added. “I know that Borealis’ fossil record is spotty, at best.”

I like to think of it as an opportunity,” Liz replied. “The history of life on Earth is well-understood, people have been documenting it for hundreds of years. I doubt there’s much left to discover. But on Borealis...everything is untouched. Imagine the fossil beds that have yet to be unearthed, all of the discoveries, a whole planet’s worth of evolutionary surprises.” “I always forget that you grew up on Earth,” Jessie chuckled. “You treat our natural history like it’s your own.”

It was a little weird sometimes,” Liz admitted, prodding at a fried egg as she reminisced. “I remember learning about evolution for the first time, how everyone in my class was descended from an ape-like ancestor that lived in Ethiopia some four million years ago...except me.”

I can’t imagine being the only human in a school full of Borealans,” Jessie mused.

I was kind of a black sheep growing up,” Liz continued. “But the more I learned about myself – the more comfortable I became with my Borealan identity – the more confident I felt. I went from being fascinated by my alien roots, to rejecting them, to accepting them as an intrinsic part of me.”

You’re certainly far more mellow than how Borealans are usually portrayed,” Jessie chuckled. “I’ll admit to being a little wary of you when you first came aboard, but I’m happy to report that you’ve made me feel rather foolish for thinking that way.”

What do you know about the Bugs on the surface?” Jamie asked. “Should we be worried at all?”

We have UAS researchers on the ground,” Cassidy replied. “Unfortunately, the Magellan has been surveying in deep space for months, so we don’t have their reports on file. We know that there’s a human colony and a Bug hive sharing real estate down there and that there’s a UNN fleet in orbit that doesn’t let anyone come or go without prior permission. Whether that fleet is there to protect the Bugs from reprisals, or to keep a gun barrel pointed at their collective heads, nobody besides the Admirals can say.”

There are colonists living there, though,” Liz added. “And presumably nobody is forcing them to be there against their will. Some kind of balance must have been struck if they’re able to coexist with the hive.”

I’m not sure how much experience you two have with the Bugs,” Cassidy continued, her tone becoming somewhat more serious. “I’ve been captaining research vessels for a long time. Even civilian ships aren’t safe from Bug attacks. When you jump into an uncharted system, there’s always that thought in the back of your mind, that maybe this is the time you kick the hornet’s nest. Their hive fleets jump all over the Galaxy, they can end up anywhere, there’s no border separating the dangerous parts of space from the safe ones. Bugs usually kill whatever they find,” she added, spearing a sausage for effect. “Other species, competing hives, doesn’t matter. If there are people living on a planet they have their eyes on, they won’t hesitate to kill every last one of them.”

Jamie exchanged a worried glance with Liz. None of this was news to him, but it was the first time he had ever spoken to someone who had first-hand experience. Humanity had been at war with the alien species for decades, and there was no end in sight. They were not an organized force, and nobody knew where they originated from, so putting an end to their incursions was currently unfeasible.

They’re about as different from us as it’s possible to get,” she continued. “They’re arthropods, something akin to insects or crustaceans. Empathy, compassion, morality, these are all alien concepts to them. They don’t even speak, they communicate entirely through pheromones.”

But I’ve seen one speak,” Liz added. “The one on all the newscasts, the ambassador.”

That’s right,” the Captain replied, taking a bite of her sausage. “They’re living alongside humans now, they’re speaking, they’re cooperating. Something profound is happening on that planet to have changed their behavior so drastically. To answer your question, no, I wouldn’t worry. Not only is Jarilo crawling with Marines, but the most indiscriminately violent species in the Galaxy has seemingly been domesticated there.”

The going theory is that the Betelgeusians on Jarilo are changing themselves to appeal to their human neighbors,” Jessie added. “They’re altering their genetic makeup just as they do when adapting to a hostile environment. Instead of altering their castes to be able to survive in an argon atmosphere or to withstand high pressures, they’re changing themselves to be able to communicate, maybe to be of use to the Coalition.”

Their membership was approved by the Security Council,” Liz confirmed, nodding her head. “It was all anybody at the embassy talked about for weeks.”

We’ll know for sure once we arrive,” Cassidy said. “I’m looking forward to filling up our server banks with all the data that the researchers have collated.”

***

The routine of life aboard the Magellan quickly became the new normal. Jamie was surprised by how quickly he adapted, how fast the crew filled the roles of the friends and family who he had left behind on Earth. By the time they made their final jump into the 70 Virginis system, he was almost sorry to be leaving.

They reentered normal space some distance from their target for safety reasons, beginning to burn deeper into the solar system. At the halfway point, the ship spun on its axis, pointing its great engine cones towards Jarilo as it began a gentle deceleration. It took several more days for the planet to come into view on the telescopes, the crew admiring the glittering, emerald jewel from afar as it slowly grew larger.

Jamie found himself fascinated by the sight. He had never seen an alien world before. Much like his glimpses of Earth from the ship’s observation deck, this planet was wreathed in swirling bands of white cloud, the oceans reflecting the sunlight from its star. Unlike his home, however, the unfamiliar continents were completely dominated by greenery. There were caps of white ice at the poles, but everything between them was dense forest, even the equator devoid of any brown hues that might indicate desert.

The Captain had them strap into their seats as they began their orbital insertion, deceleration pressing them into their padded backrests as the engines fired. The horizon of Jarilo rose up beneath the viewport, its round shape gradually flattening as they drew closer. From this distance, Jamie could make out great rivers that snaked through the forests like veins, the continent-spanning canopies a mass of green in varying hues.

The Navy is hailing us,” the comms operator said, glancing up from his console.

They’ll be expecting us,” Cassidy replied. “Our IFF should already be on their whitelist.”

This is the survey vessel UAS Magellan,” he continued, speaking into his headset. “We’re here on a scientific mission sanctioned by the United Academy of Sciences. I’m forwarding our information to you now, please stand by.”

There was a short wait, then he gave Cassidy a thumbs-up.

Well,” she began, spinning her chair around to face the passengers. “It looks like the first leg of our journey has come to an end. I have to say, we’ll sorely miss our adopted cook while you two are planetside. It’ll be back to microwave meals for most of us.”

We’ll be sorry to go too,” Jamie replied, Liz nodding her head in agreement. “This place feels a lot like home now.”

It’s not goodbye just yet,” she added as she reached out to tap at her holographic display. “We’ll be performing some surveys from orbit and downloading the research data from the UAS personnel on the surface while you two do your thing, then we’ll be taking you back home. The timetable is pretty up in the air at this point, but we’ll keep in touch.”

What happens next?” Jamie asked. “Will we be docking at another station and taking a tether down?”

Oh, there are no space elevators on Jarilo,” the captain replied as though that should have been obvious. “The only way down to the surface is by shuttle. It might be a bumpier ride than what you’re used to.”

Uplink has been established with the colony,” the comms officer announced. “I’ll let the UAS research base know that we’ve arrived.”

I’m sure they’ll let us know when they’ll be sending up a shuttle to collect you,” Cassidy said. “Until then, best start packing what you want to take down to the surface. Don’t feel like you have to empty your cabin, as you’ll be coming back soon enough.”

***

By that evening, they had received word that a shuttle would be coming to pick them up the following day. They had one last meal with the crew, almost everyone who didn’t have duties to perform attending a feast of Liz’s making. When their bellies were full, and the conversation had died down, Liz, Jamie, and a couple of the crew retired to the observation deck to get a closer look at Jarilo.

I thought the Earth was green compared to Borealis, but this is something else,” Liz said as she watched the planet slowly rotate beneath them.

Looks like a giant piece of broccoli to me,” Jamie added, making her snicker. “When they said that there was a blockade around the planet, I kind of imagined battleships stacked end to end all around the equator. I can’t even see any Navy ships. They must be too far away.”

We can use the telescopes to get a better look,” Jessie said, nudging Higgins out of her way as she moved over to the console. One of the windows directly behind it briefly became opaque, then shifted to show a magnified view of the clouds. “Daryl mentioned that he was picking up some odd anomalies on radar,” she added as she angled the lens towards the horizon. “I’ll patch into the sensors and see if I can find the coordinates.”

After a minute of fumbling with the controls, she managed to locate something, zooming the telescope in on a cloud of orbiting vessels.

There’s your fleet,” Higgins said.

They were so far away that it was hard to see details, even with the telescope, but they were nicely silhouetted against the planet’s glow. There were maybe two dozen ships of varying sizes, all clustered around a large vessel at the center of the formation, orbiting far below the Magellan. Most resembled shards of dark glass, their angular hulls painted jet-black, while the larger one was ocean-gray in color.

That’s a jump carrier,” Liz explained, pointing to it with a curved claw. “The rest will be frigates, support craft.”

Those carriers have ventral railgun batteries that could level a city in a matter of minutes,” Higgins said, leaning over Jessie’s shoulder to get a better look. “Makes me feel a little better about the Bugs down on the surface.”

Hang on,” Jessie said, examining her readout. “What’s this?”

She changed the camera view, zooming in on something else. Floating in orbit relatively close to the fleet was some kind of structure, not any kind of ship or station that Jamie recognized. Whatever it was, it looked half-finished. It reminded him most of the docks that he had seen on the terminal station, large berths in the shape of rib cages that enclosed the freighters. There were several such cradles attached to a central mass, radiating outwards in a circle.

It looks like...a dead animal,” he muttered as he examined the readout.

That thing is big,” Jessie said, increasing the zoom level a little more. It was built from some kind of skeletal structure, but it was impossible to tell whether it was metal or bone, the naked framework covered over in places by masses of what could only be described as off-yellow flesh. “It’s gotta be a few thousand feet across.”

Is it covered in meat?” Higgins wondered, squinting at the display. “That’s Bug tech right there, has to be. Looks like they’re building a station or some kind of dock, maybe the terminal for a tether. Why the hell would the Navy let them do that?”

Can you get a closer look?” Liz asked.

Maximum magnification coming right up,” Jessie replied, the view zooming in further. There was some distortion and blurring, but she fiddled with the controls, bringing it into clearer focus. On the viewfinder was a section of hull, what looked like muscle and tendon wrapped around sturdy beams of what could only be described as organic metal. For a moment, Jamie assumed that the structure was rippling, but he soon realized that there were creatures swarming all over it like ants.

He had seen pictures and videos of Bugs, they were impossible to forget. These were Drones, humanoid insects that stood maybe four or five feet tall, their two pairs of arms moving frantically. It was hard to see what they were doing at this resolution, maybe spreading something on the structure’s surface, connecting veins and cables. Their bodies were enclosed within shimmering, iridescent carapaces that shone in the light of the sun, colored in every hue of the rainbow. Some were emerald green, others a striking red, some blue or orange. Each one had a branching, beetle-like horn that protruded from its forehead, no two exactly alike. In place of mouths, they had sets of twitching mandibles, and it was impossible to tell if their compound eyes were organic or part of a helmet.

They’re all over the fucking thing,” Higgins muttered, his disgust palpable. “How are they operating like that in open space? When our guys go out on the hull to do maintenance, we need suits with an oxygen supply, magnetic boots, tool kits. They’re just...hanging out.”

Betelgeusian armor is hard to distinguish from their natural carapaces,” Jessie explained. “They could very well be wearing some kind of pressure suits. That, or they’ve adapted their biology to be able to survive in a vacuum for extended periods of time, which is a little disconcerting...”

Look at that one,” Jamie said, pointing to the edge of the display. Jessie panned the camera a little further left, focusing on it. There was something far larger clinging to the structure with several pairs of jointed, insect-like legs. Its bulbous body was covered over by a segmented carapace, the faint, blue glow of electronics visible in places. It was covered in spindly antennae and clusters of small, black dots that might be eyes or cameras, a pair of metallic thruster nozzles flexing as though they were alive. It looked like a giant, armored housefly, a chimera of flesh and metal. With the Drones for comparison, it must have been around sixty feet long.

As he watched, it pushed off from the structure, tucking its spindly legs beneath its belly. With flares of green flame from a series of thrusters mounted all around its hull, it turned toward the planet below, quickly accelerating out of view.

Even their ships have organic components,” Jessie explained.

Looked more like an animal than just a machine with organic components,” Higgins said. “What are the UNN doing out here?”

I guess we’ll find out when we’ve finished archiving the research data,” Jessie replied. “They have months of reports backed up.”

After a little more sightseeing, Liz and Jamie bade their friends goodnight and returned to their cabin.

CHAPTER 4: ADAPTIVE MUTATION

The next day came quickly, Liz and Jamie rising from their nest of blankets and pillows to prepare themselves for the journey ahead. They scarcely had time to finish their breakfast before the shuttle that had been sent to collect them was taking up formation beside the Magellan. Jamie watched it through one of the narrow windows in the corridor just outside the airlock, the smaller vessel shooting bursts of blue flame from its thrusters as it matched their velocity and heading. It was sleeker and more aerodynamic than the bulky survey ship, clearly designed with atmospheric flight in mind, but that wasn’t to say that it was in any way elegant. It had a pair of stubby wings for gliding and a cockpit situated high on the stunted nose, the silhouette of the pilot visible beyond the canopy. It had a wide hull, making it look oddly bloated, likely to accommodate a large cargo hold. It was painted white, but the underside was charred black by the heat of reentry, and the old coating was chipping away in many places. Along the side was stenciled faded text in Cyrillic, suggesting that it was of Russian origin.

The umbilical began to extend from the Magellan, connecting to a hatch on the flank of the bulbous lander. The tarp-like material that covered it began to inflate as the passageway pressurized, a green light coming on beside the airlock’s outer door to signal that it was ready.

The Captain had come down from the bridge to see them off, and she hit a console beside the inner door to open it, the panel sliding into a recess in the ceiling above.

I hope you guys find what you’re looking for down there,” she said, the pair turning to face her. “I think your chances are pretty good.”

Thank you,” Jamie replied, extending his hand. “Without you and your crew, we would never have gotten this far.”

She took it, giving it a vigorous shake.

No problem,” she replied with a grin. “Nothing wrong with picking up a couple of interstellar hitchhikers.”

We’ll see you soon,” Liz added, enclosing Cassidy’s hand in her huge mitt. “You’ll have an extra passenger if everything goes our way.”

I’ll look forward to it,” she chuckled.

They said their goodbyes, then entered the airlock, the door sealing behind them with a whoosh. As the pressure equalized, the outer door opened, the fifty-foot umbilical stretching out before them. Liz ducked to avoid hitting her head as she followed Jamie inside, the metal walkway creaking under their weight. At the far end was the hatch that led into the shuttle, its design considerably different from that of the airlock. It looked more like what one would expect to find on a submarine or something of the sort.

As the pair neared, it swung outward on a pair of sturdy hinges, a man clad in a black pressure suit gesturing for them to approach. He was wearing a bulky flight helmet in contrasting white, the visor currently raised to expose his stubbly face.

He helped Jamie through, then stepped aside to let Liz pass, the Borealan having to crouch and turn sideways to fit. They emerged into a cramped troop bay, the walls lined with seats, enough for a squad of Marines. He was relieved to see that there were crash couches large enough for Liz. It was clearly an old ship, judging by the scuffed deck and the loose wires that hung from the ceiling in places. Some of the metal paneling on the walls was brighter, newer, clearly recent repairs. It was lit by dirty light strips on the ceiling that seemed as though they should have been brighter, giving everything a dingy vibe. The padding on the seats was protruding through tears in places, and there was a musty smell about the ship, as though the air filters hadn’t been cleaned in a very long time.

The bay was separated from the cockpit by a narrow door, the glowing lights of the control panels and the stars beyond the canopy visible through its aperture. Unlike the Magellan, this craft was too small to have an airlock, opening directly to the umbilical.

Take a seat and strap in,” the pilot said, sealing the hatch before making his way into the cockpit. Contrary to what the lettering on the hull had suggested, he didn’t sound Russian. His accent was something more akin to Spanish or Portuguese. “The science types hired me to take you down to the colony. The ride might get a little rough. These forests create a lot of weird weather, so make sure your harness is good and tight.”

He wasn’t UAS or Navy, then. This must be a privately-owned shuttle. Judging by the masses of cargo netting and bungee cords that were bundled up towards the troop ramp at the rear, it was safe to guess that he probably made his living hauling goods.

Jamie and Liz exchanged a glance, then sat down next to each other, sliding their bags beneath their seats. The first one that Jamie sat down in had a broken harness, and he shared another concerned look with Liz before sliding into a neighboring seat. They were much less comfortable than the ones on the Magellan, but he was quickly learning to temper his expectations.

There were no windows in the troop bay, but Jamie could feel the hull reverberate as the shuttle detached from the umbilical, along with the sense of motion as it began to accelerate. Before long, they hit the atmosphere, turbulence starting to rock the little craft. Jamie found himself gripping the armrests of his chair for dear life, Liz reaching up to grab a handhold on the ceiling above as the shuttle threatened to shake itself apart. It was like being inside a can of loose bolts while it was rolling down a hill. The hanging wires swung, the light strips flickered, and the sounds of stressed metal filled the bay.

Jamie had a collection of colorful expletives and constructive criticisms of the pilot’s flying skills that were boiling up inside him, but he felt that insulting the man was probably unwise with the door to the cockpit open.

It took several minutes for the shaking to abate, the shuttle starting to make lazy, swooping circles as it decelerated. There was another rumble from beneath the deck, presumably the landing gear deploying, the craft bouncing as it touched down.

They waited as the pilot got up from his controls, scant glimpses of green forest visible beyond the cockpit, the man giving them a questioning look as they stared back at him.

We’re here, ride’s over,” he said. “What are you waiting for, the no-smoking sign to turn off? This ain’t no airline kids, you don’t need my permission to get up.”

He made his way past them, hitting a control panel beside the troop ramp, which slowly began to lower on a pair of hydraulic pistons. As soon as a crack appeared, daylight flooded in, along with a rush of fresh air that washed away the musty smell of the shuttle. It smelled like wet earth after a rainstorm, cool and crisp, immediately lifting Jamie’s spirits. He and Liz unbuckled, Liz slinging the large duffel over her shoulder as she walked down the ramp, Jamie following after her. He considered thanking their pilot, but decided that he probably wouldn’t appreciate it.

For the first time in months, Jamie saw blue sky above, the sight giving him an odd sense of vertigo. He had grown accustomed to being able to reach up and touch the ceiling, and the return to normalcy was somewhat jarring. He filled his lungs with fresh air, fresher even than that of his home city, devoid of any man-made pollutants.

He found himself standing on top of a raised landing pad, its surface scorched black, a ramp leading down to the ground. There was no grass, just dirt that was broken up by a few fern-like plants with splayed fronds. Before him was a cluster of prefab buildings, none more than one or two stories tall, all made from the same off-white material. Their design was industrial, functional, each one raised a good foot off the ground on sets of extensible supports that resembled the outriggers of a crane. Some had been stacked one on top of the other or side by side, fitting together seamlessly to create larger structures, while most were standing alone in a loose cluster. From his vantage point, he could see maybe three dozen buildings, enough to make a small town. Several of them had comms arrays protruding from their flat roofs, and there was a network of thick, insulated cables trailing on the ground between them to create a network. There were no roads, just dirt tracks that had been carved out by regular use. Jamie could see a few open-topped, off-road vehicles with thick, treaded tires sitting idle.

The settlement was in a large, muddy clearing, one that was clearly artificial. He could see the remnants of thick roots in places, a few stumps protruding from the ground at its limits where the forest had been cleared. They were so huge that some of the smaller buildings could have been placed atop them with room to spare.

The clearing was surrounded by truly immense trees, so tall that they had more in common with skyscrapers than plants. Their diameter at the base must have been thirty feet, and some of the taller ones must have been approaching ten times that in height. Their rough, uneven trunks were covered in bark that had a reddish-brown hue, the lower halves devoid of branches, while the upper halves were covered in a mass of green leaves that formed a thick canopy. The woodland beyond the settlement was so dense that it was cast into shadow, the thick trunks limiting visibility to a couple of hundred feet at most.

Man, it smells good here,” Liz said as she sidled up beside him with her duffel in hand. “Quiet, too. No cars, no people, just the sound of branches swaying in the breeze.”

Is this the colony?” he asked, peering out over the settlement. “It’s...smaller than I expected.”

This is how most frontier colonies start off,” she replied. “There will be other little towns like this spread around, probably within driving distance. They drop these prefabs from dropships all ready to go, and people can start living in them as soon as they’re hooked up to the local power and water. One day, decades from now, there might be a city here.”

How do they get power out here?” Jamie wondered.

Back on Borealis, they would sometimes land ships on the surface and run cables from the generators,” she replied. “On a colony like this, they’re probably using a portable fusion reactor of some kind, something more permanent.”

They made their way down the ramp, unsure of what to do next, a few settlers who were walking between the buildings pausing to glance at Liz. After a moment, someone exited one of the prefabs, then came jogging towards them. He was wearing civilian clothes, just like the others, but Jamie was quick to note the UAS patch that was sewn onto the sleeve of his hooded jacket. He had dark, curly hair, and the tanned complexion of someone who had spent a lot of time in the sun. He approached them with a smile, meeting them at the foot of the ramp.

Hello!” he said, greeting them with a friendly wave. “Unless I’m very much mistaken, you must be the couple who shipped in on the Magellan. My name is Sousa, I head the UAS research outpost here on Jarilo.”

His accent was rather thick, placing him somewhere in South America, most likely Brazil.

I’m Jamie, and this is Liz,” Jamie replied.

The UAS sent me a memo about you two a few months back,” he continued. “I have to confess, when I heard about your plans, I was intrigued. I’ve been eagerly awaiting your arrival. We can finally get started.”

Get started?” Liz asked.

There’s a lot happening on Jarilo,” he explained. “It’s easier to show you rather than try to explain everything. Come, let’s get you settled in first,” he added as he gestured for them to follow him. They made their way further into the colony, Jamie’s shoes sinking in the muddy tracks carved out by the vehicles.

There are a few settlements like this scattered around the valley,” he continued, moving out of the way as a flatbed truck loaded with crates rumbled past them. “This one is closest to the hive, so we decided to set up shop here. A couple of miles East is one of the old FOBs from the war. They built a settlement within walking distance of each one, just in case everything went belly-up down here. They’re still manned by garrisons of Marines, but that’s mostly just to keep the Admiralty happy. I doubt anyone who actually lives here thinks they’re necessary anymore.”

They stopped before one of the prefabs, a single-story structure that was raised off the ground on supports, just like the rest. There were a couple of narrow windows covered over with slats, a short, metal staircase leading up to the door. Its corners were rounded, reminding Jamie of the hatch on the shuttle.

This is where you’ll be living during your stay,” Sousa said, the steps creaking as he climbed up to open the door. “Madame may want to duck to avoid hitting her head. Apologies, these units aren’t manufactured to Borealan spec, but you should find the ceiling high enough to be serviceable.”

Jamie and Liz followed in behind him, Liz crouching under the low door frame. The interior resembled what one might expect to find in a luxury camper or a trailer, perhaps twenty feet wide, and maybe eighty feet long. The prefab was all open-plan, save for the bathroom and bedrooms, not unlike their apartment back home. There was a kitchen area with counters and a dining table that was surrounded by four seats, a living area with a large couch and a wall-mounted monitor. All of the furniture seemed to be made from the same material as the structure itself, and it was attached to the floor, meaning that it probably couldn’t be shuffled around. It had likely come like this straight out of the factory where it had been printed.

I trust this will be sufficient,” Sousa said as he wiped his muddy boots vigorously on the doormat. “It’s no five-star hotel, but our means are a little more limited down here.”

It’s bigger than our apartment,” Jamie chuckled. “Hand me your bag, Liz,” he added as he extended his arms to her. “We might want to get you a hose or something so you don’t track mud all over the carpet.”

I did bring my boots,” she muttered, Jamie sagging under her duffel’s weight as she lowered it down to him. “They’re just...goofy.”

He lugged the bag into the bedroom, happy to see that they had a Queen-size, then returned to Liz’s side at the door. Sousa led them back out into what passed for the street, following the mud track a little further into the town.

They stopped in front of another prefab building, identical to the rest, save for the UAS logo that was stenciled along its facade. It was joined to two others, like building blocks arranged side by side, resulting in a longer structure. There was a large satellite dish on the roof, which was probably beaming the archive of research data to the Magellan right now.

Here’s the base,” Sousa announced, gesturing proudly to the prefab. “It’s more of a tin can than a base, really, but this is where we do our work. Jarilo has its own fascinating biology, of course, but most of our focus right now is on the Jarilans.”

Jarilans?” Liz asked.

Our arthropod neighbors don’t like to be called Betelgeusians,” he explained, climbing a short flight of metal steps to reach the door. “They argue that their species didn’t originate in the Betelgeuse system, even though humanity first encountered them there, and that they share no affiliation with their wayward brethren. I’d be inclined to agree, hence the name Jarilan. Their circumstances are quite unique as far as we know, and they only exist here.”

If I were them, I’d want to distance myself from the other hives, too,” she muttered.

Rebranding,” Jamie added, Liz giving him a smirk. “Betelgeuse Zero, now with no added genocide.”

The interior of the UAS building was the same size as the previous prefab, but the floor space was occupied by tables that lined the walls, stacked with computer monitors and scientific implements. There were microscopes, racks of test tubes, a large glass box with a pair of rubber gloves attached to it. Jamie couldn’t name most of the appliances, but the lab seemed well-equipped. All around were more scientists, five in this building, more glimpsed through the far door that led into the adjoining prefab. They were hard at work swiping through holographic displays, analyzing samples, and who knew what else. Most were wearing casual clothes, but a few had white lab coats and surgical gloves.

The researchers looked up from their work as the newcomers entered, all eyes on Liz, which didn’t come as a surprise.

Let me introduce you to the UAS research team who will be poking and prodding at you during your stay,” Sousa said, gesturing to the scientists. “Guys, this is the couple from Earth that we talked about, the ones who want to undergo fertility treatments.”

They received an enthusiastic greeting, a few of the researchers waving to them before turning their attention back to their work.

I’m sure you’ll become better acquainted with everyone in time,” Sousa explained, leading them back outside.

Are we really that big of a deal?” Jamie asked. “I know that what we’re doing has never been attempted before, but I’m starting to feel like a celebrity. Everyone seems to know us, and we don’t know them.”

To the scientific community, you might as well be celebrities,” he replied. “People are already planning on writing papers about you. What we’re studying here is an entirely new field of genetic science, one that transcends anything we thought possible just a couple of years ago. The Betelgeusians have a legacy of genetic engineering that goes back thousands, possibly tens of thousands of years, and the Jarilans are no different in that respect. They’re able to manipulate their own DNA to such a fine degree that we’re only just starting to understand the basic concepts. The applications are endless,” he continued, his frantic gestures conveying his passion for the subject. “Curing diseases, slowing the aging process, maybe even adapting ourselves to hostile environments in the way that the Betelgeusians do. We’ve already seen them incorporate foreign DNA into their own genome, and you two are the next logical step.”

Wait,” Liz began, stopping his monologue. “You said that they’ve already mixed DNA from two different sources? You’ve confirmed this?”

As I said, it will be easier to show you rather than try to explain,” he replied. “All will soon become clear, you have my assurances. As for the moment, I’m sure you’re both hungry and in need of rest. Our resident shuttle pilot is more accustomed to transporting inanimate goods who can’t complain about the turbulence than living passengers.”

***

Jamie and Liz returned to their prefab, unpacking their belongings and exploring their new residence. The kitchen cupboards were stocked with food, non-perishable items only, not even comparable to what they had enjoyed on the Magellan. It was to be expected. What food the colonists would be able to produce themselves at this stage was probably limited to whatever grains and vegetables were taking to the soil, whatever they could grow in small-scale hydroponic farms, and what meat they could hunt in the forests. There were no pastures for cattle to graze in, no infrastructure for processing food yet, no canneries or bottling plants. There was a fresh loaf of bread and a dozen eggs in a basket on the counter, however. Those had to have been produced locally, so there must be some kind of farming going on.

That Sousa guy is like a kid with a new toy,” Jamie said, opening one of the drawers in his search for silverware.

He’s certainly enthusiastic,” Liz replied. “I think it’s cute.”

It won’t be so cute if he ends up treating this like a science experiment,” he muttered as he set some cutlery on the counter. “I’d feel a lot more comfortable knowing that your health takes priority over seeing how far they can push things for curiosity’s sake.”

We don’t have much choice right now other than to trust the people here,” Liz replied with a shrug, stooping to rummage inside the fridge. “Neither of us are knowledgeable enough to argue with them.”

Jamie turned to face Liz, his stern expression giving her pause.

If we get into a situation where the procedures become dangerous, if they put your health at risk, what’s the plan?”

It sounds like you’re asking me whether I want this baby enough to put myself in danger,” she replied, Jamie sighing in exasperation.

I just want us to be on the same page going forward,” he reiterated, crossing his arms somewhat defensively as he leaned back against the kitchen counter. “We both want this, we wouldn’t have come all this way if there was any doubt, but I want to know where we’ll draw the line. Maybe they’ll have to modify your genes or something, change you in a way that might have unforeseen consequences, that could make you sick. What then?”

He could see that Liz was conflicted, her tail starting to wave back and forth behind her as it so often did when she was stressed or uncertain.

Nothing ventured, nothing gained,” she replied. Seeing that it wasn’t enough to satisfy him, she elaborated further. “Listen, these are experimental medical procedures we’re talking about here, things that have never been attempted before. Of course there’s going to be an element of risk. Just coming here was a risk. There are a thousand things that could have killed us on the way. The problem is, if you spend your time trying to mitigate risk, you’ll never get those big payoffs. When I came back to Earth, I was taking a huge gamble,” she continued as she took a step towards him. She reached out, taking his hands in hers. “I didn’t know if you’d want to see me, if you’d even remember me, but that gamble paid off.”

It’s not that I don’t get what you’re saying,” Jamie replied, peering up at her. “This could be the next big payoff, I understand that, but...” He averted his eyes, giving her a shrug. “If push comes to shove, I’d rather go home empty-handed than risk losing you.”

I’m sure it won’t come to that,” she replied, lifting his chin with a curved claw as she tried to reassure him. “But if it does, you have my word that it’ll be a conversation, okay? I’m not going to go baby crazy and make unilateral decisions on my own. This isn’t just about me, we’re partners in this. Deal?”

He nodded, Liz ruffling his hair.

Come on,” she added, turning back to the fridge. “One thing they seem to have in abundance here is chicken. We can fry some up.”

***

Not long after they were done eating, Sousa returned to knock on their door, Jamie opening it to see the energetic scientist waiting on the steps.

If you guys are ready to go, I can show you what’s got us all so excited,” he began. “It’s a short walk, but the terrain can be a little rough, so wear something suitable for hiking.”

Give us a few minutes to get ready,” Jamie replied, Sousa nodding as he descended the stairs to wait outside.

Jamie returned to the bedroom, where Liz was already rummaging through her duffel bag.

Sousa is here,” he said. “Sounds like we might finally get that explanation that he keeps teasing. He says to dress for a hike.”

Guess that means I gotta wear my boots,” Liz grumbled, retrieving them from the bag. They weren’t too different in design from human shoes, but Borealans were digitigrade, which meant that they walked on their toes. Their feet were completely different from those of a human, more akin to the paws of a cat. What resulted were shoes with short, stubby soles, secured around the ankles with Velcro straps. They looked exactly like what an obsessive dog owner might buy for their chihuahua, only scaled up to fit a Borealan. Liz hated them and avoided wearing them at all costs, while Jamie found them adorable.

She slid them on, then tightened the straps, visibly uncomfortable as she rose to her feet.

Alright, let’s do it.”

They joined Sousa outside the prefab, who seemed amused by the sight of Liz’s boots, but wisely chose not to comment. He led them out of the settlement and into the trees, down another winding path that had been carved out by the trucks. Saying that the terrain was rough was an understatement. The abundance of protruding roots and the dense carpet of obscuring ferns made hiking on Jarilo a quick way to snap an ankle. They had to take things slow.

So...are there any predators in these forests?” Jamie asked, craning his neck to admire the dense canopy high above. Beams of sunlight filtered through the leaves, creating pools of dappled light on the ground below. “Anything that might, I dunno, leap out from behind a tree and eat us?”

The apex predator, at least on this continent, appears to be the Gorgonopsia Jarilae,” Sousa replied as he hopped over a root. “It’s a therapsid-adjacent species, somewhat akin to the Eupelycosauria of Earth’s Permian era. Most people around here just call them Knife-Tooths.”

Like something in the theriodont clade?” Liz asked.

Yeah,” Sousa replied, turning his head to give her an appreciative glance. “Sounds like someone knows their paleontology.”

I studied evolutionary biology in college,” Liz replied, leaping over another tall root with far more grace than either of her human companions could muster. “Xenobiology was my thing, specifically. I wanted to go into the field, but life had other plans for me.”

Then, Jarilo should be a playground for you,” Sousa chuckled. “This is a primitive ecosystem that hasn’t been subjected to a great deal of selective pressure yet. Nature is still experimenting, finding her feet.”

We’ll probably be here for a while,” Jamie added as he followed behind them. “Maybe you can take some time to do a little sightseeing, as long as we stay clear of the Knife-Tooths...”

I’d like that,” she replied.

They soon emerged into another large clearing that was surrounded by the remnants of felled trees, identical to the one they had left. Instead of a settlement, however, the muddy ground had been tilled into neat rows. Green shoots were starting to sprout from the dark earth, but Jamie wasn’t knowledgeable enough when it came to farming to identify the plants at a glance. What he could identify, however, was the Bug.

Standing at the far end of the small field was a titanic creature, at least nine or ten feet tall, its bulky frame coated in overlapping layers of thick carapace. The armor was covered in defensive spines in places, like a king crab, the organic plating shining with a blue iridescence as it caught the sunlight. It looked to Jamie like a bipedal lobster, standing on a pair of stout, jointed legs that ended in splayed claws of chitin. Its bulbous head protruded from the armored collar of its segmented shell, a pair of compound eyes that more resembled the visor of a helmet lit by a faint, green glow. Its wicked mandibles shifted ceaselessly, the vicious mouth parts flexing and clicking, as though anticipating tearing into flesh.

It had four arms, the upper pair far larger and more powerful than the lower. It looked like it should have been equipped with massive, crab-like claws, but the blades on the ends of the powerful appendages were not weapons. Forearms as thick around as Jamie’s torso tapered into half a dozen sharp prongs on each limb, like long, rigid claws. It was using them to till the field, he realized, dragging them through the soil to leave deep furrows in their wake. The lower, slimmer pair were moving frantically as it took plodding steps backwards. There was a leather pouch the size of a saddlebag slung about its thick core, which they were reaching inside, emerging with plants grasped in their dexterous fingers. They were seedlings, and the great arthropod was transplanting them into the soil with surprising care, covering them over carefully before moving down the line.

What the fuck?” Jamie gasped, the curse all that he could muster. Liz wasn’t faring much better, staring at the beast in stunned silence as it worked the field.

That there is probably one of the most dangerous things in the Galaxy,” Sousa declared proudly, visibly amused by their shocked expressions. “It’s a Betelgeusian Warrior, pretty much what passes for a super-soldier in the hive fleets. They’re nigh impervious to small-arms fire thanks to their layered armor, and they can eviscerate even a pissed off Krell if they can close into range with their claws. They’re not actually a caste unto themselves, they’re biomechanical power suits, living vehicles. See the glowy bits and the cables between the joints?”

Jamie could indeed see the mechanical aspects of the thing now that they had been pointed out to him. Those eyes were indeed visors, and the glow of electronics was visible in places, melded with the organic flesh and carapace.

The Jarilans have adapted their Warriors to suit their new lifestyle,” Sousa continued. “We call these ones Cultivators. I’ve also seen them used as forklifts and as excavators, basically any role that heavy machinery would usually fill. It sure beats having to land backhoes down here, I’ll tell you that.”

What’s it doing?” Liz asked, watching the thing warily.

Planting potato seedlings,” Sousa replied. “As it turns out, the Jarries are pretty good at farming.”

He led them on, Jamie and Liz staring at the odd sight until the creature was out of view behind the trees. They soon arrived at another plot of land that had been cleared and leveled out, this one surrounded by a sturdy wire fence. Inside were several small structures, Jamie quickly realizing that they were chicken coops. There were at least a couple of hundred of the birds milling about inside, scratching at the dirt with their claws, the nearest ones raising their heads to peer at the newcomers.

It’s a chicken farm,” Liz said, leaning over the fence. It was at about chest-height to her, large as far as chicken fences went.

They’re a great source of meat and eggs,” Sousa explained. “They don’t need grass, either, we can feed them grains. That’s been an issue for livestock. We’re not sure how we’re going to approach that situation yet. Cows and sheep need a lot of space, they need to graze, and we can’t introduce grass to Jarilo without decimating the local ecosystem.”

How have you been clearing away the trees?” Liz wondered, glancing up at the towering trunks that surrounded them. “Some of these have to weigh tens of thousands of pounds.”

The Jarilans take care of it,” Sousa replied. “We were doing it with railguns at first, having the carrier fire on the forest from orbit, but it was a little...disruptive to the local wildlife. The Jarilans come in, fell the trees, and level out the ground so we can use it. I’m not sure what they’re doing with all the timber. They break up the logs and take them away.”

They break them up?” Liz repeated in disbelief. “How the hell do you break up a tree that large?”

Imagine a swarm of ants cutting up a hotdog and carrying the pieces back to their nest,” Sousa replied. “It’s something like that. When that’s done, they bring in their Workers. Those guys are really showing us up. They can dig in a ditch in the time it would take a team of workmen to hand out the shovels.”

There’s...something in that tree,” Liz added, pointing with a clawed finger.

Jamie followed her gaze, spying a strange glint in the branches a good hundred feet above. It was another Drone, just like the ones he had seen on the station in orbit. It was crouched in the canopy, some kind of long rifle clutched in its four arms. The weapon looked like it was molded from orange putty, uneven and organic in appearance, exposed metal catching the sunlight in places. A green glow emanated from some kind of canister just behind the barrel, and it had two forward grips, adapted for use by its four-armed wielder.

The branches swayed as the Drone moved, the leaves rustling, the Bug dropping from its perch. Two pairs of gossamer wings unfurled from protective sheaths on its back, buzzing to life, slowing the thing’s fall. Like a fairy from a children’s story, it landed gracefully on the forest floor outside the fence, its wings retracting as it started to make its way towards them.

This was the first one that Jamie had seen up-close, his eyes playing across its shimmering, blue carapace. He could see now that it had three-fingered hands and two toes on each foot. Its legs were digitigrade, not unlike Liz’s. It was far smaller than the Borealan, however, barely scraping five feet if one didn’t include the ornate horn that rose from its forehead. Its limbs were comparatively thin, exposed flesh with a yellow-green hue visible between the joints in its colorful carapace, but there was a spring to its step that suggested it might be far stronger than it appeared.

Its iridescent shell made it look like it was wearing a suit of armor, but it was hard to tell if that was just its natural exoskeleton. The way that its body shone as it moved was oddly beautiful, picking out hues of green in the sapphire blue.

Around its neck was a soft ruff of fluffy, white fur, like what might be found on a moth. It extended a short way down the chest and shoulders, making it look a little like the creature was wearing a fur collar. Much like its carapace, this fine fur sparkled in the sunlight, as though it were made up of thousands of tiny strands of optical cable. The same fluff was present in other places, too, breaking up the rigid chitin. There was some around its wrists and ankles, as though protecting the joints. As it neared, Jamie noted that its wings weren’t entirely stowed, protruding from their sheaths a little, kind of like tailcoats. They were patterned with shining veins that made them look like shattered glass.

Its face was perhaps the strangest element of its appearance. Gone were the compound visors and the insect mandibles that Jamie was familiar with. In their place were large, expressive eyes that were surprisingly mammalian, the sclera the same greenish hue as its flesh. Its mouthparts were arranged to resemble lips, though Jamie could see the joins in the carapace where they would open up. It was just like the ambassador that he had seen on the newscast, a facsimile, like a china doll.

Liz bristled at the sight of the weapon, her ears flattening against her head, her claws flexing as she stepped between it and Jamie. The alien wasn’t pointing it in their direction, however. The rifle was held in its lower pair of hands, aimed at the ground, while it raised one of its upper hands in a friendly greeting.

Davi,” it said in a surprisingly human voice, distinctly male to Jamie’s ear. Its mouth moved as it spoke, but not quite enough to keep up, the effect a little uncanny. “I see we have some new visitors. Do I need to be worried about the big one?”

It’s alright,” Sousa said, gesturing for calm. “That gun isn’t for us, it’s for the Knife-Tooths that have been bothering our chickens. This is Bluejay, he’s been guarding the coops.”

The settlers mostly just call me Jay,” the Bug replied, the interlocking plates that made up his face contorting into a rather convincing smile. “We keep telling Walker that he’s going to have to start numbering us when he runs out of names, but he doesn’t listen.”

Jamie and Liz didn’t know how to respond, but the Bug was in good humor. This likely wasn’t the first time he had gotten such a reaction.

They just arrived this morning,” Sousa explained. “I’m giving them the tour.”

Then I doubt I’m the weirdest thing you’ll see today,” the Bug chuckled, Jamie still blown away by how human his mannerisms were.

As you can see,” Sousa continued, gesturing to Bluejay. “It’s not only the Warriors that are being adapted to settlement life. The Jarilans are modifying their own DNA, their own behavior, to better integrate themselves into the society that we’re building here.”

I’m a rehabilitated Bug,” Bluejay joked.

You can speak,” Jamie began, not sure whether he should be addressing Bluejay or Sousa. “Just like the ambassador we saw on the newscast.”

Liz couldn’t take her eyes off the creature, her brow furrowing as she examined him.

Why?” she asked. “What makes the Jarilans so different from the Betelgeusians?”

The UNN and the hive fleet arrived on Jarilo within a very short time span of one another,” Sousa began, Bluejay crossing his upper pair of arms as he listened. “The Navy was able to deny the Betelgeusian troops on the surface the resources that they would usually have leveraged to found their colony by destroying two of their three hive ships in orbit, essentially crippling them before the war had begun in earnest.”

The hive found itself stranded on the surface, low on supplies,” Bluejay added.

They were still able to overrun one of the forward bases that the UNN had set up to contain them inside the valley,” Sousa continued. “Even considering their situation, the hive was a serious threat. The Betelgeusians had always fought to the bitter end up until that point, regardless of the odds, but putting them into such a unique situation provoked a change in their behavior. As it turned out, when two competing hives vie for dominance over a planet, the loser may allow itself to be subsumed by the victor if defeat is inevitable. In doing so, their genetic information lives on, assuming that they prove valuable.”

Then, they were inducted?” Liz asked, her ears pricking up. “Like Borealans into a pack?”

The concept is not dissimilar,” Sousa replied with a nod. “As far as we can ascertain, the hive gives itself over to the victor completely. They share their genetic blueprints, and the Queen will start to produce new offspring based on the desires of her conquering counterpart, if she is allowed to survive at all.”

Kinda glad it was the Coalition that beat us,” Bluejay added. “We’re Jarilans now, we don’t see ourselves as being separate from the humans. Even before we became official members, you were already a part of us. Walker saw to that.”

Who is this Walker you keep mentioning?” Jamie asked.

He’s the reason we’re here,” Bluejay explained. “Calling him our father isn’t exactly accurate, but there’s no other word for it in your spoken language. The Queen brought him into our hive during the war in an attempt to find a way to communicate her desire to surrender. In the end, he provided her with his genetic material, uniting our two peoples. From that day, we were one, even if it took the humans a little longer to warm up to the idea.”

Genetic material?” Liz asked, glancing between Sousa and the Bug. “Then, this isn’t just a form of mimicry? The mammalian features, the human mannerisms, the human pheromones that are woven into your scent. You’re...you’re a hybrid.”

I suppose that’s an apt way to put it,” Bluejay replied. “The Queen examined Walker’s genome, and she selected traits that she thought would better allow us to integrate into our new hive. That being the Coalition,” he added, nodding to Jamie. “We’re no longer bred for war, but for cooperation. If we’re going to survive, we have to prove our worth, and we have a lot of bad rep to make up for.”

Then, it really is possible,” Liz whispered. Bluejay cocked his head at her, watching in alarm as she turned to Jamie, lifting him into the air like a doll. “We were right!” she exclaimed, squeezing the breath out of her surprised partner with a tight hug. “I knew it! I knew there was a way!”

What’s with these two?” Bluejay asked, glancing over at Sousa. The scientist was grinning ear to ear.

They came here to have a baby,” he explained, the Bug’s eyes widening. “You just gave them the best news they’ve had in months.”

Looks like you came to the right place, then,” Bluejay added as he watched them celebrate.

This doesn’t mean that it’s guaranteed to work,” Sousa added, “just that we can try.”

A chance is the best we had hoped for,” Liz replied, setting Jamie back down. “This is incredible. As soon as I saw the ambassador on that newscast, I knew that something was up. How extensive is the hybridization?” she asked, her tone becoming more serious again. “Can we talk percentages?”

We’re still determining that,” Sousa replied. “We can’t have the Jarilans just tell us because we don’t properly understand their methodology yet. Their grasp of genetics is so far ahead of our own, and their techniques are...well...alien. The Queen seems to perform all of the modifications herself through some natural, internal mechanism. Or at least, as natural as a product of genetic engineering can be. We have no idea whether the Queen is a product of extremely high selective pressure, potentially millions of years of evolution, or if she is herself the result of untold eons of genetic tinkering.”

Don’t they know their own history?” Jamie asked.

We don’t know where we came from,” Bluejay replied, shrugging with his upper pair of arms. “The species from which we originated reproduces through a kind of interstellar nuptial flight. A new Queen is born, who then builds a fleet of her own, and leaves to find a new planet to colonize. They have no connection to their ancestors, no cultural link, no means of communicating with other hives. Depending on how long this process has been going on, the original homeworld could be clear across the Galaxy.”

If we could identify common genetic markers between hives, perhaps we could trace the Betelgeusians back to their source,” Sousa added. “I doubt such a thing would be possible in our lifetimes, however. Not when there are potentially hundreds of thousands of hives, all of whom would prefer to eat us rather than have a conversation about genealogy.”

How does the process work?” Liz asked, so full of enthusiasm now that her tail was waving behind her. “How could the Queen be conscious of a process that’s happening at a molecular level?”

Let’s walk and talk,” Sousa said, starting to lead them back towards the path. “There’s a lot left to show you. You’ll have a much clearer picture of our situation by the end of the day, I promise.”

I’ll tag along,” Bluejay said, passing his rifle to his upper pair of arms. “I was going to patrol the perimeter soon anyway. There’s a Knife-Tooth that’s been sniffing around the last couple of days, testing the water, seeing if he can find a break in the fence. You have to watch out for those things, they haven’t learned to fear the scent of humans yet.”

They made their way back into the dense trees, following the muddy path as it weaved between the wide trunks. Sousa was guiding them down a gentle slope, likely deeper into the valley, where he had mentioned the hive was located. Jamie wondered if they would actually get to see it, if they would be allowed inside the underground tunnels.

Taking biopsies of the Queen is a bad idea,” Sousa said, resuming their previous conversation. “For the moment, we can only make observations and speculate about how she’s able to edit genes with such finesse. Their equivalent of our helicase enzymes, the molecular machines responsible for replicating DNA, seem able to communicate with her nervous system through some chemical means. The Queen is aware of the nucleotides on the DNA strand that she’s examining, almost as though she can taste them, and she has the mental fortitude to map them out. Imagine being able to memorize a password comprised of a hundred million characters, and you may have some idea of how much information she can process. Queens are quite incredible,” he added, Bluejay nodding along in approval. “Did you know that they even perform superlight calculations in their heads prior to a jump?”

She’d better be smart,” Bluejay added, his eyes scanning the shadows between the towering trunks as he strode along beside them. “Her brain probably weighs about as much as you do.”

So, we just have to provide DNA samples to the Queen?” Liz asked.

Not exactly,” Sousa replied. “The UAS wants to be more involved in this process. We want to be able to observe so that we can learn more about Jarilan gene-editing, and we need more refined control over the genetic makeup of the baby. The Queen doesn’t exactly have a strong grasp of our social and cultural needs, and we’d have a hell of a time trying to explain to her why a trait that she deems to be beneficial would actually be detrimental. There are also legal concerns, as genetic augmentation that isn’t medically necessary is prohibited by the Yellow Sea treaty.”

Wasn’t that treaty penned to prevent militaries from turning their soldiers into science experiments?” Liz scoffed. “I don’t see how that would apply to a baby.”

Well,” Sousa continued, pausing to clamber over a large root that protruded from the undergrowth. “Things could get pretty crazy if we started combining alien genomes to create hybrids. Suppose we ended up with a human who had Borealan muscle mass and bone density. What if someone spliced a Krell and a Borealan to create an armored killing machine? These things can’t be taken lightly, not if we want to avoid having UN inspectors crawling all over the place.”

If we don’t have access to the Queen, then what’s the next best thing?” Liz asked. “You said that your people don’t have a very detailed understanding of the Betel...sorry, the Jarilans’ methods yet.”

Fortunately, we’ve had four months to plan for your arrival,” the scientist replied. “We had already been discussing the possibility of creating a dedicated medical caste with the Queen. The Worker caste, as well as being adept laborers, are surprisingly skilled surgeons. They perform a maintenance role in the hive, repairing both damaged vehicles and injured soldiers. We posited that with some tweaks, they could be modified to serve as doctors, leveraging the innate skill and knowledge of the species. The Queen must remain on Jarilo if the hive is to survive, but they could bring their genetic expertise with them wherever it’s needed. We could have one in every hospital.”

And...they’re ready?” Jamie asked skeptically. “In only a few months?”

The Jarilans mature very quickly,” Sousa explained.

That’s so weird,” Jamie muttered. “Are they just...born to do specific jobs? What if they decide they want to do something else?”

We like our jobs,” Bluejay replied cheerfully. “We’re probably designed to,” he added with a chuckle. “I can’t imagine the uncertainty of not knowing why you were hatched, what your purpose is.”

But what if you discover something you like doing more than guarding chickens?” Jamie insisted, glancing over his shoulder as the insect strode gracefully through the bed of ferns.

Chicken guard isn’t exactly my job description,” he replied. “I’m a Winged Drone, my natural role is scouting for danger, protecting the hive. That hive now includes the human settlements. It’s an important job, one that I find a great deal of satisfaction in.”

Guess I can’t argue with that,” Jamie conceded.

Sorry,” Liz said, “I just can’t get over how human you are. It’s uncanny. I keep expecting to look back and see a little ape.”

Going from communicating exclusively through pheromones to interpreting speech and gestures required a lot of physical changes,” Sousa explained. “Vocal cords, a speech center for the brain, that’s not enough. Things like recognizing faces, interpreting body language, these aren’t things that can just be taught. They all require their own wetware, genes sourced from the human donor and woven into the tapestry that is the Jarilan genome.”

As they rounded a stout tree trunk, they came upon a procession of Bugs heading in the opposite direction along the trail. There were maybe twelve of them all walking along in a line, each one a different color from the rest, the shapes of their branching horns just as varied. They were squat compared to Bluejay, maybe four feet tall, their broad shoulders setting them apart from the lithe Drone. Their upper arms were proportionally thicker than Bluejay’s, almost long enough to drag along the ground, their fingers widened into shovel-like appendages. Their lower pair were downright dainty in comparison, tucked against their torsos as they walked. They had the same silvery fur around their necks, puffed up in a ruff.

Each of them was carrying a crate in their upper arms, and they looked surprisingly heavy considering the size of the little creatures.

It’s Davi!” one of them announced, the party standing aside to give the insects more room to waddle past. They glanced up at Liz with their large, expressive eyes, likely never having seen a Borealan before.

Good morning, Doctor Sousa,” another chimed.

What have you got there?” Sousa asked, appraising their cargo.

Raw materials for the settlement,” another replied. Unlike Bluejay, their voices were higher pitched, distinctly feminine.

They watched as the little aliens trudged up the path, eventually disappearing from view in the dense forest.

Workers,” Sousa explained. “They dig the tunnels that make up the hive, they build tools and weapons, they perform maintenance and surgery.”

They’re kinda cute,” Liz chuckled, watching the last of them disappear up the path. “Like a little row of jelly beans.”

They continued on, descending deeper into the valley. Bluejay stopped after a few minutes, leaning his long rifle across his shoulder as he crouched low to the forest floor, brushing aside the ferns with a three-fingered hand.

What is it?” Jamie asked, turning back to see what he was doing.

I smell it too,” Liz said, her pink nose twitching as she sniffed at the air. Jamie and Sousa exchanged a shrug, their human senses too dull to pick anything up.

It’s that damned Knife-Tooth,” Bluejay muttered, rising to peer into the forest. “Sorry, guys, this is where I leave you. The scent is only a few hours old. Maybe I can catch the bastard before he costs us any more chickens.”

Good luck!” Jamie said, watching his wings unfurl. They became a blur, a buzzing sound filling the air, the plants at his feet whipping back and forth as he rose toward the canopy. In a moment, he was gone, little more than a glint of blue glimpsed through the branches.

Imagine just being able to fly like that,” Liz mused, giving Jamie a nudge with her elbow. “Think I can get gene therapy to give me wings?”

At this point, I have no idea what to expect,” he replied.

Jamie had imagined that they would reach the bottom of the valley before they came upon the hive, but the muddy trail led them to one of the entrances, situated on the gentle slope. It was little more than a mound of earth that rose up from the undergrowth, itself covered in a steadily spreading carpet of ferns that had taken root upon it. There was a pair of large doors made from a kind of uneven, organic resin, tall and wide enough to let one of the Cultivators that they had seen in the field pass through unhindered.

Two Drones were standing to either side of it, guarding the entrance, each one equipped with a resin pistol that was holstered in a molded recess on their thigh armor. They looked similar to Bluejay at a glance, the same five-foot height, with the same collars of fluffy fur around their necks. Unlike their blue counterpart, however, their bodies had an oddly feminine look to them. Their thighs were stouter, their wide hips tapering into narrow waists, and they had no wings.

Sousa raised a hand to greet them, and they seemed to recognize him. One of them turned to the door, brushing its fingers against a blob of off-green jelly in the soil beside it, the gelatinous mass quivering. It looked like a living ball of phlegm, Jamie grimacing as he watched it pulsate. Was it a living organism?

The twin doors began to swing outward, the two guards stepping clear, a rush of warm air washing over the visitors as they glanced into the dingy tunnel beyond. It smelled moist, humid, but not necessarily unpleasant.

The hive is made up of a huge network of interconnected tunnels that run for miles beneath the valley,” Sousa explained, leading them inside. Jamie and Liz exchanged an apprehensive glance, then followed behind him. “They link together hundreds of underground chambers, each one with its own specific function. The Jarilans have factories, nurseries for their larvae, storage areas for food and tools. There’s a whole city down here, with a population that far outstrips that of the settlers on the surface.”

Once the sunlight was to their backs, Jamie noticed that the wide passage was lit by clumps of luminescent moss that clung to the curved ceiling above, emitting a blue-white glow that was enough to see by. He extended a hand to brush the wall, expecting to feel damp soil beneath his fingers. Instead, he felt something akin to rigid plastic, as though the bare earth had been covered over by some kind of transparent resin.

The smell of pheromones is even stronger in here,” Liz commented, lifting her head as she took in the unfamiliar scents. “It’s almost like they’ve been smeared in the walls.”

That’s exactly what they did,” Sousa chuckled. “The Jarilans are very sensitive to chemical markers in their environment, and they have no written language of their own. Instead, they leave pheromone trails to act as signposts, which lead them to different parts of the hive. There will be a unique scent for the feeding chambers, another for the foundries, another for the brood chamber. It makes it functionally impossible for them to get lost down here.”

Then, how do you know your way around?” Jamie asked. “Did you memorize the layout?”

Nah,” Sousa replied, stopping at a T-junction to point at the wall. “They added English signs for wayward mammals.”

Much like a street sign, the aliens had glued placards to the resin walls that pointed to different areas of the hive. Jamie could have sworn that they were hand-written, but each letter had been reproduced with such precision that it seemed unlikely. He read off a few locations. There was the galley, the sleeping quarters, the nursery. Even the names seemed to have been translated into a more palatable English equivalent. Brood chamber sounded a lot less appealing than nursery.

We’re headed to the infirmary,” Sousa announced, leading them down the leftmost tunnel. Unlike the straight, logical corridors of the Magellan, the hive tunnels were a winding maze. They seemed to turn corners at random, branching off in sometimes four or five different directions, even rising and falling in elevation as they wound deeper underground.

How is there an air current down here?” Jamie wondered, feeling the breeze on his face. “I don’t see any vents.”

They use convection,” Sousa explained. “There are chimneys on the surface that circulate the air through a series of tunnels, expelling waste gases, and regulating the internal atmosphere. It’s a simple system, but remarkably efficient. Even in the deepest reaches of the hive, the Jarilans can keep the temperature and humidity at a comfortable constant.”

They came across another procession of Workers, the tunnel wide enough that the two groups could easily pass one another, the little insects greeting Sousa before heading up the tunnel.

They all seem to know you,” Liz commented, turning her head to watch the short insects disappear around a bend in the passage.

I’ve been working on Jarilo for a couple of years now,” the scientist explained. “I’ve been here to see the hive transition from what we know as Betelgeusians to what we see today. I’ve witnessed the birth of a new generation, one that’s eager to interact with humans, to engage with us socially. They learn so fast, they mimic us, they’re so curious about how we live. My team and I spend a lot of time with them. I’ve known some of them since they were larvae.”

They must mature astoundingly quickly,” Liz added.

Oh, very,” he continued. “They’re fully mature only two or three months after hatching. Most of the Jarilans that you’ve seen so far aren’t more than a year or two old.”

Humans are barely walking and talking by that age,” Jamie said. “These guys already speak better English than I do.”

The passage that they were following led them past a cavernous underground chamber, the trio pausing to glance inside. A huge dome had been carved out of the planet’s bedrock, veins of ore adding color to the gray stone above. The sedimentary layers were clearly visible, giving way to dark soil near the top. They must be hundreds of feet underground by now. The luminescent moss that Jamie had seen in the tunnels was clustered at its apex, the mass creating a much brighter light source that illuminated the room.

The chamber was as large as a factory floor, and there were hundreds of squat, fuzzy Workers milling about inside it. They were crouched over tables that were made from the same organic, uneven resin as the doors and the weapons, their four arms moving frantically. This was some kind of assembly plant, he realized. The Bugs were making things, batteries, if he had to guess. They were holding the resin housings with their upper arms, their lower pair moving with surgical precision, attaching what looked like printed circuit boards and filaments of copper wire.

At the back of the chamber was what looked like a row of earthenware ovens, made from tightly-packed clay. The orange glow of their flickering flames spilled out, casting dancing shadows behind the Workers that were tending them. He watched one of the Bugs pull a glowing piece of metal from the raging flames using some kind of resin tong, inspecting the red-hot iron before placing it back inside. These were forges. The Bugs were smelting metal down here.

Industrious, aren’t they?” Sousa said as he watched Jamie stare at them.

Is this a factory?” he asked.

The Jarilans are completely self-sufficient,” the scientist continued, gesturing to the bustling chamber. “They can make their own tools, their own electronics, they can even manufacture spacecraft with just the natural resources available to them on the planet. The settlements up top aren’t at the stage where they can establish large-scale production facilities yet, they can only produce whatever items can fit on the printer beds. Thanks to the Jarilans, we’re going to be able to manufacture whatever we need on-site,” he said as he planted his hands on his hips triumphantly. “It’ll be the fastest development of any colony, ever. No waiting decades to get established, no having to import a labor force.”

You’re really invested in them,” Liz added, Sousa nodding his head as he glanced up at her.

We’re looking at the start of a new era for the Coalition, one where the Jarilans accelerate construction and manufacturing projects by a factor of a thousand, where there are Jarilan doctors in every hospital on every planet. It’s going to happen,” he insisted, almost as though he was trying to convince himself as much as he was them. “We just have to...help people understand them. They have to realize that these aren’t Betelgeusians.”

They moved on from the factory, heading deeper into the recesses of the hive, following the tunnels into the bowels of the planet. After a few more twists and turns, they arrived at what the sign informed them was the infirmary. The mouth of the tunnel was sealed behind a resin door, Sousa reaching out to brush his fingers against another of the phlegm-like masses that was embedded in the soil beside it. The blob of green gunk shivered, the door starting to open.

What are those?” Jamie asked.

Chemical sensors,” Sousa explained. “They work a little like fingerprint locks. It’s how the Jarilans keep unauthorized personnel from trespassing.”

The door opened into another domed chamber, this one far smaller than the last. The base of the circular wall was lined with work surfaces, counters made from extruded soil that had been overlaid with more of the clear resin that they used to coat the tunnels. It was uneven and organic in appearance until it reached the top, where it had been flattened out to a glass-smooth consistency.

Jamie couldn’t begin to guess at the purpose of the objects that sat on top of them. Some were clearly surgical instruments like scalpels and clamps, none of them made from metal, while others were less obvious in their function. He remembered the lab from the gene clinic back on Earth, the microscopes, the centrifuges. In place of such things, the Bugs were using devices that were semi or fully organic, indescribable masses of flesh and electronics that made no sense to his eyes. Oddly, there were a few devices of human origin, standing out due to the clean lines of their hospital-white housings.

There were raised sections of the floor made in much the same style as the work surfaces, reminding him of tombs in a crypt. Upon closer inspection, the resin on top was molded to fit the contours of an occupant, suggesting that these were the Bug equivalent of hospital beds. They came in varied sizes, likely one for each caste that lived in the hive.

The alien laboratory was occupied by a dozen squat Jarilans. They were very similar to the Workers in terms of their stature and body plan, but they were all uniform in color, devoid of any fur. Their carapaces reminded Jamie of mother of pearl, white at a glance, but catching the light to reveal rainbow hues as they moved about the room. Where the Workers had a pair of powerful upper-arms used for digging and labor, these creatures had slender, spindly limbs that ended in dexterous fingers. They were still long enough that they almost reached the floor, but they seemed far better suited to delicate work, the lower pair complementing them. Come to think of it, they reminded Jamie of the robotic surgery machines he had seen in clinics, with their sets of mechanical arms.

The horns on their foreheads were more stunted and rounded than those of their counterparts, and they had a pair of long, fuzzy antennae that protruded from the tops of their heads. They were black at the base, tapering to white at their tips.

A few of the creatures turned to look up from their work as the strangers entered, one of them leaving its place in front of a vaguely rectangular device that was covered in quivering pustules, almost like a keyboard made of meat.

These are the subjects!” it exclaimed, the segmented plates that made up its face shifting as it spoke. “One human male, one Borealan female, both of breeding age.”

Lizka, James, this is Nightingale,” Sousa said as the little creature bobbed on the spot excitedly. “Nightingale,” he added, wagging his finger at the creature as he chided it. “We talked about bedside manner, didn’t we?”

Apologies,” it added, scrutinizing the newcomers eagerly with a pair of pink eyes. “We are merely excited to begin the procedures.”

Jamie noted that this one had a female voice. So far, only Bluejay had come across as distinctly male.

Nightingale?” Liz asked, cocking an eyebrow at the Bug. “Bit on the nose, isn’t it?”

Walker names them,” Sousa explained, shrugging his shoulders. “You’ll have to forgive a little...quirkiness from these guys. They’re a relatively new caste, and the Queen thought it best to retain some of the more obsessive qualities from the original genetic blueprint. She said that we needed them to be efficient. They’ll learn, in time.”

Social graces...secondary to meeting performance goals,” Nightingale replied, “but not unimportant. Soon, we take genetic samples for analysis, yes?”

Soon,” Sousa promised. “For now, why don’t you explain the process to your patients? It will put them more at ease if they know what to expect.”

Simple,” Nightingale said, waving at Jamie and Liz as though she needed to grab their attention. “We take DNA samples from bodily secretions, not invasive, then we sequence genomes. We look for similarities, compatibilities, conflicts. Once both genomes are fully mapped, and the interactions between each gene is properly understood and demonstrated in a test environment, splicing can begin.”

Slow down a little,” Sousa advised. “We don’t even know if that will be possible yet.”

Splicing between human and Betelgeusian genomes was successful, precedent has been set,” Nightingale insisted. “Subjects...patients are both mammals. They must share basic body chemistry, or they would not be able to breathe the same atmosphere, consume the same nutrients. If DNA was too dissimilar, if different sugars and phosphates were present, if nucleotides were mismatched, they could not interact as they do. The exchange of bodily fluids would result in a catastrophic-”

That’s enough information, Nightingale,” Sousa interrupted hurriedly. “You’re very confident in your work, we understand.”

You think it’s possible, then?” Liz asked.

The little creature peered up at her, near half her height, its furry antennae waving in the air as though it were scenting her.

We have not yet analyzed the Borealan genome in detail,” she replied. “Human scientists have access to sequences, yes, but their data is incomplete.”

The Jarilans are somehow able to analyze the complex interactions between different genes,” Sousa explained. “That’s one of the technologies that the UAS would like to crack. We can sequence a genome without much trouble, it’s pretty trivial as long as you have the processing power on hand. When it comes to what those tens of thousands of genes actually do and how they interact with one another, that’s another story. We have no method of determining that, save through observation.”

We do not keep secrets,” Nightingale clarified, as though concerned that Liz and Jamie would think that she was withholding information. “Much of our technology uses chemical or nervous interfaces, and until now, all of our gene-editing has taken the form of the Queen’s internal mechanisms. We will work with the humans to find solutions, ways of translating.”

I’m sure they understand,” Sousa said.

Time for samples now?” Nightingale asked eagerly. “Do not worry, Sousa says no biopsies, saliva only.”

If you two are ready,” the scientist said, turning to Jamie and Liz. “We’ll be taking cheek swabs to collect samples of your saliva, which should give the Jarilans all of the information they need to start the process.”

Okay,” Jamie replied with a shrug. He glanced up at Liz, and she nodded.

The sooner, the better,” she said, looking almost as enthusiastic as Nightingale was. “The suspense is killing me. I just want to know that it’s going to work, that my DNA doesn’t have some nasty line of code that’s going to spoil everything.”

Chances of that, very low,” Nightingale chirped. “Please wait here. I shall fetch the swabs.”

She turned around, waddling over to one of the resin worktops, rummaging inside a white box with UAS markings on the site. It appeared that the scientists back at the settlement had provided them with some supplies more suited to humans. Jamie didn’t want to imagine what form the Jarilan equivalent of a swab might have taken. Maybe some kind of living worm that squirmed around inside the subject’s mouth...

The little insect returned with two cotton swabs clutched in her hands, along with two plastic vials with blue caps. She stopped before Jamie, blinking her large eyes as she looked up at him expectantly.

What should I do?” Jamie asked, glancing at Sousa.

Just stay still,” he replied. “She’s quite gentle.”

With a nod from Sousa, Nightingale lifted one of her upper arms, taking Jamie’s face in her hand. The touch of her carapace against his skin was strange, not at all what he had expected. As hard as their shells looked, they were actually somewhat malleable, like a kind of soft plastic. It was firmer than his own flesh, but there was more give to it than something like a crab’s shell. He opened his mouth, the alien carefully inserting the swab, rolling it against his inner cheek. When it was coated with his saliva, she placed the swab inside the plastic test tube, sealing it up.

Next, she turned her pink eyes to Liz. It was obvious that the Borealan was going to have to get closer to the ground.

Come, come!” the creature said as she gestured for Liz to follow her. She led the towering feline over to one of the raised beds, then clambered up onto it, gaining an extra two or three feet. It was enough to reach, Liz leaning down a little as she opened her mouth, exposing her sharp teeth. If Nightingale was in any way apprehensive about sticking her hand in there, she didn’t show it, giving the Borealan’s cheek a good swab before hopping back down onto the dirt floor.

We have all necessary data!” she declared, one of her identical counterparts scurrying over to take the samples off her hands.

What happens now?” Liz asked. “How long until we know the results?”

These guys work inhumanly fast, so it shouldn’t take too long,” Sousa replied. “Maybe a day or two at the most. We’ll keep you informed, of course.”

Liz gave Jamie an excited grin, one that he couldn’t help but return.

CHAPTER 5: TRANSGENESIS

Liz, Jamie, and Sousa made their way back up to the settlement. It had been a bizarre few hours, and Jamie was about ready for a break. In one day, he had left the spaceship that had been his home for the last four months, he had descended to an alien planet in a rickety shuttle, and he had toured a hive full of giant insects. He tried to imagine how he would explain what he had seen to his friends back home, to his parents, but he was drawing a blank.

Sousa left them at their prefab, heading back to his lab, Jamie collapsing onto the couch as soon as he was inside.

Man, why am I so tired?” he grumbled. “I’ve done longer hikes than that in my sleep.”

You were cooped up on the Magellan for months,” Liz replied with a smirk. “Considering how much exercise you usually do, it’s no wonder you’re out of practice. We should have gotten you a giant hamster wheel.”

Hey, we found other ways to burn off all that energy,” he added. Liz gave him a playful whip with her tail, Jamie batting at the furry appendage.

You should go for a run tomorrow,” she suggested, turning her eyes to the slatted windows. “It would do you good to get some fresh air.”

I’d like to, but what about the Knife-Tooths?”

Maybe Bluejay will agree to be your bodyguard,” she chuckled. “I’d tag along, but you know I don’t have the stamina to keep pace with you. At least, not when it comes to endurance running...”

The benefits of dating an ambush predator,” he said, Liz flashing her teeth at him.

We should get out for a while,” she said. “I know we’ve been hiking all day, but after so many weeks cooped up on that survey ship, I relish the opportunity to sit under an open sky.”

Alien picnic?” Jamie suggested.

Now you’re speaking my language. We’ve got bread, we’ve got eggs, we’ve got chicken. Let’s make some sandwiches.”

***

They made their sandwiches, then took them out into the forest beyond the settlement, keeping the prefabs in view so as not to risk getting lost in the dense woodland. Jamie wasn’t so concerned about the Knife-Tooths with a Borealan by his side. The pair settled into a nook between two protruding roots at the base of a towering tree, leaning back against its uneven trunk as they ate, watching the branches high above them sway in the breeze. It was evening, so the air was starting to cool, but it was still pleasantly warm.

I can’t believe how much like Earth this place is,” Jamie mused, finishing the last bite of a chicken sandwich. “If I just woke up here one day, I’d assume I was up in Washington state somewhere.”

It’s remarkably similar to Earth,” Liz replied. “The composition of the atmosphere, the gravity, the flora. That’s probably why the Navy fought so hard for it. Planets like this are extremely rare.”

How does it compare to Borealis? Elysia is surrounded by jungles, right?”

Elysian jungles are much denser,” she explained. “Think something more like the Amazon rainforest. That said, most of the plants are evergreen, as they have to survive the winter cycles.”

Seems like a nice place to build a new life,” he sighed, watching the light shafts that bled through the canopy create pools of shimmering light in the ferns. “It’s not like the people here don’t have jobs and bills, but all the work they do goes towards improving the settlement. They’re not just doing busywork, you know? If your job is repairing a generator, that’s the generator that will be powering the homes of all your neighbors, people you interact with every day. An electrician who services a power breaker in a high-rise isn’t any less important, but he’ll never meet any of those people. He’ll never see the outcome of his work.”

You’ve only been in the forest for a day, and you’re already fantasizing about being a homesteader,” Liz chuckled. “The UN wants people out here, you know. I saw the programs when I was researching Jarilo, I saw the incentives that they offer. Some of them are pretty attractive. If someone wanted to just drop everything, then come out here and start a new life, I don’t think it would be too difficult.”

I think I’m too much of a city boy to make it in the wild,” Jamie chuckled. “Sure, we all sometimes fantasize about going out into the Alaskan wilderness and building a log cabin, hunting moose for our livelihood. Doubt most people could cut it, though. Is it something you’ve thought about?” he asked.

Not exactly,” she replied, fishing in their hamper for another egg sandwich. “But, after living on Borealis, I figure I could make it pretty much anywhere. If you suddenly developed a case of wanderlust, I’d follow you.”

What about your job?” he asked.

It’s not the first job I’ve had,” she replied with a shrug. “Probably won’t be the last, either.”

I think I’ll probably be homesick by the time we’re ready to leave,” he said, leaning back against the tree. “It’s nice to have the option, though, right?”

***

By the next morning, Sousa was knocking on their door again. He was accompanied by a gaggle of half a dozen squat medics, Jamie unable to tell if Nightingale was among them or not, as they all looked similar to his eyes. Two of them were hauling a large resin crate between them.

Good news,” the scientist began with his usual energy. “The Jarilans have finished sequencing your DNA. If you’d like to accompany us to the lab, we’re ready to start the next phase of the project.”

The next phase?” Liz asked, ducking to peer through the open door as she stood behind Jamie.

The Jarries are going to go over the results with the UAS team, then we’re going to start discussing how we want to proceed, what kind of outcome we can expect. You two are central to that discussion, we’ll need your input. It’s going to be your baby, after all.”

It was unlike Liz to skip breakfast, but the prospect of hearing the results of the tests had her throwing on her leather jacket and clearing the metal steps that led up to their prefab in a single stride. Jamie was quick to follow, the group making their way across the muddy street to the cluster of UAS buildings.

They were greeted by several scientists inside, the Bugs fanning out, apparently already familiar with the human equipment. Jamie wasn’t sure what exactly was going on, but the room was fairly packed now, and everyone seemed to be in heated discussion.

At the far end of one of the adjoining prefabs was the computer room, packed with banks of servers that the UAS used to crunch numbers and to store their research data. A network of thick, insulated power and optical cables the width of garden hoses snaked along the walls, leading to other areas of the facility. There was an especially large cluster of them that vanished into the ceiling above, Jamie surmising that they were probably linked to the satellite dish that he had seen on the roof.

The Bugs set the crate down on the floor, two more of their companions joining them, starting to crack open the casing. There was no lid, they just broke the brittle material apart, revealing something that turned Jamie’s stomach.

It was a wheeled platform, like something that might carry an EKG machine in a hospital, shaped like a small table. Sitting atop it was a seething mass of yellow-green flesh, its slimy, lustrous surface covered in pulsing veins. It was contained within a transparent sheath, like it had been wrapped in kitchen film, keeping the thing air-tight. To Jamie’s untrained eye, it looked like a giant organ being prepared for transplant, large enough that it could have been carved out of a sizable cow.

It was hooked up to some kind of life support system, tubes that were halfway between a cable and an artery weaving their way through the supports like the roots of a plant. It was such a complex network, masses of wires bulging from the pedestal, connecting to the organ in places through ports in its protective covering. There were more electronics, too, flashing status lights visible on the unidentifiable devices that were hooked up to the flesh.

There it is,” Sousa whistled, watching as the Bugs inspected the thing.

I have a feeling you’re about to tell us what we’re looking at,” Jamie muttered.

That right there is a living, twitching mystery,” the scientist replied. “Earlier, I talked about how the Betelgeusian Queens use microscopic, molecular machines to read the nucleotides on strands of DNA, translating the codons into chemical signals that can be sensed and cataloged. They’re also able to test how those genes interact through a process that we simply don’t understand yet. What you’re looking at is the specialized organ that performs those functions, the same kind you’d find inside a Queen. This one has been vat-grown and hooked up to a life-support system.”

That thing would usually be inside a Queen?” Liz asked, watching the mass of flesh pulse. “Just how big are they?”

About twelve feet tall,” Sousa replied, Liz raising her eyebrows. “Problem is,” he continued, “the organ is supposed to be hooked up to a nervous system. It’s full of specialized cells that send chemical signals to nerves, which the brain that it’s usually attached to would interpret. The Jarilans use neural interfaces to control many of their machines and vehicles, so tapping into those signals isn’t an issue for them, but humans just don’t have the wetware to handle that. The medics have assured us that they’ve devised a way to output the data in a way that we can understand, though. Think of it like...converting an analog input to a digital signal.”

Look,” Jamie chuckled, giving Liz a nudge. “They’re hooking it up to the servers. Did they just slap an optical connection on it?”

The Bugs were running cables from the device to the computers, connecting the two with surprising finesse. There was a physical keyboard beneath a terminal that was occupying one of the racks, one of the insects using its four arms to tap frantically at the keys, lines of code scrolling past so quickly that it looked like a blur to Jamie. They were clearly familiar with whatever operating system the servers were running.

The scientists clustered around another terminal that was sitting on one of the worktops in the lab, watching as data began to display on the feed. It looked like strings of random letters to Jamie, row after row of Gs, As, Ts, and Cs.

It’s working!” one of the researchers exclaimed, the room erupting in clapping and cheering.

The computer is reading chemical signatures from the organ and displaying the genetic information as GACT, which is the code we use to describe DNA,” Sousa explained. “Every three letters is a codon, and every sixty-four codons is a gene. What we have here isn’t really usable. We need to improve on the software, find a way to display it more intuitively. But now we know that it works.”

This is just the sequencer,” another of the scientists added, giving them an excited smile as she turned to glance back at them. “We can already do this with our equipment, but this means that we can start studying how the Jarilans decode the functions and interactions of these genes. It’s just a matter of translating the signals in a way that we can interpret.”

Come on,” Sousa said, leading Liz and Jamie away. “The Jarilans have already seen this data, they can explain your options.”

They left the bustle of the lab behind, entering a break room with more comfortable seating. Liz was large enough to occupy an entire couch by herself, the frame creaking under her weight as she settled into the cushions. Jamie sat down on a chair beside her as Sousa called in one of the Bugs, the pearl-colored creature waddling into the room.

Nightingale,” he began, Jamie wondering how he was able to tell the creatures apart from the rest. “I’d like you to explain to your patients how the tests went and what their options will be, if you would.”

Naturally,” she replied, her furry antennae waving excitedly as she turned to address the pair. “We have determined that the two genomes are healthy and that they are compatible.”

Compatible!” Liz repeated, clapping her large hands together happily. “Does that mean we can have a baby?”

Assuredly,” Nightingale replied, Liz uttering an excited trill in response. She turned to beam at Jamie, his heart fluttering as her green eyes met his. She was so...happy, radiant. “The question now is how extensive hybridization will be, yes, yes. Which genes to preserve, which to replace, which traits will be of benefit to the offspring.”

Back on Earth, we’d have to pay an arm and a leg for a designer baby,” Jamie marveled.

Limbs...currency?” Nightingale wondered, Sousa giving the Bug a dismissive wave of his hand.

It’s an expression, Nightingale. Ignore it.” “The first parameter to be considered is whether you wish to carry the offspring yourself, or if you would prefer that we mature the fetus to viability in a surrogate system,” Nightingale continued. “Developing an artificial womb to suit the needs of the developing fetus would not be complicated, but Doctor Sousa has informed me that you may wish to perform the birth yourselves.”

I want to carry it, if I can,” Liz replied. “Definitely.”

That decision will somewhat limit the hybridization options,” the insect continued. “In such a case, we will base the genome of the offspring on the Borealan genetic blueprint to ensure that the fetus is compatible with your biology and that no complications arise.”

What does that mean, exactly?” Jamie asked. “Basing the genome on the Borealan blueprint?”

We refer to base genomes prior to their modification as blueprints,” Sousa explained. “It means that the child would be ostensibly Borealan in appearance. If you’d prefer it to look more human, we’d need to use the surrogate method, as it might cause issues for Lizka. I understand if you need more time to think about it.”

You told me that you’d love a kitten when we last talked about this,” Jamie said as he turned to Liz.

I wanted it to be a conversation,” she chuckled.

It’s the only way for you to carry it yourself,” he added, Liz nodding her head. “So...where exactly do my genes come into the equation?” he asked, his question directed at Nightingale. “You said that it would be a hybrid, but what does that mean in practice?”

The process is simple,” the Bug replied, her antennae waving in what might be excitement. She reminded him of Liz when she had an opportunity to talk to him about xenobiology, that same eager energy bubbling up inside her. “In the case that you choose to carry the offspring yourselves, we will take the female’s genome as a base, and selectively splice genes from the male’s genome that are deemed acceptable. Doctor Sousa has informed us that there are guidelines that must be followed for legal reasons, as well as social and cultural aspects that require our deference. It would be logical to create the fittest possible organism based on the best of both genomes, but if this is not to be the case, careful consideration will be required.”

It will be my child, then?” Jamie continued. “It’ll have my genes?”

As many as can be carried over while adhering to those parameters, yes,” the Bug replied. “During conception, each participant provides half of their genome, their haploid chromosomes combining into a new diploid chromosome. These are contained within the eggs and sperm cells, respectively. As no complete genome will be provided by a Borealan male, we must harvest two eggs, recombining their genes.”

It’s more like cloning, then?” Liz asked. “I’d be carrying a genetic copy of myself?”

Not entirely,” Nightingale replied, reaching up to clean her antennae with her upper pair of hands as she explained. “As many of the male’s genes will be included as is deemed appropriate, and we will also activate some dormant genes from your own genetic library, adding some small element of randomization to ensure genetic diversity.”

One of our big concerns was whether the baby would be able to integrate into one society or the other,” Liz added, glancing over at Jamie. “We didn’t want it to look so different that it might be ostracized, and we wanted to make sure it could reproduce when it grows up.”

Those parameters can be met,” the Bug replied. “If I may,” she continued, looking to Sousa as though asking for permission. “What reason do you have for not simply choosing the most desirable traits from both genomes? Why limit the parameters so? I do not understand why you would not want to produce the fittest offspring possible.”

Those are the social and cultural factors that Doctor Sousa mentioned,” Jamie replied. “We don’t want to create a brand new species, we want them to be able to live a full life without having to worry about prejudice or infertility. Its purpose isn’t to be strong, just...to be happy.”

In that case, why add human genes at all?” Nightingale asked as she cocked her head at him curiously.

I guess it’s just sentimental,” he replied with a shrug.

Mammals have strong reproductive instincts,” Liz added, Nightingale turning her pink eyes to the Borealan. “We have a powerful urge to reproduce, we need to raise children to feel fulfilled, to carry on our families.”

Fulfilling instinctual imperatives,” the Bug chirped. “This, I can understand.”

One of the scientists peeked his head into the room, clearing his throat to get their attention.

We’re making progress,” he announced. “It took some tinkering, but we’ve been able to separate the data stream that contains the information on how the genes interact with one another. The Jarilan machine...organ...artifact is starting to dump it all to the servers.”

Have you figured out how it’s doing it yet?” Sousa asked, making his way to the door.

No, but we have somewhere to start.”

He paused, as if remembering that Jamie and Liz were still there, turning back to them.

This may take us a while,” he said apologetically. “Why don’t we take a recess? It’ll give you two time to think more carefully about how you want to proceed. There’s no rush, we can take as long as you need.”

I’d like some time to clear my head,” Jamie said, Liz nodding.

You know where we’ll be,” Sousa replied, Nightingale following behind him as he joined his team in the lab.

***

Liz and Jamie made their way outside and headed into the forest, sticking to the muddy track that led out of the settlement. So much information had been dumped on them so quickly. They needed time to process it, time to decide what they wanted to do. They walked as they went over the details, as Jamie had always found that the motion helped him focus.

I can’t believe how quickly this is happening,” Liz said with a nervous giggle. There was a new spring in her step, as though she was brimming with an energy that she could barely contain. “Months of uncertainty, and now this. We’ve only been here for two days, and they’re already asking us what kind of baby we want.”

We’re set on a kitten?” Jamie asked, his boots squelching in the damp soil as he walked through a patch of ferns that was attempting to reclaim the burgeoning road.

If you don’t have any objections,” she replied. She was being considerate, but he could tell how enamored she was with the idea. “I know you weren’t exactly thrilled by the prospect of me finding a donor on Borealis, but this way, you’ll be the father. It’ll be just you and me, your genes, and mine.” “I think a kitten is a great idea,” he replied, her smile widening. “You’ll be able to carry it, feed it, it’ll be the real deal. No surrogates, no donors, no adoptions. If we want to put those reproductive instincts of yours to bed, then we should accept nothing less.”

Don’t worry, it’ll be love at first sight,” she insisted as she hopped deftly over a root. “Remember how adorable I was when I was a girl?”

Yeah, you were cute alright,” he chuckled as the memories of her furry little face came flooding back to him. Borealan kittens retained their coat of fur until adolescence, making them look even more like cats than they did in adulthood. When he had met Liz in the school playground so many years ago, she had been a pudgy, fluffy little girl wearing a sundress covered in duck patterns. She looked like she had walked right out of the pages of a children’s picture book.

Do we want a boy or a girl?” Jamie asked, Liz blinking her emerald eyes at him.

Gosh, I hadn’t even thought of that!” she replied. “I guess...I know my way around being a girl, I know what it’s like to be torn between two worlds, two different cultures. I know how it feels to have body image issues, to navigate the confusion that is Borealan puberty.”

Puberty isn’t too pleasant for us either,” Jamie joked, Liz giving him a gentle whip with her long tail as she walked beside him.

I think I’d do a better job of raising a girl,” she continued, the gentle breeze blowing her cropped hair. “There’s so much I could tell her that I wish someone had told me at that age. I think you’d make a great dad for a little girl, too,” she added.

Yeah?” he asked, his cheeks starting to warm as she glanced down at him.

You were great with me when I was a kitten. You were always so patient, so protective of me, and you’ve only grown more pragmatic as you’ve gotten older. I know you’ll do the same for our kid.”

I hope she’ll like me,” he continued, peering up at the leafy canopy above. “Do you think she’ll know that I’m different from you two?”

Nah,” Liz insisted, reaching down to ruffle his blonde hair. “Kids aren’t even aware of that stuff. I didn’t even know that I was an alien until I was about ten years old. Earth and humans were all I knew, so it was my normal.”

What about Borealis?” he asked, pausing to lean against the rough bark of one of the monolithic tree trunks. He knew that Liz lacked his stamina, and she took a seat on a nearby root, taking a break as she waited for him to elaborate. “When your parents took you back to Borealis, it was rough...for both of us. Like you said, Earth was all you had ever known, and they just tore you away from that. You’ve told me that you don’t resent them for what they did, that you thought it was necessary, even if they could have done more to soften the blow. Would you take our kid back to Borealis at some point?”

Liz thought about it for a moment, scratching her chin with her claw as she stared into the distance. It was a tough question. Jamie could see her brow furrowing as she considered.

Being a Borealan comes with its own set of challenges,” she finally replied. “We have instincts, urges to form packs, to dominate others. It’s just how we’re wired. We’re naturally strong, aggressive, we’re built for an environment far harsher than Earth’s.” She paused again, her tail whipping back and forth through the ferns behind her. “Learning what it means to be a Borealan, learning to understand myself, that knowledge was invaluable. My folks practice tough love, a parenting style that comes naturally to Borealans, but one that I fundamentally disagree with. It’s the idea that allowing a child to be upset – to be frightened and angry – is acceptable as long as they benefit down the line. It’s punishing them when what they really need is your support, all in the name of toughening them up,” she said as she exposed her teeth in a snarl. “That’s what I’d do differently.”

So, you would consider taking them back to visit Borealis, but you’d do it in a way that’s supportive rather than throwing them in the deep end and telling them to swim?”

That about covers it,” she replied with a nod. “What my parents did worked out for me, but I can’t agree with their methods.”

I guess that means I’d be tagging along,” he added, Liz stifling a chuckle with a furry hand.

The idea of you visiting Borealis is an...interesting one,” she giggled. “I’ll be able to repay you for all the times you looked out for me when we were kids.”

Hey, I’m not muddy anymore,” he added. “I’m a real spacer now.”

You are actually muddy, though,” she said as she gestured to his boots.

Liz’s ears suddenly pricked up, swiveling like a pair of furry radar dishes. Jamie soon heard the sound, too, the rustling of ferns somewhere in the shadow of the forest. She slowly moved between him and the noise, Jamie peering around her bulk, his heart quickening. What could it be? Some native animal? The elusive Knife-Tooth that everyone had been warning them about?

From the ferns burst a bizarre creature, scurrying across the road as it loosed a shrill shriek. It looked like something between a lizard and a mouse to Jamie, its four legs splayed wide like a reptile, its winding body covered in a coat of coarse fur. It moved so fast that he could barely get a look at it, but the creature that was on its tail was far easier to recognize. It was a Drone, the same as the ones he had seen guarding the entrance to the hive. Its svelte body was covered in an orange carapace, and it had the usual collar of fur around its neck. It didn’t even seem to see them, too focused on its quarry.

With surprising speed, it reached out and grabbed the animal by its tail, lifting the struggling creature off the ground. The critter turned to bite the Jarilan with a set of pointed teeth, making sounds like a dog toy, but they couldn’t penetrate the Bug’s firm shell.

Finally, the Jarilan turned to glance at them, blinking its eyes as it stood there in the road.

Marmalade!” someone shouted from the trees to their left. “Did you catch the little bugger?”

A human came stumbling through the undergrowth, Liz relaxing a little. It was a middle-aged man sporting an unkempt beard. His dark, tangled hair didn’t look like it had been cut in a while. He was wearing civilian clothes, a pair of worn jeans, and a flannel shirt that had been rolled up to expose his hairy forearms. He was carrying a large, military backpack, portable cooking pots clattering as they dangled from its straps. As he emerged from between the trees and stepped into the sunlight, Jamie saw that he had a canteen on his hip, as well as a large knife that was holstered on his thigh.

Marmalade?” he continued. “Why the hell do I smell Borealan?”

He quickly noticed the two confused strangers, stopping in his tracks. As he reached up to brush his hair out of his face, Jamie saw that he had a knitted scar on his forehead that ran down between his eyes.

Well, what do we have here?” he asked as he adjusted his backpack. “New colonists? It’s been years since I last saw a Borealan, I’ve started to miss the banter.”

Behind him followed a whole company of Bugs, staring at the pair as they joined the odd man in the road. There were more lithe Drones in a rainbow of carapace colors, some of them equipped with two-pronged plasma pistols forged from resin, along with squat Workers who were carrying more gear in their powerful upper arms.

Who are you?” Liz asked, eyeing his armed companions warily.

The name’s Walker,” he replied, Jamie noting his British accent. “Former Marine Corps Scout Sniper, now a self-styled explorer. If you’ll excuse me a moment, Marmalade is having her fingers gnawed off.”

He gestured for one of the Workers to approach, the little Bug bringing him a small cage made of resin with a handle on top, reminding Jamie of a cat carrier. The Drone leaned down, carefully placing the furious woodland creature inside it, swinging the door closed. Walker crouched down to admire the thing, pulling a tablet computer in a rugged case from his pocket, beginning to tap at the screen.

I’ve been trying to catch one of these for days,” he explained, Liz and Jamie watching the strange scene play out in confusion. “Little bastards are as fast as lightning.”

It kind of looks like a cynodont,” Liz volunteered, her comment getting the man’s attention. He glanced up at her, nodding his head in approval.

Yeah, these guys are pretty similar to Earth’s theriodonts. I have a theory that they’re a transitional form, that they might be evolving into something mammal-adjacent. Are you a fellow naturalist, perhaps? That’s an unusual profession for an Equatorial.”

No,” she replied, shaking her head. “I just took an interest in college.”

Her reply only seemed to beg more questions, the man rising to a standing position again, stowing his tablet.

I don’t believe I’ve had the pleasure yet,” he began. It was an oddly formal way to ask someone’s name.

I’m Lizka, and this is my partner, Jamie,” she replied as she gestured to her companion. “We’re not colonists, we’re here as part of a UAS project.”

Partner?” he repeated, looking Jamie up and down. Jamie prepared himself for a snide remark, but the man seemed impressed, giving him an appreciative smile.

I’ve tangled with Borealans in my time, kid. If you’ve got the stones to tie one down, you’re alright by me.”

I’ve heard your name before,” Jamie replied, stepping out from Liz’s shadow. “Walker. Doctor Sousa mentioned you, so did some of the Jarilans. They said that you named them.”

That’s me,” he replied, reaching down to give the nearest Worker a pat on its armored head. To Jamie’s surprise, the creature responded with affection, pushing up into his hand as he rapped his fingers on its carapace.

You’re the one,” Liz added, her eyes widening. “The man Bluejay mentioned, the one who shared his genome with the Queen, who ended the war on Jarilo.”

Guilty as charged,” Walker replied, giving her an exaggerated bow. Maybe his time living with the hive had made him a bit eccentric. “You’d think that a one-night stand would have more chance of starting a war than ending one, but here we are. How is old Bluejay, anyway? Last I heard, he was hunting a Gorgonopsia Jarilae that was pestering the chickens.

You mean a Knife-Tooth?” Jamie asked, the man narrowing his eyes at him as though he had just been insulted.

We’re here because of you,” Liz added, Walker cocking his head at her.

What business do you have with me?” he wondered. “I mostly spend my time out in the field collecting specimens these days. I consider myself happily retired.”

No, I mean, you helped create the first hybrids. The treatments that we came here to undergo were made possible because of what you did.”

I don’t know how much credit I can take for the Jarilans,” he replied with a chuckle. “The Queen did most of the work, I just provided the...uh...raw materials. What treatments are you talking about?”

We came here to get fertility treatments,” Jamie explained, Walker doing a double-take. “We’re trying for a baby.”

Really?” he marveled, glancing up at Liz. “Bloody hell, I always imagined someone might try, but I never thought it would happen so soon. Makes sense you’d come here. Jarilan gene-editing tech is light-years ahead of anything the UN has. Hey,” he added, gesturing over his shoulder with his thumb. “We’re heading back to the hive. Do you want to come along? You seem like the kind of people who are worth knowing.”

Oh, sure,” Jamie said as he looked to Liz for confirmation. “We don’t really have anything to do, we were just taking a walk.”

Great,” he replied, waving for them to follow. The group of Bugs fell into line behind him, leaving plenty of room for the newcomers. “Don’t mind my friends, they’re quite harmless.”

Jamie and Liz hurried to catch up, Jamie eyeing the equipment that the Workers were carrying. They looked like insectoid Sherpas. Each one was laden with a collection of animal cages, heavy packs, and camping supplies. It seemed as though this guy might stay out in the forest for days at a time. It was a stroke of luck that they had crossed paths with him, but then again, there was only one road.

Forgive me,” Liz began, “but why do you smell so...strange?”

That’ll be the Bug pheromones,” he replied. He turned to face her, lifting his fringe to put the scar on his forehead on display. “When the hive took me, before they had a way to communicate, they grafted a new sensory organ into my body. It’s hooked up to my sinuses, wired into the olfactory bulb of my brain. The Navy medics wanted to remove it when they got me back, but they couldn’t. The Bug microsurgery was too advanced for them to undo.”

They grafted a new organ into your body?” Liz marveled, grimacing at the thought.

Before I came along, they could only communicate using pheromones,” he explained. “They didn’t speak or write, they had no way to learn my language, so they introduced me to theirs. I can communicate as they do now. It’s not perfect, my brain translates it as a kind of synesthesia. Certain emotions and words are linked to certain smells, certain memories, feelings. I got used to it after a while.”

What is it with everyone on this planet and pheromones?” Jamie muttered. “I feel like I’m walking around with cotton balls stuffed up my nose.”

Have you two been here long?” Walker asked, raising his voice over the shrill barking of the caged animal.

Only a couple of days,” Jamie replied. “We’ve visited the hive already, Doctor Sousa has been showing us around. This place is incredible,” he added, pausing as he navigated his way around a root. “I don’t know what I expected, but it wasn’t this.”

There was a time when I wouldn’t have even entertained the idea of peace with the Betelgeusians,” Walker continued. “I’ve killed hundreds of Bugs, I’ve called in airstrikes on thousands. Jarilo changed things.”

Do you see them as...your children?” Liz asked, watching the Bugs as they walked along beside them. They weren’t all the same, Jamie realized. Some of them had no fuzz, and their faces were different, their china doll mouths replaced with insect mandibles that looked more than capable of stripping flesh from bone. Their bodies were shaped differently, more angular, a couple of the Drones gaunter than their curvier counterparts. They were far less friendly in appearance overall, their gait jerkier, their mannerisms strange. Could they be outdated models? Betelgeusians that had survived the war?

In a way,” Walker replied. “I like to name them when I can, but so many are matured while I’m away from the brood chamber. They should have names, I think. It helps them develop their individuality.”

Were they a hive-mind before?” Jamie asked.

Not exactly,” Walker replied. “They were just very set in their ways. They were bred for one specific purpose, and while they were hyper-competent at that task, they were very slow to adapt to change. They operated more like cells in one giant organism than as individuals. We tried integrating the old Workers into the settlement, but if a task was too different from digging a trench or repairing a busted generator, it just seemed to upset them. The same thing happened when we tried to teach the Drones to read and write English, they just became agitated.”

But the new generation is different?”

I don’t know exactly what the Queen did,” he continued, glancing over at one of the newer Drones who was walking along to their right. Her carapace was a shade of cherry-red that shone like a waxed sports car, the furry collar around her neck blowing in the breeze. She had a fuller, more feminine figure than her spindly counterparts, human enough that it tricked Jamie’s senses. “Getting them talking and interacting with humans isn’t just a matter of giving them vocal cords. There’s so much more that goes into social interaction than that. They need a speech center for their brains and all of the associated wetware. They need to be able to notice subtle gestures, body language, they have to recognize faces. All of that stuff requires gray-matter, human gray-matter.”

We’re more like you than our appearance might suggest,” the cherry-red Bug chimed, her blue eyes meeting Jamie’s. He couldn’t help but stare back at the uncanny creature, until Liz positioned herself between the two, planting a possessive hand on his shoulder.

What’s going to happen to the older generation now that they’ve been made obsolete?” she asked.

They’ll live out their lives in the colony, for the most part,” Walker replied. “They’re not dangerous in the least, they recognize human pheromones as those of their kin now, but they’ll never be able to integrate into Coalition society. Not that they really care. They’re happiest when they’re sticking to their old routine.”

Is that why you bring them with you?” Jamie asked, watching a pair of Workers carry a crate of supplies between them.

Gives them something a bit more exciting to do,” Walker chuckled. “They’re highly social creatures, just...not in the way that a human would find intuitive.”

Liz lagged behind to chat with one of the more talkative Bugs, while Jamie caught up with Walker at the head of the pack, lowering his voice in a likely futile attempt to avoid being overheard.

You said that you’d tangled with Borealans before,” he began, Walker giving him a knowing smile. “What did you mean by that?”

Back when I was serving in the Navy, I was a member of a scout sniper team with a Borealan,” he explained. “We had a...close working relationship, let’s put it that way.”

You were an item?” Jamie continued. “I don’t mean to pry, it’s just...I’ve never met anyone else who dated a Borealan before. I’ve heard that it happens, but on Earth, I feel like I’m the only one.”

I don’t know if I’d call what we did dating,” he replied, “but spending days completely alone in the wilderness will make two people pretty close. Especially if one of them is a female Borealan.”

Yeah, I know what you mean,” Jamie chuckled. He felt oddly elated. This was the first time that he had met someone who had shared those same experiences. His friends back home could give him advice, they could chat about relationships, but they had no real understanding of the unique challenges that came with bunking with a Borealan.

Where’s she from?” Walker asked, raising the canteen from his hip. He took a long draw, then screwed the cap back on, stowing it on his belt again. “The dark skin and bleached hair say Rask, but she seems pretty well-adjusted.”

Liz is from Elysia,” Jamie replied. “Her dad had the same coloration as her, so maybe he had Rask ancestry.”

Yeah, lots of Borealans end up in Elysia, it’s their planet’s most prosperous territory.”

She grew up on Earth, her parents were diplomats,” Jamie continued. “I’ve known her practically my whole life.”

That explains why she’s so mellow,” Walker mused, glancing back over his shoulder at the towering feline. “Tell me, I’m curious. Does being raised among humans take away their pack instincts? I’ve always wondered if those were a product of nature or nurture.”

I think it’s a little of both,” Jamie replied with a shrug. “Those instincts are definitely there, and they can manifest strongly sometimes, but I think her human upbringing lets her manage them much better. It sounds like Borealans are always encouraging and reinforcing that behavior.”

My old spotter and I found a good balance,” Walker continued. “I think everyone who spends any time with Borealans does. Kind of a weird limbo where neither one of us is really on top, you just kind of go back and forth.”

Yeah, Liz likes that,” Jamie confirmed with a nod. “Do a lot of humans get with Borealans, then?”

In the Navy? Yeah,” Walker replied as he climbed over another of the pervasive roots. “It’s basically a rite of passage at this point, and the brass lets it slide. It’s good for team building and morale.”

Maybe...I’m not as alone as I thought I was,” Jamie mused.

You’re the first interspecies couple to have a baby, I know that much.”

You think it’ll work?” Jamie asked warily. Walker probably knew more about the hive than anyone, and nobody had a closer relationship with the Bugs than he did.

I know it,” he replied with a confident nod of his head. “The Jarries weave genes like the Borealans weave tapestries. It’s an art for them, probably the only form of cultural expression that they have.”

What’s next for the hive, do you think?” Jamie wondered.

It was a hard fight to get them admitted to the Coalition,” Walker began. “Between skepticism from the Security Council and outright assassination attempts, it almost fell through. But now, the Jarilans are official members, with all of the rights and responsibilities that entails. We’re going to be providing labor, troops, building new shipyards for the UNN. Few people in the Admiralty really understand the value that the Jarilans represent, their potential.”

We do,” Jamie added, not breaking stride. “Without them, we couldn’t be here.”

That seemed to please Walker, a smile brightening his scarred face.

***

This is my stop,” Walker said, the group coming to a halt as they arrived at the entrance to the hive. One of the two Drones who were on guard duty brushed her fingers against the chemical switch, the resin doors beginning to part.

Hopefully, we’ll see you around,” Jamie said as he gave the ex-Marine a wave.

You’re welcome to come inside and take a look around,” he added, but Liz shook her head.

We should get back to the settlement,” she explained. “Doctor Sousa will probably be waiting for us.”

Suit yourselves,” he replied, waving in the procession of Bugs. “Maybe I’ll come and see how you guys are doing before I leave on another expedition. Good luck with the baby-making.”

He vanished down the tunnel, the doors closing behind him. The guard returned to her position, glancing between Liz and Jamie, awaiting further instructions.

Strange character,” Liz said, turning back up the path. “You two had a good chat. What do you think, has spending so much time out in the forest with only Bugs for company loosened a few of his screws?”

No, he seems like a cool guy to me,” Jamie replied as he matched pace with her. “We talked a little about Borealans.” “Oh yeah?” she asked, giving him a sly look.

He’s the only other person I’ve met who knows what it’s like to live with one.”

I hope you said flattering things about me,” Liz chuckled, reaching down to mess up his hair with a furry hand.

Nothing but praise,” he replied, ducking out of her reach. “He asked whether I thought your instincts were hardwired or if they were cultural.”

And what did you say?” she asked, her ears swiveling to track him curiously.

A little of both. He said that you were unusually mellow, and I told him that it was because of your Earth upbringing. That said, you told me that you did very well for yourself on Borealis, that the pack life fit you like a glove.”

That’s pretty accurate,” she said, pausing for a moment as she considered. “Ever since that first night that we spent together, it’s always been there, bubbling just under the surface. It’s like an intrusive thought in the back of my mind, nagging at me.”

I still have the scars on my back from that night,” Jamie chuckled. “Don’t worry,” he added, seeing her tail start to droop. “I could get them removed if I wanted to, but I’d never do that. They bring back so many fond memories.”

I make it sound bad, but...it’s really not,” she continued. “It feels...great to let loose, to obey my nature, but growing up alongside humans has made me realize how destructive it can be. I prefer to just pop the cap every so often, let out a little steam, but not too much. Being removed from the pack environment helps a lot.”

I can imagine,” Jamie added, taking Liz’s hand as she helped him climb over an especially tall tree root that rose up from the carpet of ferns. “It’s hard to be the voice of reason if you’re surrounded by unreasonable people.”

I want to take you there one day,” she insisted, her enthusiasm surprising him. “To Borealis, I mean. I’ll keep you safe, you don’t have to worry, but I think it would really help you understand Borealans. It’ll help our kid, too. I want you to know that side of me better.”

O-okay,” he stammered, not sure how else to respond. “We won’t have the UAS paying our way next time, though. We’d have to plan it carefully.”

His reply seemed to please her, her cheeks warming.

Let’s hurry back,” she said, keeping a tight hold on his hand. “With any luck, Sousa and his team will have cracked the code by now.”

***

Sousa welcomed them with open arms on the steps of the UAS building, greeting Liz and Jamie in his thick, Brazilian accent.

You found your way back! Good, good. I was starting to wonder if I should send Bluejay to fetch you.”

We met that Walker guy you mentioned,” Jamie said, Sousa raising his eyebrows.

I thought he was out searching for specimens, I haven’t seen him in weeks. You must have caught him on his way back to the hive.”

Have you made any progress with the Bug machine?” Liz asked. “If you were waiting for us to get back, you must have found something.”

That’s right,” he replied with a broad smile. “We don’t understand the details of how the organ itself works, but we’ve narrowed down the process it uses with the help of the Jarilans. Come inside, we’ll take a look.”

He led them into the lab, which was still crowded with Bugs and scientists who were examining readouts and inspecting the pulsating organ with unidentifiable instruments. Sousa brought them over to one of the holographic displays, tapping in a few commands to produce a floating image of a chromosome.

So, here’s what we think is happening,” he began. “A genetic sample is...I suppose ingested would be the best word...by the organ. Once the foreign body is detected, specialized cells locate the chromosomes that are present and begin to unpack them. The strands of DNA are then passed through molecular readers, kind of like a punch card through a vintage computer, which translates each amino acid into a chemical signal that gets sensed by a network of nerves. The organ then builds a library of genes, feeding those into a computer system rather than the Queen’s brain in this case, where they’re cataloged.”

So...what does that mean?” Jamie asked.

In short, we know enough to perform the procedure. All that we require now are two things, your eggs,” he said as he gestured to Liz. “And your sperm,” he added, pointing to Jamie. “Egg retrieval is actually a medical procedure that you’ll have to undergo. It’s quite safe,” he assured them, the pair exchanging a concerned glance. “It involves inserting a thin needle through the vaginal wall to reach the ovaries, then using ultrasound to locate the mature follicles, which contain the eggs. They’re then siphoned up. We’d usually need a weeks-long regimen of hormones and stimulants to encourage your body to produce more viable eggs, but Borealans produce several at once, so we can skip straight to the final step. Just as soon as we can figure out how much anesthetic it takes to knock out a five-hundred-pound alien, we’ll put Lizka under. She won’t feel anything or remember any of it.”

And...what about me?” Jamie asked warily. “Are there any needles involved?”

Nope,” Sousa replied, thrusting a small cup with a red lid into his hand. “You’ll be doing it the old-fashioned way. I trust you two can handle that?”

Jamie nodded, holding the cup awkwardly as Liz grinned down at him.

You’ll need to return the sample to us so that we can freeze it not long after it’s, uh...produced,” Sousa added. “No rush, it’ll take us a little while to get ready for Lizka’s procedure.”

And once you have the eggs and sperm, you can start splicing?” Liz asked.

That’s right. We know enough to monitor the process now. We can double-check the Jarilans’ work, make sure they’ve understood the instructions, and we can hopefully learn a hell of a lot in the process.”

CHAPTER 6: GAMETE

They thanked Sousa, then retired to their prefab, Jamie setting the cup down on the kitchen table. He wasn’t sure where else to put it.

I suppose we just have to wait for Sousa and his team to get the procedure set up,” he said, kicking off his boots and flopping down onto the couch. “You ready to have your fertile eggs harvested, Liz?”

What a romantic way of putting it,” she grumbled, reaching down to unfasten the straps on her shoes. “I’m sure it will be fine. The UAS people seem to know what they’re doing. God, I hate wearing these things...”

She kicked them off by the door, flexing her paws in relief, then made her way over to the table. Jamie watched as she picked up the cup, tossing it into the air, then catching it again. She walked around to the front of the couch, planting one hand on her hip as she held the little plastic container between her padded fingers.

I don’t want to wait any longer than I have to, so take your pants off...”

Uh, right now?” he stammered.

If I have to undergo an invasive procedure, then I’m going to make damn sure you provide a high-quality sample,” she said as her emerald eyes locked onto him. She exposed her sharp teeth in a grin as he began to unbuckle his jeans, her tail whipping back and forth behind her impatiently.

As he freed his growing erection, Liz reached out with her prehensile tail, brushing its furry tip up the length of his shaft. He shuddered, leaning back into the couch cushions, the faux-leather creaking.

Liz had such fine control over the appendage that she could wrap it around his length like a tentacle, encompassing him in her silky, straw-colored coat. It was like being teased with a feather boa, his smirking partner standing there, twirling the cup in her hand as she watched him shiver.

Keeping her hold on his member, she took a step closer, setting the cup down on the armrest. Jamie lurched as she reached down to slide her hands beneath his arms, lifting him from his seat. She sat down in his place, her hips wide enough to wedge between the armrests, the wooden frame grumbling under her weight. She sat Jamie in her lap, his butt sinking into the cushion of her thighs. Her leather jacket was open, and he felt the soft meat of her breasts spill over his shoulders through the fabric of her shirt, cushioning his head as he leaned back into her embrace.

Sit still,” she cooed, her warm breath blowing his hair. She leaned a little closer, Jamie’s spine arching as he felt her soft lips brush his ear, her pointed teeth pricking him as she bit him gently. One of her muscular arms wrapped around his waist, pulling him closer, sinking him deeper into her inviting bosom.

You’re more comfortable than that ratty couch,” he muttered, Liz rewarding him with another teasing bite.

The tip of her fluffy tail brushed his balls, a tingle of pleasure making him go quiet. He watched as she slowly crawled her free hand down towards his pulsing member, her fingers curling around it. Her coat was as soft as velvet, Jamie able to feel each individual hair brush his glans as she squeezed, burying him in a prison of silky fur. Her hand was large enough to encompass him completely, Liz starting to slowly pump her fist in a gentle stroking motion. He squirmed in her lap as her fingers caressed him, those wickedly sharp talons kept mercifully clear, the way that she alternated her grip keeping him guessing.

You’d better tell me when you’re gonna pop,” she warned, giving his earlobe a tug with her teeth. “If you come in my hand instead of in the cup, I’m gonna be mad.”

What’re you gonna do about it?” he asked, playing along. Liz always liked it when he was defiant, when he challenged her.

Guess I’ll just have to keep milking you until you cooperate...”

He gritted his teeth as he felt the fleshy pad of her thumb press against his glans. The sensation contrasted sharply with her delicate fur, spongy and soft, like a warm marshmallow. Liz began to make slow circles, massaging his tender tip, Jamie gripping her leather sleeve as the waves of pleasure rolled over him.

Her other hand slid beneath his shirt, Jamie’s head spinning as he felt the tips of her claws prick his belly. She was so careful, knowing exactly how much pressure to apply so as not to cut him, but their mere presence heightened his sensitivity. Her hands were so warm, Liz seeming to relish the way that his abdominal muscles tensed with her every squeeze.

The pace of her gentle stroking gradually increased, the warmth and wetness of her tongue snapping him out of his stupor as its pointed tip probed his ear, the sound of her sucking and nibbling filling his head.

He began to thrust into her fist, her fingers acting as ribs, creating another layer of wonderful sensation. She held her hand still, allowing it for only a few pumps before squeezing the base of his cock tightly between her thumb and forefinger, watching his erection swell and throb.

I know you’ll give me more if I make you wait a little,” she giggled, her hand sliding down to cup his balls. She cradled them, the silky texture of her fur unbearable, her lips crawling down to his neck.

Fuck, they feel so full,” she sighed. “Maybe it’s just my imagination, but it makes me feel all...squirmy.”

She pressed her teeth into his skin, just enough to leave a red indent, the familiar warmth of her lips making him melt into her arms.

I want this to be special,” she whispered, bringing her hand back to his aching member as it bobbed in the air. She pressed the pad of her index finger against his tip, wetting it with a bead of his leaking pre, making slow circles. “We’ve been playing pretend up until now, but this is the load that’s going to get me pregnant. I want you to think about that,” she added, giving him another soft bite that made him buck. “I want that cup full of your intent, as well as your come. I want to know that you want it.”

I...I do want it,” he stammered. “I’d do it myself if I could.”

I like that idea,” she chuckled, rewarding him with another teasing press of her pad. “Do you fantasize about it? Tell me...”

Yeah,” he grunted, prompted by another prod. “I can’t even count the number of times we’ve made love, and I’ve never even touched a rubber. By all rights, we should have an army of kids by now.”

We might be skipping the most fun step, but the result will still be the same,” she chuckled. “They used to rut so much back on Borealis, it was crazy,” she added with a sultry sigh. “If a girl liked you, she’d just pin you to the ground and fuck a baby out of you, keep going until you loved it. My pack were always at it, the higher-ranked members having their fill of their subordinates almost every night. They used to think that I was crazy for cloistering myself away, getting myself off to memories of you, to thoughts of what I’d do with you when I made it back.”

The thought made him blush, Liz nuzzling the nape of his neck contentedly, wallowing in a fantasy that was soon to become manifest.

I promised you’d never have to get yourself off again,” Jamie said, Liz purring in his ear.

And you’ve been true to your word...”

She released his member, bringing her hand to her mouth, parting her lips to extend her long tongue. She coated her palm in a web of bubbling saliva, matting the fur, closing her fingers with an audible squelch. She returned it to his shaft, sliding him into her fist, his skin gliding on a slimy layer of her warm drool. Jamie groaned as he felt her hot, wet fur drag across his tender glans. It felt like someone had soaked a mink glove in personal lubricant.

You look about ready to pop,” she whispered, giving him a dizzying squeeze. “Come for me...”

She started to stroke again, more vigorously this time, her soaking-wet fur caressing his throbbing length. Jamie could do little other than relax into the inviting cushion of her ample breasts, feeling them rock gently against the back of his head as her fist pumped. His hips rose up to meet her hand on its way down, fucking it in earnest, Liz cooing in his ear contentedly as she watched him rut. She swirled her damp thumb around his glans, teasing his balls with the tip of her tail, whispering encouragements as she drowned him in pleasure. Her hand was so warm and slimy, as tight as she wanted to make it, his addled mind unable to distinguish it from her clenching loins.

Fuck,” he grunted, feeling his climax welling. “G-get the cup!”

Liz reached over to swipe it from the armrest, hastily removing the lid as she sat up to lean Jamie forward, placing the container just beneath his glans. Her pace reached a fever pitch, Liz applying more pressure with her fingers as she neared his tip, like a farmhand milking a cow. It was exactly what he needed, exactly when he needed it, a stifled moan of ecstasy escaping him as he watched the first rope of his seed splash against the bottom of the cup.

Liz changed its angle a little, catching another thick, gelatinous wad as it impacted the side. He could hear her breathing heavily in his ear, biting her lip as she watched him orgasm, another pump of her fist wringing more of his emission from him.

God, I can feel its warmth through the plastic,” she murmured as he gave her another shuddering rope. “Keep going...”

Jamie sank his fingers into her soft thighs through the fabric of her sweatpants, his mop of blonde hair falling over his face as she squeezed out one last throb, his cock connected to the edge of the cup by a sagging rope of pearly fluid. His muscles aching, he leaned back into her arms, letting a wave of afterglow wash over him.

Good boy,” Liz purred, holding the cup up to the light. “You gave me so much. Look at that,” she added, admiring his work. “It’s almost enough to fill a goddamned shot glass...”

Jamie chuckled, shifting his weight as he got more comfortable in her bosom. She secured the lid, still holding the container in her hand, as though unwilling to put it down.

This is the one,” she sighed. “I can feel it.”

Even if it isn’t, I got plenty more where that came from,” Jamie sighed.

I think I have a problem,” Liz muttered, watching the contents of the cup slide around as she turned it over in her hand. “How crazy am I on a scale of one to ten if I just kind of want to...pour it into my hand? It’s still so fucking warm...”

We can do that later, if you want,” Jamie mumbled.

Watching you get off always pushes my buttons,” she added with a frustrated snarl, burying her nose in his hair as she took in a lungful of his scent. “We should get this to Sousa. I don’t know how long it stays fresh if it’s not refrigerated. But when we get back, you’d better help me burn off this heat.”

You betcha,” he replied groggily.

***

It only took a day for Sousa and his team to prepare Liz’s procedure. It was carried out in the UAS building, rather than in the depths of the hive, which set her more at ease. It was a human procedure, performed by human doctors, and it went off without a hitch. They were able to harvest a dozen fertile eggs ready for use in the gene-editing process.

Jamie was by her bedside when she woke up, fading in and out of consciousness as the anesthetic slowly wore off. It was a little alarming at first to see her try to wake up but to be unable, yet the comfortable smile on her face reassured him. When she finally came around, she described the sensation as a deep, restful sleep. Besides some slight soreness in her abdomen, she didn’t complain of any pain or discomfort.

With that done, all of the donor cells were ready, and they could proceed to the gene-editing phase. Most of the UAS scientists were clustered around one of the monitors, a few Bugs joining them, while the rest of the team crowded the strange Jarilan organ that was still hooked up to the servers. Between them, they had managed to parse the data in a way that was more intuitive for a human, the technicians working with the Bugs to create a user interface that let them more easily examine the output from the biomechanical device.

See, this value right here represents the gene that controls skin pigmentation in humans,” one of the scientists said as he gestured to a set of numbers on the screen. Sousa leaned closer, examining them.

We can switch that out,” he suggested. “Look, it’s not linked to any other important genes in either species. We just replace...these nucleotides here...with those from the human donor. That gives us a stable value, no genetic instability.”

That will change the baby’s skin color?” Jamie asked.

Yeah,” Sousa replied. “The goal here is to port over as many of your genes as we can without negatively impacting the blueprint. The blueprint being the Borealan genome. We need to start having a conversation about what exactly you want this baby to look like.”

Babies,” Nightingale chimed in, Jamie and Liz turning to stare at the squat insect as her furry antennae bobbed in the air.

What do you mean, babies?” Sousa asked.

Upon examining the donor eggs, it has become apparent that Borealans reproduce in clutches,” the Bug added. “For maximum compatibility and the lowest risk factor, we recommend that at least five offspring be incubated.”

F-five offspring!?” Jamie blurted, reaching out to steady himself on the edge of a nearby table. “Liz, catch me, I think I’m gonna pass out...”

She reached out with her tail, propping him up.

Five?” she repeated, her cheeks blushing a shade of red. She blinked down at the Bug in disbelief, the creature’s face expressionless as it peered back at her. “Why does it have to be an entire litter?”

Your reproductive system is configured to incubate multiple eggs at once,” Nightingale explained. “Incubating a single offspring could create unforeseen complications, potential for danger. The option that best follows the safety parameters laid out by Doctor Sousa requires us to proceed with a minimum of five eggs, yes, unless you wish to alter the safety parameters to allow for more experimentation?”

What do you guys think?” Sousa asked, turning his attention back to Liz and Jamie. “Five is a much bigger number than one, I know, but I have to agree with Nightingale. The fewer changes we make to your natural reproductive cycle, the better the chances that the pregnancy goes smoothly. It would be a tragedy to go through all of this only to miscarriage because we were too ambitious.”

C-can we talk about this? In private?” Jamie hissed.

Liz nodded, the two of them heading out of the building as the crowd of scientists and Jarilans watched. Once they were out of earshot around the side of the prefab, Jamie turned to Liz, trying to compose himself.

Five!” he blurted, pacing back and forth in the mud as she tracked him with her furry ears. “One was going to be enough of a challenge, but five!”

Yeah, I know how many five is,” she replied. “You can stop repeating it.”

Five!” he added for good measure, Liz’s leather jacket creaking as she crossed her arms. “How are we going to feed five Borealans? What do they even eat? Do we just throw a whole sheep carcass into their playpen and hope for the best? Where am I gonna buy a sheep carcass?”

What are you feeling right now?” she asked, watching him with those green eyes. “Stop for a minute and think about it. Talk to me.”

He did as she asked, stopping his pacing, taking in a few deep breaths.

Excited, scared,” he replied. “Pretty much every emotion all at once. I jinxed us yesterday, didn’t I? When I talked about how we should have had an army of kids by now?”

I promised that this would be a conversation,” Liz said, Jamie glancing up at her. “This is totally unexpected, you didn’t sign up for this, and if it’s a deal-breaker...”

Don’t even suggest it,” he replied, Liz blinking her eyes at him as he pointed an accusing finger at her. “We’ve journeyed to the ends of the fucking Galaxy to make this happen, and I’ll be damned if we’re going to fall at the last hurdle. A baby is the only thing you’ve ever asked of me.”

A baby, singular,” she added with a weak chuckle. “Five is...a lot, for a human.”

How the hell do you deal with a whole litter back on Borealis?” he asked. “Does everyone have half a dozen babies at a time out there?”

We live in packs,” she explained. “Everyone raises the kittens communally, and if you get too wiped out, there’s always someone there to pick up the slack.”

So, what? We’re like the Borealan equivalent of single parents?”

I guess so,” she replied with a shrug. “We’re like...one-third of a pack. I won’t lie, that means we’re going to have to do three times the work.”

You’re the one who has to carry them,” Jamie continued. “Is this what you want?”

Fuck,” she sighed, leaning back against the metal wall of the prefab and running her fingers through her cropped hair. “I don’t know whether I want to laugh or cry, and I’m not even knocked up yet...”

If you want to have these kids, then I’m with Nightingale,” Jamie said. “My first priority is your safety, and if they say that having a whole litter is the safest option for you, then that’s what we’re gonna do.”

Really?” she asked. “When I saw how you reacted to the news, I thought that...maybe our little project was finished. As much as I want kids, our relationship is what’s most important, and I don’t want to stress it to the point that it breaks...”

If we shied away from doing things because they were hard, we wouldn’t even be together,” Jamie replied, taking a few steps closer. He reached out to take her furry hands in his, Liz giving him a weary smile as he squeezed them. “After being separated, after you found your way back from Borealis, what’s a couple of extra kids? Are we gonna fall apart because we’re going to have a bigger family than we planned for? Nah.”

You’re really okay with it?” she asked, her eyes starting to brim with tears. He hadn’t seen her cry since they were teenagers, the unexpected show of vulnerability lighting in a fire in him, all of those protective impulses coming flooding back. She might be proud and confident now, comfortable in her own skin, but she had never stopped being the little girl that he had met on the swing set that day.

This isn’t even that unusual,” he added. “Human couples have twins, sometimes triplets, even octuplets. It’s not like I’m the first guy to ever freak out after hearing he’s having more kids than he was planning for. We can be terrified and overjoyed at the same time.”

Liz reached down and caught him in her arms, lifting him off the ground as she trapped him in a tight hug. She buried her nose in his hair, breathing in his scent, which seemed to calm her somewhat.

We must be scaring the crap out of Sousa and his team,” she chuckled, setting Jamie back down. She wiped her eyes on her sleeve, her usual pep returning. “They probably think we’re about to bail on the whole thing. We should get back inside and let them know what we’ve decided.”

Jamie nodded, the two of them making their way back to the entrance.

***

Considering that we now have more than one bun in the oven,” Sousa began, pointing to the strings of numbers on the display. “I’m proposing we go for a grab-bag approach.”

What’s that?” Jamie asked. Liz cocked her head, not following.

We’re going to take all of the genes responsible for skin pigmentation, eye color, and hair color, and we’re going to randomize them. That means that each baby could express genes from either one of you. You could end up with one that has Lizka’s skin tone and Jamie’s eyes, or maybe Jamie’s skin and Lizka’s hair. Coupled with some recessive genes that might express thanks to the medics’ tinkering, you should end up with a lot of variation.”

I think that’s better than selecting their traits ourselves,” Jamie said, nodding his head. “Let nature decide.”

It’s not exactly natural,” Liz added.

We’re not cutting mother nature out of the equation,” Sousa said, wagging a finger. “We’re just giving her a little prod in the right direction. She has more experience in this field than we do, better to let her take the wheel where we can.”

It sounds like a good idea,” Liz said. “I don’t think I would have been able to decide if we had to select each trait ourselves. I’d always be wondering if I made the right decision.”

If those are your wishes, then I’ll instruct the Jarilans to start editing the genomes,” Sousa continued. “Billions of those little molecular readers are going to start unpacking the chromosomes, reading through the DNA strands, and adding the new nucleotides during the replication process. When that’s done, we can introduce the edited sperm cells to the edited eggs under laboratory conditions, and presto, fertilization. The next step will be implanting the fertilized eggs into your uterine wall, where they’ll hopefully take, and start growing as though nothing unusual happened.”

How long will it take until they’re ready?” Liz asked eagerly.

Four or five days,” Sousa explained. “We’ll want to let them mature a little in the lab so we can be sure that they’re healthy.”

I guess we’ll have some time to kill, then,” Jamie said.

I’ll be sure to get in touch as soon as they’re ready,” Sousa added. “Until then, I guess you have a few days of vacation time. If you wander any further than the hive, remember to keep to the paths, and don’t stray too far into the forests. There’s not a lot of things that can hurt you on Jarilo besides getting lost, especially not a Borealan, but a Knife-Tooth can still give you a nasty bite. We can assign a Jarilan to guide you any time you want, it’s really no trouble. You only have to ask.”

They thanked him profusely for all his work, then headed outside, unsure of what to do next.

There weren’t very many colonists in the settlement, but it was far from deserted. Every so often, someone would appear from one of the prefabs or walk past them along the muddy path. Others were hard at work, unloading crates from the flatbed trucks or servicing comms equipment on the roofs of the buildings. Everyone had a job to do, and it made Jamie feel a little out of place.

Think there are any restaurants or bars around here?” Liz asked.

Restaurants? Probably not,” Jamie replied, “but I don’t think a human settlement has ever existed anywhere that didn’t have a bar. Want to go look around?”

She nodded, and they made their way deeper into the small settlement. There weren’t more than three-dozen buildings, many of them made up of multiple prefabs that had been connected together, much like the UAS building. It kind of reminded Jamie of the frontier towns from the Old West that were so common in Cowboy movies, the elaborate facades replaced with spartan, functional metal and polymer. They came across a general store that was identified only by a sign that was hanging out front, as it had no windows through which to display its goods. They passed by a power station, a network of insulated cables the thickness of Jamie’s thigh snaking their way out towards the other buildings, partially buried in the ever-present mud. This was one of the few structures that was different from the surrounding prefabs, a domed cylinder that resembled a small grain silo, covered in a chrome-like finish that made it shine in the sunlight. According to Liz, it was a portable fusion generator.

As they rounded a corner on the muddy street, they came across a surprising sight. A section of land at the edge of the forest had been cordoned off by a wire fence, not unlike the one that had surrounded Bluejay’s chicken coop. The ground had been paved over with concrete, which itself had been overlaid with what looked like a carpet of fake grass. There were swing sets, seesaws, even a sandpit. The gleeful laughter and squealing of children soon reached their ears, and they paused to watch a dozen youngsters race around the pen.

People are bringing their families here,” Jamie mused, a wave of nostalgia overwhelming him as he watched a boy push a little girl on one of the swings.

They’re starting a real society,” Liz replied. “These kids are going to grow up here, it’s all they’ll ever know. Earth will be completely foreign to them. They’ll have their own children, start their own families here, they’ll probably be buried in Jarilan soil when they die. It’s an odd thought.”

I wonder how it will change their outlook, living alongside the Jarilans?” Jamie continued. “Most people in known space have a deeply-ingrained hatred for them, but these kids are going to grow up with them, they’ll be a part of everyday life.”

Look,” Liz said, pointing up into the branches of a tree that overlooked the playground. “There’s a Drone up there...”

Jamie followed her gaze, seeing a flash of green carapace. It was another Winged Drone, just like Bluejay, this one sporting a shell in mint green. He was carrying a resin rifle, his eyes fixed on the children below, watching them like a hawk from his high perch.

I can’t believe it,” Jamie said, the realization hitting him. “It’s like the chickens. He’s on sentry duty.”

You wondered if the children would have a different outlook, but it seems as though their parents have already changed their way of thinking if they’ll trust a Bug to watch over their kids.”

I suppose a Bug is going to be far more attentive than any human,” Jamie mused. “That might be the wildest thing I’ve seen yet...”

This is the frontier,” Liz added. “You can’t afford to reject help out here. If someone else is watching the kids, it frees up their parents to do essential work.”

You getting any maternal impulses?” he asked, giving her a nudge with his elbow.

A little,” she chuckled, lingering a little longer as she watched one of the younger kids build a castle in the sandpit.

***

After a little more searching, they found the bar, as Jamie had suspected. It was another prefab, only identifiable from the rest by the neon sign outside that advertised drinks.

They stepped inside, Jamie feeling a little like he was walking into a saloon, all eyes in the room turning to his towering companion. There were maybe ten people in the establishment, most of them wearing mud-stained coveralls, likely workmen on their break. There was even a UAS scientist sitting at the bar, identifiable by the patch on her shoulder, nursing a drink as she made conversation with one of the colonists.

It was rather cramped compared to the bars in the city that Jamie was more accustomed to, the bar stools and tables all made in exceedingly simple, metal designs that looked like they had probably been printed as single units. The bar had been extruded from the floor, and the shelves behind it that were loaded with colorful bottles were similarly a component of the building itself. Could you just order a bar in prefab form for your burgeoning colony?

They walked up to the counter, the bartender making his way over to greet them. He was a middle-aged man with a full beard, dressed in civilian clothes.

We don’t get many new faces out here,” he said. “I’d heard people talk about seeing a Borealan walking around the settlement the last couple of days. Guess that was you. What brings you all the way out to our humble colony?”

Jamie and Liz exchanged a glance, neither of them entirely comfortable with sharing the details of their medical procedures with the stranger.

We’re here on an assignment for the UAS,” he replied, the bartender perceptive enough to know that they weren’t interested in discussing the subject any further.

What can I get you?” he asked.

What have you got?” Liz shot back, eyeing the shelves behind him.

Whatever we can import, and whatever we can make ourselves,” he replied. “If you want the off-planet stuff, there’s a premium, as it’s not cheap to ship in non-essential goods. As for what we can make here, we do have a brewery unit set up, and we have the grains to make malt for the fermentation process. We’ve got a few different kinds of beer made from various grains, and vodka made from potatoes. It goes over better than you’d expect.”

I guess I’ll take a beer,” Jamie said. “Whatever the house recommends.”

And for the lady?” the bartender asked, glancing up at Liz.

I’ll take whatever you’ve got that has the lowest alcohol content,” she replied.

Whoa, wait a minute,” Jamie said as the bartender began to pour their drinks. “What currency do you guys use out here? All I’ve got with me is my phone, and I don’t think I can make a transfer, since my bank is about sixty light-years away.”

You guys are with the UAS, right?” he asked. “I’ll just put it on their tab.”

Oh, sure,” Jamie replied. The man was remarkably trusting, but then again, this was no city. The larger the population, the more impersonal every interaction became. There was no need for suspicion when you knew everyone in your community by name.

They picked up their drinks and made their way to the back of the bar, where there were a handful of tables and chairs scattered about. Liz pushed the smaller seats out of the way, choosing to sit on the floor as she often did when there were no chairs that could accommodate her weight. As they began to drink, more patrons entered the bar. The first was a Marine, identifiable by his Navy-blue uniform, while the second was a Krell. Jamie had seen one once before, at the spaceport back on Earth, but the sight of it made him do a double-take all the same.

The creature looked like an alligator standing on its hind legs, eight or nine feet tall, and twice that length from nose to tail. Its hide was a spinach-green in color, tapering to a lighter beige on its underbelly, covered in a layer of thick scales that overlapped like medieval armor. It had more fingers and toes than seemed appropriate, its long jaws lined with jutting teeth, its posture hunched. As it squeezed into the prefab, Jamie could feel its immense weight shake the floor, its heavy tail dragging behind it. The alien was nude, but it had nothing to cover up, no external genitalia that he could see.

Haven’t seen a Krell in a while,” Liz said, watching the creature and its companion as they approached the bar. “Wonder what it’s doing here?”

Maybe it lives here?” Jamie wondered.

I guess that’s a possibility,” she replied with a shrug. “They like mud, and there’s plenty of that on this planet.”

The Krell and its human friend got some drinks from the bar, then turned towards Liz and Jamie’s table, seeming just as surprised to see a Borealan. They made their way over, the man in the UNN uniform addressing them.

Not seen you guys around here before,” he said, pausing by their table. “Did you just ship in?”

Yeah, we arrived a couple of days ago,” Jamie replied. The man was being remarkably friendly, despite the fact that they had never met before.

So, what unit are you with?” the stranger asked, pulling up a chair and sitting down as the expressionless Krell hovered behind him in silence. “I’m surprised they’re still garrisoning troops in the old bases. Everything has been quiet since the war ended. Seems like a waste of resources to me, but that’s life in the Corps in a nutshell, am I right?” He gestured to Liz, who cocked an eyebrow at him. “I didn’t know they were deploying auxiliaries to Jarilo.”

Sorry,” Jamie began, “I think you’ve mistaken us for someone else. We’re not with the UNN.”

You’re not?” he mused, turning to give his Krell companion a confused glance. “Sorry, I see a human and a Borealan sharin’ a table, and I assume they’re in the service. I’m Harry, and this is Blackjack,” he added as he gestured over his shoulder at the towering Krell. The creature replied with a huffing sound, giving a subtle nod of acknowledgment. “He doesn’t talk much on account of his vocal cords being as long as my arm.”

I’m Jamie, and this is Liz,” Jamie replied.

You can tell me to get lost if you just want to enjoy your drinks in peace,” Harry continued, “but I’d be interested to know what brings you two to Jarilo.”

You’re with the Navy, right? Liz asked, narrowing her eyes at him.

Yeah, but I’m not askin’ in any official capacity,” the man replied as he leaned back in his chair. “Just makin’ conversation. We don’t get many new faces out here.”

Jamie wasn’t sure how much he wanted to discuss the details of their medical procedures with this stranger, but Harry seemed friendly, and they were here to kill time. Besides, the presence of the Krell intrigued him. He had never seen one up close like this before. The giant reptile was just watching them with a pair of beady, yellow eyes, its large nostrils flaring with every breath.

We’re here with the UAS,” he replied.

Oh, you’re a couple of scientists, then?” Harry asked.

Not exactly,” Jamie continued. He gave Liz a glance, silently asking her permission, and she nodded her head. “We’re here to undergo an experimental medical procedure.”

Let me guess, somethin’ related to genetics?” Harry asked. “That’s what the Jarilans do best.”

We’re having a baby,” Liz said bluntly.

A low rumbling sound emanated from the Krell, shaking Jamie’s bones like he was sitting on top of a sub-woofer. Harry’s face split into a grin, and he turned to nudge his giant companion with his elbow.

Hear that, big guy? I told you it was only a matter of time, didn’t I?”

That doesn’t come as a surprise to you?” Jamie asked.

Me and BJ are bodyguards for the Jarilan Ambassador,” he explained, pausing to take a drink from his frothing pint glass. “She has a lot of human DNA in her.”

The Krell rumbled something that didn’t even sound like speech to Jamie, Harry’s face starting to redden. He turned to give the creature a jab, his elbow sinking into the reptile’s pudgy underside.

You’re lucky nobody ‘round here can understand you,” he whispered, turning back to the confused pair as the Krell huffed with what might be laughter. “So, yeah, the Jarilans have been experimentin’ with blendin’ human and Betelgeusian DNA for some time. If they can splice those species, why not others?”

We’ve seen the Ambassador on newscasts,” Liz added, “she was part of the reason we came here. I could tell just from looking at her that she was a product of gene splicing.”

Yeah, the Queen tailored her appearance specifically to appeal to humans,” Harry replied. “She’s a born ambassador, quite literally designed to bridge the gap between humans and Jarilans.”

Why does she need bodyguards?” Jamie wondered. “Liz, your parents were diplomats, and I don’t remember them ever needing that kind of protection.”

The assassination attempts that Walker mentioned,” she reminded him, Jamie nodding his head.

Oh yeah, he did mention something about that...”

There were several attempts on her life,” Harry explained. “I’m not at liberty to discuss the details unless I want a team of Ninnies payin’ me a visit, but the Admiralty has ordered that she be escorted whenever she’s outside the hive.”

What about inside?” Jamie asked.

There’s no safer place to be than inside the hive,” Harry continued. “It’s deep enough to act as a bunker, which is the reason the Navy can’t just wipe out Bugs with orbital bombardment, and it’s full of single-minded soldiers who you’d have to fight through to reach a VIP. Entire Marine battalions have a hard enough time pullin’ that off. An old buddy of mine tried that play during the Kruger war, lost dozens of guys, and most of his limbs for his trouble.”

I imagine that a Krell would make for an excellent bodyguard,” Liz said, appraising the scaly alien. “What about you?”

I’m just your average Marine,” he replied with a shrug, taking another sip of his drink. “The Ambassador and I have a good workin’ relationship, I’ll put it that way. This is huge, though,” he added as he directed the conversation back to them. “The Ambassador is gonna want to hear about this. It’s another great opportunity to show how valuable the Jarilans are. Not just to the Navy, either, but to civvies too. She’s all about findin’ ways to improve their rep on the Galactic stage.”

I can imagine how hard that must be,” Liz said, taking a very conservative sip from her own glass. Borealans didn’t metabolize alcohol the same way that humans did, and even a couple of beers was enough to floor them. “We’ve been surprised by how much the colonists and the Jarilans are getting along. Before we arrived, we heard talk of Naval blockades and military bases. I expected the hive to be cordoned-off and boxed in by a huge defensive perimeter of barbed wire, armed patrols, and sentry turrets. Instead, we’ve seen Warriors converted into farming equipment and Drones supervising human children. It’s nothing like what I imagined.”

We have made a lot of progress,” Harry said with a nod. “New colonists tend to be suspicious at first, but they soon warm up to the critters once they realize how helpful they can be. If a group of Workers offers to help dig a well for you or clear some land for your farm, you don’t have the luxury of tellin’ them to go pound sand. Just tellin’ people what’s happenin’ here isn’t enough, they have to see it, they have to benefit from it themselves.”

So...you think that what we’re doing will help?” Jamie asked.

Big-time,” Harry replied. “Different species bein’ able to have kids will dominate the newscasts for weeks. It’ll be good press for the Jarries.”

The Krell rumbled again, leaning in to nudge Harry’s cheek with his long snout. The Marine batted him away, looking flustered, clearing his throat as he continued.

I can introduce you guys to her when you’re done drinkin’, if you’re not busy. I’m sure she’d want to meet you.”

Sure,” Liz said, “we’d like that. We’re actually just killing time right now while we wait for some results from the lab.”

Great!” Harry replied. “Until then...do either of you guys play?”

He snapped his fingers, the Krell producing a deck of cards on command from seemingly nowhere, fanning them out with his many fingers. As Jamie watched, the reptile performed another sleight of hand trick, the cards vanishing again.

I can hold my own at Poker,” Jamie replied, Harry grinning across the table at him.

How about a friendly game? No bets necessary.”

Alright,” he replied, the Krell producing another huffing vocalization that reminded him of quiet chuckling as he lay the deck on the table.

***

Fold,” Jamie grumbled, tossing his cards onto the table. Blackjack huffed in what might be triumph, reaching out with his seven-fingered hands, collecting the pile of sugar packets that they’d been using in lieu of chips.

There were now several empty glasses on the table, they had been playing for a good few hours. Jamie had a bit of a buzz going, as did Harry, but the two aliens were a different story. Blackjack had drunk more than both of them combined. He lifted the aluminum cans in his jaws, piercing them with his teeth, and gulping down the contents. Probably due to his size, it seemed impossible for him to become inebriated. Then again, would Jamie even be able to tell if the great creature was drunk or sober?

Liz had been carefully managing her intake, but she had still gotten tipsier than he had seen her in a while. There wasn’t much to do other than drink. She couldn’t even play with her phone due to the lack of reception. She wasn’t much of a card player herself, so she merely watched the three of them fumble through their games, snickering into her glass as Jamie became more and more frustrated. It was very apparent that Blackjack was cheating, but he didn’t have the stones to call out the two-ton, armored behemoth. Besides, he was kind of impressed by the creature’s ability to slip cards into the deck despite his complete absence of sleeves.

Another round?” Harry asked, drinking down the last mouthful of his beer.

Of cards, or of drinks?” Jamie asked.

How about both?” the Marine chuckled.

Nah, I think we should probably get back soon. If Liz drinks anymore, I’m not going to be able to carry her back to the prefab.”

Fair enough,” Harry said, rising from his seat unsteadily. “I guess it’s getting pretty late, and I don’t much like walking around in the forest after dark. If you need help getting Liz back, I can have BJ help out. He could probably bench-press her.”

I’m not that drunk,” the Borealan replied, the way that she was slurring her speech suggesting otherwise.

Alright,” Harry said with a shrug of his shoulders. “I’ll see you guys tomorrow, then. We’ll take you down to see the Ambassador.”

See you,” Jamie replied, waving him off as he left the table. Blackjack rumbled what might have been a goodbye, the tone of his voice so deep that Jamie could feel it shaking his bones, the reptile plodding along behind his companion. Jamie watched them leave the bar, then turned his attention to Liz as she extended her long, barbed tongue into her glass in search of the last few drops of amber liquid.

Well, that was fun,” Jamie said. “It was nice to talk to some interesting people.”

He’s fucking that Bug, you know,” Liz blurted.

K-keep your voice down,” Jamie said, turning to glance around the bar. Fortunately, most of the patrons had left, and there was nobody in earshot. Only the UAS scientist remained, now leaning in to whisper to the settler who she had been talking to, the way that she was smiling at him suggesting that they would probably be leaving together.

It was so obvious,” Liz continued, setting down her empty glass. “Good working relationship, my tail. When I asked him how they met, he said that he was guarding her when she was basically under house arrest,” she chuckled drunkenly. “Let me tell you something about the Jarilans,” she continued, wagging a clawed finger at him across the table. “Those pheromones they put out? Humans aren’t conscious of them, your noses are too dull, but they’re still influencing your behavior without you realizing it. That Drone, Bluejay, he was kicking out ten times the pheromones that you do when we’re doing the nasty. That female you were gawking at when we were with Walker? Same deal. You were being hotboxed by girl perfume, and you didn’t even know it. Axillary steroids,” she added, pausing to hiccup. “Secreted through the sweat in humans. Who knows how the Bugs do it...”

So, you’re saying you deduced that they were a couple based on that alone?”

Also, the fact that the aforementioned girl perfume was all over him,” she giggled. “He smelled like he was up to his eyeballs in it.”

That’s one way to generate a positive reaction, I guess,” Jamie mused. “If you have access to the human genome, then you know exactly what buttons to push, which pheromones will give you an edge.” “Just a little spritz of eau-de-human, and suddenly, that five-foot insect is looking a lot friendlier.”

Let’s get you home before you pass out,” Jamie said. “I’d have to hire out one of those Warriors to carry you back to the prefab.”

Liz snickered drunkenly, rising to her feet, swaying a little as she followed behind him. They made their way out into the street, Jamie pausing to glance up at the dark sky.

Holy crap, look at that,” he muttered. Liz stopped beside him, following his gaze. He had never seen the night sky like this before. There was barely any civilization on this planet – no skyscrapers, no traffic, no streetlamps. The absence of light pollution made the stars shine so brightly, the dense, brilliant stream of light that was the Milky Way streaking its way above the treetops. Jamie had seen the depths of space, but it had always seemed oddly sterile to him when he had gazed out of the Magellan’s windows. This was like something straight out of a painting, surreal in its perfection, a million tiny points of light twinkling against the velvet-black backdrop.

Pretty,” Liz said, whistling her approval.

There was enough light bleeding out onto the streets from the windows of the prefabs to see by, so they were able to find their way back, Jamie steadying Liz as he helped her up the metal steps. She bonked her head on the low doorframe on her way inside, hissing at it before ducking under the obstacle.

I can’t remember the last time you got this wasted,” Jamie chuckled, watching her struggle with her hated boots. “You’re usually not much of a drinker.”

I am not wasted,” she protested, almost falling over as she succeeded in removing one of her shoes. “I have a pleasant buzz going.”

Want me to help you into bed?” he asked, watching her shrug off her leather jacket. She tossed it onto the couch, then started on her sweatpants, dancing on the spot as she struggled to get them past her butt. Her tail slid through a little slot just below the elastic waistband as she tugged them down, revealing the short shorts that she wore beneath, her underwear riding up to expose the beginnings of her pert cheeks. She bent over to pick up her pants, Jamie admiring the sight as she bundled them up, discarding them beside her jacket.

Who said anything ‘bout goin’ to bed?” she asked, glancing over her shoulder at him. She walked over to the dining table unsteadily, which was at human-height, like all of the furniture in the prefab. Its metal frame creaked as she sat down on top of it, its edge pressing into the meat of her thick thighs. “You promised to help me burn off my heat,” she said, parting her legs in invitation. “Or did you forget?”

She leaned back on the table, her claws scraping against the bare metal, Jamie’s eyes drawn to her chest as her breasts wobbled beneath her tank top. She almost never wore a bra, but being in gravity this low made it a non-issue for her. His gaze wandered up to her cleavage, her dusky skin contrasting with the white cotton, the sight making his cock throb against the confines of his underwear.

Liz lifted the hem of her top a little, flashing her washboard abs, knowing full well how much he admired her physique. Her muscles carved deep channels into her otherwise flat belly, perfectly sculpted, tightening beautifully as she flexed. He could see the trio of faded scars that ran across her stomach, a memento from her time on Borealis.

Come get it,” she mumbled, slurring her words as she grinned at him. She held up her furry fingers to make a V, pushing her prehensile tongue between them, miming what she wanted him to do to her. Jamie tried and failed to stifle his laughter. On the rare occasions that she actually drank enough to become inebriated, her usual eloquence all but vanished, and she regressed to a more uninhibited state that he liked to think was closer to the behavior of the average Borealan.

Yes, my Alpha,” he replied with an exaggerated bow.

Yeah, I wanna be the Alpha tonight,” she giggled, patting her thigh as he approached. She curled her tail around his forearm once he was in reach, tugging him closer, making him stumble. He planted his face in her chest as he lost his balance, sinking into the depths of her cleavage, the impact making her breasts quiver around his head like mounds of gelatin. He heard her muffled laughter as she trapped him in a hug, pressing him deeper, the familiar scent of her body wash lighting a fire in his belly. Her skin was like silk against his cheeks, the warmth of her massive body permeating him, his hands settling about her wide hips.

He felt her bury her nose in his hair, enjoying the pheromones that she had mentioned back in the bar, no doubt.

You always smell so good,” she muttered. “I like it when you grow your hair out, there’s more to hold onto...”

She took a handful, the welcome sting of her gentle tugging sending a pleasant shiver down his spine, Liz pulling him out of her bosom. Before he could speak a word, she filled his mouth with her tongue, her drunken clumsiness making his erection strain against his pants. Her usual practiced skill was entirely absent, her strokes greedy, all pretense of modesty abandoned.

The tapered tip of her organ teased the roof of his mouth, glancing his inner cheeks, so agile that she could have probably written her name there. She was feeding him more of her slippery coils than he was accustomed to, her tongue spiraling around his own as though trying to wrestle it into submission, but he didn’t mind. In fact, he was starting to think that he should get her drunk more often…

Jamie leaned into her embrace, his erection pressing against her crotch, separated from her by only a few scant layers of fabric. He could feel the warmth of her loins, even though their clothes, her soft thighs cradling him as they tightened around his waist. He sank his hands into them, Liz gasping into his mouth as he took cruel handfuls of her doughy flesh, her steely muscles rising up from beneath it as she tensed. One of his hands wandered up the leg of her shorts, his fingertips brushing her velvet skin, roaming towards her butt. He cupped her cheek, letting its soft fat fill his palm, spilling between his fingers with the consistency of molten plastic. He could bury his fingers up to the knuckle, more firm tissue greeting him as she flexed.

Their sordid kiss dragged on, a strand of saliva escaping their lips to drape itself across her chest, sliding down between her breasts. Jamie could feel her hunger in every flurry, Liz pouring her desire for him into each ravenous stroke, her tongue moving inside his mouth as though it had a life all its own. Sparks flew in his head as its slick, hot surface slid along the lining of his cheeks, tickling the back of his throat.

Fortunately, she still had sense enough to remember his limitations, pulling away with a lurid smack to let him take a breath.

Sometimes, I wanna kiss you until our lips get chapped,” she muttered as she watched him catch his breath. “H-hang on,” she added, the table creaking as she pulled back.

What’re you doing?” Jamie asked, watching as she reached for one of the nearby cupboards.

I thought I saw it when I was rooting around...yeah!”

She withdrew a jar of amber liquid, Jamie wondering if she had found more homebrew booze for a second, but the label read honey. She struggled with the cap for a moment, unsealing it with a hiss, a giddy smile brightening her red face as she peered into the container.

They have bees here?” Jamie wondered.

Not likely, this shit never goes bad,” she mumbled. “They ship it all over the Galaxy.”

She extended her long tongue and upended the jar, Jamie watching as she caught a syrupy glob of the substance. As she drew it back into her mouth, she eased him closer, her smile taking on a mischievous quality.

They locked lips again, the sweet flavor of honey pricking his taste buds as she passed it off to him, rolling the viscous substance around inside his mouth. The blend of warm saliva and cool honey set his head spinning, its rich taste making his mouth water, its sticky consistency gluing their tongues together. It added a new layer of sensation to an already lascivious act, Liz pricking his cheeks with her claws as she cradled his burning face in her furry hands, the low moans that she let slip between the sticky flurries making his heart skip like a broken record.

She released him, watching Jamie swallow the mouthful of honey, seeming to take a kind of lecherous pleasure in it.

I got some dessert for you,” she giggled, almost losing her balance as she leaned further back. She tried to lift her tank top, but it kept falling back down. Frustrated, she set the jar down on the table beside her and tugged off her top. Her heavy breasts fell free of what little support they had, clapping against her torso, bouncing gently as they settled. No matter how many times Jamie saw them, he could never get over their size. They were almost as large as Liz’s head, which was itself bigger than a human equivalent, her boobs the volume of beach balls. They would have been disproportionate on a human woman, but they were perfectly at home on her stout frame.

Now that her top was off, she lifted the jar again, Jamie watching with bated breath as she upended it over her chest. A fat blob of honey drooped from the container, connected to the mass by a strand that gradually grew thinner until it broke to fall to her caramel skin. It landed between her breasts, slowly seeping down her torso, the amber fluid oozing its way along the channel between the twin rows of her abs. She let more of it slide out of the jar until her stomach was glazed with it, draping a few strands over her breasts for good measure.

You always did have a sweet tooth,” she said, chuckling at her own joke. “Bon appetit.”

Jamie drew closer, planting his hands to either side of her wide hips on the table, Liz purring as she felt his erection press against her groin. Her chest was at head-height to him, so he started there, dragging the flat of his tongue through the sweet substance. The warmth of her skin contrasted with its coolness, a hint of salt joining the sweet flavor, his feline partner cooing happily as he mouthed at her breast. A strand was dangling from one of her erect nipples, Jamie circling it with his tongue, drawing it into his mouth. Her cooing took on a deeper, more sensual quality as he drew on the bud of firm flesh, licking it clean.

He moved down her torso, pausing to lap at the sweet, sticky substance that coated her skin. It reflected the glow from the lights in the ceiling, making her shine, picking out the details of her chiseled abdomen. Like rivulets of molten gold, it seeped between her abs, following the channels that they carved into her belly in winding streams.

She shivered with every doting lick, grinding her wide hips in anticipation, rubbing her crotch against his erection through their clothes. Her abs were as firm as rubber beneath his lips, tensing as he traced their contours with his tongue. They could have been hewn from polished stone, was it not for the warmth that she radiated, and the way that her core shifted beneath his lips as she writhed. He slid his hands down her waist as he went, having to spread them wider than the span of his shoulders when he reached her hips. Even after living together for so long, he still marveled at how she could be so soft and yet so hard all at the same time. The cushion of fat that gave her such a fertile figure was like melting butter, settling in all the places that might draw a man’s eye, while the muscle that lurked just beneath it was so firm that there was no give when it tensed.

From this position, he had a wonderful view. He could see the underside of her heavy bosom as it quivered with her every tremor of delight, her six-pack flexing as he lapped the honey from her sun-kissed skin, her green eyes peering down at him over the mounds of her breasts.

L-lick me clean,” she murmured, nibbling on the end of one of her pointed claws as she watched him. “Every fuckin’ drop...”

Jamie was all too happy to oblige, his head swimming as he painted every inch of her sculpted torso with his tongue. He poured his desire for her into every slow stroke, teasing her with quick flurries, letting his lips linger as the taste of honey filled his mouth.

He passed the faded scars that ran across her belly, pausing as he reached her navel, slipping his tongue into it. The table creaked as she shivered, her claws scraping on its metal surface. He planted kisses on the protruding bones of her hips, crawling his lips down towards her smooth mound, the elastic waistband of her shorts glued to her skin where the honey had soaked into the fabric. Jamie gripped it in his teeth, pulling it back, then releasing it to let the elastic snap back into place. The unexpected sensation made her flinch, Liz biting her lip as he hooked his fingers around the garment, starting to tug it down.

She shifted her weight to help him, lifting one cheek off the table, then the other. Jamie pulled the shorts past her thighs, Liz closing her legs, flexing her clawed toes as he succeeded in getting them off. Before they had even hit the carpet, his hands were on her knees, and he was parting her legs again. Liz sat there on the table, her thighs splayed wide, her loins flushed the same shade of pink as her cheeks. She was practically drooling, a strand of her anticipation dangling from her swollen lips, her rosy vulva glistening with moisture.

Her breath caught in her throat as he leaned in, but he wasn’t aiming for her sex. He swiped the jar of honey from the table at her side, upending it, drizzling thin strands of its contents over her thighs like he was dressing a pancake.

Now all we need is a little whipped cream and a cherry, and you got yourself a meal,” she cooed, giggling drunkenly.

Want me to say grace?” he asked, Liz covering her face with her hands as her laughter filled the prefab.

You’re terrible,” she gasped, her face even redder now. “Stop making shitty jokes and eat me out already. You’re lucky I’m so trashed, or that wouldn’t even get a laugh.”

He knelt in front of the table, Liz’s chuckling petering out as he kissed her just above the knee, her skin so soft that he could scarcely stop himself from rubbing his cheek against it. Jamie roamed higher, following one of the strands of honey with his tongue, pausing to give her a sucking kiss that left a red mark.

You’re such a tease,” she grumbled, her eyelids drooping as she watched him roam higher. He made his way along her inner thigh, peppering it with licks, cleaning away the glaze of honey. When he neared her burning vulva, able to feel its heat on his lips even from an inch away, he switched legs.

Liz loosed a rumbling growl in a blend of frustration and arousal, the iron muscles that let her massive, five-hundred-pound frame run and leap in one-point-three Gs flexing at his touch. There was probably as much muscle in her thigh as he had in his entire body, so thick around that his hands would only just meet if he were to hug it.

Mmmf,” Liz grumbled, arching her spine as he gave her a gentle bite. “If you don’t stop messin’ with me soon, I’m gonna pounce you...”

Finally relenting, he pressed the palm of his hand up against her aching loins, just large enough to hide her pink vulva from view. Another comely growl escaped her lips as he began to rub, making lazy circles, her engorged clitoris pressing into his skin when he applied more pressure. Jamie could feel her fluids making his hand slippery, leaking down his wrist, the delightfully soft texture of her puffy labia like memory foam. He could probably get her off like this, but there was plenty of honey left…

Jamie drew back, his palm remaining linked to her lips by a glistening rope of her excitement. Her eyes widened as he brandished the jar once more, her feline pupils tracking it as he raised it above her mound.

Oh, come on,” she muttered. Her voice was breathy, her tone oozing with anticipation, the complaint one of barely-restrained lust more than disbelief. “Ack, that’s cold!” she giggled as he began to pour the amber liquid over her crotch, the honey slowly seeping from the jar in a thick rope until it coated her womanhood.

Jamie felt her fingers find purchase in his hair as he leaned in to drag his tongue between her lips, licking some of the honey from her vulva, his touch sending a spasm of pleasure through her body. Her other hand lifted one of her weighty breasts, beginning to knead it, rolling her sensitive nipple between the pads of her thumb and forefinger.

Fuck,” she whined, throwing her head back as he licked up the sweet fluid. There was a hint of salt, a familiar metallic flavor joining the honey as it blended with her juices, sordid thoughts swirling around inside Jamie’s head as he lapped it up. He traced her delicate folds as he cleaned away every nectarous drop from her burning flesh, strings of it joining his lips to hers, his devoted kissing sending waves of pleasure coursing up her spine.

He paused, moving a little higher, licking away a few strands that had landed on her hairless mound. The muscles beneath her skin spasmed in reply, a comely mewl emanating from somewhere above. Teasing her with more passionate kisses, he descended towards her vulva again, drawing shapes on her sensitive anatomy with his tongue. He followed its every delicate crease, pausing to mouthe, its feverish heat enough to warm what honey remained.

Liz rolled her hips reflexively, grinding against his face, desperate for whatever stimulation she could glean. She wanted more, but he took pleasure in withholding it, knowing how hard he could make her climax if he built her up.

He reached up, pressing a hand against her belly, feeling her abs flex beneath his palm. She quickly realized what he wanted, easing herself down, lying spreadeagled on the dining table. There was just enough room for her to lie flat, Jamie admiring the way that her spine rose from its polished surface when he returned his tongue to her swollen sex. She lifted her hands above her head, gripping the edge of the table as he brushed her clitoris with his lips, her toned core rippling as the sensation rocked her.

Jamie sealed his lips around it, drawing it out from beneath its protective hood of skin, pinching it softly. Encouraged by his twitching partner’s sharp yelp of ecstasy, he swirled his tongue around it, feeling the firm bud of flesh pulse in time with her heartbeat. At the same time, he slid a finger inside her, Liz so wet that there was practically no resistance. Her velvet insides closed around him like a fist, clenching as he curled his finger, her thighs starting to tremble.

Enough,” she grumbled, her toes clawing at the carpet. “F-fuck me already, I want something thicker...”

Whatever you say, honey,” he replied.

I asked for cock, not bad jokes,” she giggled. “I swear to God...”

Jamie quickly shed his pants, Liz feeling around for his member with her tail, brushing it against his thighs. When she found it, she curled the furry appendage around his shaft like a tentacle, guiding him between her legs.

Don’t fuck around,” she grumbled, her sentence interrupted by a hiccup that made her breasts wobble. “I’m real close.”

Jamie was so hard that he was sore, the sight of her lying there splayed on the table making him snort like a bull. He gripped her hips, his fingers digging into her pillowy flesh for purchase, his glans pressing between her soft lips. He had to expend a little more effort than he had for his finger. Despite her size, she was still maddeningly tight thanks to her absurd muscle tone.

With one rough thrust, he hilted her, the table groaning beneath her as Liz grunted like a wild beast. Her muscles squeezed down on his throbbing length with enough pressure to make him gasp, her burning flesh clinging to his every contour like liquid latex. Every spasm of her writhing tunnel made those sodden, velvet walls ripple, stroking him with lurid intent. It was as if her body was begging for him to start moving, easing him deeper, encouraging his rutting.

Not wasting any time, he pulled out of her again, watching her pink flesh cling desperately to his glistening shaft. He slammed back into her, sending a ripple through her thighs as his hips impacted them. The table made more worrying noises as he found a quick pace, their breathing becoming labored, beads of sweat welling on their skin.

After only a few quick thrusts, Liz lifted her butt from the table, her spine curving as she bared her sharp teeth. Jamie could feel each pulse of her climax as it made her insides tighten around his length, squeezing him ruthlessly, her abs glistening with a fresh sheen of sweat as they tensed in rhythm. Her whole body trembled like a leaf, her powerful thighs closing around his waist, preventing him from pulling out. Waves of velvet muscle rolled up his shaft, stroking him relentlessly, Jamie doubling over her twitching body as the throes of her ecstasy rocked the table.

She gradually came to, like someone awaking from a deep sleep, propping herself up on her elbows as she peered down at him with unfocused eyes. Her smile was warm, contagious, her euphoria making her giddy.

W-wait,” she mumbled, an aftershock making her shiver as he pulled out of her. His aching cock remained joined to her flushed lips by a sagging web of her fluids, slowly draping itself over the edge of the embattled dining table. “Did you finish?”

Nah,” Jamie replied, standing up as Liz struggled to rise to a sitting position. She almost seemed pleased to hear it, judging by the grin on her red face.

She lifted him like a toy, sitting him on the edge of the table, kneeling beside it to bring his member to face-level. He flinched as she cupped his balls, burying them in her furry palm, a blend of alcohol and afterglow making her sway subtly. She pursed her lips, blowing warm air on his member, snickering to herself as she watched it jump.

Ever since I watched you fill that cup, I can’t get it outta my head,” she mumbled. “I don’t usually, like...watch it come out...examine it like that. It was so fucking warm and thick...”

Is this just drunk Liz talking, or have I given you some kind of complex?” Jamie chuckled.

I dunno,” she replied coyly, bringing a hand to his shaft. “I just wanna feel it on my tongue.”

His shaft was already slick with her juices, her own warm emission matting her velvet coat as she began to stroke, the damp strands of fur tickling his skin. His very breath seemed tied to her tempo, his heart beating in time with the steady pumping of her sodden fist.

Like a pressure valve slowly climbing into the red, his pleasure mounted, Jamie already so aroused that it only took a minute or two before he was ready to blow. Liz extended her tongue, coiling it around the head of his cock, indifferent to the presence of her own clinging fluids. She painted it with her saliva, her slippery, hot flesh caressing every inch of his glans. She kissed his pulsing tip as she kept up her steady stroking, not taking him all the way into her mouth, just teasing him with gentle licks and pecks. Like she was applying lipstick, she rubbed his glans against her pillowy lips, Jamie gripping the edge of the table tightly as she pushed him towards the brink.

There was something about the expression on her burning face that made her lurid attentions all the more intense. It was like a kind of drunken adoration, a fixation, her inhibitions long forgotten by this point.

You gettin’ there?” she slurred, glancing up at him with a smile of anticipation. His heart skipped a beat as he peered back at her, her emerald eyes reflecting the light.

Y-yeah,” he mumbled, his toes curling as she planted another doting kiss on his tip. His head was spinning, his thoughts becoming muddled, the delicious ache of his impending orgasm stealing away his focus. “Fuck,” he hissed through gritted teeth, “I can’t hold it.”

Good. Don’t,” she purred as she upped her pace. She opened her mouth, extending her tongue, her eyes fixed greedily on his leaking glans. Another quick pump was all it took, searing pleasure shooting through Jamie like an electrical current as he swelled in her hand, a thick rope of his seed draping itself over her face with the same consistency as the honey. It was followed by another, this one painting her tongue, a third joining her parted lips. The next couple of spurts seeped down her wrist, her stroking gradually slowing as the last sparks of his ecstasy faded.

When he recovered his faculties, he looked down to see that her red face was covered in his ejaculate, its pearly color contrasting with her dusky skin. His first instinct was to apologize, but the way that her eyelids were drooping gave him pause. He watched as she closed her mouth, rolling his seed around on her tongue, her thighs rubbing together tightly as she knelt on the carpet. She reached up to wipe away a strand that was dangling from her chin, sucking it off her pad, then cleaned a fat glob of it that was clinging to her cheek. She pressed it between her thumb and forefinger, parting them to create a fat strand, seeing how far she could stretch it until it broke.

You having fun there?” Jamie asked.

She answered by giving him another teasing lick, smirking at him as he shuddered.

Oh man, I feel kind of woozy,” she muttered. “I think all that beer is catching up with me. Bedtime?”

Bedtime,” he replied with a nod.

She struggled to her feet, Jamie following her into the bedroom, where she flopped down onto the oversized mattress. Almost the moment that her face hit the sheets, she began to snore, already fast asleep.

CHAPTER 7: ZYGOTE

Jamie awoke to the sound of someone buzzing at the door. He kicked off the sheets groggily, sliding out of bed, turning to glance at Liz. Despite her superior hearing, she remained stubbornly asleep, one of her furry ears twitching as the buzzer rang again.

Jamie pulled on a pair of shorts, making his way through the prefab, opening the door just a crack. Harry was standing on the steps, the morning light just starting to bleed through the trees at the edge of the forest behind him.

I was startin’ to think you guys were too hungover to come to the door,” he chuckled. “You ready to go down to the hive?”

Oh, yeah,” Jamie said as he ran his fingers through his bed hair. “Fuck, I didn’t realize you’d be here so early. Can you give us an hour to get ready?”

Sure,” he replied. “I’ll go hang out at the bar ‘till then.”

Jamie returned to the bed, putting his hand on Liz’s shoulder, giving her a shake.

Hey, Liz,” he whispered. “Time to get up.”

She batted him away, grumbling to herself.

Come on,” he added, giving her another shake. “Harry is waiting for us. We’re supposed to go down to the hive to meet the Ambassador, remember?”

She slowly sat up, Jamie trying to keep his eyes off her swaying breasts. She reached up to touch a finger to her face, pulling it away as though she expected to see something there.

Why the hell is...Jamie, did you come on my face last night?”

Don’t you remember?” he chuckled. “I didn’t think you were that wasted.”

I’m getting flashes of...oh lord,” she muttered, her cheeks starting to warm. “Never let me drink that much again.”

I dunno, you looked like you were enjoying yourself to me.”

She smirked, giving him a gentle push.

Dork. I’m showering first, and make sure you clean up properly when it’s your turn. Bugs have a great sense of smell, and right now, you’re wearing me like a perfume.”

That’s kind of hot,” he replied, Liz further messing up his hair as she made her way past him.

***

They collected Harry from the bar, the plucky Marine leading them to one of the flatbed trucks that they had seen delivering crates. It wasn’t too different in appearance from an off-road SUV one might see back on Earth, but it was overbuilt, with a sturdy roll-cage and a bullbar that looked like it could probably run down a bear. It had high suspension, lifting it a good distance off the ground, the thick tires made from a kind of honeycomb that made flats impossible.

Sorry, Lizka, you’re gonna have to ride in the back,” Harry said as he opened the driver’s side door. “We don’t have any madcat-sized seating for you.”

She hopped up into the bed of the truck and gripped one of the metal bars for purchase, the rear suspension sagging under her weight. Jamie made his way around to the passenger door, climbing up into the truck. It was nothing like the comfortable self-driving cars that he was used to. It was much more rugged, the seats more akin to the crash-couches that he’d seen in the Magellan.

Will Liz be safe in the back?” he asked, strapping himself in.

She’ll be fine,” Harry replied, hitting the ignition button. “Blackjack rides back there all the time.”

They pulled away from the settlement, following the track through the woods, Jamie bouncing in his seat as the vehicle’s impressive suspension tackled the uneven terrain. It was a little unnerving riding alongside a human driver with no nav system to take the wheel, no road, no civic network for the truck’s computer to sync with. One errant flick of Harry’s wrist, and they could plow straight into a tree.

I told Holly about you guys last night,” Harry said, the left side of the truck rising for a moment as they drove over a root. “She’s real excited to meet you.”

Holly?” Jamie asked. “Is that the Ambassador?”

Yeah,” he replied, the spinning wheels skidding in the wet mud as they rounded a bend. “She says it’s gonna be a huge opportunity for repairin’ the hive’s image. Somethin’ about makin’ life, rather than takin’ it.”

I’m not sure we want our faces plastered all over the newscasts,” Jamie continued, reaching up to grip a handhold on the roof above. “It’s not really a private affair, considering that there are hundreds of UAS scientists working on the project, but these are still going to be our kids. We don’t really want to make a circus out of it, you know?”

Oh, I get that,” Harry replied. “Holly’s a real soft touch, she’ll come up with somethin’ that works for you. That’s her job, after all.”

Naturally, driving to the hive was a much faster journey than walking, the resin door in the mound of soil soon coming into view. They drove past it, however, Jamie giving Harry a quizzical look.

We live near the hive,” he explained, “just not inside it. Those dank tunnels ain’t really my bag, even if the critters can build you basically anythin’ you want out of their resin.”

They came upon another clearing in the trees, this one occupied by a single prefab that was surrounded by a patch of cultivated land. It was a garden, Jamie realized, full of colorful flowers rather than crops. If it wasn’t for the angular, metallic walls of the building, it might have looked like a picturesque cottage. Flowering vines were even being cultivated on wooden trellises, encouraged to grow up the sides of the structure.

They pulled up a short distance away, the truck rolling to a stop. Jamie felt the rear suspension bounce as Liz hopped out, landing on the ground beside the vehicle. He unstrapped and stepped down into the mud, glad to be safe from Harry’s unnerving driving.

You alright, Liz?” Jamie asked as he walked around to the other side of the truck.

Bit of a bumpier ride than I’m used to,” she replied, “but I’ll live.”

Harry led them down a curving, paved path that was flanked by flower beds, the blooming plants like nothing Jamie had ever seen. They didn’t even really have petals, more like fleshy prongs that were arranged in star shapes around a central bulb, their reds and blues somewhat more muted than what one would find on Earth.

What are these?” Liz asked, pausing to kneel beside one of the bushes. She lifted a flower to her nose, sniffing it. “Are they species from Earth?”

They’re pretty strict about what kind of plants we can bring dirtside,” Harry replied. “Someone tracks in a grass seed on their boot, whole fuckin’ ecosystem goes belly-up. The crops we use are genetically modified so that they can’t reproduce without a special enzyme they can only get from us, so there’s no danger of the wheat going AWOL and killin’ all of the local plant life. Roses ain’t exactly a staple food, so this is mostly stuff that Walker has collected on his sabbaticals.”

They’re so primitive,” Liz marveled. “They look like something straight out of the Cretaceous period. I wonder what kinds of insects they’re trying to attract with these fleshy stamens?”

They continued towards the prefab, but they didn’t go inside the building, Harry taking another quaint path that led around the side of the structure. They passed beneath the arch of a wooden trellis that was covered in flowering vines, a larger garden coming into view. It was maybe eight hundred square feet, overflowing with plant life, a veritable botanical menagerie of what must be native species from all over the continent. There were more carefully tended flowerbeds, patches of ferns, cycads that looked like pineapples. There were more trellises and planters everywhere he looked, cultivating strange plant life that Jamie couldn’t even name. There was no fence around the property, it just kind of petered out into bare dirt, but they didn’t have any neighbors competing for space. The idea of unclaimed land for the taking was almost inconceivable to Jamie. Back home, people had to fight for every square foot.

He heard a gurgling sound and was surprised to see a water feature off in one corner. It was an artificial pond that was surrounded by carefully stacked rocks, a small waterfall trickling down from its apex.

Jamie turned to glance back at the prefab, seeing that it had been modified with a pair of large French doors that led out onto a wooden deck with a view of the garden.

Looks like someone has been busy,” Liz muttered.

Hey, Holly!” Harry yelled. “You around?”

A figure rose up from behind a bush at the far end of the garden, setting down a trowel, a pair of eyes with pink sclera turning to peer at them. Jamie recognized her immediately. It was the ambassador that they had seen on the newscast.

She was just as regal in person as she was on video, her white carapace patterned with an odd iridescence, shifting hue under the sunlight like mother of pearl. Around her neck was a ruff of thick, white fur that made her look like an Elizabethan noblewoman, the tiara-like horn that rose from her forehead only furthering the comparisons to royalty. She had four moth-like antennae, two of which rose up from her head, the others hanging down her back like a pair of long braids.

What Jamie hadn’t seen on the newscast was her figure. She was far more voluptuous than even the female Drones that he had encountered, her waist pinched into an hourglass, the wideness of her hips exaggerated by a kind of skirt made from gossamer wings. Two larger wings trailed behind her, giving the appearance of an ethereal gown. Her torso was covered up by a structure that almost resembled a corset, a pair of what could only be described as breasts peeking out above it, giving her a kind of cleavage. The flesh was a deeper pink, oddly shiny, like it had been waxed. The same exposed flesh was visible between her joints and on her inner thighs, only their outer surfaces armored. It was hard to know where her body ended and her armor began.

It was all very deliberate, very calculated, but Jamie couldn’t deny the effect her appearance had on him. He felt as though she could have persuaded a man to do pretty much anything.

She strode down the path towards them on a pair of long, digitigrade legs that ended in dainty, two-toed feet, her gait just as exaggeratedly feminine as her appearance. Jamie glanced up at Liz, seeing that she almost seemed annoyed by the sight. Perhaps she thought that the Queen had overplayed her hand in this case…

As she neared them, the plates that made up her face shifted into a smile. It was a little uncanny, like a china doll that had been shattered, then glued back together again.

Welcome to Jarilo,” she said, her British accent identical to Walker’s. “You must be the couple that Harry was telling me about. My name is Hollyhock,” she continued with a demure curtsy. “I’m so pleased to make your acquaintance. There’s so much that I’ve been wanting to discuss with you.”

Jamie and Liz introduced themselves, but it seemed that the Ambassador already knew their names.

Come,” she said, gesturing to the prefab with one of her four hands. “We should retire to the veranda. It must have been an uncomfortable drive over here from the settlement. Might I offer you some refreshments?”

Sure,” Jamie said, sharing a glance with Liz. “That would be nice.”

The party made their way back to the deck, Jamie sitting down on a chair made from the orange resin that the Bugs seemed to favor, finding it remarkably comfortable. It was somehow rigid where the structure required it, but far softer where his body was in contact with it, providing a similar sensation to a gel pack.

Liz was surprised to find a chair that was perfectly suited to her stature, pausing before sitting down on it as though she couldn’t believe her eyes. Living on Earth, there was almost never seating that was comfortable for her, and she spent so much of her time sitting on the floor.

Did...did you make this for me?” Liz asked, glancing down at Holly.

It was really no trouble,” she replied, visibly pleased by the Borealan’s reaction. “The Workers in the hive can make simple objects like this far more quickly than you might imagine. After Harry told me that you’d be visiting, I put in a request.”

Liz sat down tentatively, her hesitation evaporating as she sank into the soft padding. Jamie had to stifle a chuckle as he watched her frown melt away. She looked about ready to shed a tear of gratitude.

Harry, would you fetch a pot of tea while I entertain our guests?” Holly asked. She turned back to them as Harry entered the prefab, clasping her lower pair of hands together as she gestured with the upper. “Now then, tell me more about this project of yours...”

They began to explain what had happened so far and their plans for what was to come next, the Ambassador listening quietly. Save for a few nods of her head, she didn’t interrupt their story, waiting patiently for them to finish.

Harry soon returned with a tray of drinks, setting a pot and four cups down on a low coffee table that was made from the same organic resin. Holly began to pour steaming liquid into each one, holding a cup and saucer with her lower pair of hands while clasping the pot in the upper. It was quite mesmerizing, Jamie finding himself transfixed by her dexterity. She passed the first cup to him, and he gave it a sniff. It had an amber hue and a sweet aroma that reminded him of honey, the scent bringing back flashes of what he and Liz had done the night before. He tried to bury those thoughts, taking a cautious sip.

It’s good!” he said, Holly nodding her approval as she passed another cup to Liz. It looked like a toy in her giant hands, but she lifted it to her lips, blowing on it before taking a drink.

What’s in this tea?” Liz asked. “It smells a little like honey, but there’s something...headier about it.”

It’s a kind of honey that we produce in the hive,” she replied. “Don’t worry, it’s quite nutritious.”

Harry joined them in one of the chairs, the four of them watching the breeze blow the fronds and flowers in the garden as they drank. The tranquility was disturbed when Jamie noticed how Holly was drinking, the segments that made up her face splitting open to form a kind of jaw, a tube of azure flesh snaking its way out. The muscular organ dipped into the tea, Jamie realizing that it was a proboscis, the Ambassador drinking through it like a straw. She was able to speak at the same time, confirming his suspicion that her painted lips were just for show.

Nothing like this has ever been attempted before,” she began, leaning forward to set her cup down on the table. “The Jarilans have done extensive gene-editing involving human and Betelgeusian DNA, as you know, but creating a hybrid of two other species opens a whole new realm of science and medicine. This is something that Jarilo can offer the Galaxy, the gift of life, the miracle of conception where none was possible before.”

It’s really good PR,” Harry explained.

Building ships and weapons for the Coalition is one thing,” Holly continued. “Providing troops and labor is helpful, yes, but it’s not tangible to the average citizen in the same way that helping start families or cure diseases is. So many know us only as killers, but through you, we can show the Galaxy that we can give back.”

We want to help, of course,” Liz replied. “We owe you our gratitude. None of this would be possible without the Jarilans.”

We were just a little concerned about, uh...privacy,” Jamie added, trying to find a polite way to phrase it.

Of course, a valid concern,” Holly said as she folded her lower arms neatly in her lap. “I don’t mean to make you the poster children of an advertising campaign, not if you don’t want that. I understand that family life is a private affair, that your children being able to lead a life free of unnecessary prying is a priority. I have a little mammal in me too, you know,” she added with a chuckle. “I do want to support you in your endeavor, however. Know that the full backing of the hive is behind you.”

Thank you,” Jamie said, not really knowing what that entailed.

The UAS will be publishing their work in scientific journals,” Holly continued, “but those are unlikely to reach the general public. I want to spread word of what we’ve accomplished here all the way from Franklin to Valbara. I want discussion of the hybrid children to be on everyone’s lips, including those who have none. I want them to know that this miracle was made possible, in part, by the Jarilans.”

You want credit?” Liz asked.

Only that which we deserve,” Holly replied. “The UAS scientists have played an important role, as have you two. This isn’t about who is responsible for what. I merely want to take full advantage of the opportunity to spread good PR, as Harry so eloquently put it.”

What would we have to do?” Jamie asked. Holly leaned forward, picking up her cup and saucer again, her proboscis snaking forth to suck up another mouthful of tea.

As I said, the UAS reports won’t mean much to the general population. They’re not easily digestible. What will spread across the Galaxy like a virus, however, is more tangible evidence. Pictures of the children, videos, testimonies from their parents and doctors. People need to see that they’re happy, healthy, thriving.”

We don’t want to broadcast our lives to the whole Galaxy,” Liz protested.

I understand that,” Holly continued, the chitinous plates that made up her face closing back up again into a facsimile of a smile. “We would take whatever measures to protect your privacy that you require. Some simple video footage of the kittens sleeping or playing would certainly be adequate. I imagine the sight would melt the hearts of most viewers, and in doing so, make them more sympathetic towards my people.”

I guess that would be okay,” Jamie said, turning to Liz for approval. “Maybe it would help spread the word, let other couples in our situation know that the treatment is available, wherever they might be. I used to think that we were practically alone, but the more I learn, the less that seems to be the case.”

As long as we get the final say in what information gets shared, I approve,” Liz replied. “It’s not for us, you understand,” she added. “There aren’t many aliens living on Earth, we’re used to getting stares, but I want to spare the children as much of that as possible.”

You are planning on returning to Earth, then?” Holly asked. Her antennae waved in the air, the ambassador glancing between the two of them. “I had wondered if you would prefer to raise them on Borealis, as I’m told they’ll most resemble that species.”

Borealis is a harsh place to raise a kid,” Liz replied.

Understandable,” Holly continued, taking another sip from her mug. “Still, they will be somewhat out of place on Earth, would you not agree? You said it yourself, there are few aliens living there.”

I was raised on Earth,” Liz said, crossing her arms confidently. “I got by alright. Besides, the children will have each other. There is safety in the pack.”

You are correct, undoubtedly,” the Bug added. “There is another option, however. You could remain here, if you wished it.”

Remain here?” Jamie repeated, cocking his head at her. “What do you mean?”

Consider the situation on Jarilo,” Holly said, steepling her fingers as she relaxed back into her seat. She lifted one of her long legs, crossing them. “You have seen the children playing in the settlement, have you not? A new generation is growing up in a society where coexistence is the rule rather than the exception. They will never know a world inhabited only by their own kind. We are all interconnected here, both by bonds of cooperation and of blood. We are one hive, one family, one colony.”

She leaned forward in her resin chair, more animated now, gesturing with her four arms as she elaborated.

The next generation of settlers will be raised in an environment where aliens are a fact of life, where the sight of a Drone or a Worker will be unremarkable, and where sharing a classroom with a Borealan kitten would be the status quo. Your children could grow up in a society where they will not suffer prejudice, where they will never face the possibility of being outcasts.”

Wait, you’re proposing that we move to Jarilo permanently?” Liz asked.

You would have all of the space that you require to raise such a large family, naturally,” Holly continued. “We have acres of empty land, you need only pick the location, and our Workers could build you any kind of home that you desired. There’s a large human settlement here, a UAS research base, everything you might need.”

But...what about our jobs?” Jamie asked. “How would we make a living?”

The hive would support you for as long as you wished it,” Holly replied, as though it was the most obvious thing in the world. “We aren’t short on resources. Not to mention the fact that the UN gives rather generous grants to people who decide to relocate to developing colonies. Having you closer means that we could also monitor the health and development of the children more closely,” she added. “We could intervene if anything unexpected happened.”

Jamie and Liz looked at each other, neither one of them really knowing how to respond. It was quite the offer, more than generous, but it had been sprung on them so suddenly.

You will no doubt need time to think it over,” Holly said in a reassuring tone, sensing their hesitation. “Do not feel as though you must give your reply now, or even today. Take your time, it is an important decision.”

Yeah, I think we’ll have to get back to you on that,” Jamie said.

Well then,” she continued, shifting the topic of conversation. “Tell me, how are things on Earth? News can be slow to reach us out here.”

You want to know about Earth?” Liz asked, raising an eyebrow in surprise.

I confess to being rather fascinated,” Holly replied, settling back into her chair. “My aspiration is to visit one day, perhaps when Jarilans are more accepted among the people of the Coalition. We don’t know where the Betelgeusian species originated, and since I have my father’s DNA, that makes Earth the furthest back that I can trace my lineage.”

You’re talking about Walker,” Jamie added, Holly’s antennae bobbing as she nodded her head.

If the Queen is my mother, then he is my father. He provided the genome from which all modern Jarilans are derived. What’s more, he raised me, taught me how to interact with humans so that I could fulfill my purpose as an ambassador.”

He does seem to care a great deal about the hive,” Jamie said. “We met him a couple of days ago while out in the forest, it was practically all he talked about.”

Yes, he’s always off exploring,” she chuckled. “He set down his rifle for good after the war and decided to pursue his passion. He’s an explorer, a scholar, a dedicated naturalist. Needless to say, he is a source of endless inspiration for me. I strive to emulate him, to find common ground between humans and Jarilans, whatever the odds.”

It sounds like you respect him a great deal,” Jamie said, Holly nodding her head.

This place is Walker’s idea of paradise,” Harry added. “He’d probably named half of the species on the continent before the first UAS survey team even arrived. Some of the newer Jarilans who were born after the war revere the guy just like they do the Queen.”

I’ve been meaning to ask,” Jamie continued, turning to the Marine. “Where’s the Krell from last night? You guys seemed to be joined at the hip, but I haven’t seen him around. Does he live in the settlement?”

Nah, he comes and goes as he pleases,” Harry replied with a shrug. “He’s kind of like a giant cat. Whenever he gets any time off, he usually wanders off into the woods to find a nice muddy riverbed to bask in. That’s his idea of a relaxin’ afternoon.”

Isn’t he worried about what might be lurking out there?” Jamie wondered, sparing a glance at the edge of the forest beyond the garden.

He’s a Krell,” Harry chuckled, “he’s practically indestructible. Save for a tree fallin’ on him, I doubt anythin’ on the planet could even scratch him.”

So, Hollyhock,” Liz began. “What did you want to know about Earth?”

***

Jamie and Liz made their way back to the settlement, the rays of the setting sun shining through the leaves of the towering trees. Harry had offered to drive them back, but they knew the road well at this point, and the hike would give them time to talk about Holly’s proposal.

She makes a good case,” Jamie said, his boots squelching in the mud. He could see the tire tracks that the truck had left on the way there.

Of course she makes a good case, she was genetically engineered to be persuasive,” Liz replied as she strode along beside him. “Her offer was generous, I’ll give her that, but concern for the welfare of our future family isn’t her only motivation. I get the feeling she wants us on Jarilo so that she can have easier access to us for photoshoots, so that she can monitor the development of our kids without having to go through the UAS as a middleman.”

What about raising the kids on a planet where aliens are the norm?” Jamie asked. “Liz, you used to get picked on so much when we were younger. Every other day you were coming to me in tears because someone was making fun of you for the way you looked.”

You used to be my little protector,” she chuckled, reaching down to ruffle his blonde hair affectionately. “You were the bane of bullies everywhere.”

Surely those were bad experiences?” he continued, straightening his hair. “If we can spare the kids that same level of bullying, should we not do it?”

You talk as though bullying doesn’t happen between humans,” she chuckled, leaping over a root. “I was targeted because I was different, yeah, but bullying is something that can happen to anyone. If it wasn’t my tail or my ears, it might have been braces or acne. Children are cruel, they’ll single each other out for the most minor things. My bullying isn’t something that I dwell on.”

You don’t think they’d have a better chance here than on Earth?” Jamie asked. “They’d be growing up in a multi-species society, possibly the first of its kind, as far as I know.”

I like Jarilo,” Liz replied. “I like the people here, but I like Earth more. I fought hard to make it back there. People on Earth will never become more accepting of aliens if we just leave. People like us have to be a part of that process. You and I, we’re living proof that humans and aliens can coexist, and I want other people to see that. I want our kids to embody that message, I want them to go out and befriend humans, maybe fall in love with them if that’s what they want. And if they want to go to Borealis and meet other Borealans, they can do that too.”

Even if it’s harder on them?”

I don’t think there’s a sure way to protect them from the realities of the world, Jamie,” she replied. “I think our job is to prepare them, not to shield them. Besides, I grew up on Earth, and I like the person I became.”

I do, too,” he replied with a smile. “What about the space?” he continued, traipsing through a knee-high patch of ferns that were spilling out into the road. “Having unlimited room to grow is a lot more attractive than trying to raise five kids in our pokey apartment.”

Yeah,” she conceded, “we were only planning for one...”

We could have a house like the one you grew up in, we could have a garden, we could have a full-blown playground if we ask the Bugs to build one for us.”

It sounds like you’re arguing pretty strongly in favor of staying,” Liz said, glancing down at him. “Do you think we should take them up on their offer?”

I didn’t say that,” he replied hastily, “I just want to consider all of our options. Let’s break it down into pros and cons. As much real estate as we need is a pro, living in a society that’s already comfortable with aliens, the big grant we’d get from the UN for settling. Then we have the cons. Leaving behind everything we know, our friends and families, our jobs.”

Potentially being political pawns for the Jarilans,” Liz added.

I don’t think their motives are quite that sinister,” Jamie protested. “Everyone has been so kind to us.”

They don’t need to have bad intentions to take advantage of us,” Liz replied. “I want to help them, of course. I meant what I said when I told Hollyhock that we’d cooperate with her project. I just worry that she’ll place the reputation of the Jarilans above the welfare of our kids, and from her perspective, why shouldn’t she? Weighing the importance of one family against the lives of thousands, what other conclusion could she come to?”

I see what you mean,” Jamie conceded. “On the other hand, if journalists get wind of us, they’ll have a much harder time pestering us out in the middle of the Jarilan woods.”

I think we’ll be alright,” she replied, baring her sharp teeth in a grin. The implication wasn’t lost on him. The sight of an angry Borealan would be enough to send most Paparazzi packing. “We can talk more about it, if you think we should stay,” she added. “I don’t want to railroad you.”

No, I think you’re right,” he continued. “We were perfectly happy going back to Earth before Holly made her offer. Besides, it’s home. I’m not exactly close with my parents, but that doesn’t mean I want to be sixty light-years away from any blood relatives.”

I don’t have much of a choice when it comes to mine,” Liz chuckled. “Visiting isn’t exactly easy when a round trip takes a year.”

You said you wanted to take the kids there one day, though? To learn what it means to be a Borealan, like you did when you were younger?”

One day,” she replied with a nod. “And don’t think I’m gonna let you stay behind.”

Hey, I’m a genuine space explorer now.”

Of course, how could I forget,” she giggled.

We’ve got time to think about it, anyway,” Jamie added. “Speaking of which, what are we going to do while we wait for the eggs to start maturing in the lab? Sousa said it would take four or five days, right?”

Guess we have some vacation time,” she replied with a shrug.

***

The next few days passed quickly. There wasn’t a whole lot to do on Jarilo besides hike and drink, which is what Liz and Jamie spent a lot of their time doing. It tuned out that Harry and Blackjack were frequent visitors to the bar, so it became somewhat of a routine for Jamie to play them at poker, every game of which he lost to the perpetually-grinning reptile.

They visited Holly’s homestead a couple more times, too, both to socialize and to discuss her ideas in greater detail. She seemed disappointed when they told her that they were declining her offer to stay on Jarilo, but she didn’t press the issue.

As they had suspected, the Marine and the Ambassador were bunking together. The pair were rarely apart. They let slip shows of affection when they thought they weren’t being observed, as though they could scarcely stand to keep their hands off each other for the duration of the visit. Why they found it necessary to conceal their relationship in the presence of another inter-species couple, Jamie wasn’t quite sure. Maybe it was something to do with Harry’s official position as Holly’s bodyguard. Still, there was something oddly endearing about the way that they would sneak off to whisper and paw at one another like schoolkids behind the bike sheds.

The big day finally came, and Sousa called them back to the lab, where he showed them blown-up images of the microscopic eggs that Liz had donated.

As you can see,” he began, gesturing to the monitor as Jamie and Liz looked on. “The eggs were successfully fertilized under lab conditions, and cell division has begun. At this stage, everything looks perfectly healthy, and we have no reason to postpone the procedure.”

So, the next step is to transplant the eggs into me?” Liz asked.

That’s correct,” Sousa replied, turning back to face them as the flickering light from the screen silhouetted him. “We’ll be taking the fertilized eggs and implanting them into your uterine wall. The procedure is very simple, and it’s non-invasive. We give you a mild sedative, then take a long catheter, inserting it into the uterus by way of the vaginal canal. Once that’s done, we take a syringe containing the embryos and some suspension fluid and inject them through the tube. It’s fast and painless, and the chance of complications is statistically insignificant. Once that’s done, our job will be over. There won’t be any more poking and prodding, aside from the occasional checkup to monitor the development of the embryos. You’ll be responsible for carrying them to term under your own power.”

There’s one thing I wanted to ask,” Liz said. “What’s the timetable for returning to Earth? Borealan pregnancy lasts about eight months, and it will take at least four to get back home.”

We’ll want to observe you here, at least for the first few weeks,” Sousa explained. “It’s important to make sure that the embryos take. Truth be told, that first month is crucial. That’s the period when your body is most likely to reject the implanted eggs. It’s a possibility that you should prepare yourselves for, as unlikely as we believe it to be. Know that if something goes wrong, we can simply start over. It’s not the end of the world.”

We should stay for another month, then?” Jamie asked.

The ideal window for travel is between your second and sixth month of pregnancy,” Sousa replied. “You don’t want to leave it too late, either. You’re going to get heavy, and you’ll find that your mobility will be greatly decreased. James is going to have his work cut out for him.”

And, if something goes wrong once we’ve left?” Liz asked.

You’ll be on a UAS ship for four months, and once you get back to Earth, we’ll have people monitoring you as per the agreement.”

Jamie had almost forgotten that this entire venture was basically an experiment funded by the United Academy of Sciences. The organization’s involvement wasn’t going to end once they stepped off the Magellan at the American Terminus station.

When can we start?” Liz asked, her prior eagerness returning.

I see no reason we can’t schedule the procedure for tomorrow,” Sousa replied.

***

Liz waited until they had left the lab, then caught Jamie in her arms, spinning him around as she let slip a cry of glee.

This is it!” she exclaimed, practically vibrating with excitement as she set him back down. “No more tests, no more waiting. I’m finally going to have babies growing in my belly!”

I can’t believe we’re finally here,” Jamie said, dusting himself off as she grinned down at him. “It feels like it’s taken us forever. To think that a regular couple could do this by accident if they got drunk and forgot to use protection one night.”

I think that makes it all the more meaningful,” she replied, a spring in her step as they made their way back to their prefab. “Some children are accidents, some are planned, but we had to fight tooth and claw to conceive. They couldn’t be more wanted.”

I guess it’s kind of romantic when you put it like that,” he said, Liz smiling at him.

Come on,” she added, taking him by the hand. “We should celebrate the occasion.”

Are we going to the bar?” he asked, having to jog to keep up with her long strides.

I was thinking we could do a little roleplay,” she chuckled, giving him a sly glance. “If I’m gonna be a mommy tomorrow, I want to feel like I’ve earned it...”

***

The procedure went by without a hitch, and Liz left the lab a short time later, no worse for wear.

Sousa says that I should take it easy for a few days,” she said, Jamie taking her hand as she descended the metal steps. “He told me that my estrogen levels are going to spike, so my boobs might get sore.”

Why do you sound so excited about having sore boobs?” Jamie chuckled.

Because it means it’s really happening!” she replied. “Hot flashes, weird cravings, morning sickness. My body will be switching gears into baby mode, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

Did Sousa say when you’d start to show?” he added, glancing at her belly. He couldn’t see anything beneath her jacket, but the idea of that flat, muscular midriff inflating like a balloon was at once odd and fascinating.

Probably not until after we leave Jarilo,” she replied. “He said about twelve weeks. I guess I have to start thinking about time in terms of trimesters now,” she continued with a nervous giggle. “The clock is ticking.”

***

The next day, Liz and Jamie were surprised by an unexpected visit from Holly and her entourage. The truck pulled up near the prefab, Harry holding the door open for her as she stepped out, Blackjack dropping down out of the flatbed with a splash of mud. They made their way to the door, Jamie opening it to greet them.

I’m told that Lizka underwent her final procedure yesterday,” Holly began, standing at the foot of the metal steps with her lower pair of hands clasped nearly in front of her. “I thought I might drop by to give her my well-wishes.”

Oh, of course,” Jamie replied as he moved aside. “Please, come in.”

Holly stepped into their prefab on her long legs, taking a moment to wipe her dainty feet on the doormat. Her antennae bobbed in the air as she turned her head, examining the interior. Harry came in after her, taking off his muddy boots, while Blackjack poked his massive head through the doorway.

Probably better if you stay outside, buddy,” Harry advised. The Krell rumbled in what might be agreement, then withdrew, standing guard outside the building. He didn’t even need a weapon, the mere presence of such a creature would probably be enough to deter any would-be troublemakers.

Liz rose from her seat on the couch to greet the visitors, Holly’s feathery antennae waving as she neared, almost as if she was scenting the feline.

The medical staff at the hive informed me that the embryos have been successfully implanted,” Holly began, smiling up at Liz. At about five feet, Holly was a good three feet shorter than the Borealan, her tiara-like horn barely at chest-height.

Yep,” Liz replied, patting her belly. “I’m officially pregnant now.”

How are you feeling?” Holly asked.

Fine,” Liz said with a shrug. “My chest is getting a little sore, but Doctor Sousa told me to expect that.”

May I?” Holly asked, gesturing to her antennae. Liz looked confused, not really knowing what she wanted, but replied with a curt nod. The insect raised her antennae, brushing the appendages against Liz’s face.

What are you doing?” Jamie wondered, watching Liz resist the urge to pull away as the fine hairs tickled her skin.

We Jarilans are very sensitive to pheromones,” she explained. “You’re glowing, Lizka,” she added as her face plates arranged into a warm smile. “I can sense the hormonal changes in your body. Your scent is different now, somehow motherly...”

Liz didn’t really know how to respond, but she treated it as a compliment, returning the insect’s smile.

It’s only been a day,” she chuckled. “Is it already so obvious?”

Your body is adapting itself to the new life that’s growing inside you,” Holly added, glancing down at her belly. “So many of its functions are shifting, changing, reshaping themselves. As a creature born from an egg, I find the process of mammalian reproduction...fascinating.”

What about you?” Jamie asked, Holly turning her pink eyes to him.

Whatever do you mean?” she asked, reaching up to clean one of her furry antennae with her fleshy fingers.

I mean, can you reproduce? You’re part human, right?”

Harry’s face reddened, while Holly seemed flustered. It was the first time that he had seen her struggle to formulate a reply since they had met.

The Queen usually deals with matters of reproduction,” she said, straightening her gossamer skirt as she regained her usual composure. “The castes are capable of reproduction in an emergency, when the Queen cannot replenish the hive’s numbers alone. That was before, however,” she added. “I confess that...I have not broached the subject with her. I would assume that those same contingencies still exist in the Jarilans.”

I just wish we’d get to see the kittens when they’re born,” Harry said, changing the subject. “Never seen a baby Borealan before. Can’t even look up pictures out here, there’s no intranet set up yet.”

Yes, it’s unfortunate that you decided to return to Earth,” Holly added. “I would have loved to see them.”

Don’t worry,” Liz replied. “We’ll be sending you plenty of pictures and videos for your project.”

Do you guys want something to drink?” Jamie asked.

Sure,” Harry said. “We shouldn’t stay for too long, though. BJ’s gonna get bored.”

***

The next few weeks were uneventful. Jamie and Liz had settled into their routine, and just like living on the Magellan during their journey to Jarilo, they quickly adapted to this new lifestyle. Neither of them had had this much free time since high school, and they spent a lot of it socializing.

The bar was the community center of the settlement. Everyone seemed to pass through there, and there was plenty of opportunity for conversation. Jamie was interested in learning where the people had come from and what their motivations were for making the move. Some said that the allure of a pristine, Earth-like planet was too much to turn down, especially when combined with the UN grant program. Others were escaping problems back home, debt being something that was often brought up. More than a few people had used their grants to pay off loans before relocating. Jamie was surprised by how willing people were to share the details of their lives, even without the tongue-loosening effects of the alcohol. The settlers here had been reborn, in a sense. They had left their problems light-years behind them, so it was almost like they were talking about a completely different person.

One settler in particular had an interesting story. He had once been a high-flying investment banker back on Earth, but a messy divorce had drained him of his assets, and he had gone from living in an executive suite in a high-rise to a dilapidated apartment in a bad part of town. After declaring bankruptcy and fearing that he might not be able to afford rent, he had seen an ad for the UN’s settlement program. With the money, he had been able to move to Jarilo and start a completely new life, enrolling in a program to learn how to manage a farm. It was almost impossible to believe that a man who had once sipped champagne from crystal flutes at the top of the world could find contentment in working the land, yet here he was. He had remarried and now had a kid on the way to boot.

Another was a woman from Io who had grown up in the colony’s labyrinthine tunnels, where poverty was still a very real problem. Jamie knew little of the Jovian system save for what he had learned in school. It had been colonized by The People’s Republic of China shortly before the nation’s collapse and subsequent breakup following the Sino-American war. The colonies had been quick to declare their independence, laying claim to the rich natural resources in the gas giant’s influence.

The people who lived on Io dwelt beneath the surface in an extensive network of lava tubes and artificial tunnels that protected them from Jupiter’s harsh radiation storms, some of the underground caverns large enough to contain small cities. Its inhabitants would never have tasted fresh air, never have seen a tree or a bird, never have drunk water that hadn’t been reprocessed and filtered a thousand times.

The woman in question had been able to escape via a lottery system run by the UN, and she had been relocated to Jarilo, which was a paradise compared to where she had once lived. She told Jamie that looking up at the sky still gave her vertigo sometimes, as she had never known a life without a ceiling or a cave above her head. Consistent gravity was also an oddity, as AG field coverage in the tunnels was spotty at best. Her job on Io had been maintaining hydroponic systems, and she continued that work on Jarilo.

Even the Bugs that occasionally visited the settlement to help out and bring in supplies were happy to talk with him, eager to socialize with humans. Their lives were far less complex than those of the colonists, but they still answered his questions, talking about life in the hive. The Workers were eager to tell him about how the massive, subterranean complex was expanding deeper into the valley, and how they were building a tether up in orbit that would eventually lay the foundations for a shipyard where vessels would be built for the Navy.

The few Drones that he encountered spoke of their desire to serve in the Coalition as auxiliaries, to fulfill the colony’s obligations to the alliance by fighting alongside the humans who they saw as their cousins. Their desire for combat was not born of bloodlust or malice, but rather a sense of duty and a desire to protect their territory.

Liz still wasn’t showing any signs of pregnancy, her stomach just as flat and as taut as it had always been. She complained of a soreness in her breasts, but that was to be expected, as the glands were gearing up to produce milk for the babies. So far, there had been no hormone-induced mood swings and no odd food cravings. They continued to see Sousa and his team regularly, who monitored the health of the embryos, informing them that they were developing normally. With every day that passed, the chance of Liz’s body rejecting the babies and causing a miscarriage lessened, and they could sleep a little easier.

CHAPTER 8: TRANSPLANT

The day had finally arrived. They had spent enough time planetside for Sousa and the Jarilan doctors to be satisfied that the IVF treatment was a complete success, and the green light was given for them to head home. A message was sent up to the Magellan, which had been performing surveys of the planet during the wait, and another shuttle was arranged to take them back up into orbit. Jamie and Liz packed their things and prepared to say their goodbyes, but Holly beat them to the punch. She arrived at their door with Harry and Blackjack at her side, but this time, there was a whole entourage of Workers in tow.

I came to bid you farewell,” she said as she stepped into their prefab, eyeing the bags that they had piled up beside the couch. “It has been a pleasure, and I will sorely miss your visits.”

We’ll miss you, too,” Liz replied. “I can’t thank you enough for everything that the Jarilans have done for us. Without your help, none of this would have been possible,” she added as one of her furry hands moved to her stomach. “A year ago, the prospect of being a mother was a dream, but you helped make it a reality.”

Tell Nightingale and the other doctors that we’re grateful for their help,” Jamie said.

I will pass on the message,” she replied, so formal as she stood there with both pairs of hands clasped in front of her. “I brought you something,” she added, gesturing to the door. One of the workers made its way up the steps, a resin crate the size of a footlocker clutched in its powerful upper arms. It set the container on the carpet, then flipped the lid open, Holly reaching down to pluck something from within. It was a transparent container full of amber fluid, about the size of a large tube of toothpaste. “A parting gift,” she explained. “Our Repletes formulated this nutrient paste specifically for Borealan kittens. It contains everything they need to grow strong and healthy. Mother’s milk is best, of course, but this will be of great use to you when the time comes to wean them.”

Wow, I don’t know what to say,” Liz stammered as she peered down at the crate. It looked like a treasure chest full of gold. “How much of this did you make?”

Enough to last you a good while,” she replied. Jamie leaned over a little to get a look past her, seeing that there were at least ten crates of the stuff. “I’d give you more, but the shuttle wouldn’t be able to carry it,” she added.

If you ever make it to Earth, you’ll have to come visit us,” Jamie said.

I’d like that very much,” she replied with a smile. “May we help you with your bags?” she added, glancing at the pile.

Oh, sure,” Jamie replied. With a wave of her hand, more Workers filed into the room, collecting bags from the pile. Jamie felt a little bad for them, he and Liz hardly needed a team of porters, but the squat Bugs were so paradoxically strong for their size that they hardly seemed to mind.

The group made their way towards the landing pad on the outskirts of the settlement, finding the rickety old shuttle waiting for them, its engines idling. The Workers began to load the luggage and the resin crates into the cargo hold as the surly pilot looked on, muttering quietly to himself in disapproval.

Sousa came to see them off, along with a few of his staff members, Liz and Jamie thanking them profusely for their part in the project.

I have to mirror the Ambassador’s sentiment,” Sousa said, watching as the last of the crates was loaded onto the shuttle. “I’m sorry to see you go. I would have liked to deliver the litter myself, but I understand that you have a narrow window to safely make it back to Earth. All I can do now is wish you the best of luck.”

They said their final farewells to the friends that they had made during their stay on Jarilo, knowing that they would likely never have an opportunity to see them again. It was an odd feeling, leaving behind such a pristine, alien world. What awaited them was the normalcy of Earth, with no friendly Jarilans, and no continent-spanning forests. Not for the first time, Jamie wondered if they had made the right decision in choosing to go back.

Good luck,” Harry said, taking Jamie by the hand and giving it a vigorous shake. “If I know anything about Borealans, you’re gonna need it.”

Blackjack leaned down, a massive head almost as long as Jamie was tall descending from above. His fearsome, jutting teeth belied his gentle nature, the great creature loosing a low rumble that shook Jamie’s bones as he thrust his scaly snout into his hand. Jamie pet him as he would a dog, feeling the rough, overlapping scales beneath his fingers. The Krell’s hide was cool and leathery, the alien closing his yellow eyes contentedly as Jamie patted his nose.

Blackjack says goodbye,” Harry added, smirking at the sight.

Jamie and Liz turned, making their way up the cargo bay ramp, pausing to wave to the small crowd that had assembled beside the landing pad as it began to close. Jamie took one last breath of fresh, Jarilan air, watching the last sliver of sunlight fade as the bulkhead sealed.

Is that a tear in your eye, Liz?” he asked as he glanced up at her. She wiped it away with the back of her furry hand, composing herself.

It’s just my hormones,” she replied, rather unconvincingly.

Strap yourselves in,” the pilot called from the cockpit. “I’m on a timetable here, I can’t wait around all day.”

They sat down in the crash couches that lined the walls of the bay, fastening their harnesses tightly, their haul of crates secured to the deck by mesh netting. The floor beneath Jamie’s feet began to vibrate, his stomach lurching with the motion of the vessel lifting off, a rumbling sound reverberating as the landing gear retracted. The main engines roared, and with that, the green forests of Jarilo were left far behind them.

***

Captain Cassidy was waiting for them on the other side of the Magellan’s airlock as they left the long umbilical, a broad smile on her weathered face as she welcomed them aboard with a firm handshake. A few of the other crew were there, too, offering to help them with the bags that they were carrying.

So, a little birdie down at the UAS outpost tells me that your procedure was a success,” she said as she appraised the pair. They didn’t even need to reply, their grins told her everything that she needed to know. “Congratulations,” she added, giving Jamie an enthusiastic pat on the arm. “You two are gonna have to give me all the details over a drink once we get underway. You got anything else that needs bringing off the shuttle?”

I’m afraid we returned with far more cargo than we left with,” Liz replied.

You two have had a long journey, go take a load off,” Cassidy insisted. “I’ll have my guys bring the rest of your gear aboard.” Liz began to protest, but the Captain wasn’t having any of it. “I’ll not have an expectant mother carting cargo around on my ship, even if she could bench press most of the men on my crew,” she added. “My ship, my rules.”

Yes, Captain,” Liz replied with a smile.

Your quarters are as you left them,” she added. “And, welcome back.”

***

The sounds and smells of sizzling bacon filled the galley as Liz prepared breakfast, tossing an egg in her pan, the half-dozen crew who were sitting around the dining table looking on hungrily. She had resumed her role as the ship’s cook, liberating its denizens from the monotony of packaged meals once more. Jamie was helping out, carrying a plate stacked high with bacon, eggs, and sausages over to them, the scientists and engineers digging in.

She watched them eat with a smile on her face, spatula in hand, Jamie pulling up a chair to join them.

I thought we were going to starve to death without you two around,” Sarris said, taking as large a bite of his sausage as his mouth could accommodate. “Now I can look forward to another four months of good eating.”

You can say that again,” Bradley added, sliding a fried egg onto his plate. “One more microwave-ready meal, and I was gonna take a short walk out of an airlock.”

What was in all those plastic containers we brought onboard yesterday?” Higgins asked, the engineer pausing to chew on a rind of crunchy bacon.

Resin, not plastic,” Jamie replied as he reached over to grab a salt shaker from the middle of the table. “The Bugs on Jarilo make it. They were full of baby formula.”

Really?” Higgins said, raising an eyebrow. “That must be a hell of a lot of formula.”

Well, we’re having a hell of a lot of babies,” Liz added as she made her way over to them. She sat down on the floor at the head of the table, piling her plate with fried meat.

How many is a hell of a lot?” Jessie asked, Liz flashing her a toothy grin.

Five.”

Five!” Higgins exclaimed, almost choking on his bacon. “Fuck me, why are you having five kids?”

Borealans reproduce in litters,” Jessie explained. “One pregnancy could result in five, six, or even seven kittens.”

Higgins gave Jamie a sympathetic look across the table, resuming his breakfast without further comment.

I still can’t believe you managed to pull it off,” Jessie continued, the biochemist practically shivering with anticipation at the prospect of discussing the experiment in detail. “We downloaded all of Doctor Sousa’s data before we jumped away, and I can’t wait to sink my teeth into it. What was it like?”

Standard IVF treatment, for the most part,” Liz replied. “At least, according to Doctor Sousa. The strangest part was the gene-editing, which required some Jarilan tech.”

What kind of tech?” she asked.

It looked like someone had hooked up a cow’s stomach to a bank of computers,” Jamie replied, Jessie grimacing at the mental image. “It was this big, pulsating organ that the Jarilans told us came from a Betelgeusian Queen.”

They grew it artificially,” Liz added. “It didn’t actually come from a Queen.”

Yeah,” Jamie continued with a nod. “So, this organ could sequence DNA, and it could also map out the relationships between genes somehow. That was what got Sousa and his team so excited. The Bugs hooked the thing up to the server racks, just plugged it into the network like it was a storage drive.”

It could actually determine the functions of the genes?” she asked, her eyes widening as she poised with a piece of sausage on the end of her fork.

And how they interacted with one another,” Liz added.

Now I really want to get a look at those files,” Jessie chuckled.

What are the babies going to look like?” Sarris asked.

Pretty much exactly like Liz,” Jamie explained. “They spliced in as many of my genes into the mix as they could, but it’s better to have the children resemble the mother. Makes the pregnancy safer.”

Sarris, you’re not eating enough,” Liz said as she shoveled another helping of bacon and eggs onto the confused man’s plate. “Have a little more, it’ll help put some meat on those bones.”

She lay her head in her furry hand, watching the crew eat with a satisfied smile. Liz had enjoyed cooking for them on the way to Jarilo, but never to this extent. After a few minutes, she slapped her palms on the table, getting everyone’s attention as she rose to her feet.

Who wants dessert? I feel like making some pancakes. Jamie, fetch me some butter and syrup, would you?”

He did as she asked, glancing back at the table, where there was still a very sizable spread of food. Pancakes weren’t exactly a dessert, the crew would probably struggle to eat what she had already cooked for them, but there was a spring in her step as she returned to the stove. Before long, she was flipping pancakes, her tail waving back and forth as she piled them high on a tray on the counter beside her. She was going all-out, adding chocolate chips to the batter, slathering them in butter and syrup. One of the cupboards had been hiding a can of strawberries, which she was happily cutting into slices. They weren’t farm fresh, but so deep in space, having fruit of any kind was a rare treat.

She soon returned to the table with her haul of pancakes, watching contentedly as the crew took some rather conservative servings. Not satisfied with their lack of appetite, she encouraged them to eat more, Sarris looking to Jamie in a silent plea for help as she piled his plate six inches high with melted butter and chocolate.

I made them human-sized,” she said, “so don’t be shy if you want seconds.”

The crew were soon full to bursting, only Jessie able to resist the allure of the pancakes. Rather than the hearty breakfast getting them ready for the day, most of them looked ready to go straight back to bed. Liz was finally satisfied, Jamie giving her a sideways glance.

When they had all filed out of the room, he joined Liz in loading the dishwasher, carrying over a stack of plates.

Are you feeling alright?” he asked. She seemed happy, beaming as she slotted the cutlery into the racks, but he wasn’t sure how else to phrase his question.

I feel fine,” she chimed, hitting the touch panel on the machine with her padded finger as she set the cycle going. She stood up, planting her hands on her hips, peering down at him curiously. “Why do you ask?”

I just think you might have given Sarris refeeding syndrome with all those pancakes.”

She put a hand to her mouth, chuckling to herself.

Don’t you think he looks thin?”

A little,” Jamie conceded. “Just go a little easier on the portions next time, or we’re all gonna put on fifty pounds by the time we reach Earth.”

***

Liz lifted her shirt over her head, reaching up to cup one of her breasts, wincing as she gave it a gentle squeeze. Jamie watched from their nest of cushions and sheets, stifling a yawn as she examined herself in front of the wall-length mirror in their quarters.

They’re getting so heavy,” she grumbled. “I swear I’ve gone up a bra size already. I’m just glad I’m not on Borealis right now. Another thirty-percent gravity would really be a kick in the teeth.”

But you never wear a bra,” Jamie replied.

Do they look bigger to you?” she asked, turning towards him. She was being clinical about it, but seeing her standing there topless as she fondled a pair of breasts larger than his head in her hands, it was hard to be objective.

I mean...they’ve always been big,” he replied. “Maybe I should examine them more closely...”

You’re used to being rough with me,” she began, covering them up protectively. “But I’m super tender right now, so you’d better treat me like I’m made of glass.

If it’s really that uncomfortable, we can just abstain for a while,” he replied with a shrug. “I’m not gonna die if I go a few weeks without sex.”

Liz let one of her breasts fall, lifting a curved claw to her lips, chewing on its sharp tip hesitantly as she considered. The flush in her cheeks betrayed the salacious thoughts that were racing through her mind.

Let’s not go that far,” she replied. “Truth be told, with all these hormonal changes, I’ve been feeling kind of...squirmy.”

Squirmy?” he chuckled.

Sousa told me that there would be increased blood flow, that I might see some minor swelling, but it’s made me really sensitive. I feel like if I just touch myself down there, I’m gonna pop. I read that sex is supposed to help ease discomfort, too,she added. “It releases a chemical called oxytocin.”

Well, if it’s about releasing oxytocin, I guess I have no choice. Strictly for medical purposes, of course,” he joked.

Alright, smart-ass,” she replied with a smirk. “Put those dull fingers to use, and be gentle with me. I’ve never had to worry about you being rough before, but I’ve never felt so...fragile.”

Jamie watched her strip off the rest of her clothes, then she lowered herself into the nest beside him, shifting her weight to get comfortable. She lay on her back, gravity spreading her ample breasts, Liz opening her legs almost nervously as she waited for him to take the initiative. This new fragility lit a fire in him. Even when they were teenagers, Liz had always been tough, and she was a downright tank after returning from Borealis. She was five-hundred-pounds and eight feet of almost pure muscle, she could have wrestled a Siberian tiger into submission, but she was now so sensitive that his merest touch made her shiver.

Her green eyes tracked his hand as he slowly reached for her breast, gently cupping it. She gasped, the motion making her flesh quiver, Jamie weighing it in his palm. It really did feel larger, heavier, even if only by a little. He was familiar enough with her breasts that even a small change would be obvious to him. He let the wobbling globe’s weight sink his fingers a little deeper, Liz gritting her teeth.

Does it hurt?” he asked, glancing up at her beet-red face. “I’m trying to be as gentle as I can.”

I...I dunno,” she murmured, rubbing her powerful thighs together.

You don’t know?” he chuckled.

It’s like all my wires are crossed,” she replied. “It’s sore, but it feels kind of good. K-keep going...”

He did as she asked, starting to massage her breast with tentative strokes, bringing his other hand to bear as he struggled to wrangle the weighty mass of fat. Liz squirmed in the sheets, her entire body seeming to move in time with his gentle kneading, her face contorting into an expression that could have been either delight or discomfort.

Use your words, Liz.”

Don’t stop,” she hissed through gritted teeth. “It’s feeling better the more you do it.”

His eyes turned to her nipple, as engorged as he had ever seen it, standing up like a fleshy tent peg. As he gave it a slow lick, Liz loosed a sharp gasp, her spine rising from the sheets in a perfect arch.

Ah!” she wailed, her cry tapering into a shuddering sigh.

Fuck, is it really that sensitive?” Jamie asked.

Mhmm,” she mumbled, nodding her head.

Do you want me to keep-”

I said don’t stop, didn’t I?” she interrupted.

Yes, Ma’am,” he said, pursing his lips around her nipple. It was so swollen that he felt like he was sucking on the tip of someone’s finger. He slowly painted it with his tongue, being as careful as he could manage, abstaining from his usual pinching. Tremors rolled through Liz’s toned body with every glance, her toes clawing at the sheets, her thighs pressed tightly together.

Oh my God,” she muttered, half a sigh and half a nervous giggle. “I’ve never felt like I could get off just from having you mess with my boobs before. It’s like my whole body is a live wire.”

Maybe we should get you knocked up more often,” he replied, pausing his mouthing for a moment.

Don’t tempt me,” she added with a sultry chuckle, tapering off into a low moan as he returned his lips to the tender nub of flesh. He delighted in the way that she jumped and twitched as he circled it with his tongue, so much more responsive than usual, like a puppet dancing on the end of its strings.

He slid a hand down her belly, still taut and firm, feeling her chiseled abs twitch with anticipation as he neared her mound. As he slipped his fingers between her thighs, they began to shake, the lightest touch of his digits enough to make her buck. Jamie glanced down, seeing that her lips were swollen with arousal, her clitoris protruding from beneath its hood as though begging for his attention. The way that her slick juices made her loins gleam under the dim lights of their quarters made them look sore and needy.

I guess this is that increased blood flow you mentioned,” he muttered.

I feel like I’m on fire,” she grumbled, her breathing growing shallow as she glanced down at his hand. “Be gentle...”

Jamie lowered his hand, cupping her puffy loins, feeling their feverish heat against his palm. He applied just a little pressure, her clitoris pressing into his skin, Liz starting to shake again as he began to rub. She quickly began to grind against his hand, desperate for more stimulation. He dared to slide two fingers inside her, feeling the muscles in her depths grip him tightly, twitching around his digits. It really did feel like a live current was being run through her body. She couldn’t keep still, even for a moment.

F-fuck, Jamie,” she growled. “Hurry up, g-get me off. I can’t take much more of this.”

He started to move his fingers, curling them against the roof of her spasming passage as he had done so many times. She responded far more strongly than she ever had before, sweat already coating her dusky skin in a shining layer, her hips bucking into the air as she tried to fuck his hand.

Liz had to bite her fist to stifle a cry as he returned his lips to her nipple, drawing it into his mouth, swirling his tongue around it as she dug herself deeper into the pile of blankets with her writhing. He mouthed and sucked, his hand moving between her thighs, Liz covering her face with her furry mitts as she lifted her butt from the deck with his every stroke.

God,” she mumbled, her voice muffled. “I’m c-close, k-keep it...” She could barely formulate a sentence, as though she had suddenly developed a stutter, her plea tapering off into an incoherent series of quiet yelps and groans.

Jamie upped his pace, feeling her drooling loins clench around his fingers, her contractions coming thick and fast. He rubbed the ball of his hand against the firm bud of her clitoris, his teasing circles sending her tumbling over the edge. It felt like her burning, sodden flesh was vibrating, her hips rising from the nest again as she fucked the air reflexively. Beads of sweat glistened as they welled on her skin, the taut muscles of her abdomen flexing with each tremor that rocked her, Liz reaching down to push his hand away as though the stimulation had suddenly become too much to stand.

He withdrew, a sagging strand of her juices dangling from his wet fingers, his heart racing as she watched the orgasm tear through her. Liz had never gotten off this quickly before, never this hard, not without building her up for a while first. Her athletic form was on display, her muscles bulging, the soft parts of her feminine figure quivering as her shuddering climax rolled over her in pitiless waves.

Panting, dripping with sweat and fluids, she finally collapsed into the sheets. She was exhausted, still trembling, her eyes unfocused as they stared vacantly at the ceiling above.

Liz?” Jamie asked. “You good?”

Feels better,” she sighed, breaking out into a giddy grin. “So much better...”

Are you still sore?”

A little,” she replied, starting to come around now. “But it’s mostly gone now. Feels kind of like...loosening a knot during a back massage, y’know? It hurts, but it hurts...good.”

I’ve never seen you like this before,” he chuckled, realizing that he was just as red in the face as she was. “Not even when we were horny teenagers.”

I guess it’s the hormones making me crazy,” she replied, giggling again. “If that’s the case, then sanity is overrated.”

***

Jamie and Liz found themselves in the Magellan’s cargo bay during their search for more ingredients for one of Liz’s recipes. The room extended up through two decks, the walls piled high with storage crates and cargo containers. Jamie felt like he was standing in some kind of warehouse or factory, craning his neck as he looked up at the ceiling high above. Unlike the rest of the ship, which had been designed to be relatively comfortable, there were no whitewashed walls or blue carpets here. It was all exposed metal and structural supports, the walls lined with gantries that were accessible from each deck, allowing the crew to reach the higher containers like some kind of industrial library. The floor was painted with yellow warning strips, presumably denoting where whatever machinery that would load and unload the cargo would operate. Some of these containers were far too big to fit inside the airlock, so Jamie surmised that the deck or perhaps one of the walls would open up to allow for larger objects to be passed through.

Bradley, the requisitions officer, was off in one corner of the bay. He was stacking some smaller crates by hand, unloading them from a wheeled cart. His job was managing the cargo on the ship and keeping track of their resources. If someone wanted something that wasn’t in the kitchen or in one of the vending machines, they had to go through him.

Hey, Bradley,” Jamie called. The man turned to glance at them, wiping his brow on the sleeve of his coveralls.

What brings you two down here?” he asked, Jamie still struggling to place his accent. It might be Australian, or maybe New Zealand.

We’ve run out of baking dough,” Liz replied.

Baking dough?” he asked, raising a bushy eyebrow. “Just how much baking have you been doing?”

Enough to run out of baking dough,” she replied with a grin.

Alright, alright, I’ll see what I can do. Just let me finish stacking these crates...”

Liz watched him, cocking her head, then made her way over to his side. She plucked the crate that he was holding from his hands, Bradley glancing up at her with a confused expression on his face as she placed it atop the pile.

I got it,” she chirped happily, lifting another from the cart.

You really don’t need to-”

Nonsense, you look like you’re about to collapse. Sit down, take a breather. I’ll take care of it.”

Bradley turned to Jamie, and he gave the confused req officer a shrug, the two of them watching as Liz finished up his work.

Guess I’ll go find you that dough,” he said, making his way over to a computer console that was mounted on the wall. He tapped at the touch panel for a few moments, pulling up the manifest, scrolling through the list. “Here we go,” he muttered, turning towards the nearest elevator. It was an open platform encircled by a railing for safety, just large enough to fit one of the bigger containers. It began to rise, bringing him to the upper deck, where he opened the doors to one of the shipping containers and stepped inside. Jamie could hear him rummaging around for a few moments, then he emerged with a cardboard box in his hands. After descending again, he handed it off to Liz.

There should be enough there to last you a good while,” he said, making a note of it on the manifest. “Just put it away in the kitchen somewhere.”

I’m making steak pie tonight,” Liz announced, clasping the box under one arm. “I’m defrosting some of the beef from the freezer, and I’m making a gravy filling with mushrooms. I hope you’ll drop by.”

Sounds good, but I’m probably going to be too busy tonight,” he replied. “My shift is gonna have me working late. I’m still taking inventory of the stuff we picked up from Jarilo.”

But, you have to eat,” Liz protested. “You can’t just work yourself to exhaustion.”

I’m fine, really,” he chuckled. “Just put some in the freezer for me, and I’ll warm it up another time.”

Liz seemed dissatisfied with his response, but she didn’t press the issue.

***

The pie had been a hit, its remnants sitting in a mostly empty pan in the center of the table, only a few pastry crumbs and gravy stains left over. Liz seemed to have taken Jamie’s advice to heart and had stopped foisting second and third helpings on the crew. She really seemed to be enjoying cooking for them, watching them eat with a satisfied expression on her face. As the low murmur of conversation filled the galley, she excused herself, moving over to the kitchen counter. Curious as to what she might be doing, Jamie rose from his seat, walking over to join her.

She had saved a slice of pie and was placing it inside a plastic container, along with a knife and fork. She sealed the lid, then noticed that she had an audience.

It’s for Bradley,” she explained. “He’s working so hard down in the cargo bay, I can’t stand the thought of him going hungry.”

So, you packed him lunch?” Jamie chuckled. “He said it was fine to leave him a piece in the freezer, Liz.”

It won’t taste as good reheated,” she grumbled.

Bradley isn’t a kid who needs you to pack his lunches,” he continued, leaning against the counter. “I’m pretty sure he’s about thirty-five years old.”

I know, but...” She glanced over at the crew who were sitting around the table, her expression softening. “I dunno, I just don’t like the thought of them missing a meal.”

Jamie didn’t intend to stop her. For all he knew, Bradley was going to appreciate the gesture. He decided to follow her down to the bay, curious to see how the man would react. As they entered the cavernous room, he called down to them from one of the higher catwalks, his voice echoing.

Back already? You forget an ingredient or something?”

I thought I’d bring you a slice of pie,” Liz called back to him, brandishing the container. “It’s still warm.”

Bradley made his way down, Liz waiting there for him as the elevator ground to a stop. She handed him the box, and he popped the lid, the scent of steak and gravy banishing his skepticism.

Uh...thanks,” he said, glancing up at her as she beamed at him. “Guess it won’t hurt to take a five-minute break.”

He sat down on a nearby crate, Liz refusing to budge until she saw him take a bite. He lifted the fork, bringing a chunk of meat and pastry to his mouth, giving her a thumbs-up as he chewed.

It’s great,” he mumbled over another mouthful. “Thanks.”

Satisfied, Liz turned to the door, Jamie following behind her.

***

Liz fluffed a pillow before tossing it into the nest, then lowered herself into the mass of sheets and cushions. Before Jamie could even finish taking off his shirt, she hooked her tail around his waist like a furry lasso, guiding him into bed. He flopped down next to her, Liz rolling onto her side, draping a thick blanket over them. Her bare breasts spilled over his shoulders as she tugged him closer, giving him little choice other than to be her little spoon, her fuzzy tail coiling around one of his legs possessively.

Guess your boobs aren’t all that sore anymore,” he said, Liz rewarding his comment with another tight squeeze.

Thanks to all the extra attention you’ve been giving me, they’re a lot better,” she replied as she pushed her nose into his hair. She nuzzled affectionately, her warm breath blowing on his scalp.

You’re so cuddly lately,” he murmured, the warmth of their little blanket fort already making him drowsy. “It reminds me of when you first moved in after you got back from Borealis.”

I just feel...handsy,” she chuckled, the motion making her bosom wobble against the back of his head. “If I could get away with burying us in blankets and hibernating until we get back, I’d do it.”

More hormones?”

I guess so,” she conceded. “You know, Sousa told me to expect mood swings. He said that I might get irrationally angry or upset, that I might feel depressed, that I could go from laughing to sobbing in the space of a minute. But, so far, everything has been great. I don’t want to jinx it,” she added, hesitating for a moment. “But I feel...really good. Not that I didn’t before, I just...y’know.”

That could still happen,” Jamie warned. “I don’t think it will, though. You’ve always been level-headed.”

She hugged him tightly, exhaling a sigh into his mop of blonde hair.

***

By their third week on the Magellan, Liz was finally starting to show. She stood in front of the wall-length mirror in their quarters, dressed in only her shorts, her increasingly weighty breasts hanging free as she inspected her reflection. Her clawed hand ran across her previously flat belly, now sporting a subtle bump, Jamie admiring her changing figure from their nest.

Can you see it?” she asked, turning sideways to give him a better view.

Are you pushing it out?”

No!” she protested, running her hand across her stomach again. “It’s definitely visible, see?”

Jamie rose to his feet, making his way over to her. He extended a hand, tracing the contours of her abs, feeling a slight mound that hadn’t been there before. If he didn’t know better, he might have assumed that she’d just eaten too much.

You should know,” she added, giving him a smirk. “You’re always staring at my tummy. Better enjoy it while you can.”

Yeah, I feel it,” he replied. “It’s like there’s a little balloon inflating in there.”

***

The more time passed, the more Liz’s belly grew, until even the crew began to comment on her changing appearance. The bump was more pronounced now, visible even beneath her shirt.

They were sitting on the couch in the rec room one night, watching a movie with Jessie, who had finished her shift in the lab earlier that evening. Liz had been growing closer with the female members of the crew, and they had been showing more interest in her in turn. Perhaps it was something to do with Liz’s pack instincts, or maybe it was just normal for women to congregate around their pregnant friends, Jamie wasn’t sure.

Can I touch it?” Jessie asked, eyeing Liz’s prominent belly.

Sure,” Liz chuckled, lifting her shirt. She still didn’t look traditionally pregnant, but it was very noticeable now. Jessie reached out to place her palm on the Borealan’s stomach, Liz watching her with a warm smile on her face.

Have you felt them moving around yet?” Jessie asked.

I don’t think they’re developed enough to be moving much yet,” Liz replied. “I think Doctor Sousa mentioned that I’d be able to feel them kicking some time in my second trimester.”

How do you feel?” Jessie wondered, glancing up at her.

Good,” she purred. “Much better than I expected. I’ve had a little morning sickness, some soreness, but that’s about it.”

I’m a biochemist,” Jessie continued, withdrawing her comparatively tiny hand. “I spend all day looking at chemical signatures, studying exotic forms of life under a microscope, so why does the idea of having something growing inside me weird me out so much?”

Haven’t you ever thought about it before?” Liz asked.

I don’t have a man in my life,” Jessie replied, settling back into the couch. “Being out here all the time, the only options would be guys from the crew. Slim pickings,” she added with a chuckle. “Besides, I like my job, I chose to be here. You can’t start a family on a survey ship, and I don’t want to put down roots. Not yet, at least. Maybe in the future, if I meet someone special. How did you know this was what you wanted?” she added. “Was there a watershed moment, or did it just kind of...happen?”

It was something I’d been thinking about for a while,” she explained. “The more time passed, the greater the urge became, until it was impossible to ignore. It got to the point that I couldn’t help but bring it up. I think being exposed to my littermate’s kittens back on Borealis had a lot to do with it.”

She got baby rabies,” Jamie added, Liz covering his face with her furry hand to shut him up.

It was a powerful preoccupation for me, I’ll put it that way,” she continued as Jamie struggled to free himself. “I think that when the time is right for you, you’ll know it. If you want my advice, don’t resist it, because it only gets stronger the more you try.”

I’ll keep that in mind,” she replied, seeming somehow relieved. The mere presence of a pregnant woman aboard had probably made a few of the crew members do a little self-reflection about where they were in their own lives and what they wanted for the future.

***

Daryl said he saw you skulking around the bridge the other day,” Jamie said, pausing the game he was playing on his phone as Liz entered the rec room. She flopped down onto the couch beside him, the dent that she made in the cushions making him slide towards her. “He seemed to think you were looking for him.”

I dunno if skulking is the right word,” she mumbled.

What were you doing?” Jamie asked. “It must have weirded him out if he felt the need to mention it.”

I just...like to know where the crew are,” she explained. “I worry about them.”

You worry about them?” he asked, raising an eyebrow.

Maybe it’s a little crazy, but I just feel better if I know that they’re safe.”

They’re not going to get hurt, Liz,” he chuckled. “I mean, maybe a crate could fall on Bradley, but I doubt anything else could happen on a ship like this.”

Oh, don’t even say that,” she gasped. “He’d be squashed like a grumpy little tomato.”

What makes you think they’re gonna get hurt?” Jamie prodded, Liz’s face warming.

They’re just so small and fragile...”

You’ve been acting strange around them since we left Jarilo,” Jamie continued, narrowing his eyes at her. It was an accusation made in good humor, Liz blushing as she waited for him to elaborate. “I think it’s your hormones. They’re making you protective, motherly. It’s like your body is being primed for the babies. Think about it,” he added. “Maybe an adult human is just small and frail enough in comparison to a Borealan to trigger your maternal instincts. We must be the size of children to you, right?”

She clearly wanted to argue, but it was undeniable, Liz covering her face with her furry hands.

Oh, fuck,” she began with a nervous giggle. “I feel like I’m going crazy. I’m gonna be honest, I want to just...pick them all up in my arms and pile them into a nest.”

Then feed them pie,” Jamie added, Liz nodding her head. “That’s actually...adorable,” he said, Liz grinning at him. “I don’t think anyone is going to mind if you cook extravagant meals for them, but maybe try to be more conscious of your desire to mother them. I’m pretty sure almost all of the crew are older than us. Besides, I think they have a matriarch already. She’s called Cassidy.”

Alright,” she conceded. “I’m a big bundle of raging hormones, but I’ll try to be more mindful.”

Don’t worry, you’ll have plenty of real kittens to smother with affection before you know it,” Jamie chuckled. “We should have gotten you a doll or a puppy or something to tide you over.”

It’s funny, I never played with dolls as a kid,” she said as she relaxed into the couch. “None of them looked like me. Never had a pet, either.”

My family could never get a dog,” Jamie added. “We always lived in high-rise apartments. Do they have pets back on Borealis?”

Some,” she replied with a shrug. “There’s the Razorbacks, which are kind of Borealis’ answer to dogs. Imagine a hyena somehow bred with a wild boar, and that’s basically what you get. They’re pack animals, which made them easy to domesticate, but those are mostly used as warhounds by the Rask. The Elysians don’t really have any pets.”

Humans originally domesticated cats and dogs to make use of their senses,” Jamie mused. “We leveraged the hearing and sense of smell in dogs for hunting and protection, and we used cats to keep rodents out of our grain stores. Hell, they were so successful that the Egyptians even started to worship them.”

A very forward-thinking people, if you ask me,” Liz replied with a smirk.

I guess if you’re a Borealan, and you already have sharp senses, there’s no real need to bring along a hunting companion. I can’t imagine a barking dog would be much of a deterrent compared to a Borealan Alpha, either.”

Your kind might have dull senses, but you made up for it by being really good with your hands,” Liz whispered as she nudged him with her elbow.

Is that an invitation?” he asked.

Mhmm, I’m sore again,” she grumbled as she weighed her breasts through her shirt. They were still growing, and they showed no signs of stopping, her copious fat draping itself over her hands. Liz was nearing the end of her first trimester now, and already, they had grown in size by maybe fifteen or twenty percent. What bras she had would stand no chance of fitting her now.

How much bigger can they possibly get?” Jamie wondered, watching her ample flesh wobble as she released them.

Sousa said that breast size in pregnant humans can increase by one hundred and fifty percent,” she replied, his eyes widening. “There’s no data available for Borealans.”

She noticed his expression, turning her head to check that they were indeed alone in the rec room. He watched as she raised her boobs again, presenting them to him, her flesh spilling between her fingers even through the cotton of her clothes. He could see her nipples tenting the fabric, as swollen as ever, Liz mashing her breasts together to create cleavage that could have engulfed his arm up to the shoulder.

I bet you’re just loving this,” she cooed. “Here I am, all sore and sensitive, and all you can focus on is my boobs getting bigger.”

My fascination comes from a place of caring,” he replied, Liz giving him a playful shove.

Come take care of me, then.”

***

Three months had passed, and the Magellan had made its third jump, the survey vessel cruising through empty space as its drive underwent the arduous process of recharging. Liz had expressed some concern that the wracking extra-dimensional energies would disturb the kittens, but Captain Cassidy had assured her that there was no evidence to suggest that. Studies had already been conducted on the subject, apparently, and they had determined that only very late-term babies could be effected by anything other than their mother’s stress hormones. Without a fully-developed nervous system, there was nothing to be interfered with.

They were eating breakfast one day when Liz suddenly let out a yelp of alarm, dropping her spoon into her bowl of cereal, milk splashing on the table. Jamie and Sarris were present, both them leaping out of their chairs, rushing to her side.

What is it?” Jamie demanded, his heart racing. “Is something wrong? Do you feel alright?”

I-it’s fine,” she stammered, peering down at her growing belly with wide eyes. “I just felt one of them move!”

Sarris breathed a sigh of relief, Jamie pressing her for more details.

They’re finally moving?” he asked, his worried frown quickly morphing into a delighted smile. “What does it feel like?”

I guess...like having something moving around in your belly,” she replied with a shrug. “I think one of them rolled over...”

Jamie reached down to feel her stomach, waiting with bated breath, but it seemed that the restless kitten had already settled.

Maybe you’ll catch them next time,” Liz chuckled.

***

The final jump was complete, Jamie slowly returning to consciousness in his seat, blinking his bleary eyes as he looked out of the bridge window at the darkness beyond. It wasn’t the usual expanse of inky blackness pocked with harsh, distant stars, however. Directly ahead of them was a star far warmer and brighter, standing out from the rest.

Just like during their Jarilo approach, the ship had exited superlight a significant distance from their destination and would cross the last few million miles using its conventional engines.

We have arrived at Sol,” Cassidy announced, her chair swiveling to face the row of seats at the rear of the bridge. “Daryl, start our burn. Sarris, send a tight-beam to the American Terminus and request a corridor for orbital insertion and rendezvous. As for you two,” she added, addressing Jamie and Liz. “You’re almost home.”

Liz reached across to take Jamie’s hand, giving it a squeeze. The last leg of their journey was nearing its end. They had been away for almost a year, eight months of which had been spent on the Magellan. Jamie had never been homesick during that time, but the closer they got to Earth, the more he felt confident that their decision to return had been the right one.

There was a tug of acceleration as the main engines ignited, spewing a plume of hydrogen flame behind the vessel. It would continue to accelerate for some time, then the engines would shut down, only turning on again once the time came to decelerate. It would probably take several more days to reach Earth.

Jamie rose from his seat unsteadily, leaning on the armrest of his chair for support. With any luck, that was the last superlight jump he’d ever have to endure. After eight jumps, it had indeed gotten slightly easier, but it was still a tremendously unpleasant experience.

It’ll take us about a week to reach Earth,” Cassidy said. “That means only seven more days of good eating for us, unfortunately. I have half a mind to put in a request with the UAS for a dedicated ship’s cook.”

I actually wanted to ask you about something related to that,” Liz said, Cassidy raising an eyebrow. “You and your crew have been so kind to us during our trip, so accommodating, far beyond the scope of simply being polite. I wanted to do something special for you in return, but it would require a rather large quantity of supplies. I was hoping that, since you’ll be restocking when you reach Earth, it might be alright.”

What did you have in mind?” the Captain asked.

In Elysian culture, it’s customary to prepare a feast as a show of thanks for a host’s hospitality,” Liz explained. “Also when sending off friends, when celebrating an important event...pretty much any time there’s an excuse to eat a lot of food, really.”

A Borealan feast?” Cassidy asked, nodding her head approvingly. “Bradley will probably complain about having to edit the cargo manifests, but I think that sounds like an excellent idea. Go ahead.”

A Borealan feast?” Jamie asked, following Liz out of the bridge and down the corridor. “Do we have any Borealan ingredients or meats?”

I can make some approximations with what we have onboard,” she replied. “I was thinking we’d pretty much just make a lot of good food, get everyone in the same room for a while before we have to say goodbye.”

I think it’s a good idea,” Jamie added, Liz smiling down at him. “Guess we’re gonna have our work cut out for us.”

It’s not like we have anything more pressing to attend to,” she reminded him.

***

The day of the feast had come. Liz and Jamie had been hard at work preparing dishes over the last couple of days, creating an impressive spread that should be able to feed the whole crew. They had gotten permission from Higgins to unbolt one of the dining tables in the galley from the floor, sliding it closer to its counterpart to create one long table that could seat all of the crew at once. Captain Cassidy had agreed to give everyone a special period of leave so that they could attend the event. The ship was almost completely automated once it was set on its course, and nobody needed to be behind the wheel at all times.

Liz pulled another large pie from the oven, its crust perfectly browned, wisps of steam rising from the pan as she carried it over to its place on the table. Jamie stood back, admiring the spread of food. Considering that there were almost no fresh ingredients aboard, Liz had done an admirable job.

In the center of the table were two oven-roasted turkeys sitting on a bed of vegetables, basted with a sauce that Liz had made from lemon juice, herbs, and beef stock. The result was brown, crispy skin that would peel right off the meat. The turkeys had been soaked in a saltwater brine before cooking, which Liz said would make them more tender and moist. The vegetables had been freeze-dried, but Jamie wouldn’t have guessed it from the look of them.

The pie was the same beef steak and gravy that she had made a few times during their trip, as it was a hit with the crew. She had done what she could to spice up the several packets of instant mashed potatoes that they had used as one of the side dishes, along with a mixed bean casserole made from the same freeze-dried ingredients.

All in all, it would have looked like a Thanksgiving meal if not for the extra meat dishes that the feast’s Borealan leanings required. True to her word, Liz had done her best to replicate the cooking style of her ancestral homeland, even if she didn’t have access to authentic meats and oils. She had also adapted them to human palates, substituting the fish and vegetable oils that Elysians favored for sauces and condiments more familiar to the crew.

There were chicken breasts baked in a honey garlic dressing, meatloaf with inordinate quantities of barbecue sauce, and pork in a sweet soy sauce that she had enlisted Jamie’s help to get perfect due to her people’s lack of sensitivity to sweet flavors. They had made good use of most of the stores of frozen meat that were in the freezer.

The expressions on the faces of the crew as they filed into the galley were those of surprise and anticipation. Who knew when they might last have eaten like this? They took their seats around the makeshift banquet table, plastic cutlery standing in for silverware, and paper cups in lieu of wine glasses. There wasn’t a lot of alcohol onboard, but Cassidy had brought a bottle of bourbon from her quarters, filling each cup with a small mouthful as she made her way around the table. Liz abstained due to her people’s intolerance of spirits, opting for a mug of her favorite drink instead, a meat-flavored tea made using a beef bouillon cube.

Cassidy returned to her place at the far end of the table when she had completed her circuit, lifting her cup in a toast. Tradition dictated that she tap her glass with a spoon to get everyone’s attention, but since she had neither, she merely whistled loudly. The murmur of conversation died down as she began to speak, gesturing with her cup.

I’d like to make a toast,” she began, glancing down the table at Liz and Jamie. “To our guests,” she continued, raising her cup higher. “When we were diverted from our course all those months ago, I had no idea that we would be making both history and friends. When your job is surveying planets for their habitability, you rarely get to see the fruits of your labor first-hand. The colonists won’t arrive for months or years, and it will take even longer to establish a functioning colony. By the time there are families making homes there, we’re already light-years away, in orbit around the next promising candidate. We might have only been a glorified taxi service in this case, but it has been a pleasure to see Jamie and Liz go from seeking an experimental procedure with no guarantee of success, to becoming expectant parents. As a serial mother myself, I feel qualified to give the couple some words of advice,” she said as all eyes in the room turned to the pair. “Trust yourselves, don’t question your gut. You know more about being parents than you think you do.”

There was a chorus of here-here’s as the rest of the crew raised their cups in turn, Bradley adding a distinctly Australian cheers to the mix. Everyone took a drink, and with that, the spread of food was fair game.

Everyone reached towards the center of the table, cutting off slices of turkey and shoveling spoonfuls of mashed potatoes onto their plates. The conversation was lively as they ate, and they all seemed to be enjoying the food, Liz watching them sample the various dishes with a smile on her face. Jamie joined them, selecting a slice of steak pie, along with some potato and bean casserole. He cut into the soft crust, thick gravy pouring out, the smell making his mouth water. Liz was all about the meat, piling her plate high with a mountain of assorted cuts, finally able to appreciate the cooking she had worked so hard on over the last two days. She bit into juicy pieces of turkey, chicken breasts, and chunks of pork.

Borealans had appetites to match their size, so Jamie was accustomed to seeing her eat portions that were often five times larger than his own, but Liz was going all-out today. He reminded himself that she wasn’t just eating for a Borealan now. She was eating for five kittens, too.

***

All hands, prepare for maneuvers,” Cassidy’s voice blared over the intercom. “This is your five-minute warning.”

They were on their final approach to Earth now, coming to the end of their steady deceleration. Jamie and Liz made their way from the rec room to the bridge, where they strapped into their usual seats, more of the crew arriving to join them. They were facing away from the planet right now, their main engines pointed at it, but the bridge windows that doubled as displays were showing a full view from the aft cameras. Through the torch of blue flame that extended behind the ship, Jamie could see the Earth, so close now that it was the size of a softball. It was just hanging there, shining like a beacon, lit like a crescent moon by warm sunlight.

It still seemed so far away, but they weren’t heading to the planet itself, they were on their way to the American Terminus. The tethered station was sixty-thousand kilometers above the planet’s surface, which according to Liz, was about fifteen percent the distance from the Earth to the Moon.

Deceleration pressed him into his seat as he watched the planet slowly grow, a glint of light catching his eye. It was the Terminus, its tiered stacks of disk-shaped habitats coming into view. It started off so small that he could cover it with his thumb, but it soon ballooned to fill the viewport, far closer than the Earth. He could see the hangars up at the top of the stack, like skeletal cages, along with the tether that extended deeper into orbit where the counterbalance was located. From the bowl-shaped bottom ran the many cables that linked it to the ground, so thin from this distance that he could only catch glimpses of them when they reflected the sunlight at just the right angle.

Hovering near one of the upper hangars, Jamie could see the immense profile of a jump freighter. It was a cargo vessel, a thousand feet long, but the bulk of the station made it look like a toy in comparison. There was a cockpit and habitation module at the front, complete with a hangar bay for shuttles, a wavering force field keeping the atmosphere from escaping into space. At the rear was an engine module, its massive rocket cones still glowing red with residual heat from its last burn. The two sections were joined together by a structure that resembled the jib of a crane, made from crisscrossing beams of exposed metal, giving the vessel the appearance of a giant q-tip. It was covered in dozens of cargo containers, clinging to its length like limpets, each one a different color. It was slowly maneuvering into one of the hangars, jets of blue flame sprouting from the thrusters that were spaced out along its hull.

As they drew closer, Jamie could make out the station in more detail. He could see the innumerable windows that lined the disk-shaped decks, as well as a crawler that was slowly making its way up one of the long tethers towards the docks.

Only now did the Magellan turn around, pivoting on its axis to put its rounded nose towards the station, its velocity low enough that it could maneuver using only its thrusters now.

Bring her in real smooth, Daryl,” Cassidy said as the camera view on the bridge windows vanished. The pilot gave his joystick gentle touches, his eyes fixed on his display, where their approach was outlined by a glowing overlay that guided the ship towards one of the docking ports.

The station was alarmingly large now, completely dominating their field of view, the white hull material gleaming as it reflected the harsh sunlight. The Magellan matched velocity, maintaining a steady distance. Jamie could see one of the airlock doors on the nearest disk, the docking umbilical slowly starting to extend towards it. It reminded him of the bellows of an accordion, the metal frame locking into place, the tarp-like material that insulated it from the vacuum of space stretching taut. The thud that reverberated through the deck let him know that the two had mated.

With that, Captain Cassidy swiveled her chair to face him, spreading her arms wide.

Welcome back to Earth. I suppose this is where we part ways. Not to rush you, but our docking clearance will expire in a few hours.”

We’re ready to go,” Liz said, unbuckling her harness before rising to her feet. “We won’t keep you any longer than necessary.”

Well, you can waste a little time,” Daryl added. “It’s not every day that we get to stop at a station.”

Perhaps we can drag our feet a bit,” Jamie said, giving Liz a smile.

You’ll need help unloading all of those crates,” Cassidy said, bringing up a holographic interface. She tapped at it for a moment, swiping through the glowing icons. “I’ll get my guys on it.”

Liz looked like she wanted to protest, but the Captain had already made her policy on expectant mothers carrying cargo quite clear, so she kept quiet.

Cassidy accompanied them on their way to the airlock, where they arrived to find that most of the crew had come to see them off. They had said their formal goodbyes at the feast the night before, but there was still a lot of hand-shaking and well-wishing. Higgins and Bradley had already brought their luggage, along with the crates from the hangar. Jamie felt a swell of emotion as he made his way down the umbilical with one of the crates clutched in his arms. He had become good friends with the crew during their months together, and it was unlikely that he would ever see them again. He wouldn’t even be able to send them any footage of the kittens, at least, not directly. Perhaps they would be able to receive the files the next time they docked at Earth, which might be many months, even years.

The airlock cycling slowed the process down a little, but before too long, the crates were piled beside the inner door. Higgins fetched a trolley for them, and they began to stack them, throwing their bags on top of the heap. There was almost enough there to warrant a second trolley, but they managed to make it all fit.

We called ahead when we entered the system,” Cassidy said. “The UAS should have booked you passage back to the surface. Check your messages. There will probably be a boarding pass in there somewhere.”

Jamie lifted his phone, sparing Liz an excited glance. He had been disconnected from the intranet for almost a year, unable to look up a fact or check an email. After learning to get by without it, he was excited to make up for lost time. There were dozens of messages awaiting him, and one of them was indeed a boarding pass. The UAS had even paid to increase their baggage allowance to what was presumably the weight of the crates from Jarilo. Bless Bradley and his obsessive love of manifests. The requisitions officer must have forwarded the information to them.

Our crawler arrives in three hours,” Jamie said, turning to Liz. “We’d better be on it if we don’t want to wait around on the station for another few days.”

Then, this is the last we’ll see of you,” Liz said as she glanced down at the crew.

We’ll be keeping tabs on you as much as we can,” Cassidy replied. “I expect those baby pictures to be waiting for me next time I get a line to Earth.”

She extended a hand to Jamie, which he took, the Captain giving him her customary iron-gripped handshake. Liz turned her eyes to Bradley and Higgins, her lower lip starting to tremble as a surge of emotion overwhelmed her. The Borealan reached down, catching one man in each arm, lifting their boots off the ground as she trapped them in a bear hug. They were clearly alarmed, but they tolerated the unexpected show of affection, Cassidy laughing at their expressions as Liz set them back down on the deck.

We’ll miss you,” Liz choked, Cassidy waving her off.

Off you go, kids. You don’t want to be late for your ride. Bradley, Higgins, let’s get back to the ship. We’ll need some bags for our supply run.”

Jamie and Liz gave the crew one final wave as they returned to the umbilical, Liz wiping her eyes on her sleeve.

The station was just as Jamie remembered it. There were more airlocks spaced out at intervals along the curved hull, a few other waiting passengers peering over at Liz from the seating near the back wall, the carpet beneath their feet a shade of UN blue.

Let’s find out where we’re supposed to be going,” Jamie suggested, gripping the handle of the cart. He had to lean into it to push it, the weight of the crates almost more than he could handle. After watching him struggle for a moment, Liz nudged him out of the way, taking his place.

They walked back in the direction of the concourse, soon finding a large display that listed departures and arrivals. There was one column showing the serial numbers of ships and another that showed the crawlers that came up and down the tethers. The American Terminus serviced both the North and South American continents, and there were anchors all over the place. Most of the cargo tethers ended at artificial islands off the coast. He knew that there were several large ones in the Gulf of Mexico, the Hudson Bay, and the Sacramento Bay. The passenger tethers usually came down in major cities. He could see itineraries for Sao Paulo, Buenos Aires, Bogota, Lima. There were also crawlers coming from Mexico City, Toronto, New York, San Francisco, and Kansas City.

There’s our crawler,” Jamie said, cross-referencing the boarding pass on his phone. “We need to get to dock F-three, that’s right at the bottom level.”

They made their way past the storefronts on the concourse, weaving through the crowds of travelers. It was so strange to see so many people in one place. Back on Jarilo, there had never been more than a dozen people in a room at once, but there were probably enough people clogging the concourse to fill the settlement ten times over. They arrived at the elevator and rode it down to the bottom level of the station, where they had originally boarded, stepping out into another corridor. After following the colored lines that were painted on the walls, they soon arrived at the customs area.

One couldn’t just bring any old thing back to Earth. Plants and their seeds, alien meats, and unidentifiable liquids weren’t permitted. Jamie was somewhat worried that the customs agents might confiscate the crates, as the kitten food was certainly made up of some hitherto unknown combination of alien ingredients, and his heart was racing as Liz pushed their cart up to the security gate.

After a small holdup where the agents inspected one of the crates, running a handheld scanner over one of the amber packets to check its chemical makeup, they were allowed through to the boarding area.

Just like in the crawler itself, there was seating suitable for a Borealan, Jamie sitting down beside Liz as they waited for their turn to board. It was a perfect opportunity to answer some emails, Jamie scrolling through his list. It seemed that the bank had been forwarding his rent payments as he had requested, which was good. It would be a pain in the ass to arrive back at the apartment only to realize that they had been evicted months prior and that all the codes for the locks had been changed…

There were some messages from his parents, too, mostly well-wishes and inquiries about Liz’s pregnancy. He remembered when Liz had told him that babies were a good way to reel in wayward relatives. Maybe she was right.

I enjoyed cooking during the trip,” Liz sighed, reaching down to place a hand on the subtle bump of her belly. “But I’m looking forward to some good old Earth food. The first thing I’m gonna get is a plate of cheeseburgers loaded with salt and grease.”

You said pretty much the same thing when you came back from Borealis,” Jamie chuckled, looking up from his phone.

CHAPTER 9: ANTEPARTUM

The crawler finally arrived, and after its passengers had been unloaded, the people waiting in the boarding area were ushered through another door and into the dock. Inside the circular platform was the car, just as Jamie remembered it. The crawler was vaguely conical in its design, tapering at the top, where the massive cable emerged to extend deeper into the ceiling above. It was secured by a series of bulky docking clamps that held it in place, the airlock far below tightly closed. Through the series of reinforced portholes that ringed its off-white hull, Jamie could see the stewardesses milling about inside as they prepared for the next load of travelers.

The crowd of maybe a hundred people began to walk up the metal gantries that led to the open hatches, Liz having to duck under the low doorway as she stepped through. The interior was the same white color as the hull, the deck carpeted in the usual blue. Jamie wasn’t sure if this was the same crawler they had ridden up on. Considering that it was built around the tether, it seemed likely.

One of the uniformed stewardesses guided them over to the Borealan-sized seats that faced out from the cylindrical bulkhead at the center of the car, Liz starting to load their luggage into the compartments above. They had only their bags on hand now, as they had checked the crates, which would probably have been loaded into the car’s cargo bays by now.

About half an hour passed before the seatbelt signs above the windows flickered on, Jamie and Liz fastening their harnesses. The voice of one of the stewardesses crackled over the speakers, running through a series of safety instructions, Jamie listening as he refreshed his memory.

This is it,” Liz said, giving him a nudge with her elbow. “We’ll be back home in a few hours.”

Is the ride down any different from the ride up?” Jamie asked warily.

Not really,” she replied with a shrug. “It just means the bumpy part is at the end.”

The mag-lev system that the car used made the ride a relatively smooth one, but the reverberation of the docking clamps above them releasing the crawler still made his seat shake. His stomach lurched as they began to descend, the industrial interior of the docking bay quickly sliding past the windows, giving way to the blackness of space.

Liz reached over to take his hand, and he realized that he had been gripping the armrests of his seat tightly.

You’re still just a little muddy,” she chuckled, giving him a reassuring squeeze.

It was only a matter of minutes before the seatbelt signs shut off, and the voice of the stewardess informed them that they could start moving about again. They were still tens of thousands of kilometers above the atmosphere, so there was no danger of turbulence. Jamie rose from his seat and stretched, preparing himself for another few hours without much to do other than eat the in-flight meal and watch space fly past them beyond the frost-encrusted windows.

***

The Earth was finally in sight, the curving, blue horizon rising up from beneath the crawler. Jamie watched from the window, transfixed by the view, admiring the blanket of swirling clouds that stretched out before him. He felt an unexpected swell of nostalgia. As much as he had enjoyed the strange journey that he and Liz had embarked upon, it was a comforting feeling to be coming home again, where everything made sense.

It’s nice to be back,” Liz said as she sidled up beside him, taking a sip from a drink that one of the stewardesses had brought her. “I’ve visited three planets now, and this one is still my favorite.”

It’s going to be strange being anonymous again,” he replied.

What do you mean?” she asked, cocking her head at him.

On the Magellan, in the settlement, everybody knew each other by name. There were so few people around that you recognized everyone who passed you in the street or in the corridors. Now, we’re going back to a city where tens of millions of people live, where we pass by a thousand strangers just walking to the coffee shop.”

I’m never anonymous,” Liz chuckled. “I kind of like not knowing everyone, though. There are no expectations, you can just go about your business without having to spare a thought for anyone’s opinion of you.”

I guess that’s one way to look at it.”

I think they’re bringing the cart back around if you want anything to eat,” Liz said. “You have to be hungry by now. The last time we ate a square meal was back on the ship.”

Yeah, I could eat,” he conceded as he turned away from the window.

***

The turbulence slowly abated, Jamie gripping his harness as the crawler cleared the cloud layer. Beyond the windows, he saw only blue skies, the rays of Earth’s sun bleeding in through the glass. He had been gone from Jarilo for too long to remember the exact quality of the light there with any clarity, but Sol’s light seemed more golden to him, somehow warmer than its alien counterpart.

The spires of towering high-rises and skyscrapers seemed to sprout from the ground as they rose up on the horizon, forming a familiar skyline, rolling fields of green separated by scattered pockets of woodland coming into view. The sight gave him a kind of vertigo that he hadn’t felt when viewing the Earth from space. Being able to see so far without dense forests or metal bulkheads blocking his view, actually being able to see the way that the atmospheric haze obscured distant objects – it was something he hadn’t experienced in months.

The metal cage of the anchor soon obscured the sight, blotting out the sunlight, Jamie feeling the tug of inertia as the crawler slowed. A rumbling sound shook the deck beneath his feet as the car docked, the seatbelt sign turning off. A woman’s voice crackled over the speakers, announcing that they have arrived at the spaceport and informing them of the local time. The passengers rose from their seats and began to retrieve their baggage, Liz doing the same.

I’m looking forward to feeling a few trillion tons of rock beneath my feet again,” she grumbled, thrusting one of the duffel bags into his arms.

I’m about ready to collapse,” he replied. “It’s five PM on Earth, but my internal clock has been scrambled. I feel like it’s four AM, and I’ve been awake for forty hours...”

Jump-lag,” Liz added. “We’ll be messed up for a few days, but it’s not like we have anywhere to be.”

They filed out of the crawler with the rest of the passengers, making their way down the gantries and onto the ring-shaped platform that surrounded it. After heading out of the dock, they emerged into the mag-lev station, the roof above their heads made from panes of glass. They paused to admire the sky, as did a few of their fellow travelers.

There wasn’t much time to linger, as the train was already boarding, Liz and Jamie finding seats on one of the cars. As they pulled out of the station, gliding along one of the curving rails, Jamie turned to look back at the anchor. It was the size of a building, surrounded by a sturdy frame, its supports digging deep into the ground. Above it extended the black tether, its warning lights blinking intermittently.

They rode the train to the spaceport terminal, and after collecting their bags and piling them atop another cart, they finally left the building. The sun was starting to set now, painting the horizon in shades of pink and orange, the distant spires of the city silhouetted against the glow. The air here had a distinct flavor to it, not as fresh as how Jamie remembered Jarilo, but it filled him with nostalgia. Something deep inside him told him that this was where he belonged, where he was supposed to be. He glanced up at Liz, watching the wind blow her blonde hair.

She filled her lungs, sighing contentedly.

Smells like home.”

I’ll call us a taxi,” Jamie said, pulling up his phone. A few minutes later, a van in a similar style to the one they had ridden in before leaving Earth pulled up beside the curb, and they began to pile their crates into the back. They had a lot more luggage this time, and there was just enough room for Liz to squeeze in. Fortunately, she discovered that the sturdy resin the Bugs had used to make the crates could easily support her weight, so she had a more comfortable seat this time.

Jamie climbed into the driver’s seat, keying their route into the nav system, then sat back as the vehicle pulled out onto the road.

***

So,” Liz began, standing beside the van with her hands on her hips as she peered up at the towering high-rise before them. Jamie had come to think of Jarilo’s trees as impossibly tall, but being at the foot of this edifice of glass and steel again made them look like toothpicks in comparison. “How the hell are we going to get all of these crates up to our floor?”

How many can we carry at once?” Jamie asked. “I can only carry one.”

I can probably carry three if I stack them,” she replied, turning to peer into the back of the van. “We’ve got twelve crates, so that’s...three trips. We can manage that.”

Make it four with the rest of the luggage,” Jamie added.

Alright, just make sure the damned taxi doesn’t drive off with our stuff in the meantime,” she said as she leaned down to pick up a crate. She piled four of them on the curb, Jamie locking the doors at the rear of the vehicle to make sure that no passers-by got any funny ideas.

Are you sure you can lift that many?” he asked, watching as Liz stooped to pick up three of the crates.

What, I’m supposed to be all fragile because I’m pregnant?” she chuckled, leaning around the stack to grin at him. “It’s kinda cute how you keep fawning over me. Reminds me of when we were kids.”

He lifted his own crate, trying not to blush as he followed her into the building’s cavernous lobby. It was late in the evening, so there were fewer people milling about than usual, but the sight of the eight-foot alien hauling what looked like her weight in cargo drew a few curious stares. They made it to the elevator terminal, setting their haul down as they rose up towards the higher floors, Jamie pressing his nose against the glass as he watched the bustling commercial plazas zip past.

The beauty of nature was one thing, but the city had its own unique charm, his eyes drawn to the pointed spires that scraped the red sky. It was like a forest of glass and steel, the myriad windows reflecting the vibrant colors of the setting sun, mag-lev trains sliding along the winding rails that snaked between them like vines in a jungle.

I’d almost forgotten how high up our apartment is,” he muttered.

What do you think Hollyhock would say if she could see this?” Liz mused, following his gaze. “On Jarilo, the only things that get this high up are shuttles.”

I’m glad we came back,” he said, Liz reaching down to ruffle his blonde hair with a furry hand.

The elevator soon arrived at their floor, Liz and Jamie hauling the crates down one of the corridors. Jamie remembered the way as clear as day, even if he had been away for almost a year, months of routine imprinting it into his brain. When they arrived at their door, he set down his crate laboriously, his thighs starting to burn from all the squatting, and fished in his pocket for his phone. He scanned it across the reader that was embedded in the frame, loosing a quiet sigh of relief as the panel slid aside to let them pass.

Glad to see the landlord has been playing ball,” Liz said, ducking through the aperture. Jamie followed after her, stepping into the apartment, his eyes playing about the room. It was just as they had left it, but everything had been coated in a fine layer of dust, and the air had a musty quality about it. Liz set her crates down near the kitchen area, then ran a padded finger across the counter, grumbling as she examined it.

I guess we should have hired a maid to come clean the place,” she said, wiping her finger on her pants. “We won’t be spring cleaning as much as spring excavating.”

Jamie chuckled, placing his crate beside hers. He eyed the couch, then made his way over to it, collapsing into the faux-leather cushions with a puff of dust.

I could fall asleep right here,” he sighed.

Well, don’t,” Liz chided. “We’ve still got plenty of crates to move.”

***

When the last crate was safely stacked in the kitchen, Liz and Jamie settled into the oversized couch together, finally able to relax. As dusty as the apartment was, it was still home, and it was a relief to be back.

I feel like I walked the sixty light-years from Jarilo,” Jamie grumbled, Liz snickering at him.

I’m hungry,” she added. “We got anything to eat?”

Jamie slid off the couch and made his way to the fridge, the light bathing him in its yellow glow as he opened the door.

Nothing,” he called back to her, Liz giving an exaggerated groan of despair in response as she let herself slide partway off the couch. “We cleared it all out before we left, remember? I wouldn’t have wanted to come back home to a carton of year-old milk.”

Let’s go out to eat,” she insisted, Jamie trying to stifle a grin as he watched her wriggle back into her seat.

I dunno, I’m pretty tired. I don’t have a night on the town in me.”

Doesn’t have to be a night on the town,” she grumbled. “We could get takeout, how about that?

Fuck, I spent so much time in the forest that I almost forgot that the service industry exists. Alright, what are you hungry for?”

Hoagies,” she replied, collapsing onto her side and stretching out to fill the couch.

Hoagies it is,” Jamie said, pulling up his phone. He found the nearest place, marveling once again at the conveniences of modern technology as he read through the menu. “What do you want on that?”

Cheesesteak,” she replied.

Okay, how does this sound? Thinly-sliced beef ribeye with onions and mushrooms, topped with provolone cheese, on a chewy hoagie roll.”

Like I want it inside me,” she replied as she lounged in the cushions.

How many sandwiches do you want?”

As many as they’re allowed to give me.”

The slider maxes out at six, so I guess you get six.”

Heh, slider,” she muttered. “Hey, crank the thermostat while you’re up, would you? It’s fucking cold in here.”

He did as she asked, the temperature in the apartment quickly rising to a more comfortable level. Liz shed her jacket, Jamie admiring the way that her breasts strained against the fabric of her shirt, gravity pressing them together as she lay on her side.

What are you looking at?” she chuckled, rolling onto her back. Her boobs wobbled beneath her clothes, Liz lifting an arm to support them, preventing them from spilling free. “What’s their delivery time?”

Huh?” Jamie asked, tearing his eyes away from her chest.

The delivery time,” she repeated.

Uh, they said twenty minutes, or your order is free.”

Then we have some time to kill, don’t we?” she added with a sly smile. She reached down to grip the hem of her shirt, lifting it, letting her breasts slide free of its confines. He still wasn’t used to their new size, it was a pleasant surprise every time he saw them. Sousa had said that an increase of one hundred and fifty percent during pregnancy wasn’t unusual for humans, but he could have sworn that Liz had crossed that line by now. She reached up to cup one of them in her furry hand, letting its weight sink her fingers into her doughy flesh, her straw-colored fur contrasting with the caramel tone of her skin.

Think we’ve got time for that?” Jamie asked eagerly.

I could get you off in five minutes,” she chuckled, eyeing the growing bulge in his pants. “Maybe I will, just to prove a point.”

Want to make it interesting?” Jamie added, Liz’s round ears twitching curiously. He brandished his phone and brought up a timer, his finger hovering over the start icon. “If I come before the five-minute timer runs out, I have to clean the apartment. If I last even a second longer, you have to do it.”

Imagine making your heavily pregnant girlfriend do laborious household chores,” she replied in mock outrage.

What’s the matter, don’t think you can do it?”

Cock out. Now,” she said as she beckoned to him with a clawed finger. He hastily unzipped his pants, Liz smirking as he shuffled over to the couch. She was still lying down, apparently confident enough in her abilities that she didn’t see any need to sit up. Due to the size of the couch, that put her at a rather comfortable height.

Start the timer,” she cooed, Jamie shaking his head.

I’ll count you down. Three...two...”

Liz beat him to the punch, her hand rising to cup his balls, her delicate fur tickling his skin as she gave them a teasing squeeze. Jamie hit the home icon in his surprise, and he fumbled to open the app again as she snickered at him.

Cheater,” he complained, starting the clock and setting the phone down on the coffee table.

If you can’t work a phone, that’s your problem,” she replied as she guided him closer. Her tongue parted her lips, winding its way towards him like a tentacle, a solid foot of glistening flesh on display. She gently brushed his glans with its velvety underside, Jamie’s knees going weak. Maybe doing this while standing put him at a disadvantage…

The slippery organ coiled around his shaft, tightening enough to get a grip, maneuvering his throbbing member towards her mouth. She was still lounging in the cushions lazily, her demeanor nonchalant as she pursed her soft lips around his head, drawing on it gently. She slipped the tapered tip beneath his foreskin, swirling it around his glans, painting it with her warm saliva.

Her pace was slow, placating, and she knew precisely where he was most sensitive. He shuddered as he felt her satin tongue tease the underside of his glans, drawing shapes on his tender flesh, licking a bead of welling pre from his tip as she went. Slowly, she drew him deeper into her mouth, the length of slippery muscle encompassing him in its warm coils as she inched down his shaft.

Rather than take him into her throat, she pushed him into her cheek, Jamie watching it bulge outward. Its soft lining was like wet silk, her lips pursing around his shaft, Liz starting to nurse at his cock with a gentle suction. The fleshy coils of her tongue wrapped around him, stroking him with all the dexterity of a hand, the warm layer of drool that coated his skin making its touch slick.

She watched him with those green eyes, her lips curling into a smile around his shaft, Jamie’s face warming as he became enraptured by her slow rhythm. She stroked his balls with her furry fingers all the while, tickling his skin with her delicate coat.

Y-you’re only supposed to use your mouth,” he stammered.

Says who?” Liz mumbled, her voice muffled as she talked around his member. The movements of her tongue and the vibrations of her speech make him shiver, her sordid chuckling further stimulating him.

She pushed him back into her cheek, his glans sliding against her smooth flesh, the silken underside of her tongue exploring every inch of his shaft. He felt its pointed tip follow a pulsing vein all the way down to his base, the pink organ circling his girth, the fact that he couldn’t see what she was doing making him all the more sensitive.

Liz drew back until only his tip was still trapped between her lips, his shaft coated in a glistening sheen of her bubbling saliva, strands of it drooping to the couch cushions beside her head. She released him with a pop, wetting her lips.

You’re close.”

Am not.”

Are too,” she said, reaching up to press a padded finger against his tip. She grinned as his member jumped, bobbing in the air in time with his racing heart. “I can feel you throbbing on my tongue, you can’t hide it from me.”

You talk a lot of shit for someone who only has three minutes left.”

Oh, I can take my sweet time,” she cooed, planting a doting kiss on his shaft.

She returned her lips to his member, crawling them all the way down to the hilt, Jamie gritting his teeth as he felt her throat close around him. Beyond the slick, hot flesh of her gullet, her muscles massaged him with each swallow. He could feel them gliding down his length, drawing him deeper, her prehensile tongue emerging from her mouth to lap at his balls. It felt like she was trying to drink from him, the suction making him gasp, the rhythmic rolling of her throat as she sucked making him reach out to grip the armrest of the couch to steady himself.

With huge lungs came a huge lung capacity, Liz able to hold her breath long enough that a human in her position would have passed out. Unable to resist the warm, undulating confines of her throat, he began to push deeper. Liz watched him with her feline eyes as he started to thrust into her mouth, his smiling partner relaxing, letting him set the pace. Winning the bet was far from his mind now, his thoughts fogged by lust, the way that her velvet flesh squeezed him when she swallowed the saliva that was pooling in her mouth all that he could focus on.

His eyelids drooped as her tongue cradled his balls, his rutting becoming erratic, Liz loosing a low purr that made her throat vibrate around his length. He was quickly reaching his limit, her muscles caressing him in waves, unbearably tight. It quickly became more than he could stand, the sweet pressure of his climax welling up inside him, too urgent for him to stave it off any longer.

Liz reached out to take a handful of his rear as she felt him swell, ensuring that he couldn’t pull away, her lashes fluttering as a strand of his seed splashed against the back of her throat. She drew the next one out of him, gulping around his twitching cock, her gullet milking him with its ruthless stroking. Her lips kissed his base, her pink nose pressing against his belly, her claws pricking his butt as she drank down every last drop that he could give her.

She seemed to have been distracted by her desire just as much as he had, her eyes widening as she remembered their bargain. She suddenly let his member slide out of her mouth, reaching across to grab the phone from its place on the coffee table, the strands of drool that still joined her lips to his glans breaking with the motion. She stopped the timer with a padded finger, turning the screen so that Jamie could see it.

Four minutes, forty-eight seconds,” she declared with a toothy grin. “Better get your feather duster ready.”

Doesn’t feel like much of a loss,” he chuckled, giving her a drunken smile.

***

Another couple of weeks had passed, and Liz and Jamie were settling into their new routine. The embassy had been happy to renew Liz’s contract to ensure that she would return once her pregnancy was over, and they were paying her a rather generous wage during her maternity leave. Jamie hadn’t been able to return to his job at the supermarket, but he had anticipated that. At least for the time being, he wanted to stay with Liz and take care of her. He could look for another job later. His coworkers had welcomed him back with a surprise visit and had listened intently to the stories that he and Liz had been able to tell of their journeys.

The UAS had been quick to get back in touch with them, one of their representatives sending a message requesting that Liz undergo period checkups at the nearest clinic, where they would be stationing a qualified doctor. Jamie was amused to see that the address was the same as the clinic where he had initially been informed that splicing the DNA of two different species was impossible. He wondered if that same doctor would be on hand to witness the miracle that Sousa and the Jarilans had performed.

Liz was now entering her third trimester, and her belly was bulging noticeably. Its growth had been slow and steady thus far, but she was very visibly pregnant now, and it was starting to become troublesome for her. It wasn’t that she couldn’t carry the extra weight, but the change in her center of gravity and the new caution that she had to employ when moving around so as not to bang her belly on counters and tables had slowed her down a little. The birth was expected to happen in less than three months, and the closer the date came, the more real everything seemed.

***

Ugh, I need to get some new shirts,” Liz muttered as she tried in vain to pull her top down over the mound of her belly.

That’s what you get for wearing such tight clothes,” Jamie replied, leaning on the kitchen counter as he took a sip from his coffee mug.

I think you’d go on strike if I wore baggy clothes,” she replied, eyeing him from across the living area. “I can still feel my abs,” she added, prodding at her inflated stomach. “They’re just...shifting around. It’s so weird.” She reached down and pinched the fat of her hip, her brow furrowing. “I’m putting on weight, though,” she grumbled. “Equatorials aren’t supposed to be fat. Am I gonna be the first fat equatorial?”

You’re not fat,” Jamie chuckled, taking another sip from his mug. “You’re putting on baby weight like you’re supposed to.”

I can’t even work out. I feel like I won’t even be able to move around properly pretty soon. I’ll just be sitting there on the couch like some kind of...immobile brood mother.”

Jamie laughed at the image, shaking his head.

Just a couple more months, right?”

Then we’ll have bigger problems to deal with than my expanding waistline,” she replied with a smirk.

I don’t mind if you get a bit softer,” Jamie added, glancing pointedly at her breasts. They had finally slowed their growth, and if he had to guess, they were near twice the size they had been originally. One of the first things they had done since getting back home was order some bras for her, as even if their weight wasn’t more than she could handle, their size had become unwieldy. They used to be large enough that one of them would have comfortably filled his lap, but now, it would spill over his thighs.

Oh, so now I am getting fatter?” she asked as she narrowed her eyes at him in mock outrage.

Only where it counts,” he chuckled.

Be careful what you wish for. There might be more of me than you can handle at this rate.”

You almost ready to go?” he asked, Liz pulling on her leather jacket. She couldn’t even zip it up now, not without putting an uncomfortable amount of pressure on her belly.

Yeah, I’m ready,” she replied. “Doctor Muller said that we’d be doing an ultrasound this week. We might actually be able to see their faces.”

***

The gel might be a little cold,” the doctor warned, smearing some of the substance on the underside of his probe. It looked like an electric razor to Jamie, but instead of blades, it had a flat section on one end. The device was connected wirelessly to a holographic display that was mounted beside the examination table that Liz was lying on. Her shirt was lifted to expose her belly, the doctor moving to her side as he prepared the device.

She flinched as he pressed it against her stomach, her eyes following the probe as he started to move it around, leaving a smear of clear gel in its wake. The display began to project a three-dimensional image, but it didn’t look like anything recognizable to Jamie, just a pulsing mass in grainy black and white.

Keep watching,” the doctor advised, the image gradually becoming clearer. Everything was in motion, it was hard to focus on any one aspect of the display, but a dark void gradually began to come into view. “That black area is the amniotic fluid that fills the womb,” the doctor explained, the image shifting again as he moved the device around. “Sound waves reflect off solid matter, but they pass straight through fluids. There’s one of the kittens...”

It took Jamie a moment, but he started to pick something out in the black and white mass. His eyes widened as he recognized a face in profile. He could see the round skull, the lips, a feline nose like Liz’s. The kitten was curled up in a tight ball, its digitigrade legs tucked up to its belly, the bones of what must be its tail wrapped around itself.

I can see it!” Liz exclaimed, the doctor freezing the image so that they could get a better look.

I’m having a little trouble singling them out due to how densely the babies are packed together,” the doctor explained. “I can’t determine the gender just yet, but everything looks healthy at a glance. I’m not seeing any obvious abnormalities. I’ll send these scans to the lab, and we’ll go over them with a fine-toothed comb.”

He turned to the display, swiping through the controls, the software sharpening the image until a tiny face came into view. Jamie had never seen a Borealan kitten before. He had met Liz when they were both around six years old, so she had been young, but not this young. Its facial features were those of a Borealan, just like its mother. Its eyes were tightly shut, and its little round ears were folded against its head. Human babies were usually born with sparse hair, if any, but this kitten was fully-furred. The resolution on the rendering was high enough to make out the tufts of hair that covered its body from head to tail. He knew that – like their mother – they would lose that coat by the time they became adolescents.

He reached over to take Liz’s hand, the two of them admiring their growing child together.

I wonder what color her coat will be,” Liz wondered aloud, giving his hand a squeeze. “We’re both blonde, but Doctor Sousa said that some recessive genes might express themselves. My mom was a redhead with light skin, a native Elysian, so we might get some combinations of those features.”

My mom had brown hair,” Jamie added. “We might see some human genes thrown into the mix.”

I’ll copy the files over to your phone so you can take them home when we’re done,” the doctor suggested, Liz nodding her head enthusiastically. “Now, let’s try and get some imaging of the other babies if we can. This...might take a little longer,” he added as he appraised her swollen belly with his probe in hand. “I’m only used to scanning one baby at once, twins at the most.”

Take all the time you need,” Liz replied, waiting eagerly for the holographic display to start shifting again.

***

I’m hungry,” Liz complained, Jamie turning to glance at her from his place beside the kitchen counter as she lounged on the couch.

We just ate lunch not long ago,” he replied, stooping to place a dirty plate in the dishwasher.

Well, I’m still hungry,” she insisted.

What are you hungry for? I could whip you something up.”

Meat,” she replied.

Jamie made his way over to the freezer, opening the door to peer inside.

We’ve got chicken, bacon, minced beef...”

N-no,” she replied hesitantly, chewing on one of her curved claws as she often did when she was being indecisive. “I want meat.”

You’re gonna have to elaborate,” he said as he leaned back against the fridge, crossing his arms.

I just…” She hesitated again, seeming almost embarrassed. “I have this craving that I can’t shake.”

Food cravings are normal during pregnancy,” Jamie replied in an attempt to reassure her. “Sousa warned you this would probably happen.”

Yeah, cravings for asparagus dipped in strawberry ice cream and weird stuff like that. I want red meat,” she added, her sudden enthusiasm surprising him. “I want it rare, juicy. I want to crack the bones and suck out the marrow.”

Well...maybe your body needs more protein or something,” he suggested with a shrug. “You might eat large portions, but your diet has to be very different from what you’d be eating on Borealis, right? The way you describe their feasts, it sounds like ninety percent of their diet is just various kinds of roasted meat.”

It’s like an itch,” she added with a frustrated grumble. “One that I can’t scratch.”

Delis exist, you know,” Jamie added. “There’s one a few floors down on one of the plazas. I could drop in, see if I can get you some steaks or something.”

Delis sell cuts of meat,” Liz continued. “What I’m talking about is more like...God, the word carcass sounds really bad, but I want to chew meat off the bone. I want something pretty...intact.”

I mean, they have to be getting the cuts from somewhere, right?”

Would you really go down and check?” she asked, her furry ears pricking up. “I’d really appreciate it.”

When I said I’d stay home and take care of you, I meant it,” he replied as he made his way over to the door. “Besides, it’ll stop you from eating the neighbors,” he added with a wink as he closed it behind him.

***

Jamie rode the elevator down a few floors, stepping out onto the commercial plaza. The core of the high-rise was an open shaft that brought fresh air up through the center of the structure via natural convection, the breeze rustling Jamie’s hair. The plaza ringed the central shaft, a platform that extended a good dozen meters from the interior wall, creating a vaguely circular walkway. Lined up along the wall were storefronts of various kinds where the thousands of people who lived inside the building could shop for necessities and services. There were bakeries, supermarkets, hair salons, conveniences that might not warrant a trip down to ground level. It was decorated with planters that added some much-needed greenery to the scene, and there were benches scattered about, reminiscent of a city park that had been blended with a mall.

He soon located the nearest deli, its neon sign in the shape of a cow, passing beneath a colorful awning as he made his way through the automatic door. Standing behind a glass counter was a portly man wearing a striped apron who greeted him with a nod, Jamie eyeing the various cuts of meat that were on display through the glass as he tried to decide how to approach the situation.

Are you looking for something in particular?” the storekeeper asked, probably wondering why Jamie was taking such a long time to speak up.

Yeah,” he began, trying to think of the best way to phrase it. “Do you guys carry any large cuts?”

How large?” the man asked, cocking a bushy eyebrow at him. “What exactly are you going to be using it for? What kind of meat do you want, and how are you going to be cooking it? You’ll have to be more specific.”

Uh, red meat, something that can be eaten rare. Ideally, right off the bone.”

And you want large cuts?”

Yeah,” Jamie replied with a nod.

Well, we don’t butcher the meat on-site,” the man continued. “You won’t find us hauling entire cows up and down the service elevators. What we do have are mutton and pork shanks, that’s the upper leg of the animal, and those usually come on the bone.”

That sounds good,” Jamie replied.

What’s this for?” the shopkeeper wondered. “Are you throwing a party?”

A dinner party, yeah,” Jamie replied. “I want an impressive spread, you know?”

In that case, how about a suckling pig?”

A suckling pig?” Jamie asked, cocking his head. “What, like with the apple in its mouth and everything?”

A suckling pig is a whole animal, usually roasted on a bed of vegetables,” the shopkeeper explained.

That sounds great, but...I don’t think I’d be able to fit an entire pig in my oven.”

They’re actually piglets, so probably quite a bit smaller than what you’re imagining,” the shopkeeper continued as he leaned on the counter. “Usually somewhere around thirty or forty pounds. But, if cooking it is an issue, I can roast it here and have it delivered to your apartment. When’s the dinner party?”

Uh...now,” Jamie replied sheepishly, the man giving him an incredulous look.

In that case, we actually have a roasted pig in the back. We use them for fresh sandwich meat. I could sell you that right now.”

I’ll take it,” Jamie replied. “Some shanks, too.”

You must have a lot of guests to feed,” the shopkeeper said as he made his way towards a door that led to a back room.

It’s a party of five,” Jamie called after him.

***

Liz turned to glance at Jamie as he stepped into the apartment, the automatic door sliding shut behind him. He set down a plastic bag and a large cardboard box with a carrying handle on the top, rolling his shoulders.

You found something?” she asked eagerly, her nose twitching as the scent of roast meat reached her.

Did you ever doubt me?” he replied. He picked up the bags again, taking them over to the kitchen table. Liz rose from her seat, steadying herself for a moment before joining him. She watched with wide eyes as he unpacked the cardboard box, revealing the suckling pig. It was a piglet, about thirty pounds, curled up into an almost sausage-like shape. The shopkeeper had offered to de-bone and prepare the meat, but Jamie had declined. Liz had asked for a carcass, and this was about as close to one as they were going to get outside of a slaughterhouse. It still had its snout, its ears, its trotters, its crispy skin now the color of bacon. It was still warm, the scent making even Jamie’s mouth water.

You found an entire pig?” Liz asked in disbelief. “I was expecting you to come back with some frozen chicken drumsticks or something.”

I also got these,” Jamie said as he removed four shanks from the plastic carrying bag. “They’re mutton and pork shanks, still on the bone. You can eat the pig right now, it’s pre-cooked, but I’ll have to roast these for you.”

Look at my brave hunter bringing home the bacon,” Liz cooed, wrapping her arms around him and drawing him into her bosom. His face sank into the ample cushion of her breasts through her shirt, her flesh spilling over his shoulders, her comely scent making his head spin. “Who needs a pack when I have you looking after me?”

She released him, turning her attention back to the pig, wetting her lips hungrily. This was probably as close to a Borealan feast that she was going to get right now.

You want some cutlery for that?” Jamie asked, watching her lift the pig out of its cardboard box.

Nope,” she replied, flexing her clawed fingers. “Borealans come with cutlery included.”

She set it on the table – they had no plates large enough to accommodate it – and pulled up a seat, her inflated belly meaning that she had to sit a little further back than usual to avoid bumping it against the edge.

Jamie watched as she prodded at its crispy skin with a claw, then sank it deeper, scoring its flesh. She carved out a piece from its back, the meat beneath the surface a paler color, popping it into her mouth. He could hear the skin crackle as she began to chew, the expression on her face telling him everything that he needed to know.

I’ll get the shanks cooking,” he said, Liz nodding her head as she sliced off another piece. Not for the first time, he considered how deadly those claws could be and how careful Liz was with them in everyday situations. Unlike domestic cats, Borealans couldn’t retract their claws at all, yet he couldn’t remember her ever accidentally scratching him. He still bore the scars down his back from the first night they had made love, yes, but that didn’t really qualify as accidental…

Jamie set the rest of the meat to roast, then joined Liz at the table, watching as she slowly dismantled her pig. She had started on its back, systematically removing the layers of muscle, fat, and skin to expose its ribs and spine. Every so often, she would pause to lick her fingers with her prehensile tongue, using the barbs to clean away the grease from her fur. This was how Borealans ate on her homeworld, their normal table etiquette. It wasn’t hard to imagine one of their feasts, the long banquet tables stacked high with exotic meats, entire packs of Borealans devouring whole animals like a pride of lions eating a zebra.

All things considered, as absurdly large as the pig had looked to Jamie, it wasn’t all that big when compared to the five-hundred-pound alien. To Liz, it was more the equivalent of a human eating a rotisserie chicken, which wasn’t unusual at all. Just what caliber of animal would it take to completely satisfy her? A sheep? A horse?

Man, this is good,” she sighed as she began to carve off the pig’s hind leg. “This is exactly what I needed. You want some?” she added, but Jamie shook his head.

One lunch is enough for me, thanks.”

He was curious to see what she would do with the bones, watching as she stripped the flesh away from the pig’s femur. When there wasn’t so much as a tendon left, she raised the pale bone to her mouth, clamping her jaws down on it.

Whoa, watch your teeth,” Jamie warned. Ignoring his plea, she bit down, a cracking sound filling the apartment. Once it was broken, she spat out a few shattered shards, giving him a toothy grin.

Don’t worry, the cooking process makes it brittle.”

Placing her lips around the break, she began to suck out the marrow, Jamie resisting the urge to make an off-color joke.

By the time the pig was little more than a skeleton, the head still mostly intact, the shanks were ready. Jamie presented her with a tray stacked high with more meat, her appetite still paradoxically unsatisfied, Liz’s eyes lighting up like a kid opening a Christmas present.

The bones were much larger than those of the piglet, and when she was done with the roast meat, she seemed to relish the challenge of breaking them open. She cracked them in her powerful jaws with such confidence, while Jamie would have feared breaking a tooth.

The marrow is the most prized part of the animal,” she explained as she gestured with one of the broken bones. “It’s full of nutrition, and so tender. After coming back from Borealis, it drives me crazy to see people treat them as waste.”

Did that scratch the itch?” he asked as she raked one of the bones with her barbed tongue to clean away the last vestiges of clinging meat.

Yeah,” she sighed, leaning back in her chair. “I feel so much better now. That nagging voice in the back of my mind is finally quiet.”

I guess Borealan kittens need a lot of protein,” he chuckled.

Half-Borealan,” she reminded him, giving him a wink. “Don’t downplay your contribution.”

***

They were watching a movie late one night when Liz lurched suddenly, almost dropping the drink that she was holding. Jamie was on her in a second, placing a hand on her shoulder.

What is it?” he asked hurriedly. “Is it a contraction? You’re supposed to have a couple of months left, at least.”

Liz glanced at her stomach with a surprised expression on her face, reaching down to lift her shirt a little more, running a hand across he