Pinwheel


Cover illustration by Furduo: https://furduo.tumblr.com

© 2019 Snekguy. All rights reserved.

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

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Disclaimer: This work of erotic fiction is intended for adults only. The story contains the following themes: femdom, size difference, muscle, sweat, aliens, orgasm denial, long tongues, biting, light bondage.

 

CHAPTER 1: HOME AWAY FROM HOME

 

The deck beneath my feet shook as the shuttle’s engines pushed it up through the atmosphere, the troop bay lit only by warning strips along the ceiling and the glow of the flames that licked at the craft’s stubby nose, bleeding in through the small portholes. Two dozen other recruits occupied the rows of crash couches that were lined up against the walls, buffeted by the turbulence as they clung to the armrests of their seats with white knuckles. Their eyes darted about nervously, their faces lit by the orange glare, all clad in matching uniforms in a shade of Navy blue.

I reached down and checked that my safety harness was secure, tugging it a little tighter around my chest and ensuring that the buckle was properly fastened. This wasn’t my first trip into space, but I hadn’t had time to get used to it yet. I was still muddy, as the Marines and the well-traveled of Earth’s upper echelons referred to those who had spent most of their lives planetside, in reference to the terrestrial soil and dirt that they liked to imagine still caked our boots. Personally, I hadn’t seen Earth in months, I had been spending my days hopping between planets and stations as my fellow recruits and I were ferried to our ultimate destination.

Was I starting to regret joining the United Nations Navy? No, there was a war to be fought, and I wanted to do my part. The day that I had turned nineteen, I had dropped out of agricultural college against the wishes of my father, and I had enlisted in the Navy. Many of my friends had done the same. We had imagined forming a unit together, but before we could so much as protest, we had been sent off around the world to different boot camps. I hadn’t seen any of my comrades since, but I had successfully completed basic training, and today was the final step in my journey. I was finally going to finish my training and become a real UNN Marine.

The colony planet dwindled behind our little dropship as it broke through the upper atmosphere, the shaking abating and the flickering flames fading as the sky beyond the nearest porthole shifted from azure to a dark, velvety black. Stars twinkled, harsher and colder than they had ever looked from the ground. I thanked those stars that there was no weightlessness. That had been one of the least enjoyable parts of the training. The shuttle was equipped with an AG field, generating artificial gravity that would keep us firmly rooted to the deck.

As I looked out into space, frost crystals clinging to the edges of the glass, I saw our ride. Hanging above the curvature of the planet was the jump carrier, a vaguely bullet-shaped spacecraft painted in the traditional ocean-grey, its bulbous hull adorned with blue UNN logos and regalia. At over a thousand feet long and with a mass of a hundred thousand tons, it was one of the largest vessels that the Navy could field. As the shuttle banked, I got a better look at it, the sunlight reflecting off its surface like a beacon.

Along its belly was a forest of railguns that were mounted on flexible arms, intended for ground support and offensive roles in space. Point defense weapons and torpedo tubes were spaced out along its curved hull at intervals, its clean lines broken up by recesses where vessels could dock, like barnacles clinging to a whale. On the port and starboard sides were cavernous hangar bays, the shimmering, blue force field that prevented the atmosphere within from escaping into space visible even at a distance. I could see the glowing pinpoints of the portholes along its flanks, as well as the main bridge, situated toward the rounded nose of the craft. At the aft were the giant realspace engines, long jets of hydrogen flame spewing forth as it maneuvered into position.

The ship’s primary purpose was force projection, a fleet with one of these at its head would be able to both capture and defend entire planets. Her crew compliment included thousands of Marines who could be deployed to the ground, and it was my ultimate aspiration to be among them.

Seeing it filled my chest with a kind of pride, not only because I was finally seeing one of the behemoths in the flesh, but because I was well on the way toward serving on one of the giant spaceships.

As we drew closer, the swarms of vessels that surrounded it came into view, like a cloud of bees encircling their hive. There were transport ships resupplying the carrier, formations of fighter craft and gunships making their way toward her bays, along with a dozen other shuttles identical to our own. We were not the only recruits riding along today, hundreds of people had made their way here, and we were all heading to the same destination. The carrier was taking us to an orbital station on the frontier of known space, where our Marine training would begin.

I peered out of the window as the pilot maneuvered us toward the ship, and I watched the gaping hangar bay pass us by. We weren’t landing in the bay, then, we would be occupying one of the recesses in the hull. I sat back down in my seat, my stomach lurching as the shuttle flipped belly-side-up relative to the carrier, the thrusters along the craft’s hull flaring as we slid into one of the alcoves. I felt a rumble pass through the deck as the shuttle mated to the carrier, locking into place like a flea on the back of a giant, metal dog.

A twinge of apprehension marred my excitement as I glanced at my neighbor, his face pale, beads of cold sweat already forming on his brow. We would be jumping to superlight before long.

Another role of the carrier was to drag smaller vessels along in its wake, being one of the few classes of ship large enough to house the nuclear reactors that were required for long-range jumps. The superlight drive would drain the reactors of energy, storing it up and using it to punch a hole in reality. The carrier would then leave our paltry three dimensions of space, pulling all of the ships in its vicinity along for the ride. Faster than light travel was impossible of course, but superlight bypassed the limitations of reality by exiting it entirely, passing into an alternate dimension where there were no such constraints. Nobody really knew what happened between exit and emergence. Time might flow differently there, maybe the ship became as massless as a photon, or perhaps the two points of space somehow drew closer together. Either way, the vessel would be vomited back into reality a split second later, having crossed a distance of light years.

There was one big downside to superlight travel. Whatever higher dimension of space the vessel traversed, it was poison to the nervous system. Symptoms included but were not limited to violent muscle spasms, migraines and headaches, even blackouts and what could only be described as temporary insanity.

All of the recruits had undergone superlight jumps to get here, myself included, but none of us was especially looking forward to another one. They said that it got easier with time, some of the more experienced pilots were barely affected at all, but it certainly didn’t seem that way from where I was sitting.

After a few minutes of excruciating waiting, our fears were realized when the shuttle began to vibrate, the carrier’s superlight drive was charging up. I glanced out of the nearby porthole again, angled down toward the planet in relation to the craft, its grey hull curving away like a steel horizon. I could see a few dawdling support craft burning out of range, along with a large frigate that was floating lazily in formation beside us, preparing to ride in our superlight wake no doubt. Its hull was angular and blocky, designed for a low radar cross-section, bristling with hatches that covered torpedo tubes.

Jump prep, two minutes,” the pilot announced over the shuttle’s intercom.

There was a flurry of movement as everyone checked their harnesses and inserted clear, plastic bits into their mouths. They were standard issue, the last thing you wanted was to regain consciousness after a jump, only to realize that you had bitten your tongue off. I reached into my pocket and secured my own bit, running my tongue over the smooth plastic as my heart began to race.

The seconds dragged on until finally, the pilot’s voice came through again with a hiss of static.

Brace for jump!”

The vibration became a rumbling, then the rumbling became a violent shaking. I was vaguely aware of the hairs on my arms standing on end before it suddenly stopped. As did all of my senses, my perception of time, and I could swear my heartbeat. I couldn’t hear, I couldn’t see, I couldn’t experience anything at all. For a solitary second that dragged on for eternity, I was trapped in a dark grave, I was dead. Light suddenly flooded back into my eyes, my ears filling with the sounds of wailing trainees, my nerves lighting up like a switchboard. I convulsed violently, the straps on my harness digging into my flesh. I tried to open my eyes, but all I saw were blurry shapes, like looking through frosted glass. My brain was muddled, I couldn’t remember where I was, why I was hurting. Like crawling out of molasses, my mind slowly started to come together. Pieces of memories came flooding back, experiences, sensations. My vision came back into focus, and then I remembered where I was and what had happened.

I gasped, fully conscious again as the people around me moaned and struggled, a few vomiting up their breakfasts onto the metal deck. I could hear the pilot laughing at us from behind the cockpit door, amused by the chaos. This must be routine for him, but we were still novices.

I spat out my bit, hearing it clatter to the deck as I hit the clasp that would release my safety harness. I could feel the stinging welts beneath my uniform where it had dug into my skin. I must have been straining against my bonds during my unconsciousness, wracked with convulsions like I was having a seizure. My head still ached, and every muscle in my body felt like it was recovering from a nasty cramp.

The Drill Sergeants hadn’t been exaggerating to mess with us, it really was terrible. After every jump, all that I could see in my mind’s eye were the laughing faces of our instructors as they imagined us getting our cherries popped. I stood up from my seat on shaking legs, leaning on the armrest for support, and a few of my compatriots attempted to do the same. Some fell out of their chairs, one of them tumbling face-first into a pool of his own vomit, the laughter from the pilot becoming riotous.

There was a mechanical thud as the shuttle disengaged from the carrier, drifting away from it and reorienting itself in space. I looked out through the porthole to see a dozen craft just like our own detaching, as though the mothership was shedding its scales. They would have been almost invisible against the black backdrop of space was it not for the glare of a new sun, its light distinctly yellower than that of the system that we had just left.

I watched the frigate that had trailed behind us break off, the thrusters along its hull flaring with blue fire as it peeled away. The breach that the carrier had punched in reality was now little more than an expanding cloud of technicolor gas and cosmic dust, spreading out like a miniature nebula, as beautiful as it was strange. It looked like a colorful smear of paint on a black canvass, the residue sparkling in the sunlight.

The shuttle lurched as it began to burn away, and I reached up to grasp one of the handholds in the ceiling as I peered intently beyond the window. My eyes lit up as I glimpsed it for the first time. There it was, Fort Hamilton.

Its white hull was silhouetted against a gleaming, terrestrial planet that was sheathed in white clouds, its arid surface colored in shades of brown and beige. The orbiting station grew larger as we neared it, until it filled my field of view entirely. My first impression was that it looked like a giant bicycle wheel. There was a central hub that was covered in communications equipment and radar dishes, jutting out into space like antennae, which was connected to a rotating torus via long spokes. The giant, donut-shaped habitat was spinning slowly. It was far too large for artificial gravity generators, so it must be rotating to simulate gravity like a centrifuge.

There were hangar bays spaced at intervals along the thick torus. The same shimmering force fields that I had seen on the carrier were present here, albeit far more massive in scale. It was hard to estimate the size of the station with no point of reference, but there were Navy vessels floating around it like shoals of giant, grey fish. There was another carrier which was dwarfed by the structure, along with several frigates and a cruiser. Some of those bays looked large enough to house a Martian battleship.

My discomfort now forgotten, I looked on in awe as we neared the starbase. The size of the carrier had amazed me, but this was something else entirely. It looked as if half a dozen of them could have docked here at once.

Our shuttle pulled up alongside the wheel, matching velocity with its slow spin. The matte white hull rose up like the edge of a cliff, more of its features jumping out at me now that we were closer to it. There were no windows visible, but there were comms arrays everywhere, the armored tiles and tiny pressure doors adding detail to its smooth surface.

The shuttle coasted toward one of the hangars, growing wider and wider as we neared it, until it swallowed up our tiny craft like the gaping maw of some celestial beast. We passed through the thin, glowing barrier of energy that prevented the air inside the vast bay from venting into open space, and I got a clearer look at the interior.

It more resembled the mouth of an artificial cave than a hangar, everything was made from the same white material as the hull. The deck was wide enough that three or four of the one hundred and fifty-foot frigates could have docked here side by side, and when I ducked down to get a look at the ceiling through the narrow porthole, I saw that it was a good hundred feet above our heads. The walls were lined with walkways and gantries, some of them extending like the arms of a crane so that they could reach the large ships that would dock in here. Right now, the only craft occupying the deck were more transport shuttles like ours, along with a refueling vessel that looked like a row of giant golf balls contained within a skeletal frame. Fat, thick hoses snaked along the floor, leading out of view as it filled its tanks.

Strap in, we’ll be landing in a moment,” the pilot announced. I returned to my seat, securing my harness once again, feeling the rumble of the landing gear as they extended from the belly of our little ship. We touched down with a bounce, the gear absorbing the impact. Before the pilot even had time to give the order, we were already up, waiting eagerly for the troop bay ramp to descend. We slung our heavy packs across our backs, carrying all of our gear and what few personal belongings we had elected to bring with us.

The engines powered down, and the landing ramp began to lower, a crack of bright light appearing that steadily grew. I smelled the stale, recycled air that was so common on spaceships and stations, marching down the ramp with my fellow recruits. Our boots hit the deck, our footsteps echoing in the expansive bay as though we were walking inside a cathedral. Everyone’s head was on a swivel, taking in their surroundings. I glanced back over my shoulder, feeling butterflies in my stomach as I gazed at the force field. The thin, insubstantial barrier of energy wasn’t much of a comfort, and I immediately imagined being sucked out into the freezing nothingness. The field would trap the atmosphere, but would allow solid objects to pass through it. It was best not to wander too close. The stories of people tripping and falling into space were probably exaggerated, but it was a distinct possibility if you were careless.

A Staff Sergeant was already waiting for us with a tablet computer clasped in his hand, his rank emblazoned on the breast of his Navy-blue uniform. We lined up in front of him, some of the recruits still unsteady on their feet after the jump, his expression hardening as he examined us. We stood to attention and returned a salute, some more enthusiastically than others, and he began to check our names against a database. After a short roll-call, he gestured to the hangar bay.

Welcome to the UNN starbase Fort Hamilton, or as we like to call it, the Pinwheel. My name is Staff Sergeant Vasiliev. I see that some of you took the jump harder than others,” he muttered, eyeing a dejected trainee who had drying vomit all over his coveralls. “But you’ll quickly find that life here can be pleasant, if you follow the rules and do as you are instructed.”

He stowed his tablet computer neatly under his arm, beginning to stride up and down the line of recruits.

Having completed your basic training on your home planets, you will now begin your Marine training. This is a Coalition starbase, which means that we have many non-human personnel from allied worlds who you will learn to live and work with. Some of you may find this difficult,” he continued, pausing to make eye-contact with one of the trainees. “Others may find it…undesirable, but creating cohesive units that include Coalition species is paramount to the war effort.”

Everyone knew about the Coalition. It was an alliance formed by several alien species, of which humanity was a member, with the intention of combining forces against common threats. An attack on one was an attack on all Coalition members, and our combined strength could take on any enemy that dared to test us. For twenty years now, we had been at war with the insectoid Betelgeusians, as long as I had been alive. We had ratified the Coalition treaty after, unprovoked, the Bugs had destroyed a colony ship crewed by forty thousand people. It had been humanity’s first contact with an alien species, we’d had no idea of what was waiting for us in the void. All hands had been lost, and soon after we had discovered that we were not alone in our struggle. The Coalition had made contact, inviting us to join their alliance, and the United Nations had not hesitated to accept.

The Bugs attacked any habitable planets in their path, with no regard for anything resembling rules of engagement. They bombed cities from orbit and used inhumane chemical weapons in their bid to seize territory, invading with vast fleets and armies. They were a plague, their only desire was endless expansion, and so the Earth and her colonies had been locked into a perpetual war of attrition.

Joining the military was pretty much the only way that someone of my social class would ever get into space and see the Galaxy, and although adventure had factored into my decision to enlist, seeing the damage done during the battles on the frontier worlds had filled me with resentment. I wanted to get involved, I wanted to help. Most of all, I wanted to kill Bugs. If I succeeded in becoming a Marine, then I might be amongst those deployed to defend the vulnerable colonies that bordered contested space.

You will be forming units with trainees from two other species that have been specially selected for this program,” the Staff Sergeant continued. “You must learn to interact with them and to fight alongside them effectively in combat. You will be eating with them, training with them, bunking with them. Anyone who can’t cut it gets sent back to whatever rock they came from, is that clear?”

There was a chorus of affirmations, and then we were led out of the hangar bay and into the station proper. There were gasps of awe as we emerged onto the torus, an artificial breeze ruffling my hair and the muddled roar of a thousand conversations rising to my ears. I could have been standing on any city street back on Earth. The torus was massive, the curvature beneath my feet imperceptible, only the way that the walkway curved out of view in the distance giving it away. The ceiling was painted blue, dotted with puffy clouds to create the illusion of a sky, the large lamps that were spaced along it at intervals shining with a light and heat that approximated Sol. Buildings lined the torus to either side of us, seemingly carved out of the white hull material, their facades decorated to resemble terrestrial structures. There were molded bricks and wooden slats, windows and doors, colorful awnings over what might be stores. There were planters along the center of the walkway that housed trees and flowers, along with benches and information kiosks. They had gone all out on selling the illusion that one was standing on a planet rather than on a space station.

My senses were almost completely fooled, and I immediately felt more at ease than I ever had on any of the previous ships and stations that I had visited. I felt more like I was standing in a resort rather than a Naval base, but in the back of my mind, I knew that the feeling would fade once the hard work began.

Welcome to the torus,” the Staff Sergeant shouted over the din. The walkways were packed with bustling crowds, civilians and military personnel alike. I could even see a few aliens, although they were too far away for me to get a good look at them. “The station is split into four quadrants. Military, tourism, residential and engineering. As trainees, you are to remain in the military quarter. You see those colored lines on the floor? If you get lost, or if you end up somewhere that you’re not supposed to be, follow them to find your way back. Now follow me, and don’t get separated. The Pinwheel is even larger than it looks.”

I stared with my mouth agape, until the impatient trainee that occupied the place in the line behind me gave me a shove, ushering me forward.

***

The Staff Sergeant gave us a guided tour of the quadrant, and I only became more surprised as we marched on. Not only were there barracks to house the troops, but also gyms and recreation centers, even an Olympic swimming pool. Everything was built from the same white material, but decorated with planters and other aesthetic touches that made me feel like I was back on a college campus.

Sergeant Vasiliev led us to our barracks, a large, squat building that looked as if it would house around a thousand recruits. We marched down a small pathway that was lined with trees and artificial grass, and as we entered through the main door, I saw that the building was far larger than its outward appearance would suggest. As well as the facades that protruded out onto the torus, the interior of the structures here extended deep into the station’s hull. Rather than finding exposed pipes and naked wiring, the buildings were as attractive on the inside as they were on the outside, all whitewashed corridors decorated with potted plants and UNN regalia.

The barracks building that we would be calling home for the foreseeable future was split into several different areas. Our quarters were comprised of a small room that housed two trainees at a time, each one furnished with two bunks and two lockers, along with a desk and a few other pieces of necessary furniture. I couldn’t help but notice some irregularities. Some of the beds were conspicuously larger than the others, and in some of the rooms, the second bed was missing altogether. Instead, there was a bowl-shaped recess in the floor that was lined with pillows. What might be sleeping in those? I had to assume that the rooms would house two aliens of a different species, as this exercise was not solely for our benefit.

The less presentable soldiers were given time to change their clothes and to freshen up, and then our tour continued. There was an expansive mess hall, a communal shower and bathroom, and a common room where recruits could spend what free time they would be allotted.

Boot camp had been rough, I had spent almost a year crawling through wet mud and running obstacle courses while Drill Instructors shouted insults at me, we had run from sunrise to sunset until half of the platoon had passed out. In comparison, this facility was downright luxurious. What must it have cost to put a structure like this together?

The smells of cooking food captured my attention as we neared the mess hall, but I was distracted when I noticed a procession of Krell entering the building. I had never seen one in person before, and I couldn’t help but stare at the aliens.

The Krell were huge, lumbering creatures evolved from amphibious reptiles. They were about eight feet tall despite their hunched posture, and at least fifteen feet from their long snouts to their oar-like tails. They resembled bipedal alligators, with jagged teeth jutting from their jaws, their bodies coated in a protective armor of spinach-green scales and bony scutes that tapered into a lighter beige on their soft underbellies. Their many-toed feet slapped on the deck as they marched toward our group, wide and splayed to prevent them from sinking into the mud of their homeworld, their heavy tails dragging along the floor behind them.

They wore no clothes besides for a kind of leather poncho that was draped over their broad shoulders, worn for utility more than to preserve their modesty, covered in pockets and pouches where they might store items. That wasn’t to imply that they were nude. If they had genitals, they weren’t visible.

The two groups exchanged suspicious glances, the humans shifting uneasily as the Krell peered at them with their beady eyes. It was no fault of the aliens, but they were fucking scary. They were golems of teeth and scales, standing a good two feet taller than their human counterparts in spite of their poor posture. It was hard to tell what the Krell were thinking, their faces weren’t exactly the most expressive.

Looks like some of our friends have arrived!” Vasiliev chimed, walking over to meet them. I noticed that the aliens were being led around by a human. I had been so engrossed by the sight of the strange creatures that I hadn’t even seen him. It was another Staff Sergeant, judging by his uniform. He must have been giving a similar tour to the aliens. He chatted with Vasiliev for a minute or two, out of earshot of the recruits, who continued to scrutinize their reptilian allies.

These are the Krell,” Vasiliev announced, turning back toward the trainees and gesturing to the giant aliens. “They’re ugly bastards, but nigh unstoppable on the battlefield once their blood gets flowing. Consider yourselves lucky that they’re far friendlier than they look.” He glanced back over his shoulder, appraising the squad of reptiles. “These guys are a little green,” he added, chuckling at his own joke. “But here’s a tip from me to you. If you have to share a room with one, don’t fight him over the humidifier. You’ll lose.”

The human trainees chuckled nervously, now dreading having to bunk with one of these monsters for the next several months.

They don’t talk much,” the other Staff Sergeant said, pointing to his throat. “They lack the vocal apparatus to reproduce human speech. That said, they understand English well enough, so you shouldn’t have much trouble communicating.”

The Krell joined our procession, and we toured the remainder of the barracks. Unfortunately, we didn’t stop by the mess hall for more than a minute, it seemed that dinner wasn’t being served just yet. Instead, we headed back outside and moved on to an adjacent building. Could these structures even be called buildings? They were technically integral parts of the station, making them more akin to the cabins on a spaceship, but this place was so huge that it blurred the lines.

This structure housed an impressive gym. It was a large, open-plan space littered with exercise equipment. This was also where the lauded Olympic-sized swimming pool was situated, the colorful lane dividers floating on the surface of the blue water. As we neared the edge of the pool, I could make out a few humans in swimwear, moving up and down the lanes as they swam lengths. There were Kell, too, floating on the surface like crocodiles in a river with only their scaly backs and their snouts visible. Their long, powerful tails waved back and forth lazily, pushing them along. Our Krell entourage seemed pleased by the sight of water. They were amphibious, after all, they must be relieved to see that they would be able to take a dip if they wanted to.

I leaned over the edge, looking into the pool and wondering how deep it was. To my bemusement, I spotted a dark shadow lurking beneath, a solitary air bubble rising up to disturb the calm surface.

Suddenly, a great shape exploded out of the water. Before I could so much as cry out in surprise, a powerful force slammed into my chest, sending me skidding backward on my ass and knocking over a fellow trainee like a bowling pin. As we picked ourselves up, the Krell bristling unhappily and snapping their jagged teeth together, the orange mass shook itself like a wet dog and sprayed us with water. I nursed a bruised rib, glaring accusingly at the alien.

It was a she, that much was obvious enough, all eight feet of her. She was basically humanoid, with a feminine figure and the impressive musculature of a swimmer or a gymnast visible beneath a tight-fitting, one-piece swimsuit. My eyes were drawn to her impressive bust and the rows of abdominal muscles that rippled beneath the wet fabric, even before I had noticed her more alien features.

She had digitigrade legs like a dog or a cat that was standing on its hindlimbs, ending in paw-like feet that were tipped with black claws, her round thighs dimpled with muscle. Her hair was a shade of ginger that bordered on orange, cropped short in a messy bob. Protruding from it were a pair of small, round ears like those of a lion or a bear, situated high on her skull. They were covered in matching fur, pivoting and swiveling independently of one another as they tracked sounds.

Her smooth skin was eerily similar to that of a human, but it ended at her knees and elbows, where it gave way to a coat of orange fur that was patterned with faded tiger stripes. It gave the impression that she was wearing furry gloves and socks. Whether she was furred beneath the swimsuit, I couldn’t speculate, but I didn’t see any protruding tufts. She was resting her four-fingered, fuzzy hands on her wide hips, each one tipped with the same curved claws as her feet. They looked like shiny, black meat hooks to me.

I looked up at her face, finding it somewhat uncanny. She looked human enough, but the brow and the bridge of her nose were flat, ending in a pink nose like that of a cat. Her lips were full and rosy, while her eyes were a mesmerizing shade of amber, the alien peering back at me with her feline pupils.

You’re dead, tree climber!” she announced as she flicked her long tail back and forth. She spoke English, with a thick, rolling accent that reminded me of Russian. Unlike the Krell, her species must have a similar enough vocal apparatus to humans. Behind her, more orange heads emerged ominously from the pool, their reflective eyes peering at us from beneath mops of wet hair.

I prepared a retort, but thought better of it. I had worked too hard to get here, I didn’t want to make a bad impression on my first day and put my position in jeopardy.

These are the human soldiers that I’ve heard so much about?” the alien continued. “They’re tiny! I thought that they’d at least be larger than the support staff.” She pointed a clawed finger at me, exposing a set of pointed, carnivore teeth in a mocking grin. “This one reacted so slowly that I could have killed him in my sleep!”

I rubbed my side as I scowled at her, and Vasiliev stepped forward, his tone stern now.

Stand down, Raz. May I remind you that you’re here as a guest of the UNN?”

The big, orange alien shrugged her shoulders dismissively, falling backward into the pool with a splash.

These are the Borealans,” Vasiliev continued, addressing the recruits. “They recently joined the Coalition. They’re not quite as well socialized as some of the other species, so be patient with them. Their planet is right on the frontier, and it’s going to be an invaluable asset. Now, if you’ll follow me this way, we can continue the tour and get everyone fed.”

***

We continued through the facility, touring the rest of the gym, then we headed outside and into a training building. It looked much like a school, with desks of varying sizes and shapes in order to accommodate the different species, along with wall-mounted monitors that would display lesson information. I wondered what the subjects might be. Advanced tactics and enemy intelligence for sure, perhaps cultural and historical studies of the different races participating in the program.

The Krell seemed interested and attentive. Although initially wary of their fearsome appearance, the humans had begun to warm up to them, and crude communication was being attempted between the two groups to the amusement of all. The Borealans, on the other hand, were nowhere to be seen. It seemed that they had arrived earlier than we had, finishing their tour of the facility before our shuttles had landed.

Once the tour was complete, we made our way back toward the barracks and the mess hall. I was glad of it, we had been on our feet all day, and some of the trainees had lost their breakfast in the shuttle. My stomach was growling, and I was more than ready to get some food in me.

The mess hall was large enough to feed a couple of hundred people and aliens at once. To the far wall was a glass counter and stacks of metal trays, and beyond it must be the kitchen. Occupying the rest of the space were tables and benches made from metal, spartan and functional in their design. Much like the bunks and the desks, they came in various sizes in order to accommodate the different species who were participating in the program.

As we made our way toward the counter to pick up our trays, I noticed that the Borealans were already sat at their table. There were half a dozen of them in all, their tight-fitting swimsuits replaced with more standard UNN attire, jumpsuits in the usual Navy blue. I noted that none of them were wearing shoes, they seemed to prefer to go barefoot. They were all females, as far as I could tell.

They were eating what looked like slabs of bloody steak, along with some kind of large fish that I didn’t recognize. The sea creatures were almost intact, their long, muscular bodies sporting more fins than I was comfortable with. The aliens didn’t use cutlery, there wasn’t a knife or a fork in sight. Instead, they dug into their meal with their curved claws, tearing off hunks of flesh and chewing them noisily. Every so often one of them would bring out a glass vial from one of their pockets, uncorking it and seasoning the food with some unidentifiable sauce.

I was a little annoyed by the bad attitude of the aliens. The humans and the Krell had spent the entire day interacting and bonding, while the Borealans had been nowhere to be seen. They hadn’t mingled with the other species at all, save for the encounter by the swimming pool.

They nudged one another, peering across the room at us as we collected our trays and started to load them up with food. I chanced a look over my shoulder at them, meeting Raz’s gaze, her yellow irises reflecting the glow from the lighting strips in the ceiling like those of a cat. She gave me a sardonic smirk, then went back to her meat, tearing into it with her sharp teeth as red juice dribbled down her chin. She maintained eye contact all the while, trying to intimidate me. What was her problem? I stared right back at her, refusing to let myself be bullied. After a few moments, she broke off and began to chat with a companion to her right.

I felt as if I had achieved some minor victory, turning my attention back to my lunch. I selected a fruit cup, and a sandwich wrapped in clingfilm from the counter, watching as the towering Krell beside me picked out his or her own meal. Unlike the Borealans, it was hard to tell if the reptiles were males or females. The Krell were eating what looked like a gelatinous mass of caviar and stringy, dried seaweed. They gestured to one another, grunting happily in low, resonating tones that made my teeth chatter. It seemed as though they were pleased with the catering.

The humans and Krell paired off into several groups, making their way toward the various tables, sitting side by side as they ate their meals together in the spirit of the exchange program. Sandwiches were dissected, seaweed was examined, everyone seemed to be having a good time. Except for the Borealans, of course. The feline aliens watched from a distance, their round ears swiveling as they listened in on our conversations, their furry tails whipping back and forth behind their benches as they muttered to one another in a language that nobody else could speak.

Once everyone had eaten their fill, the Staff Sergeants ordered us to our sleeping quarters. The humans and the Krell were now firm friends, mingling as they made their way down the corridor. The Borealans lagged behind the group unenthusiastically, talking to each other in their yowling, spitting language despite their obvious mastery of English.

As I had surmised, once we reached the dormitories, everyone was paired off and assigned to one of the rooms. The Sergeants read from their tablet computers, directing us toward our respective quarters. Krell and humans, humans and Borealans, Borealans and Krell. The mix seemed to be completely random. The humans, who were now more comfortable with their reptilian friends, seemed relieved to be placed with one of the placid amphibians rather than with a Borealan. Those that drew the short straw gave their comrades desperate, fearful looks as they followed the surly felines to their assigned rooms.

The Krell seemed perfectly happy wherever they were placed, not uttering so much as a word of complaint as they chose a locker and unpacked their gear obediently. Unlike the humans, they hadn’t brought rucksacks with them. All of their belongings seemed to be housed within the pockets of their leather ponchos. The mystery of the strange bowls in the floor was solved as I watched one of the Krell sink down into the padded recess, curling up like a giant dog.

The Borealans, on the other hand, hissed and protested. One of them argued fervently with Vasiliev, who appeared to speak their language. She spat and growled, gesturing with her furry hands, leaving the rest of us confused as to whether those odd vocalizations were a component of their speech or not. The Staff Sergeant quickly grew frustrated with her, ending the argument with a reprimand, and the order to “speak some damned English.” The pleading look on the face of her roommate told the whole story.

I was assigned to room number forty-seven, and I waited patiently by the door, hoping that a Krell would separate from the crowd and walk in my direction. To my horror, it was Raz who swaggered toward me, her face split into a cruel grin. No, this was impossible, there must be some mistake. What were the odds?

Are you in forty-seven?” she asked, looming over me and enjoying my pained expression.

I…suppose so,” I replied, dumbfounded by my bad luck.

Looks like we get to be roomies, tree climber.”

I scowled at her, not appreciating the nickname that she had chosen for me. I wanted to maintain an open mind, the program was all about learning to get along with our alien counterparts, after all. But there was no reason for her to act the way that she did, and it was getting under my skin. This was a military installation, not a high school.

I walked into our shared room reluctantly, and she followed me in, closing the door behind her with a click. One of the beds was much larger than the other, made from reinforced metal, clearly designed for her exaggerated frame. I packed my gear away in my locker, feeling her eyes on my back. This couldn’t continue, one of us was going to have to give eventually, and I wasn’t about to spend the next several months of my life in a cold war with this alien.

I swallowed my pride, turning to face her.

Raz, can I call you that? My name is Stanley. Maybe we got off on the wrong foot when we met earlier, I was hoping that we could start fresh. I just want you to know that this program is very important to me, I worked hard to be here, and I hope that you and I can make the most of our time together on the Pinwheel.”

I extended a hand, but Raz did not reciprocate. Instead, she planted her hands on her flared hips, cocking her head at me like a curious dog as I stood there with my arm outstretched. Her long tail whipped back and forth as she watched me aloofly, until I eventually lowered it. I gave her the benefit of the doubt, assuming that she might not know the significance of a handshake.

It’s a gesture of friendship,” I explained, “it’s called a handshake.”

I know that,” she replied with a smirk.

I was beyond annoyed at that point, and I decided to confront her.

Why are you being so unfriendly, Raz? Have I done something to offend you? From the moment that you saw me at the pool, you’ve been out for my blood.”

Her smile faltered a little as she glared down at me, a subtle twitch in her lip betraying her displeasure.

The Patriarch has lost his mind, how can he expect us to work with humans? Look at you!” she added as she gestured to me with a wave of her fuzzy hand. “You’re the size of a Borealan kitten, you’re a quarter of our weight. You have no claws, no teeth, no natural defense whatsoever. Your reaction times are a joke. The space stations and starships that you’re so fond of showing off,” she sneered as she gestured to our quarters, “won’t help you planetside. That’s why we’re all here to begin with, to learn to work with humans as a unit so that we can make up for your obvious shortcomings.”

My face began to redden. Her rebuttal of my peace offering was one thing, but now she was insulting me and my entire species.

My people are warriors,” she continued, “the Krell are warriors. I could cut you in half using nothing but my claws, and you’d be dead before you’d even seen me move. I don’t want to fight in a squad with humans, you’re a liability! Your kind should stay in your comfy, padded bridge chairs where you belong, and leave the ground-pounding to the more capable species.”

I balled my fists, trying to curtail my anger. How dare she make such sweeping generalizations? I was without a doubt the first human that she had ever had a lengthy conversation with. I didn’t know any more about Borealans than she did about humans, besides that they were allied with the Coalition, but I wasn’t going to let her get away with insulting everything that I stood for. I knew for a fact that UNN Marines were formidable. They had made significant gains on the front, I had heard about it on the newscasts, I had seen the recordings.

What gives you the right to speak to me like that?” I demanded. “I earned my place here, just the same as you. We all did. We’re the same rank, undergoing the same training, which means that we’re all equals here whether you like it or not. I’m not going to let you insult me to my face, you have no idea what you’re talking about.”

Her flat brow furrowed and her lips pulled back to expose her sharp teeth, the alien bristling. I was afraid for a moment, but then her expression softened into another smarmy grin. She reached out a hand and pressed one of the fleshy pads on the end of her finger against my forehead, giving me a gentle push and making me fall backward onto my bed.

No tail, you can barely even stand without toppling over. At least you have some fight in you, little monkey.”

I am not a monkey,” I protested, but she merely grinned at me. I had given her the reaction that she wanted, and she seemed satisfied for now. I was furious, I wanted to throw something at her, but I knew better. If I toed the line and followed my orders, then I would remain in the program, eventually graduating as a fully fledged Marine. If the Staff Sergeants caught wind of Raz’s childish behavior, then she would be sent back to Borealis with her furry tail between her legs. There was nothing to be gained by arguing with her and letting her antagonize me. The best course of action right now was just to ignore her, to be the bigger man.

I lay down on my bed and faced the featureless wall, putting my back to her. This was not the way that I had envisioned life at a military academy.

I heard Raz pack away her gear in her locker, then her bed springs creaked, the alien muttering a complaint in her native language that probably pertained to the quality of the bunk. The lights in the room dimmed, apparently tied to a timer, and I tried to quiet my mind as I drifted off into a troubled sleep.

 

CHAPTER 2: REDHEADS

 

I awoke to Raz’s loud grunting. Annoyed, I rubbed my itchy eyes and rolled over to complain. She was standing between our two beds, stretching her limbs and doing some kind of meditation exercises, not unlike Yoga. Each stretch and new position was accompanied by a strained grunt.

I opened my mouth to protest, but my eyes lingered on her body. She was wearing what looked like a pair of tight-fitting bike shorts and a tube top that struggled to contain her considerable bust, leaving very little to the imagination. I hadn’t paid very much attention the day before, but now her lean, svelte figure leapt out at me.

Her arms and back were lightly muscled where they were clean of fur, my eyes tracing the channel that ran all the way down her long spine, ending where the fluff of her tail began. I had been right, there was no fur beneath her clothing. It seemed to be limited to her extremities, and there was a little of it on her shoulders, too. There were some faded stripes on her skin in places, pigmentation I assumed, bleeding over a couple of inches from where her coat ended.

When she stretched forward, as flexible as a gymnast, the elastic of her clinging shorts rode low to expose two perfect dimples in the small of her back. Her physiology was remarkably human. There were dimples in her toned cheeks, too, but her fat was distributed to all of the right places. It made her full and curvy despite her brawn, her clothes practically creaking as she changed positions. I had never seen such a juxtaposition before.

Her breasts bounced softly with every movement, their outlines clearly visible, straining against the fabric of her top. They were as large as my own head, heavy and pert, her sweat further dampening the garment to make it stick to her wet skin. They might have been disproportionate on a human, but they were appropriate on her massive frame. I watched a solitary bead of her perspiration slide down into her cleavage, sparkling beneath the halogen lighting. The moisture gave her smooth, pale skin a reflective sheen, further accentuating the muscles that lurked just beneath.

My gaze wandered down to her exposed midriff, where two rows of toned abs twisted and flexed, hypnotizing me. They looked as though they had been carved from marble by a sculptor’s chisel, like they belonged on a Greek statue rather than on a living, breathing woman. Droplets of her sudor followed the lines that her six-pack carved in her skin, sparkling like morning dew, light and shadow conspiring to make them even more pronounced. Beneath them was her navel, where another bead of her sweat welled.

Her hips were wide, giving her an hourglass figure, and her thighs were those of a powerlifter. They were packed with all of the muscle required to propel the eight-foot, maybe six hundred pound creature around with the agility that I had seen her display.

I watched for a minute or two, enthralled by her graceful movements, until I noticed that one of her round ears had swiveled in my direction.

Do you mind?” I stammered, hoping that she hadn’t noticed my peeping. “You woke me up!”

No, I don’t mind,” she replied sarcastically. Annoyed, I flopped out of bed and started to get dressed. There was no way that I’d be getting back to sleep now.

You could do that in the gym, you know,” I complained as I pulled on my uniform and zipped it up. “That way, you wouldn’t wake me up.”

She ignored me, continuing her exercises. I watched as she did the splits, her furry, paw-like feet bridging the gap between our bunks. She was so limber…

This is my morning routine,” she replied. “I need to stay in peak physical condition. If you don’t like it, then request a different roommate.”

You know that isn’t an option,” I said tersely. She smirked, lying her torso flat against the deck in another display of flexibility. It reminded me of a dancer warming up before a performance.

If your squad gets attacked while you’re asleep, will you complain that they’re too loud, and stumble around in a stupor like this? How long does it take your feeble, monkey brain to wake up?”

I didn’t rise to her insults, leaving our quarters to search for the bathroom. Before long, I ended up in the mess hall, sharing breakfast with a couple of humans and a Krell. Once again, the Borealans were all grouped up around one table, shunning the other species and being antisocial. Why were they even here? They didn’t show any interest in learning about alien cultures or interacting with anyone else.

After a while, Raz emerged and joined her friends at their table. She was sporting her form-fitting, blue jumpsuit again, and her orange hair looked wet. She must have taken a shower. She didn’t seek me out this time, but wherever she went in the room, it seemed that one of her ears was always pointed in my direction. It was rather disconcerting, but maybe I was just paranoid.

The mess hall was soon filled with more of the recruits, Raz and her cohorts disappearing behind a wall of blue coveralls and green scales, friendly conversation quickly diverting my attention to more positive subjects.

When I was done eating, I left the mess hall in the company of a small group of trainees and Krell, leaving some of the stragglers to finish their meals. There was no work to do today, no classes or drills. The Staff Sergeants had told us that we were free to explore our environment, to adjust to our new settings.

We wandered the Pinwheel, staying within our quadrant, admiring the technological wonder that we now found ourselves inhabiting. The humans seemed infatuated with the artificial sky and the presence of the planters, their colorful flowers and carefully pruned trees giving the torus a touch of greenery and nature that contrasted tastefully with the matte white structural material. More than once we stopped to examine a plant, one of us cupping a leaf in his hand, or running his fingers through the soil and mulch to check if it was real or artificial. The Krell seemed fascinated with the molded facades of the buildings, pausing to admire the reproductions of brick and wood. Each one was a little different, and despite them all being made from the same white metal, a lot of effort had been put into differentiating them. This looked like a city street to us, but there was nothing familiar about human architecture to the Krell, this was all new to them.

There were no windows on the torus that would let us see out into space. The hull must have been heavily fortified to defend against space debris and potential enemy attacks. It was impossible to tell that we were spinning with no point of reference, as there was no sensation of motion. The only evidence was the inertial force keeping our boots glued to the floor, which felt like wholly natural gravity to us.

When reading about Fort Hamilton before I had set off on my journey across space, I had learned that one of the motives for decorating the station in the way that they had, was to provide an environment in deep space where personnel could take shore leave. There was no need to jump a carrier all the way back to a habitable world when they could take a few weeks off on the station, their environment carefully tailored to fool the human brain into thinking that it was walking around on the surface of a planet. There were flowers, simulated sunlight, the smell of food stands wafting on the artificial breeze. It could almost be mistaken for home.

There were so many people clogging the street, not only military personnel, but also civilians in casual clothes. More than once I bumped shoulders with a hurrying civvie that must be transferring between vessels, or an engineer in yellow overalls whose eyes were fixed intently on a tablet computer. Far from being overwhelming, the crowds of people going about their business was a comfort to me. I had spent far too long in spacecraft that were little more than sardine cans with engines.

There were Krell, too, the throngs parting before them as they lumbered along, but I didn’t see any Borealans. Vasiliev had mentioned that they had only recently joined the Coalition, was it possible that Raz and her companions were among the first?

After some time wandering and exploring, our little group found itself at the recreation center. It was a long, squat building where Navy personnel could relax and unwind. We entered through an appropriately Krell-sized door, emerging into an open-plan room. My first impression was that I was standing inside a giant bar. There were dozens of round tables, many of them occupied by Marines and Navy pilots who were nursing drinks, the haze from their e-cigarettes and cigars swirling around the ceiling fans. There were pool tables, dart boards, and monitors for digital games. To our right was a long counter made from what looked like varnished wood, but must be imitation, as not even the financiers of this lavish station would have shipped real mahogany this far out into space. There was a generous assortment of taps, along with rows of colorful bottles on shelves, but I didn’t particularly feel like returning to the barracks drunk on my first day.

Everything was lit by a dim, yellow glow. Some might have called it dingy, but I thought that it had a rather relaxing vibe.

I felt a little guilty, seeking out games and recreation when there was a war going on. Boot camp had given me the impression that I would be waking up at the crack of dawn, with a Drill Sergeant’s spittle on my face before I had even eaten breakfast, but that was no longer the case. If we had been advanced to this program at all, then it must mean that the higher-ups trusted us to have mastered the basics. While I felt proud of my achievement, that expectation weighed on my mind. Maybe Raz had a point, and my free time would be better spent doing laps around the torus or working out at the gym.

My train of thought was broken as one of my new acquaintances waved me over, laughing as he watched a Krell attempt to play pool.

***

After a few hours of cultural exchange, which mostly consisted of showing the Krell how to play poker and unsuccessfully trying to get them to curse, I decided that it was time to head back to the barracks. I bid my new friends goodnight, they were now attempting to teach the Krell recruits to play pool without eating the chalk, and I made my way out of the building. The sunlamps in the ceiling had grown dimmer to simulate dusk, and the streets had cleared somewhat. Most of the inhabitants of the station would be getting ready to sleep, the only active personnel would be the night shift crews. It was still far from deserted, but I could appreciate the relative quiet.

The artificial breeze was cool on my face, rustling the branches of the trees as I made my way along, my hands stowed in the pockets of my uniform. I was in no particular hurry, admiring the décor as I wandered. The torus was usually split into two halves by rows of planters, benches, and kiosks that ran down the middle. Here, however, I came across a series of decorative wooden trellises that had been erected in their place. The plants had been encouraged to grow around them, creating a sort of tunnel of foliage and flowers.

I made my way inside, noting that the carefully curated trees and hedges obscured the buildings to either side of me from view. The designers had used a lot of little tricks like that, playing with people’s perception to stave off the cabin fever in any way that they could. In one moment I was on a street, and in the next, I was surrounded by green leaves. I marveled at how I could be almost completely alone on a space station with a population the size of a large town. The Pinwheel truly was a feat of engineering.

I heard a rustling sound that snapped me back to reality, and I paused to look around. I couldn’t see anyone, perhaps it had been the wind? I started walking again, but once more an odd rustling noise stopped me in my tracks. It had definitely sounded like something large moving through the bushes, but I couldn’t see any sign of anyone. The narrow walkway between the planters was deserted.

I felt the hair on my neck stand on end all the same. Could it be Raz, trying to fuck with me again? Surely she had better things to do than to stalk me as a practical joke? Wait…

Was I scared of Raz? The notion that I would let her childish teasing get to me was absurd, I was a grown man, an aspiring Marine at that. And yet the idea of her lurking in the bushes between the trellises, watching me like some kind of man-eating tiger, filled me with dread. She clearly had problems socializing, and she hadn’t hesitated to get physical with me, even in front of our superiors.

I took off walking, a little faster now, not a frightened run but a healthy power-walk. I wanted to be out of this little garden area and into the open as soon as possible. A chill slid down my spine like a melting ice cube as I heard a twig snap. My ancient fight or flight reflexes kicked in, and I bolted. As if I was running in slow-motion, an orange blur exploded out of the undergrowth in a shower of leaves, covering the distance between us in the space of a second. It slammed into my back, sending me sprawling across the deck. I wanted to cry out, but the wind had been knocked out of me.

I rolled onto my back, intending to get up and face my assailant, but the blur was on me faster than I could blink. My wrists were pinned to the floor by what felt like furry manacles, their grip like iron. I felt its weight as it mounted me, pressing me down, a pair of round thighs gripping me like the jaws of a trap to prevent me from wriggling loose.

A pair of glowing, yellow eyes peered down at me in the gloom, the pupils round and dilated. The eyes drew closer, a mop of hair tickling my cheek, and I tensed as I felt the prick of pointed fangs against my jugular. I closed my eyes, and to my shame, a low whimper escaped my lips. I had been shot at with live ammunition in basic, I had spacewalked without a tether, but I had not been prepared for an animal attack. I was scared out of my wits, a deep and primal fear overpowering me. It held its fangs there for a few seconds, pressing them into my skin, not enough to draw blood but enough to be uncomfortable. I lay there, as still as a statue as I felt warm breath blowing on my neck, and then the teeth drew back.

You die again, tree climber.”

R-Raz?” I stammered, indignation warming my icy blood. “I knew it was you, you bitch!”

She released me and stood up, laughing at me as I shuffled away from her on the ground. Thinking better of it, I rose to my feet, brushing dirt off my coveralls and nursing a skinned palm.

What the hell is wrong with you?” I demanded, checking myself for cuts and scrapes. “You’re out of line, Raz. What’s your fucking problem?

My heart was racing, but she just stood there with her hands planted on her hips, grinning at me as her long tail waved back and forth. Both of her fuzzy ears were tracking me as she waited for me to finish, probably savoring the reaction that she had gotten out of me.

Just another notch on my belt, tree climber,” she finally replied. “I thought you guys were the apex predators on your homeworld? Yet you ran away like a prey animal, and you didn’t even get very far! Then you whimpered like a kitten when I caught you,” she added, leering at me in a way that made me very uncomfortable. She was so smug, as if she had just won an argument, or proven some kind of point. I didn’t know what kind of game she thought she was playing, but I was rattled and angry.

You think this is a joke?” I asked, “is this fun for you? You could have really hurt me!”

Yeah, you’re pretty fragile,” she said with a nod. I was livid, a broken bone or a scuffed knee might be easily repaired in a medical bay, but she was flaunting the social contract. She had no respect for me, not for my health, nor for my personal space. Her behavior was baffling, inexcusable. Was she legitimately insane? A sociopath?

You can’t do this,” I grumbled, “I’ll-”

You’ll what?” she demanded, leaning down to eye-level with me and resting her hands on her knees as though she was addressing a child. “You gonna report me? Gonna go crying to the Staff Sergeants and tell ‘em that mean old Raz is picking on you?”

Maybe I will!” I shot back. She took a step toward me, and I took a step away from her.

Go on then, monkey, report me. It won’t do you any good. My father is the Patriarch of Elysia, he’s the most powerful man on Borealis. If your UNN sent me home, it would sour relations.”

So…you’re only here because they want to appease your father?” I asked. Raz was taken aback by my remark, her brow furrowing and her pink lips pulling back to bare her sharp teeth in a snarl. She took another step forward, and I took another step back in turn.

Are you implying that I don’t deserve to be here?” she spat. “I’m a better warrior than any of you scrawny little tree climbers. I don’t know why my father wants an alliance with the humans so badly,” she added with a sneer. “Everyone back home is so impressed with your shiny space fleet and your superlight drives, but you can’t fight. You aren’t strong where it really counts, like we are. Ten of your Marines couldn’t take on a single unarmed Borealan warrior.”

I had struck a nerve, apparently, and I wasn’t about to let up.

So you’re a spoiled daddy’s girl with an inferiority complex, is that it?” I jeered. “You’re from a primitive backwater that couldn’t even discover superlight technology on their own, and that’s why you have such a huge stick up your ass? Now it all makes sense!”

Raz recoiled, hurt by my obviously correct assessment of her. Her round ears flattened against her hair, and her flexible tail seemed to sag.

And we don’t climb trees!” I shouted, seizing the moment. Emboldened, I darted forward and punched her in the gut as hard as I could, immediately regretting the decision as my fist crumpled against her rock-hard abdominal muscles. She stood there for a moment, watching me dance and wave my injured hand, then she reached out and casually pushed me into a nearby bush.

Like I said…you can’t fight,” she muttered, wandering off into the darkness as I struggled to free myself from the foliage.

***

The next time that I saw Raz, I was in the mess hall, shortly before lights out. I was eating some rather well-crafted French onion soup at a table with some of my friends, when I saw her enter the room and navigate to the preferred table of the Borealans.

I had cooled down somewhat after our earlier encounter on the torus. I was still angry at her for her immaturity and disrespect, but I was worried that I might have really hurt her feelings. I had jammed a proverbial fork in her eye the moment that I had seen an opening. Maybe it had been wrong to play off her insecurities like that. She certainly didn’t deserve my sympathy, but I figured that I should try to make up with her, for my own sake if not for hers. I still had to live with her for the next several months.

I noticed that one of her round ears was still tracking me, at least she wasn’t mad enough to ignore me entirely.

It was probably a better idea to make up with her now, rather than to wait until we were back in our quarters where it might come off forced. Or worse, her retribution would be out of view of the other trainees and staff…

Gingerly, I left my seat, approaching the Borealans. Their orange heads turned to track me, the whole table staring at me with their eerie, yellow eyes as I approached from behind Raz. Her tail was trailing on the floor like a fuzzy snake, and I sidestepped it, careful to avoid treading on the appendage. She continued to eat nonchalantly, one of her ears facing backward.

Hey Raz,” I began, “can we…uh…can we talk about what happened earlier today?”

Her ear flicked, was that amusement? Annoyance? She continued to face forward, her claws sinking deep into her steak as she chewed into it, the red juices staining her furry fingers as I waited for a response.

What’s wrong, tree climber?” she chided over a mouthful of meat. “You back for a rematch?”

A…rematch?” I asked, cocking an eyebrow in confusion.

Yeah. I told my pack about how you challenged me to a fight earlier and got trounced.”

I challenged you to a fight?” I asked, my cheeks flushing as I started to get angry again. “That’s not how I remember it. I came here to make peace, and you’re telling people lies about me?”

No need to be a sore loser,” she shot back, taking another bite out of her steak. “You thought that you could take me, and you failed. Maybe now you’ll respect Borealan fighting prowess.”

I was shocked by her audacity, and I couldn’t believe that I had ever felt sorry for her. I stormed back to my table, returning to my soup as her cohorts laughed and spat what must have been insults in their feline language. I hadn’t told anyone about the incident, and my friends were confused by my dour mood. I didn’t need word getting around about my feud with Raz. I had worked my ass off to get here, and my future was on the line. Raz was just a pampered brat with family in high places, she was only here as a token to appease her father.

I would keep this under my hat, and I’d either deal with it myself or hope that she slipped up in a way that the Staff Sergeants couldn’t ignore. I spooned soup into my mouth, no longer appreciating the flavor.

***

Not long after, Vasiliev called for us to make our way to our bunks over the P.A system. What few recruits were still dawdling in the mess hall filed out, mingling and chatting amongst themselves, save for the Borealans who remained in their pack as Raz had called it. They must be very tribal creatures, which might go some way toward explaining their shitty attitude.

As I neared room forty-seven and my small group of friends parted ways, I realized that much of my courage was just bluster. I was afraid of being alone in a room with Raz. I didn’t believe that she would seriously injure me, but her bullying was wearing on my nerves, and wondering what she might get up to next was making me anxious.

I should be focusing on my training, not worrying about what she might be doing, or where she might be lying in wait for me. I seriously considered lodging a complaint with Vasiliev about her attitude, but came to the conclusion that it would only make me look bad. There was little evidence of her mistreatment besides for hearsay, and the incident at the pool. But even then, what would be my complaint? That Raz was being mean to me? It was a surefire way to draw unwanted scrutiny, and potentially the ire of the officers, who might see it as a sign of weakness.

I was distracted from my thoughts as a large, orange hand ruffled my hair, a little too forcefully to be described as affectionate. I ducked away, turning to see Raz grinning down at me.

Ready for bed, roomie?” she purred. Her saccharine display might fool the other trainees crowding around the dorms, but not me. I scowled at her, and she gave me an exaggerated pout. “What’s the matter, are we not friends anymore, little monkey?”

I ignored her, making my way into the room, and she followed in behind me. She closed the door, then strode over to her bunk, sitting down and crossing her long legs. The mattress sagged under her weight, the springs creaking, and she bobbed one of her paw-like feet in the air as she watched me change. As I stripped off my uniform and pulled on my pajama pants, I heard her croon from across the room, turning to see her eyes lingering on my naked torso as her long tail waved back and forth idly.

Maybe an adolescent, rather than a kitten,” she muttered. “You’re pretty developed.”

I put on my pajama top, covering myself as she smirked at me.

What are you talking about?” I asked, stowing my boots in my locker.

You’re short, but your body is pretty developed, like a kitten who had been lifting weights.” She chuckled to herself, apparently enjoying the mental image that she had conjured. “Or maybe an especially stunted adolescent who was trying to catch the eye of a girl that he liked.”

I went back to folding my uniform, trying to ignore her.

Have you ever had a girlfriend, Mister Monkey?”

Of course I have,” I replied. Giving her a reaction was probably counterproductive, but the day had been long, and she was trying my patience.

I don’t think you have, you’re far too small. Is that why you’ve been working so hard, so that you can impress one of the girls? Which one do you like?”

I paid no attention to her, closing my locker and climbing into bed.

I bet it’s that one with the yellow hair and the big boobs, right?” she prodded as I threw the covers over myself. “Well, big for a monkey, anyway.”

She stood and began to pull down the zipper on her uniform, disrobing as I lay in my bunk and tried not to stare at her too conspicuously. She dragged it down from the collar to her belt line, the weight of her breasts parting the tight-fitting garment, even from within the tube top that she wore beneath. Once again, I caught a glimpse of her sculpted abs, the perfect rows of muscle catching the light as they emerged from the shadow of her clothing. They flexed as she leaned forward to tug the lower half of her coveralls down, bulging from beneath her porcelain skin. She gave me a view down her cleavage in the process, her top compressing the two heavy globes of fat together. They wobbled gently as she danced on the spot, struggling to get the uniform down past her hips, then she stepped out of it and threw it haphazardly into her locker.

I can’t believe how small some of those human girls are,” she muttered, slamming the locker and running her clawed fingers through her mop of orange hair. She yawned widely and exposed her pointed teeth, then turned her back to me as she appraised her bunk for a moment, stooping to rearrange the pillows. The alien hadn’t made her bed even once, it looked like a giant rat’s nest, and she seemed to prefer it that way. I caught an eyeful of her rear, the elastic of her bike shorts doing nothing to conceal her firm, round cheeks. My eyes wandered down to her milky thighs, I could see her blue bedspread through the gap between them.

So what’s your type, tree climber?” she continued as she flopped down onto the mattress. She rolled over to face me, resting her cheek in her fuzzy palm. She must have noticed that I was blushing, because she smiled, striking an overly dramatic pin-up girl pose on her bunk. “How about me?”

I couldn’t stop my gaze from following the curves of her body as she lay on her side, her wide hips tapering into a pinched waist, her heavy breasts spreading under their own weight beneath the insubstantial fabric of her top. I traced the prominent outline of her hip bone down toward the waistband of her tantalizingly low-cut shorts, the black material contrasting with her lily-white skin.

I felt a twinge in my loins, a dangerous, inappropriate twitch. I broke away and turned my eyes toward the floor, my cheeks flushing. Raz brought a furry hand up to her mouth to stifle a laugh, apparently entertained by my reaction.

I like making you go red, tree climber. Unfortunately for you, I’m off-limits.”

You’re crazy,” I began, “as if I’d ever-”

If I fucked you, you’d probably die,” she interrupted as if it were a matter of fact. Then she rolled back onto her bed, lying spread-eagled as she laughed at my embarrassment.

H-how can you-” I stammered, completely blindsided by her vulgarity and her lack of tact.

Don’t worry, monkey boy, we’ll find you a girlfriend. Maybe we’ll have a look in the trees on the way to drill tomorrow morning. Oh, I forgot, you don’t climb trees.” She rolled around, holding her stomach and pretending to be wounded. “Oh no! The human has punched me, my organs have liquefied! Bleh!”

Her tongue lolled out of her mouth as she played dead, and I was surprised by its length. It was almost as long as my forearm and covered in what looked like dull barbs, pink in color with a tapered tip.

I rolled over and put my back to her, trying to focus on the upcoming drill rather than my roommate’s childish antics. Her chuckling eventually died down, and she began to snore. I pulled the sheets tighter around me, trying not to think about the involuntary swelling in my shorts.

 

CHAPTER 3: BULLSEYE

 

The next morning, I was again roused by Raz’s noisy exercising. I had no reason to believe that she wasn’t doing it just to get a rise out of me. My complaints fell on deaf ears, and so I got dressed and headed into the mess to get some food. Most of the trainees were already there, and I located a group of my friends, chatting with them as I wolfed down my breakfast. Before long, Vasiliev’s voice came in over the P.A system, and he summoned us to the briefing room. Once there, he informed us that we would be starting our rifle drills today. The recruits muttered amongst themselves, eager to be allowed back onto a range again for the first time since leaving their homeworlds.

We left the barracks and marched down to the section of the military quarter where the armory was located. There was much more activity here than there was around the recruit barracks and the recreation center. Squads of Marines jogged past our procession, wearing their signature black combat armor over their Navy-blue fatigues. It was made up of ceramic plates that would dissipate the heat of plasma bolts and stop bullets, the smooth surfaces reflecting the sunlamps with a polished sheen. Beneath the plates was Kevlar that would ward off blades and shrapnel. They wore full-faced helmets in the same matte black, their features obscured behind opaque visors.

There were engineers in their yellow overalls, transporting unidentifiable technology on trolleys or inspecting weaponry and crates of ammunition. The sound of officers barking orders rose above the din of the crowds, and for the first time since arriving on the station, I felt like I was really in a military environment. The fight might be far away from the station, but we were still at war, the sight strengthening my resolve to make it through the program.

We entered the armory building, making our way to a firing range that occupied one wing of the structure. There were all manner of weapons sitting on racks against one wall, most of which I didn’t even recognize. To our right were the firing booths and the range itself, paper targets hanging on hooks from the ceiling at various distances. The far wall was padded with thick ballistic gel that would prevent the rounds from penetrating and damaging the station itself.

You’ve all done firearms drills with the preferred weapons of your respective planets,” Vasiliev began. He walked down the line of recruits, raising his voice to ensure that everyone could hear him. “But now, you must familiarize yourselves with standardized Coalition armaments.”

The Staff Sergeant made his way over to a table, where an odd rifle was laid out. He lifted it, showing it to us as we shuffled closer, crowding around to get a look at it. The frame was built from some kind of sculpted plastic or polymer, the same matte black as the Marine armor, save for a few details here and there like warning notices or exposed metal. It had a long barrel, which was ringed by copper-colored coils that were spaced out at intervals. The grip and trigger were molded into the frame, it was all very clean and compact, the stock adorned with a padded butt plate. The magazine well was situated behind the trigger and was currently empty. Vasiliev turned it over in his hands as we gawked.

This is the X-Species Modular Rifle, our standard issue battle rifle, better known as the XMR. Because of the nature of our enemy, and the multi-species composition of our Coalition, this weapon has been designed to be completely modular.”

He walked behind the table relative to us, and we watched in awe as he field-stripped the rifle. Every component was detachable, from the stock to the barrel. He popped a large mass out of the stock that looked like it might be a battery, and then with a few clicks, he had removed the latter entirely. Next was the long barrel, sliding out of its attachment point, followed by the forward grip and the reflex sight. After only a few seconds, the naked frame that made up the basis of the rifle was sitting on the table, surrounded by the components.

This is the frame,” Vasiliev explained as he lifted the considerably lighter weapon. It was little more than a mostly hollow, receiver-shaped piece of polymer now. “It comes in three sizes. Small, medium, and large. This is a medium, it’s a suitable size for the average human and serves as a good basis for anything from a bullpup assault rifle to a DMR. The smaller frames are used as a basis for building submachine guns and personal defense weapons. The Krell and Borealans will probably find the large frame more comfortable,” he continued, gesturing to the far wall where there were many of the weapons sitting in racks. “Everything is standardized, which means that if a Marine runs out of ammo in the field and his only companion is a Krell, they can use the same magazines, and they can make use of the same replacement parts.”

He lifted a lump of polymer and metal in his hand, about the size of a soda can, showing it to us.

This is the receiver, it slots into the top of the frame. See how the rail is hinged? Just pop it up and hit the ejector. There are two varieties, and you will be expected to have both of them on your person at all times, right there in your rig with your extra magazines. You will learn to switch these out in a pinch. Doesn’t matter if you’re in the dark, upside down, or being shot at. By the end of this training, switching receivers will be as second nature to you as swapping out an empty mag.”

I watched as he assembled the rifle with the same speed and finesse, then he slammed a magazine into the weapon and marched over to the range. He shouldered the rifle, firing it with a loud crack. The paper target downrange fluttered as something passed through it at high speed, and the projectile slammed into the ballistic gel on the far wall.

The first configuration is a miniaturized railgun, it accelerates a tungsten slug using electromagnets. It requires a battery pack to power the magnets, and a magazine to feed it ammo.”

He popped open the hinged rail on the top of the rifle, ejecting the receiver and replacing it with one that was contained within a blue housing, snapping it shut again. He ejected the magazine and stowed it in a pouch on his belt, then withdrew what looked like a magazine with a tumorous growth. It was the same size and shape as the mag had been, but it was colored yellow rather than black, and on one end was a large canister sporting the same blue housing as the second receiver. He slotted it into the magazine well, with the cylindrical canister protruding.

Once again, he shouldered the weapon, and this time there was an electrical whir as a bolt of blue-green energy shot from the barrel. It flew down the range, disintegrating the paper target and leaving a dark smear in the ballistic gel. I wrinkled my nose as the smell of ozone drifted over to us.

By swapping the receiver and loading the XMR with a plasma containment canister, it can be converted into a plasma rifle. Using the same battery and the same electromagnets, it fires magnetically-contained, super-heated gas at the enemy. This is especially useful for taking out Bug shields,” he explained. “The stopping power and versatility of this platform is unparalleled by conventional weapons, but there is one caveat, and that’s overheating. The coils on the barrel will start to glow red after sustained fire, so pace yourselves, or bring an extra barrel if you’re expecting to be firing in full auto. Whatever you do, don’t fucking touch the coils without protection until you’re sure that they’ve cooled.”

We followed him as he made his way toward the back of the range, where there were more shelves stocked with all manner of attachments, along with wooden crates that likely contained more of the same.

Your assignment today is to build a weapon that’s suited to your personal needs and physiology. Of course, those needs may change dramatically depending on your mission when the time comes to actually field these weapons, but today we’re just going to get to grips with the weapon system.” He gestured to the shelves and crates. “You have everything that you need right here. Flash hiders, scopes, barrels of varying lengths, laser sights, grips, battery packs, magazines, stocks in numerous shapes and designs. All of the components that you’ll need to build a weapon that is ergonomic and comfortable for you to fire. Krell might want larger drum magazines and heavier barrels, humans might prefer a lighter configuration with a forward grip and a red dot sight for faster target acquisition. Don’t be afraid to experiment. Remember, you cannot make the weapon better or worse, only more or less suited to your needs.”

He dismissed us, and everyone fanned out, eager to get started on their designs. The humans rushed off to pick a frame from the rack, sifting through the different attachments, while the Krell lumbered away to find some larger frames. I was excited to see what they would come up with, giant sniper rifles maybe, or perhaps light machine guns. I was thinking of something a little more conservative, similar to the caseless assault rifles that I had trained with back in boot camp. We hadn’t had any railguns, but the same principles probably applied. Controlled bursts, with low recoil would be the way to go.

I noticed that the Borealans were huddled off to one side, muttering to each other. Raz left the group, marching over to Vasiliev, and I rolled my eyes as I recognized the expression on her face. What grievance could they possibly have this time?

With all due respect, Staff Sergeant,” she began. “We have brought our own weapons from Borealis, the finest that Elysian gunsmiths could provide. My father, the Patriarch, personally commissioned our-”

Vasiliev cut her off with a wave of his hand.

You have your orders, Raz. You are to familiarize yourselves with Coalition weapons platforms.”

But, Staff Sergeant, I-”

Tell me, Raz, how is the UNN supposed to provide you with ammunition and replacement parts for weapons that we don’t manufacture? Unless your weapons can chamber standard UNN tungsten slugs, those guns are not to leave your shuttle. Is that understood?”

Raz looked angry, but she nodded and returned to her pack.

***

After a few hours of trial and error, everyone seemed to have figured out how they wanted their XMR set up. Vasiliev walked up and down the range as he watched the recruits fire their weapons, the loud cracks of railguns and the electrical buzz of plasma ringing out.

Every time that you empty a mag or a canister, I want to see you swap out the receiver,” he yelled over the din. “Make a habit of it, starting right now.”

I was having a lot of fun, the XMR was not too different from the weapons that I had trained with on Earth. It certainly seemed to be an evolution of those designs, rather than something completely alien, even if it used a dramatically different means of firing. It couldn’t really be called a rifle, as there was no rifling in the barrel, and it had more in common with coilguns than railguns in terms of its outward appearance. When I asked about it, Vasiliev had told me that the internal mechanism worked by using a rail system to launch a slug out of the receiver before it was captured and accelerated by the magnetic fields in the barrel. Theoretically, the weapon could be fired without a barrel at all, but the length and number of coils determined the velocity. Even so, it was a whole mess of fun to shoot.

I had tweaked mine for low recoil, and I was already enamored with my weapon, stopping just short of giving it a name. I had gone for a medium-length barrel with enough copper coils to ensure a good amount of stopping power, along with a two-times magnification sight, with ergonomic grips and a nice padded stock to help control the kick. I fired it in burst mode, hitting the paper targets dead-center with excellent grouping.

The Krell who occupied the booth beside me seemed to be enjoying himself too. His large frame was equipped with a drum magazine that must be able to hold a good two hundred slugs, his grip sticking out horizontally from its mounting point on the barrel. He had a heavy gun shield and a wicked bayonet, cutting the targets into shreds with bursts of fire that made the coils on his barrel glow red-hot. I couldn’t tell if he was grinning, or if that was just the way his teeth looked.

The Borealans were not doing so well. The modular design of the guns seemed to overwhelm them, and their shots were landing wide of their targets. Based on their complaints, which were conveniently voiced in English so that their displeasure could be heard by everyone, I had surmised that Borealan rifles were somewhat similar to those used by humans in the latter years of the nineteenth century. Some kind of large-bore, breech-loading rifles with a massive kick, positively archaic by modern standards. They had overspecialized, failing to train with anything other than their traditional weapons, putting them at a disadvantage as a result.

Raz complained especially loudly, voicing her disapproval and making sure that Vasiliev could hear her. The rifle that she had built was an abomination. She had used a heavy barrel that was packed with coils, but with no counterbalance, it only served to throw off her aim. It might have been more manageable if she had intended to use it with a bipod, but instead, she was using a folding grip that was entirely unsuited to the task. The magnification on her scope was far too high for this range, and her choice of stock was all wrong.

I watched as she braced it against her shoulder, closing one eye as she aimed carefully, then fired. She absorbed the kick well enough, but her aim was way off, the slug piercing the paper a good inch from where she had intended. She lowered the weapon, baring her teeth as she hissed angrily.

I might have given her some pointers, had she not made my life hell for the last few days. Instead, I enjoyed watching her flounder, struggling to suppress my smile. I felt a hand on my shoulder suddenly, looking back to see Vasiliev standing behind me.

Excellent shooting trainee, you’ve taken to the XMR platform like a duck to water. This is exactly what I had hoped to see. Raz!” he called, turning toward the alien. She swiveled her head in our direction, scowling at us. “Why don’t you take some pointers from Stanley here?”

I grinned at her, and she glowered back at me. Boy, if looks could kill…

***

We stayed at the range for most of the day, drilling with the XMRs until we had mastered the basics of their operation and design. The Borealans had to remain behind while the rest of us were dismissed, they needed special tutoring on how to operate the guns. The humans and Krell, on the other hand, were now proficient with the rifles. Each one of us had managed to build his own personalized weapon, and we chatted about the finer points of our designs as we made our way along the torus.

We headed straight to the recreation building, intending to celebrate with some games and drinks. I had been enjoying a game of pool with one of the Krell when the main door of the building slid open, the pack of surly Borealans filing in one after the other. Their ears were flat, and their tails were drooping, their eyes darting about suspiciously. They looked embarrassed and angry, just like Raz had the previous night when I had suggested that she was only participating in the program because of her father’s connections.

I caught her eye, and she made a beeline for me, stalking across the room with murderous intent. I gripped my pool cue in my hands, fearing that I might need to use it as a weapon.

So you think it’s funny, do you?” she demanded as she glared down at me.

Do I think what is funny?” I replied.

Your stupid, plastic toy guns, that’s what. You’ve used them before, haven’t you? You think you can show me up? Did you put Vasiliev up to it?” She advanced on me, and I drew back, skirting around to the other side of the pool table so that she couldn’t get into clawing range. She was royally pissed off this time.

I didn’t do anything,” I protested, “and I’ve never picked up an XMR before today. Don’t blame me for your failure to adapt.”

She bared her teeth in a snarl, scattering the billiard balls with a vicious swipe of her furry hand. The entire room had gone quiet now, watching our argument, unsure of whether they should intervene.

If that idiot had let me use my own rifle,” she continued, “I would have made you look like a blind kitten. It makes no sense that we aren’t allowed to use the weapons that we brought with us. Instead, they’re making us use those stupid, plastic pieces of shit. They’re not made for Borealans, they’re made by humans.”

Her packmates nodded their heads in approval as if that explained their shortcomings.

The Krell had no problems using them,” I shot back, “it’s only you that has a problem.”

She glared at me, then at the Krell who was standing beside me, then she looked back at her pack for support. She soon realized that the whole room was staring her down. She looked lost, unsure of herself. I had never seen her like this before. She was always so confident, so brash. But now, that persona was starting to come apart at the seams.

She marched around the table, and this time I stood my ground, craning my neck to meet her gaze as she stood before me. I refused to be intimidated any longer, the room was clearly on my side.

You made a fool out of me, tree climber,” she whispered menacingly. “I won’t soon forget it.”

Maybe now you’ll respect human fighting prowess,” I replied.

Raz snapped, raising a clawed hand to strike me. Before I even had time to flinch, the Krell who I had been playing pool with let loose a blood-curdling roar. He sprang into action, far faster and more agile than anyone would have anticipated, moving his giant body like a freight train made of scales and muscle. He crashed into Raz, throwing her to the ground with a tremendous body-slam. She went down hard, she hadn’t been expecting such a reaction from the usually docile and sluggish reptiles.

Her pack rushed to back her up, but a group of humans and Krell moved to block their path, shaking their heads ominously. The Borealans, now outnumbered, bunched up and held their ground.

Raz picked herself up, unhurt, but shaken. She began to back off, smart enough to know when she had been beaten, the Borealans slowly filing out of the room in a defensive posture.

As soon as the automatic door closed behind them, the deathly silence was broken, the recreation center erupting into laughter and jeering. I gave the Krell who had steamrolled Raz in my defense an affectionate pat on his leathery thigh.

Thanks, buddy. She might have taken my head clean off. Come on, I’ll teach you to cheat at Blackjack.”

He bobbed his long snout and emitted a satisfied huff.

***

When the sunlamps dimmed to simulate night, we walked back to the barracks, arriving just in time to see the dejected Borealans leaving the mess hall. We ate and chatted for a while, then went our separate ways, heading to our respective dorms to get some sleep.

I had to admit, I felt pretty good about myself. I had excelled at the range, I had stood up to Raz, and she had slipped up in front of the whole platoon. Now they would all be on guard for her antisocial behavior. The far more physically intimidating Krell were now firmly sided with the humans, the Borealans wouldn’t be pushing anyone around again.

As I approached my room, I noticed that Raz was leaning against the door, her arms crossed as she stared vacantly at the floor. She must have been waiting there for a while, this did not bode well. Everyone else had already retired to their dorms, leaving the two of us alone in the empty hallway. My heart began to race as I approached her, what would she do now?

Her ears twitched, and she looked up when she noticed me. To my surprise, she smiled.

I’m sorry about what happened earlier, Stanley,” she began. “Let’s wipe the slate clean, start fresh. What do you say?”

She extended a clawed hand, and I took it gingerly, shaking it. Her fur was much softer and silkier than I had assumed, the fine hairs reminded me of velvet. Her fingers were almost as thick as my wrist, each one tipped with a shining talon.

Raz had called me by my real name, rather than monkey or tree climber. Had she finally come around? Had my defiance in the recreation center earned her respect? I couldn’t be sure, but she wasn’t trying to eat me, so that was a good start.

Listen, Raz,” I said apologetically. “I never intended for things to go this far, I never meant to embarrass you in front of everyone. I should have helped you when I saw that you were having trouble with your XMR. Maybe you wouldn’t have accepted my help, but it was wrong of me to leave you high and dry like that. We’re going to be living together for a while, we might be fighting together one day, you know? We have to trust each other. I really want to be friends with you.”

Her fluffy tail twitched, and her smile faltered for a second. She exhaled deeply and placed a hand on my shoulder, opening the door to our dorm and steering me inside.

Okay Stanley, let’s be friends,” she said as she closed the door behind us with a click.

I really appreciate you coming around, Raz,” I began. “To be honest, I was kind of anxious when I saw that you-hey, what are you doing?”

She moved across the room, shoving me aside roughly and dragging my bed in front of the door. Her biceps bulged as she heaved the heavy, metal frame with an ease that left me dumbstruck, the legs screeching on the deck. She used it to block the exit, trapping us both inside.

I began to tremble, realizing that it had all been a ploy. She had just wanted to get me in here alone with her, unable to escape. What was she planning on doing to me? I inhaled, intending to shout for help, but she closed the gap between us in the blink of an eye. She covered my mouth her furry palm, her black claws pricking my cheeks, leaning down close to look me in the eye. I watched as her feline pupils dilated into large, dark circles.

I need you to understand something, Stanley,” she said. Her voice was low and husky, perfectly level, which was somehow more intimidating than seeing her in a rage. “In my culture, social standing is very important. As the daughter of the Patriarch and the Alpha of my pack, my social standing is more important than you can fathom. I work very hard to maintain that standing, to defend my position. I am the best Borealan warrior here. I am the biggest, the fittest, the strongest. I am the highest born, the pack leader, are you following?”

I nodded frantically, wide-eyed and frightened, her hand still covering my mouth. Her fur tickled my nose, a small trickle of blood escaping where one of her claws had broken the skin on my cheek.

When you make me look like a fool, when you embarrass me in front of everyone, I lose face. You’ve made me into a pariah. I’ve lost the respect of the other Borealans, the whole platoon has turned against me. When word of this humiliation reaches my father, and it will, I may lose his favor.”

She was seething, barely controlling the rage that was building inside her, her lip twitching. I’d had no idea that her culture had such a rigid and unforgiving social system, and it went some way to explaining why Raz behaved in the outrageous way that she did. Perhaps, like with lions in a pride, standing could only be maintained through dominance games. If she wasn’t constantly the loudest, most obnoxious, most confrontational member of her pack, then someone else might usurp her.

My father might even recall me to Borealis and halt my training,” she snarled, “and it’s all because of you. You and your stupid monkey culture, you and your inability to submit to your betters.” She looked crazed now. Her yellow eyes were wide, and her teeth were bared, her grip on my face tightening. She was lifting me, making me stand on my toes.You took something away from me, and now I’m going to take something away from you.”

She released me, letting me fall to the floor in a heap. I nursed the small cuts on my cheeks, knowing better than to shout for help.

Are you gonna hurt me?” I mumbled, peering up at her warily.

Oh, Stanley,” she crooned. “I’m going to hurt you in ways that you’ll never forget.”

I crawled backward along the cold deck, knowing all too well that I couldn’t escape her. She had barred the only door with a bed that was likely too heavy for me to lift, and there were no windows. She advanced on me slowly, hunched over like a predator preparing to pounce. She flexed her hooked claws in anticipation, baring her sharp fangs menacingly, her dark pupils fixed on my face. The back of my head banged against the wall where my bed had once been, I was cornered. Raz loomed over me, her shadow casting me into darkness. Was she really going to take things this far? Did she have nothing left to lose now?

She crouched, reaching out a hand and closing it around my neck, gripping me tightly enough to choke me. I gagged, clawing at her forearm in a futile attempt to break loose, my fingers finding purchase in her fur. The alien lifted me clear off the floor with only one hand, with the same ease that a human might scruff a cat, then she spun around and launched me through the air. I landed on her bunk on the far side of the room, my shoulder hitting the wall as I bounced on the mattress, a grunt of pain escaping my lips.

Before I had a chance to get up, she strode across the room and struck me with the back of her hand, the blow dazing me and sending me reeling.

Wait, Raz! Please don’t!” I pleaded, tasting the copper flavor of blood on my tongue.

She wasn’t listening, she was too angry. It was as though she was in a trance, a fugue state, my words failing to reach her. She closed her thick fingers around my throat again, pinning me to the bed with her left hand, bring the right to my chest. She brandished her claws, glinting as they caught the light, my eyes following them down to my shirt. She used the hooked talon on her index finger to slice through the material like it was made of paper, leaving my torso exposed and vulnerable. She watched me squirm for a moment as I tried to break free, her eyes lingering on my writhing body. Was that hunger in her eyes?

For all my wriggling, I had no hope of breaking free. Raz was just too powerful, so much larger and stronger than any human could have hoped to be. I could take her with a gun, but unarmed, I was utterly helpless. My eyelids began to flutter, her iron grip on my throat cutting off my oxygen supply, the corners of my vision starting to narrow as I became lightheaded.

Slowly and deliberately, she dragged her sharp claws from my chest to my belly, the sting of it bringing me back to my senses. She didn’t intend to disembowel me, and she certainly could have. Raz only seemed to want me hurt and frightened. They dug into my skin, leaving burning trails and drawing crimson blood, white-hot pain searing through four fresh scars. I tried to cry out but only managed a muffled gag, her hand still firmly closed around my esophagus.

She brought a bloodied claw up to her mouth, touching it against her tongue and savoring the taste of my defeat.

You taste so sweet,” she muttered, as much to herself as to me. “So soft and pale…cutting your flesh is like drawing in wet clay, Stanley.”

She finally released her hold on my neck, leaving it bruised and sore, probably intending to relish my pleas for mercy. My hand shot to my burning chest reflexively, and I drew back a trembling palm, seeing red blood. The cuts were not as deep as I had assumed, superficial at best, but they would leave scars… I looked up at her, and she watched me eagerly, expectant.

Raz, don’t do this,” I choked over my sore throat. “I didn’t mean for any of this to happen, all I ever did was to try to be your friend!”

She climbed up onto the bed, the mattress sagging as she put her weight on it, mounting me and pinning my lower body between her thighs. I could feel the muscle that lurked beneath the cushion of yielding fat as she tensed, holding me tightly. They were so large that her knees almost reached my armpits. She let more of her weight rest on me, sinking me into the bed. With one hand, she gripped both of my wrists and held my arms up above my head, the other wandering down toward my face.

I tried to turn away, but she grabbed my chin and forced me to look her in the eye. My skin tingled as she ran her claws across my cheek, as light as the caress of a feather. Her gaze was almost affectionate now, the combination of violence and tenderness setting off all kinds of red flags.

Where’s your human fighting prowess now that your friends aren’t here to protect you, Stanley?” she purred sweetly. “I could do whatever I wanted to you. I could put your eyes out, slit your throat, give you a new face that your own mother wouldn’t recognize.” She ground her crotch against me, the unexpected sensation making me gasp in surprise. “I could fuck you, Stanley, would you like that? There are many ways to submit, many ways to show subservience to your Alpha.”

Raz leaned down close, her lips brushing my ear, her warm breath tickling my skin as she whispered to me in a low and husky voice.

I could do things to you that would make you mewl like a kitten, I could take you in every way that you can imagine. Every time that you closed your eyes, you’d see my face. You’d smell me, taste me, you’d remember the things that I did to you.”

I struggled ardently now, my fear turning into anger and desperation. If I was going to die here, then I wasn’t going to do it lying on my back, begging for mercy from a psychopath. I’d get in a few good hits at least. I managed to slip one hand free of her grip, winding up a punch and hitting her in the face as hard as I could.

She caught my hand before it made contact, squeezing my fist in her silky palm, laughing at my pained expression.

You just don’t know when to quit, do you, monkey? There wouldn’t be any sport in it otherwise…”

My panic suddenly turned to hope as a spark of inspiration crossed my mind.

Raz, wait, wait. I can fix this!”

She cocked her head at me, her expression curious.

Oh? And how do you propose to do that?” She appeared to be humoring me, this was my only chance to deescalate the situation before she did something crazy.

H-hear me out, hear me out! So you lost your standing, right? Because you couldn’t hit your target at the range, and because I stood you down in the recreation center. And because that Krell knocked you down.”

Her brow furrowed, and she brought her claws up to my face again.

Wait, wait!” I gasped as she brushed them against my cheek. “What if I could fix that? What if I could show you how to build the best XMR that the station has ever seen, what if I could teach you how to shoot it better than anyone else in the platoon? I studied harder than anyone back at the academy, I can teach you how to pass any exam or test, you’d be showing up every other Borealan here. Then they’d have to respect you again, right? I can show you how to gain the respect of the humans and the Krell, too!”

She leaned back a little, scratching her chin pensively with a curved claw as she weighed her options.

If you aced the program and gained the admiration of the other species, then there’s no way that your father would send you home. You’d be his best example of what Borealis can offer the Coalition!”

Raz eyed me suspiciously, and I waited with bated breath, beads of cold sweat dripping down my face. After some consideration, she seemed to come to a decision, lifting off me. I breathed in a sigh of relief as her oppressive weight left me, rising along with the mattress as she stood by the side of the bed. I dared to sit up again, rubbing my bruised throat and my scarred chest.

Alright, tree climber, I accept. But on one condition. You are mine, you belong to me. This isn’t a mutual arrangement, we aren’t friends. You’re my subordinate, and I want you to act like it. If you breathe a word about our little arrangement to anyone, if you tell so much as a soul that I accepted your help, then I’ll finish what I started tonight. Is that clear?”

I nodded hastily, watching as Raz strode over to my bed. She gripped the metal frame in her hands, her muscles bulging again as she dragged it back against the wall. She turned to me and gestured to it.

Better get some sleep. If you’re going to make this right, then you’ll need to be well rested.”

I scowled at her, making my way over to my bunk.

 

CHAPTER 4: WITH FRIENDS LIKE THESE

 

My sleep was a troubled one, visions of stalking tigers and ravenous monsters haunted my dreams. Raz had crossed the line, her playful teasing had become serious threats, and the fresh scars on my chest stung as a reminder. When I awoke, Raz was stretching, her lean body and graceful movements drawing my eye once again.

I felt a surge of guilty arousal as I watched her from the corner of my eye, pretending that I was still asleep. Had she been serious about fucking me? Would she have gone through with it if I hadn’t managed to weasel my way out of the situation? What would that have felt like?

I squirmed uncomfortably as I imagined her heavy, toned body moving atop mine, a sheen of sweat making her skin glisten as her sumptuous breasts bounced free of their support and her-

Damn it, I needed to keep my head on straight. This was exactly what she wanted. Although I would never admit it to Raz, she had been right. I had never had a girlfriend. My childhood and adolescence had been spent on a farm in a rural area, with no neighbors for miles around. I had joined the Navy as soon as I had come of age, and my life since had been focused on the single-minded goal of becoming a Marine, leaving little room for relationships. The alien seemed to be able to smell it on me…

I banished such thoughts from my mind, sliding out of bed and starting to get dressed. I glanced down at my chest, examining the red trails that Raz had left in my skin, tracing them with my fingers. They had closed up already, but they still burned, and they’d definitely leave a prominent mark. It was as though she had wanted to carve her name into me, she wanted me to think of her whenever I felt a twinge or saw my reflection in the mirror. The medics could probably remove them, but what story would I tell them? That I had fallen chest-first onto a garden rake?

Raz ignored me as I left the room and made my way to the mess hall, where I grabbed a tray and filled it with with a hearty breakfast of eggs and bacon. I joined my friends around their table, and they inquired as to why I looked so unrested. I simply told them that Raz and I had had a fight the night before, which wasn’t entirely untrue, and that we had come to an understanding. They seemed to accept that, changing the subject. Even when they had backup, nobody was especially eager to go toe to toe with the surly alien.

As I chewed on a strip of bacon, I saw Raz enter the mess. I tensed up, keeping one eye on her as she moved over to the glass counter, picking up a slab of nondescript meat and slapping it down wetly onto her tray. She glanced around the room for a moment, then locked onto me, stalking over to my table. She sidled up next to me and slammed her tray down, almost making my human neighbor jump out of his skin. He wolfed down one last fried egg, then made an excuse to leave, getting away from the alien as quickly as possible.

There was no hope of her sitting on the human-sized bench, and so she sat down cross-legged on the floor beside me, putting her tall frame at about the appropriate height. She reached over and picked up what looked like a piece of raw steak in her claws, beginning to gnaw on it as the rest of the table’s occupants slowly slipped away.

Raz?” I asked, shooting her a questioning look. “Why aren’t you sitting with the other Borealans?”

I glanced over at their preferred table, where the aliens were eating as a group. They hadn’t even acknowledged Raz’s presence. They seemed to be ignoring her, not a solitary ear was pointed in our direction.

I lost standing, remember? They won’t accept me.”

So…why are you sitting next to me?”

She muttered something under her breath that I couldn’t quite hear, and I asked her to speak up.

I don’t know anyone else,” she mumbled, “I don’t have any other friends.”

I couldn’t help but feel a little sorry for her. As much of a nightmare as she was, she had completely failed to socialize outside of her pack. She had no friends at all now that the other Borealans were giving her the cold shoulder. She certainly didn’t deserve to have any friends, but she looked so miserable as she hunched over the table, taking a bite out of her meat and chewing it forlornly.

That’s not what friendship is, you know,” I chided. She glanced over at me, red juice dripping from her chin.

Why’s that?”

Friendship isn’t when people are afraid of you. When they stop being afraid of you, then they stop associating with you altogether, right?” Raz didn’t respond, so I pressed on. “A friend is somebody who likes you for who you are, not because of what you can do for them, or because they’re scared of what you’ll do to them. Remember when that Krell defended me back in the recreation center?”

That got a reaction out of her, and she scowled, taking another bite out of her steak.

Yeah, I remember,” she muttered.

Well, he wasn’t doing that because he was afraid of me, or because I had higher standing than him. He did it because I was kind to him and he wanted to protect me.” I watched as she picked a piece of meat from between her teeth with one of her pointed claws, unsure of whether she was even paying attention. “If you want to start making friends among the other species, then you’re going to have to start being nicer to people. They aren’t Borealans, they won’t respond to intimidation or appeals to social standing, that will only make them angry. Hey, are you even listening to me?”

She stopped chewing for a moment and glanced over at me.

Yes…”

Okay then. Well, like I said, try being nicer to people. Make way for them when they pass you in a corridor rather than expecting other people to move for you. Be polite, don’t insult people, don’t make fun of them. Maybe try to learn some human games so that you can break the ice and start socializing with people. Humans love playing, it’s practically all we do.”

Borealans play games too,” she added.

Alright, good! That’s somewhere to start, at least. I can teach you to play cards or pool, you only have to ask…”

She went back to her breakfast, occasionally glancing up at the other Borealans as she chewed. Was that expression resentment? Longing? It was hard to tell. I had underestimated how hard being excommunicated from her pack had hit her, she was sulking, despondent. I might feel the same way if I had suddenly found myself alone in an unfamiliar environment, with no support structure of any kind. Social bonds seemed to be central to Borealan life, perhaps she was like a wolf without a pack now.

Again, I felt a pang of undeserved pity, but the stinging in my chest made me think twice.

***

After breakfast, we headed to the gym. The Staff Sergeants insisted that we be in peak physical condition at all times, and they wanted to get us back on a strict exercise regimen. After spending months on cramped starships and far lesser space stations with little opportunity to exercise, some of the recruits had gotten a little soft around the middle. They had given us a manual in basic training that included exercises that could be performed even in the confines of a tiny cabin during space travel, and I was pretty sure that a lot of the techniques had been developed in prison, but few people had kept up with the regimen without the careful supervision of the Drill Sergeants.

We had toured the building a couple of days prior, and I was once again impressed to see an Olympic-sized swimming pool housed in a space station, but we had overlooked the exercise equipment during our last visit. The room was massive, sporting all kinds of machines. There was everything from treadmills to climbing ropes. Best of all, rather than heading to the showers after working up a sweat, you could take a dip in the pool instead. It was only a short walk away.

Vasiliev had the human recruits begin on treadmills and pullup bars, while some of the trainees elected to swim lengths instead. Cardio was the most important thing to focus on right now, we were there to stay in shape, not to work on our Mr. World routine.

The Krell dove into the pool, swimming around like giant, scaly torpedoes. They were so agile under the water, in stark contrast to how sluggish and plodding they were on land, pushing themselves along with their powerful tails. They could hold their breaths for impressive amounts of time, sinking low to the bottom of the surprisingly deep pool. It was actually a little deeper than one might expect, catering to the needs of the aliens, no doubt.

I couldn’t help but wonder if the Krell even needed to exercise, they were inhumanly strong and resilient simply by virtue of existing.

I had expected to see the Borealans taking to the pool too, they seemed to have an affinity for water. But instead, they headed toward the more elaborate weight training machines. They loaded weights onto barbells, slotting themselves into appropriately scaled-up hammer strength machines and abdominal benches.

Curious, I elected to move a little closer, running on a nearby treadmill so that I could observe them. Why were they lifting weights rather than doing cardio? Why was that more important for them?

Just like in the mess hall, Raz was standing conspicuously apart from her former pack. She trained with dumbbells that looked large and heavy enough that they could probably have served as barbells for a human.

We had stripped off our uniforms, most of the recruits wearing some combination of tank tops and exercise shorts, or leggings for the women. Raz was down to her tight shorts and her tube top again, putting everything on display, and the other Borealans were similarly dressed. They didn’t seem to care about modesty very much, and I was momentarily transfixed by the buffet of impressive female physiques before me, glad that most of my blood was flowing to my legs rather than to other places…

The aliens were lifting an incredible amount of weight, their strength was superhuman, and yet something was off about them. They almost looked like they were moving around in low gravity. Despite being very fit by human standards, each one of them sporting a set of abs that could have been used as a washboard and thighs that looked like they could squat a truck, none of them really had the physique of a professional bodybuilder. Sure they had biceps as large as my head, but when I scaled the aliens down to normal proportions in my mind, it just didn’t add up. Maybe their muscles were somehow more efficient than ours?

Wondering why they’re not doing cardio like the rest of you?”

I stumbled on the treadmill, almost falling as I noticed Vasiliev standing beside me.

Didn’t see you there, sir,” I panted. “Yeah, what are they doing?”

Borealis has thirty percent higher gravity than Earth standard. If they don’t keep up with their resistance training, they’ll start to shed muscle mass pretty quickly.”

That explains a lot,” I replied, watching Raz as she lifted a set of weights that looked as large as a pair of manhole covers. Maybe that was why she was so developed, the crushing gravity of her home planet meant that just walking around was probably a form of resistance training. She wasn’t a gym rat, her body had been sculpted by nature, not by exercise machines.

Vasiliev leaned over the controls of the treadmill, turning up the speed, and I began to jog faster.

Keep it up, recruit.”

Yes sir,” I panted, sweat beginning to dampen my tank top.

The Staff Sergeant moved off to supervise some of the other trainees, and I continued to run as I kept an eye on Raz. She was still working on the dumbbells, her perspiration soaking her tube top and making it cling to her figure, droplets of it following the contours of her abdominal muscles as they bulged from beneath her skin.

My breathing became heavier, my shoes impacting the treadmill as I struggled to keep up with the speed that Vasiliev had set. Maybe I was more out of practice than I had realized…

After a little while, Raz seemed done with her sets, replacing the dumbbells on their rack and rolling her shoulders. She walked over to another machine, a set of dipping bars this time, but one of the other aliens beat her to the punch. The Borealan wrapped her furry hands around the padded bars, beginning to raise herself off the deck, lifting her body weight up and down.

Raz was undeterred, marching toward the machine and loosing a sound that resembled a cat getting its tail caught in a door. The other alien stopped what she was doing, dropping to the deck and turning to face her.

I wondered why Raz didn’t just move on to any one of the other machines, there were plenty of unoccupied dipping bars. It seemed as though she wanted this particular one, however. She bared her teeth as the two aliens faced off, their ears flattening against their heads, their tails whipping back and forth behind them.

Raz was an inch taller than her opponent, and the other Borealan seemed less sure of herself, backing off a little as she advanced. Just when I was beginning to wonder if a very literal catfight was about to break out, the rest of the pack came to the rescue. They crowded around the Borealan, hissing and spitting at Raz, who gave as good as she got. I was amazed that their relationship had deteriorated to this point after such a short amount of time.

The noise was starting to attract the attention of the Staff Sergeant now. How would he break up a fight between the aliens? Before he saw fit to intervene, however, Raz backed down. She gave her former pack one last growl, then moved off to one of the other machines. Knowing nothing about Borealan social interaction, it was hard to guess what had just happened. Raz had said that she was the most dominant, so might the mere act of allowing the other alien to use the machine that she had set her sights on be construed as a sign of weakness?

Even so, I couldn’t imagine how she would win back the respect of her pack by hissing at them…

***

When everyone had completed their workout routines, we headed to the showers to wash off the sweat that we had worked up. Vasiliev had worked us pretty hard, and as tired as I was, it felt good to get back into the old routine.

The showers were co-ed, as were most facilities on the station, but Raz mercifully elected to shower a good distance away from me. I was used to being around women who were nude, or in various states of undress, it was unavoidable in the Navy. There just wasn’t the room, nor the time, to give everyone complete privacy. But Raz and her ilk were different, they were just so…impressive, that it became a distraction.

Once we were dry and dressed, Vasiliev gave us time to wind down, and to get some food in us before we started our studies later that day. Now the real work was beginning, we would be learning about the enemy. Their physiology, their tactics, their technology.

As the group left the gym and began to make their way back to the barracks, Raz took my arm roughly and pulled me aside.

Teach me about guns,” she whispered, once she was sure that the others were out of earshot. She seemed embarrassed to even make the request of me.

You want me to teach you how to use the XMR platform?” I asked, and she nodded vigorously. “Alright, I can ask Vasiliev for clearance to visit the firing range. I’ll go find him, he was still in the gym last I saw.”

***

We were granted permission to visit the firing range, and when we arrived, we found it mostly deserted. It was lunchtime, after all, most of the personnel would have been eating. There were two Marines occupying a couple of booths, however. They weren’t wearing their black combat armor, but I was more than familiar enough with rank insignias to recognize them. They were testing out weapon configurations, or perhaps just trying to stay sharp. Raz and I moved to the far end of the range where we wouldn’t disturb them.

So, how far did you and the other Borealans get when you stayed behind to train with Vasiliev?” I asked. She had already fetched her abominable XMR, and she handed it to me, letting me examine the mess that she had made of it.

He made us drill with them over and over,” she complained. “He wouldn’t tell us how best to configure the guns, he said that if we didn’t understand what we were doing wrong, it wouldn’t do us any good.”

Yeah, that would be like giving you a cheat sheet with the answers to a quiz,” I replied as I turned the heavy weapon over in my hands. “The trick isn’t having the correct answer, it’s understanding how to arrive there.” The aliens had to learn through experience, or they wouldn’t be able to modify their weapons on the fly, which was the whole basis of the platform. “Okay,” I said, handing the weapon back to her. “Why don’t you show me what you can do?”

She snatched the rifle from me, perhaps taking my suggestion more as a challenge, walking up to one of the booths and shouldering the weapon. She growled and snarled with frustration as her XMR bounced and kicked. Her most accurate shot merely grazed the edge of the paper target, and I suspected that was accidental. Her anger wasn’t doing her any favors, she looked to be one step away from breaking the gun over her knee. She had probably trained with Borealan rifles from an early age, becoming quite proficient, I had no reason to doubt that what she said was true. But this sudden shift to an entirely unfamiliar weapon system had invalidated all of that practice, erased all of the muscle memory that she had built up.

I called her back over and had her place the weapon down on a nearby table.

So, you’re doing several things wrong here,” I began as I pointed to the different components. “This isn’t like a Borealan gun. I’m assuming that you use powder weapons, breech-loaders, right?”

Yes,” she replied, blowing an errant lock of her orange hair out of her face. “We use brass casings filled with gunpowder.”

Alright, well when you fire a bullet down a barrel, not all of that energy is directed forward. Some of it is directed backward, which creates recoil, right? With an XMR, the recoil doesn’t come from the bullet leaving the barrel, it comes from the opposing magnetic force. The slug is fired using magnetic repulsion. You ever play around with magnets? You know when you turn them in opposite directions, and they push each other away? That’s repulsion. When the tungsten slug leaves the rail in the receiver, before it gets captured by the magnetic coils in the barrel, it rocks back on dampeners. That means that the recoil is coming from further back than you’re probably used to.”

I reached down and removed her barrel, checking that it was cool enough to touch first, not wanting to burn my hand. I lay the heavy piece of metal on the table, gesturing to it as I continued.

See how thick this barrel is? This is a barrel intended for light machine guns. It’s thick and heavy because it needs to dissipate a lot of heat from sustained firing. It looks big and scary, but it’s designed to be used by a Krell, or on a frame equipped with a bipod. You won’t be able to hit the broad side of the barn if you’re trying to use this on a rifle, it will jump all over the place.”

I wandered over to the back of the room, sifting through the selection of attachments on the shelves and in the crates. After a minute of searching, I returned with the part that I wanted, setting a long barrel down on the table.

This is what you want for a long rifle, which is what I’m assuming you were trying to make. Something that’s similar to the Borealan variety, right?”

Raz nodded again, paying more attention now. She may have finally realized that I really did know what I was talking about.

This barrel is lighter, but it has a denser concentration of magnetic coils. This one isn’t designed for sustained fire, it’s designed to fire a single shot with very high muzzle velocity. That means that the projectile will leave the barrel traveling faster, it’ll go further, and it will hit harder. But if we have more electromagnets, what else do we need?”

The Borealan considered for a moment, her tail waving back and forth.

A bigger battery?”

Yes!” I exclaimed, and a smile brightened her face. She seemed pleased with herself. “More electromagnets will drain the charge more quickly, so we need one with a higher capacity. That’s one of the benefits of using a large frame, you can fit a bigger battery in the stock. Want to go find us one that will fit?”

She nodded, making her way over to the shelves and digging through components for a minute or two. She returned with an appropriate battery pack, and I showed her how to replace the one that was housed in the stock of the rifle.

Good job. Now, let’s take a look at this forward grip…”

***

We spent about two hours training with the XMR until I was satisfied that Raz understood how to get the most out of the platform. She had gone from being unable to so much as glance her target, to hitting it dead center in the head, even on followup shots. She had eventually conceded that the XMR was more accurate than the Borealan rifles that she had been so eager to extol the virtues of, and she seemed to be having fun with her new toy.

The configuration that she had settled on was a truly massive semi-automatic marksman rifle that resembled a spear, the long bayonet that was affixed to the barrel furthering the illusion. Now that I thought about it, I couldn’t be certain that she didn’t intend to use it that way…

Raz had a spring in her step as we made our way back to the mess hall. She had overcome a setback that had genuinely seemed to undermine her self-confidence, and she would now be placed firmly at the head of the pack when it came to marksmanship and familiarity with the XMR platform. I couldn’t wait to see the looks on their faces when she outmatched them on the range.

Hey, Stanley…”

I stopped walking, looking up at her.

What is it?”

Earlier today, when we were in the mess…you were talking about friends, right? You said that if someone only sticks around because they’re scared of you, it means that they aren’t really your friend?”

Yes, I believe I said something along those lines.”

Are you scared of me?” Raz asked unhappily. Her ears were starting to droop again, and I watched as she began to rub one of her furry forearms absent-mindedly. It was a very un-Raz-like gesture.

Well,” I began, carefully formulating my reply. “Considering what you did to me last night…yes, I’m somewhat scared of you. I’m not a Borealan, Raz, I’m a human. I’m too fragile for you to treat me that way, you might have injured me.” You have injured me, I neglected to add, my hand moving subconsciously to the fresh scars on my chest.

That’s just how we do things on Borealis,” she said, turning her eyes to the deck. “You were supposed to submit, but you didn’t. Now I’m thinking that maybe…humans just don’t understand when they’re supposed to submit and when they’re not. You kept challenging me when a Borealan would have given in, and it made me feel like I had to keep going so that you’d accept me as your Alpha.”

I crossed my arms and cocked an eyebrow at her. This was sounding more like a justification than an apology, but it might be the closest thing to one that I’d get out of someone like Raz.

All of the other Borealans who I considered my friends,” she continued, “they all turned their backs on me. The pack is supposed to obey the Alpha without question, but if the Alpha loses face and can no longer defend their position, then…”

Have you never been in this situation before?” I asked, “is this not normal for your people?”

It happens,” she replied, “but never to me…

Raz was the daughter of what she called the Patriarch. It was an impressive title, perhaps the equivalent of some kind of King or President. It sounded like he had a lot of authority. She was also clearly the largest and toughest of her pack, she had a good inch over most of them. She was certainly the most outspoken, the most aggressive, the most dominant. Could this be the first time that her authority had ever been brought into question? The first time in her life that she had dealt with failure?

Maybe Borealans don’t have friends,” she added, her round ears flattening against her messy hair. “Maybe what we call a friend is just someone lower in the social hierarchy who does what we say because they fear what will happen if they don’t. Even after I tried to dominate you, after I hurt you and frightened you, you still wanted to help me. You still wanted to be my friend. Why?”

That’s what friends do, Raz,” I replied. “For humans, our friendships are mutual. There’s no Alpha, there’s no pack leader, we have to be tolerant of one another. We have to forgive each other when we screw up, because it’s going to happen eventually. We can’t force people to act the way that we want them to.”

Raz looked thoughtful for a moment, as if she was mulling over what I had told her.

I will try to make friends,” she finally said, “they seem to be far more reliable allies.”

She had opened up just now, I had seen a rare glimpse of the true Raz. There was an emotional person lurking behind the wall of aggression and bluster that she liked to put up. She was trying to gloss over it, to make her lapse seem like no big deal. It was almost cute…

She caught me grinning at her, and gave me a shove, sending me toppling into a nearby shrub. I struggled to free myself from the planter as she smirked at me, now back to her old self again.

Don’t get any ideas, tree climber,” she sneered. “We made a deal, remember? Until you get me to the top of the class, and I get my standing back, you’re my slave.”

Yeah, I made a deal. Under duress,” I complained as I righted myself and brushed the leaves off my uniform.

I don’t need you to be my friend, monkey, I’ve already got you exactly where I want you.”

We’ll see about that,” I muttered under my breath.

***

When we were done eating, we proceeded to the school building, where we sat through a rather uneventful lesson. We went over the basics of mixed unit tactics and ground combat, we learned some more about Betelgeusian anatomy, and then we were dismissed.

As we walked back to the barracks beneath the dimming light of the sunlamps, I quizzed Raz on what we had just studied. I wanted to make sure that she had retained at least some of the information. We could go over the details later on, as I would be tutoring her in our free time.

It had not escaped my attention that the Borealan was sticking closer to me than she usually did. Perhaps it was intentional, or maybe it was some subconscious desire to stay close to the pack, but she had slowed her loping gait so that I could keep pace on my shorter legs.

I didn’t know what to make of her. We had known each other for almost a week now, and I couldn’t decide if I hated her, or if I pitied her. Maybe it was some strange blend of the two. As little as I wanted to admit it, I was attracted to her. Her chiseled physique was mind-blowing. Every time that I caught a glimpse of her rippling abs or her impossibly tight butt, the way that her wide hips swayed and the way that her ample chest bounced with every step, my heart began to race. Her aggressive and crude behavior filled me with a kind of guilty excitement that I preferred not to think about too intently for fear that it might somehow worsen.

I couldn’t think of anything that would put a wider smile on Raz’s face, or grant her more power over me, than if I was to ask her for sex. Not that the thought had ever seriously crossed my mind, or at least, I had not allowed it to…

I stumbled as a large, orange hand ruffled my hair.

What are you thinking so hard about, monkey boy?”

Nothing much,” I replied dismissively. “We should go over the lesson plan when we get back to the dorm, I noticed that you were a bit rusty on Betelgeusian anatomy.”

I guess it’s not enough to just shoot their heads off, huh?”

You’d think so, but…you know what, I’ll just save that one for later. You aren’t going to understand unless I can show you an autopsy video of the extended brain stem.”

We continued on along the torus, the artificial breeze blowing through our hair. I craned my neck and looked up at the deep blue sky. Well, it wasn’t a sky, it was a mural painted on the ceiling, but it did the job well enough. I couldn’t even remember the difference between this station and a real planet anymore.

Do you ever miss your homeworld?” I asked. Raz looked taken aback by the question, but she followed my gaze to the ceiling as she considered for a moment.

I guess not. Society on Borealis is harsh, there’s a lot of pressure to succeed. I guess I’m still adjusting to the idea that on the Pinwheel, we don’t have to be on guard all the time, we don’t have to fight over every little disagreement. Here I can have friends, maybe.”

You’re really hung up on this whole friendship thing, aren’t you?” I said as we dodged out of the way of a passing Krell. The alien marched past us, his long, leathery tail making a sound like a wet towel being dragged across concrete as it trailed behind him. “I could be your friend, you know, if you’d let me.”

She looked conflicted, her tail twitching in what I had come to understand was annoyance, then she changed the subject.

“”What was life like for you, back on your homeworld?”

On Earth?” I asked, and she nodded. “Where I lived, it was very flat. There weren’t any hills or mountains, no large forests, just miles and miles of farmland as far as the eye could see. The only real landmark was my family’s farm. We had a farmhouse, a grain silo, one of those big red barns. Well, you probably don’t know about red barns, but it’s a tradition.”

Weren’t there any other humans around?” she asked.

No, not really. I went to school with other kids of course, but it was quite a commute. Outside of the classroom, I rarely got to see any of my friends. Didn’t have any siblings, either.”

Is that normal for humans?” Raz asked, her ears twitching in a gesture of surprise. “Borealans are born in litters, we’re never alone from the moment that we’re born.”

It’s a little unusual for humans, yeah,” I admitted. “I was just unlucky, I suppose. I learned a lot by living on a farm, though. My father always told me that hard work builds character, so I guess I should be thankful for that. He wasn’t too happy when I dropped out of agricultural college to become a Marine.”

You disobeyed your father!?” Raz exclaimed, the very prospect seeming to shock her.

We didn’t fight about it or anything, but yeah, I suppose I went against his wishes.”

That’s not something that would happen on Borealis,” she said, chuckling nervously. “My father would give me some good scars for my insolence if I ever did anything like that.”

The leaves of the bushes and trees rustled in the wind as we walked by them, the sunlamps simulating dusk. We were nearing the barracks now, but such a personal conversation with Raz was rare, and I didn’t want it to end so soon. She was sharing invaluable insights into her strange, primal society, and I was beginning to paint a new picture of her. Less as a dangerous, cruel alien, and more as a misunderstood girl. Her culture had developed over thousands of years, maybe tens of thousands, it was the natural order of things of Borealis. She had never been exposed to anything else, she had never questioned her way of life before. Yet the longer she stayed away from the other Borealans, and the more she interacted with me, the happier and more relaxed she seemed to become. I was confident now that I was having a positive influence on her.

We reached the automatic door to the barracks building and made our way inside. We had lagged behind the other trainees while we had been chatting, so most of them had already eaten and gone to bed. Neither of us was especially hungry, and so we decided to retire to our dorm room for a little a little extra studying, and then get some sleep.

Remind me tomorrow Raz, and I’ll teach you how to play some human games.”

She nodded, a smile on her face as she held the door to our quarters open for me. By God, she was actually learning to be polite. It wasn’t quite dark yet, we still had some time before lights out, so we sat on the edge of her bed and used the time to go over the day’s lesson again. Raz was having some trouble remembering the different classifications of enemy weaponry, and so I tutored her for a while.

Eventually, the lights shut off and we were cast into gloom, the only illumination coming from the emergency lighting strips in the floor that led to the exit. I noticed that Raz’s reflective, feline eyes were watching me in the glow. I set my tablet computer down on her bedside table and started to get up, but she placed a hand on my chest and gently pushed me back down.

Wait, monkey,” she murmured. The sheets beside me rustled as she leaned closer, her warm breath tickling my ear as she whispered to me. “You like me, right? I’ve seen the way that you look at me when you think I’m not paying attention…”

My cheeks flushed, and my mind began to swim. I leaned away from her, but her dinner plate-sized hand was still resting on my chest, preventing me from getting up. Her padded fingers crawled slowly up toward my neck, a shiver washing over me as they began to toy with the collar of my uniform.

We’re not like the Krell,” she continued, watching me intently with her amber pupils. “We’re similar, maybe compatible. Don’t you want to find out?”

I kept my eyes focused intently on the far wall, not daring to meet her gaze. I wasn’t sure if I was feeling fear, or arousal, I couldn’t even tell the difference anymore.

Neither of us has been with anyone since we arrived on the station,” she purred, leaning closer and letting her lips brush my ear. She had teased me before, but she had never attempted to seduce me like this, it wasn’t something that I was accustomed to. “I tasted your blood, and I liked it, Stanley.”

Raz…don’t,” I croaked, feeling her breathing down my neck. My mind was roiling, I couldn’t think straight. I felt like my brain had been removed from my skull, and someone was frying it in a pan. “We can’t…”

She shuffled closer to me and leaned in, planting a gentle kiss on the nape of my neck. God, her lips were so full and soft. She parted them, chewing softly with her sharp teeth, the sensation sending a bolt of lightning shooting down my spine.

Why not?” she asked. “There’s nobody else here, nobody besides us. I won’t tell anyone if you don’t…”

This was all happening too fast, I couldn’t think. My body was overpowering my better judgment with a surge of hormones and poorly repressed desires. She could be so bewitching when she wanted to be, she could wrap me around her little finger. My own lack of experience was doing me no favors.

Raz, where is this coming from? This isn’t-” I flinched as I felt her pointed incisor pinch my earlobe. “This isn’t what friends do.”

I told you, monkey, I’m not your friend. I’m your pack leader, your Alpha.”

Her words were like honey dripping into my ear, sweet and sticky. I wanted to shake my head vigorously, to banish the creeping longing that threatened to rise up from within me and seize control of my faculties, but I was rooted to the bed as though I had been paralyzed. I couldn’t bring myself to move.

Back home, Borealans are expected to make themselves…available, to their superiors. I could make it feel good, I could be gentle with you. It’s okay if you’ve never done it before, maybe I could do some tutoring of my own…

Her fluffy hand wandered down to my pants, her fingers brushing my swelling bulge. I screwed my eyes shut tightly as if that might somehow block out the stimulation. This was bad. I knew that if I gave in now, and oh how badly I wanted to give in, then all of our progress would stop here. I would be forever trapped under the thumb of this girl, the burgeoning friendship that promised to redeem her would just become another one of her manipulations.

Come on, tree climber,” she whispered sweetly. “It won’t hurt. Not unless you want it to…”

I wanted this on some level, I always had. It would be so easy to just lie back and let her have me, to surrender to whatever pleasures she had in mind, but I had to stay strong. If I cared about the girl that I had come to know over the last few days even a little, then I had to resist her, for her own sake.

Her advances grew a little more aggressive, and I felt her long, rough tongue slide up my neck. It was so thick and strong, leaving a smear of her warm saliva on my skin, the rough barbs on its surface tickling me. I couldn’t help but let slip a whine that seemed only to excite her further. If she kissed me with that monstrous tongue, I’d be finished. I had to put a stop to this before it went any further.

Raz, not right now,” I said firmly. She paused, cocking her head at me. “Not like this. I’ve never…I want my first time to be with someone that I love.”

I had promised myself that I’d never admit that secret to her, but I thought that it might make her back off. Unfortunately, it had the opposite effect. A sadistic grin spread across her face, and she pressured me down onto the bed with her hand. I winced as my scars burned beneath her palm.

Oh, monkey…aren’t you just precious,she groaned. “I can’t stand it, you’re so soft and sensitive, you flinch whenever I touch you. You’re completely different from a Borealan, you couldn’t resist me, even if you wanted to.” She loomed over me now, practically drooling. This was it, I had let her take things too far. As her excitement mounted, I felt my own will to defy her waning.

Your skin is so smooth and clear,” she whined, using her claws to drag down the zipper on my uniform. She tore open the shirt beneath, and I felt her breath on my chest, the alien swinging a leg over me as she straddled me. “Your body is…it’s…”

She had stopped dead, and through the haze of my arousal, I looked down to see that she was staring at my exposed torso. Four ugly lines of pink, knitting tissue ran from my collar to my navel, the scars standing out against my white skin. Raz looked momentarily horrified. She got off me and let me up, and in the low light, I could have sworn that I saw the glint of a tear in her eye.

Stanley, I…I did that to you,” she stammered. “You were so smooth and soft, and…” She wiped her eyes with the back of her furry hand. “I defaced you.” I didn’t know how to react, I had never encountered an upset Borealan before. I sat up, my head still spinning, and I reached over to place a reassuring hand on her shoulder as she sat on the edge of the bunk.

Hey now, it’s not all that. I’m going to be a Marine, you know. I’ll probably get all kinds of fucked up scars before my tours are over.”

Raz refused to be consoled, a steady stream of tears dripping from her eyes as she tried in vain to stem them with her fists.

Am I really such a monster, Stanley? Am I so cruel that I would disfigure you like that? You’re so fragile, you haven’t healed. In the moment, I wasn’t thinking, I just…I treated you like you were a Borealan. All you’ve done is be kind toward me, and I…”

I didn’t know what to say to her. Yes, she had been horrible to me. Yes, she had scarred me. But she had made so much progress, the fact that she was even feeling remorse right now was testament to that fact.

Want to know how you can make it up to me?” I asked. Raz lowered her hands for a moment, her silky fur damp with tears, and nodded her head. “Make me your first friend.”

She sniffed loudly, wiping her eyes on her forearm.

W-we can be friends,” she replied.

I shuffled closer and wrapped my arms around her massive frame as best I could manage, hugging her as she buried her wet face in my hair, tears rolling down her cheeks. We stayed like that for a few minutes, until finally, the tears stopped coming.

 

CHAPTER 5: LAST STRAW

 

The next morning, for the first time since arriving on the Pinwheel, I was awoken by my alarm rather than by Raz’s loud exercising. I sat up in bed, rubbing my eyes as I looked over to see that her bunk was empty. Maybe she had actually gone to exercise in the gym like I had originally asked her to.

I made my way to the mess hall in search of breakfast, and encountered Raz on the way. She was returning from the gym, sporting her distracting tube top and shorts combo. She looked wet, she must have been for a morning swim, too.

The previous night’s encounter had rattled me. There had always been a vague background radiation of attraction between the two of us, but I hadn’t realized how strongly she felt about me until she had made her feelings so abundantly clear. Now I felt awkward, almost ashamed, as if we had been caught doing something that we shouldn’t. I was afraid of her on some level, no longer fearing her bullying or her abuse, but rather a budding romance that might prove to be even more dangerous.

Morning, Raz,” I said as I greeted her in the hallway. “Thanks for not waking me up today.”

She nodded, joining me as I continued toward the mess hall. I poured myself a bowl of cereal, and she selected her usual cut of meat, then we made our way toward one of the tables. I figured that I owed Raz a favor for going to the gym to exercise, and so I motioned to the taller Borealan table, which was presently unoccupied.

I climbed up onto the exaggerated bench, feeling like a toddler sitting in a booster seat as my feet dangled off the floor, much to Raz’s amusement. She seemed to appreciate the gesture, able to eat at the table normally rather than having to sit on the deck. It wasn’t too much of an inconvenience for me, the table was a little higher than was comfortable, but I could reach.

We ate in silence, but it wasn’t an awkward one. Raz and I seemed to have reached some kind of new equilibrium, a mutual understanding that could be left unspoken.

When I was most of the way through my bowl of cereal, I noticed that Raz’s ears were swiveling toward the door, her feline pupils dilating as the Borealan pack entered the room. They headed straight for our table, grouping up together, practically walking in formation. As they drew closer, Raz’s ears flattened against her head, her eyes firmly fixed on what I assumed to be the new pack leader who had succeeded her.

While not as physically imposing as Raz, she was far bigger and more intimidating than any human could have hoped to be. She stopped by our table, glancing back and forth between the two of us, perhaps unsure of who she should be addressing. Unlike Raz, who was making great strides in the field of human social interaction, the other aliens were still rooted firmly in their pack mentality. Eventually, the tall alien chose to address me, rather than her old Alpha.

This our table, human,” she said in the same rolling accent as Raz. “Please leave.”

I stopped chewing, setting down my spoon. Her tone wasn’t insulting or disrespectful, but she was being bizarrely dismissive of human social norms.

I’m sorry, but we were here first,” I replied. I gestured to the adjacent benches, which were vacant. “You’re welcome to eat with us, though.”

The Borealan pack bristled, the lower ranked members looking to their leader for guidance, uncertainty etched onto their faces. The new Alpha seemed to take my comment as an affront, rather than as a compromise. Her lips pulled back to expose her teeth, her clawed fingers flexing as if she was anticipating sinking them into my flesh. Even when Raz had been at her most arrogant, she had not been this confrontational. It made me think that this new leader was overcompensating, either because she was unsure of herself, or because she was still afraid of Raz.

She turned her attention to my companion instead, hissing something in their native tongue. The look of displeasure on her face gave me the impression that she didn’t even deem Raz worth talking to.

He said no, Xhe,” Raz replied. She made a point of speaking English, which seemed to further annoy the pack.

The leader, or Xhe as Raz had referred to her, seemed to take this as an insult. Based on my ever-expanding knowledge of Borealan customs, Raz had challenged her by addressing a higher ranking pack member in such a flippant manner. Xhe slammed her fists down on the table, making me jump in surprise, the milk from my cereal sloshing around in the bowl.

Raz remained motionless, which might be a sign of either submission or defiance, I couldn’t be sure.

You submit to humans now, Raz?” Xhe spat. I could see the contempt in her yellow eyes.

I submit to no one,” Raz replied.

You could have cut the tension in the air with a knife. The few trainees who were eating their breakfast had either quietly filed out of the room, or were watching with concern. A couple of Krell were halfway out of their seats, they looked like they were gearing up to intervene.

Xhe didn’t seem to know how to respond. She looked to her pack for reassurance, but didn’t find any, then she turned back to face Raz.

How can you function in a pack if you do not submit? Have you gone completely rogue?”

Raz rose from her seat abruptly, Xhe flinching back as she stepped away from the bench and stood before her defiantly.

I no longer require submission, I have made friends.”

You’re insane,” Xhe shot back, her sharp teeth bared. Whatever signal the Borealans had been waiting for, it had been given, and they began to encircle the table. This was getting too dangerous for the likes of me, I didn’t fancy being caught in the middle of a Borealan catfight, and I didn’t fancy the odds of Raz taking on the whole pack and winning. If it were that simple, she would have done it in the first place. She could probably take two of them, maybe three, but the pack was five strong with Raz making the sixth Borealan on the Pinwheel. I didn’t know why they had elected to send such a small contingent compared to the other species, perhaps it had something to do with the probationary nature of the Borealan allegiance to the Coalition.

Raz became a spitting demon, the fur on her tail puffing up like a feather duster as it whipped through the air. Her eyes were wide, and her pupils were dilated into large, dark circles. She bared her fangs and flexed her claws, her ears pressed flat against her head as she squared off with her former pack. They seemed afraid of her, wary of getting too close. Xhe barked orders at them in their native language, and they held their ground.

I didn’t know what to do. If the claws started flying, then I would be torn to shreds, but I wasn’t about to let my hard-won friend get dogpiled. If there was a serious fight, then the M.Ps would show up and haul everyone off to the brig. Would they get here in time to prevent anyone from being seriously injured, and would a group of military police armed with batons and stun guns even be able to take down half a dozen pissed off Borealans?

Oh well, it was partly my fault that Raz was in this situation to begin with. Guess we’re doing this, I thought to myself as I climbed up onto the table, drawing confused glares from the angry aliens.

Alright, you pussies, who’s first?”

I kicked a half-full bowl of cereal at the nearest Borealan, who ducked out of the way of the bowl, but was doused with milk. She yowled and sputtered, shaking corn flakes out of her hair. Xhe snarled an order in their feline language, two of the aliens darting toward Raz. They were so impossibly fast despite their size and weight, the powerful muscles in their thighs rippling beneath their uniforms as they propelled themselves forward, their sharp claws digging furrows in the deck.

Before I could so much as blink, Raz clotheslined one of them, and it dropped like it had been hit by a bus to lie wheezing on the floor. The second swiped at her, but Raz blocked the blow with her forearm, taking advantage of the opening to lean in and slam her fist into her assailant’s sternum. The Borealan buckled, crumpling to the ground as her pack looked on. One on one, none of them could touch Raz, she had apparently been deserving of her title of Alpha.

Xhe spat another order, and the rest of the pack piled in. I tried to kick one of them in the head, but it casually brushed me off the table with the back of its hand. It was quite a fall for a human, and I hit hard, cracking a rib.

Raz turned to help me, but in her distraction, she took a swipe to the back. She yowled in pain and anger, spinning around to deliver a brutal uppercut that lifted her attacker clear off the ground. The forces at play were so far beyond human experience, the sound of her fist impacting the other Borealan’s chin was like that of someone hitting a side of beef with a sledgehammer. Crimson blood dripped from the four claw marks on her back, leaving round splotches on the white floor. I couldn’t tell how bad it was from my prone position.

The Borealans weren’t staying down, they were resilient creatures, and the one who had been clotheslined clambered to her feet. She spied me, and made her way around the table toward me, brandishing her claws as her yellow eyes focused on me. It was like being on the wrong side of the fence at a tiger enclosure, and I winced in pain as I tried to scramble backward, one hand clutching my side.

A Krell came barreling in from my left, lifting the Borealan off the floor and carrying her along, using its weight and momentum to slam her into the edge of the table. There was a sickening crunch as she was trapped between the Krell and the metal, the alien howling in pain and surprise.

From the other side of the table, a second Krell charged into the fray, letting loose a bone-chilling roar that gave even the Borealans pause for thought. One of the felines turned to face it, slicing at its scaly underside, but even her wicked claws were no match for the Krell’s defenses. Her talons glanced off it, failing to find purchase. She didn’t get the opportunity to try a second time, the reptile body-slamming her, sending the Borealan crashing to the deck.

The same reptile then spun around, swinging its massive tail like a wrecking ball, sweeping Xhe’s feet out from under her. She went down hard, the metal bench ringing like a gong as her face impacted it. She scrambled to her feet, dazed and unsteady, but the Krell brought down a fist the size of a bowling ball on her head. She fell back to the floor limply, lying motionless, a trickle of blood leaking from her pink nose.

A plucky human snuck up behind one of the remaining Borealans, the alien distracted by the arrival of the Krell, and smacked it over the back of the head with a metal dinner tray. More humans and Krell flooded into the mess hall, word of a fight must have spread quickly, and they were coming to defend their own.

The Borealans that were still on their feet looked conflicted. Their leader was down, unconscious on the floor, and most of the pack was incapacitated. The one that had been steamrolled by the Krell was making a racket, hissing and spitting in either pain or anger as she lay slumped on the table, I couldn’t tell which.

Now a dozen humans and half as many Krell were advancing on the beleaguered felines. They were hopelessly outnumbered, and they began to panic, their yellow eyes darting about wildly. Before the brawl could go any further, two dozen M.Ps wearing Marine armor with white helmets and wielding batons came streaming into the room, and they began hitting everything in sight. The humans were battered with strikes and forced toward the walls of the mess, while the Krell shrugged off the blows with little concern, plodding away peacefully to join their friends. Only the injured and the Borealans remained by the table in the middle of the room, the M.Ps rounding up those who could still walk under their own power, calling for stretchers to transport the incapacitated.

I was helped up by a medic and escorted toward the infirmary, wincing as the man draped one of my arms over his shoulder and guided me toward the door, my ribs burning with every step. I looked back to see a medic struggling to drag Xhe’s limp body onto a stretcher, being helped by three M.Ps. Two of the Krell had already been conscripted to carry her away. Someone was tending to Raz, but as I was led out of the room, I saw the M.Ps corralling her into a corner of the room with the other Borealans.

***

I was discharged from the infirmary later that afternoon. My broken rib was bandaged, and I had to make up a story about the scars on my chest to dissuade a curious nurse. The M.Ps came to visit me, taking a statement about the fight, but they didn’t drag me off to the brig. Vasiliev was waiting for me outside the building as I made my way onto the torus. I attempted to salute him, but the pain in my side made me think better of it.

Stanley, how’s your injury?” he asked.

I’ll be fine, sir. How’s Raz doing?”

Don’t worry about her, the medics told me that she was pretty much fifty percent scar tissue to begin with. Two of the others sustained some more serious injuries, however, even for Borealans. The Krell really worked them over. One broke a vertebra and fractured an arm, and the other sustained a pretty serious concussion. Since the Borealans were the aggressors in this scenario, no formal charges will be filed against the Krell, but when those lizards throw their weight around it tends to result in people getting hurt.”

I nodded, and we began to walk back in the direction of the barracks.

Stanley,” Vasiliev continued, “this station is technically an active service Naval installation. I hope you understand that participating in a brawl, even as a defensive measure, carries some serious consequences. We can’t have Marines running around, getting into fights in an enclosed space like a station or a carrier.”

Yes, sir. I understand,” I replied. “I assume that the M.Ps gave you our statements?”

Yes, all of the accounts corroborate yours, but there will still be a disciplinary citation on your record. I take no pleasure in it, but we can’t make exceptions for anyone.”

I had guessed as much. It wouldn’t kill my career by any means, but it was a blight on my otherwise exemplary record.

The Admiralty has seen enough of the Borealans,” Vasiliev continued, adjusting his cap as he walked. “The conclusion has been reached that they represent a liability to our mixed units, they can’t be socialized, we can’t integrate them. We’ll be shipping them home on the first available jump carrier.”

The news drove an icicle straight through my heart, and I stopped in my tracks. Vasiliev paused and turned to look back at me, confused by my reaction.

What about Raz?” I asked, apprehension tying a knot in my belly. “Will she be sent back to Borealis too?”

I know that you’ve taken a shine to Raz over the past few days,” he replied. “She’s seen dramatic improvements in her academic and XMR performance, but as I said, the Admiralty has deemed that the Borealans cannot be socialized. Borealis is being dropped from the integration program, and their personnel are being sent home, Raz included.”

I balled my fists, frustration overpowering my usual professionalism.

Sir, you don’t understand, she can’t be sent back to Borealis! They can be socialized, I figured it out, I’m starting to understand how they think. Raz is making progress, she’s starting to-”

The decision has already been made, Stanley, it’s not up to me.”

He sighed, turning and walking back toward me. He took me by the arm and ushered me along as I stared at the floor, dejected. I couldn’t believe what was happening, we couldn’t lose all of the progress that we had made merely because of a fight, one that we hadn’t even started! Raz was now enamored with the idea of friendship as an alternative to their brutal pack structure. If she took that message back to Borealis, alone and without the means to properly convey it, she would be eaten alive.

There had to be some way to fix this, some way to prove to the Admiralty that I alone could bridge the cultural gap between Earth and Borealis.

***

I arrived back at our dorm to find Raz waiting for me. She was perched on the edge of her bed, the red tinge to her eyes suggesting that she had been crying.

Are you okay, Raz?” I asked as I sat down beside her on the bunk.

I’m fine,” she mumbled. “You look a lot worse off than me,” she added, gesturing to the bandages that were peeking above the open collar of my uniform.

Eh, it’s nothing,” I replied with a wave of my hand. “Just a broken rib, it’ll be healed in a few days.”

Raz stared at the carpet, her ears drooping and her tail hanging limply off the edge of the mattress. She looked downright miserable.

Stanley…they said that I have to go home. They’re putting me on the next carrier, it’s leaving tomorrow afternoon.”

I know,” I mumbled, “Vasiliev already told me. The Admiralty doesn’t want Borealans in the program anymore, they think that you can’t be socialized.”

I really thought that…” Raz trailed off, and I reached up to put a hand on her shoulder.

I’ll find a way to fix this,” I insisted. “You’ve made so much progress, there has to be some way that we can show them that you’re different from the other Borealans. If you can learn to get along with humans, then others can too, and you’re the key to that. If Borealis wants to join the Coalition, then you’re the only person who can make that happen.”

It’s too late,” she sighed, “the order has already been given. Worse, when I get home, I’ll lose my standing in the hierarchy. My father will blame our failure to complete the program on me, I’m responsible. The last thing that he told me before I left was that everything was resting on my shoulders, and that he was trusting me to prove our worth to the humans. Now the Coalition won’t want Borealan warriors, they might not want an alliance at all. It’s my fault…”

No,” I said as I shook my head vigorously. “You’re the only one who has made any progress in the program at all. The other Borealans weren’t even trying. You’ve done exactly what you were supposed to do, me and you, we’ve found common ground. I’ll try to talk to Vasiliev again before the jump carrier leaves tomorrow, try to make a case for you staying on the Pinwheel. Maybe you can request asylum, or you could become an advisor, or…something. You should come with me. Maybe if he sees the change in you for himself, then he’ll pass the word up the chain to the Admiralty.

Raz didn’t reply, she just continued to examine the floor. I felt terrible in the knowledge that, in trying to improve her life on the Pinwheel, I had likely ruined her future back home. Who knew what adversity she would face now, all because of my meddling…

Raz, is there anything that I can do?”

She seemed to perk up a little, one of her ears swiveling in my direction.

Well…it’s our last night on the Pinwheel together. Tomorrow, I’ll be gone. There’s no reason to think that we’ll ever see each other again. There’s one thing that you can do for me…”

Before I could react, she took my face in her furry hands, leaning down close to me. Her soft, full lips pressed against mine, and then I felt her tongue push into my mouth. It was so long and flexible, warm, and slick with her saliva. The top was covered in rough barbs, but the underside was as smooth as velvet, the tapered tip of her winding organ finding my tongue and coiling around it like a snake. She held me there for a minute, locking me in a long, deep kiss that made my mind go blank. My cheeks burned as she cradled them in her silky palms, my heart hammering in my chest. She finally released me with a wet pop, her amber eyes seeming to glow as she peered down at me longingly.

I sat there, practically steaming. I felt as if my brain was about to melt and run out of my ears. She placed a hand on the back on my head, almost broad enough to encompass it entirely, and I felt her smooth cheek brush against mine as she drew closer to whisper in my ear.

Let me have you, Stanley. I need this, I want you so badly…”

I was dazed, the metallic taste of her kiss still lingering on my tongue. My body wasn’t responding to instructions from my brain, all I could do was sit there. She combed my hair with her claws, their pointed tips tickling my scalp, and I gasped as I felt her sharp teeth tug at my earlobe. I was buried in her thick mane of orange hair as she chewed my ear, her inviting scent filling my nose. She wasn’t one for perfumes and scented soaps, she smelled of exertion and body wash, musky and exciting.

She was actually asking for my permission this time, she wasn’t just taking what she wanted.

K-kiss me again, Raz,” I stammered.

She pulled back and beamed at me, then drew me close, her hand still cradling my head. She snuck her other arm around my waist, tugging me tight against her body and trapping me in a hug. I felt her pillowy breasts yield beneath her uniform as she pressed me into them, each one as large as my head, her warmth permeating me. As I looked up at her, she delivered another debilitating kiss from above. Her lips were so full and smooth, my spine arching as she slipped her agile tongue into my mouth again. She probed greedily, wantonly, as if the answer to some burning question might be found within. I felt the tapered tip painting shapes on the roof of my mouth and my inner cheeks, wrestling with my tongue. It was like damp satin, so smooth and slick, my eyes fluttering as more of its coils piled into my head. She was careful with the rough side, I could barely feel the feline barbs.

Her tight grip hurt my broken rib a little, but I was too enraptured by the artful strokes of her tongue to care. Her soft breasts spilled around my neck and shoulders due to our difference in stature, their weight resting on me through the fabric of her coveralls. My aching erection pressed against her toned belly, the bunches of hard muscle teasing me even through our clothes.

The kiss went on almost too long. Just when I was beginning to feel dizzy, she released me, and I sucked in a breath of air as I slumped against her. I buried my face in the nape of her neck, it was all that I could reach, feeling the heat of her skin on my cheek as I nuzzled.

It won’t hurt,” she murmured, “I’ll go slow…”

I couldn’t even react, my body was burning up, my mind was in a haze. I could hear my own blood pumping in my ears, my erection beating in time with my heart. Raz released me, lowering me to the bed, then I felt the mattress shift as she stood beside the bunk. She pulled down the zipper on her blue uniform, shrugging out of the upper half, letting it hang behind her. Her pale skin caught the light, her breasts straining heavily against the tube top that fought to contain them, my eyes wandering down toward her stomach to admire her six-pack.

She shook her wide hips, dancing on the spot as she pulled down her uniform, so tight around her butt and thighs that it was almost like a second skin. When she succeeded in freeing herself from its confines, she stepped out of it, crawling back onto the bed and sinking me into the mattress as she straddled me. I gulped conspicuously, we were really doing this…

Raz reached down and took my hand in hers, guiding it up toward her belly. She planted it there, encouraging me to touch her, watching with a smile as I traced the contours that her abs carved in her tummy with my fingers. It was like they were hewn from stone, muscles the size of my fist hiding beneath her glass-smooth skin, flexing as I brushed them. I dared to plant my other hand on one of her massive thighs, as thick around as my torso. I slid up toward the hem of her tight shorts, sinking my fingers into her doughy fat layer and feeling the hardness that lurked just beneath.

Is it everything that you imagined?” she asked. “You don’t have to pretend to be asleep when I’m exercising anymore,” she added with a chuckle, and my face burned hotter.

She lowered her lips to my neck, mouthing at my throat, teasing me with wet kisses and gentle bites. Flashes of stimulation ran down my spine like it was an optical cable, each flick of her tongue or pinch of her teeth making me arch my back and roll my hips. I couldn’t control my writhing, I was like a puppet, dancing on the end of her strings. She slid her rough tongue down my neck and nibbled my shoulder, one of her massive thighs coming up to press into my groin. Anticipating my reaction, she held me down with a firm hand as I bucked into her, my beleaguered body trying desperately to grind against hers. I felt a throb of pleasure as my member pressed against her leg, separated from her velvet skin by naught but a sliver of fabric.

She was enjoying the effect that she had on me, her amber eyes playing over my body as I writhed beneath her. She tugged my zipper all the way down, parting my uniform and slipping her hand beneath the tank top that I wore beneath. I flinched as I felt her pointed claws press against my belly, contrasting strangely with the softness of her fur. Slowly, lightly, she dragged them down toward my waist. I twitched, watching the outline of her hand glide lower.

You’re so sensitive, monkey,” she whispered. “You don’t mind if I call you that, right?”

N-no,” I mumbled, my heart skipping a beat as the previously insulting nickname took on an entirely new meaning. She gazed down at me, a mixture of affection and mischief on her face. I lurched as she brushed my erection through the fabric of my uniform, my mind swimming in a sea of arousal and embarrassment as her yellow eyes peered down at me. I tried to cover my face, but she took a firm grip on my wrist and pulled my arm away, pinning it against the mattress.

Let me see your face,” she chuckled, “you’re so red.” She leered at me, a cruel grin spreading across her lips, her tongue sliding out of her mouth to wet her lips.

Raz…do it gently…” I whispered.

She cupped her face in her hands and crooned happily, unable to contain herself.

Oh Stanley…you just keep digging yourself deeper and deeper, don’t you?”

She tightened her hold on me, her steely thighs gripping me like a vice, the crotch of her bike shorts pressing down on my member. I could feel her warmth through the thin fabric, it was maddening. Her breasts wobbled enticingly within the confines of her tube top, beads of sweat trailing down her belly, her taut abdominal muscles flexing with her every breath. She began to roll her wide hips gently, grinding against me, the stimulation making me writhe under her oppressive weight.

The other night, when I wanted to have you” she began. “You told me that you could only do it with someone that you loved, right? Is that some kind of cultural thing? Do humans pair for life or something?”

Yes, well…no, I mean…it’s just something that I promised myself.”

She perched atop me, watching me intently with her glowing eyes as I stammered through my reply.

I don’t think that you could say no to me at this point,” she said sweetly as she gave me another thrust, making me squirm beneath her. “And after all, I could take you in any way that I wanted.” I gasped as she ground her crotch against me again as if to illustrate her point. “But I promised that I’d be a good girl. What do you think? Could you ever love me?”

I was taken aback by her question, my cheeks turning an even deeper shade of red. I tried to cover my face again, and she laughed, pinning my arms against the bed as she made a point of gazing down at me. Her stare was so intense, her irises glittering when they caught the light. As her eyes met mine, I felt all semblance of resistance fade away.

Of course I loved her, I had always loved her. Even when she had pushed me down, when she had scarred me, when she had done her best to make my life miserable. A seething, guilty attraction had bubbled under the surface all the while, made all the more irresistible by its taboo. I had done my utmost to suppress it, I was afraid to admit my infatuation with her because of the power that it might give her over me, cruel and capricious girl that she had once been. She would have toyed with me, she would have broken my heart, and I would have loved every second of it.

Was it safe now? I realized that I no longer cared, I was too far gone. She had already bewitched me.

I’m…already in love with you,” I replied, my own candor surprising me. Now it was Raz’s turn to blush. She batted her long lashes and looked away, biting her lower lip.

Really, monkey? Even though I was so horrible to you?”

I nodded in reply, and a shiver seemed to pass through her body, her thighs tightening around me.

You poor, hopeless thing,” she murmured. She leaned down and kissed me again, doubling over to reach me due to our difference in stature. Her embrace was more urgent this time, almost desperate in its intensity, as though she wished to express every roiling emotion that she felt through the coiling of her tongue. My mind blanked out, pulses of white light flashing in my head. It felt as if she was tugging at my very nerves, plucking at them like the strings of a harp. When she broke away to leave me gasping, her plump lips were joined to mine by a strand of saliva, which broke and fell to my chest as her eyes followed it lasciviously.

So I have one night to make all of your dreams come true,” she said, chewing on her lower lip again. “Perhaps a few of your nightmares, too.” She was just so intense, almost too much for me to handle. I felt as though I might melt into a puddle right there on the bed. But her mind was set, she wanted me, and she was going to have me. “You’ve never done this before, right?” she added. “I get all of Stanley’s firsts to myself?”

She released my hands and hooked her claws beneath the elastic of her tube top, lifting it over her head. Freed from their constraints, her breasts cascaded forth, falling down to bounce alluringly as they settled. My mouth watered as I played my eyes over them, so pert and shapely despite their heft, accustomed to gravity far stronger than that of the station. They quivered with her every subtle movement, swaying like the pendulum of a hypnotist, her pink nipples standing out against her porcelain skin.

Well don’t just stare at them,” she chuckled. When I didn’t react, she hooked a hand behind my back and pulled me upright, pushing my face into the boundless depths of her cleavage. They engulfed my head almost entirely, spilling over my shoulders like melting candle wax, softer and more malleable than I could have imagined. They were so smooth and cool, soothing my burning cheeks, their weight pressing down on me. I breathed in lungfuls of her scent, drunk on it, the salty taste of her sweat on my lips.

I reached up and delved into them, no longer able to resist. My fingers sank up to the knuckle in her fat, the flawless globes deforming beneath my hands like I was shaping wet clay, spilling between my digits when I squeezed. I felt Raz’s muscles tense, a low sigh escaping her lips as I kneaded, her abs as hard as tempered steel as they pressed against me through the insubstantial fabric of my tank top. How could someone be at once so soft, and so firm?

My senses were overloaded, awash with wonderful contradictions and unbearable sensations, my aching erection straining against the fabric of my clothes like it was reaching out to her. She stroked my hair, massaging my scalp as my fingers sank deep enough to find firm breast tissue, her spine arching.

After a moment, she released me, placing a hand on my chest and laying me back down on the bunk. She began to pull off my tank top, and I slid out of the sleeves of my uniform, reaching down to help her. I winced as we managed to get it over my head, the movement making my injury ache. Much of my torso was bandaged to protect my broken rib, but my collarbone and my stomach were exposed. Raz brought her lips to my neck, making me flinch as she bit and licked, her feline tongue leaving warm trails of saliva. She seemed to have an almost predatory fixation with my throat. Her gentle nibbling brought back memories of her mock attack on the torus, the vulnerability that I had felt when she had pressed her sharp incisors against my jugular. Now her every peck and lick sent a shiver of pleasure crawling down my spine, the prick of her pointed teeth filling me with lust instead of fear.

She moved lower, passing over my bandage and tracing one of my four scars with her tongue, following it down to my navel. It stung a little, but the sensation excited me.

It tastes like it hurts,” Raz whispered, “I’ll make it up to you.”

Her furry hands roamed further down, and she began to tug the lower half of my uniform off. I shed my boots, and reached down to help her, Raz discarding the garment on the deck beside the bed. She eyed the conspicuous bulge in my shorts, and I flinched as she hooked her razor-sharp claws beneath the waistband, tugging them down slowly. My erection caught on the elastic for a brief moment, then bounced free, almost hitting her in the face. Her look of surprise quickly morphed into a sultry smile as she played her eyes over it, watching it throb in the air. I had no idea what a Borealan penis looked like, and I wondered what she thought of it. How strange and alien did it appear to her?

She grasped it gently with her fluffy fingers, and I flexed in her palm. She gripped me tighter, burying my shaft in her fur, careful to keep her claws out of the way. The sensation of her downy coat against my sensitive skin felt wonderful, it was like being stroked by someone wearing a mink glove. Ever so gently, as if she wasn’t entirely sure that it was the right course of action, she pulled back my foreskin. I felt her warm breath blow on my exposed glans as she drew closer, her soft lips brushing the tip. My groan of pleasure seemed to encourage her, and she batted her lashes at me, starting to slide her hand up and down my length.

I think I’ve got you figured out,” she chuckled. “It’s a little different from ours, but it’ll work just as well…”

She knelt beside the bed, glancing up at me with those amber eyes for a moment. Then without warning, she slipped me into her mouth.

I bent double as Raz swallowed me all the way to the hilt in one smooth motion, my ribs aching as I inadvertently put strain on them, my hands seeking out her silky hair and delving into it as she pressed her face into my lap. It was so hot and slippery, my toes curling as her rough, feline tongue cradled my glans. The granular texture on its upper surface was so intense, bordering on painful, tolerable only due to the thick layer of saliva that made it slimy and slick. The lower surface felt like wet silk, the contrasting sensations making my head spin. I bucked into her, unable to control myself, and I felt her furry hands grip my hips to keep me still.

I took handfuls of her orange hair, but she didn’t protest, her ears twitching as she swirled her tongue around my shaft. I could feel it creeping down toward the base as she licked and sucked, the pressure making stars dance before my eyes. God, it felt like there was a warm, slippery boa constrictor wrapping its coils around me.

R-Raz!” I gasped, “s-slow down!”

She mumbled something unintelligible, the vibrations from her mouth making my knees go weak. I released my hold on her hair, letting myself fall back to the bed as she painted the tender head of my member, her pink nose pressing against my belly. I dug my fingers into the sheets, my spine arching off the bed, Raz’s clawed fingers gripping my rump as I writhed.

I hadn’t expected anything like this. She had such fine control over her winding organ, almost like it was another appendage rather than a tongue, every deft stroke and measured squeeze making a pulse of pleasure wash over me. My tip brushed against the back of her throat, her silky cheeks pressing around me like I was being vacuum-packed in slimy flesh. Her muscle moved incessantly, undulating and squirming, its tapered end tracing my veins as it crawled up and down my shaft. The abrasive side teased my glans ruthlessly, sliding beneath my foreskin, swirling around it. She had already figured out that I was most sensitive there, lapping at it rhythmically.

I brought my hands up to my face in a futile attempt to block out the stimulation. Below my waist felt like it was melting, and above it felt like it was hooked up to the station’s power grid, an electrical current flowing through my body.

Raz,” I pleaded, my voice wavering. “You gotta slow down, you’re gonna make me…”

Nuh uh,” she mumbled around my shaft, gripping the base of my erection tightly between her thumb and forefinger. I winced, my mounting orgasm retreating, she had cut it off in its tracks. She slipped my manhood out of her mouth, lingering with her lips closed around the tip for a moment, delivering one last lick that made me grit my teeth. Her bubbling drool clung to my skin in a sheen, thick strands of it falling to my thighs as she drew back, wiping her mouth with the back of her hand.

She gripped my shaft in her fist, her velvety fur now matted with her warm saliva, the fine hairs gliding against my skin as she stroked me with her damp coat. It was such an odd sensation, but it felt amazing, my eyes losing their focus for a moment as she grinned at me.

Did you like that, monkey?”

I mumbled an embarrassed yes, and she bit my hip playfully, keeping up her slow stroking all the while.

Alright, now do me,she insisted.

W-what?” I asked, scarcely able to formulate the question as her sopping hand distracted me.

It’s my turn,” she said, releasing my member from her slimy grip and hopping up onto the bed. Her weight bounced me into the air, and she laughed at me as I struggled to collect myself, a blend of euphoria and alarm making my mind fuzzy. I turned to her as she lay back on the oversized bed, parting her titanic thighs in invitation and beckoning to me with a clawed finger.

I crawled toward her, feeling somewhat exposed without my clothes, hesitating as I knelt between her legs.

Don’t play coy, you know what I want,” she chided.

I leaned in, mouthing her inner thigh just below the hem of her shorts. Her skin was as smooth as varnished wood, cool to the touch, so silky that I could scarcely stop myself from brushing my cheek against it. Her flesh as was soft as memory foam, but her iron muscles flexed where my lips and tongue wandered, dimpling her flawless skin. She shivered, sighing as I roamed lower.

Yeah…that’s right. Fuck, I can’t believe how smooth your tongue is…” I stroked her thigh, running my fingertips over its polished surface. It was so huge compared to that of a human. If I were to hug it, I could just about get my fingers to meet on the other side. Her muscles bulged, the fresh sheen of sweat on her skin making her glisten in the light. My eyes wandered up to her chest, where her sumptuous bosom rose and fell with her quickening breaths, her breasts wobbling softly as she shifted her weight on the bed. Below them, her abs rose up from beneath her skin, flexing due to her upright posture to make them even more prominent. They reminded me of stones smoothed by the flow of a river, beads of her perspiration following the channels between them, sliding toward the subtle paunch that protruded over her waistband to give her a softness and femininity that lit a fire in my belly.

She was an athletic creature, a keen swimmer, and the high gravity of her homeworld had further shaped her body into an avatar of beauty and strength. It was enough to make any human Olympian green with envy.

Beneath her clinging, low-cut shorts, I could easily make out the inviting outline of her pubic mound. I grunted my frustration, an unfamiliar, primal urge rising up inside of me as I crawled on top of her. I pressed my erection against her mound, the thin fabric of her shorts already sodden with her excitement, heat radiating from her. My fingers disappeared into one of her supple breasts as I brought her nipple to my lips, drawing it into my mouth and circling it with my tongue. Now it was Raz’s turn to buck and gasp, one of her hands delving in my hair, pulling me closer in encouragement.

So you do have some fight in you, monkey,” she purred. “I was starting to worry that you might just lie there like a beached fish.”

I gave her nipple a gentle bite in response, and she arched her back, lifting me off the mattress with the motion before sinking back down into her seat.

You don’t have to be gentle with me,” she added, her tone becoming lurid. “I can take more than any human could dish out. Now down you go…”

She placed a hand on the top of my head, guiding me lower, and I came face-to-face with her toned midriff. I couldn’t help myself, planting lingering kisses as I went, sliding my tongue into the channels that her six-pack carved in her skin. She wriggled, ticklish, cooing at me as I reached her waistband and hooked my fingers around it.

She closed her legs just enough that I could ease her shorts off, I couldn’t imagine how she even got into them. The fabric creaked and stretched as they struggled over her muscular butt and thighs, a strand of viscous fluid pulling away with them. I dropped them off the edge of the bed to join our uniforms in a heap on the floor, leaving Raz fully exposed in all her glory.

I gazed down between her legs, her rosy flesh shining with moisture, like the blooming petals of a flower coated in droplets of dew. Her lips were swollen and puffy, a clear rope of her juices hanging from her pink sex. She was hairless, save for a small tuft of soft, silky fur on her mound that was the same shade of orange as her fur. She looked so human, my eyes playing over her delicate folds, her opening twitching in anticipation.

It’s not just for admiring,she chuckled, gripping a handful of my hair in her fist. She guided me closer, my cheeks brushing against her velvet thighs, her loins drooling like a mouth. Her feminine scent was even stronger here, dulling my mind and making my erection bounce in the air. I could feel her heat on my lips, even from a distance.

I gave her an experimental lick, dragging my tongue between her puffy labia, a blend of her fluids and my saliva making it glide against her burning flesh. I could feel every detail, every subtle crease of her womanhood, like pleated silk. Her metallic, sour flavor pricked my taste buds, but I couldn’t have cared less. Feeling her muscles flexing around my face, her scent invading my brain with every breath, the sting of her grip on my hair…I was completely overcome.

I began to lap more enthusiastically, practically making out with her, playing my lips and tongue up and down her vulva. I drew shapes with the tip, sucking and kissing, doting on her. I worried that my attempts might be too clumsy, that I was too inexperienced, but she responded strongly to my attentions. Her thighs trembled, her hips rolling, and I peered up over her fluffy mound to see that she was chewing on her lower lip again. Her yellow irises gazed back at me, her eyelids drooping, her tail waving back and forth on the bed.

Fuck,” she mumbled, failing to suppress an unbecoming moan. “You have no idea how hard it is for a Borealan to give head like this…” I could imagine, having felt those cruel barbs scouring my anatomy only minutes prior. It was easy to see how it might be painful if great care wasn’t taken. “Hang on,” she added excitedly, “you don’t have claws either!”

She didn’t need to elaborate. I paused my licking for a moment, brushing her loins with my fingertips. Raz shuddered, laughing to herself, the motion making the meat of her thighs shake around my head. I located her entrance, pressing a finger inside her, and immediately it was seized by what felt like a fist gloved in damp velvet. Her insides squeezed and pulsated, drawing my digit deeper, sucking like a greedy mouth. Her fleshy walls were coated in creases and bumps, my heart pounding in my chest as I felt them massage me in ruthless waves.

Move it in and out,” she murmured, “stroke me from the inside. Oh yeah…like that. It’s like you were made for this…”

I resumed my ardent licking, slowly pushing my finger in and out of her, struggling to break her grip on me. It was only due to the warm slime that now coated my digit in a thick glaze that I could even withdraw it, such was her tightness. I wouldn’t have expected it, based on her stature, but I supposed that her inner muscles were just as toned as those that were outwardly visible.

I found a rhythm, my finger sliding inside her sodden passage as her juices leaked around it, my tongue stroking her exposed anatomy. I gripped her thigh for purchase with my free hand, wrapping my arm around it and scarcely reaching halfway. Her grip on my hair loosened, becoming a soothing stroking.

I could just lie here all night,” she sighed, leaning her head back and enjoying my devoted lapping.

If you want…” I mumbled, glancing up at her to see her cheeks flushing.

N-no, I was joking! You thought I was serious?she laughed. “But I bet you’d really do it, wouldn’t you?” She chuckled again, this time with a kind of nervous excitement, as if the prospect that I’d happily spend all night with my face planted between her thighs hadn’t occurred to her.

As my tongue roamed higher, I felt something firm and smooth, Raz lurching like she had been electrocuted. I pulled back, a strand of her juices linking my lips to hers, and glanced up at her.

Sorry, did I hurt you?” I asked.

No,” she purred, her voice dripping with honey. “Keep that up.”

I circled the bud of flesh, pursing my lips around it, drawing it out from beneath its protective hood of skin. Raz was so powerful, so massive, she had always seemed so immovable to me. But now she writhed and mewled, her claws tearing at the mattress as I dragged my tongue across her clitoris. Her thighs tightened around my head, pressing me deep into her layer of cushiony fat. For a moment, I feared that she might pop my skull like a cantaloupe in her fugue, but her gentle stroking in my hair reassured me. She began to grind her hips against my face, smearing my lips with her syrupy juices, and I had to cling to her to save from being thrown off. Her slow gyrations buffeted me, but I remained undeterred, keeping my lips locked to her swollen protrusion. I trapped it between my tongue and my lip, battering it with quick flurries, drawing on it until Raz began to moan.

I peered up over her mound again, watching the rows of her abs bulge and flex as she moved, her cheeks glowing red as her eyelids fluttered. She was always so capable and in control, but now I had found a weakness, and that amused me to no end. She caught me smirking at her, taking a grip on my hair and pulling me up from between her thighs.

What’s that expression, monkey?” she asked as she caught her breath. “You think you’ve won? I’m just getting started with you.”

I didn’t realize that this was a competition,” I replied, wiping her slime from my lips with the back of my hand. “Wait, what are you-”

She sprang to her knees faster than I could react, grabbing my arm and twisting me around so that my back was to her. She pulled me against her chest, her breasts surging over my shoulders in an avalanche of wobbling flesh, cushioning my head and neck like a travel pillow. Her thighs anchored around my hips, holding me in place. I had rarely seen her make use of her tail for anything before, but now it coiled around my arms, trapping them behind my back. It felt like a fluffy, sinewy rope, tying my wrists together so that I couldn’t move them.

I was trapped, immobilized, and completely at her mercy.

Let’s see how you fare when you can’t put that little tongue of yours to use,” she cooed, sucking my ear into her mouth. She chewed it gently, the wet, indecent sounds filling my head. I gasped and writhed against my furry bonds, but she wrapped her arms around my chest, trapping me in a sarcophagus of muscle and velvet skin. One of her biceps pressed against my cheek, her breasts jiggling around my head, her thighs squeezing my hips. I felt the bumps of her abs press against my back, slick with a layer of sudor that seemed to glue us together.

I closed my eyes, colorful points of light dancing before them, trying my best to withstand the intense stimulation. She released my ear and brought a hand up to my throat, her grip firm but gentle. She turned my head to one side, her thumb and forefinger on my burning cheeks, bringing her lips down to my neck. Her soft, slow kisses gradually escalated into harder bites, her sharp teeth pinching my skin. I struggled to free my hands, squirming in her grasp, trying to glean some kind of reprieve from her assault on my most vulnerable spots. But like a Chinese finger trap, the harder I fought, the tighter her grip on me became.

As my yelps and gasps grew louder and more frequent, she seemed to become more aggressive and excited. She was like a housecat that was starved of the hunt, toying with a small bird. She whispered in my ear, pausing between words to pinch the cartilage between her pointed incisors.

So you think…it’s funny…to make me moan…do you?”

I felt feverish, the heat between our flexing, struggling bodies threatening to become unbearable. I hesitated, unsure of whether she actually expected an answer, her maddening teasing addling my brain.

Let’s see…what noises…humans can make,” she added.

She kept one hand around my throat, holding my head between her pert breasts, slick with our combined sweat. My eyes followed her other hand as it left my chest and slowly crawled down my torso like an orange tarantula, her claws brushing my belly, making me flinch and buck.

My member bounced in the air with every beat of my pounding heart, hot and sore. Her soft palm closed around my almost unbearable firmness, her gentle, tentative squeeze sending a jolt of pleasure coursing through my body. I tried to double over, but Raz kept me upright, smirking at my reaction as I let slip a low groan.

I’ve already heard that one,” she crooned in my ear.

She began to move her hand, torturously slowly, brushing her delicate fur against my glans as her fingers glided up and down my length. She wet the fleshy pad on her thumb with my leaking pre, making slow circles on my tip, her grip tight and unforgiving. I rolled my hips, trying in vain to fuck her fist. But all I received for my troubles was a bite, her teeth pricking my exposed neck.

Keep still, monkey,” she chuckled.

I can’t!” I complained, a hint of desperation creeping into my voice.

You’d better,” she purred, dragging her rough tongue over the tooth marks that she had left.

I tried desperately to concentrate on keeping still as she stroked, but my body would not obey me. My legs were numb and useless, my arching back and thrusting hips moving against my will. Raz rewarded my defiance with pinches to my neck and tugs to my ears, delighting in the way that I jerked and shivered. She kept me on edge, never stroking fast enough or squeezing tightly enough to satisfy my mounting need. More than anything in the world, I wanted to free my hands so that I might sate my maddening urges, but they were held firmly by her sinewy tail. I felt like I was going insane.

You promised that you’d be gentle,” I whined, beads of sweat stinging my eyes.

Oh, monkey,” she murmured. “How could I be gentle with you? You’re so sensitive, unspoiled. You react so strongly to the merest prick of my claws, the lightest brush of my fur. You have no scar tissue to protect you, no fur or scales, just this…delicate skin.”

I gasped as I felt her tongue rake the back of my neck, Raz sampling me like a morsel of food.

If I didn’t like you so much, I might have to eat you,” she added with a mischievous chuckle. A shiver ran down my spine. I hoped that she was joking, but I could never tell with Raz, she had a sadistic streak a mile wide.

She accelerated her stroking, beginning to pump rhythmically. I was on cloud nine, or maybe it was the ninth circle, it was increasingly difficult to differentiate between the two. I felt as if my very existence was tied to the rhythm of her fist, my heart pounding, flares of ecstasy rising up through my body like licking flames. My breathless gasps became low moans despite my best efforts to stifle them, Raz leering down at me from above, her round ears fixed on me so that she might better appreciate my distress.

Complain all you want,” she whispered, “but your body is betraying you. Does it trust me more than it trusts you? Poor, undisciplined human…”

I hung my head as her tight fist pumped faster still, delirious, my face burning red as what blood could be spared rushed to my cheeks. My guilty excitement was reaching its crescendo, Raz was pushing me higher and higher, the pleasure threatening to burn out my nervous system in a glorious conflagration.

Raz stopped abruptly, letting my aching cock throb against her palm.

N-no!” I exclaimed, turning my head to look back at her in desperation. “Raz? What are you doing? I was so close…”

Her eyelids were drooping, her breathing ragged and irregular. Her long tongue parted her lips and wet them lasciviously as she watched my chest heave, feeling my member pulsing in her hand.

I want to bite you, monkey. Just a little, to see what noise you’ll make. Will you let me do that? Just a little bite…

I bucked unhappily, single-minded in my attempts to thrust into her warm hand, but she held me immobile. I felt my welling orgasm begin to recede, biting my lip in frustration.

Damn it Raz…alright. Below the collar, so nobody can see!”

She wrapped an arm around my chest and hugged me tight, her breasts compressing against my back as she leaned down to plant a kiss on the nape of my neck. She pumped her hand quickly, bringing me back to the brink once more. The anticipation was killing me, mingling with my arousal in strange and unexpected ways to make me feel lightheaded. Her every stroke elicited a sigh or a whine from me as I felt release approaching, her rhythm syncing with my needy thrusting. Raz waited until she felt the first spasm of my climax, sinking her teeth into the soft flesh where my neck and shoulder met, biting down hard enough to puncture the skin.

The sharp pain and surprise melded with my shuddering orgasm, creating a soup of unendurable sensation, and I let out a plaintive cry. Thick ropes of my emission erupted forth, splashing against her silky fur, the pressure forcing it out between her fingers. It looked like she was crushing a packet of liquid soap in her hand. My body contorted in her grasp as the waves of pleasure crashed over me, each one more powerful than the last, driving me to new heights as the sweet ache of satisfaction spread through my trembling muscles. The sting from her bite and the ache in my ribs joined it, confusing my senses. All of my wires were crossed, the borders between pleasure and pain becoming blurred, indistinct. I stayed that way for what felt like minutes, but couldn’t have been more than a few seconds.

I finally sank back into the soft pillows of her bosom, shuddering as an aftershock rocked me. My member was still stiff and sore, pulsing in her palm. She stroked me gently, easing out the last tremors of my fading bliss, the fluids that matted her fur making her touch warm and slippery. I shivered as her hot, slimy tongue soothed the aching, red bite mark on my shoulder.

Raz was shaking too, but for entirely different reasons. Her firm muscles practically vibrated beneath me as I leaned against her massive frame, the alien scarcely able to contain her arousal. She leaned back a little further, reclining like an armchair made of muscle and fat, her breasts serving as admirable pillows. She began to stroke my hair almost apologetically, the touch of her claws on my scalp burning through my afterglow like flares. She released my wrists from their furry manacles, opening her thighs to relieve the pressure that she had been putting on me.

I knew that you’d make an adorable noise,” she purred as she fawned over me, hugging me tightly and kissing my cheek. She slipped me a slow, deep kiss that sent a pulse of exhausted pleasure through my body, and I tasted the metallic flavor of my blood on her tongue. “Did you like that?” she asked, breaking away with a smack. “Your body sure did…”

A little extreme for my first time, don’t you think?” I complained through the fog of my post-coital bliss. It was hard to gripe convincingly while she was still stroking me with a handful of my own come.

Raz mewled, momentarily overcome with affection for me, smothering me in the wobbling meat of her bust as she squeezed me like a teddy bear.

Now every time that your bite twinges, and it’s going to ache for days, your mind will be right back here. You’ll be trapped in my arms again, making those adorable little noises that you make. You’ll get hard and sore, your face will burn, and you’ll want me…”

She pressed down on the bite mark with her tongue, and it flared painfully, making me wince as I brushed her away with my hand.

Is this normal on your planet?” I asked, “you’re a downright sadist by human standards.” I touched my fingertips against the puffy mark, Raz seeming delighted as I flinched.

Borealans fight from the day we can walk. We’re thick-skinned, I suppose you could say. Play fighting leaves us with worse wounds than a shallow bite mark, and we grow tough and hard because of it. Our scars heal over, our pain thresholds rise, but you…” She gazed down at me, almost lecherous. “You can’t fight back, you haven’t been toughened by a lifetime of scraps and bouts. I’m the first person to ever touch you. It turns me on…”

She trailed off as she made circles on my belly with her hooked claw, teasing my skin ever so lightly, the sensation tickling me. She released her hold on me, letting me squirm free of her, and I lay down on the mattress as I watched her use the sheets to clean the mess from her hand. When she was done, she flopped down beside me, her eyes playing over my sweaty body as I recovered from my ordeal. After a moment, the sight of me became too much for her, and she bundled me up in her arms again. Raz pressed me deep into her heaving bosom, our damp bodies sliding against one another, all semblance of modesty and personal space abandoned. I breathed in her scent, basking in my afterglow, the dull pain in my shoulder reminding me of her lust.

Raz?” I mumbled, my voice muffled by her cleavage. “In a few minutes, can we do it again? I want…more.”

She beamed down at me, patting my head like I was her faithful pet.

You think I’d let you off that easily, monkey? I’m not even close to being satisfied yet.”

We lay together for a while, our burning, exhausted bodies entwined. I felt peaceful, as if all of the tension and stress that had accumulated over the last week had been wrung from my body like dirty water from a dish rag. Raz’s breathing was hypnotic, I rested my head on her soft chest as it rose and fell, my arm draped across her toned belly. We rested for maybe fifteen minutes, then Raz rolled over, feeling my renewed erection pressing into her thigh.

You look like you’re ready to go again,” she chuckled.

Yeah…”

She grinned and rolled on top of me, sinking me deep into the mattress with her weight, the springs creaking their complaints as she positioned herself on top of me. Her hot, slippery loins pressed against my shaft, squashing it against my belly. She leaned down, her breasts hanging just above my face, swaying like a pair of wrecking balls.

I think you’ll like this,” she said with a wry smile. “I’ll go slow this time.”

She rose off me a little, grasping my erection in her hand, rubbing the glans up and down her vulva. Her exposed flesh was so slimy and wet, it felt like velvet that had been soaked in lubricant, her anticipation leaking down my shaft in globs. I squirmed, my senses heightened by my prior orgasm. Raz gazed down at me, savoring my reaction, her eyes wandering across my body.

Had to wring one of you before we got to the main course, monkey, or you’d never have lasted.” My eyes widened as I felt her press the tip of my member against her opening, my fingers digging into the sheets beneath me. There was a moment of pressure as her silken walls resisted, and then my glans broke through into a tunnel of textured, burning flesh. As I sank deeper, the delicate nubs and creases of her insides raked across my tender anatomy, her powerful muscles massaging me in waves as they attempted to drag me inward. Despite Raz’s size, she was almost unbearably tight, clinging to me like a latex glove. I felt like she might have taken my skin off was it not for the viscous, slick fluid that seeped out around my buried shaft.

We gasped in unison, my member jumping and flexing in her reaches, her tunnel clamping down on me like a trap as she felt me swell inside her. I was locked in a prison of damp, burning flesh, caressing and squeezing me in an inexorable rhythm. I did my best to avoid bucking and slamming myself all of the way inside her, which is what my body was desperately commanding me to do. She lowered herself gingerly, and I peered down to watch my shaft vanish into her pink, dripping flesh a millimeter at a time. I wondered if Borealan males were perhaps not dramatically more endowed than humans, or perhaps her athletic lifestyle made her tighter than usual. Whichever it was, she was being careful.

Once she reached a certain point, she slid all the way down in one go. I threw my head back, arching my spine, but she was far too heavy for me to lift her. Raz’s steely thighs clenched around me, her insides spasming, waves of muscles rolling up my length from the base to the tip. It was hotter and wetter than even her mouth had been, sucking on me just as vigorously. My member felt like an iron melting in a forge, glowing red-hot as it dripped molten metal.

Ah…there we go…” she muttered, sparks of pleasure crackling in my brain as she rolled her hips to get comfortable. I dug my fingers into her thighs almost in a panic, holding on for dear life as she began to make lazy circles, her teasing movements wringing gasps and groans from me. She watched me as she twisted and gyrated, smirking at my reactions, but I noticed that she was not as in control as she wanted me to believe.

When my stiff erection dug into her velutinous walls, her eyelids would flutter, and she would bite her lower lip as if trying to distract herself from the sensation. Her insides moved as though they had a life of their own, as if a dozen coiling tongues were encircling me, swirling and licking in every which direction. I could feel her every wrinkle, stark and prominent in my mind, almost like ribs as they slid over my tender glans.

She switched up the pace, rocking backward and forward a little faster, grinding into me like she was trying to scratch some maddening itch deep inside her. She had such fine control over her muscles, swinging her hips like a gymnast or a dancer, her abs flexing and twisting as I watched them. Every staccato thrust made her soft bust and thighs shake, her wet skin shining, her sweat raining down on me as she dizzied me with her skillful lovemaking.

My mind was awash with pleasure, every pulse and twinge that coursed through my nerves sending flashing stars dancing in my field of vision. It felt as if someone had replaced my brain fluid with carbonated water. Her iron pelvic floor muscles wrung me mercilessly, honed through years of hard exercise, massaging me like the practiced hand of a masseuse.

I tried to push up into her, to join her in her rhythmic dance, but she had me pinned. Her exaggerated size and weight meant that she was free to dictate the pace of our coupling, whether I liked it or not.

Instead, I reached for her hanging breasts, sinking my fingers into their yielding surfaces. I pinched her swollen, pink nipples as I kneaded her pliant flesh like warm cookie dough, making her growl and shudder. My digits were engulfed like they were being devoured by some kind of giant amoeba, my fingertips reaching the firmer tissue beneath that gave them their flawless teardrop shape.

I felt her clench around me, her sopping, twitching walls narrowing in a contraction of pleasure. She squeezed me between her thighs, gripping my lower body almost painfully, her muscles like bundles of steel suspension cables beneath her flush skin. A low squeak escaped her lips, the sound seeming to embarrass her, a rosy tint creeping into her cheeks.

Seeing Raz in this state fanned the flames of my desire, and I rose to a sitting position, ignoring the sting in my ribs. Her bosom was at head-height to me, and I brought one of her nipples to my mouth, sealing my lips around it as she loosed a stifled moan. I circled it with my tongue, trapping it between my teeth, biting her gently as her thrusting became more erratic.

Now who’s making cute noises?” I asked, pausing my sucking for a moment to glance up at her red face. The orange strands of her fringe were sticking to her damp skin, her amber eyes unfocused, her mouth open as she panted.

Damn it, monkey…”

She squirmed under my assault as if trying to shake me off, her parted lips letting slip more strained gasps and breathless sighs as she struggled to hold them back. Her writhing, rolling hips tormented me, and I too began to vocalize as the heat and pressure became too much for me. I gazed up at her, my face buried in her sweaty cleavage, and she looked down at me with a palpable lust behind her yellow eyes. She seemed to sense that I was getting close, my member surging inside of her, beating like a second heart as another climax neared.

Hold on a little longer, monkey,” she gasped. “I’m not satisfied yet.”

She leaned down and brought her warm lips to my neck, pressing them tentatively against the sore, red bite mark that she had left on my skin. I flinched, but as much as her kiss stung, it filled me with guilty excitement. Memories and sensations came flooding back from the moment that she had bitten me, crisp and fresh, that blend of pleasure and pain confusing my senses once again. She noticed that her kiss had not had the desired effect of curtailing my mounting pleasure, and her lips curled into an evil smile. She kept up her grinding, her reflective eyes burning into mine with a fierce passion, like a pair of hot coals.

Oh Stanley,” she purred, “I didn’t know that you felt that way…”

I didn’t understand what she meant by that, but before I had a chance to ask, she dragged the rough surface of her tongue across the bite mark. Pain flared, and I groaned into her bosom, my building orgasm receding. She cradled my head in her furry hand, lowering me back to the bed, stroking my hair soothingly as I winced and resisted the urge to rub the wound.

Good boy,” she crooned, her hot breath tickling my ear. “I knew you’d come around.”

I blushed, my member jumping inside of her, a shiver passing through her muscular frame as she felt me flex. She raised a clawed finger to her mouth and chewed on it as she watched me, her salacious gaze making me avert my eyes in embarrassment.

I couldn’t hide anything from her in this flustered state. Every sordid whisper, every twitch of her velvet passage got a visceral reaction out of me. She only had to feel me pulse and bounce inside of her to know what I liked. If I wanted to reveal that information or not was beside the point. The idea of her uncovering my deepest, darkest desires filled me with a mixture of dread, and excitement. I wondered just how far she might take things, what she might do to make me reveal the repressed desires that I wouldn’t even admit to myself. It was Raz, after all, so I guessed pretty far…

Now I’m gonna come, tree climber,” she announced. “And when I do, I want to see your little red face.”

Raz closed her hands around my wrists, pinning my arms to the bed as she doubled over, her orange hair tickling my face as her lips hovered little more than an inch above mine. I struggled as she repositioned herself, much to her amusement, her fangs bared in a satisfied grin. I gritted my teeth as I felt the delicate folds of her loins shift and swirl around me, her fleshy walls scouring me. Her smooth cheek brushed against mine as she leaned in closer, tugging at my ear with her sharp teeth, making me writhe beneath her. She savored the sensation of my member stirring inside of her as I struggled, and she began to mouthe and lick at my neck, avoiding the bite wound. She nibbled softly, leaving sucking kisses, her ears focusing on me so that she might better appreciate my stifled moans. I turned my head left and right as if trying to escape her, but I was trapped. I was completely at the mercy of her soft lips, her agile tongue, and her pointed fangs. It drove me crazy, and she knew it.

Would she bite me again? I had no idea, and for some reason, the prospect filled me with a kind of lurid anticipation rather than fear. Was that what she had meant by me coming around?

Raz…what are you doing to me?” I whined, feeling her incisors press against my throat. Her warm, slippery tongue flicked out to sample my sweat, leaving a trail of her bubbling saliva on my feverish skin.

Teaching you how to be honest with yourself,” she whispered.

She squashed me into the mattress as her thrusts became more aggressive and vigorous, rising on my shaft as her insides clung to me like latex, then letting her weight carry her down again with enough force to bruise my hips. She forced me as deep inside her as I could get, and I felt my glans parting the satin flesh of her furthest reaches, her muscles quivering around my length as she impaled herself on me.

Her tempo increased, her luscious breasts bouncing with every impact, her chiseled abs pumping and flexing as her sweat-drenched skin shone under the dorm’s harsh lighting. Her meaty thighs held me in place, her furry fingers still gripping my wrists, making me her willing prisoner.

The stimulation was too intense, her passage squeezing me in undulating contractions with the vigor of a farmhand milking a cow. I couldn’t regain control over my faculties, my mind lost in a haze of euphoria, my body wracked by surges of intolerable pleasure. Raz’s merciless rhythm was dredging up the most base and animalistic instincts from deep within my psyche, the overpowering need to rut drowning out my conscious mind. I wanted to drag my tongue across her wet skin and taste her sudor, I wanted to fill my lungs with her musky scent. I’d go insane if I didn’t claw at her yielding flesh and take handfuls of her springy, firm ass and thighs.

I tried to sit up, intent on sating my lust, but Raz made a point of keeping me pinned. Her grip on my wrists tightened until my hands began to tingle, her face twisting into a bestial snarl. I felt the fluttering of butterflies in my stomach as I met her gaze, seeing the thirst, the hunger that she had for me.

I bucked, and I writhed, but I couldn’t relieve the pressure that was building up inside of me. It was maddening, threatening to tear the very sanity from my mind in its callous claws. I throbbed and ached inside of her, her pillowy walls drawing on me with merciless intent, my buried member assailed on all sides by the luxuriant textures of her slimy tunnel. It pressed around me impossibly tightly, grinding and sliding against my skin, caressing my sensitive glans as though fingers were reaching out to stroke me from beyond the barrier of her flesh. All the while, she leered down at me from on high. She drank down every pained expression on my face, every cry and plea that passed my lips, reveling in my delicious torture.

S-slow down, Raz,” I groaned through gritted teeth.

No,” she replied pitilessly as she kept up her barbarous pace, the bed frame creaking beneath us. I shivered, teetering on the brink of an orgasm that threatened to be so intense that I almost feared its arrival. All it took was one last thrust, the muscles in my legs and belly cramping, my toes curling and my spine rising from the mattress as I erupted inside of her. I shuddered and convulsed as I flooded her with hot, gelatinous ropes of my emission, my warmth spreading through her like rising magma. Raz’s eyes grew wide, then they rolled back into her head, her loins drawing more of it out of me with their incessant kneading. It felt like she was pulling a knotted rope out of me, I could feel every wad of my seed as it traveled through me, and into her.

Exquisite pleasure made me its plaything, my mind fading and my body slipping out of my control, as though Raz had just jumped me into superlight. Waves of ecstasy washed over me one after the other, rocking me like a ship at sea during a storm, each one more powerful than the last. There was a momentary lull before the next flood of acute, unfiltered sensation hit me, affording me a scant few seconds of anticipation. My conscious mind rose to the surface to take a fleeting breath, before being inundated once again, dashed against the rocks.

I felt Raz’s wracking contractions as she joined me in my nirvana, her entire body seeming to seize up, her rock-hard muscles on display as they bulged from beneath her lustrous skin. Her rigidity lapsed into a quivering, shaking orgasm, the beads of her sweat glittering like stars as they were shaken from her. The muscles in her most intimate depths wrung me relentlessly, swallowing up everything that I could give her, drinking my essence from the source like a parched throat.

Our senses left us, carnal bliss reducing us to a pair of panting, heaving animals. We were drenched in each other’s fluids, grasping desperately at one another, fingers and lips roaming across damp skin as we embraced. I felt the sting of Raz’s claws digging into my back in a frantic bid to draw me closer to her, scrambling my nerves, pain and pleasure now obsolete concepts.

We stayed there, our bodies locked together for what felt like a lifetime, the world around us melting away like running paints on a canvass until all that remained was us. We were lost in our own private universe, sitting upright together on the bed, holding one another as we rode out the dying embers of our shared climax. It was as if our nervous systems had been patched together, every gentle movement and every ragged breath felt by the both of us, creating a fresh surge of sweet afterglow.

Eventually, we collapsed onto the soiled sheets together in a sweaty heap. I slid out of her, our blended juices seeping from her still twitching opening, an obscene concoction of pearly fluid that oozed down her thigh like glue. I nuzzled at her neck affectionately as we recovered, tasting her salt on my lips, the scent of her exertion driving me wild.

She grabbed a fistful of my damp hair, and we melted into a leisurely, deep kiss that sent jolting aftershocks rippling through my exhausted body. We were twisted together like a pretzel, a mess of limbs, grasping hands and questing tongues joined in a furious embrace. My back stung from the scratches, but it was hard to gauge the extent of the damage. It was hard to take my mind off Raz’s tongue as it bulged my cheeks and glanced the back of my throat, too.

We lay there together, mouthing and kissing, riding out our high until fatigue overcame us.

 

CHAPTER 6: ALL HANDS

 

We were awoken by blaring alarms, the emergency lighting in the dorm glowing red. We climbed out of bed, sticky and covered in stale sweat. Raz kissed the back of my neck, and I rubbed my eyes, wondering what time it was.

What is it?” she asked, “a drill?”

I don’t think so,” I replied, concern replacing my grogginess. “Let’s get our uniforms on, I think something serious might be happening.”

We got dressed and opened the door to the hall, poking our heads out to see that the other trainees were doing the same, their bleary eyes looking around in confusion. It must be some time during the night, or perhaps the early morning, as the only thing lighting the corridor were the emergency strips in the floor. The recruits began to emerge, chatting to each other as they tried to figure out what was going on.

Suddenly, the floor shook beneath our feet, my hand darting to the doorframe reflexively to keep myself steady. The entire station seemed to quake, the superstructure making worrying groaning sounds that seemed to emanate from all around us.

I saw Vasiliev come jogging down the hallway, still in the process of zipping up his coveralls, the worried trainees turning to him for guidance.

What’s going on, Staff Sergeant?” I heard someone ask.

That’s a battle stations alarm,” he replied, an expression of confusion on his face. He looked as if he too had recently been roused by the noise, he didn’t have much an answer for us right now. “Just…stay in your dorms for now,” he continued, setting off down the corridor at a brisk jog. The recruits shared worried glances. This wasn’t a regular occurrence, it seemed.

Battle stations?” Raz muttered. “Is there a battle going on?”

Battle stations means that everyone has to get to their post, so maybe,” I replied with a shrug. “But I can’t imagine who would be crazy enough to attack a Naval base, there must be enough ships here to make up two whole fleets.”

Is there a way to shut off that noise?” she complained, flattening her ears against her head.

Nah, we’ll just have to sit tight. Come on, let’s go back inside and wait for the Staff Sergeant.”

***

It didn’t take long for the alarms to subside, much to Raz’s relief, and then we heard Vasiliev calling to us from the corridor. We stepped out into the hallway, joining a crowd of recruits who were all jostling for space, the Krell and the Borealans who had not been hospitalized standing head and shoulders above their human counterparts.

Listen up!” the Sergeant shouted, the low murmur of conversation dying down. “The general alarm was sounded because the station’s sensors detected a Betelgeusian fleet exiting superlight in range of the station.” There was a chorus of worried gasps and muttering, but Vasiliev waved his hands dismissively. “Judging by the fleet’s composition, it’s unlikely that they came prepared to attack us. They probably didn’t even know that we were here before they arrived. It’s likely that they landed on the outskirts of the system sometime in the last five or six hours, scouted out the inner system using long-range telescopes and spectrographs, and then decided to move inward. Because of the light speed delay, they were able to see the station before the light from their ships reached us here, that’s how they surprised us. They only have a hive ship and a support fleet, so I’m not sure what they’re trying to accomplish. Needless to say, the Pinwheel and the ships on station here are more than capable of-”

Another tremor passed through the hull, the trainees glancing around nervously.

…of handling the situation,” Vasiliev finished, with a little less conviction than when he had started. “Alright, I want everyone to move toward the mess hall in an orderly fashion. We’ll wait for more instructions there.”

I closed the door behind Raz as we joined the procession, marching toward the mess. It must still be night, or at least early morning, because all of the lights were off. Vasiliev turned them on, and we sat around the tables, feeling the occasional rumble pass through the hull as we waited for more information. It sounded like there was a battle going on outside.

After talking with a couple of other Staff Sergeants for a minute, Vasiliev activated a large monitor that was mounted on one of the walls. He fiddled with a tablet computer for a moment, and then a field of stars appeared on the display. The view shifted, a white horizon extending into the distance, and I realized that it was a view from the hull of the station.

Take a good look, recruits,” Vasiliev said. “This is a real Naval battle, not a simulation or a wargame.”

Panels on the station’s hull had opened up, massive railguns on flexible arms rising from their recesses, titanic power cables trailing down into the darkness. They weren’t dissimilar from the XMRs, with large coils lining their long barrels. Although it was hard to gauge their exact size with no frame of reference, their reinforced and bulky construction betrayed their impressive scale. I could see three of them from the camera’s point of view, and they all began to swivel in unison, aiming at a distant target that wasn’t visible from our perspective.

They fired, rocking back in their housings, the impact shaking the station around us. So that was what was making the floor shake, the railguns. I had assumed that we were being bombarded by the enemy, when in reality they weren’t even in visual range yet.

Wait for it,” Vasiliev said, the room going so quiet that you could have heard a pin drop. There were a trio of bright flashes in the distance, flaring like stars, and then slowly fading. “Direct hit!” the Staff Sergeant exclaimed.

The apprehension in the mess hall was starting to erode, replaced with a kind of nervous energy and excitement. A few of the more confident trainees let out a cheer as though they were watching a sporting event, and their infectious enthusiasm quickly spread.

Those guns are firing slugs the size of a man,” Vasiliev explained. “They don’t have explosive warheads, the bright flashes that you’re seeing is just kinetic energy being transferred to the target.”

The camera zoomed in, magnifying until I could make out the shapes of individual vessels in space. From this angle, the harsh, unfiltered light of the system’s star was reflecting off their hulls and making them glint in the velvet darkness. The grey shapes of the UNN fleet were immediately recognizable, they had burned out to engage the enemy at close range, or at least what passed for close range in open space. I could see a carrier, a cruiser, and a couple of frigates. Their main engines flared blue, burning hydrogen fuel as they accelerated, their smaller escorts invisible at this resolution save for the tiny points of light from their engines. They had already fired torpedo salvos, I could see the wispy trails and the fading blooms of orange flame. Fleet engagements were usually fought at extreme range with volleys of missiles, and then mopped up at medium range with railguns. It looked as if the Betelgeusians had jumped in close enough to spur a charge.

My eyes focused on a less familiar shape, malformed and alien. My first impression was that it looked like an armored shrimp, its distinctly biological, bony shell layered with shining plates of metal that resembled the armor of a medieval knight. It had spindly, insectoid legs that were tucked beneath its belly, like the segmented limbs of a spider. It had no portholes that I could see, and no visible bridge windows, at least at this resolution. Instead, it was covered in organic sensory organs. Black, glittering eyes bulged from the off-green flesh between its protective plates, long antennae and feelers protruding into space like whiskers. Along its flanks, flexible thrusters that angled and flexed more like muscles than engines belched jets of green flame, the behemoth maneuvering to meet the advancing ships. Flashes of green light erupted from turrets that were mounted on its living hull, spears of glowing plasma cutting through space toward the advancing vessels.

So that was a hive ship, the flagships of the Betelgeusian fleets, their equivalent of our carriers. True to form, smaller vessels began to emerge from its hull like maggots wriggling free of a corpse, seeming to rain down from beneath the great creature. They were small and hard to make out, about the size of a fighter or a gunship, the green flare of their engines picking them out against the stars as they burned toward their targets like a swarm of angry bees.

Its escort fleet were similar in appearance, like blends of deep-sea crustaceans and armored insects, albeit smaller in size.

One of the carriers that was on-station is engaging,” the Staff Sergeant said, “see how she’s turning belly-up? She’s making use of her ventral guns.”

The bulbous carrier was indeed keeling, bringing the arrays of railguns along its underside to bear. I couldn’t see them fire from this angle, but I could see them impact, bright flashes erupting on the hive ship’s hull as they dug craters like asteroids. Where they penetrated the thick armor, glistening fluid spewed forth like blood, freezing into a cloud in the coldness of the void.

One of the escorts was incapacitated by the volley, smeared like a bug that had been swatted by a giant hand, fragments of carapace and synthetic armor breaking away in a spreading cloud of gore and viscera as it drifted listlessly. Again the room erupted into cheering, and while it was hard not to join them, I found the sight more morbid than thrilling.

The station rocked as the guns fired another volley, the deck trembling beneath our feet. There was a short delay, and then one of the smaller Bug ships that had been breaking away was obliterated. One moment it was there, and the next it was just gone, vaporized into fragments too small to make out.

I watched as long, snub-nosed torpedoes rose from open hatches on one of the frigates, climbing on plumes of fire before reorienting themselves and speeding away toward their targets. The carrier too loosed its own volley, as did the approaching cruiser, the missiles hurtling toward the enemy fleet and leaving long vapor trails in their wake. Flame billowed where they found their mark, more of the living vessels breaking apart and spewing fluids into space.

They were like fish in a barrel. Why had the fleet decided to attack such a heavily defended starbase? When they had arrived at the edge of the system and had scouted it out, why had they not simply retreated, or waited for reinforcements? It felt almost suicidal, desperate. Did they hate us so much, or was there an ulterior motive?

The cruiser barreled into the melee, one of the most heavily armed and armored ships in the fleet, second only to the battleships. Its hull was long and sleek, all geometric angles to reduce its radar cross-section, scarcely an inch of it free of gun batteries and torpedo tubes. Salvos of railgun fire rocked the frigate-sized escorts, and they returned fire in kind, splashes of green plasma leaving dark smears on its armor like acid burns. It powered through, unflinching, passing by a Bug ship and hitting it with a full broadside. The Bug vessel lurched, green explosions tearing it apart from the aft to the stern. The cruiser must have hit an ammunition depot, or maybe the fuel tanks. Lines of tracer rounds crisscrossed the darkness now, point defense fire from the larger ships intercepting threats, drawing glowing trails that looked like streams of sparks at this range.

The station shook again as its railguns fired, the heat making their coils glow red, before dissipating into space. The hive ship took another wound, the projectiles punching through its layers of metal armor and organic carapace, leaving ugly tears in its hide like bullets. It was the only Bug ship still standing, the trainees cheering as they watched it turn to flee.

No, it wasn’t fleeing. It turned its torn flank toward the station, and then there was a series of small explosions. Something shot out of the vessel at high speed, so small at this distance that it looked like a cloud of buckshot, the projectiles coming into focus as they neared. They were made of twisted flesh and shell, with armored tips like arrowheads. Were they torpedoes? Nukes? The shining tips detached from the main bodies of the craft, racing ahead of them, and then the feed went dark.

The station rocked beneath our feet, and this time it wasn’t the firing of the guns. The lights flickered, the monitor displaying hissing static, and the enthusiasm of the trainees was quickly snuffed out as warning alarms began to blare.

Hull breach alarm,” Vasiliev shouted, “stay in your seats and keep calm. The atmo won’t vent, you’ll be safe here.”

The Pinwheel trembled again, the halogen lights in the ceiling wavering, plunging the concerned faces of the recruits into intermittent darkness. There was a loud clattering sound as pots and pans in the kitchen fell from their hooks.

What the hell is going on out there?” one of the other Staff Sergeants wondered aloud, huddling with one of his colleagues as they examined a tablet computer and talked in hushed whispers. Not even the Staff Sergeants seemed to know what was happening, and I exchanged a worried glance with Raz, who was seated beside me.

What is that?” she asked, her ears swiveling toward the door to the corridor.

What do you hear?”

Something…” she muttered, rising from her seat and turning her head. The other Borealans seemed to be picking something up too, their yellow eyes all pointing in the same direction. The station’s superstructure groaned, the lights flickering again. “Gunfire, shouting,” she added as her eyes widened. She spun toward Vasiliev, who was standing beside the glass counter at the far end of the room, raising her voice over the murmur of conversation. “Staff Sergeant! I hear gunfire!”

What?” he replied, “are you certain?”

She hissed and spat at her Borealan counterparts, and they nodded reluctantly, confirming her assessment. There was another quake, the lights cutting out completely this time, plunging the mess hall into near darkness. The red warning strips on the deck lit up, casting everything in an eerie, red glow.

Everyone stay where you are,” Vasiliev repeated, jogging over to the huddling Staff Sergeants. Their faces were illuminated by the display of their tablet computer, I could see their mouths moving, but I couldn’t hear what they were saying.

New orders just came through,” one of the other Sergeants announced, “the station has been boarded. We’ve been told to move everyone to the armory, which is the safest place for you to be right now. Here’s what we’re going to do. You’re all going to line up in the corridor in two orderly rows, then the Staff Sergeants and I are going to escort you across the military quarter to the armory, where we’ll hole up until the…situation has been resolved.”

There was a lot of worried muttering as the trainees lined up in the corridor. I stuck beside Raz, her ears twitching and swiveling as she tracked sounds that my dull, human ears couldn’t hear. One of the Staff Sergeants vanished, returning a few minutes later and passing handguns to his counterparts. Things were getting serious, were they expecting to meet resistance along the way? The armory wasn’t far, but we would be exposed on the torus.

Vasiliev took point, standing beside the door with his weapon raised.

Alright recruits, we go on my order. Keep moving, and don’t stop unless you’re told to, is that clear?”

The automatic door slid open, and he took a look outside before waving us forward. We filed out into the torus, around a hundred recruits in all, and I was alarmed to see that the sunlamps in the painted ceiling were dark. Instead, the habitat was lit by the same red warning lighting that was present inside the barracks. It gave everything an unearthly look, the previously pleasant and reassuring trees and plants now cast in crimson, as if illuminated by a distant forest fire. The puffy clouds and the blue sky that adorned the roof now looked similarly hellish. The breeze that I had so enjoyed was now absent, the air was still and stale, the leaves of the trees frozen in place. The usually crowded walkways were deserted now, there wasn’t a soul in sight, they had all retreated to safety.

Emergency power state,” Vasiliev explained, noticing our expressions. “Energy is being diverted to critical systems. Now come on, stop gawking and get moving, recruits.”

The Staff Sergeants fanned out, escorting our column as we set off at a jog. My heart raced, and not because of the exertion. The odd lighting created dark shadows, my mind playing tricks on me, warning me of horrors that were barely glimpsed out of the corner of my eye before they were revealed to be planters or kiosks.

Not only had the lights been turned off, but there were barricades that had risen from the deck to provide cover, chest-high walls spaced along the torus at intervals. As we proceeded deeper into the military quarter, the distant sounds of XMR fire came echoing through the torus. It sounded far away, but as Raz had said, there were indeed gunfights going on.

I was startled by the sound of running, turning to see a squad of a dozen Marines in black combat armor jogging past the column, their rifles at the ready. They ran past us, headed upspin. The subtle curvature of the torus let me see above the recruits in the line ahead of me, and something slowly came into view from beneath the roof ahead of us.

It was one of the objects that the hive ship had launched, its surface covered in uneven, rough flesh that almost looked like off-green modeling clay. It was layered with bony armor, which was overlaid with sturdy metal plates, concentrated toward the front of the thing like an arrowhead. It was about the size of a semi-trailer, maybe slightly smaller. It had cratered into the deck of the torus, digging a jagged hole in the white metal, embedding itself deep into the underlying machinery. It looked like a giant bottle rocket made of meat and carapace, the red warning lighting illuminating it from below.

Above it was the entry hole, a tear in the painted ceiling through which expanding foam had poured in the projectile’s wake. It hung from the breach like stalactites in a cave, leaving large pools where it had dripped to the deck, and it had poured over the Bug missile like melting wax before setting. The foam systems were standard on spacecraft and stations, rapidly expanding and hardening both to seal hull breaches, and to choke out fires. It was a good thing, too, or all of the atmosphere on the station would have been vented into space.

The object was surrounded by several squads of Marines, taking cover behind planters and the raised barriers, their rifles trained on it.

Hold!” Vasiliev ordered, and the column came to a stop. I leaned over, looking past the recruits in front of me as he ran over to one of the Marines. They talked for a moment, then Vasiliev came back, waving his arms at us. “Get back, get back. This one hasn’t popped yet!”

The recruits took cover behind kiosks and barriers, the Staff Sergeants doing their best to corral them into adjacent structures and out of the line of fire. Raz and I hid behind a planter, watching as the strange structure began to move.

Sections of the carapace ejected from the main body, bouncing as they hit the deck, ringing the metal like a gong. From within the gaping wounds that they left behind them came a swarm of creatures, flooding out from the shadowy interior of the craft. Their pearlescent shells gleaming in the red hues of the emergency lights, their compound eyes glowing green in the gloom as they dropped to the floor, scrambling over one another almost mindlessly. They climbed up the uneven surface of their vessel to perch atop it like gargoyles, their sharp mandibles flexing.

I recognized them from my studies, Betelgeusian Drones, the front-line troops of the Bug armies. They stood at around five feet tall on a pair of segmented, digitigrade legs, the three claw-like toes on their feet clicking against the deck as they moved. Their bodies were protected by a shining, iridescent exoskeleton that came in a myriad of colors, like the protective shell of a beetle or a crab. It was stiff and smooth, resembling plastic or some kind of resin, pink flesh visible between the articulated joints. Some of that shell was also synthetic armor, the same color and texture as the alien’s natural defenses. It was impossible to tell where one ended, and the other began. They had four arms, the upper pair slightly larger than the lower, knives and plasma pistols clutched in their three-fingered hands. Sprouting from their foreheads were ornate horns that came in a variety of shapes. Some resembled those of a stag beetle, others those of deer or elk, and some even looked like tree branches. No two Drones were alike in the color of their shells or the shapes of their horns, their glowing, bulging eyes peering at us.

In the space of a heartbeat, battle commenced. The Marines unloaded at the invaders, their XMRs sending tungsten slugs tearing into the swarming insects. The chatter of automatic fire was deafening, and I pressed my hands against my ears, the glow of magnetic coils joining the warning lights as they heated up. The colorful carapaces of the Bugs shattered into fragments, fluid that had the consistency and color of syrup spewing from their ugly wounds, their limbs twitching as they fell to the deck. It seemed as though the Marines had cut down dozens of them, but there were always more, climbing over the ruined bodies of their comrades as they charged forward.

Those that had clambered up on top of their breaching craft fired down with handheld plasma pistols, made from some kind of sculpted resin. Bolts of crackling, green energy rained down on the Marines, splashing against their cover to leave black burn marks on the metal. A few of the Marines took hits, screaming from within their helmets as the superheated gasses melted through their ceramic armor. The Drones that were coming in from the front popped handheld energy shields, forming a phalanx as they advanced, a device on their wrists projecting an oval-shaped barrier of wavering plasma. They fired around the barriers with their pistols, keeping up the pressure as the tungsten slugs melted on contact with their shields, transforming into showers of molten metal that seemed as harmless as sparks to the insects.

Only moments ago, the Bugs had been surrounded and defenseless, but now it was the Marines who were being forced to fall back. They covered each other with volleys of railgun fire, sticking to the planters and barriers, one of them narrowly avoiding a plasma bolt that slagged the plastic of the kiosk that he was taking cover behind. The pristine trees and bushes burst into flames where the bolts drew too close, smoke billowing into the air.

Some of the Marines had swapped out their receivers, and now plasma bolts were traveling in the other direction too. It was a blinding display, overpowering the red glow in the environment, the magnetically-contained projectiles that streaked across the torus illuminating everything around them like airborne glow sticks.

Where enough plasma fire was concentrated, the shields overloaded and collapsed, their wielders falling to their knees as the burning gas melted their very exoskeletons. They looked like plastic toys in a microwave, their shells running like molten metal, their four arms flailing in silent agony as they were cooked alive. They never made a sound, perhaps they couldn’t speak at all, and somehow that made the sight even more horrifying.

The breaks in the shield wall allowed more railgun slugs to pass through, ripping apart the Bugs and throwing them to the ground as they transferred their kinetic energy, hitting the aliens like sledgehammers. But for every one that was felled, another crawled out of the boarding craft to take its place. They must have been packed into those things like sardines in a can. They were fanning out now, overwhelming the defenders with their sheer numbers. I watched as one of them unsheathed a pair of ornate daggers from shaped recesses in its armored thighs with its lower pair of arms, the blades patterned like Damascus steel, then it charged a nearby Marine.

He didn’t see the creature until it was in range, and it pounced on him, peppering him with vicious stabs. It grabbed his chest piece with its upper arms, surprisingly strong for its diminutive stature, grappling with him as it used the lower pair to plunge the knives into the breaks in his plate armor. Like an escaped prisoner shanking a guard, it just kept stabbing until the soldier ceased his struggling, collapsing to the deck in a pool of spreading blood. More of the Bugs were launching themselves into hand to hand combat now, using their knives and pistols in conjunction to deadly effect, some of the defenders who were sporting longer rifles abandoning them in favor of their sidearms.

There must have been more Marines than this on the station, but the hive ship had launched a cloud of these boarding craft, dozens of them could have breached all over the torus.

We gotta move!” I shouted over the gunfire, taking Raz by the arm. “We’ll get overrun if we stay here!” I ducked as a plasma bolt shot over our heads, the heat of it singing my hair.

Where are we supposed to go?” she shouted back, and I looked around. It was chaos, Marines and recruits were scattered in all directions, I couldn’t see any of the Staff Sergeants. There were a couple of human recruits nearby, and I waved to them, gesturing for them to approach. They ducked and ran, sliding behind the cover of our planter.

What are our orders?” I asked, and one of them shrugged while the other glanced nervously at Raz as he covered his ears to block out the noise.

Dunno!” he yelled over the clamor of battle, “where are the Staff Sergeants?”

No clue,” I replied. “We can’t stay here, we have to get to cover.”

Maybe the Marines will save us?” the second recruit wondered, but I felt like they had more to worry about right now. Raz’s ears suddenly swiveled, and her head followed shortly after. She was looking at something behind and to the right of us. I followed her gaze and saw someone waving to us from an alleyway between the facades of two buildings.

It’s Vasiliev!” she shouted, “follow me!”

She bolted from cover, bundling me up under one of her arms and grabbing one of the recruits in the other. She hooked the second with her tail, dragging him behind her as she shot across the walkway on her long legs. The next thing I knew, I was being hurled into the alley, Raz skidding to halt as Vasiliev helped one of the recruits to his feet.

The Staff Sergeant had taken cover here with a handful of other trainees, three humans, and two towering Krell. I was surprised to see that the remaining Borealans were huddled deeper inside, too. Even after the chaos of battle had erupted, they had managed to stay together as a pack. There had been six of them, including Raz, but two of them had been hospitalized after the fight in the mess. Now there were just three, looking decidedly lost without their leader. The alley between the two buildings was just wide enough for a Krell to pass through, exposed cabling and pipes extending from the walls here and there, some kind of maintenance tunnel perhaps.

I picked myself up and brushed off my uniform, looking to Vasiliev, who was peeking out from the alley. He leaned out and loosed a couple of rounds from his handgun, it looked like one of the caseless pistols that had been standard issue for a good while, then ducked back inside.

What do we do, Sarge?” one of the recruits asked. His voice was wavering, he sounded scared out of his wits, and I couldn’t blame him. I felt like my heart was trying to escape my chest cavity via my throat.

Sir? What are our orders?” I repeated.

Vasiliev loosed off another shot, then darted back into the alley, glancing between the ragtag collection of trainees for a moment.

Well we can’t stay here,” he replied, walking past us as he made his way further down the alley. “We were ordered to escort the trainees to the armory, where we could hole up and wait out the fighting, but our route is blocked. Who knows how many of those pods have landed on the torus, there could be Bugs all over the station. Priority one is getting you guys to safety.”

Should we go back to the barracks?” someone asked, but Vasiliev shook his head.

The safest place to be right now is the armory, but we can’t travel along the torus. It’s a fucking war zone out there.” He pointed toward what looked like an access door at the end of the alley. “We’ll take the service tunnels that run through the bowels of the station.”

Service tunnels, sir?” I asked. “Can the Borealans and the Krell even fit down there?”

Yeah, they’ll fit. Might be a little tight for the Krell, but the tunnels are tall and wide enough to get some of the larger replacement parts to where they’re needed. It’s a maze in there, so whatever you do, stay in sight of each other. If you get separated, for God’s sake don’t wander, just stay where you are and wait for someone to come find you.”

What about everyone else?” another recruit asked.

This lot were the only ones that I could see,” Vasiliev said, gesturing over his shoulder to Raz and me as he typed at a keypad on the door. “You’ll have to trust the other Staff Sergeants and the Marines to get whoever is still left out there to safety. We can’t do them any good armed with this pea shooter,” he grumbled as he stowed his pistol in a holster on his belt. There was a click, and the door swung open on its hinges, revealing more red lighting beyond.

We followed him through, Raz and the other aliens ducking under the low doorway. It opened up a little on the other side, spacious by human standards, but it still reminded me of the interior of some of the more cramped spaceships that I had traveled on. Loose wires hung from the ceiling, and the walls were lined with water pipes and bundles of fiber-optic cables, access ports for various systems spaced out at intervals. Vasiliev hadn’t been joking, our Krell companions were large enough that their broad shoulders brushed the sides of the passageway, their scaly heads scraping the ceiling. There was none of the luxury seen on the torus here, it was spartan and functional. There must be miles of tunnels just like this running all throughout the station, how else could the engineers maintain the systems that operated far behind the sculpted facades?

Alright, I’ll take point,” Vasiliev said. “Keep moving, and keep an ear out for anything unusual. The Bugs are like cockroaches, they’ll find their way into every little nook and crevice…”

***

We followed the Staff Sergeant for what felt like miles, the pounding of our boots and the dragging tails of the Krell the only sounds that echoed through the claustrophobic service tunnels.

The battle had rattled me, it had been so chaotic, so terrifying. It was nothing like I had imagined, nothing like firing on the range. The moment that the bolts of plasma had started flying, my first instinct had been to cover my head and cower. On some level, I was angry with myself, I felt like I had somehow failed to live up to my aspirations as a Marine. On the other hand, I hadn’t been armed. There was no way that I could have joined the exchange, even if I’d had the guts for it. I worried about my friends, the other recruits, everyone had been separated so quickly…

So those are the Betelgeusians,” Raz muttered as she walked beside me, her black claws clicking against the metal grates that made up the walkway. “I had seen pictures of them before, during our studies, but I wasn’t prepared for the smell.”

The smell?” I asked.

You didn’t smell it?” she continued, and I shook my head.

Nope, all that I could smell was the ozone from the plasma weapons.”

Human noses really are useless,” she muttered. “I felt like I was going to suffocate, those insects reek.”

I wonder if the Marines will be able to repel them?” I added, “they looked like they were having a tough time.”

Your soldiers outmatched them at range,” Raz said. “I once mocked you for lacking claws and teeth, but I’ve never seen that kind of firepower brought to bear before. Now I know where you get it from, monkey. The Bugs had the advantage up close, however. It’s too cramped in this station, the humans can’t keep them at a comfortable distance. They were faster, more efficient, eager to wet their daggers…”

What would you have done differently?” I asked, glancing up at her.

A bayonet charge, perhaps. Beat the Bugs at their own game, tear them apart in the melee.”

Did you see how strong and fast those things were?” I scoffed. “There’s no way that sticking a bayonet on the end of an XMR would have solved that problem.”

A Borealan could do it.”

Well, there aren’t going to be any Borealans in the Coalition,” I replied bitterly. “The program already got canned.”

Raz glanced back over her shoulder at the three other Borealans. It was hard to gauge what she was thinking. One of the other human recruits jogged a little to catch up to us, sidling up beside me.

Stan, right?” he asked, and I nodded. “I’m Harry. I’ve been bunking with my scaly buddy back there,” he said, gesturing back toward one of the Krell. “You taught him to play blackjack, and now he keeps cheating.

Oh yeah,” I replied, waving at the Krell. It was the one that had come to my aid against Raz in the recreation center. The reptiles all looked so alike, it was hard to tell them apart. He rumbled a greeting that made one of the more nervous recruits jump.

What do you think’s gonna happen when we reach the armory?” Harry asked. “Are we just gonna hole up and wait this out, like the Sarge says, or are we gonna gear up and get some payback? That armory is chock full of XMRs and ammo.”

I don’t know what we can do, we’re not Marines yet,” I replied.

Bullshit, I’ve seen what you can do at the range. Besides, we have the aliens with us.”

I guess it depends on what Vasiliev says, we have to follow his orders.”

Wait!” Raz hissed, loud enough for everyone to hear. Vasiliev stopped, turning to look back at her.

What is it, recruit?”

Do none of you smell that?” she asked, but nobody responded. “It reeks of Bug, they’ve found their way down here.” She turned and hissed to her fellow Borealans, who raised their pink noses to the air, sniffing loudly.

I smell it too,” one of them confirmed, and the other two nodded their heads. Raz spat at them again, seeming exasperated. “It’s coming from ahead of us.”

The Staff Sergeant raised his weapon, waving us back.

Keep behind me, we don’t want Bugs getting into knife range in a cramped space like this.”

The corridor was tight, three humans could just about stand shoulder to shoulder, while the Krell plugged it almost completely. I remembered how that Marine had been dragged to the ground on the torus, butchered by the flashing daggers of a Drone, a lead weight dropping into my stomach.

We continued on, more cautiously now, Vasiliev keeping his handgun at the ready. He checked the forks in the passageway, taking cover behind the corners and then swinging out with his pistol aimed into the gloom. I couldn’t understand how he was able to find his way around down here, I felt like there was as much chance of us meeting a Minotaur as a Bug.

They’re close,” Raz muttered, her eyes reflecting the red light as they darted about. “It’s almost like they’ve painted their stink on the walls…”

Vasiliev leaned against the bulkhead near a T-junction in the corridor, peeking out, and this time there was a flash of green light. I could feel the heat on my face as a bolt of plasma hurtled past not two feet away from us, flying off down the adjacent corridor. The Sergeant wasted no time, returning fire from cover, the crack of his gun echoing in the service tunnels.

Contact!” he yelled, “stay back!”

There was a hint of desperation in his voice now. He was trying so hard to protect us, to carry out his orders, but what could he do armed only with a service pistol against an army of aliens? He took a hit to the shoulder, the impact knocking him to the ground. I watched as the fabric of his uniform melted away, burning into the flesh beneath it like boiling water through snow. He bellowed, clutching at it and burning his hand in the process, the smell of charred meat rising to my nose.

I was running before I was even conscious of making the decision. I raced down the hallway, toward Vasiliev, rather than away. I lunged for him, getting a grip on his intact sleeve and dragging him out of the line of fire. Where was the gun? I couldn’t see it, we were all going to be slaughtered if I didn’t grab it!

Around the corner came a Drone, its iridescent shell shining under the red light like a waxed sports car, its compound eyes glowing an eerie green. The mandibles where its mouth should have been flexed and twitched as it raised its plasma pistol, aiming it at my face. I stared down the conducting rail, watching as sparks of energy began to crackle between them.

An orange blur removed its arm before it could fire, the severed limb dropping to the floor, twitching like the leg of a spider. The insect hardly even reacted, turning to look up at Raz as she prepared a second blow, viscous ichor the color of pus leaking from the wound.

She struck it across the face with all of her strength, roaring like a lion, her vicious claws leaving inch-deep furrows in its carapace as she sent it reeling with the force of her blow. It impacted the wall on the far side of the corridor, but rather than collapse, it steadied itself as if preparing to fight back. How was the thing still standing? I could see the exposed, pink flesh beneath the shell of its face, fluid pouring from its mandibles.

It drew its knives, coming at Raz with no concern for its injuries, the ornate blades glinting as they whipped through the air. It sliced into her thigh, then cut across her stomach, blood welling after a momentary delay. The thing was half her height, it couldn’t reach anything else.

Raz didn’t even flinch, weathering the blows. Instead, she reached down and closed her furry hand around its head, even as it flailed at her forearm with its daggers. I heard the crack as her claws pierced its brittle shell for purchase, then she placed her paw-like foot against its thorax, grunting with the effort as she kicked. Her powerful thigh bulged as she ripped the alien apart, tearing its head from its body. Something resembling a twisted rope of nerves and veins dangled from the severed head as the body keeled over, Raz throwing her grizzly trophy like a football.

Raz!” I exclaimed, watching the crimson blood trickle from her wounds to stain her blue uniform. “You’re hurt!”

Don’t worry about me,” she snarled, “this is nothing. Get the Sergeant to safety!”

I began to drag Vasiliev backward, the Sergeant groaning in pain as his wound sizzled. The smell was turning my stomach, but I fought back the bile that was rising in my throat, handing him to a pair of recruits who propped him against a nearby wall. I wasn’t sure what we could do for him right now, but if we didn’t fight the Bugs off, none of us would be doing anything for much longer.

More are coming!” Raz shouted.

Harry ran past me, making for the severed Bug arm that still clutched its plasma pistol. He snatched it from the stiff fingers, holding the alien weapon in his hand and examining it hastily. It was made from what looked like orange resin, with exposed metal along the magnetic rails, oddly crude in appearance despite its obvious technological nature.

How the fuck do you fire these things?” he complained, searching for some kind of trigger. He seemed to find it, because he leaned out into the corridor, firing off a shot. He ducked back in, avoiding a volley of return fire. “Shit, there’s half a dozen of ‘em down there!”

Raz!” I shouted, “find the Sergeant’s gun!”

She could pick it out far more easily in the semi-darkness with her feline eyes, and she stooped to grab it, tossing it to me. It was like a toy in her hands, she couldn’t have gotten her finger through the trigger guard. I caught it and ran to Harry, placing a hand on his shoulder as I readied the pistol.

Let’s do it!”

We leaned out into the corridor, firing plasma and caseless rounds at the Bugs. They were clustered twenty feet or so down the hallway, perhaps deterred by the sight of the severed head that was resting on the floor at our feet. I saw one of them take a plasma bolt to the chest, its carapace caving in on itself as it melted. The lighting was too poor for any measure of accuracy, but I laid down suppressing fire, the rounds creating showers of sparks and ricocheting off the walls.

The corridor was suddenly illuminated by flashes of light, the Bugs popping their wrist-mounted shields, the glow reflecting off their colorful carapaces. They began to advance in a phalanx, the rounds from my pistol melting harmlessly on contact, while Harry’s weapon didn’t seem to have the rate of fire required to overload them.

Here they come!” Harry shouted. “Should we fall back?”

Where would we go?” I asked. “If we can’t stop them here, they’ll just hunt us down in the tunnels!”

Raz stepped forward, but I put a hand against her belly to stay her. She was tough, but she wasn’t plasma-proof. The moment that she stepped out into that corridor, she’d be no better off than Vasiliev.

I heard a low rumbling sound, and a giant, scaly hand reached down to ease me out of the way as one of the Krell lumbered by. It was followed by the second, Raz pressing herself up against the wall to avoid them. They marched forward, their movements slow and deliberate, their weight making the metal grates beneath our feet bounce. They proceeded toward the end of the corridor, just as the glow of the Bug shields became visible. They were almost on top of us.

The lead Krell suddenly accelerated, as if footage of it was being played back at three times the normal speed. The massive alien powered forward in a blur of green scutes, muscles that put even Raz to shame rippling beneath its scales, its weight making the corridor shake. It loosed a guttural bellow that brought to mind images of dinosaurs, its hunched form rounding the corner like a scaly battering ram, its momentum making it drift like a truck taking a turn too quickly. Its open jaws were lit by the colorful plasma as it faced the Bugs, revealing rows of jagged teeth. They could move so quickly when they wanted to, despite their immense weight and their usual sluggishness.

It vanished, its long tail sliding out of view, the second Krell loosing a similar roar as it followed behind the first. I saw flashes of light, heard the booming sound of the reptiles throwing their weight around, and I chased after them with my pistol ready.

When I turned the corner, I saw a scene of carnage. The Krell had used their size and weight to crush and smash the far smaller insects. There were bodies strewn everywhere, their carapaces splintered and crushed like someone had taken a giant lobster cracker to them. I could see the pink meat within, their bodily fluids dripping down through the metal grate and smeared on the walls.

I heard a terrible cracking sound, watching the lead Krell emerge from another junction in the corridor, a flailing Betelgeusian trapped in its alligator-like maw. With a sound like splintering wood, the giant reptile bit down, its teeth penetrating the creature’s shell and crushing it. The Krell shook its head like a dog with a toy, then threw the now limp Bug against the wall, where it fell to lie lifeless on the deck. I noticed that there were burn marks from the plasma pistols on the Krell’s underbelly. The Bugs hadn’t got off many shots before the reptile had barreled into them, but it still looked painful, its tough scales charred in places. It certainly wasn’t immune to damage, but on such a large and sturdy creature, the injuries were not incapacitating.

I was shocked to see how brutal the gentle giants could be when provoked, but at the same time, I was relieved that the Bugs were no longer a threat. What would we have done without them?

Get their weapons,” I said, “the shields too.”

Harry crouched, struggling to pull one of the wrist devices off a ruined Drone, and the other humans stepped gingerly through the gore to retrieve their pistols. I gave my Krell buddy a pat on the thigh, wishing that there was something I could do for his burns, but he seemed none the worse for wear. Even on their underbellies, their scales must be incredibly thick and resilient.

As I turned around, I saw that one of the recruits was helping Vasiliev along, and I was relieved to see that he was still conscious. Nobody else knew how to navigate these tunnels. His burn looked awful, the fabric of his clothes had melted to the pink, charred skin beneath. He gritted his teeth in pain as he leaned on the trainee, appraising our handiwork.

Not a bad job, recruits,” he muttered. “I’m going to be out of a job if you keep doing it for me.”

You alright, sir?” I asked. I made to return his handgun to him, but he shook his head and gestured for me to keep it, the motion making him wince.

I’m not going to die today, recruit. Keep the gun, looks like you know how to use it.”

Where to next?” Harry asked, strapping one of the shields around his wrist like a watch.

We carry on to the armory,” Vasiliev replied, nodding toward one of the junctions in the maze of hallways. “Keep an eye out for more Bugs, there will be more where they came from. Or rather, keep a nose out,” he said as he glanced at Raz.

 

CHAPTER 7: TRIAL BY FIRE

 

We marched for a while longer, Vasiliev and the wounded Krell hanging near the back, with the armed humans at the front. We’d figured out how to use the shield projectors, they were handy little things, devices about the size of a wrist-mounted computer that could create a barrier of plasma roughly the size of a garbage can lid. If we came across more Bugs, we could use their own tactics against them.

You doing alright, Raz?” I asked as she walked beside me.

What, this?” she asked as she gestured to her blood-stained coveralls. “This is nothing, those knives are tiny. I’ve had more serious cuts than this during play fights. Borealans heal fast, I’ll be fine.”

Thanks…by the way,” I added.

For what?”

For saving my ass back there. If you’d been a second slower, my face would be looking like Vasiliev’s shoulder right about now.”

You’d have done the same for me,” she replied with a shrug. “Besides, that’s what friends are for, right?”

Well, I owe you one.”

Oh, I have some ideas about how you can pay me back,” she said as a grin spread across her face. She leaned in closer so that nobody else could hear her, whispering in my ear. “Most of them involve your tongue.” I straightened my collar, trying not to look flustered as we rounded another corner.

We’re here,” Vasiliev said, “the armory is through that door.”

One of the recruits helped him over to a keypad, and he typed in an access code, the bulky door swinging open to reveal another short passageway. We made our way through, and behind the second reinforced door was the armory. I breathed a sigh of relief as I stepped out of the dingy, cramped service tunnels and into a whitewashed room, the familiar sight of the range greeting me.

Suddenly, a man wearing a yellow uniform and wielding an XMR emerged from behind an upturned table, aiming the barrel of the rifle right at my face. He lowered it just as abruptly, his eyes wide.

Oh fuck, I almost blew your heads off! Get inside, and get that door closed!”

We piled into the room, one of the recruits closing the reinforced door with a click. The man, he was probably an engineer judging by his attire, came over and helped Vasiliev onto a nearby chair.

Sitrep,” the Sergeant coughed, gritting his teeth as he shifted to get more comfortable.

The torus was boarded,” the engineer replied, glancing at us nervously. “I was told to lock down the armory and to await the arrival of a group of trainees.”

That’s us,” I said, “are we the only ones that made it?”

I haven’t seen anyone else,” the engineer replied. “Some Marines stopped by to resupply a while ago, but nobody has come to the door since. I swear, you nearly scared the life out of me. What the hell were you lot doing in the service tunnels?”

There are Bugs all over the torus, and we were unarmed,” Vasiliev explained. “I had to bring the recruits here via the tunnels, we wouldn’t have made it ten feet out there.”

How many of them are on the station?” the engineer continued, “have they called an evacuation yet?”

We didn’t get any orders to evacuate,” Harry replied, “they told us to come here.”

As much as I appreciate a good conversation, I’m kind of suffering from third-degree plasma burns over here,” Vasiliev complained. “If one of you could go get a medkit, I’ll consider not punching you once I regain the use of my arm…”

The engineer nodded, hurrying away to an adjacent room. I was relieved that we were finally safe, but there was still a battle going on outside on the torus. Could we really sit here and do nothing while Marines fought and died for our sake? The armory was full of XMRs and ammo, our own personalized weapons were here. I glanced back at my fellow recruits. One Krell was tending to his injured friend, while the humans were milling about around Vasiliev. The three Borealans were off to one side, looking as uncertain as I had ever seen them.

Are we just going to stand here?” Harry asked, beating me to the punch. Vasiliev opened one eye, peering at him as if anticipating his rant. “We’re surrounded by guns, and we know how to use them. Let’s get out there and help!”

I agree,” I chimed in, the Sergeant turning his eye on me. “All due respect, sir, we handled those Bugs in the service tunnels. We can handle the ones on the torus, too, give the Marines some support.”

Fuck that,” one of the other humans interjected. “Did you see how those things fight? If the Marines got overrun, what the hell do you expect us to do? We don’t have armor, we haven’t even completed our training!”

The Sergeant has authority,” Raz growled, the recruit going silent under her amber stare. All eyes turned to Vasiliev as he slouched in his chair. The engineer came rushing back to him, taking a knee beside him and opening up a little medical pouch. He withdrew some kind of cooling gel, spreading it on the wound gingerly as the Staff Sergeant gritted his teeth.

My orders were to get the recruits to the armory and to hole up,” Vasiliev said as the engineer applied a bandage over the burn. “But considering that I’ve already lost track of ninety percent of the recruits…I don’t see how I can carry out those orders. I won’t order anyone to go out there, but if you want to help defend the station, then I won’t stop you.”

Harry shot me a grin, moving over to the racks where our weapons were stored. Raz and I followed after him, and I wondered how many of the recruits would join us. All of the humans were onboard besides for the one who had spoken up. He crossed his arms and leaned against the wall, scowling at us.

This is bullshit,” he grumbled, “I’m not going to go out there and get killed. None of you know what you’re doing, we weren’t trained for this.”

I couldn’t blame him too much, this wasn’t what we had signed up for, but it would have been our reality eventually if we had succeeded in becoming Marines.

The two Krell lumbered toward us too, one of them stopping along the way to let the engineer dress his wounds. The three Borealans remained where they were, huddled together and glancing around suspiciously with their yellow eyes.

I’m sick of this,” I heard Raz growl. Her tail whipped back and forth as she marched over to them, flexing her claws like she was preparing for a fight. “You bring shame on Elysia!” she snapped, her voice dripping with malice as she confronted the aliens. They seemed alarmed by her sudden outburst, closing ranks and baring their sharp teeth at her. “Is this the courage of a Borealan warrior? Huddling in a shelter while others do your fighting for you? Will you not lift a claw to help?”

One of them hissed something in their native language at her, and Raz snarled a response.

Speak the language of the humans! This is their station, they are our pack now.”

You are not Alpha any longer,” one of them replied.

And where is your Alpha? Xhe was beaten like a kitten caught stealing from the meat locker, and unless you want to face the same fate, you will obey me.”

R-Raz led us straight before,” one of the other Borealans added, glancing at her fellows nervously. “Perhaps…without Xhe here, we should follow her lead. She has proven herself with the human rifles, after all.”

You are disgraced,” another added, “we will not follow you.”

Then do you challenge my dominance, Yuza?” Raz spat as she turned to face the offending Borealan. “Step forward and claim the mantle for yourself, if you’re so certain of my disgrace. Prove it with tooth and claw.

The one called Yuza turned her eyes to the floor. The larger of the three stepped forward, however, her head held high. The two began to face off, Raz’s ears flattening against her hair as she circled her opponent. I glanced at Vasiliev, but he wasn’t making any move to intervene. Was this normal for the aliens? Was this how they decided the hierarchy of the pack? The one that they called Xhe had taken Raz’s place in the social order, but she was in the medbay right now. What did that make these Borealans, the third or fourth strongest?

Raz’s challenger lunged at her, slicing the sleeve of her uniform with her sharp claws, the orange fur poking out from beneath it. She responded in kind, clawing at her opponent, hissing and spitting furiously. The two became a blur, yowling and snarling, swiping at each other with a violent abandon that shocked me. Perhaps it was all part of the show, Raz hadn’t even been this ferocious when she had decapitated the Bug back in the tunnel.

She weathered her opponent’s blows, blocking the majority of them with her forearms, her own flashing talons digging deep into the other Borealan’s flesh. Blood soaked into their clothes, now tattered on the forearms and the torso. They looked like they had been fed through a wood chipper.

We don’t have time for this,” Harry muttered.

Trust me, this is important,” I replied. “If we want those Borealans on our side, then Raz has to prove her worth.”

The other Borealans leaped out of the way as the two scrapping aliens moved over to the wall, Raz piling on the pressure to keep her challenger on the defensive. Even I could see who was going to win, Raz was noticeably larger and stronger, the will of her opponent waning as she was backed up against the bulkhead. Raz cut her across the chest, then delivered a vicious swipe to her face, crimson droplets staining the whitewashed metal behind her. I couldn’t help but gasp, watching as blood seeped down the alien’s cheek where Raz had sliced her open.

She yielded, cowering, raising her shredded sleeves in a gesture of submission. Raz paused, a clawed hand poised for another strike, and then she backed off. The fight had been fast and brutal, no wonder Raz had been so casual about the knife wounds that the Bug had inflicted upon her if this was how they resolved their disagreements.

She let her defeated adversary rise to her feet, her head bowed. The two other Borealans followed suit, lowering their heads, gazing at the floor as Raz caught her breath.

Now go get your guns,” she snapped, pointing to the XMR racks. “And configure them as I tell you.”

They did as she asked without question, hurrying over to the racks. I approached Raz cautiously, eyeing the fresh blood that stained her clothes, and she looked back at me with wild eyes.

Are you…alright?” I asked. “Should we dress your wounds?”

These will be healed by tomorrow,” she replied. “And don’t worry about her,” she added, nodding to the now submissive Borealan with the cuts on her cheek who was now occupied with disassembling her XMR. “The worst that she’ll be left with are some faded scars, a reminder to show courage.”

If you say so,” I mumbled.

Remember what I told you, monkey, battle gets our blood flowing. Now let’s occupy ourselves with a gunfight before I see fit to lead you away to a storage closet so that I can burn off this heat.”

She left me standing there red-faced as she stalked over to her pack, her mantle of Alpha reclaimed. She hefted her own XMR off the rack, barking orders at them as they began to copy her design, fumbling with the attachments.

Harry had been close enough to overhear our exchange, and I gave him a rather sheepish shrug.

I guess I don’t need to worry about you losing your nerve in a fight if that’s your idea of fun,” he said. “Come on, let’s gear up.”

***

We burst out onto the torus, the Krell that I had taken to calling Blackjack taking point, protected by the massive gun shield that was mounted on the end of his LMG. It was such an imposing weapon, but he lifted it effortlessly. The drum magazine alone probably weighed as much as my entire XMR. The humans fanned out behind him with their rifles shouldered, covering one another as they took up position around the door to the armory. They hid behind planters and barriers, scanning for signs of movement. The newly reformed pack of Borealans loped out after us, their round ears swiveling in all directions, their pink noses sampling the air.

We had no armor, we were clad only in our Navy uniforms, but we did have chest rigs for carrying extra magazines and receivers. The Krell were wearing their leather ponchos, using the pockets to store their ammo and gear.

It was a warzone outside. Everything was still lit in crimson, and the fires had created a fog of dark smoke that seemed to cling to the ceiling like an acrid rain cloud. There were plasma burns scarring everything, from the facades of buildings to the planters, the trees charred here and there where the crackling energy had passed too close and had ignited them. There were perfect, round holes where railgun slugs had penetrated, along with blast marks that might have come from grenades.

I could see a good distance down the torus before it curved out of sight beneath the ceiling, and besides for a few Drone bodies scattered around, there was no sign of anyone. There had been fighting here, but it had moved off to other areas of the station. The lack of human bodies suggested that the Marines might have won this engagement, and had subsequently evacuated their dead and wounded.

On the right,” Raz said. “The scent of Bugs is stronger.”

Then we go upspin,” I said, looking around as I waited for someone to protest. Nobody had any objections, and so we set off, keeping to cover as we moved through the ravaged torus. The dim, red lighting made every shadow a potential hiding place for a Bug surprise attack, my eyes darting about as we slowly advanced. As afraid as I was, I had never felt so alive, so aware. Every footstep and every rustle of the leaves drew my attention, I felt like I could have heard a penny drop on the other side of the torus.

We cleared every alleyway and checked behind every kiosk with mechanical efficiency, knowing that one mistake could result in injury or death. The Borealans were hypervigilant, their ears swiveling like furry little radar dishes, twitching in the direction of any sound that they heard.

Due to the way that the torus had been designed, there were surprisingly few clear lines of sight. The decorations that I had once praised for their aesthetic appeal now provided us with cover and potentially concealed our enemies.

Our footsteps echoed on the deck, the claws of the Borealans clicking against the metal, the two Krell stomping around like elephants. There wasn’t much cover that could conceal the giant reptiles, and so they made little effort to stay hidden, marching along with their machine guns at the ready. A few of the humans had taken to walking behind them in single-file, as though they were living APCs. They might well serve as cover in much the same way if the plasma started flying.

Where is everyone?” Harry muttered. “Shouldn’t we have encountered some Marines by now?”

Maybe,” I replied, sweeping my rifle across the walkway. Its weight was a comfort, I finally had a weapon that I knew how to use. I had felt so naked, armed with only the pistol. “They’ve either cornered the remaining Bugs in another quarter of the torus, or they’ve retreated to the central hub. That’s what they’d do, right? It’s the most defensible place on the station.”

Contact!” Raz hissed.

I followed her gaze, seeing the glint of Bug carapaces as a squad of the squat little creates came wandering out of one of the buildings. There were maybe a dozen of them, and they hadn’t seen us yet. They had their pistols at the ready, and they seemed to be searching for something, their green eyes glowing as they examined their surroundings. They might be lost, or perhaps they were seeking out new targets.

There was no time to come up with a plan, they’d notice us any second now.

Open fire!” I yelled, throwing myself behind the cover of a planter and resting the barrel of my XMR on the metal. I fired around the tree that occupied the pot, my shouting and the sudden crack of gunfire sending the Drones scrambling. I was in my element now, this was what I had trained for, what I had spent untold hours drilling to perfection. The first burst caught one of the Bugs in the back, the three slugs tearing it apart. Ichor sprayed as fragments of its broken shell flew through the air, the insect keeling over as its comrades dove into nearby cover.

The other humans followed my lead, ducking behind barriers and planters as they opened fire, cutting down two more of the aliens. They leaned out from behind kiosks and benches, the muzzle flashes from their XMRs illuminating the scene intermittently, the noise deafening. The Krell were not to be outdone, standing their ground and firing their light machine guns from the hip, the barrels starting to glow orange as they peppered the Bugs with a hail of tungsten slugs. They were like walking machine gun nests, no other species could have controlled that kind of recoil. The velocity of the rounds meant that much of the cover provided by the planters and other decorations was rendered moot, and I watched as one of the Bugs was torn apart from behind the apparent safety of an information terminal. The slugs cut straight through the metal, electricity sparking as the internal components were eviscerated, a monitor that was displaying a map of the station fizzling out as it was perforated. The Bug was hit with half a dozen rounds or more, the projectiles shattering its protective shell, tearing it limb from limb as the kinetic energy was transferred to its body with brutal results.

There was return fire coming in now, the tree above me bursting into roaring flames as a plasma bolt passed just over my head, the heat of it making me recoil. The plasma lacked the penetration of the railgun slugs, but it had other attributes. I watched as the plastic housing of a kiosk slagged, the recruit that had been taking refuge behind it leaping out of the way, crawling on his belly as another volley reduced his cover to a melting pool of polymer.

The Krell took fire, much of it splashing harmlessly off their gun shields, leaving dark smears on the metal. One of them caught a bolt to the shoulder, a low rumbling making my bones shake as he loosed a roar of pain, swinging his weapon toward his attackers. The LMG shredded the trees and bushes with the efficiency of a chainsaw, cutting them down, along with the aliens that had been firing from behind them.

There were flashes of colorful light as the remaining Bugs ignited their plasma shields, grouping up and forming a wall, the stream of slugs melting on contact and showering the Drones with flecks of molten metal. The glow from the barriers lit up everything around them, the vibrant hues of the alien carapaces shining and glittering in a way that might have been beautiful under less deadly circumstances. I had seen these tactics before, I knew what to expect.

They’re gonna use those shields to close in on us, then they’re gonna come after us with knives!” I shouted over the din. The Bugs were now occupying the entire walkway, seven or eight of them standing side by side as they advanced, laying down suppressing fire with their pistols. The Krell had to draw back, taking cover behind their gun shields and putting more objects between them and the enemy.

Switch to plasma receivers if you got ‘em!” someone shouted. I huddled down with my back to the planter, rummaging through my chest rig, my hands trembling as I swapped out my magazine for a plasma canister. I flipped up the rail on top of my XMR frame and popped out the railgun receiver, then switched them, closing the hinged rail again with a slap of my hand. It wasn’t quite second nature yet, as Vasiliev had said, but it was becoming familiar enough. I rose to aim over the planter again, and soon a volley of plasma was pounding the Bug phalanx. Their shields dissipated the bolts, seeming to absorb them, but the flow of the magnetically-contained energy began to grow erratic.

Focus your fire!” Harry shouted, leaning out from an alleyway as he shouldered his rifle and fired off a full-auto burst of plasma. His XMR of choice had an extended mag and a shorter barrel with a forward grip, like an assault rifle. “The one in the middle!”

I spotted the one that he was referring to, its shield wavering as it absorbed the fire. I closed one eye and looked down my scope, intent on landing the shots. The XMR kicked into my shoulder as a trio of plasma bolts joined Harry’s volley, the Bug’s shield overloading and collapsing to leave it exposed.

Brace!” I heard Raz shout, and I turned to see that she had formed a line with her pack. They had moved out of cover, and their four identical rifles were raised. They braced the weapons against their shoulders at her command, waiting for her order.

Fire!” Raz shouted, and the four aliens loosed a volley in perfect sync. Their XMRs were all clones of the one that I had assisted Raz in creating, semi-automatic, with extended barrels and sharp bayonets. The aliens treated them like their native breech-loaders, that was what they had trained for, and their archaic firing line formation further hammered that point home. It was hard to criticize their outdated tactics when we were facing down a shield wall, however.

The four slugs hit the Bug whose barrier had collapsed, the densely packed magnetic coils on the long barrels propelling them to incredible velocities. Their target practically disintegrated, lifted clear off its feet, the projectiles shattering its carapace like a rock thrown through a glass window. The transfer of kinetic energy tore it apart, a cloud of misted gore spraying its comrades to either side of it.

As its ruined body tumbled across the deck, the other Bugs closed ranks to fill the hole in their formation, not showing any sign of fear or reacting in any way to the grisly death of their squadmate. They returned fire, the Borealans scattering, diving into cover with a speed and agility that gave the Bugs little time to get a bead on them.

The incoming barrage was too much for the Bugs to weather. With every shield that they lost, their ability to absorb our fire was reduced. Two more dropped, one of the Bugs cut cleanly in half by a Krell LMG, while the second was sent flailing to the ground by a burst of plasma fire. Those that remained fired indiscriminately with their pistols in an attempt to get us to duck back into cover.

Outnumbered and routed, they quickly succumbed, falling to the deck as their insectoid bodies were slagged and perforated.

Yeah!” Harry yelled, emerging from cover and raising his rifle above his head in triumph. “Weren’t expecting to meet us today, were you? Fucking cockroaches!”

Is everyone alright?” I asked, lowering my weapon. I was careful not to let the barrel touch me, the coils were glowing red-hot. One of the Krell rummaged in the many pockets of his poncho, withdrawing a heat-resistant glove. It was Blackjack, I could see some of his plasma burns beneath the garment. He used it to remove the barrel of his XMR, which had partially melted during the sustained fire, discarding it and slotting in a fresh one.

Everyone was accounted for, and so we pressed on, stepping around the remains of the Bug squad. Raz sidled up beside me, her pack trailing behind her obediently.

Looks like you’re all getting along,” I said, glancing back over my shoulder at the aliens.

I am Alpha again, they will obey me without question.”

That went…really well,” I added, laughing nervously. “When I saw those Marines on the torus go down, I thought that we’d get shredded if we tried to take on the Bugs ourselves. But back in the service tunnels, and now out here…we’ve got this. We’re winning.”

There is merit to mixed units,” Raz conceded. “The Krell drew their fire and kept them pinned, while the humans whittled down their shields. If they had closed into knife range, we would have been able to handle them, but they never had the opportunity. We compliment one another well.

So what do your buddies think about the XMRs now?” I asked, “do they still want to go get their breech-loaders from their shuttle?”

They’re warming up to them,” she replied, shooting me a smirk.

You seem to know what you’re doing, you were commanding your pack like it was routine.”

My father had me trained extensively in Borealan battlefield tactics,” she explained, keeping her yellow eyes on the walkway ahead of us. “I was to serve as an example of Elysian martial prowess, of what the Patriarch can offer the Coalition. I am bred of royal stock, the largest and the strongest of my carefully selected pack. We trained for months, tutored by the best marksmen and tacticians that my territory has produced, all so that I could impress the humans.”

That gave her anger and frustration at not being permitted to use the Borealan breech-loaders back at the range some more context. It sounded like the aliens had drilled with them until their trigger fingers were blistered, and not being allowed to show that off meant potentially failing their mission. Judging by the way that they valued their social hierarchy, an order by the Patriarch might as well be engraved on a stone tablet.

Well, if it’s any consolation, I’m pretty impressed.” She gave me a playful whip with her tail, making me stumble. “Come on,” I grumbled, “we’re in like…combat.”

Heads up,” Harry said, jogging forward to catch up with us. “It’s one of those Bug ships.”

He pointed ahead of us, and beneath the curvature of the ceiling, one of the organic breaching pods came into view. We raised our weapons, hunkering down and keeping to cover as we advanced. Much like the one that I had seen earlier, it was made from the same irregular, organic material. The expanding foam had poured over it like a lava flow before setting, sealing the jagged tear in the hull behind the vehicle. This one had come in at a slightly different angle, tearing into the buildings on the other side of the torus. It was almost long enough to block the walkway.

I think we’re safe,” I said, rising from cover to get a better look at it. “The armored plates have already popped off, looks like the Bugs who rode this one in are gone.”

The massive pieces of bony carapace were resting on the deck around the thing, the grotesque openings that they had left behind them gaping like open wounds where the Drones had spilled out onto the station.

Let’s get a closer look,” Harry said, hurrying ahead. I followed behind him as he gave the hull of the strange object a prod with his rifle. “It’s hard,” he muttered, “I thought it might be fleshy.”

I reached out a hand and touched it, surprised, and somewhat repulsed to find that it was still warm. Was it alive in its own right?

Hey Raz,” I said, “gimme a boost.”

She walked up behind me and gripped me by the straps on my rig, raising me off the floor one-handed so that I could get a look inside the Bug ship. The interior was gloomy, but what I could make out almost looked like the innards of an animal, with exposed flesh that was coated in a shining layer of fluid.

Looks like it’s full of raw meat,” I said. “Maybe that helps cushion the Drones, so they don’t get pasted when they land?”

We shouldn’t linger here,” Raz added as she set me back down, “the Bugs might return to their ship.”

I don’t see how they could use these things to get off the station,” I said as I began to walk around the pod. I neared one of the pools of expanding foam, tapping it with the toe of my boot and finding that it was rock-hard. “What would they do, put the big pieces of shell back on it? I don’t see any engines either, I think this was a one-way trip.”

We’ll make sure of that,” Harry added, switching out his receiver and slamming in a loaded magazine now that we had a moment. “Let’s keep moving, there has to be someone still left on this station besides us.”

***

As we made our way further up the torus, sounds of gunfire began to overpower our footsteps. There was something big happening ahead, but the curvature of the station’s habitat prevented us from seeing it. We dove into the cover of the planters as we spotted movement at the far end of the walkway, but lowered our weapons when we saw that it was two men carrying a third. His arms were draped over their shoulders, and his feet were dragging limply, he looked unconscious.

They were Marines, their black combat armor reflecting the red glow, their rifles slung over their backs.

Friendlies!” I shouted, and they turned their helmeted heads to look in our direction. Our ragtag band of humans and aliens jogged over to them, the two Krell keeping watch like living sentry turrets as the two Marines laid their wounded comrade on the deck. He had a nasty plasma burn that had melted through the armor on his chest piece, I didn’t even want to look at what lay beneath.

What the…what are recruits doing out here?” one of them asked, his face obscured by his opaque visor. He glanced at Raz and her pack for a moment, perhaps he hadn’t seen a Borealan before.Where’s your Staff Sergeant?”

We’ve come to help,” I replied, “we were separated from the rest of the trainees near the barracks.”

You crossed the military quarter alone?” the second Marine added, sounding skeptical. “Didn’t you run into any Bugs?”

A few,” Harry said, giving his XMR a tap.

If you want to help, then lend us a Krell so that we can get this guy to the medbay,” the first one said as he gestured to his prone friend. “He’s in a bad state, caught a plasma bolt. It melted the plate to his chest, and we can’t get it off to treat the wound.”

What’s happening down there?” Raz asked, nodding in the direction that they had come.

A bunch of critters have holed up in one of the hangar bays in the engineering section, they’re dug in deep. Some of the Drones from the pods managed to meet up and form a larger force, and we pushed them back downspin, where they retreated into the bay. We’ve been trying to dislodge ‘em, but they’re still holding, it’s a stalemate right now.”

Can’t you send the Krell in?” Harry asked.

Enough Bugs’ll swarm over a Krell like ants and drag it down. They’re hiding behind their shields, and there’s no cover around the bay door because that’s where they ship in cargo and shit like that.

If that’s where the fight is, then that’s where we’re going,” I said.

I don’t care what you do, it’s not my responsibility,” the first Marine replied with a shrug. “Just help us carry this guy.”

Blackjack,” I said, turning to the Krell. “Can you get this guy back to the infirmary?”

He rumbled affirmatively, lumbering over to the injured human and lifting him easily in his massive, scaly arms. He cradled his charge like a baby, turning about and setting off in the direction that we had come, the two other soldiers following after him. We had already cleared the path from the barracks, I wasn’t sure exactly where the infirmary was, but it was likely somewhere in the military quarter. Blackjack should be fine.

We could go back with them,” one of our human companions said, shifting his weight nervously as he watched Blackjack and the Marines walk away. “I don’t know if I want to go looking for another fight.”

You can go if you want to,” Harry replied, “nobody’s stopping you.”

His tone wasn’t accusatory, but the recruit seemed to take it that way, steeling himself as he clutched at his rifle. He swallowed conspicuously, then seemed to come to a decision.

N-no, I’ll stick with you guys.”

It sounds like most of the Bugs still on the station are barricaded in the hanger,” I said, waving for our mismatched squad to follow me as I set off. “We might yet see the end of this.”

***

We arrived to the scene of a battle. The first thing that we came across were medics tending to wounded Marines, taking cover behind whatever they could find as they treated burns and stab wounds. We passed by two medics who were trying to stabilize a wounded soldier from behind the safety of a barrier, his uniform soaked with dark blood. They wore white coveralls beneath black combat armor that looked as though it had been hastily thrown on, they might not even be combat medics.

The wounded had been ferried to the fringes of the battle, out of the line of fire. Ahead of us, I could see what the Marine that we had met had described.

There was a massive cargo door that led to the hangar, wide enough that any manner of freight could have passed through it, and as tall as the torus was high. Much like the hangar that we had used to enter the station upon our arrival, beyond the doors was an expansive bay where shuttles and other varieties of vessel could dock. The planters and kiosks still lined the middle of the walkway, but there were no barriers extending from the floor here, and there were no sculpted facades nearby that could provide refuge. Instead, there was a barren no man’s land of whitewashed metal leading to the open hangar doors, the shimmering force field visible beyond.

The doorway was plugged by what must be a hundred Bugs or more, forming a shield wall from one side to the other, the colorful light from the shifting ovals of plasma blurring together as their glare left afterimages in my eyes. It looked like the three hundred Spartans defending the Hot Gates at Thermopylae, if they had shields made from technicolor energy, and if their armor had been made from iridescent plastic.

There was a steady stream of fire traveling in both directions, lighting up the otherwise gloomy torus like a deadly rave, the Bugs sending volleys of seemingly random plasma barrages toward the Marines who were taking cover on the other side of the torus. It was downright terrifying, the sound of gunfire was constant and uninterrupted, making me wish that we had been given helmets so that I might make use of their sound dampening functions.

There wasn’t a tree or shrub left intact, they had been turned to ash, the planters now serving as little more than metal trenches. There were just as many Marines, well over a hundred, spread out all over the place. They harried the shield wall with plasma and tungsten, but there were so many Bugs. Every time a shield collapsed and one of the insects fell, it was quickly pulled away, replaced with a fresh Bug and an intact shield. I had no idea what the Betelgeusians hoped to accomplish, they had no way off the station, and they were cornered. Perhaps there had never been a plan, the Drones might be expended like ammunition, their only purpose to cause as much chaos as possible before their inevitable deaths.

We threw ourselves into cover, joining a squad of Marines, our remaining Krell immediately opening up above our heads as he sprayed the enemy formation.

Who’s in charge here?” I shouted over the din, the Marine who was hunkered down beside me turning his visor in my direction. He tapped the controls on the side of his helmet, perhaps switching from an active comms channel so that he could hear me. The Marines were not being deafened by the gunfight, the sound would be dampened, and they would be communicating via radio.

What the hell are you doing here?” he asked.

We’re here to help,” I replied, “tell us what to do.”

Our orders are to take out the Bugs blocking the hangar bay door,” he shouted, which was obvious enough. “Concentrate fire, try to bring down their shields!”

We joined the other Marines, emptying our magazines into the Betelgeusians without any immediate effect. Slugs turned into showers of sparks, and plasma bolts were absorbed by the crackling fields of energy. Their numbers were being slowly whittled down, and they eventually began to close ranks when one of them fell, rather than replacing it. They had nowhere to run, and they couldn’t withstand this for much longer. I had seen for myself that they weren’t dumb animals, they were sentient creatures capable of tactical thinking, and so their situation only perplexed me further.

Are they just going to stand there and take it?” Raz asked, popping out of cover for a moment to fire off a shot from her rifle.

Maybe they’ll surrender?” one of the human recruits asked, but I doubted that such concepts were even known to the Bugs.

Wait, what are they doing?” Harry asked. “Look!”

The line of Bugs was shifting, a tremor passing through them as if they were reacting to something as a single organism would. Their overlapping shields suddenly separated, the aliens breaking formation as they charged forward, the roar of their chitinous feet impacting the deck audible even over the gunfire. It sounded like someone was tipping a giant rain stick, or like a monsoon on sheet metal. They unsheathed their daggers, keeping their shields raised as they fired wildly around them with their pistols, forcing many of the Marines to take cover.

The Bugs knew that they had the advantage in close quarters, they were making one last-ditch attempt to close, intending to inflict as many casualties as possible in a brutal last stand. I had seen what those knives could do, the desire to flee almost overpowering me. No, I had to hold fast, what would Raz think of me if I ran?

Cut them down!” I shouted, taking a leaf out of Harry’s book as I rose from cover and unloaded into the incoming Bugs. I channeled my fear into anger, my squad joining me, Krell and Borealans firing alongside their human counterparts. The Marines weren’t about to let a bunch of recruits outdo them, and more automatic fire joined ours.

The Bugs were fanning out, not focusing on where the defensive line was weakest, but intending to sow as much disarray as they could. Their casualties were high, dozens of them dropping to the deck, their legs cut out from under them as they broke ranks. They had the numbers to push through, however, leaping over the planters with alarming speed and agility as they neared our position.

One of them blew through the charred remnants of a shrub ahead of me, its knives glinting in the muzzle flashes of my comrades. I swung my weapon toward it, but too late, the Bug launching itself through the air in my direction.

I closed my eyes, waiting for the sting of its blades, but they never found their mark. When I opened one eye, I saw the Drone suspended in the air, its insect thorax pierced by a wicket bayonet. Raz had driven her blade through its chest, the serrated weapon piercing its hard shell, pus-colored ichor leaking from the wound as the Bug flailed its many limbs. She had used her XMR like a pike, and she pushed the creature back, lifting it effortlessly.

She pulled the trigger, the Drone that was impaled on the end of her barrel exploding into a shower of gore and shell fragments as she blew a fist-sized hole in it. The force of the impact threw the Bug back, its ruined body landing on the other side of the planters.

Charge!” Raz roared, her loud voice carrying over the clamor of battle. Her pack joined her in a war cry as they powered forward on their long legs, wielding their XMRs as spears, meeting the incoming Bugs head on. Seeing them unrestrained was almost frightening, their muscles rippling as they waded into the smaller insects, jabbing with their bayonets and delivering devastating kicks. They were like furry, orange demons, snarling and spitting as they scattered the enemy. They knocked aside the energy shields, leveraging their reach to spear the Bugs before they could close into knife range, throwing their weight around to knock their assailants off kilter.

I watched as a Bug leaped onto the back of one of the Borealans, stabbing at her with its blades. She spun, reaching behind her and tearing it loose, throwing it to the ground and beating it into a bloody pulp with the butt of her rifle. The insects tried to leverage their numbers to overrun the Borealans and drag them to the ground where they might be butchered, but the felines had reflexes that equaled those of the Bugs, and it seemed impossible to get the drop on them. Their ears swiveled, their eyes wide, their heads snapping back and forth as they locked onto new targets. It didn’t matter if the Drones came at them from blind spots, or from behind, they were always met with a bayonet or a vicious strike from a heavy stock. The felines were so massive and powerful that the smaller aliens could do little to block or parry. Their shields couldn’t stop the bayonets as they could a slug, the plasma visibly heating the metal as the pack drove their weapons through the crackling plasma fields like javelins.

There were flashes of green light, some of the Bugs daring to use their pistols in the melee, despite the risk of hitting their comrades. One of the Borealans took a shot to the thigh, the plasma melting through her uniform and burning the flesh beneath. They might be more resistant to knives, but they seemed to be just as susceptible to plasma as humans, the alien yowling in pain. Rather than retreat to safety, the wound only seemed to redouble her fury, the red-headed feline casting aside the Bug that she had been grappling with in order to pounce on her assailant.

It was hard to see what was happening outside the microcosm of our skirmish, but the Borealan pack had scattered the dozen or so Bugs that had charged us, it seemed that the Drones had no idea how to deal with the felines. They were forming a new strategy, backing away and darting out of range of the bayonets as they resorted to their pistols. The greater the distance between them and the pack, however, the safer it was for us to fire on them. They couldn’t defend against both the Borealans and the incoming fire, some of them succumbing to our rifles while others were felled by the bayonets.

Our Krell stepped over one of the planters, lumbering into the fight and sweeping aside a nearby Bug with his powerful tail, as easily as swatting a fly. His LMG cut a swathe through the aliens, the Borealans pushing with him, forcing the enemy back. We had opened up a second front on the rightmost tip of the crescent-shaped line of Marines, and now the Betelgeusians were caught in a pincer, their attack losing its momentum as they fell into disarray.

A squad of Krell broke through to our left, sporting armored ponchos in the customary black, and wielding riot shields the size of an average door. There were four of them, and they joined the advance, using the massive slabs of metal and kevlar to help protect their allies from incoming fire.

My human squadmates and I remained where we were, supporting them from a distance, picking off Bugs who exposed themselves. As the Borealans and the Krell swept down the torus, the Bugs were caught between the defending Marines and the advancing aliens. They were gunned down by XMR fire, crushed by Krell, and torn apart by the savage Borealans.

Before long, we were mopping up the last of them, their numbers now reduced to only a few stragglers. Dead Betelgeusians practically carpeted the ground with their colorful carapaces, slumped over planters and barriers, lying in pools of spreading fluids the color of mucus. A few limbs still twitched reflexively, the Borealans stepping over the bodies, delivering mercy killings with their bayonets to any that were still obviously alive. Some of the Marines joined them, using their sidearms to finish off the aliens, and checking for survivors among their own fallen.

There were bodies clad in black armor too, Marines who had perished in the fight, but the ratio must have been twenty to one. In an odd way, the moans of injured soldiers were relieving, at least I could tell that they were still alive. It was the silence, the motionlessness that made my blood run cold. I saw the body of a dead Krell, too, rising from the heaps of Bugs like a mountain of green scales. I could scarcely believe that the aliens were mortal, they always seemed so immovable. The sight filled me with a strange sadness that I didn’t feel for my fellow humans, it was more like seeing an elephant that had been killed by poachers, or a beached whale.

I left the cover of the planters, making my over to Raz, trying to step between the bodies of the Bugs. Now that I could get a closer look at them without being stabbed, I could see all kinds of strange features. Their eyes were like those of a fly, compound, bulging from their heads almost like the lenses of a helmet. They might well be helmets, I didn’t want to reach down and touch one in order to find out. Their injuries too were odd. Rather than bullet holes and flesh wounds, their hard carapaces fractured when they were punctured. They were somewhat flexible, not quite as brittle as glass, but enough that the holes left by the slugs were surrounded by small cracks. Whatever they used for bodily fluids was thicker than blood, I could feel it sticking to my boots as I trudged through it. Now I could pick up on the smell that Raz had described, thick and heady.

Raz!” I exclaimed as I approached her, pausing for a moment as I watched her jab her bayonet into the chest of a still twitching Bug. “Are you alright?”

She placed a clawed foot on her victim’s shell, and pulled her blade free, then looked herself over briefly.

Lots of blood, not much of it mine. I’ll be alright. Did we lose anyone?”

Everyone is accounted for, mostly thanks to you and your pack. If you keep saving my ass, I don’t know if I’ll be able to pay you back.”

Oh, I’m sure we can work out some kind of installment plan,” she replied with a grin as she wiped the orange good from her blade on the leg of her uniform. “You handled yourself pretty well, monkey.”

I just…aimed and fired,” I replied with a shrug. “Just like at the range.”

How do you like shooting at Bugs rather than paper targets?”

It has its merits.”

I glanced over and noticed that one of her packmates was limping. It was the one who had taken a plasma bolt to the thigh. Her uniform had melted away, leaving a nasty burn that went alarmingly deep, almost like a crater. All of them were covered in cuts, red blood joining the orange and green fluids from the insects, their coveralls shredded by the alien knives.

You need medical attention,” I said to the maimed Borealan, and she bared her teeth at me.

This pain, I can endure,” she replied in a low hiss.

There are medics over there,” I said as I turned and gestured to the other side of the walkway. “Go ask for some help, our medical facilities are probably better than anything you have access to back home. They’ll fix you up.”

She looked to her Alpha for confirmation, and Raz nodded, the alien hobbling off to find a medic. Our Krell came lumbering back over to us, crunching the prone Bugs under his scaly feet, seemingly indifferent to them. He too was peppered with cuts from Betelgeusian daggers, but only on the softer parts of his body where they had been able to penetrate his scales. The bony scutes that ran down his back were probably thick enough to stop a bullet. I was surprised to see that his blood had a blueish tint to it. There were a few plasma burns, he made for a massive target after all, but nothing that had done enough damage to seriously injure him.

Harry had followed behind me, and he jogged over to the Krell, giving the reptile a hearty pat on the thigh. The creature seemed none the worse for wear, just as aloof and as peaceful as if he was hanging out in the recreation center, or swimming in the pool at the gym. The gun shield on his weapon was scarred by plasma burns, those things really worked, it had blocked a fair few shots.

I turned to see my new friends approaching, patting each other the back, looks of exhilaration and cautious optimism brightening their faces. A wave of relief washed over me, the stress of combat, the uncertainty of battle melting away. I felt almost giddy in comparison. This was what we had trained for, why we were here. We had been tested, both as individuals and as a mixed unit, and we had passed with flying colors.

 

CHAPTER 8: SECOND CHANCES

 

Once the station was secured, and they were certain that no more Bugs were hiding out in service tunnels or air ducts, the state of emergency was lifted. The crimson glow was finally replaced with the warmth of the sunlamps, the barriers returning to their recesses in the deck, and the cool breeze once again rustling the leaves of what trees remained.

The damage to the station was extensive but mostly superficial. Besides for the breaches that the boarding craft had punctured in the hull, there was no serious structural damage. Just bullet holes, and plasma burns. The strange, alien vessels were still lodged in the deck, being inspected intently by groups of people wearing hazmat suits who had erected cordons around them. How were they even going to remove them? Perhaps they would need to be dismantled, or rather dissected, and carried away piece by piece. I didn’t envy the guys who would have to clean up the mess. Casualty reports were still coming in, but the general consensus seemed to be that they were lighter than they could have been.

I felt elated. The battle had been both terrifying and exhilarating, a sweeping victory that had perfectly demonstrated the merits of mixed unit tactics. But more than that, the skirmish had postponed the Borealan exodus from the station, it had given Raz and I a few more precious hours together.

She loped along beside me, a jovial spring in her step. Borealans were apex predators, sculpted by evolution to be efficient killers, and fighting seemed to make her happy. The prospect of being permitted to stay on the Pinwheel for a little longer certainly contributed to her good mood, too. Her pack had seemed reluctant to leave her side now that she was the Alpha again, but she had shooed them away, and they were giving us some space. There were only two of them now, the third had been shipped off to one of the medical facilities to have her wound treated.

Our new comrades chatted, their spirits high as we made our way back to the armory, intending to return our weapons. After that, we were headed back to the barracks to get some much-deserved rest, while some preferred to celebrate the victory at the recreation center. Marines and engineers were still running around all over the place, and while the attractive décor was somewhat marred by the smoke damage and the charred trees, things were well on track to getting back to normal.

I guess we can spend a little more time together, Stanley,” Raz said as she took my hand in hers. She squeezed it tightly, her soft fur tickling me, and I felt my cheeks start to warm. She leaned down closer, whispering so that the other recruits couldn’t hear. “You’ll have to help me work off some of this stress while we have the time…”

The bite on my neck suddenly began to ache, and I quickly changed the subject.

About that…we should talk to Vasiliev if he’s still at the armory. I think I have an idea.”

***

When we returned to the armory, Vasiliev was waiting for us. His injured shoulder had been bandaged, and there was a medic nearby that was tending to him. The engineer was nowhere to be seen, but after seeing the damage to the torus, he likely had more important places to be. There were Marines milling about now too, returning weapons to the racks on the walls, or making adjustments to their configurations. Some of their armor had battle damage. I could see chest plates that had successfully dissipated the energy of a plasma bolt, leaving a dark smear where the ceramic had partially melted, and there were scratches where Bug daggers had glanced off them.

Vasiliev rose to greet us, giving us a rare smile.

Welcome back, recruits. I’m glad to see that you’re all accounted for, and in one piece.”

Are you alright, sir?” I asked, and he nodded his head.

My shoulder looks like an overcooked pizza right now, but besides that, I’ll be fine. Some of the Marines have been talking, they tell me that you fared well out on the torus.”

We kicked Bug ass, sir,” Harry said as his Krell friend gave an appreciative rumble. The medic noticed the reptile now, muttering to himself as he walked over and began to examine his wounds, the recruits parting to let him pass.

Damned Krell,” the medic grumbled as the alien cocked his head at the human curiously. He opened his bag and withdrew what looked like a large tube of toothpaste, squeezing a mound of green-tinted gel into his gloved hand. There’s walking wounded, then there’s walking around not even caring that you’re wounded. Keep still while I apply the cooling gel, you oversized iguana.”

Sir,” I began, getting the Sergeant’s attention. “Have you heard back from the other recruits yet? Did they make it to safety after we were separated?”

Everyone is fine,” Vasiliev replied, “the other Staff Sergeants led the recruits back to the barracks and took refuge there until the fighting was over. We were the only group that even attempted to make it to the armory. In hindsight, it would probably have been far safer to just stay where we were…”

That’s a relief,” I sighed. Some of my good friends had been separated from me during the chaos, it was good to know that they hadn’t been caught in the open. I couldn’t wait to relay our story to them, they had missed one hell of a party. “There was something else that I wanted to ask you about, sir,” I added. “You said that you’d heard about the role that we played in the battle?”

Yes, I was made aware of the performance of your mixed squad. I already know what you’re going to ask me, Stanley.”

Sir, with all due respect” I continued. “You have to acknowledge how well we fought together. The Krell were like walking pillboxes, we had covering fire no matter where we ended up. Raz and the Borealans are successfully integrated, they worked alongside the other species, they followed orders. They practically won us that fight, our squad would have been overrun by the Bugs if it wasn’t for them.”

It’s true that your squad saw fewer casualties than most,” Vasiliev conceded, “but the decision has been made. The Borealans are being sent home, we’ve already had this conversation, recruit.”

What?” Harry asked, frowning at the Sergeant. “The cats are being sent home? Why?”

The was a low murmur as more of the recruits mirrored his confusion.

The Admiralty has already expelled the Borealans from the integration program,” Vasiliev explained. “Our orders are to continue to integrate the Krell, but the Borealans are being sent home on the next jump carrier. They’ve been written off, deemed too antisocial to be of use to the Coalition.”

Sarge,” Harry continued, “I get that the cats can be hard to get on with. Hell, we all heard about what happened in the mess hall. But they fought with us today, they pulled our asses out of the fire. If you’d have been there, if you’d have seen how they fight, you-”

You’re wasting your breath, recruit,Vasiliev interrupted. “As I already explained to Stanley, I’m not high enough in the chain of command to overturn the decision. It comes straight from the top. The Admirals have been keeping a close eye on the program, and the conduct of the Borealans has crossed a line.

The other recruits seemed almost as displeased by his words as I was. The Borealans had been disliked initially, everyone had banded together to stand up to them, both in the recreation center and during the mess hall brawl. But Raz and I had solved the puzzle, bringing her pack into line in the process. If we could do it, then so could others.

I looked to Raz, dejected. I had hoped that the decision might have been overturned after word of her pack’s exploits had spread, but it seemed that the higher-ups had upheld their decision. Even though we had achieved all the goals of the program, it didn’t matter, it was too late.

It was worth a try,” Raz sighed, her smile faltering. I felt guilty for souring her good mood, perhaps it had been futile to press Vasiliev about it.

The Staff Sergeant and the Marines suddenly snapped to attention, saluting us. I was momentarily confused until I realized that they weren’t saluting us, they were saluting someone behind us. I turned to see a short man with a greying beard standing in the doorway, his hands clasped behind his back, two Marines flanking him to his left and right. He was wearing a pristine, white uniform in contrast to the blacks and blues of the soldiers, a Navy cap perched upon his head. I recognized the golden wreath that was emblazoned on it, and my eyes wandered down to his breast, which was decorated with numerous colored ribbons and medals. It was an Admiral, I had never seen one in person before.

The recruits and I saluted, the pack of Borealans following suit after a moment, the gesture unfamiliar to them.

I-I’m sorry sir,” I stammered, “we didn’t see you.”

At ease,” he grumbled, his voice gruff and gravelly. He lifted the rim of his hat with a gloved hand, peering up at Raz from beneath a pair of bushy eyebrows. The Admiral was an older man, hunched with age, and so the alien was close to twice his height.

You must be Miss Elysiedde,” he said. “When I last spoke with your father, he was very interested to know how your training was progressing.”

You…know my father, sir?” Raz asked. I was relieved to see that she remembered the appropriate honorifics.

Indeed I do,” the Admiral replied as he walked into the room, his two bodyguards following after him. The group of trainees parted to let him pass, still standing as straight as boards despite his order for us to be at ease. His presence was commanding, despite his stature. “I’m on friendly terms with the Patriarch, he was very insistent that it be your pack that was sent to Fort Hamilton in order to take part in the integration program. It was one of his conditions during our negotiations. He seems to have placed a great deal of faith in you.”

Raz swallowed, the mere mention of her father seemed to have put her on edge. Of course, she had failed the mission that he had assigned her, putting the alliance in jeopardy in the process. At least that was how she saw it, and how her father would probably take it, if it was accurate or not.

I had to wonder what an Admiral was even doing on the torus, shouldn’t they be on the central hub?

I have to say, Miss Elysiedde,” the Admiral continued. “The initial performance of the Borealan pack that we agreed to house on the Pinwheel was…discouraging. They seemed confrontational, overly aggressive, antisocial. They were unwilling to integrate, and I began to ask myself what benefit there would be to introducing Borealans into our forces. The report that I sent to the Admiralty was no less scathing.”

Raz’s ears and tail drooped, her yellow eyes turning to the deck, and she clasped her hands in front of her in a way that I had never seen before. Mere hours ago she had been striding through battle like a fearless Valkyrie, and now she looked almost ready to burst into tears. She must think that the Admiral was chewing her out, but I wasn’t getting that impression from his tone of voice or his body language. I wanted to signal to her in some way, to alleviate her distress, but I didn’t dare to interrupt someone of such high rank.

But now it appears,” he added, “that you and the other recruits have come to some kind of understanding. Young Stanley was instrumental in socializing you if what Staff Sergeant Vasiliev has been reporting to me is accurate. Would you say that assessment is correct?

Vasiliev had been reporting directly to an Admiral? He knew my name? I was shocked, but then again, the program was of great importance to the UNN. The Staff Sergeant had always been a bit of a hardass, but I felt like we had developed a rapport, and perhaps that had reflected in his reports. I glanced at him briefly, and he gave a sly grin.

Yes, sir,” Raz replied meekly. There was a glimmer of hope in her eyes now.

Would you say that your pack has reached an equilibrium with the other recruits and that between you and Stanley, you have a working understanding of both human and Borealan culture?”

She nodded in reply, and then the Admiral turned his attention toward me, my posture stiffening under his scrutinizing gaze.

Recruit Stanley, to my knowledge, you are the first human to successfully integrate a pack of Borealans into a mixed unit. Our initial efforts were…marred by incompatibilities. Putting Marines and Elysian warriors into a room and expecting everything to just work didn’t pan out, their culture was too different, their methods and their chain of command seemingly at odds with ours. We eventually had the idea to take a handful of recruits and to train them side by side, to force them to socialize and to interact in a controlled environment, free from outside influences. The hope was that younger, less stubborn Borealans might be more amenable. I was prepared to write off the experiment as a failure, but you and Miss Elysiedde seem to have developed a kind of…accord with one another. Tell me,” he said, pausing to watch one of the Marines as he disassembled his XMR. “How would you rate the combat performance of the Borealans?”

Outstanding, sir,” I replied. Finally, I had an opportunity to make a case for the aliens. “Once we had found an XMR configuration that suited them, they were able to use the weapons very effectively and to work as a fire team. They followed orders and were able to fight alongside the other species without incident. Their strength, speed, and resilience are far beyond that of any human. They’re especially suited to CQC, I saw them effectively counter a Betelgeusian charge. Without them, my squad would have certainly been overrun. I believe that they can fill an important niche in the Coalition.

That’s more or less what the Marines who fought alongside you reported to me, yes,” the Admiral said with a nod of his head. “So tell me, Stanley, Raz. Could you two work together in order to integrate new Borealan packs, and could you teach others how to do the same?”

I hesitated, looking to Raz for confirmation, and she nodded.

Yes, sir,” I replied. “I think we could do that.”

The Admiral clapped his hands together, seemingly satisfied by our answer.

That is most excellent news. Now, as you know, the Borealan pack has been ordered back to the homeworld. Unfortunately, I am not in a position to countermand the orders of my fellow Admirals. It was a collective decision.”

Raz’s ears drooped again, and I felt my heart skip a beat.

Now, now, Miss Elysiedde, don’t despair. I was told to send back a Borealan pack on the next available jump carrier, but nobody specified how many Borealans constitute a pack.”

Her eyes lit up, and we shared a glance, elation threatening to overpower my austere demeanor.

I would like to keep Raz on the station, in order to train and socialize the new Borealans who will be joining the program. I’d like you to assist her, Stanley. You would be given your own quarters in the residential district, and you’ll be promoted to Junior Officers. You would be expected to begin your duties as soon as the next packs arrive. Do you accept?”

We both tried to answer at the same time, but Raz ceded the floor to me, another demonstration of her newfound understanding of human social norms.

Thank you, Admiral. It would be an honor.”

Very good. Return to the barracks and pack your belongings, then you’ll be assigned to your new quarters. I assume that coed isn’t an issue for either of you?”

Not at all, sir,” I replied.

Good, good. If you’ll excuse me, I have much to attend to, I’m afraid that the station is in quite a state. I’ll be needing the assistance of your Staff Sergeant if you’re quite done with him, and if his wound is not too debilitating.”

Of course, Admiral,” Vasiliev said. “Lead the way.”

The Admiral tipped his hat to us, then proceeded to the door, flanked by his two silent guards. Vasiliev followed behind him, giving me a knowing smile as he passed by, one that I returned warmly. He had been keeping the Admiral abreast of everything the entire time, it was only thanks to his faith in us than we had achieved this outcome.

I struggled to contain my excitement. When I looked over at Raz, her ears were pricked up, her tail waving back and forth contentedly. We would be able to stay on the Pinwheel indefinitely, we’d be working together, living together. I wouldn’t have to say goodbye to her, she wouldn’t be shipped light years across space where I’d have no way of ever contacting her again. She met my gaze, giving me a grin, my cheeks warming.

As soon as the Admiral had left the building, the recruits abandoned all pretense of formality, Raz’s alarmed pack freezing up in bewilderment as the humans crowded around to congratulate her. They gave her pats on the back, and whatever else they could reach, everyone was happy to have her stay. Even the Krell lumbered over and rubbed his snout in her hair, rumbling affectionately. She laughed heartily, pushing him away with her furry hands as his nostrils blew the orange strands, a wide grin on her face. She seemed overwhelmed by the display, perhaps Borealans didn’t express sentiment in the same way. This was what she had wanted, friendship, and now she finally had it. There was nothing like a brawl and a gunfight to build a sense of camaraderie.

The other Borealans merely watched, they were going to be sent home, after all. Somehow, I got the impression that they would be relieved to be back on Borealis, it was only Raz’s stern orders that had made them cooperate. Either way, their task had been accomplished, and they could return home with their heads held high.

The recruits eventually went their separate ways, bidding one another goodbye, and I exchanged a few handshakes with my new friends. Harry gave me a one-armed hug, and I suspected that I’d be seeing him around the recreation center sometime soon.

Come on,” Harry said to his Krell buddy, “let’s go find Blackjack. You need a nickname too, I’ll have to think of something.”

The alien rumbled affirmatively, lumbering along behind him, and I watched as his long tail dragged through the doorway.

I guess we should head back to the barracks and pack our stuff,” I said, turning to Raz.

Admiral’s orders,” she replied with a grin.

As we left the armory and emerged onto the torus, I noticed that Raz’s pack were following a short distance behind us like a trio of lost puppies.

You are dismissed,” Raz told them, and they shared confused glances. “Go entertain yourselves for a while.”

Where shall we go?” one of them asked, her tail flicking back and forth in a display of uncertainty. Raz turned to them, walking backward to keep pace with me as she shrugged her shoulders.

To the recreation center, or to the mess hall, wherever you like.”

They stood around looking indecisive as we walked off toward the barracks, becoming lost in the sea of pedestrians that was starting to repopulate the station. It was like they didn’t know what to do without being given instructions by their leader. Once the pack was out of earshot, I glanced up at Raz.

What was all that about?”

Packs usually remain together,” she explained, “it’s a little unusual for the Alpha to go off on their own. I want some quality time with my monkey, though.”

Once she was sure that we were out of view behind some surviving trees and shrubs, Raz pounced on me, lifting me off the floor in a tight embrace. She spun me in the air, squeezing me against her soft chest through the tattered fabric of her uniform, then set me down again. She ruffled my hair with her large, orange hand, exposing her sharp teeth in a wide smile.

Looks like we’re in business, tree climber. You won’t be getting rid of me for a long time!”

I was elated, happier than I could ever remember being, the adrenaline that still lingered in my veins from the battle on the torus making me feel almost euphoric. However exhilarating our encounter the previous night had been, an air of foreboding had overshadowed our carnal bliss, the knowledge that our time together would be all too brief lurking in the back of our minds like a dark raincloud on the horizon. But now, all of the worries had been lifted from my shoulders, and I felt as if I might explode from the joy of it.

 

CHAPTER 9: BURNING OFF THE HEAT

 

When we arrived back at the barracks, we packed up our belongings, then Raz visited the showers to clean off all of the sweat and blood that still coated her skin from the prior battle. She changed into a fresh uniform, as the other one had been stained by Bug juice and shredded by their knives, then we hung out in the mess hall for a while. War was hungry work, and we had worked up quite an appetite.

The trainees had all been reunited again, and our friends were eager to hear about our exploits, crowding around us as we shared the story. Blackjack, Harry, and his other Krell friend showed up too. The two reptiles were covered in adhesive pads where they had absorbed plasma rounds, and Harry was as energetic as ever, standing with one leg on the table as he regaled the audience with his own somewhat embellished account of what had happened.

Raz was now a favorite of the Krell, and the other humans had warmed up to her, even moreso after hearing about how she had led her people in the bayonet charge. She had earned their respect, and they had even come to accept her pack, too. The Borealans seemed eager to get back to their home planet, and Raz explained that being separated from Borealan society for so long might be jarring for them. We would have to keep that in mind when training new packs.

When we were ready to set off to our new quarters in the residential quadrant of the station, we said our farewells to the recruits. We wouldn’t be sharing the barracks with them any longer. Blackjack gave me a bone-crushing hug, and Harry insisted that we’d have to visit the recreation center regularly. The fanfare was welcome. Much like Raz, I had lived a rather lonely childhood, and I had been separated from my old friends at boot camp. I wasn’t accustomed to being so well-liked by so many people, and it filled me with a strange kind of warmth.

I had never seen the residential area before, we had so far been confined to the military quarter, as recruits were not permitted to wander the rest of the station. After a good fifteen minutes of walking, we arrived, and I saw that the facades of the buildings to either side of the crowded walkway were sculpted to resemble row houses. The engineers couldn’t build up, of course, there could be no tower blocks on a space station. Instead, they had filled the quarter with residences that were lined up side to side, made to resemble brick and mortar houses.

They were lavishly decorated, with planters and beds of flowers beneath their windows. These were the quarters where civilian visitors to the station, officers, and other VIPs were housed. It was a far cry from the recruit barracks.

To my surprise, when we located our residence and neared the door, Raz knelt to inspect the floral arrangement outside the building. She leaned in to smell one of the yellow flowers, her pink nose twitching, seemingly enamored by it. She asked me what they were, and I told her that they were called daffodils, a strain of flower from Earth. She clearly wanted to pick them, but resisted the urge. I would never have pegged her as a flower girl.

I stood in front of the door, realizing that it was Borealan-sized. What had I expected? Raz wouldn’t have been able to live inside a regular-sized residence, the furniture would be too small, and she wouldn’t have fit in the shower or on the bed. I scanned my ID card on a reader beside the door, and it slid open, the faux-wood paneling vanishing into a recess in the frame.

I stepped inside, and Raz followed after me, our packs slung over our shoulders. The lights came on automatically, illuminating the space. It was nothing like the room in the barracks that we had been sharing over the last few days, it was more akin to an upscale apartment that you might find planetside. It was open-plan, with a living room and a kitchen, the bathroom and bedroom separated by dividing walls. I wandered deeper, feeling carpet beneath my boots, marveling at the comparatively lavish decorations. There was a monumental couch that could seat two Borealans, the size of a king-sized bed to me, and in front of it was a glass coffee table. On the far wall was a monitor that could probably be used to access the station’s intranet. Everything was so huge, it made me feel as though I had been shrunk down to the size of a young child.

Raz walked over to the kitchen, the ceiling a good inch above her furry ears, inspecting our new abode. There was a dining table, a fridge, and counters that were strewn with kitchen appliances. The glass door on the oven looked large enough to pass a full-grown man.

So this is how humans live?” Raz asked, opening the door to the microwave and inspecting it. “What is all of this shit?”

I guess Borealans don’t have toasters and coffee machines,” I said, “I’ll have to give you the tour. How strange that they have all of this alien-sized furniture ready to go. They must be expecting a lot more Borealans to come to the station. How am I supposed to reach the freezer, do they expect me to pull up a chair?

I thought that monkeys were good at climbing?” Raz teased, and I gave her an exaggerated pout.

Alright, alright. Don’t let being the Alpha again go to your head, its big enough as it is. Come on, let’s go unload our gear.”

We opened the door to the bedroom, finding that it was similarly furnished. We had lockers and dressers for our belongings, and there were two large beds. I tested one of them, climbing up onto the oversized frame and bouncing on it, the springs creaking. It was so soft and crisp, nothing like the beat-up bunks that we had grown accustomed to.

I almost felt guilty. The officers who were assigned to these residences lived very comfortably, and they had slowly risen through the ranks in order to earn these privileges. Raz and I had been promoted to Junior Officers with a wave of the Admiral’s hand.

What do you think?” I asked as Raz stowed some of her spare uniforms in one of the lockers. “How does it compare to Borealan dwellings?”

Well, the walls aren’t made from stone, which is nice. But there’s no meat locker, and the beds are all wrong.”

What’s wrong with the beds?”

Humans have no idea how to sleep properly,” she said, shaking her head in exasperation. “Let me show you tree climbers how it’s done.”

I watched in amusement as she pushed the two beds together, then scattered the sheets and pillows haphazardly, creating a kind of messy nest. She stood back and appraised her handiwork, gesturing to it as if it was supposed to have proven some kind of point.

You unmade the beds?” I asked skeptically.

No, dummy. Borealans sleep in piles with their pack, not alone on individual bunks.”

But your pack isn’t here,” I replied, a touch of fear creeping into my voice. “You’re not going to have them live with us, are you?”

You can barely handle one Borealan, never mind a whole pack,” she laughed. “No, you’re my pack now, monkey.”

Oh,” I muttered, my cheeks reddening. “I guess that makes sense.”

The sunlamps on the ceiling of the torus were beginning to dim, the shafts of golden light that bled in through the blinds on the windows toward the front of the building changing color to imitate sunset. The day had been long, we were both tired from the exertion of combat, and exhilarated from the rush of adrenaline. I felt almost high, the thrill of fighting and surviving flowing through my veins like some kind of energy drink. As tired as I was, I knew that I stood little chance of sleeping that night.

Something else was coursing through my veins too, making my blood run hotter, my heart skipping as I watched Raz begin to disrobe. She was standing beside the bed with her back to me, her long tail peeking out of a little hole just above her belt line. I heard the sound of her pulling down her zipper, then she slipped out of the sleeves to expose her bare shoulders, her subtle musculature flexing beneath her smooth skin. She slid the garment slowly down, my eyes tracing the long dimple that her spine carved in her back, and then she stepped out of the uniform. She discarded it on the floor beside the bed, and hopped up onto the mattress, testing it like a cat kneading its favorite blanket. I got a splendid view of her butt in the process, those infuriating bike shorts that she always wore struggling to contain her voluptuous curves, stretching and straining as the perfect globes of her pert cheeks shifted beneath the clinging fabric.

She sat down on the edge of the bed, turning to face me, apparently surprised to see my flushed cheeks. She hadn’t intended to titillate me, but I found it almost impossible to keep my gaze off her, even in the most mundane of situations. My eyes wandered down to her abdominal muscles, as hard and as defined as ever, then to her polished thighs. They contrasted so beautifully with her black underwear, as pale and as smooth as silk.

See something you like, monkey?” she teased.

An uncontrollable passion rose up inside me, swelling in my chest and filling my belly with butterflies. We could have died, but we were alive. Raz could have been banished from the station, but we had skirted that outcome too. The events of the day came flooding back to me all at once, hitting me like a wall. Claws dripping with alien blood, the enemy melting like wax candles under my plasma fire, the cries of victory and the relief of survival. Plasma bolts had passed mere inches above my head, so close that their heat had singed my hair. I had looked down the barrel of a Betelgeusian pistol, the rails crackling with glowing, green energy. I had been a split second away from being diced by the flashing knives of a Drone, and yet here I was, still standing. I had never felt so alive, so aware of my beating heart, of every inch of my unharmed skin.

Joie de vivre, the French called it, the joy and appreciation of life. I was compelled to cross the room and to plunge my face between her thighs, her cool skin brushing against my hot cheeks. Raz gasped in surprise, her clawed fingers finding purchase in my hair and taking handfuls.

Stan! Damn it, what’s gotten into you all of a sudden?”

I wrapped my arms around her hourglass waist as best I could, my fingers scarcely able to meet around her muscular core. I crawled my digits downward, pressing them deep into the firm cheeks of her ass through her shorts, taking handfuls of her supple tissue and feeling her iron muscles tense up in response. She flinched and wriggled as I bit her inner thigh, rougher than I would have dared with a fellow human, my lips skirting the hem of her shorts as she arched her spine and stifled a moan.

Slow down, you little animal. I’ve not even taken my shorts off ye-”

I found a firm protrusion beneath the rapidly dampening fabric, and I sucked on it, raking my tongue across its swollen surface through the material as Raz’s feminine flavor filled my mouth. I felt the familiar folds and wrinkles of her loins, the heat of her flesh permeating the crotch of her shorts as her leaking juices soaked it.

Her meaty thighs snapped shut around me, cushioning my face as I lapped and sucked, the sensation of my tongue stroking her through the fabric making her shudder involuntarily. I was buried in her intoxicating scent and her flavor, doting on her as she squirmed, feeling the fat of her rump spill around my fingers as I slid them beneath the elastic.

I hooked my hands around the waistband and pulled her underwear down, the tactile sensation of them gliding against her silken skin and struggling over her bulging muscles making my mouth water in anticipation. She straightened her legs to help me, and I felt my aching erection tent my uniform as I watched a drooping, slimy web of her excitement link her shorts to her flushed lips. Her underwear was positively drenched, and I could have sworn that I heard a splash as I dropped the garment to the floor, leaving her swollen and exposed.

As I lowered my lips down toward hers, she closed her legs again, sinking my face a good inch into her pillowy thighs. It was like being crushed between two giant marshmallows, the layer of delicate fat almost deep enough to hide the brawn that lay beneath, but not quite.

I could feel her heart racing as I delved my tongue into her womanhood with abandon, her pulse making her burning flesh throb against my tongue, painting her folds with my saliva as her honeyed juices wet my lips. I failed to stifle a moan, so overcome with desire for her, as if being nestled between her thighs was my idea of heaven. She twitched at that, tightening around me as though she was testing the endurance of my skull, but I trusted her not to crush it like an egg.

I mouthed and kissed her inner thighs, lapping at the glaze of her anticipation that was already making them shiny and wet, biting her softly as I mauled her ass like I was kneading dough. I slipped my tongue inside her, circling her winking opening, the maddening textures of her passage massaging my tongue as if trying to pluck it from my head. I had never felt like this before. I was seeing red, as if the threat of death had birthed in me an uncontrollable lust for life and all of its pleasures.

I don’t know…what’s gotten into you,” Raz growled between gasps, “but I like it. Harder…bite me like you mean it, monkey.

She pulled my hair and thrust me deeper, the soft tuft of orange fur on her mound tickling my nose as she ground her wide hips against my face. I brought a finger toward her opening and pushed it inside her, feeling her quivering walls of velvet, slimy muscle take a fierce hold of it. Her passage rippled up and down my digit, from the knuckle to the tip, as if begging for it to start moving. I made her wait for a few moments, her fluids soaking my skin, and then I began to curl it inside of her.

She tugged at my hair rhythmically, stinging my scalp, appreciative shivers rolling down my spine with every jolt. I dragged my nails across her thighs as I drew her needy clitoris between my lips, sucking on it as I lashed it with my tongue, catching it between my lips and my teeth

D-damn it, monkey,” she exclaimed. She bent double, her thighs trembling around my face as her juices dribbled down my chin. I stopped my ardent licking as she crossed a leg behind my head, catching me in a kind of headlock, her rock-hard muscles clamping my windpipe shut. I wrapped my arms around them in surprise, opening my mouth to protest, but finding that I couldn’t speak.

She dragged me up onto the bed by my head as I struggled in vain, then she flipped me over onto my back like a wrestler in a ring, practically sitting on my face as her loins pressed against my lips. Her knees were far above my head, her wonderfully plump thighs cradling my face, the flesh of her buttocks spilling over my chest. She wasn’t putting all of her weight on me, but it was enough to sink me into the mattress. I struggled, but she laughed, holding me there until I relaxed and took in a deep breath of her wonderful scent. It was like chloroform, dulling my mind, and I gazed up to see Raz’s yellow eyes peering down at me covetously.

Can’t have you winning one of these fights, tree climber, or you’ll make me look bad. The Alpha has to keep up appearances, you know.

She shook her hips, grinding her drooling sex against my lips, and I obliged. I resumed my rhythmic licking, my hands wandering up her belly, groping the firm bunches of her abdominal muscles as she rocked gently to match pace with my tongue.

I felt one of her fluffy hands squeezing the bulge beneath my uniform, but I couldn’t see past her flesh, her thighs rising up to either side of my face like the walls of a canyon. She reached behind herself and fumbled with my zipper, dragging it all the way down, her sharp claws leaving trails on my belly as she neared my waistline. A warm hand reached beneath the waistband of my shorts, her feathery fur tickling me, enclosing my inflamed member in a prison of velvet.

I lurched as the touch of her fingers sent a jolt of pleasure coursing through me, Raz squeezing me, pulling back my foreskin and trapping my glans between her padded thumb and forefinger. She freed me from the constraints of my underwear, and then began to stroke, her tight fist milking me with a slow and deliberate rhythm. I bucked into her hand, letting slip an embarrassing moan that made her shiver, my muffled exclamations further stimulating her.

What’s that, monkey?” she teased. “I couldn’t hear you, you’ll have to speak up.”

She pressed down harder on me, squeezing my head between her furry calves and the soft meat of her butt, lifting it off the mattress as she continued her stroking. I couldn’t breathe, and I slapped her ass in protest, a ripple passing through her cheek as my palm clapped loudly against it. She shuddered as my struggling stimulated her, rolling her hips, her flowing juices sliding down my cheeks in globs.

After a moment, she finally released me, and I gasped for air as I wiped her fluids from my face with my sleeve. I opened my mouth to complain, but I was cut short as Raz spun around, changing position so that she was crouched above me with her feline nose hovering over my throbbing erection. I looked up to see her loins poised over my head, her pink flesh glistening, ropes of her viscous excitement threatening to fall to my face as they drooped from her flushed lips. Her legs were splayed wider than the breadth of my shoulders because her thighs were long enough that they reached my waist, her furry hands supporting her weight to either side of my hips, Raz bent almost double to reach my member as it bobbed in the air.

The position was a little acrobatic due to our enormous difference in size, but my qualms were soon washed away as she planted her crotch on my face again with an audible, lurid squelch. I began to lap obediently, feeling a tremor pass through her as I raked my tongue up her vulva, glancing her swollen clitoris. I let my hands wander over her springy butt and her round, burnished thighs, the sweat that was beginning to well on her milky skin making my touch slippery.

My lips left her dripping sex, and I moaned into her loins as I felt her slide my erection into the reaches of her throat in one smooth motion. I glanced down between her thighs, sparks flying in my brain as her obscene tongue swirled around my buried length, but her hanging breasts blocked my view completely.

She applied a powerful suction, her winding organ wrapping around me like a tentacle as her lips kissed the base of my throbbing member, her slimy muscle squeezing me tightly as its textured surface grazed my glans. I lurched as she cupped my balls in the palm of her hand, stroking them with her fluffy fur, the vibrations in her throat teasing me as she laughed at my reaction.

I tried to tell her to slow down, but my pleas had the opposite effect, her sucking and licking only growing greedier and more intense. She could do such incredible things with her tongue, it was so impossibly flexible and dexterous, encompassing my entire length in a cocoon of slippery flesh. It was constantly in motion, always shifting and flexing, squeezing and stroking.

I gave in to the pleasure, delving my fingers into the yielding meat of her ass again, weighing her springy cheeks in my hands. Beneath the velvety layer of fat, her iron muscle lurked, like a bowling ball coated in a layer of memory foam. Just moving this massive body around gave her such incredible tone and definition, I felt like I could have bounced a softball off her rump. She shivered as I dug deeper, clawing and squeezing as I pleased, watching her rubbery butt spring back to its original shape the moment that I let go of it. She was so tough that there was practically nothing that I could do to hurt her, which meant that I could play with her rear like it was a lump of modeling clay.

Raz slipped my member out of her mouth for a moment, and I felt her warm breath on my glans as she spoke.

Oh, you like that, do you? Maybe you’d appreciate a closer look.”

She sat on my face again, her cheeks engulfing me, the heat and wetness of her sopping loins pressing against my lips. I got the picture, beginning to lick and mouthe, throwing modesty to the wind as I practically made out with her nethers. I couldn’t help myself, she drove me wild, the scent of her excitement and her exertion making my cock beat like a second heart.

That’s right,” she muttered, shivering as I fawned over her. I made a point of dragging the flat of my tongue across her swollen, needy clitoris, her legs almost giving out as she uttered a lustful moan. “That’s the spot…fuck

She plunged my member back into her mouth, my glans brushing the back of her throat as she pursed her lips around the hilt, letting her bubbling saliva dribble down my thighs. God, it was so hot and wet. Her tongue constantly modulated the pressure and tightness to keep me on my toes, the contrast between her silken flesh and her rough barbs making my head spin. I never knew what was coming, every new sensation a surprise, my legs turning to jelly as she worked me over.

I stroked her rosy, drooling vulva with my fingers, coating them in a slimy sheen of her fluids. Without any warning, I pushed two of them inside her, burying them up to the knuckle in her spasming tunnel. The bumps and creases of her silken insides narrowed around me as she clenched in surprise, her exquisite flesh clinging to every contour of my digits like molten plastic filling a mold. I could feel her pulse, the feverish heat of her body permeating me to the bone, Raz loosing an uncharacteristically girly yelp as she arched her long spine. I didn’t dare to laugh at her, not with her sharp teeth so close to my manhood.

I began to thrust them in and out of her, our odd position giving me a front-row seat as her pink flesh gripped me, her creamy emissions leaking from her tight hole every time that I drew back. I teased her all the while, tracing the folds of her puffy labia with my tongue, skirting her entrance as she moaned around my shaft. I knew what she wanted, but I made her wait, keeping her on edge. When I finally roamed down and closed my lips around her engorged clitoris, her reaction was all the stronger, quaking above me as I drew it into my mouth and caressed it.

She redoubled her efforts, nursing at my erection as though trying to quench a terrible thirst, brushing my balls with her delicate fur all the while. I could feel the tip of her tongue as it traced my every vein, the underside gliding against my tender head like slimy satin, the muscles deep in her gullet stroking me in inexorable waves as she swallowed around me.

The more doting and sensual her blowjob became, the more I was motivated to reciprocate, which made Raz all the more voracious in turn. It was like we were stuck in a feedback loop, escalating toward a shared climax, our trembling bodies entwined in a cruel and relentless dance.

I felt my muscles tense as the urgency of an orgasm began to tug at my senses, a wave of tingling pleasure spreading up through me, as if every nerve in my body was flaring to life in the same moment. Raz clenched around my fingers as the pleasure started to get the better of her, crushing them together almost painfully, her slimy walls undulating violently as they tried to drag my digits deeper. I took handfuls of her pillowy butt as I came into her waiting throat, Raz sealing her lips around the base of my twitching cock and burying it deeper, careful not to spill a drop as the first torrent of my emission hit the back of her throat.

She swallowed rhythmically, sucking my ejaculate from my writhing body as I buried my face between her legs, groaning into her loins. I jerked and bucked, but she pressed her leaking sex into my face, pinning me so that I stood no chance of breaking loose. I wrapped my arms around her thighs, holding on for dear life, my fingers sinking into her flesh like it was melting butter.

The lining of her throat was so hot and slick, her pooling saliva mingling with my fluids, her agile tongue milking me like a fist as she drank. Every swallow made a fresh throb of ecstasy course through me, like my member was a lightning rod in a thunderstorm, the jolts of pleasure making my spine arch off the mattress. The contractions of her muscles as they stroked my tender glans in the reaches of her gullet, the way that her inner cheeks pressed around me as she sucked, the feeling of her deft tongue as it wrung me like a tube of toothpaste…it was deliciously unbearable.

Raz was prolonging my climax for as long as possible, my convulsing body completely beyond my control as her skillful licking made tiny points of light dance before my eyes, but I wasn’t about to let her defeat me.

I plunged my fingers back into her passage, curling them inside her, driving my fingertips into her sensitive walls. I felt her taut muscles fight back, resisting my probing, but the way that she responded to my stroking encouraged me. I crawled my tongue lower, ignoring the strands of her juices that dripped to my burning cheeks, finding the firmness of her clitoris and sucking the swollen nub of flesh between my lips. I harried with cruel flurries, raking it with my tongue, circling it as I heard her growl like a beast from somewhere below me.

She drew her head back, letting my member slide out of her mouth along with a comely moan, a blend of warm drool and cloudy semen falling to my hip as it escaped her lips. She buried her face in my groin as I pleasured her, my still erect member bouncing against her flushed cheek, her claws raking the sheets. The fading embers of my own climax spurred me on, and I cast all pretense of restraint aside, worshiping her as if it was my only purpose in life.

Argh, Stan!” she whined. Hearing my name uttered in such a lascivious way sent an aftershock tearing through me, her husky voice dripping with desire, her need palpable. “I’m gonna…”

She tapered off into a drawn-out moan as she reached her apex, and I watched her melt, her hard body seeming to soften as she sagged to the bed and draped herself over me. My eyelids fluttered as I felt her lips find my glans again, drawing me into her mouth and keeping me hard as she rode out her orgasm, twitching with every glance of my tongue.

We surfed the roiling tides of our rapture together for what felt like an eternity, our heaving bodies entangled, slick with sweat and juices. Raz’s tremors finally abated, and I mouthed at her mound and thighs, tasting the salt on her skin as her come dripped from her rosy vulva. Meanwhile, she ran her puffy lips and the silky underside of her tongue over the head of my still throbbing erection, every lick and kiss amplified a thousand times by my afterglow.

I’d call that a draw,” she moaned, rolling off me and twisting around to spoon. She wrapped her huge arms around me, tugging me close for a placating kiss, her tongue sliding into my mouth. She tasted of me, her lips interlocking with my own as she trapped me in a long, deep embrace that left me dizzy. She nuzzled the nape of my neck, planting a gentle peck on the swollen bite mark on my shoulder, sending a shiver down my spine. Her furry tail coiled around my legs, and I felt the warmth of her hand as she cupped my cheek, Raz pushing her face into my hair as she breathed in my scent. Her wobbling bosom slid against my face, her skin wet with her sudor, the wonderful aroma of her exertion captivating me.

Last night…I thought that I’d never see you again,” she mumbled, “I couldn’t stand the thought of it. I figured that, at least if I got to have you, then you wouldn’t forget about me…”

I felt a wetness in my hair, was she crying?

Well, now you can have me whenever you like,” I replied. “We’ll be working and living together indefinitely, sharing this bed every night. We never have to be apart again, if you don’t want us to be.”

She crushed the wind out of me, her biceps pressing her boobs together, engulfing me in her cleavage as she hugged me against her ample chest. She sniffed wetly, then giggled, a sound that I would never have expected to hear from Raz.

Yeah, that’s right. I get to keep you, monkey.”

I lay my head in her bosom, still contained within her signature tube top, feeling the steady rise and fall of her chest as I basked in my euphoria. The warmth of her body radiated through me, her breath blowing my hair as I lay cradled in her arms. She was clinging to me so tightly, as though she couldn’t stand the thought of letting go, her tail winding around my legs possessively. We stayed that way for a little while, enjoying one another, recovering from our shared climax.

I’m glad that things played out the way that they did,” I mumbled into her cleavage, breaking the silence. “I wasn’t kidding when I said that I loved you.”

She blushed, and I felt a furry hand on the back of my head, Raz pushing my face into her bust as she chuckled at me.

Keep talking like that, and I might have to do something about it,” she purred.

I beat her to the punch, reaching up to plant a sucking kiss on her neck, biting her gently as I moved down to her clavicle. I tasted the sweat that still coated her skin, Raz drawing me closer as my lips crawled toward her chest. I brought a hand up and slipped it beneath the fabric of her top, sinking almost up to the wrist in her flesh as it spilled around me, like I was trying to grip wet cement. Her doughy fat yielded, her breast deforming as I kneaded, seeking out the sensitive tissue beneath. I felt her hardening nipple press into my palm, Raz arching her spine and baring her sharp teeth as I massaged her, my pace slow and teasing. I trapped the engorged protrusion between my thumb and forefinger, pinching it, her boobs quivering within the confines of her top as she shivered at my touch. She began to writhe slowly, rubbing her thick, powerful thighs together as I plied her tender flesh. I mouthed at her neck all the while, nibbling with my teeth, nuzzling and kissing as I delighted in the way that she was squirming.

Her furry hand crawled down my back, taking a handful of my ass and drawing me closer, my exposed member pressing against the firmness of her stomach. I slowly slid my free hand down her toned body, the perspiration that still coated her smooth skin in a reflective sheen making my touch slippery. I ran my fingers over her bulging abdominal muscles, following the channels that they carved into her belly, feeling them tense up as I tickled her. My hand trailed past her navel and through the fine fur of her mound, so silky compared to the course pubic hair of a human. I slipped my fingers between her warm lips, seeking out her hard protrusion and rubbing it in lazy, teasing circles.

Raz growled appreciatively, and I felt her fingers thread through my hair, my head resting in her furry palm. She brought her face down close to mine, her tongue sliding past her lips, the length of pink muscle winding like a slippery eel. She paused for a moment, as though she wanted me to fully appreciate what she was about to plunge into my mouth. I felt its tapered tip press against my lips, parting them and slithering inside, the copper flavor of her saliva pricking my taste buds. Her agile organ sought out my tongue like a predator hunting its prey, pouncing on it and spiraling around it, wrestling with it as more of her coils bulged my cheeks. Her lips were larger than mine, and we were a little mismatched, but something about that incompatibility made it all the more exciting.

Even her kisses were competitive and aggressive, I felt like she was subduing me, my muscles relaxing and my vision clouding as she kept me locked in her lurid embrace. She licked the roof of my mouth, teasing the back of my throat, drawing shapes in my cheeks as her organ thrashed around. It was so hot, its velvet surface coated in her slippery drool, her control over it so fine that she could probably have used it to solve a Rubik’s cube.

I reached up a hand and cupped her cheek as our sordid kiss dragged on, keeping up my stroking, Raz grinding her hips against my fingers as if trying to seek out more stimulation. I felt her sharp claws prick my scalp and press into my butt through my uniform as her hold on me tightened, one of her thighs hooking around me as she attempted to pull me closer. My heart fluttered as I wallowed in her affections, her desire for me felt as plainly as the heat from her loins, or the roving of her flexible tongue. I caressed her burning cheek, using my thumb to stroke her swollen clitoris as I slid a finger inside her, feeling her loins welcome me with a spasm of pleasure.

Her embrace became even more wanton, more abandoned, Raz moaning into my mouth as she gripped my hair in her fist. She felt me twitch as she stung my scalp, what must have been a clear foot of her tongue withdrawing from my head, her warm breath washing over my face as she panted.

S-sorry, did I hurt you?”

Yes,” I replied, “but I like it…”

Raz half-laughed, half-moaned as she resumed our kiss, my answer apparently arousing her even further. My own needy erection was bouncing against her abs, brushing against her damp skin, the bumps that her muscles created teasing me.

My free hand left her cheek, and I hooked my thumb beneath the elastic of her tube top, pulling it up roughly to expose her breasts. The heavy globes of fat surged forth as I removed their support, crashing together under their own heft, wobbling like a plate of jello as the impact sent a ripple through her flesh. This time it was I who broke off our embrace, her tongue sliding back into her mouth like she was sucking up a fat strand of spaghetti, her eyelids drooping as she watched me move down to her bosom. I gripped one of her boobs in my hand, struggling to maneuver it. It was like trying to lift a bag of sand from beneath, her supple meat evading my grasp, flowing over and around my fingers.

I finally succeeded in catching her nipple between my lips, sealing them around it, Raz’s rumbling shaking my bones as she growled affectionately. Her passage narrowed around my buried finger as I licked and sucked, drawing the nub of flesh deep into my mouth and circling it with my tongue. The shaking of her hips was becoming erratic, her breath coming in ragged bursts, her loins seizing around me. I could feel her pulse through her clenching walls, her massive heart sending hot blood to where it was most needed, making her insides throb. Her thighs crushed my hand between them, the layer of yielding fat the only thing keeping the expression figurative rather than literal, like she was attempting to fuck my fingers.

She pulled me away from her breast by my hair, taking the other one in her hand and thrusting it into my face, wordlessly demanding that I pay the same attention to both. I was all too happy to oblige, feeling her stiff nipple press against my tongue as I sucked it into my mouth, mauling her pliant flesh with my fingers as I kept up the pace. I couldn’t get enough of her, I wanted…more. I wouldn’t be satisfied until I had peppered every inch of her lustrous, burnished skin with my kisses, until I had traced every contour of her magnificent body with my fingertips.

Her writhing became convulsive, and she reached down to grip my wrist, pulling me out of her abruptly. She shivered, holding onto to me for a moment as her thick juices dripped from my fingers, her teeth bared as she fought to regain control of her faculties. I stopped my sucking, glancing up at her as I lay nestled between the cushions of her breasts, watching as she brought herself back from the brink of another orgasm.

She caught me smirking at her, and leaned down to press her sharp teeth into my tender neck, giving me an assertive bite. My body went limp as the familiar sensation washed over me, pulses of mingling pleasure and pain crawling up and down my spine like icy fingers. I melted into her arms, Raz purring at my reaction, her yellow eyes peering down at me as I sank into her inviting bosom.

Don’t make me come just yet,” she whispered, pausing to nibble my ear. “I want to enjoy you for a little longer, you’re getting a bit too good at this…”

That’s because I have a good teacher,” I replied, my voice muffled by her cleavage.

Monkey!” she exclaimed, her laughter making her breasts shake around my head. “You have no idea how much the shit that you say gets me going. What would you have me teach you?” she asked, grinning down at me as she put me on the spot. I felt my cheeks redden as I considered my reply, her amber eyes scrutinizing me, searching for tells like we were playing a game of poker. “Come on Stan,” she cooed, “tell me all of your secrets.”

I want to get better at…going down on you,” I mumbled.

Say it properly,” she scolded, tracing my jawline with one of her sharp claws. “I want to eat Raz out.”

Come on,” I laughed, feeling her fingers close around my throat. She wasn’t choking me, her grip was loose and gentle, but just having her gripping me like that made me feel oddly compliant. I gazed up into her reflective eyes, so intense and unblinking, her pink lips curling into a sordid smile.

I want to hear you say it in that cute voice of yours.”

Why was I hesitating so much? I could still taste her juices on my tongue, so why was saying the words making me burn up like this?

I love it when you go all red,” she added, my heartbeat quickening.

I…I want to…eat you out,” I mumbled. I was rewarded with a shameless kiss, Raz forcing her tongue into my mouth, keeping a grip on my throat as she dazed me with the artful flurries of her sinuous organ. She broke away with a wet smack, letting a strand of her saliva link our lips.

Don’t worry, I’m going to give you plenty of hands-on experience. Will you say one more thing for me?”

A-anything,” I stammered, and she beamed at me. She drew closer, her soft lips brushing my ear as she whispered to me. She poised there for a moment, making me wait, enjoying my suspense.

Ask me to be gentle,” she said, batting her lashes at me as if I needed to be convinced. “It drives me crazy when you say that.”

Why?” I chuckled.

I guess it’s because no Borealan would ever say that to someone. It would make them look…weak. But you don’t care about that, do you? You don’t care about being vulnerable around me. It’s endearing, in a way. Makes me want to…not be gentle,she added with a grin. She leaned down and gave me a mild bite on the neck, feeling me shiver as her sharp incisors pricked my jugular. “Say it…”

P-please be gentle,” I muttered, her nibbling making my head spin.

Not a chance,” she giggled, trapping me in her arms as she rolled onto her back. She pulled me on top of her, then crossed her long legs behind me, tugging me tight against her. My aching member pressed between her labia, the feeling of her slick, warm flesh gliding against my glans kindling a fire in my heart. My mouth began to water in anticipation as my cock throbbed against her vulva, and I reached down, hastily positioning myself so that my tip was pressing against her entrance.

Before I could thrust forward, Raz gripped me with her thighs, pulling me into her with more strength than I could have mustered under my own power. My eyes lost their focus as I felt the texture of her passage rake over my tender head, every crease and imperfection setting my nerves aflame, the pressure sucking at me with intent. Our bodies slammed together, the impact making all of the soft parts of Raz’s inviting body quiver, my erection bottoming out inside of her. I swooned as I met resistance in her depths, and I felt her flinch, then relax. My brain felt like a bag of popcorn in a microwave, popping and fizzing, her every tremor and spasm making me gasp.

Her legs squeezed me, her soft thighs pressing against my waist, and she began to rock me back and forth in a slow and deliberate rhythm. She dictated our pace completely, dragging me out of her, and then thrusting me back into her reaches as I gripped her wide hips desperately. I screwed my eyes shut, trying to endure the captivating sensation of her narrow tunnel compressing around me, her folds dragging across my most delicate and receptive anatomy. My shaft was coated in a layer of her warm slime, making my skin glide against her luxuriant walls, her lubricant the only thing keeping her furious hold on me from stopping our coupling in its tracks. The friction was incredible, like we were rubbing together in an attempt to create a spark that might grow into a raging inferno, consuming us both in the licking flames and the searing heat.

She watched me as I struggled against her, her cheeks tinted pink, her eyelids drooping. There was a sardonic smile on her face, she was no doubt savoring the power that she had over me.

Her movements became more urgent, her pace increasing, and her thrusting becoming more violent. Our bodies crashed together, Raz plunging me deeper and harder than during our previous coupling, stark pleasure washing over me in waves. It was so raw, unfiltered, primal…

Fuck, Raz,” I mumbled as I took in gasps of air. “S-slow down a little…you’re gonna…break me…”

There you go again,” she purred, “wagging that silver tongue of yours.”

My pleas went unheeded, Raz rolling her head back as the bedframe shook beneath us, the headboard slamming against the wall. I sincerely hoped that whatever neighbors we had couldn’t hear it, the last thing I wanted was a noise complaint on our first day in the apartment.

Raz took a handful of my hair, dragging me down between her breasts, pressing them together with her biceps to stop them from cascading over her sides due to their immense weight. Her delicate fat rippled around my head with every movement, her sweaty, satin skin sliding against my cheeks. I could hear the rapid beating of her heart, her voice cracking as she drove me into her like a jackhammer, making me wonder how this wasn’t hurting her.

Hold on a little longer,” she pleaded, her yellow eyes betraying her lust. “You’re hitting…all the right spots…”

It was a plea that I couldn’t ignore, and I gritted my teeth against the ecstasy, trying to fight back the climax that was already scratching at the door. I couldn’t take much more of her violent rutting, but I wasn’t about to take it lying down.

I reached out and caught one of her breasts in my hand, lashing her erect nipple with my tongue as she arched her spine from the bed, beads of sweat sparkling in the light as they flew from her skin. She growled like an angry tiger, baring her teeth, but I knew the frightening rumbling to be appreciative rather than aggressive. I felt her claws prick my back as she closed her arms around me, hugging me tightly as she writhed beneath me, her damp body sliding against mine.

She was getting closer, I could feel it in the way that she was shaking her hips, her thighs gripping me so tightly that my legs were going numb. I held onto her as best I could manage, my fingers slipping on her wet skin, only the vice grip of her legs preventing me from being thrown from the bed when she pushed up to meet my thrusts.

Raz buried me to the hilt with one final, desperate slam, my pulsing erection parting her sensitive flesh as I reached her most intimate depths. She held me there, locking her legs around me so that I couldn’t pull away, her eyes snapping shut and her lips pulling back in a snarl as the first throb of her orgasm tore through her.

Her slippery tunnel wrung me with ruthless contractions, almost as though it was trying to crush me, the sensation making me groan into her heaving chest as her innermost muscles tightened around me in wrenching swells. No man could have endured the savage massage of her silky walls, the searing pleasure forcing my emission from my body, my erection jumping inside of her as her loins drank from me. I felt another burst of pleasure make her muscles tense as I flooded her, thick ropes of my hot, pearly essence drenching her insides.

I made a sound unbecoming of a Junior Officer as the agonizing ecstasy robbed me of my faculties, our bodies bound together, as though our very nervous systems had been joined in a maddening short-circuit. I couldn’t pull away from her, she kept me as deep inside her as I could reach with her trembling thighs, our most base instincts completely indifferent to that fact that our union could not bear fruit. I couldn’t help but fuck the mess deeper, my hips acting of their own accord, my hands roaming across her burning flesh as she quaked with every fresh rush of sensation.

It was bliss, all that existed in that moment was Raz, and the pleasure that we shared. I felt as though the limits of our bodies had been blurred, like there was no longer anything separating us, moving as one organism as the elation overloaded our brains.

I slumped onto her as the last of my ejaculate left my body, the throes of my pleasure replaced by the warmth and peace of euphoria. Raz finally relaxed her snug hold on me, letting my sore erection slide out of her, twitching and throbbing as a glistening rope of our shared juices joined it to her lips. Her furry fingers roamed down to rub and stroke her mound contentedly, our combined nectar spilling between her digits and matting her fur.

We collapsed into a sweaty, exhausted heap, afterglow and satisfaction making us drowsy. Our limbs were still entwined, and we shuddered as our labored breathing leveled out, the aching of our wracked muscles subsiding. Wandering hands grasped blindly, and questing lips sought each other out, everything outside of our little bedroom seeming to melt away as we basked in the radiance of our fading delectation.

After a while, I noticed that the rise and fall of Raz’s ample chest had become more regular. She had fallen asleep with me still nestled in her cleavage, her arm draped over my shoulders as she lay on her side. I gazed at her as she slept, she looked so peaceful, her mane of orange hair spreading across the pillows.

The series of events that had led to our romance played back in my mind, like I was watching a movie. It had all been so improbable, so unintentional. I had come to the Pinwheel seeking adventure and glory, I hadn’t come seeking love, but it had found me regardless. It had foisted itself upon me whether I had wanted it or not.

Raz had shown me passions that I couldn’t have conceived of, confusing, exciting emotions that I scarcely dared to admit to myself even now. My fingers wandered toward the bite mark that she had left on my shoulder, and I pressed it gently. It still stung, the sensation bringing back a flood of memories from our first night together. How Raz had played me like some kind of human instrument, her firm grip on my throbbing member, her tail restraining me. I remembered the indescribable orgasm as she had plunged her sharp teeth into my vulnerable neck, and I shuddered, guilty excitement welling in my chest. There was nothing standing between us now, we had all of the time in the world to explore each other, to get to know one another intimately.

I closed my eyes, joining her in the deep, dreamless sleep of spent lovers.

 

CHAPTER 10: EPILOGUE

 

But I don’t want to drill with the Krell,” the Borealan recruit protested, her brow furrowing as she glanced over at one of the massive reptiles. She clutched her long, bayoneted XMR against her chest, her fuzzy tail flicking back and forth in irritation. “They’re so big and slow, they won’t be able to keep up!”

You’ll do as the Instructor tells you,” Raz chided, a sting in her voice. “Or you’ll have to answer to me.” The younger Borealan recoiled, hunching her shoulders in a display of submission. “I told you to treat the Instructor as your Alpha, obey his orders. Human packs work a little differently to ours, but their command structure is basically the same. Remember what I’ve been teaching you about ranks?”

I looked on with my arms crossed as Raz corralled the newest Borealan pack that had been sent to the station for integration training, a dozen of them milling around her, even the smallest among them still skirting seven or eight feet. Many of them had only recently come of age, the sooner we got to them, the better the training seemed to take. The aliens looked out of place in their new UNN uniforms, their curious eyes darting about the range, their round ears swiveling to track every unusual sound.

They had just finished building their first XMRs under my instruction, most of them favoring the semi-auto, bayoneted design that Raz had come up with all those months ago. Since the platform had become more widely adopted on their home planet, the new recruits that passed through were a lot more familiar with the weapons than Raz and her pack had been when they had first arrived on the station.

Raz was the biggest and the meanest, and she managed to keep them in line, a stern dressing-down or a scuff around the ears usually set the more rowdy recruits straight. God, had we looked that young and fresh-faced when we had joined the program?

You should respect the Krell,” Raz continued, ushering the Borealan recruit along with a nudge from her tail. “They are formidable warriors and steadfast allies. Did I ever tell you about the time that I saw one break a Borealan’s spine in a brawl?”

No!” the recruit exclaimed, her eyes wide and her ears pricked up attentively. “The Krell can do that?”

Sure they can. You think all of that muscle is just for show? Get your tail moving, and I’ll tell you about it on the way to drill.”

Raz turned to wave to me as she led the procession of Borealans out onto the torus, the aliens following behind her like a line of ducklings. When they were all gone, I noted on my tablet computer that the range was free. One of the human recruits had been having difficulties with his XMR, and he had requested some one-on-one tutoring, so it might be a little while longer before I could clock out.

Raz had become somewhat of an unofficial Matriarch for the Borealans who lived on the station, teaching them human customs and social norms, instructing them on how to live and work alongside their alien counterparts. She mentored every feline that came through here, and she commanded their unwavering respect, passing on the hard-won insights that had allowed us to bridge the divide between our two species. She had told me that her father had held a banquet in her honor when he had heard the news of her promotion. Such titles and positions were a big deal in their culture, and he had wanted to lord her successes over his regents and ministers. She hadn’t yet made him aware of our unorthodox relationship, but there would be time for that later.

I helped her out in class sometimes, but the majority of my duties revolved around teaching recruits of all species how to build and handle their weapons. Most of my day was spent in the armory, assisting recruits or taking care of the various weapons and parts that filled the racks. I had not become the Marine that I had envisioned when I had first joined the Navy, but I had tasted combat, and that was enough for me. I was able to return to the apartment that Raz and I shared every evening, and I couldn’t have been happier with the strange course that my career had embarked upon.

Tonight would be the anniversary of our first night together, when we had first made our feelings for one another known, and I was eager to get back home. I had hidden a bouquet of daffodils in our bedroom, her favorite flower, picked covertly by one of the station’s botanists in exchange for some choice food smuggled from the officer’s mess. Some things cost an arm and a leg all the way out here, and I didn’t mind doing a little trading. Raz would probably smell the flowers with her sensitive Borealan nose, but hey, it’s the thought that counts.

My heart skipped a beat in anticipation of the night of passion that no doubt awaited us. Raz’s appetite for lovemaking had not waned in the time that we had been living together, she was as rapacious as ever, her newfound status as the station’s honorary Alpha only encouraging her.

I wandered over to the door that led to the torus, gazing up at the pastel sky, the fluffy clouds immovable against their blue backdrop. I missed the drifting clouds of Earth sometimes, but never for very long. I had something better here, something far rarer and more precious in all the Galaxy than a blue sky.

 

THE END

 

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10 thoughts on “Pinwheel

  1. Damn. Fantastic writing, awesome world, and damn hawt catgirls.

    Now if only they had kids in the sequel, it would be unbearably perfect!

    Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to go change my pants.

    1. Glad you enjoyed it!
      This is actually the first of a series of about forty stories, there’s a sequel (called Raz the Farmer), and I’m also doing a story with inter-species pregnancy soon.
      I’ll be uploading those here as I find the time, or you can go check them out on my website in the interim.

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